Death’s Dominion?

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I must confess I’m no expert on the Christian Science perspective on death. I may be way off base here. But there are murmurs to the effect that for Mary Baker Eddy, death shall have no dominion.

I suspect the thought is far from Dylan Thomas’s steely defiance:

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Thomas gives death enormous power, and voices his rebellion.

But what if our spiritual vocation is not to rebel against our inevitable demise in this way.

What if we refuse death its vaunted power to deny our aspiration to to live each moment fully — but not under threat of sure extinction? What if “death has no dominion” because our spiritual trajectory is ever-upward — not at all to be denied by rumors of extinction?

The sense of the Dylan Thomas line — “And death shall have dominion” — is defiance in the face of, or despite, certain death. But if I am spirit rather than body, if I am spirit through and through, who’s to say spirit goes under when “my” body returns to dust?

My body may be buried when it ceases to breath, but spirit may be more, or other than, breath.

Spirit may ascend supreme despite cessation of breath and physical burial.

Put another way, burying “my body” is not burying me anymore than burying my wig and scarf is burying me.

If I am spirit, my spirit is — let’s say, ‘by nature’ — always in upward ascent. My depression, for example, is not my essence anymore than my blue shirt is my essence. Why should my spirit be linked to a passing dark?

Burying my blue shirt is not burying me. I live on despite burial — burial of body or blue shirt.

I am neither my shirt nor my flesh, spiritually speaking. I am undying, inviolate spirit.

In that sense, “death shall have no dominion.”

Burnout

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The New Yorker for May 24 has a long article on burnout by the historian Jill Lepore.

She links burnout to declining church membership. Leaving time for religious quiet, worship or prayer, has apparently become an optional luxury.

In 1985, 71% of Americans — at least nominally — attended a house of worship, a figure had been constant since the 1940’s. In 2020 the number had dropped nearly 25%. Less than 50% of Americans identify themselves as churchgoers.

The question is not whether a secular society is inferior to a religious one. It’s whether mental health suffers when there is less and less “time off.”

Burnout is endemic. We’re victimized by obsessive work routines.

I remember being impressed with Loren Bacall’s memory of a childhood in the ’30s when her father, a Physician, met her in the yard every afternoon for play at 3:00 p.m. No Physician — or other professional — today could get off work by mid-afternoon.

If long hours cause burnout, is that just an unhappy fact of life? The Puritan Ethic valorizes unremitting work. Is there a leisure class anymore? Little leisure is allowed to creep in from weekends. It’s not unusual for bread-winners to work 6 or even 7 days a week.

How find relief?

Meditation brings quiet. Yoga is calming.

Quiet evening walks temper a work alcoholic’s affliction.

But once burnout invades, it blocks access to relaxation, and worse, shuts down a capacity to imagine alternatives.

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Covid

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I’ve been asked by my alumni magazine to reflect on the impact of covid. Here’s my response.

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Covid has been a time of languishing — not as bad as either depression or anxiety. Something a bit different. A sense of time in slow motion.

I’m 80 and a retired philosophy professor who’s had an active musical and social life interrupted — stalled, put on hold.

For years, my life has been paced by evening gatherings — chorus, choir, dinner dates, orchestra. When that suddenly disappeared, I fumbled for a sense of pace and passing time.

There have been partial ameliorations: zooms for poetry discussions and music sharing. But music doesn’t really work over zoom. A live audience makes all the difference. It’s like singing in the shower.

Philosophy taught me to mull over questions, to contemplate, and to write — that’s continued. I have a blog, Mists on the Rivers, where I reflect on all sorts of things.

I don’t have any plans for the future other than staying healthy and, as covid retreats, becoming socially and musically engaged again.

I look back with pride on publishing a dozen books — many on Kierkegaard, one on Thoreau, and one (prize-winning) of poetic-autobiographical reflections. I look forward as covid recedes, to a resurgence of energy for personal reflection. I suspect it may coalesce in another book, most likely a memoir.

I anticipate a burst of energy — energy that’s been forced into hiding over the past months.

Conversation

Here’s an extended quote, broken up into fragments, from Michael Oakeshott. I pass it on from my friend,

Rev. Andrew Brown.

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The participants (in worthy conversation) . . . are not engaged in an inquiry or debate; there is no “truth” to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought.

They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing.

Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument. . . .

In conversation, “facts” appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; “certainties” are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other “certainties” or with doubt, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another.

Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions.

Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part.

There is no symposiarch or arbiter; not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials.

Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation.

And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy.

Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.

It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.

Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another

(‘Rationalism in Politics’, Liberty Fund, Carmel, 1991, pp. 489-490).

Is this a fitting portrait of our substantive conversations with others — those that migrate beyond chit chat?

Receptivity and Soul

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When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world and am free.

I rest in the grace of the world. 

–Wendel Berry

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Self calls us to take charge, to take action.

Soul calls us to relinquish the stance of self. It calls us to open to beauty, to kindness, or pain.

We are tempted to think that it’s always good to take charge of our lives, to accomplish, or master – to be triumphant. Yet it’s often good to set mastery aside — to yield, to let go.

It’s often good to give in to the beauty or majesty or pain of the moment.

We needn’t always be in charge, always fight back tears of joy or sorrow.

If we yield in anticipation of the opening chords of a symphony, that yielding is not a sign of defeat. It’s a sign of a readiness to be transformed, a readiness to let music fill us with unexpected wonder or joy or sorrow.

For the moment, we can let go of a will to mastery or a desire to accomplish.

We can come into the presence of still water or the lilt of birdsong.

Then freedom is no longer a choice or accomplishment.

“For a time I rest in the grace of the world and am free.”

Receptive freedom is letting the grace of the world set the acquisitive self aside.

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It is letting go — letting the soul flourish.

Beyond Murder

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I don’t think I’m alone in discovering via covid a whole new range of TV fodder. More than ever in my life, stripped of my evening activities, I’ve been watching all kinds of detective series. One stands out: “Murder In . . . ” Each episode is placed in a specific French town, with its different detectives and constabularies. The episodes are not formulaic “Who-Dun-Its.” Each dives into the culture and history of a particular French village with its surrounding natural landscape.

The locale and its inhabitants are every bit as important as unraveling a crime-puzzle. It can seem we’re tourists on holiday with a special host, meeting villagers in pairs or singly, folk out on their farms or at the village pub or in the schoolyard waiting for the kids to get out.

The title, “Murder in. . . ” puts the emphasis on “IN.” It’s all about place. This sets it apart.

It’s not original to have landscape play a role in detective series. Think of “Shetland,” set beautifully on the islands. What’s original here is having the village and its characters be more than background. They assume an importance independent of the murder investigation.

This particular “Murder In . . .” is set in the village of Colmar (season 7). Here, we meet a surgeon who has abandoned his family and country to travel the world as a medical missionary. He comes to Colmar (“Murder in Colmar”) to find out more about the death of his son.

His becomes an unofficial investigator. He works on the case tagging along with the official village detectives — often getting in their way. His skill in tracking the cause of disease equips him to track the cause of his son’s death. The local detectives, especially at first, see him as mainly meddling.

A highlight of the drama is his getting to meet and know his six year old grandson. The growing cross-generational relationship attains a warmth and interest of its own, quite apart from the police investigation. In fact, as the story wound down, I realized I was less interested in the death of the father than in the growing affection of grandfather and grandson.

The incredible warmth of the grandfather as he comes to know and love his grandson gets center stage. The older man radiates good will, affection, and imagination in bridging the gap as he enters the world of his grandson.

As the police drama winds down, this affectionate connection across generations upstages all else. Quite apart from the solution to a crime, the story becomes a love story, rich in detail and modes of affection.

Against Knowledge

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Knowing isn’t our sole access to others and the world.

Plato is charged with banishing the poets, preferring the philosophers who sought knowledge. Whether or not this is fair to Plato, with the Enlightenment, Knowledge was valorized, crowned, as the counterweight to blind faith. It was feted as the key to scientific inquiry. The stance of inquiry was given center stage. But why give knowing such regal standing?

There are two notable ways of facing and engaging the world that are infinitely valuable yet non-knowing — and they’re quite other than faith. These two are acknowledgement and appreciation.

When I acknowledge you as a friend, I’m not in a stance of knowing about you.

I can know all sorts of things about you, or about my neighbor, and never acknowledge either you or my neighbor; never appreciate either of you.

I can know all sorts of facts about Beethoven. But if I appreciate Beethoven’s late quartets, that’s not knowing facts about them. I could know everything factual there is to know about my friend or about Beethoven, yet fail to have an intimate connection. I could fail to embrace either in appreciation or acknowledgment.

If friendship or love are front-and-center, bare knowledge isn’t there.

It’s appreciation and acknowledgment that will hold center stage.

(There’s a Biblical sense of knowledge: knowledge as sexual intimacy. Today we divorce such knowing from the detached observation of scientific, or commonsense knowing.)

Without appreciation and acknowledgment we’d never have love or engagement. In personal relationships acknowledgement and appreciation are front and center, not knowing.

In our relationship to art and music, to nature and the weather, to friends and relatives, intimate appreciation and acknowledgment replace knowing.

I may know it’s cold outside. But when I reach for my jacket and mittens, beyond knowing, I’m appreciating and acknowledging that fact.

This can be like the contrast between the mind and the heart. If so, then in a culture that lets knowledge rule supreme, the challenge is to sing praises to matters of the heart. Knowledge will not be the only claimant to center stage. Appreciating and acknowledging will win central casting.

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Poems

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OFFERING

A poem lies under every leaf

Give it a gentle turn

You’ll see

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A poem lies over every wave

Watch its ripple

You’ll see

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A poem lies in every warm glance

Bask there

You’ll see

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Ah, that I had known

The leaf, the wave, the glance

From birth

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But I drink now

Let Leaf, Wave, Glance

Renew my day

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HIDDEN GEMS

What words lie silently

Beneath a glance

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What touch rests silently

Beneath a glance

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What kindness lies hesitant

Hampered by fear

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With love will they

Escape?

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The Author Unveiled

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A likeness offered by a good friend, an Israeli English Professor who takes up charcoal for a lock down challenge and diversion. That’s Thoreau’s cabin in the distance. The sign says “live deliberately” — Thoreauvian wisdom.

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Ecstatic Humanism

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From my earliest wondering about such things, I’ve been receptive to religious sensibilities.

This was not a family inheritance. Though church goers – New England Unitarians — church was a social event for them. To be Unitarian was to be a ‘free thinker’ — scornful of Irish Catholic or haughty British Episcopalian traditions.

I’m still suspicious of starting up with an embrace of Christian dogma. I’ve hoped for a Christian way of life independent of ground-floor confessions of belief. Love of neighbor ought to speak for itself — to be cherished apart from commitments to a Biblical God. Christians should be known by their kind hearts – not by their recitation of creeds.

In my teens I exalted in Emerson’s essays. He was a Unitarian preacher who left the pulpit when he could no longer lead his congregation in creedal recitation. Later, I became immersed in passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. I rummaged in Taoist and Confucian texts. As a professor I taught Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, not least for their struggles with Christianity.

Insofar as practices of neighbor-love and openness to strangers draw me in, I’m Christian (though recently I think I’m becoming Jewish).  Am I a Theist? I’ve been drawn to Quaker Silence – to their deep respect, as I understand it, of friendship. They are, after all, The Society of Friends. Sitting in silence on a Sunday without leader or pulpit removes any confessional basis for their Christianity.  It’s a quiet Meeting of hearts and a pacifism free from theological dogma.

A Quaker wouldn’t ask for Theistic credentials as the price of admission. From his pulpit in Cambridge, England, my friend, Andrew Brown, has called himself a “Christian Atheist,” and more recently, an “ecstatic humanist.” A Christian Atheist can be devoted to neighbor-love and good works but averse to any core theological dogmas. Christianity is then measured by neighbor-love.

My friend preaches in a Unitarian Church. From the pulpit he has called himself a Christian Atheist, and more recently suggests that he could also be called an “ecstatic humanist.” It’s not that his humanism leaves him happily ecstatic — his humanism escapes stasis.  It overflows any static formulation or practice linked to a time and place. It’s open-ended, evolving, not to be corralled.  Here is the piece that triggered my thoughts: The case for an Ecstatic Humanism—being “skeptics with naturally religious minds” or “open-minded ‘reverent’ humanists”