Of regeneration and resurrection.

6 01 2010

Tonight, with my sons, I re-watched David Tennant’s last ever(?) outing as the Doctor. I’m never quite sure whether it’s great telly or utter twoddle. Maybe it’s both.

This was the first time though, as many other commentators have said, that the Doctor has approached his regeneration as a kind of death. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Russell T Davies’ writing is intelligent — this is light entertainment after all — but this was certainly a new spin on a familiar event in the ‘Whoniverse’ and it got me thinking.

It took me back to some significant conversations on the subject of what might follow this life.

It’s less common these days to encounter people who would answer that question: ‘nothing’. There are all kinds of weird and wacky ideas out there. I sometimes feel I have more sympathy with those who have the integrity and directness to give the ‘nothing’ answer.

It was interesting recently to deal with a funeral where for one close relation that clearly was their answer. I am a Christian priest and so I will always want to talk about the hope of resurrection, but I wanted to do so sensitively in a way that recognised rather than obliterated this relative’s conviction. People often talk about how the loved one will ‘live on’ in the memories of those left behind and in particular in the way they have been influenced and shaped by their lost loved one. At this funeral, I said that would be enough for some or all they could honestly believe but that just for one moment I wanted to invite them to imagine the possibility of something more real and tangible — that there is some sort of real life beyond what we experience now. On the other hand, I always want to gently resist that desire to say (quoting a poem actually penned by a clergyman) ‘death is nothing at all’.

It might seem strange for a character that can cheat death and be ‘reborn’ after a fatal injury to be afraid of that process. But though his next incarnation will still be able to say ‘it’s me’, it won’t be this me. It won’t be exactly the same ‘me’ that is contemplating his end. It will be a new form that remembers exactly what it was like to be each of his previous incarnations but there is still a sense in which the tenth Doctor ceased to be. That thinking entity met its end. A new one came to be. There was a sense or continuity but only after a real ending; a real dying.

I think this has some resonance with the Christian idea of resurrection. This has often been confused with ideas of an eternal soul or spirit.

Jesus (according to the Authorised Version of the Bible) does say: ‘For what is a man (sic) profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ Indeed throughout the Bible the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ appear. But I’m very doubtful whether when speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, Jesus or anyone else had in mind the wafty ‘ghost in the machine’ suggested by those English words. There’s no sense I think in the Hebrew tradition of a person’s being ending up in some way detached from their physical existence. That’s not what resurrection is about. I don’t think Jesus would recognise what all those hellfire preachers were talking about when they asked people about the destiny of their eternal soul.

So I guess I’m of the monist persuasion when it comes to Christian anthropology. We are holistic, embodied beings. That’s my best guess anyway — what do I know really?! I don’t think that who I essentially am can be sensibly distinguished from the physical stuff of my presence in this world. I think that’s more biblically authentic and more readily reconciled with what neuroscience tells us about ourselves. The clincher for me is that the personality of brain injury patients can change so radically that they seem to be a wholly different person. If there’s some whispy stuff that is the real repository of our essential self, what could we realistically say is contained there? Nothing that makes any sense in terms of how we human beings relate to each other. And if our essential being utterly transcends how human beings experience each other and relate to each other then any disembodied continuance of that essence would be so strange as to render it incomprehensible to what we are now. It wouldn’t evade the continuity question I pose below. One might ask how such an existence could be deemed human at all.

It seems to me that the idea of resurrection is about the re-embodiment of a previously embodied psyche — by which I mean an emergent property/pattern of the brain. To talk about a disembodied part of us that is untouched by death makes us immortal rather than mortal. So if we are instead a holistic embodied being then death really is an ending. We do truly die.

The horror of this is that I will end.

Socrates the Greek philosopher (a believer in the soul in its ghostly sense I think) approached his death calmly. Jesus the Hebrew faced his end in agonies of sadness.

Resurrection is about a re-embodiment. The thing that sometimes keeps me awake at night is that even if a new being comes to be that can remember exactly what it was like to be me, do I really go on? Is there experiential continuity? The Doctor saw an end of himself coming, even though a being called the Doctor would still exist in the Universe. That’s just a fiction of course. But I know how that character feels.

The thing that has offered some comfort has been to ask myself where the 5-year-old or 10-year-old or 15-year-old me has gone. There’s a real sense in which those children are gone from the world. My growth and learning has changed me so that the experiencing and thinking person I was at those ages does not exist anymore. And yet the sense of continuity with those people that I was is so strong that they are still alive within me. Maybe resurrection feels like that. Maybe the very different form that will exist eternally in the presence of God will be so profoundly identified with this me now that there will be a continuity with this experiencing self. But maybe in an even more beautiful way because it will not just be the ‘me’ as I am at the point of my death that is resurrected but the whole of me as I have been throughout space and time. That would truly be a much more profound existence than that offered by the regeneration of a Time Lord.

Advertisements




Commemoratio: a guerrilla happening

2 11 2009

Here are some of the promised pictures. Thanks Ben.





For someone you’ve lost.

1 11 2009

531444_daisy_in_the_sunLucky heather sir?

How do you normally respond? If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you normally refuse. There’s no such thing as a free lunch (or heather). We all know how it goes. It’s not a gift. The heather lady wants you to cross her palm with silver. None of us wants to be taken for a mug. So we politely refuse. We all have our guard up. And what’s more, we don’t like being approached by a stranger. Stranger=danger. Even for adults. So why on earth would I plan an event that involved stopping people in the main shopping street in the centre of Portsmouth and offering them a flower?

Well precisely because I wanted to break through that defensive barrier to connect with people — to connect with their spirit.

If there was one thing that came up again and again in my conversations with people late on a Friday night at the Friday Fridge, it was that sense of suppressed grief that we all carry. It was that, I think, that boiled over when Diana, Princess of Wales died. People weren’t really grieving for Diana. She was a proxy through whom they could connect with their own sense of grief. It comes up so often when you’re taking funerals. Not just in the obvious way that you’re talking to relatives about a loved one that’s just died, but also there’s invariably a personal tragedy that the deceased person carried, unspoken, for years. There’s a time after a bereavement when people accommodate our desolation; there’s a sort of permission to be demonstrably emotional. But there comes a time when grief becomes impolite, embarrassing. Especially in our culture. Because we don’t do death like we once did. I suspect that we want grief out of the way as quickly as possible as it’s a memento mori. So we push it down deep. But it’s there. Gnawing away. Inside we’re desperate for someone to just acknowledge what, no who, we’ve lost.

That’s what I think anyway. If you think differently, please share your experience or thoughts via the comments on this page.

Because I think that, I think that it is an act of compassion to acknowledge the grief of another. It connects with the deepest level of our identity and embraces our whole being, not just the ‘I’m fine’ persona we like to present.

So yesterday (because close to All Souls seemed as good a time as any), eighteen of us from around the Diocese gathered at the fountain in Commercial Road in Portsmouth. I described the event as a guerrilla happening. I called it ‘Commemoratio’ from the latin for All Souls’ Day: Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (Commemoration of the faithful departed). As for the previous guerrilla happening I pulled together, I sent invitations by email, text, facebook and twitter and just waited to see who would come.

We gave away 300 single stem white gerberas. It was a simple act. As we offered them to people, we said: ‘this is for someone you’ve lost.’

Lots of people — perhaps even a majority — politely declined. But a substantial number also received the gift in the spirit in which it was given. They seemed genuinely moved. And let’s not overplay the refusals. Within a quarter of an hour all the flowers were gone.

There was no agenda. We weren’t trying to get people along to something else or preach or sell them anything. The gift was free. It was a genuine gift.

We had attached small cards. They looked like this:

tag mock-up

And I think (from what they said to me) that those who took part experienced it as a moment of privilege. We all had powerful moments of human connection.

What right did I have to interrupt people’s Saturday lunchtime? None. What right did I have to attempt to make people reconnect with their grief?None. Who am I to decide that people’s carefully constructed protection around their grief should be penetrated? No-one. I hope you can tell, dear reader, that I have thought carefully about whether it was truly kind or fair to do this. In the end I thought it was kinder to acknowledge people and communicate a recognition of their loss and its validity. And I think the experience bears that out. I don’t think it threatened the defences of those who declined the gift. And the expression and frequently the words of those who did accept the gift communicated that they were grateful to have their grief and the one for whom they grieve recognised.

I hope to post some pictures here in the next few days.