Life after Birth

One of the perennial questions of the humanities is “What is a good life?” Religious studies ends up in the College of the Humanities in some universities because religion is fully absorbed in answering that question. At least, that’s one way of looking at it.

Some Christians think of Christianity as being primarily about “life after death” or “salvation,” understood as “going to heaven.” Some of those Christians would even argue that’s “the Biblical way” to think about things, and would quote you 1 Corinthians 15:19 to prove it: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

I grew up among Christians like that. It’s a caricature to say that those Christians didn’t think it mattered how people lived. They did. But certainly, the first and most important question to ask anyone was always “are you saved?” and that was a question about eternity, not a question about later this afternoon. More importantly, it was a question about what you believed about Jesus Christ, not a question about what you did when you got up in the morning or whether you cut people off in traffic.

This focus has a long history, and has gotten Christianity the reputation of being an “other-worldly” religion. It has also given rise to the saying that “some people are so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good.” And I suspect that it has also given rise to the way many Christian thinkers today are re-focusing on what it means to live – really live – in the present. Like our wonderful pastor yesterday, preaching on John 11, who pointed out that Jesus is the place in the world where human life here and now, and the eternal life of the Kingdom of Heaven, meet. Answering Jesus’s call is about coming alive now; not just about life after death, but about life after birth. “The life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:19), which begins now.

So the real challenge is learning how to live that kind of “good life” now, learning what it means to “live well.” Because there are a lot of models of what that means all around us. And the model presented by the church, generally speaking, can look unappealing from the outside. It’s like Theodor Adorno said, “Probably every citizen of the wrong world would find the right one intolerable, they would be too damaged for it.” [1] And it’s hard to translate “how Jesus lived” and “what Jesus believed” into 21st century idioms.

That translation problem is less one of trying to ignore the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the germ theory, and more one of getting what it means to pray “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” of understanding that we are asking there for a change in our own behavior. Asking to be more available and reliable for doing God’s will here and now, in the moment, in the myriad habits we think of as the choices we make all day long.

We are such a long way from Jesus’s way of life – well, I am, I think – that “Christian life” can feel like the first day of yoga class. In spite of a long time spent in and around church. We have the image of resurrection as something that happens all at once, but I think it happens slowly. Some, many, would say much too slowly.

More like quitting smoking. It’s unimaginable at first. And then, just unbelievably hard, over and over. But eventually, if you keep it up, a time comes when you look up and realize that you never have to interrupt something you’re doing to go outside in the freezing cold to smoke any more, or even think about it, and you realize something really has changed.

Real life after birth happens slowly, for most of us. Day by day. One day at a time. “The jug fills drop by drop.” Jesus didn’t say that. But he could have.

red line embellished

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, translated by Dennis Redmond, 2001.

red line embellished

Image: “In the land of frost mist,” Jens Cederskjold from København S, Danmark, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; although Denmark is far from Southern Indiana, this Danish scene captures what it looks like around here of a morning these days.

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