As I was driving around our fair city, I was listening to my favorite radio station: WUNC, our public radio affiliate. NPR is currently featuring a series of pieces called, “This I believe.” It is sort of a post-modern reprise of Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s feature by the same name. Each radio essay expresses some facet of that peculiar constellation of beliefs by which we navigate our way through this life.
I was struck by an essay I hear today. In it, the author attempted to communicate to her young daughter what happens to us after death. The precipitating event in this instance was the death of their pet cat. The mother’s explanation startled me.
In some ways, her view was one of supreme Romanticism. She explains, “After a weighty pause I tell my daughter that Martin (the cat) is out in the field. I tell her that when animals, including people, die, they are usually put into the ground and that their bodies become the grasses, flowers and trees. I pass my hand over Maia’s blonde curls, gently touch a rosy cheek and check her reaction. She appears untroubled. She seems thrilled by the thought of one day becoming a flower.”
Of course, in some highly literal ways she is right. Our corporeal bodies will decompose and form the nourishment to fuel the growth of other organisms. What is interesting is the stark absence of any reference to something beyond the body. In one sentance we move from our bodies becoming trees to the child’s conclusion that she will one day become a flower. Notice that this was never actually stated, but the implication is that the very essence of our personhood is somehow inseparable from our corporeal body. Or, in the alternative, it might be said that our soul might find ways to attach itself to things other than our flesh (i.e., we become flowers).
The author makes this point when she concludes, “I am not the lonely human, plunked down on earth to aimlessly wander. I am a part of that earth and not going anywhere — just like the spider up in the corner, the dust on the sill and the cat I buried in the backyard. I watch Maia mull things over while she munches her Cheerios. I feel an unfamiliar calm. I feel connected. I am humbled and, what’s more, happy. Life, death: both are all around me, within my every breath.”
What an incredibly pagan and Romantic view of our life after death. One might be tempted to ask: what death? For in death it seems we slip from these bodies of perishable flesh into the ethereal beauty of a flower straining toward the sun and living of proximity to many other flowers all forming an orchestra of post-human ecstasy. Untrapped. Free.
That this is not the Christian understanding of the nature of the soul, the body, or the relation of one to the other goes without saying. However, if this essay is read as indicative of the broader culture we do well to realize the direction in which our thoughts are shifting.
I believe that the long alienation of mankind from the earth, is drawing many people to a pre-Christian spirituality that emphasises our connection with the natural order. This is, of course, the result of decades of wrong-thinking by Christians who have bought into the thought patterns and practices of the industrial revolution. What is needed is a strong pre-evangelism like that found in the works of C.S. Lewis who is admirably able to capture the ways in which we homo sapiens(ironic name, don’t you think?) are deeply connected with the cosmos in that we have been named guardians and stewards of it, keeping it trust for its Creator.
Until we are able to embrace our mandate to care for the earth, and are able to speak in ways that connect to this type of imaginative view, I fear that we will be placing un-necessary barriers before the hearers of the Gospel.