Caring for the Dead (Thoughts for All Souls Day)

cemetery1The most solemn and moving chapter in Søren Kierkegaard’s remarkable book Works of Love is “The Work of Love in Remembering One Dead.” Throughout this Book, Kierkegaard models love on God’s agape, love that is not transactional and therefore requires nothing in return. After exploring such self-giving love in live human relationships at length, Kierkegaard avers that “the work of love of remembering one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish love.” This love, according to Kierkegaard is the purest love because it is nonreciprocal; the dead “make no repayment.” This is in contrast with love for newborn children who also cannot repay as the love freely given to newborns has the potential of being repaid in the future as the child matures.

However, the dead are not as dead as Kierkegaard seems to think as the dead continue to live in us in a dynamic way that can be enriching. Caring for the dead, as does caring for any live person, tends to lower resentment if there happens to be any to start with. This often begins when a person dies. We often say we should not speak ill of the dead. The instinct behind this adage is that sympathy for the dead person, warts and all, tends to kick in automatically, making the release of resentment and forgiveness free gifts from God that we can pass on to the dead. There is something about death that helps us see that person as God sees him or her, and God sees everybody, without exception, with forgiveness and freely-given love.

Resentment makes any relationship destructively static. God is completely boxed out of the relationship. Which is a way of saying the resentment creates an idol out of the one who is resented. That is, the resented person becomes central to one’s life and God does not. The lessening of resentment allows a relationship to change. This is just as true of a relationship with a dead person as it is with that of a person still alive. This dynamic allows us to understand aspects of the person we had never understood before. Giving this dynamic free reign with a dead person frees the dead person to reciprocate in a way because the dynamic of increased sympathy and understanding is so rewarding.

Caring for the dead includes commending them to God. When we do this, we become more aware of how deeply God loves both the dead and the living and that this love spurs a desire for change until one has reached the fullest potential (teleios in Greek, a word suggesting finality). If this is what God desires, then it should be what we desire for the dead and the living, including for ourselves. Of course, it also follows that the dead desire the same. And so it is that the dead, living with God, can give us much more in return for our care than we can give them.

See also “Living with the Dead.”

Cast Out by the Outcasts

altarDistance1Jesus encounters the ten lepers between Samaria and Galilee. Luke often uses geography to point to a spiritual landscape and this is a particularly apt example. Jesus meets ten marginal people in a marginal space. The broader geography is that Jesus has “set his face” to Jerusalem, the center of meaning and power, where he will be crucified.

But some outcasts are cast out more than others. One of the lepers was a Samaritan who would presumably be marginalized by his marginal companions. Sort of a double whammy.  In this marginal place, Jesus tells the lepers to go to the center of power, to the very people who have declared them unclean, for validation that they are clean. I can’t help but suspect that Jesus was being sarcastic, grumbling at the lepers to find out how they really want to be “healed.” When they suddenly find themselves clean, only the marginalized Samaritan returns to Jesus, who is still standing in the marginal space. That the other nine would go straight to the priests, at the center of power, is the strongest indication of how the Samaritan was treated by them. The Samaritan was healed, not only of leprosy, but of the social and religious system that required that some people be declared unclean so that others can be “clean.” This is the healing that the other nine former-lepers miss out on.

Jesus and marginality come up so many times in the Gospels, giving us the occasion to preach about it many times, that it starts to sound like a cliché. Instead of falling asleep, we need to wake up and really listen. Surely the Gospels hammer this theme so many times because we need to be healed of being hard of hearing.

This story prompts us to reflect on what we do when we find ourselves in marginal positions, having been cast out and declared unclean in some way. Do we band together with other outcasts in a constructive way? Or do we band together in resentment at the establishment? Does our little outcast group amount to a mini-establishment with people divided between clean and unclean? Do we run back to the establishment that exiled us if we get a chance to do so?

That only the Samaritan returned to Jesus to thank him raises the question of what causes gratitude and what hinders it. I suggest that a system that divides people between clean and unclean inhibits gratitude. When we live with this kind of mindset, we inevitably feel entitled to our advantages and delude ourselves into thinking we have earned them. We also inevitably feel that lepers have “earned” their marginalization. If returning to the center of power is what we want, then gratitude is the last thing we feel if we manage to do just that.

Of course, the Samaritan had to advantage of not having the same option of going to a priest to be declared clean as his fellow lepers did. Being cleansed wasn’t enough to take him out of the margins. Remaining in the margins gave him the opportunity to give Jesus another look and let Jesus be the one who decides if he is clean or not. Giving Jesus this sort of authority is an exhilarating thing to do. It is also dangerous. Jesus just might tell us that not only is each one of us clean, everybody else is also clean and we have to live without our lepers.

Dispossessing a Town Possessed: The Gerasene Demoniac

peacePole1The story of the Gerasene demoniac and the herd of pigs running off a cliff bewilders modern readers. In his book The Scapegoat, René Girard offers an anthropological interpretation based on the concept of mimetic desire. According to this theory, the desires of all the people in any town, not just Geresa, are intertwined. That is all of the people are possessed by each other. If one person stands out as being “possessed,” that person is possessed by mimetic rivalries in the town that have reached (or sustain) a crisis level  that is pushed into one victim, the “designated patient,” to use the term of Ed Friedman.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive on the scene, they are not greeted by the mayor or any of the “normal” people; they are greeted by the demoniac who begs Jesus not to torment him (them). That the demon(s) gives its name as “Legion” confirms that this man is possessed by the community, including political possession of the Romans as possession by an invader increases the tensions within a local community. The demoniac is regularly chained but regularly breaks free in a pattern that mimics the repetition of ritual. That is to say, this pattern represents the town’s sense of stability, much as the incarceration of multitudes of black youths from the ghettos gives the US a similar sense of stability today. 

Jesus sends the demons into the herd of pigs that then runs off a cliff into the sea. We have here an interesting reversal of the scapegoating mechanism since usually it is the town that drives a single victim off the cliff, a fate Jesus has narrowly avoided himself. Upon seeing the formerly possessed clothed and in his right mind, the townspeople ask Jesus to leave. One would think that they would be happy to see a sick person cured and would ask Jesus to stay and cure everybody else of whatever ails them. But they don’t. Why? Because the people of the Gedarene region are not happy over being robbed of their victim. The demons requested that they not be expelled from the town because the people, possessed by their rivalries, wanted to remain possessed. When robbed of their victim, the possessed town implodes in its collective violence and becomes the sacrificial victim.

The anthropological dimension of this story can be seen more clearly by comparing it with the Samaritan woman at the well, which has none of these mythological trappings. It is the woman at the well, and not any of the other people of Sychar, who greet Jesus. The woman is alone at the most social place in town, an indication that the woman is the town’s scapegoat. There is no exorcism but the woman eventually becomes possessed by Jesus when she drinks the water he has to give, just as the Gerasene demoniac became possessed by Jesus. The woman goes to tell the townspeople about Jesus as the Gerasene demoniac was told to spread word of what Jesus had done in his own area. The story in Sychar has a happier ending in that the people come out to listen to Jesus, a mimetic process where they give up their collective victim in exchange for the water of rebirth that Jesus has to give. Perhaps this foretells a happier ending for Gerasa someday and a happier ending for our own society.

 

The Infinite Round Dance

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Imagine an endless round dance of three persons dancing in and out of each other, dancing with a Desire they share infinitely with each other with such intense love that the three dancers are one, yet so strong is their love for each other that they desire that there also be three. The persons are not personas, as in fake faces of actors or hypocrites, neither are they rugged individualists believing in every person for oneself. These persons are pure relationship through their shared Desire of love.

This round dance could have gone on forever with nobody the wiser except for one amazing thing: the love of these three persons was so ecstatic, so explosive, that it overflowed into a world of galaxies and stars and planets and flowers and giraffes and humans with teeming brains filled with desire, all with the intent of making countless beings much the wiser for the infinite round dance.

The overflowing love of the infinite round dance required that all desires to dance be free so that humans could look at a tree and desire that tree’s fruit before receiving the fruit as a gift from the infinite dancers. When the desire flowing through humans turned into rivalry with the infinite dancers and with each other, suddenly countless trees disappeared in the conflagration, leaving only centered the few trees that drew the humans ‘desires.

As humans fought over their crossed desires and gathered only to share a desire to kill or expel a victim blamed for the violence overcoming them, the infinite dancers continued to dance through the human desires, inspiring desires to share the trees and fruits and poems and songs in tune with the Desire of the infinite dancers.  The infinite dancers poured their Desire into humans who proclaimed the Desire to others, even when they were stoned or ridiculed or cut off from the land of the living.

So strong was the Desire of the infinite dancers that with the fire and love of the other two persons, one person entered into humanity and became vulnerable to all the shared rivalrous desires that spread like a plague among humans. The Son, conceived in a human womb by the Holy Spirit, gave up his spirit when the humans he came to save chose to kill him. The Son received the spirit back as he was raised from the dead, and then forever after sends that spirit into the desires of all humans.

And so the endless round dance continues with the overflowing love of dancers’ shared Desire that all humans be ecstatically the wiser for the dance.

 

Knowing the Wild Things Between Us

buddingTree1Just about all of us talk about the subconscious as if it were familiar territory. By definition, the subconscious, assuming there really is such a thing, is precisely what we are not familiar with, what we don’t know about ourselves.

Pop psychologists, and real psychologists for that matter, along with those of us committed to the spiritual journey, think that it is better to know more about ourselves rather than less. Exploring the unknown may be an exciting challenge at times but it is also threatening. Much talk about the subconscious that has floated around since Freud took up his pen gives the impression that the subconscious is full of horrible monsters and some of them are us. In the simple story Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak shows us what great friends the inner monsters can be if we get to know them.

René Girard has given us a whole new dimension to explore in the subconscious by suggesting that it is primarily mimetic desire that we find there. (See Human See, Human Want) Mimetic desire, the desire of others that has infiltrated us since birth, gets under our skin and deep into our hearts. Hence the importance of the desires we surround small children with to absorb. What keeps mimetic desire in our subconscious is our defiant pig-headed conviction that our desires belong to each of us alone and to nobody else. The stronger this sort of conviction, the more likely the desire is entangled in serious rivalry with somebody else; maybe a lot of somebodies. Somehow, we feel threatened at the idea that our desires are intertwined with the desires of everybody else and we push them away, only to have them manipulate us at very deep levels.

The “wild things” within may not be so much are own personal monsters but the monsters that grow out of the mimetic desires between us. The monster isn’t me, it’s us. These wild things can also be the source of great opportunities for personal and spiritual growth if we get to know them. The web of mimetic desire is not, in the hands of God, elaborate chains to imprison us but links to connect us. That is, mimetic desire is the gravitational field among persons pulls us into relationship with each other. The more we are aware of this field, the more freedom we have to live in it with friendship and sharing instead of hate and rivalry.

Self-examination is a time-honored practice for spiritual growth in all religious traditions. Unfortunately, when this practice is centered on the self, it inevitably creates some distortion because it keeps mimetic desire in the subconscious. It isn’t so much our selves that need examination as it is our relationships. The individual self can look just fine right when relationships are destroying the web of our interrelated desires.

Girard tends to examine mimetic desire in the present tense, and there is always much going on with our interrelated desires in every moment. However, as Per Grande pointed out in his fine book Mimesis and Desire, we go through life interacting with the desires of others in our past just as much, if not more, than those in the present. So it is that we have to increase our conscious awareness of our past as well as the present.

So much attention has been paid to monstrous wild things in the human subconscious that we don’t realize that deeper in the subconscious that any wild desires flaring up between us and other people both in rivalry and ecstatic love and friendship is God’s desire. No matter how entangled our mimetic desires with other people, God holds all of the links in unconditional love, all the while calling each of us to open our outer and inner eyes to see how wild divine love is.

How Are We Saved?

yellowTulips1The New Testament and two thousand years of Christian preaching has consistently proclaimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has opened the way of salvation for all humanity. Precisely how this mysterious, earthshaking event has done that   has raised more questions than answers. It is understandable that the focus would tend to be on the death of Jesus since the event is so dramatic and creates intense emotional effects in Jesus’ followers. However, understandings of the atonement of Jesus through this route have raised long-standing problems that cry out for a fresh approach. The growing realization that the killing of Jesus was just plain wrong on the part of many Christians, and not just those influenced by the thought of René Girard,  opens a way for a re-thinking of atonement theology that can support a deep spirituality grounded in God’s unconditional love for all people. As article I wrote for the Abbey Letter Saved By the Life of Jesus contributes to this re-thinking that actually reclaims the Gospel for us. It is included in the collection of articles in Come Let Us Adore. You can read it here.

Abraham out on Highway 61

sideAltarsIcons1The near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, the Father of Faith, is the most troubling of stories. It should be. Chaim Potok’s young protagonist Asher Lev remembers the shiver he felt when he first heard the story. What is most troubling is the suspicion that Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice his son. But was he? Jeremiah says Yahweh denounced the sacrifice of children, saying “that such a thing had never entered my mind.” (Jer. 19:5) Perhaps we are right to be troubled by any notion that Abraham was right to even let the idea enter his mind and even more troubled by any thought it ever entered into God’s mind.

Bob Dylan makes a bitter burlesque of the story in his song “Highway 61 Revisited.” The “god” who requires the sacrifice is a bully, warning Abraham that if he doesn’t comply: “Next time you see me, you’d better run.” To the question: “Where do you want to see this killing done? God said out on Highway 61”, the place for “a thousand telephones that don’t ring” and where to “put some bleachers out in the sun” to stage the start of the next world war. As with so many Dylan songs, the imagery reveals a society filled with mimetic rivalry and victimization where sacrifice and war become a spectator sport.

Soren Kierkegaard’s searing Fear and Trembling is at least as troubling as the biblical story. SK’s category of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” raises fears that the author celebrates Abraham’s willingness to do the deed. (What the fancy phrase means is: anything at all God says to do is right—end of story.) However, this troublesome category is coupled with what SK called “infinite resignation.” This is what Abraham had when he was willing to kill his son by God’s command. However, infinite resignation falls far short of faith and faith is what the biblical story and SK’s book is all about. Faith is receiving back what is given with infinite resignation “by virtue of the absurd.” Still troubled?

The most clear and piercing critique of this “infinite resignation” I know of comes in the powerful poem retelling this story by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. Abraham builds parapets and trenches around the wood, suggesting the sacrifice of sons sent off to the war. But when the angel of the Lord admonishes Abraham to “slay the ram of pride instead of him . . . the old man would not so, but slew his son,/ and half the seed of Europe one by one.” This poet, one of many young victims of the war, and the creator of the bitter irony that poets like Bob Dylan use so well, has revealed once and for all the sacrificial horror of “infinite resignation.” That is, anyone infinitely resigned to sacrifice oneself without faith and will also sacrifice others, especially one’s own children, also without faith.

The typological interpretation of the story where it stands for God the Father’s being willing to sacrifice His only begotten son is also troubling. But Jesus did not go to the cross with infinite resignation. Rather, by “virtue of the absurd,” he believed that God, being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was God, not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt. 22:32) St. Paul says we are saved by the faith of Christ, the faith that, on the cross, embraced not death, but the life of his heavenly father. The virtuous absurd, then, is the ecstatic embrace of God’s love so filled with life that there is no room for death for anybody.