You can listen to this here
My change in understanding “life after death” seems to have come from an appreciation of the absoluteness of physical death. As a new Christian I had assumed that Jesus gave us, in some way, life after death. That was not something I had explored. It was more a way, I think, of avoiding death. It basically took death off the table, but if the Terror Management Theorists and the Girardians are correct, it was basically a denial of death. I was using my religion "under the table" to avoid the issue of death, just as other people immerse themselves in sport or computer coding.
The next step came as I understood the finality of death in its physical aspects. If we are merely physical, then death is completely destructive. If we are merely physical, we are dependent upon the physical substrate of our brain for our consciousness and being. And so I learned to live with that. I accepted it as given, and as inevitable. I began to cease the denial of my death. It's one of the side effects of burying your friends.
But at the same time I had learned enough of the gospel about compassion and self-giving to feel at a very deep level, that compassion and self-giving, even lived as imperfectly as I was able to live them, was what gave life meaning and purpose. Indeed, growing in compassion and self-giving, seemed to go hand in hand with a movement from a resignation about inevitable death to something altogether lighter. Death became something that was simply part of the arc of life.
A poor analogy might be the hill between the farm of my childhood and our local town. Coming home was always a hard climb back up the hill, even as a uni student back home on holidays with a vastly superior, geared bike. But the last time I rode out that road, much older and slower, the hill was simply there. It was simply part of the ride, and interesting for its own sake, rather than a burden to be endured. Indeed, as I realised, it’s not much of a hill at all.
So although I regretted my coming death, for I had finally begun to enjoy and value life in a way I had not thought possible, some of the sting of death, the burden, had disappeared.
The doing of compassion seemed to me to be the redeeming feature of life. I learned that it was not ideas that changed the world and gave it meaning, but the doing of those ideas. I began to see two things from this doing, poor as it was:
The first was that I was not alone. I could say, if someone were to ask me about “life after death,” that I could not imagine how it could be so. It seemed impossible. But I could also say that I had learned that all things needful would be given to me. Something had changed in me so that I found death somehow appropriate; I had a measure of peace about it. Biologically threatened by the close pass of a car, I would cuss with all the fluency of a trooper, but at a more considered level, not only had the denial ceased, but some of the regret had gone. A part of me began to be intrigued!
Secondly, in all of this, the grip of physicalism upon my thinking, had begun to loosen. I’d always thought the “there is nothing but science” scientism of our time was a bit quick in its ruling out of non-material realities by simply refusing to consider them. It seemed that might be its own sort of denial of reality.
The living of compassion showed me that little of what was important about us was physical. Matter may be the substrate in which we are expressed or based, but nothing any scientist was showing me demonstrated a material basis of love, for example. We can see brains light up in love or anger, but this effect says nothing of what love is. When we are honest, we do not know what consciousness is. I began to lose confidence that the thing that is me is actually bound to the material body I am in; nothing that is important about me, can actually be explained by matter. I began to think it more likely that matter had somehow accreted around mind or sentience, rather than that mind had somehow arisen from matter.
In this context, the outrageous idea that death was survivable began to look less outrageous. Indeed, survival of death seemed quite possible, since what I know to be important about me, although it is expressed through my physicality, does not seem dependent upon my physicality in the way it once did.
In a necessarily crude analogy, since none of us can be quite sure what we are talking about here, I saw that my brain might not be my mind, but rather the receiver, somewhat as a TV is not the source of the film being played upon it. (That idea is not original to me.)
During this time of my life I had been immersed in thinking developed from Rene Girard’s understanding that all of our culture is based upon death. We maintain our culture by scapegoating and killing as a way of limiting the violence we create and encounter when we are in competition with other folk. Culture as we know it can only exist because we use violence to limit the violence of rivalry which would otherwise destroy us. I had also been strongly persuaded that the Terror Management Theorists are correct in their perceptions that much of our culture is built to deny death.
These human dynamics are well illustrated in Walter Wink’s article The Myth of Redemptive Violence, although he does not use explicitly Girardian language. A very accessible exposition of Girard’s thought in a Christian setting— seeking to act as a corrective to the shallowness of Penal Substitution is Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice – A Theology of the Cross, which you can buy as an eBook. Richard Beck has an excellent introduction to our fears around death in his book The Slavery of Death which is also available in eBook format.
In short, life is lived under the shadow of death. It is so “shot through with death" as James Alison puts it, that we are not able to see it. He asks us to imagine how the West must look to someone from an Islamic culture where there is no alcohol. Everything is drenched in alcohol; from within, we cannot see just how much our culture is skewed by this drug. He calls this a “poor parallel,” but coming from cross cultural experience, and having had time to see just how much we live in denial of death, it was absolutely clarifying for me.
We do not realise just how much death colours everything. We live, as the Psalmist says, in “the valley of the shadow of death,” but because we have always been here, we do not, and cannot, see how far the shadow is cast, and how much all of our being, and our cultural identity is shaped by death and violence. Indeed, the first response of the majority of people I have introduced to Terror Management Theory, (TMT) has been to deny it.
My own imagining is of the fruit fly maggot in an orange. It does not know it is orange, because everything is orange. Even suspecting that there was something orange about life, it would be a supreme act of imagination to discover that being orange was not something intrinsic to its self and being. To us, this obvious; the same species of fruit fly in a tomato, is red. But to the fly in the orange it is almost impossible to imagine. Orange is just how things are.
This is all said with the assumption that being orange is a mere accidental fact; if we were existing in a tomato, we would be red, but what would that matter? But what if orange was the colour of fear? What if orange, underneath everything else, is the colour of death? How can we see that we are orange, jaundiced unto death? What imagination would be needed to see this—even accept it—let alone see a way through to being and living as something else? The fear of it keeps us from even looking at it!
Being culturally based in death, or living by the myth of redemptive violence, and building a culture which at the same time denies our own death for as long as possible— people in ICU often pressure doctors to keep the brain dead person alive just in case, leading one to wonder who and what the request is serving—
all this means that when we become Christian, our theologising— our thinking and talking about God— is actually more likely a death denial mechanism. It is indeed a release from fear, because here is a ready made way of living which puts death “in its place.” This is especially so for those of us who like neatly laid out theories for living, and who meet a rationalistic version of Christianity such as fundamentalism. That was me.
It is only as we begin to see that the doctrinal purity which so much immature faith expression leads to is… expulsion, rather than love of God;
only when we begin to see that expulsion is actually a form of scapegoating, a metaphorical (and often barely disguised) form of murder, that we can begin a deeper conversion.
I am not suggesting that one needs to be able to articulate this in Girardian or TMT language. I see plenty of folks who instinctively understand that expulsion, hate, condemnation, and judgement are all at odds with the love they begin to experience as they live out compassion and self-giving. Often they sit in a place of moral dumbfounding: they know love, and yet the moralism of the jaundiced theology of the still orange people is at odds with their better instinct. Church so often lags behind spirit in its apprehension of love.
Richard Beck has a good outline of moral dumbfounding here. I should say that one of the key ways of imagining a way past our orange staining is to explore why we are morally dumbfounded. Why is it that something which we say is good, our theology, for example, seems, on the face of it, to be so wrong? For example, how can it be that the God who is love will burn you for all eternity?
It is incredibly fruitful and liberating to experiment with the idea that perhaps the theology… is wrong! And significant that the church is so often so opposed to such exploration. This betrays a deep, unconscious knowledge that we have built up and understood ourselves on something that is not a sufficient foundation for living. We are still ruled by fear.
How do we get past the death culture? How do we get to some kind of vantage point where we can take an unjaundiced view of death? Is this even possible?
What is it that allowed the first disciples of Christ, who had witnessed the full brutality of the empire destroy their teacher, to face death and persecution with such courage? Understand that crucifixion was designed to terrify and deter others. Indeed, some of the stories of singing in jail could even lead one to rephrase our question as “What is it that allowed the first disciples of Christ to face death and persecution with such fearlessness?”
The accepted answer is, of course, that they witness the risen Christ. At first hand, they are confronted with the experience that death did not end him. (Even then, some doubted. eg Matt 28:17) As a group, these folk realise that they are not intrinsically orange. They are not defined as orange. In fact, orange is nothing. It has no power. We have always, we may realise, been afraid of the orange we call death. But in the wider scheme of things, orange is nothing— powerless— it is totally encompassed by God.
Using the words of James Alison, the disciples see
There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for this reason facts that are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this another way: for us, “being alive” means “not being dead.” It is a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death and cannot even be contrasted with death. [He is referencing Matthew 22:23-33)
I suggest that we have here something of great importance. Jesus was able to imagine God, to perceive God, in such a way that his whole vision was coloured by God as radically alive, as a-mortal, as in no way shaded by death. (Raising Abel pp38)
Jesus understood full well that for God death is not, so that God’s loving and sustaining of a person is not something which is interrupted or diminished by death. This means that Jesus was able to conduct his life in a way not moved by death. And this not because he was fleeing from death, or running toward it in a self-destructive way, which tend to be our problems. It was because it was not a reality which marked his imagination, since his imagination was entirely fixed on the creative and living presence of God who knows not death. What can be perceived by someone who is not marked by death is the way in which the rest of us live, without being aware of it, in the shadow of death. (Raising Abel pp59 My emphasis)
So Jesus chooses to die. He stage manages his death. It is well known in the NT Gospels that Jesus seems to be going deliberately towards his death, even engineering it. He doesn’t defend himself at the trial. Some sub-Christian theology suggests this is because he is being obedient to God who sends him to be killed, and that in this is some kind of cosmic transaction that lets us off. This is a poor understanding which imagines that God is bound up in the same violence as us.
Instead, Jesus shows
the attitude of someone who is so entirely free of being involved in death that he manages to mount, to stage, a show, a mime, in such a way that other people will be able to learn to live as if death were not. That is the difference between dying and redeeming death. Someone who is utterly and totally free with respect to his death is capable of making of his death a sort of “show” which takes the sting out of death’s tail, detoxifying the reality of death, revealing it to be without power, and doing this forever. (Ibid pp58)
Now this can all seem quite fantastic. People who speak of resurrection as a real thing, and speak of Jesus deliberately going to his death to show death has no power, are surely being irrational. Except that we forget our jaundice. We forget we are stained, shaped, influenced from the very depths of our being by a culture at once terrified of dying, and yet using expulsion and murderous death of the scapegoat to maintain order so that we do not have to face death.
Is it not at least worth entertaining the idea that perhaps we have things wrong when we reject resurrection? If we take seriously what TMT shows so clearly, that consciousness of death skews all our thinking, is it not likely that our rationality is itself skewed? The fact that the so called hard sciences refuse to entertain investigation of so much of human experience outside the boundaries of what they can easily control, is itself a severe questioning of their vaunted rational basis. It begins to look like their boundaries are to stop certain things being investigated!
I come to all this from a sceptical and rationalistic bent. I come to it with science training at degree level. I come to it with a stunted appreciation of art and poetry and feeling. I do not easily abandon my scepticism, or the scientific method I was taught. But as I have practiced compassion, which is materially irrational—rationally one should do what one needs to do to look after number one and ensure survival—
And as I have abandoned what we called “enlightened self interest” for the irrational compassion of Jesus, which goes way beyond self interest— poorly though I have done this— I find that the rational arguments against resurrection lose all their persuasive power. They have no traction.
I do not find it quite so preposterous that Jesus may have seen that death was actually nothing, and that we live through it.
The problem is that I still live in an orange. I live and breathe the air of a culture built on violence. So everything I read in The Advertiser and on Facebook shouts at me that I am wrong. How can I possibly learn to imagine anything else? How can resurrection be anything other than ridiculous when I am saturated in its denial?
The answer is quite simple. Leave the orange. Stop eating the stuff which is giving you jaundice and slowly killing you. Except that we can’t leave. Even Jesus says, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world.” (John 17:15)
But we can live differently; in the world but not of the world. Compassion as outlined by Jesus is a beginning to die, and a dying to the world. When we “feel with someone," that's the root meaning of compassion, by placing ourselves in the same place as the one who is suffering— alongside them— we become as vulnerable as they are. We risk death. In a sense we practise dying when we practise compassion.
And it is here that our minds are darkened, as Paul puts it in Romans 1, because we think we can do compassion without leaving the orange. We think that by “doing the right thing” we will become free of the fear of death. But the only way to become free of the fear of death is to die. (I need to practise this!)
So we think that by “doing the right thing” we will become free of the fear of death. This is the exact opposite of what needs to happen. Being compassionate so that I will be free of the fear of death is no different from the fundamentalist who believes dot points 1 to 7 so that God will let him off. It is a work. It is an attempt to free myself. It is me, thoroughly confused, mind darkened, working my way out of darkness, and forgetting the lesson of Paul that it cannot be done.
There is nothing to work for. It is all given. God is love. All we can do is trust that nothing can separate us from this love, not even death. When we trust, righteousness is reckoned to us, as Paul says somewhere. When we trust it opens our eyes, it begins to wash out the jaundice so that we can see Love for the first time, and see that death which we have always feared is… not. Nothing has changed except that we see what always was!
Faith is simply to say, by living, that I will trust that this death risking thing I am doing because it is what God asks of me, and because I realise it is where the real foundations of life lie, will not and cannot separate me from God, even if it kills me.
The doing of that changes everything and nothing. Nothing changes because the world remains almost exactly the same. But everything changes because I see the world with new eyes. And death begins to lose its power.
Andrew Prior (2017)
Would you like to comment?
I have turned off the feedback module due to constant spamming. However, if you would like to comment, or discuss a post, you are welcome to email me using the link at the bottom of this page, and I may include your comments at the bottom of this article.