By John Mason Lock
A few years ago, I did a graveside service for a family. Neither the deceased nor any of the family had any connection with my congregation, but as I recall someone was an Episcopalian. I’m sure many clergy, Episcopal or otherwise, can identify with this situation. For me, it’s one of the ways that I am happy to serve the wider community in leading a service that I hope will draw all those who mourn into the love of God.
On that mild spring day, I led the prayer book service with appropriate readings from the Bible and prayers that spoke of death and resurrection and assurance of faith. Afterward, the undertaker leaned over and asked if I minded if he said something. This caught me off guard. I politely nodded Yes despite my feeling apprehensive and uncertain about what was coming. To my horror and chagrin, he began to read this poem about death and our loved ones that basically denied the reality of death. I don’t recall the exact wording, but it spoke of how, if you merely sense your loved one in the natural world about you, you have not really lost the person. I was deeply dismayed by the thought that here were survivors who surely knew the pangs of death, and yet they were being told that death was not real and that they had not really lost their loved one.
By contrast, the language of the prayer book acknowledges the pain and sadness of death. “Out of the deep have I cried unto thee. O Lord, hear my voice.” The Bible speaks of “the sting of death.” The Bible also speaks of understanding by faith that death is not final and definitive. It does not have the last word on our existence, but this is true only within the horizon of the resurrection. It is only because of Christ’s triumph over death that St. Paul can write to Christians in Thessalonica and tell them “not to be sorry as those without hope for those who sleep in [Christ].”
Despite the precipitous decline in institutional religion, I meet so many people who speak candidly about their belief in heaven and an afterlife even when they have little or no connection with a community of faith. Surveys have shown that most Americans believe in heaven and think it is where they going, and yet the rise of nones has been exponential. The obvious conclusion — which is easily confirmed by mounds of anecdotal evidence — is that there is a whole language for death and the afterlife that has become unmoored from the gospel proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ.
We can see this secularization even in the Church, where there is a glaring absence of teaching about the final judgment, in which each will have to answer for “what has been done in the body” (1 Cor. 5:10). This does not of course mean that we earn our way into heaven, but that our appeal at the judgment seat will be to Christ and his completed work on the cross and over the grave. In the words of the classic hymn, “nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” Christ is the key to the afterlife, not some vague and fluctuating idea of being a “good person.” I would like to think that his mercy is greater than our ability to appropriate it. That’s why I’m happy to bury all types of folks, whether churched or unchurched.
For clergy who struggle in this very challenging social and culture context to support the life of the congregation, it is awfully tempting to take the popular view of the afterlife and use it for a foothold in drawing people into the faith. I cannot disagree that there might be some pastoral sensibility in this, and yet it is difficult to see much of faith in these ideas of death. I tried an experiment, and I wonder if you would see similar results. Do a Google search for funeral poems. The top hit brought up the following for me:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
Such phrases slip all too easily into meaningless platitudes that aren’t really compatible with the Church’s language and imagery of death and resurrection.
When I was in seminary the objects of our ire were liberal Protestants. Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and Tillich were all equally shunned as the agents of change in eroding the Church’s doctrine. Years later, now that I’ve done some reading of these authors, I can see that such sweeping judgments were unhelpful, and that their work is often quite profound, even if I don’t frequently end up agreeing with their conclusions.
One significant turning point in my attitude toward liberal Protestantism came when I read Anglican Identities by Rowan Williams. Each chapter is dedicated to a significant historical figure in Anglicanism. One of them is on John A.T. Robinson, author of the provocative and influential book Honest to God. It is the book that perhaps beyond any other gave impetus to “death of God” theology in the English-speaking world. The popular summary of the book is that mankind has come of age. The advances of science, technology, and psychiatry make it untenable for people actually to believe the Church’s teaching, at least in a literal manner.
Many years later, of course, Bishop John Spong of Newark infamously popularized this line of thinking, and I can tell from the history of my congregation in the nearby Diocese of New Jersey that his teachings were pastorally destructive and sowed a great deal of discord in this diocese. That being said, Williams does an excellent job of rehabilitating Robinson’s reputation (at least in my mind). The substance of Williams’s argument is that while one might not want to conclude as Robinson does that the Church’s teaching are untenable, he was drawing attention to the problem of how the Church uses its language. The danger is that the Church’s language can become so abstracted from everyday reality that it becomes a meaningless code for use only among its members. “Robinson was emphatically right to observe that, whatever theologians might say, a huge amount of both popular and sermonic talk about God did indeed treat God as a member of the class of things that are in the universe” (p. 116). Such a God is really an anthropomorphic god, no better than the gods of Greek mythology, who strain our credulity to the breaking point. Here are “dangers of fairy-tale language.”
My appeal to Williams and Robinson is to ask the clergy and lay leaders of our churches a paradoxical question: Do you really believe the language about the afterlife that is popularized in our culture? Much of it strikes me as fairy-tale language. If we act as if this language is synonymous or at least harmonious with the Church’s language of death and resurrection, we run the risk of compromising the truthfulness of the gospel because we’ve thrown in our lot with a vocabulary about death and heaven that is deeply problematic. With John Lennon, it is not difficult to doubt heaven and hell if the concepts are infantilized and treated as objects of our assured knowledge. Death and grief are devastating, and the Church has a rich and textured way of talking about these things without descending into platitudes or mythology.
This article is so fantastic, Fr. John. I love the way you work us up to your final question. Like Descartes, you lead us on our own path of discovery! I just wanted to add as a scholar of the work of Bishop John A. T. Robinson, there is more to rehabilitate his reputation than just Williams’ essay. In fact, I don’t think Williams goes nearly far enough. Robinson was largely an orthodox thinker, despite the nasty reputation he achieved due to his total lack of PR skills. At no point does Robinson ever conclude that “the Church’s teachings are… Read more »
Michael F, Thanks for your further illuminations on JAT Robinson. It sounds like a figure who is really in need of careful study and analysis, and I am glad you are working on it. I look forward to seeing some of your work! As I said in the piece, I continue to be impressed with the depth and quality of the analysis of figures like Robinson and Tillich even though I am fairly reticent about their conclusions. I’d like to check out some of the titles you mention. I read Honest to God a few years ago so my memory… Read more »
Indeed. Christianity’s realism about evil and death I think remain one of several its hallmarks as a distinctive religious tradition. I think Robinson would have loved your essay. He was concerned, not to question the truth of the faith, but rather whether the way we speak the faith in our contemporary context actually communicates that truth. You have rightly highlighted that in our attempt to conform to the fashionable mores, we may very well have left people without that which they need the most: the language of Christian hope. Coda: Robinson does anything but reject a personal God; as he… Read more »