Whooshup Reorganization

To reflect what this blog has become, the format has changed to emphasize the enormous number of useful links to resources we provide. To go to the whooshup blog and conversations about these resources, just scroll to the bottom of the lists of resources!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Letter to a friend on Christmas Day

Believe it or not, I have been mulling over a response since that last email you sent. Then a week ago, at a funeral, I determined that I should at least try (try again - I already threw away a couple tries). The problem has been that I feel totally inadequate to convince you of a truth I feel "to my bones" as it were, about christianity and how one properly enters into it.

And now, after months of hesitation and self-agonizing indecision, here is the result, just in time for the high holy days of Christmas.

"After a while they played at forfeits; for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself. Stop. There was first a game at blind-man's buff. Of course there was." says Dickens in A Chrstmas Carol.

Dickens possessed a profound christian sensibility without ever bothering to mention Jesus directly in his fiction, a tradition that 20th century englishmen like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis emulated, and we who spout the holy name left and right as if it is in danger of being forgotten entirely should take note of them. Maybe the best way to allow others to be drawn to christian thinking is to give it a rest.

So Jesus was born about 2000 years ago and did so spectacularly well with his gig on earth that his purported stable-based birthday eventually preempted that most pagan and ancient holiday - winter solstice. The rebirth of the sun in the northern hemisphere - a fitting cultural deep meme for the one who told an elder emissary from the jewish religious establishment of his day "you must be reborn". It sounds so simple, but of course, if you bother to think about it (reborn?) it's incredibly complicated prima facie.

Even though many christians talk as if the "plan of salvation" is just a simple recipe you can cook up, with a little coaxing, the paradox (and there are paradoxes galore) is that for each individual, its working out is often not so simple. Maybe it takes a special time and place of execution, but I doubt it. Maybe it takes some special mental energy, but I doubt that too. The mental act, if we care to speak that way, is more a surrender than an achievement. We don't really have to worry about when and how we "become" a christian, as much as we ought to worry about whether we have "given up" being no more (and no less) than a human animal.

Nevertheless, I do not think the answers you may be pursuing are to be found in an intellectual exercise, and the above is as far into actual thinking as I think the merry season warrants. The real answers are experiential - you have to "live into" them, not think them, much less mentally appropriate them from someone else's recipe. Thinking is as likely to mess up the thing as to help it along. My best spiritual exemplars have had, as far as I can tell, an average to below average IQ. They are not particularly skilled or superior at doing anything, except being spiritual. They certainly would not understand modern philosophy, nor care much about it.

Just as our oh-so-postmodern strengths may include understanding complex shades of subtle discrimination between finely hewn arguments within shadows cast by deep philosophical questions, their strengths include humbly addressing themselves (often on our behalf) to a totally different world, one that is adjacent to our every-day world, but utterly set apart. This other world disintegrates whenever the analytic spotlight shines on it. It is necessarily mysterious - not because it cannot be understood, but because as soon as it is understood it no longer has power to help us find our way.

It's as if these untutored seers are sitting at a strange computer you and I have never used, entering something into it that we cannot fathom. The computer's internal operating system consist of the exact opposite of what normal computers do. Instead of manipulating logic, it manipulates an irrational connectedness between all things. But these operators I speak of, they would never use that particular word picture, because to them what they are doing is as old and traditional as the hills. What they are doing, they will tell you, is "praising God", "being in prayer", "communing with the Spirit", "talking to Jesus", "stilling their soul", "worshipping the Father", "intercessory prayer", and so on. These are activities many philosophers simply cannot stomach, and would likely hold in utter contempt as a dreary descent into a pedestrian skein of compulsive religious fallacy.

Ergo, I'll use the story of the three crosses of the crucifixion. The one in the middle held the dying Jesus, and the two on either side held two common criminals also sentenced to death, almost certainly because they committed murder and mayhem. Here's their conversation, roughly:

Left-hand Criminal: Aren't you Jesus, the G*d-damned f*cking Christ? Here we are nailed to three g*d-damned wooden crosses and you can't get us the f*ck outta here? What a pile of sh*t you turned out to be!

Right-hand Criminal: Hey, shut up, you g*d-damn loser. We got ourselves to blame for this - but he didn't do a damn thing wrong. Yo, Jesus, would you talk to the Big Man when you get to heaven, put in a word for me?

Jesus Christ: Sure man, sure. See you on the other side.

--Luke 23:39-43 my version -note that all the cursing going on here is quite attested, if not transliterated.

I don't know what this has to do with anything - I've just been wanting to share it. But it's my kind of salvation plan. All this guy asked for was to be remembered. Tell me if you noticed any other significant step in this crucial (pun intended) interchange. How hard is that? Of course, we don't all get the chance to be crucified right next to Jesus Christ, so it gets more complicated the farther away we get from that signal honor. And we are such a long way from believing that this crucifixion and resurrection story I just alluded to is true. We postmoderns believe Jesus died, the criminals died, their bones turned to dust, their gory execution got mythologized by a cult, and the rest is history. Here we are.

Until we go to a funeral. Now, I've been wondering what a postmodern funeral should be - one in which we philosophically skewer the mock seriousness with which even the oh-so-scientific moderns (still!) pretend to solemnize the onset of human tissue death and decomposition. Would there be dancing, laughter? Would we celebrate the banishment of all religious nonsense from the simple fact of organic death? What would we say about the 85-year-old departed - that she lived too long? But wait - perhaps a true postmodern would not even bother to gather the family, except perhaps to divide the belongings. Dice anyone?

It would be inexact to say that the very traditional funeral I attended the other day was for the living. The funeral was for the souls, the souls of us living organic beings, and the souls of dead and decomposing organic beings set loose at last. Religious people do funerals because it is an observance of a religious truth, one that is inaccessible to the modern and postmodern mind: that in this "other world" which religion and other practices, unlike science and logic, are capable of linking up to, souls survive. Do you have a soul? Not sure? Just ask it.

Imagine yourself sitting calmly in an armchair. Across from you lies a haphazard pile of bones and muscle and organs and skin, oozing blood and other fluids. The pile is fresh, but you know it cannot stay that way - it is going to start turning smellishly into compost soon. Then comes self-recognition - the mass of flesh is you, it is your "bone bag" of a body, opened up and spilled on the floor. Is that pile you? Ask your soul. If you have one, it will whisper "I am still here."

For me, the major redeeming grace of the postmodern perspective, and the christian existentialism it enables, is that it lets me retain such a simplistic belief, and hold it in my being without forcing my hand on any other matter, such as quantum mechanics, for instance, or genetic drift, social construction of truth, power relationships expressed in language, artificial intelligence, fractals, alien life, or interplanetary emigration. Jesus doesn't care, he's mainly about asking and receiving.

So here's the best witness I can give. Be really, really open. Pay attention to the people in your life who will never understand what Heidegger was getting at. Pay attention to people who remain stubbornly stupid about the profound, troubling, and utterly complex challenges facing the postmodern intellect, preferring that worn out dodge about us not fully comprehending "God's ways". For one thing, they are probably praying for you. Put another way, they are accessing the other world in which your soul does not die and go away, a world no scientist or philosopher can ever quite nail down precisely. They are putting in a word for you.

Their intercession may well lift you to an amazing level of spiritual strength, resilience and confidence, as I believe the nightly prayers of this now-dead, frail old woman of average intelligence, whose funeral I attended, in fact, did for me, and for my family members, spawning miracle after miracle in life's hidden linch-pin moments over the past twelve years. In this humble, broken way, the simple archaic practices, which we moderns and postmoderns alike disdain - we cast about for substitutionary rituals - are somehow shouting "remember me!" back in time 2000 years, trying to wedge their humble petition right in alongside the dying criminal who bothered to ask it, and who got the answer, "sure", when no logical processor could ever enable such a strange reconciliation between sin and salvation, between rejection and acceptance, between condemnation and forgiveness.

So my existential christian attitude is simply this: don't worry so much about it. Give it a rest. Accept the humility of the prayer. Accept the incredible freedom apportioned to each new christian, to reinterpret the asking and the receiving, like I have done, until it feels right for you. The recipe is, there is no recipe. And perhaps that can give aid and comfort to us postmodern watchers out in the border hills of our lumbering culture with its many parts.