Farther up and farther in... An Easter Reflection

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (The original ending of the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 16.)

"I have not changed anything I believe in 27 years." I think this public statement by a colleague was seeking to be faithful to call, and faithful to the Christ. They are a witness to constancy. But the words contrast with another statement of faith, which C.S. Lewis repeats constantly in the final book of the Narnia Tales: The Last Battle. There the call is "Farther up, and farther in." There is something dynamic about Christian faith. It is an invitation to deep life; life farther in. Life that is here, and perhaps even in the hereafter, but life which is deeper. Life that is here where here becomes more profound, not only because of our ability to see more clearly the depths of its suffering and depravity, but in our recognition of its glory and beauty.

Another colleague wrote recently that the "theologian and astronomer, Johannes Kepler … argued that in the Book of Scripture (the Bible) God accommodates himself (sic) to all human beings." I think this means that a child who says, "Jesus died so I won't have to die," has understood the gospel. But what happens when that child meets the abrupt discord of death?

My colleague and I officiate at funerals, and so we are what you might call "death professionals." The professional at the funeral is always, and appropriately holding things at a distance; how else can we serve those for whom the death is a tearing apart of their lives? We are all like this; death is always held distant so we can function each day. But there is a closer meeting with death; a moment when our being is threatened, as death crowds past our defences and distancing. It could be that moment when I found what certain physical symptoms indicated: "So that is how I will die." Or it might be something quite unexpected, which may not seem to be about our death at all. My colleague wrote about the day after a funeral, when he met the man he had just buried.

He was coming toward me and I started to panic. I think from the time of our birth we enter a world which we gradually try to make sense of, and when something like this happens it is very disorienting. I was thinking I was having a stroke so that my mind suddenly lost it. I just could not fit this into my world and it was frightening.

I recognise this experience. I remember roaring darkness and a teetering on the edge of insanity, almost falling into it. I was merely reading a book! But a book which had in a sentence or two incontrovertibly corrected (and destroyed) the facts of my neat and tidy world. Death and resurrection do this. They overturn everything in our lives. And we grasp desperately for the faith we have held dear.

The man in the street was the dead man's identical twin, who had not been able to get to the funeral in time. In my own experience, I still do not know what prevented me from tumbling into… a terrifying nothingness. In such times it would be tempting to repeat old words and phrases, words we have been 'saying for 27 years.'

Part of me wants to say that such repetition risks being 'a cheap proof and insurance against death'; it is an existential prop, a way of deflecting all our fear. And I remember my past when neat doctrinal statements were the only props I had, because I did not understand 'farther on and farther in.' When it comes to making sense of life, there are times we can only grab for whatever floats our boat  We make what sense of life that we can.

But what do we do when we begin to wonder if, or if someone suggests to us, that we are constructing a defence, rather than facing the reality of our death? What if it seems the stories and claims of resurrection are altogether too neat, too convenient…

I am pleased that the gospels are not convenient. They do not agree about what happened. This un-tidiness reflects real lives meeting an unimaginable crisis. The finding of an empty tomb is not much less disturbing than meeting the person coming down the street. There is an honesty in the placing together of these differing stories in scripture.

There is also a hint, for those who have learned to read the gospels as literature rather than merely as tabloid text of The Advertiser, that resurrection is far more than we can conceive. People do not know him: Mary did not recognise Jesus; and her delayed recognition involves a statement of faith. (John 20:11-18) The disciples in the boat (John 21:1-14) clearly do not recognise him at first. Paul scorns those who ask with what sort of body we will be resurrected; he implies there is a category mistake in the question:  something earth shattering has happened, but describing it is beyond people. (1 Corinthians 15) The women in Mark are terrified because people don't come back from the dead, or leave the tomb.

If we risk to go farther up and farther in, we find the problem with imagining a resurrected Jesus who is just like us and like he always was, is not that it is a self-imposed existential delusion. It is that we limit what life may be; we imagine an altogether too limited and shallow humanity.

But the question remains: is it not all just a story, a convenient impossibility on which to hang a life of denial? To go farther up and farther in means some of us will have to enter-tain— enter into— this charge. For denial is deep and damaging.

I am deeply scarred by making up a story of life which was a defense but which was a poor truth. As the psychiatrist priest said to me decades ago, "This story got you through school, but now it is undercutting everything you do, and are."  Deep, deep, wounding creates a reality which is wounded, walled, and powerfully defensive. And if I fail you, it is likely that I am operating out of— have slipped back into— an imagined world which was never true, but only convenient.

Such a world makes a mockery of the shallow and easy coaches of positive thinking, and other faux philosophies of surface existence. Cognitive therapy works, and is incredibly powerful, but for deep trauma it may require years of disciplined practice… and we remain always a moment away from being outflanked by old destabilising memories of trauma. Self-delusion is a disaster to avoid if we are able; go farther up and farther in.

When a person is working through healing of their trauma and self-preserving, to say "In 27 years I have not changed one thing I believe," is not only absolute denial, it is simply a nonsense. And to require such a simplistic faith of a person is a spiritual abuse. They must go farther up and farther in to enter the reality of resurrection.

So how do I know I am not kidding myself about resurrection? How do I know I am not making up a slightly more sophisticated imaginary world for my convenience… which will deal with the particular areas of pain which I face… which provides existential cover for the attacks of absurdity and pointlessness which human existence; that is, the consciousness that I will die and be forgotten, and that could have happened without me, any way. How do I know I am not just a more subtle version of the six year old who told me after a funeral that he would not die, or of the rich man who tells me he is making a difference in society, but who, like me, will be forgotten in only a few decades?

The answer is that I cannot know, any more than my atheist friend who thinks I am deluded can know if he is not deluding himself. The only answer is farther up and farther in to the life we have now.

To go farther in means to let go of the hope of resurrection. Understand that I have not said… deny. But if I live hoping for resurrection, I will never be free of the suspicion— my suspicion— that I am creating an existential defence, and deluding myself. I will be blunt, here, and say that if you think you can be free of that delusion, you are kidding yourself. It is the nature of us to create a world we can cope with. And for some of us, that means farther up and farther in requires letting go of resurrection in order to let go of the delusion.

It means living the faith, being compassionate, simply for its own sake. Simply because it is the best offer on the table for honouring the humanity of others and of ourselves. There is a Carrie Newcomer song which speaks of the naïve utopia of a fictional character called John Roth.  

John Roth had a heart like flame
He believed all souls were loved the same

those words— and the living of them— encapsulate the gospel.

One theological response to the song is to say that the words

Do no harm, shed no blood
The only law here is love
We can call the kingdom down
Here on earth

are in error. We cannot call the kingdom down; it is not ours to call. I think this is true. But equally true is our calling, which is, anyway, to start living the law of love. And meet the fear of death in a very few seconds.

In my own poor living of this, I find some intriguing things. Farther up and farther in, the horror of life has increased. I see more pain, more evil, more impossible suffering than even the cynical me had imagined possible. I also see more simple decency, love, and hope than I had been able to see before. I see in the folk with whom I work, astonishing healing in those who manage even small acts of compassion; the humanity within us all thrives when we decide to be compassionate. Even my own snarled emotions are unclamped a little.

Death? Resurrection? I don't know. The freedom is that I have begun to care less.

And here, like Mark 16:8, I stop. There is always the tendency to tidy up, to add an ending. Life is not tidy, and neither is death. We can only live for the Christ, in Galilee, or not.

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