Friday, September 19, 2008

Reflection for 18 September 2008

In the first reading today, Paul is dealing with people who, like us, don’t understand what “resurrection” means. We say “we believe in the resurrection of the body” every Sunday at church, but do we know what that means? Like the Christians in Corinth, our mental furniture comes from a Greek worldview that separates body and soul, leaving the body at death to decay while the soul is “saved,” that is, goes to heaven. Many of us may well be thinking, “Yeah, what’s the problem with that?”, but Paul has to combat that model in favor of what resurrection is really pointing to. That kind of body-soul dualism has lurked at the edges, and sometimes at the center, of Christianity from the beginning, originally in Gnosticism, then in Manichaeism, later Albigensianism, and on into neo-Thomism in our times, but always fearful that our physicality, with all of its urges and weaknesses and messiness is taking us away from what really matters, that is, the spiritual stuff. The whole point of the Incarnation, though, is that God is to be encountered precisely in this messy world, not out there in a cosmos that tries to leave this world behind.

The Jewish anthropology that Paul, as a Jew, is using sees the person as an integral unit, not splittable into body and soul, so that it is the totality of the person who is to be raised on the last day. He realizes the dangers of taking any image too literally, so he goes on later in this chapter to anticipate people’s questions: “But someone may say, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come back?"” He asserts that this resurrected body will not simply be a resuscitated corpse, any more than Jesus’ resurrection was simply resuscitation. Rather, it is a transformation, but it is a transformation of the entire person, even as he struggles to find analogies that make any sense.

Why is any of this important for us? Resurrection as a symbol points us beyond any overspiritualizing notion of salvation being something that only happens to our souls. We know how easily such a model can lead us to denigrate the tangible world around us – if only people’s souls are to be saved, perhaps their bodies and their world don’t matter so much. This kind of model, which has had a fair amount of traction through the centuries, is behind much of Marx’s infamous critique that religion kept people from striving for the kind of social change that needed to happen. We know from reading the news that our world in all its physicality is crying out, “groaning” as Paul puts it, for redemption, and that’s what resurrection points to for us: the renewal, the transformation, of all of creation. We can’t ignore people’s bodily needs, the unjust political and economic forces that impact their lives, the use of torture or sexual assault, the damage we are inflicting upon the natural world – all of that is part and parcel of the salvation that Paul makes clear has come. Our faith demands that we anticipate and participate in a transformation of all of reality, which makes salvation a truly social and cosmic reality, not an individualistic or self-concerned one.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The scariest place in the world...

Today's gospel (7 September) is the old classic from MT 18 about dealing with someone who hurts you - start by going to that person, then take a few other people if that doesn't work, then go before the church if THAT doesn't work, then treat them like a tax collector if even that doesn't work. How on target is this gospel? How often do we actually talk to the person who hurts us? Not often, actually - at least I don't. Confronting someone you respect, whose opinion matters to you, or even just someone you have to see all the time is about the scariest thing in the world for most of us. Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology in Toronto, talks in his book and lecture series Maps of Meaning about the immportance of learning to face that which most frightens us, because inevitably there is to be found that which we most need. He talks about working with people with garden-variety phobias like claustrophobia or something similar, say, fear of elevators. The therapy he outlines is to have the person get as near to the elevator as possible without fear, then stand there until they get bored, then move a little forward as they realize that nothing has destroyed them, and so on, gradually nudging them toward and into the elevator until finally they have gone up or down in the thing. Often, he says, the person will go home after conquering that fear and get in an argument with his/her spouse about something that has been brewing for a long time. The situation is not, as Freud thought, that the elevator symbolically represents the marriage, but that the person has learned that he/she can confront the scariest place in their psychic world and not be destroyed by it. The elevator continues to be scary, getting into the fight continues to be scary, because it upsets the stability that we so often prefer to change, even if the stable situation is terrible. Again, that which we most need is found in the place we least want to go - the scariest place in the world. And if that isn't the Cross, I don't know what is...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Maps of Meaning

Somehow or another in my THEO 100 class last Friday, we got talking about the problem of evil – something about the limitations and potential of theological language about God. Anyway, at one point one of the guys in the class told a story about a soccer coach from his high school who died at age 38 – great guy, a couple of kids, loved his students, the works. This student explained that part of him clung to the old saw about “God wanted him in heaven” because he couldn’t handle the idea that such a great guy died for nothing. We went on with the discussion, but after class, this guy stayed around and asked me about how guilt factors in to bad things happening in the world. I asked him what he meant, and he launched into how some part of him in his guts feels guilty for this coach’s death, even though his brain tells him that there is no connection at all. This little voice tells him that he wasn’t playing very well in the last few games before this coach died, and maybe his part in losing those last games added to the coach’s stress that led him to have a cardiac arrest, and so on. I told him that he had absolutely nothing to do with his coach’s death, and of course he said he knew, but I could tell that some part of him wasn’t hearing it. By this point this guy was starting to break down, and was doing his best to keep a stiff upper lip, so it was clear that this is still a live issue for him. He actually remarked that it was a Good Will Hunting moment – knowing “It’s not your fault,” but not really believing it. I guess I write this out of amazement that our gut desire for order would prefer such an awful and painful explanation for evil over the possibility that there is no “reason” (i.e. predetermined meaning) behind why bad things happen; even if it would indict this kid’s psyche with guilt, in a way such a scheme was better to his psyche than everything just being meaningless.