The Death of Death
How deflating it can be, when our choicest frames of reference do not explain the facts.
As in the case of a long-unresolved murder investigation, wherein decades of rumination, digestion and other grisly-sounding forms of processing have produced two opposing camps: those who believe that the murder was the result of a love triangle, and those who believe that the murder was the result of a long-standing family dysfunction.
How deflating it can be, when the hard science of a cold case unit proves that the murder was the opportunistic work of a stranger.
For do not love triangles and family dysfunction sponsor many crimes?
Indeed they do.
But even the grim realities of those issues seem diminished, somehow, when the conclusions of the investigators leave us speechless.
For we have sent but phantom forces out for combat, as the most ignorant armies that clash by night, on a darkling plain that conceals our own ignorance.
A darkling plain that reveals naught but our blind persistence.
A darkling plain that reveals our love for our own preoccupations, our own perspectives, our own frames of reference.
And our eternal, unending, undying love for pitting one frame against another.
As in the case of a murder mystery, most of our important frames have to do with matters of life and death.
If we do x, then y will equal our fate in life, death or after death.
If we have this relationship, or do these behaviors, or profess this belief, or come to this realization, then these things will effect the time, nature or outcome of our death.
If we do these things, or if we are these things, then we can expect to be rewarded or punished in this life, in the next life or in an afterlife.
As in some of our traditional Christian frames, which, with regard to the “unrighteous” behavior or thoughts of others, offer righteous condemnation as one alternative and eternal damnation as the second alternative.
What kind of a choice is that?
Is it somewhat slanted, you figure?
For, given the second alternative, one might find it rather hard to contest the first.
It’s because of the way it’s framed.
So we succumb to all manner of pitched debates.
Particularly when it comes to matters of life and death and life after death.
But does that mean that one need swallow traditionally-framed alternatives?
Does that mean that one need swallow a perspective of God that has little to do with he who authored the two commandments?
Does that mean that one need heap coals of damnation on the heads of presumed transgressors, at the risk of facing the fire of damnation oneself?
Name of God, I pray that it is not so.
Yet the evidence is clear that there are those who would delight in our return to an authoritarian theocracy; there are those who would delight in holding the exclusive keys to all Christian perspectives; there are those who would delight in presenting us with a set of alternatives that they have so cleverly slanted in their own favor.
There are those who would present us with an image of God that they trust we will dare not contest.
Dangling the carrot of eternal life before our eyes, they would demand a death of the spirit and a death of identity.
Under such burdens and under such clouds labor those who do not identify themselves as Christians; under such burdens and under such clouds labor those of the Islamic and Jewish faiths; under such burdens and under such clouds labor the lesbians, the gays and all women who must be expected, somehow, to accommodate themselves to the task of living in the “Christian Way”.
At the risk of eternal damnation.
I would suggest that one can step outside of that box.
For that box has little to do with the author of the two commandments.
I would suggest that box is the fabrication of a mentality that is more suited to the worship of a fire-god: a mentality that flourished in the Inquisition, in the Salem witchcraft trials and in a multitude of secular and religious communities throughout the ages.
Our more enlightened biblical scholars will tell us that, in former times, our God was presented to us in terms that pagans could understand, replete with references to harsh punishments and community cleansing as two invaluable means of appeasing God.
I understand that.
I understand the measured pace of revelation.
But I do not understand suffering and death that are inflicted in the name of God.
That linkage alone will prompt me to step outside of that perspective.
Name of God, this whole Christian business is not about death.
Never has been.
You won’t find the living among the dead.
“Love accepts all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Like the teachings of Jesus, this is a meditation that is truly out of the box.
Not for the sake of intellectual originality, but as a way of realizing the commandments to love.
It is such a generous and widely-compassed statement, so elegant and suggestive, that it must meet any discerning criteria for a visionary statement.
No concrete-bound prescriptions, no cook-book approach to morality here, yet more than enough to inspire and direct an infinite number of unique and uniquely-varied lives.
If we must maintain a perspective, then let it be so large that it hardly qualifies as a box.
Indeed, let it be so large that it challenges the very idea of a box.
To what can it be likened?
In a completely out-of-the-box way, I find a connection with John Keats’ meditation on great encounters with beauty.
“…at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously---I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason… . This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”*
A “choice frame of reference” of my own, to be sure, for it has been a touchstone for my last thirty-plus years.
Limited, perhaps, as is any perspective, and yet…
If we must maintain a perspective, then let it be so large that it challenges the very idea of a box.
Would that Paul’s meditation held greater prominence among our traditional teachings.
And that it had greater impact.
In my ecumenical travels, I have been privileged to visit numerous religious communities.
In addition to many fleeting visits, I have long-standing relationships with three communities, either through membership or thankful status as resident guest; these communities represent the mainstream protestant, evangelical and Roman Catholic persuasions.
I have seen vast multitudes moved more by love than by doctrine.
I have seen the darker side, as well; I have seen people shunned and ejected for unforgivable transgressions, including outrageous and unforgivable acts of acceptance and forgiveness.
My overall impression is that the cost of love, in a religious community, can be quite steep.
I hope that my response may find echoes among those who have spent any amount of time at all in even one community.
What, oh, what could we be without our stumbling blocks?
Can we not speak for change?
Throughout the history of Christianity, so many have been willing to give an unqualified “yes”.
To whom we owe a thousand splintered Christian denominations.
Perhaps I have seen too much.
Perhaps I feel the stodginess that befits my age.
For I would raise the bar.
Or lower the bar, if you will, for I would choose a narrower gate.
Can we not speak for change?
But only after we accept all things.
First, pull the plank from your own eye.
Only after we rid ourselves of those frames of reference that limit our own perspective.
On this point, I will doubtless raise some eyebrows among my more socially-active sisters and brothers.
Yet I cannot bow to the primacy of conflict: my frame, your frame, mine wins, yours is changed, and that makes sense of the world.
I realize that has been our way of taking care of business for thousands of years.
I realize that has been our way of taking care of business as Christians.
But primacy has not been given to conflict and winning.
That is simply another frame.
And the idea is to ditch the frames.
But only after we accept all things.
Only after we accept others and their frames; only after we accept our own community and it’s frames, and only after we work to rid ourselves of our own frames.
To me, the word “accept” means to allow no frame to stand between me and love.
For, in Paul, acceptance is the servant of love.
And it does not encourage isolation in the way we think of others or in the way we act toward others.
If we so dare, it means looking at others without grasping at a definition of them.
Love believes all things.
In some terribly important way, our seemingly-disparate Christian beliefs are not mutually-exclusive.
We try to reconcile opposites, at our best; yet even that endeavor rests on the idea that there are “opposites”.
Perhaps our belief in opposites betrays the limits of our frames.
Perhaps a larger frame would include all of our seeming-inconsistencies.
As in the case of the geometric metaphor that I described in a past article, where one can pass from square to square to square without meeting any limits, provided that the squares are stacked in the shape of a cube.
Perhaps the limits of our frames are superseded by a larger dimension: the larger perspective that was delineated by Paul.
A perspective that nullifies our concept of limits.
Which would nullify our concept of conflict.
A perspective that may well create a sense of horror among us Christians, considering our traditional ways of doing business.
For our change from one generation to another is, in many ways, simply a change of frames.
A way of redefining “us” and “them“.
The “them” has been various excluded groups, or any tradition other than “our” own.
The faces change, but the principle remains the same.
In spite of the words of Paul.
Not to mention the words of Jesus Christ, who, if he did nothing else, continuously rebuked people’s efforts to define him or to anticipate his “position” on any given issue.
Yet the alternative to “us/them” would seem to be sheer horror.
Horror, and not just at the prospect of leaving familiar perspectives.
But horror at the prospect of leaving the idea of perspectives; horror at the prospect of leaving our notions of an “us” and a “them“.
It is a horror at the idea of being adrift.
In spite of the words of Paul.
Not to mention the words of Jesus Christ.
It is a horror at finding ourselves in an alien landscape.
In place of which we would rather cling to our old wineskins; cling to our toon vision of an “us” and a “them“; cling to our framed perspectives, even if that means we wind up haunting the heights of a succession of ghost towns; ghost towns that we have built as testaments to our own limited imaginations.
We would rather become like the man with the unclean spirit who dwelt among the tombs in the old cemetery.
There are greener pastures.
Personally speaking, I do not believe that leaving behind such childish things would strand us in an alien landscape.
I believe that it would bring us into the place where the iron hand of winter is relaxed and spring flourishes; that place beyond our expectations where life and love run riot and there is a deliverance from oppression; that place where we realize that our oppressor is none other than ourselves, a realization that would bring less regret and sadness than sheer delight at the minimal cost of release; that place where the seemingly-endless fret and tumult are stilled.
All of us.
Foreshadowing, perhaps, the heaven that is meant to be.
For these things speak for more than the death of violence; these things speak for more than the death of murder.
I believe that these things speak for the one thing that is said above all about Jesus Christ.
I believe that they speak for the death of death.
This ends the sixth and final part of the current series, “Moving Beyond the Box”.
I post new articles twice-monthly in “Author’s Corner”.
If you live in or near the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and you would be interested in meeting with others for discussion and/or prayer, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. All are welcome, regardless of identity or personal choices. Please understand that I do not have the resources to guarantee that I will be able to read or respond to all other correspondence.
Toward Dawn is a privately-funded outreach, and it neither solicits nor accepts contributions.
*Letter to his brothers, 2 December 1817, Hampstead
Rob Wright holds advanced degrees in education and performing arts, and he has been a professional teacher for over sixteen years. In his home denomination, he has served as a lay minister in liturgical, educational and ecumenical activities. He lives in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire with his spouse of twenty years and their daughter.