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.


foundrysmith said...

Nicely put Karl, and detailed as always! Well, you asked about "post modern" funerals, so let me return in kind.....

I would say that funerals are for the living and the dead. Bags of bones like us amongst the living cannot reliably speak to that which occurs when we run out of the possibility of more possibilities, except that it is effectively over so far as we are concerned. Seems like an argument can be made that prayer, just like Pascal's wager, beats the alternative both spiritually and perhaps culturally. Even if the prayer is without a well defined meaning for the deceased, for a man for whom religious activity was not an obvious part of life.

My own father died earlier this year at the ripe old age of 89 from Alzheimer. He was under hospice care, so was able to die at home. It took him about 4 days to make the final exit, which gave the surviving family a pretty good look at the dynamics of the process. Although he had been in declining health for some years, his final departure really began only when we could not get him out of his bed and into his wheelchair.

There is something of a retreat during this time. Initially, we could still communicate with him, and he with us, although just barely. Perhaps we had a bit of a peek at what awaits us! He retreated even further, where we could still hear him utter some interesting remarks, although he seemingly only rarely caught a glimpse of us. Ultimately, he claimed to be "falling", and was beyond our reach. The hospice nurse tells us she hears this all the time with her patients. A death struggle ensued, with the end of life as we post moderns understand it occurring sometime where the night meets dawn.

My wife and I had performed a ritual house cleaning the evening before, which involved the use of a shamanic drum and a smudge stick. We went through the entire house drumming, chanting and incensing with ritual smoke. We had a feeling that once the job was done, that we had done some good, and had set the stage for a peaceful exit.

The next morning he was dead. We washed and anointed the body, and layed him out under a Mexican serapi, before calling the hospice nurse. We bought some flowers, lit some candles, informed the out-of-town friends and relations. We kept him at home till late in the afternoon, so that those who cared to visit had a chance to come by. It also gave me time to make a plaster cast, so that I could make a death mask for use at a later date. We had made some arrangements previously with a local family funeral home, and Fred and one of his sons showed up later in their Minivan. We wheeled him out of the house (feet first, as is the custom among the Scots), and got his ashes back a few days later from the crematorium.

I suppose our approach was a post modern affair with an some old world flair. I say all this to illustrate that much more than prayer to such and such a deity may be involved when we go in for our reward - in fact, there is a whole corpus of cultural practices which people from various times and places may appropriate as they navigate their way through life and death.

We held a funeral feast some six weeks after his death - kind of a post modern mortem I suppose - It was a chance for family and friends to get together and have one hell of a party! I had checked a book out of the library, "Death Warmed Over", which gives a world view of cuisines for such occasions, many of which we prepared. Many guests also brought along a special dish to share, kind of as a "pot luck". It served as a coming together, an activity, where the living and the dead enjoyed a fine feast, the living even saying some nice things about the dead.

My father and I had collected some apples some months before he perished, which with a little time, sugar and yeast served as the libation for his final toast. A distilled aliquot of same was placed in an alcohol burner and blazed away as a conclusion to our gathering. A death mask was cast in aluminium.

Karl Tyson said...

Well hammered out, Dean. Well done and well said. We are both excruciatingly postmodern who look back to traditional practices and how they might, just might (we have to leave the uncertainty in, to be faithful to the postmodern oath) communicate between irreconcilable worlds.

Doug said...

Not a member of the class, but I happened upon your blog post and felt compelled to comment. A former pastor of mine once remarked to me that he would rather do a funeral than a wedding, because we are all more real at a funeral. Whether we approach it in a post modern wrapper or find comfort in our religious ceremonies, I think when we confront the death of our friends and relatives we see the reality of our journey of life. My father's last communication was to remember that it is a journey, and not a destination. Amen.

foundrysmith said...

That's a great line/observation from your former pastor Doug, I never thought of it quite that way!

Anonymous said...

blah, blah, blah.

kurt b.

eric_Arthurblair said...

I don't know how the website works so I'll just write this here. I found A TON of John D. Caputo lectures on phenomenology and more. Check them out at



yes i'm a little hyper

BH said...

This is an interesting site:


Karl Tyson said...

I will post these new philosophy sites in our left-side list of extra-Dreyfus resources. Thanks Brad and Eric.

Kurt, if you are following this, I assume your blah trope is either a request for help or a decretal of utter superiority. But thank you either way!

徐若瑄Vivian said...
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