"The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution: and we are part of it. The static, the enemy of change, is the enemy of life." (John Wyndham, The Chrysalids)
"Why are you looking for the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5)Today in church, as it was Easter morning, we read the "empty tomb" scene from Luke. Two women come to Jesus' tomb with spices, ready to embalm his body, only to find the body gone. "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?" an angel asks them in seeming bewilderment. "He isn't here! He's risen!"
The phrase stuck with me all morning, and I found myself mulling over it as I walked home from church through the cool, crisp air of early spring. Looking for the living among the dead. One of my favorite quotes came to mind, from John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, which I've shared above. The essence of life is change and evolution. That which is static, inert and unchanging, is the enemy of life.
How do we -- religious and non-religious people alike -- look for life, for transcendence and meaning, among the inert and unchanging -- the "dead"?
Very often, religious believers look for "the living" among dead words. Words and phrases that we have repeated so many times that they have lost all evocative power, unable to move us. Words that we have nailed down and entombed in such rigid definitions that they have expired, unable to breathe. Words that have been trapped and preserved in ritual prayer or commentary like fossilized insects preserved in amber. (This was brought home to me in a discussion with a fellow Christian who was so convinced that what her church meant by "eternal life" was what Jesus meant, that she could not conceive of this phrase meaning anything else.)
And then there is looking for "the living" in dead tradition. The ritual of "going to church" or "saying daily prayers" or "wearing the right clothing". Traditions that are so old that, though they once may have had power and meaning, they have become simply another habit. Or worse, traditions that have become a burden, followed blindly because we believe that here -- in the rigid coffin of ceremony -- is where God, the living, is to be found.
Very often religious people look for life in dead categories. We try to pigeonhole everything and everyone into "good" and "bad", "sacred" and "profane." There are "us" -- the ones who believe the "truth" and are "saved" -- and then there is everyone else. Somehow we -- believers of all religions -- blindly assume that if God is active here and now, he/she/it cannot be active in other times, other places, other cultures, other ways of seeing the world. That the creator and source of all life, creativity, and novelty can only be found in our artificial, limited categories!
How ridiculous, looking for the living among the dead.
And it is not confined to religious belief, for there are fundamentalists in atheism and skepticism as well as in religion. There are those who look for "the living" in dead facts. Who argue, with unswerving certainty that their worldview is fully correct and complete, that there is nothing beyond the physical world. No afterlife. No God. No supernatural beings or experiences. That all love, all creativity, all wonder, all transcendence, all are entombed within the rigid coffin of objective fact.
And even the purely secular often look for the living "among the dead". The assumption that collecting possessions -- the right car, a larger house, "the right size" of bank account -- will guarantee fulfillment and meaning in life. Or the inability to let memories go, both nostalgia for fondly-remembered times and the hurts and grudges that we hold against others. Our longing for the people and places we know and love to remain exactly the same, and our anger when they have the sheer audacity to change.
As I walked home from church this afternoon, I saw life -- and, to me, God -- in so many things. In the families who walked by me pushing babies in strollers and with young children running eagerly by their side. In the two dogs that ran and played in the park, tussling happily with one another in the last melting snows of winter. In the stirrings of spring and the faintest scent of new growth borne to me upon the breeze.
I see it in the larger world as well. How people from all religions and backgrounds are standing up, in increasing numbers, to clearly say that bigotry and homophobia are not acceptable. In the new leader of the Catholic church kneeling, this Easter, to wash the feet of a female Muslim prisoner -- gleefully breaking three taboos to publicly declare that God's love is everywhere and for all people. How -- despite North America's reluctance -- governments all around the world are beginning to understand the consequences that continued fossil fuel dependence will have for our Earth and for our own species, and are reaching out to the new technologies of wind, solar and other renewables to revolutionize the way we live.
I use examples of change, because as Wyndham says, life is change. Fossilized bones do not change -- any more than rocks, rigid plastic, or fallen meteorites do -- but they are incapable of living or giving birth to life. To try to keep anything, including our perception of God or the divine, exactly the same is to kill it. Living things need to grow, reproduce, metabolize, age, and eventually die -- all forms of change.
In the Christian tradition of the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as fiercely, wildly, unpredictably alive. He cannot be pinned down into conventional categories or dismissed as just "more of the same". He takes the traditions of his society and challenges them, stretches some, overturns others, bringing the purpose behind them back to life. Quoting from the familiar sacred writings, he puts a new spin on the standard interpretations. The people that listen to him are astounded, their mouths falling open. "Where's he getting this stuff from?" they ask one another. Even the rigidity and inertia of physical law (the tendency for water to stay water or dead people to stay dead) cannot restrain his creative power.
This is the sort of life that cannot be found among "the dead". The sort of life that cannot be confined to a single religious tradition or set of words or ceremony or group of believers. Life that cannot be controlled or manipulated or frozen or halted. Transcendent life that is everywhere, and in all things and all people, in all times and places, in all creativity and beauty and inspiration and love, whether conventionally "religious" or not.
Thoughts? What does "looking for the living among the dead" mean to you?