Giving Up the Ghost: The Gift of Mortality
15 May 2021
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” -- Mae West
I am 67 years old, the same age my father died, three years short of his Biblical “three score and ten.” It is also the year that Easter Sunday was the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, at the age of 39. As my father marched with King in Selma, and my son Byron was born on Martin Luther King Day five years ago, this was a day fraught with significance. Never mind that we are over a year into a world-wide pandemic, caused by a COVID-19 virus against which I have now been vaccinated, but in the early days of which I assumed that if push came to triaged shove, an old retired dude might be less likely to be rationed a ventilator that could better save the life of people with their lives laid out before them… someone like my young ex-wife, the mother of our son, who seeks a future of more fertile valleys than I could offer. Happily, this fraught Easter Sunday also coincided this year, with the birthday of an old friend, with whom I could have a virtual conversation, one of the bittersweet gifts of pandemic life, though she lives three hours away, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A “West Side Story” indeed! So, I danced to Molly Tuttle’s rendition of Olympia “…standing at the corner of 52nd and Broadway,” New York City.
“Death has no mercy in this land” is one of my favorite Blues songs, done by that Jefferson Airplane spinoff of Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, Hot Tuna.
So, choose whatever musical accompaniment you want to an Easter message, on the “first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring.” Not the pagan fertility rites of eggs and bunnies, but what Terry Eagleton, in his 2009 Reason, Faith, and Revolution, made clear might be one of the more significant designators of the human condition, a political prisoner who has been tortured to death, laid across the lap of his weeping mother in Michelangelo’s Pieta.
My young son, happily getting some Christian education at his Brethren in Christ pre-K, could regale us, quite proud of his knowledge, on the drive to his school’s church to which he insisted we go, in our “Sunday best,” of the Passion, from crown of thorns to the empty tomb. He even knew that it was the women who first saw the risen Christ: “Woman, why do you weep?” In quite amicable separation between my young wife and I, this was a family event, and we were also proud of his telling of one of the greatest stories ever told, regardless of its literal truth.
Our Easter-happy boy did not dwell on the dark side despite, next to the drum set on which he does a great rendition of springtime thunder and lightning, leaned against a post, is his grandfather’s framed copy of Hodgell’s woodcut of Christ in Gethsemane. This was the image my father kept on the back of his closed study door, when he agonized over his angry sermons about civil rights, or the weepy anti-war sermons borne of his experiences of Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge. Byron’s story did not include the nadir of Christ’s sacrifice, begging that this cup be taken from him and then, in his agonized despair on the cross , “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?).
“Woman, why do you weep?” But my son’s excitement was palpable, as he bounced off the walls, so happy to be with both parents, dressed to the max, at his church (unlike his dad’s Church of the Falling Rain, whatever that was), anticipating an egg hunt and an Easter basket when we got home. Then there’d be an Easter Dinner, replete with ham in the Jambalaya and the Gumbo he helped make for the Equinox. He knows what “the trinity” is: peppers, onions, and celery. He even put an old penny on the stove so we could get the roux the right color. It seemed to make sense, post-Lent, for a redux of a Cajun Mardi Gras despite Lancaster County’s dough-nuts on Fat Tuesday. And, after all, his Mom and Dad had celebrated her 30th birthday in N’Awlins, where “gone” rhymes with “pecan.” (Cue John Bonnamassa.)
“God is real!” Yes, and for a 5-year-old, so is Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny. As they should be, though I’m not sure he quite understands Jesus as more than “a nice man.” Suffer the young children to come to me. Jesus, I sound like I’m giving one of my father’s sermons: May the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. May the spirit of the Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, be with you always. Amen.” Go and sin no more.
In one of my more accessible articles, published in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science in the June 1999 issue (vol. 34, No. 2, pp 307-322), one of very few for which I still retain the copyright, “The Haunting of the Human Spirit,” I wrote:
"I believe that this haunting is a deep problem for the life of the human spirit, a life for which egocentric denials of death, rooted in fear, might be better replaced by a message of redemption, sacrifice, and the transformation of our own lives and those of our fragmenting communities. I nevertheless believe that the meaning of our individual lives can transcend their mortal and contingent existence."
Yes, I am a “Religious Naturalist,” and while I don’t have a supernatural bone in my body, I do believe it possible to have a fully spiritual, even a religious life, in a fully natural world, its boundary conditions notwithstanding. While the first sections of the article demonstrate a “methodological naturalist” approach to magic and miracles, as well as beliefs in apparitions, ghosts, and presences, the final section is on the belief in personal immortality.
As part of my catechetical training, I memorized John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Now, while that seems a pretty good reward for sustaining such a belief, I think it was before adulthood that I became incapable of believing something to be true because I would get a reward for it or be punished if I did not. Even if a belief were true, holding it for the promise of reward or the threat of punishment provides no justification whatsoever (as opposed to merely saying it). Indeed, were those promises or threats its only justification, one would suspect that the belief is probably false. In point of fact, I think that one of the most nightmarish contributions of the Christian tradition to Western Civilization (and I can never say that without remembering what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.”) is the logic of being “put to the question” by the Inquisition. Your guilt has already been decided, and merely professing your guilt to stop the torture isn’t enough. You need to convince your inquisitors that your confession is genuine, not merely done to escape the pain of torture. Because if it is, it is probably false. What kinds of twisted knots of self-deception must one tie? Your auto-da-fé is a given. Your reward for convincing your inquisitors that your confession is genuine, confessio, contritio, et satisfactio, is the mercy of a garrote before the flames.
One of my favorite students, now headed to Naropa for grad school, asked me quite straightforwardly, on the ferry from Star Island, NH after the swan song of the second conference I co-organized for the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science in the summer of 2016, on “How Can We Know,” whether I believed in life after death. “I believe in life after death. Just not my own.” Sure, other lives continue after I am dead, including people that I care deeply about and to whose satisfying and meaningful lives after my death, I surely hope to contribute before it. Indeed, I think the meaning of any of our lives is not in what we have done for ourselves, which dies with us, but what we have done for others and for the world. But that is not because we retain any personal consciousness of it.
Run over my head with a street grader, and I will neither see, hear, smell, taste, or touch anything. The sensory apparatus will be destroyed and there will be nothing to detect light, or sound, or anything else. Nor will I have any feelings about it, as the bodily sensations and emotions that are constituted by my body and nervous system will no longer be so constituted. Nor will I be aware of anything, remember anything, or have any conscious thoughts at all. If “I think, therefore I am,” and my being a conscious, sentient being simply means, as one philosopher of mind once put it, “being something for which there is something it is like to be it,” it really doesn’t matter how desperately we try to imagine what it might be like to be dead if it is like nothing at all, and not experienced as an absence or as missing all those things that are, but that there is not anything that it is like to be it. Any of those functions and capacities that we associate with conscious life, be they sensations, feelings, memories, thoughts, or even simple awareness, can be lost, piecemeal, one at a time, or accumulatively, while we are still alive. Indeed, were we to somehow, with some more perfect body, regain them at death, wouldn’t that obviate the meanings we (or others, in the case of losses of memory or consciousness) made of our lives, however “differently abled” we might have been?
My father died of a sudden heart attack at age 67, but his identical twin brother lived well into his 80’s, increasingly robbed of his abilities to think, remember, and finally to do more than lie curled in a fetal position in his bed. Did his soul somehow only gradually leave his body over 10, 15, or 20 years? My mother had a stroke in her mid-70s that left her without most of her left cerebral hemisphere. She did remain alive and differently abled for a record 17 years in the care facility where she came to reside and lived to 92. But she continued to have some right-side hemineglect, profound aphasia, and severe difficulties with initiation (she was often, sometimes delightfully responsive, but remained largely unable to begin anything on her own, direct her own behavior, or form independent intentions). Without stimulation, or some habit to rely upon, she would simply stop doing anything, or sustaining any interaction. Was the “real Gloria” somehow still there, ready to depart when her body ceased to function, or did much of her mind largely desert her long before, mourned piecemeal by those who knew and loved her, however delighted she might have been with our presence, even if unremembered? A beloved friend and colleague recently sent me the image of an old man holding what looked like a recalcitrant wife’s hand:
He's 85 and keeps holding his wife's hand wherever they go. Every time I asked him why his wife was distracted like she wasn't following him he said: “She has Alzheimer’s.” I asked him if his wife would be worried if he let go of her hand. He said “she can't remember who I am. She hasn't recognized me in years.” Surprised I said: “And yet you still take her hand every day!” He replied: “She doesn't know who I am, but I know who she is. She is the love of my life.”
Yes, and that woman still lives in the mind and heart of her husband. When my elder son went through a real crisis, as 8-year-old boys sometimes do, of realizing that I would someday be dead, and he would have to live on without me. So, I told him about my father’s death, and of continuing to hear his voice, and even continuing to learn things I didn’t understand at the time he said them but learned to make sense of them in my own life and experience. No ghost, assuredly, but memory. I told him that my father lived on in me and in the hearts and minds of all those to whom he gave so much of himself. I said I sometimes felt my dad seeing the world through my eyes, and through the addition of my life and experience, that he did so much to shape. “I hope one day I will be looking through your eyes, and you will feel my pride in you even after I am gone, and that I will still have things to teach you.” When he looked back at me, I could even see my father’s eyes looking back at me. My father got to see me at my doctoral hooding, and see me get tenure, and become a father before he died. I even have a picture of him, with a good German beer at his side, holding his grandson on his chest, with a look of sheer bliss on his face. He was gone long before I went to a conference in Germany and raised a glass to his memory in a Munich Bierstubbe. And I remember feeling his stride in mine, and his pride, as I became the president of my primary identity group, the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, as I had continued in the work he shared with me so often when he was alive, the dialogue between science and religion. I felt his pride in me, just as I saw the pride beaming from my daughter’s face, having arrived at the same conference after a summer seminar at the observatory on Nantucket, for the career as an astronomer she would soon be pursuing, ad astra per aspera. If you were to hit a baseball in your back yard and die of a sudden aneurism before the ball broke you neighbor’s window, who broke the window? There are many things we do whose effects continue to reverberate in the world and in other people, though we are no longer conscious of them. So, who we are, and what we have done does not require a continuation of our personal, embodied consciousness? But then how many things we do even while we are alive have consequences, and real effects in the world, of which we are unaware. Like the grocery clerk who did not kill herself one night because someone who she checked out conversed with her, and treated her like a person, rather than an extension of the machinery. I avoid self-checkout because I like to have a real person to talk to.
For many people belief in a personal, “pie in the sky when you die,” drives much of the rest of their religious belief and practice. But if our mental lives and even our moral feelings are embodied in and dependent upon having an intact nervous system, does it make sense to expect that a soul or spirit, historically defined in terms of these same characteristics, could be capable of existing beyond biological death? No one since the demise of vitalistic biology, or perhaps, since Platonic dualism gave way to Aristotelian abstraction, believes that one’s life functions – one’s breathing, one’s heartbeat, one’s cortical activities – do anything but simply cease at death. They do not leave and go elsewhere, no more than the “bounce” of a ball does after deflation. Why the persistence of a belief that one doesn’t die but “passes away,” as if one has gone somewhere else, “went to be with his Lord,” “entered into the Kingdom of Heaven,” or “entered into the Presence of God.” The obituaries do sometimes say “entered into eternal rest,” Requiescat in Pacem, but less than one in ten simply “died,” or “died of natural causes.” A rare obituary simply describes a life, and who still “survives.” We are, after all, diachronic beings, our lives not just a synchronic moment in time, a flicker of light that goes out, but we have biographies, family histories, those who we begat or who begat us, the friends and loved ones that loved us back, and remember us, until their consciousness too “slips away.”
Bodily mortality means there is no longer a nervous system to do the experiencing. Does that make that embodied consciousness, and its lifetime of experience any less of a gift? If somebody gives you a bottle of wine as a gift, and you drink it, isn’t that the best part of the gift, even though it is consumed. Consummatum est. People rarely have a difficulty imagining a disembodied, dreamlike existence. But it gets harder when they have to imagine the absence of any sensory experience or sensory memory (lacking the requisite surface structures and central processing), which are losses one can have to varying degrees while still alive. What about emotional life, lacking an intact limbic system, Papez circuit, or frontal cortex, which can be disordered when such structures are affected by trauma, abuse, or even the damages of a diseased brain. What would it be like to have no memory or knowledge at all, with a body and a brain long since returned to dust? Wouldn’t the experience of a disembodied life be very much like nothing at all, with nothing to do the experiencing? Of course, this does not entail that such an existence does not obtain, but it substantially reduces the motivation for believing in it.
One cannot have experience without embodiment, and as the last decade or so of my scholarly career amply illustrated, even our thinking is embodied (you can have a look at one of the longest and best documented articles of my career, “From Embodied to Extended Cognition” in the September 2013 issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, which includes reflections on its theological significance). a generation of discussions about the Hebrew nefesh make clear, embodiment is even included in biblical understandings of the soul. Nevertheless, as John Updike pointed out in his wonderful little memoir Self-Consciousness, “If we picture the afterlife at all it is, heretically, as the escape of something unpalpable – the essential “I” –from this corruptible flesh, occurring at the moment of death and not at ‘the last trump’ as Paul stated” (p. 215). Unfortunately, it may be precisely the experiencing subject that is most dependent on John Fowles’ “tender pragmatisms of flesh.” In denying our mortal bodies do we not deny the very selves we hope to save? Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae provides the diagnosis:
" It is not flawed choice, flawed action, or even death itself which is the ultimate human dilemma. The gravest challenge to our hopes and dreams is the biological business as usual that is going on within us and without us at every hour of every day. Consciousness is a pitiful hostage of its flesh-envelope whose surges, circuits, and secret murmurings it cannot stay or speed."
Or, as I would assert, that consciousness is not so much a hostage of those fleshly surges, circuits, and secret murmurings as it is constituted by and composed of them, which it would not exist without.
Is it not possible that our hopes and dreams might loom as greater goods than even our continuation? If there is nothing worth dying for, what is worth living for? Might the lesson not be that life is meaningful only to the extent that it is lived beyond the self? Even a personal immortality for which it seems so reasonable to quest might represent its own kind of hell, George Bernard Shaw’s “unimaginable horror.” “What man is capable of the insane self-conceit of believing that an eternity of himself would be tolerable even to himself” (from the preface of Misalliance). More prosaically, from Susan Ertz: “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
Witness the imaginal horror of vampires and zombies, whose immortality represents something darker than an eternal afternoon at the beach. Is the suffering here merely the ennui of dramatic characters in a television program that has gone on too long and exhausted the believability of coherent lives? No, in some sense these are characters that desperately want to die. But they are also characters who have “sold their souls” for immortality. Perhaps personal immortality is like not having a soul. To the extent to which our spiritual lives are about living beyond ourselves, giving ourselves to something larger than we are, personal immortality, in saving the self, could lose the spirit.
There is also something, well, if not immoral, at least selfish, in choices of getting or keeping something, relative to giving or sacrificing, something that is personal, even the whole person. Isn’t the Sunday school teaching about “eternal rewards” likely to produce moral choices justified not by a greater good but in terms of egocentric rewards and punishments? Doesn’t this contradict just about any religious ethic in the world? If someone throws a hand grenade into the trench with my comrades, which is the more moral justification for throwing myself on that grenade? A dozen virgins as heavenly reward or because I love the comrades who would otherwise be killed? One is pressed to ask of normal, mature, well-intentioned adults, which is more moral: Being good or avoiding evil or holding to a particular set of beliefs in order to obtain some heavenly (or avoid some hellish) afterlife or acting morally simply because it is the right thing to do, even at substantial personal cost? As a wise colleague once said: “If it hurts, you are probably doing the right thing.” Whether or not one believes that some theological reflection may be necessary to understand the ultimate purposes of human existence, it does not look like the status of one’s personal afterlife should be a central concern.
What about the very events celebrated by Christians at Easter? God’s love for humanity requires a bodily form, his “only begotten son.” As Thomas Mann put it in Magic Mountain, “Love cannot be disembodied, even in its most sanctified forms, nor is it without sanctity even at its most fleshly.” In the case of love, the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence. What of the agonizing sacrifice of Christ’s bodily death by crucifixion? Of God incarnate. This is a particularly horrific execution. Nailed to a cross, your legs often broken, you are weakened by hours of unbearable pain, until you finally cannot muster the strength to continue to raise yourself enough to breathe, and you die by asphyxiation. A spear inserted under the ribs to directly penetrate the heart makes it certain. Christ is kindly placed in a donated tomb, a huge stone rolled in front of its opening. The next day the stone is found rolled away, and the body gone. Was the tomb ever really closed? One colleague, when asked about the empty tomb by some Sunday school youth, just said “dogs.” The Episcopal Bishop, John Shelby Spong, wrote a whole book Resurrection: Myth or Reality? about all the biblical confusions and mismatches with historical records and the timing of Hebrew traditions and comes out rather strongly for the former. The language that Paul uses in the Epistles that describe his experience of Christ, is the same as what he uses to describe the experience of the Apostles who were physically present. It is only the Fourth Gospel that includes the story of doubting Thomas, who places his hands on the bodily wounds of Christ, a story that is perhaps a counter to Gnostic Gospels where the Resurrection is not a literal bodily one, even if the act of love, the sacrifice, must be. What kind of a sacrifice is it if life is returned? Doesn’t the ultimate sacrifice really mean the sacrifice of a whole self, of giving oneself away, without hope of return, for the benefit of others, for the benefit of purposes larger than oneself? What better “model for the Godly life?” In the depths of his suffering only a fully human Christ can cry out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Any biological organism that is going to survive requires some distinction between self and non-self, and therefore some degree of built-in “selfishness.” The psychological boundary, the self-awareness of higher mammals, may be more fluid, as when we do not recognize a benumbed foot as our own or feel psychologically violated when possessions are burgled in our absence. What concerns me is not the evolution, development, malleability, social interdependence, or even pathology of these boundaries. It is their sacralization in religious discourse and in experience. Rituals of purification and ideas of pollution, defilement, and corruption all have to do with the sacralization of these boundaries. Think of the morning ablution rituals of most Westerners, the only “graven image” being one’s reflection in the bathroom mirror (which, while it is the “mirror image” of what others see, most of us think we really look like). These cleansing rituals go well beyond personal hygiene, so dehydrating that almost every cleansing solution has its counterpart “moisturizer.” I believe that the current circumstances, at least in many Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (W.E.I.R.D.) cultures, involve a sacralization of individuality itself and a shrinking of communal notions of spirituality to focus on the self. Such a focus denudes and erodes both our sense of our social interdependence, and the very sense of having integral selves with meanings and purposes in larger systems. It has also led to a precipitous increase in the proportion of the population who live alone, exceeding 50% in many urban areas, and an epidemic of loneliness which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19.
I am suggesting that the egocentricity, even narcissism, of a sacralized self, of the wish for the immortal preservation of our personal identities, may serve to help alienate each other from the real life of community in which we might otherwise find greater meaning. Do not redemptive acts always produce greater communion. If we ask, “salvation for what?” there must be some purpose larger than merely the survival of the individual beyond death. An immortal, immaterial, disembodied soul is quite foreign to a biblical view of human life. A religious system whose central components are creation, incarnation, and bodily resurrection does not seem to favor a dualistic theology. Moreover, even a focus on individual beings is a distortion of the biblical perspective and perhaps of religious sentiments more generally. A biblical view of human nature is more consistent with seeing ourselves as relational, including our membership in a people that can be bound in covenant. The alternative alienates us not only from nature and from our mortal bodies, but from the communal world in which individual mortal lives may find their only meaning. Our spiritual lives may well be about the repair of our social covenant.
This view is not unique to nor did it originate with me, but I did thoroughly unpack it in “Recoupling Individuality: Relational Selves and Redemptive Relationships,” in a Program of the Metanexus Institute on Subject, Self and Soul: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Personhood in Madrid in 2008, developed further in a conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science on The Mythic Reality of the Autonomous Individual in Chautauqua, New York in 2009, and published as “Externalism, Relational Selves, and Redemptive Relationships” in the March 2011 Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.
The real promise of my faith is not that I will live forever, which given my flaws and limitations I might well abjure, but that my life will have meant something when the sands of time run out. It may be an inescapable tenet of faith that we cope with death better by believing that there is something more. But how is such a belief to help me live an individual, mortal life it is a false belief that there is more of me, a lie that hardly seems noble, rather than believing that the only meaning of my life beyond my death is how I have lived for purposes larger than my own. The good news is not that death doesn’t really happen, that we do not reach some terminus as bodily, individual, sapient centers of self-awareness, but that it has lost its sting, that we need not fear it because our lives will have meant something. It is this meaning, whatever long range importance lives will have had, however humble, to our communities and to the world, that transcends death. But like a story, without the boundary that is its end, its finis, an individual life cannot be a part of some larger epic. That is our kenosis, our pouring ourselves into a larger vessel. If the meaning of something is constituted by its role in some larger whole, then without that boundary it can have no meaning. Meaning may require a telos, a purpose, and end, but it also requires a finis. If the choice is meaningless existence or meaningful death, my faith teaches the latter. Consummatum est.
This blogpost has been germinating over most of the world-wide pandemic which we as lucky and privileged Americans are finally getting vaccinated. But we won’t really be past it until the rest of the world is, given that the COVID-19 virus continues to evolve variants on the bodies of its hosts, variants which are likely to become increasingly dangerous. We are likely to have variants of the virus for some time, and learn to live with regular booster “updates” for years to come, but as the tragic reality of an old friend’s sister-in-law consumed by a housefire, leaving her children homeless and stripped of all their belongings, even a fuller recovery from the pandemic will not eliminate then myriad other sources of tragedy and death, or the latter’s inevitability. So it was after the excitement of so many of my colleagues and neighbors with the Easter message, that we “not perish but have eternal life,” as my memorized passage had it, that I once again began to raise questions, and needed to make things clearer at least to myself. Others can take what solace they want or need from their religious beliefs, but I cannot find it. Martin Hagglund’s most recent book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom provides a philosophical defense of a secular faith in our life bounded on earth. Like Hagglund, and even Pliny writing not long after the beginning of our Common Era, I do believe in a requiescat in pacem of our individual consciousness, the same freedom from care we each had when we were still a glint in our parents’ eyes, parents who often love their children long before they are born, and long before they know anything about their particularities, or even their genetics, given all the alternatives generated by difficulties with fertility. I even gifted a copy of this book to my father-in-law, a nonbeliever also currently suffering from some life-threatening medical difficulties.
Hagglund presents a thoroughgoing philosophical argument that death is a blessing, that the very idea of eternity is meaningless, incoherent, even terrifying, and that we should trust our longing to live, and live still more upon this mortal coil, with no need for a faith in some transcendent rescue from the joy and pain which our lives must, of needs, contain. Richard Rorty once said that “there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves,” even if, as Object Relations theory teaches us, much of what gets put there is from others. Like James Baldwin, who believed that a human being could only be saved by another human being, Rorty wrote in his 1989 book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that liberal culture ultimately culminates in the belief that there is nothing that justifies the existence of a contingent, finite, mortal being than other contingent, finite, mortal beings. “Living on” need not mean living forever. Hagglund’s aim is not to disprove the existence of eternity, which might mean many things quite other than a continuation of individual consciousness beyond death, but that it is incoherent, undesirable, and obviates both meaning and value. I always thought that the very existence of consciousness is to prioritize and value what we only need to prioritize and value because we have limited time, because we die. An eternity based on an absence of change will make our dreams come true. “it would obliterate who we are. To be invulnerable to grief is not to be consummated.; it is to be deprived of the capacity to care. And to rest in peace is not to be fulfilled: It is to be dead.” “…if you can lose nothing in eternity, it is because there is literally nothing left to lose.”
Ultimately, Hagglund uses his philosophical exploration to justify a different understanding of value than the capitalist emphasis on economic life, and labor, and argues that while there is certainly plenty of socially necessary labor, that the realm of freedom is not to be valued by its economic value, but by the amount of “socially available free time.” If we cherish this life, we must treat it as an end in itself. I remember a long argument in a college philosophy class where a student was continuing to insist that his friendships were rooted in their instrumental value. In frustration, the student finally said “I think we are having a communication breakdown.” The professor said, “no, we are having an argument, and I am trying to help you to understand: If you do not treat your friendships as ends in themselves, you really do not have any friends.” Hagglund says, “The real meaning of value is not how much work we have done or have to do (quantity of labor time) but how much disposable time we have to pursue and explore what matters to us (quality of free time). If all we have is our finite time, our lives, then we must measure its value in units of freedom. When our time is taken from us, valuable substance of our own lives is taken from us. I remember my ex-wife once said to me, “I don’t want to trade my time for money.” Despite her expertise at monetizing almost anything, and knowing a good deal when she saw one, this was a sentiment I shared. I do think she was perhaps naïve in the degree to which she could acknowledge the “realm of necessity,” which does involve socially necessary labor. Whatever modicum of financial independence I have, and of which, even post-nuptually, she is entitled to a fair share, was, after all, accumulated in retirement investments to which I have contributed since I became a professor with a “newly minted” doctoral degree at age 26, and nigh on to 40 years of 50-60-hour workweeks.
We also shared a “secular faith” in the value of finite time. However sadly for me (or even for both of us) this meant, as the Pandemic raised the salience of mortality, particularly mine, and our shared awareness that I could not give her the future she had come to want, we also shared the understanding that however amicable, and even full of love our relationship, and our shared parenting of a young son was, our separation was both inevitable and understandable, regardless of our reciprocal needs to grieve, and to heal from the loss of something for which its finite time rendered even more valuable to each of our lives.
Hagglund argues that traditional religion misconstrues the value of human locating it in an eternal realm outside the boundary of our mortality. Indeed, he wants to assert that some of the major thinkers about philosophy and religion, from Augustine to Martin Luther King Jr., quite explicitly recognize the conflict between an otherworldly faith and a fidelity to the world, both in what we value and in what we seek to bring into being, which might betray both their religious sentiments and their own religious teachings.
Augustine is clear that a friendship of his was “sweet to me beyond all the sweetnesses of life.” Despite the attachment to eternity entailed by his faith, he felt an intense attachment, and a vulnerability to the “rhythms of time.” In her lifelong love of Peter Abelard, Heloise would regularly berate Abelard, and did what she could to disabuse him of the notion that she could or should use her love for him as a pathway to God. As far as she was concerned, her love for him, despite being well-embodied, even having physical feelings for him 16 years after he was emasculated by her uncle and his henchmen. It was Heloise that believed that their intimacy was the combination of amor and caritas that she understood as dilectio, but that we have come to associate with a healthy long-term intimacy, and the particularity of her relationship with Abelard was not only not evil in lacking any sinful intent, but that God would not deny her for it, despite her showing no contrition.
For a reflection that began the year Easter and MLK’s assassination coincided, it is interesting to reflect upon the speech he gave in Memphis the night before he was killed:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, as a people will get to the promised land.
Hagglund asserts that this neither conveys "a vision of eternal life” nor “a vision of a new Jerusalem,” but rather “vision of what we the people can achieve, a vision of the new Memphis.” But then I never thought that Paul’s epistolary line about “death had lost its sting” meant it didn’t really happen, or that a belief that the “Kingdom of God is at hand” meant anything about the End Times but was about this life being heaven or hell depending on what we do with it. But then, it has been argued that Paul himself may have been Gnostic, the “doubting Thomas” story unique to the Fourth Gospel being included to support the proto-orthodox over dozens of gnostic gospels including the gospel of Thomas. When asked about Nietzsche’s “myth of eternal return,” that all you ever get in eternity is to relive the life you led over and over. Perfect justice, and I would not be unhappy.
One of Hagglund’s reviewers suggests that he may give rather short shrift to the inspiration of any of a number of “social justice” Christian activists, that the lines coming near the end of King’s Memphis speech make this clear: “So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” After all, the Christian doctrine of the incarnation suggests that even the eternal cannot remain unscathed. The image of Christ in agony on the cross suggests that God, too, can be finite. “The divine is not beyond time but actually descends into time and suffers all the passions of humanity,” a “paradoxical idea” that has turned many Christians, “quite often, not away from the world but toward it, demanding that they treat each individual as a miraculous apparition – an image of God.” The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, as well as his Muslim contemporary Ibn Sina, not just metaphysician but also physicians of the body, did not think that human beings could transcend the bounds of finitude to unite with the eternal. They might well have agreed with Thomas Mann’s “Love cannot be disembodied, even in its most sanctified forms, nor is it without sanctity even at its most fleshly.” Spiritual reformers do often leverage “eternal values for the sake of mortal life.” Hoc est corpus meum.
I suppose one of the inheritances of being a preacher’s kid is that I might still love the Christian myth, even after I have long ceased being a Christian practitioner. But it is not the only myth I love, and I might add, perhaps shouldn’t be even for Christians living in an interconnected global community, for whom it is increasingly problematic to assert “this is the one true faith,” and those of other religions all false.
Dan P. McAdams, one of my favorite theorists of narrative identity, arguably including Freud, Jung, and Adler, regularly uses characters from classical mythology in a taxonomy of Imagoes, which I have extended in my own speaking and publication on neuromythology, to include not just the subjects but their dramatic transactions as well. But one of my favorite themes in these myths is when a character chooses to abjure immortality turns away from the offer to pursue a finite but very meaningful goal. Ulysses does so when he turns down the offer of immortality and the eternal love of the beautiful divine nymph Calypso, and “when the time came he sat on the rocky shore and broke his own heart groaning, with eyes wet scanning the bare horizon of the wine dark sea, in the hope of returning to Ithaca and his aging wife Penelope. Even the wedding vows of the happiest and most committed of couples are only “until death do us part,” but turning down immortality is often in favor of mortal love. One may argue that there is a kind of eternity that may inhere to a profound love, but it is not in the undying consciousness of individuals.
In his wonderful and unfortunately out of print book The Cry for Myth (copies of which I managed to track down to use in my honors seminar on Neuromythology which I taught for four years), Rollo May talks about the “charm of mortality,” and recounts the story of Zeus’s love for the wife of Amphytrian, a young Greek general. Zeus is so obsessed with her that he can’t stop even looking at her shadow through her window. Hermes suggests that Zeus arrange some harmless maneuver of war to call the general away, Zeus takes Amphytrian’s form and has at his wife. But after the affair he is troubled by a conversation he had with her and talks it out with his friend: “Hermes, she will say, ‘when I was young, or when I am old, or when I die.’ This stabs me, Hermes. We miss something.”
“We miss the poignancy of the transient – the sweet sadness of grasping for something we cannot hold.” Our human compassion may be rooted in the shared finitude of the three score and ten or twenty we share, and then it’s fare thee well. Fear of death is fear of not living out one’s allotted time. As Rollo May puts it, “There are assets to being mortal – that we experience our loneliness.” Another asset of mortality? We are able to love passionately because we die. Could we really do so if their weren’t the limits of finitude that require us to prioritize, to mark what is important because there isn’t time for everything? Aware that we are mortal, we are challenged to us these few years “in a way that reaches deepest into our hearts and the hearts of those we love. When I once made a list of the best and worst events of my life, the most important, and the most poignant weren’t my accomplishments, my achievements, or even my worst failures. They were the times I fell in love, the birth of children, the return of a companion, and the aching losses of betrayals, broken relationships, and the departures and deaths of those I loved. These are really what my life has been about. “In the moments when eternity break into time, there we find myth.” The house band in my head, the Stone Coyotes, do “Saw You At The Hop” Saw You At The Hop (live) - YouTube which captures how eternity breaks into time.
Let me see now - what was that year? 1956 comes back clear I said to my friends, "There's a party goin' on Let's get there late and not stay too long" I went back home to put on my dress I arrived later in the one that looked the best I was tappin' my feet to a Muddy Waters song When you walked in the door with a white shirt on I saw you at the hop Saw you at the party I saw you at the hop Saw you at the party And I said to my friends as you walked by "Did you see that boy? I think I'm gonna die" My friends said to me, " He's lookin' your way What are you gonna do? What are you gonna say?" But time went by without a word to me I said to my friends, "Come on, let's go - Some things aren't meant to be" So we went out just drivin' around Found ourselves on La Cienega northbound And who do you think should pull up alongside But that sweet boy sayin', "I've been lookin' for you everywhere - do you want to take a ride?
If I live to be a hundred, I won’t forget that night,
if I live to be a thousand, that sweet, sweet sight.
I saw you at the hop.
Such moments are beyond time, but almost every time I am in LA, I cannot help but take that drive, up La Cienega, northbound. “I saw you at the hop.”