6. Death and Rising

Can a faith community help people through losses that baffle, may even kill the spirit? Loss of a loved one’s mind and selfhood to a disease of early dementia, while the body remains. Loss of work that you’d poured your best energy and skill into, with good profit. Loss of a beloved, chopped away by some life dilemma. Loss of a child–one stares at the empty room. Loss of one’s health or limbs, leaving a remnant life of pain and stark limits. One thing such losses have in common is loss of selfhood for the ones hit. A human treasure is gone, a richness called into being through love, love calling matter into selfhood. People’s time and strength and unique personal richness had been poured into that self, had carried through the process. And the joy is gone.

Love begins calling a self into being as soon as parents, family, and friends know of a child conceived. Their eagerness is necessary preparation. All along the process of that person’s life, a strength of selfhood keeps being called into being, resustained in being, by the human surroundings. When the body of the person dies, early or late, it passes into the ‘wastes of time’ and ‘death’s dateless night’ that Shakespeare feared for his so much loved friend–the oblivion of recycling matter. But the love and attending that had been trained on a piece of flesh, calling and pulsing it always into selfhood–that does not go down the drain. It has become a new increment, changing those who took joy in it, and changing the network of value circulation where they live. At the end of the day–the day that is last by ultimatum not by timing—at the end of the day the lost one’s part in the joy-world, spread out along time and through space-time, his or her part in love, is still marked off. In the case of a baby, perhaps the increment is more energy than matter, since the time for particularizing was so short.

We might think of this as a generative economy: a spiral of interacting mechanisms that produce more energy and complexity than they started with. Someone like Dorothy Day may start a movement with only hope, talent, work, desperation; eventually it brings results, new knowledge, friendships, pride in achievement, new richness of life, even new income for people not known to the founder. And these in turn bring further results. Generative mechanisms interplay across layers of hierarchy into greater complexity. These include displacement, projection, compensation, inversion, and replication with code-switching. Also, through some such spiraling up into energized complexity, each human self emerges into living, grows stronger and more individual, and in turn calls others into being. As a friend suggested to me, an old version of this idea might be Thomas Aquinas’ view about one of the modes of causality, formal causality: that God sustains each particularity of the universe in being, at all moments, as long as it lasts. And when it ends and the goodness is lost? The mind of God holds it, for new exchanges of life.

This dynamic is imaged in the angels of a Psalm, who are the voice and arm of God, moving from within loving community: “He will give his angels charge of you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” These are not special-effects angels, not the kind to grab a climber out of freefall from a cliff–or grab Jesus out of freefall if he jumped from the temple pinnacle. He said ‘no thanks’ to that idea. These are the angels who bring over chicken soup when someone is sick or has died, who run errands, who find flowers, or something to read, or who only stand and wait, grieving. They try to heal the foot bashed or dashed against a stone. Or where that isn’t possible, to heal someone else whose love went into that foot. Love calls selfhood into being, and calls again, just as the resurrecting love of God, acting in the women at the fresh-cut tomb and in the groups of devastated disciples, called Jesus from the dead.

The story doesn’t say he was a resuscitated corpse. On the contrary, it says he passed through locked doors. He stood before the disciples with upturned hands extended; and they gave themselves up to adoration. To several gathered groups this happened. And the power of the mutual calling into new selfhood–his and theirs–was so strong that they later said they’d touched him and eaten with him; in the telling the events grew ever more physical. Whatever it was, something happened that passed into their bodies as generative energy, to make a teaching of teachings. Was this contact with their bodies material or semiotic—that is, meaning-making? Probably both.

The gospel writers, narrating later, thought of the events in terms drawn from the koine Greek language of their time–something maybe from the science of the Roman Lucretius in his treatise De rerum natura (The Nature of Things). Lucretius asks how minds are able, as we know they are, to ‘see’ images of the dead and other non-present people. Such a thing must be carried, he thinks, on some moisture or vapor in air, as a two-dimensional construct that can pass under eyelids. Our own scientific terms for explaining body, visions, love, semiosis, and selfhood are naturally quite different from those of the Romans, but will one day become just as outdated. So what. The glorified body, in each manifestation, must dwell in its own semiosis. (An acquaintance says hers will have boobs, at last!)

It appears that however fragile love and selfhood and outreaching kindness are (they being ‘only’ semiotic realities–extra-material ones ‘called out’ of matter through its own coding), yet they cannot finally be destroyed. Since the impetus for them inheres in matter-energy and gets worked on by life in process, they must some time, somewhere in the universe, come again–and come again in glory, incrementally enhanced, resurrection and parousia coinciding.

But discourses of the outside and discourses of the inside (as interwoven here), when taking each other on about some issue, can never finally coincide. Between saying “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” and saying that ‘the whole leadership of the Jesus movement experienced some ecstatic group projection or prosopopoeia, in visions of him drawing upon and further generating the physical and ideological energy to start a world-changing institutional process’–between these two sayings lies an unclosable gap. The saying of the inside–“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.”–is a properly mythic logion, that can cross boundaries of times and cultures, itself regenerating bodies and calling them into new selfhood: it says, “Sleepers awake! Arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” So it calls out to us. The saying of the outside, a scientific explanation, is a local and disposable construct. It serves to take an event down into the purposes of someone’s moment of trying to understand how something happened. Each new language and era must, if need be, do that job again, making its own terms. But the truth value of the saying “If we have died with him we shall also rise with him” is something itself occurrent, happening, claimable within the circulation of love in a faith community. Dying with Christ is the process of mourning one’s losses within community, of letting them flow into the losses of others, of finding in that flow of many people’s pain the further motion of recovery. The loss must be mourned, beginning with cries of rage or abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” As a French critic wrote of the violence in a Chicano poet’s early work raging against injustice, “The passage from silence to excess is the first, compensatory stage of rescue.” (Le passage du silence a l’outrance est le premiere stade, compensatoire, de sauvetage.)