We say “God is Love” . . .
I believe that the man Jesus, a devout Jew, had an extraordinarily clear perception of “God” as loving-Father. His absolute trust in “God” sustained a serenity of mind that, even as he died before their eyes, convinced his followers that in his case, death was overcome. Death had “no dominion over him,” which in the vocabulary of his time meant he would rise again. But whether he rose, or will rise, is the same thing. And whether he will rise as we imagine it or in another manner is also irrelevant; for to rise this way or that is the same thing. Perhaps, as Teilhard de Chardin imagines, following what was suggested by Paul, it is the whole cosmos that will reach an Omega Point and we with it. But It really doesn’t matter. In all these cases our “stuff” perdures, existence goes on, our relationship to “God,” our source and sustainer, continues.
Are we denying the literal reality of the resurrection? Are we being fooled here by some semantic sleight-of-hand? Is the impermanence, the obliteration we so dread eliminated? Let’s follow this question out to the end.
What Jesus accomplished by living its consequences in his own flesh, was to “prove” that “God” can be trusted even through death. But it was not a rationalist “proof.” It was a “street level” proof that we all understand. “You think I’m kidding”? we ask when the argument gets hot, and we answer “watch, I’ll prove it to you.” We mean we are willing live with what we claim — to walk the walk. All Jesus did was to die, nothing more. That was his “proof.”
The belief that he rose as the “first fruits” of an imminent apocalype and bodily resurrection collapsed within a few generations of the birth of Christianity for there was no evidence that anyone else ever rose, even those of his eye witness followers who had persuaded others to commit themselves to that vision. This entailed a major shift in Christian hopes from the resurrection of real flesh and blood people to an inferred afterlife for shadowy immortal souls threatened with (a similarly inferred) eternal punishment. It amounted to a stunning sea-change in the Christian dream. The resurrection lost its concrete meaning for people and was used thereafter only as an abstract legal-conceptual support for the divinization of Jesus and the Empire legitimated by it. At the end of that process all that remained human of Jesus and available to suffering flesh and blood humans was his death. It was his personal testimony to the “truth.” We “got” his message. His death was his poetry … and his “proof.”
What about the rest of us? Will we rise, as the Church claims, at the “end of time”? Some like Teilhard suggest that the totality of this turbulent universe of matter, including us, will evolve itself into something so god-like and eternal that it eludes our capacity to imagine. Perhaps this is the resurrection “God” has “planned” for us. But frankly, it’s all conjecture, guesswork. No amount of theological ratiocination can convince us that we know anything at all about what death means or what may await us or our universe in the future. We have only one choice; to trust or not to trust the source of our existence. But, … do we really have a choice? Our natural inclination — springing from our existence itself — is to trust. But, can we really choose not to trust, when the apparatus we must use to despair is this magnificent and improbable humanity?
But what if the reality is entirely different from all expectations? Is it possible … (can we accept this? )… that at death we are dissolved back into the elements from which we were formed, to be reused over and over until the whole meets its ultimate destiny … which may not be a Teilhardian Parousia, a Second Coming to our taste and preference, but perhaps another cycle — another implosion to singularity and another big bang — a new universe. What if our little heads and our little hearts are not equal to the unfathomable magnanimity of a “Father” who, more like a “Mother,” wishes to share, and share, and share Herself (and us as part of Herself) endlessly, … we might even add, purposelessly … for the sheer joy of it … to share being-here with ever new things and new “people” with a generosity and self-donation beyond our capacity to imagine … or endure? What if “She” never rests? What if “She” never stops reusing us to give Her gifts to others? What if “God,” and we as part of “God,” are pure kenosis, bottomless eternal self-emptying? Are we still willing to “be like ‘God’”? Do we want to go to that heaven? Are we really as convinced that “God is Love” if it would mean that much love? Are we willing to share what we are endlessly with others, as “God” does, and find ecstatic joy in it, as “God” does? Could we forgive our “God” a generosity we cannot bear? Do we love our existential source and the universe it has made, as it is — or only as we want it to be?
“The beginnings of Islamic Mysticism is ascribed to Rabi’ah al-’Adawiyah (d.801), a woman from Basra who first formulated the Sufi ideal of a love of “God” that was disinterested, without hope of paradise and without fear of hell.” Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1979, “Islamic Mysticism,” p.943