Saturday, 3 September 2011

"Through a glass, darkly" - 1 Corinthians 13:12

"Through a glass, darkly"
An overused phrase!
© Godric Godricson

I am not given much to speculating on the works of Paul who I generally dislike for the way that he argusably mislead Christian thought. In retrospect, Paul seems a ‘Johnny come lately’ who came to dominate the followers of Jesus through his ‘activism’ and came to adversely influence Western Christology.

Yet, in the phrase, "Through a glass, darkly", Paul does capture something of the human experience of life on Earth and our search for immortality and that reflects on the cemetery and burials. We jointly and collectively have an experience of life that abruptly and sometimes without warning takes us from this world of the living to the world of the dead. We do, in fact, see "Through a glass, darkly" and we perceive little of the world that comes ahead which is always 'the other world'. However, just because I accept Paul's statement on one level it doesn’t mean that I accept Paul on all levels.

Momenti Mori Malta
© Godric Godricson

Paul seems determined not to understand the world of the living in all its confusion and magnificence. Instead, Paul seeks to positively compare the life ahead to the one we have now. Paul so much believes in the idea of the heavenly Kingdom that he devalues life on Earth and Paul presents a positive life as being narrow and uncomfortable. Like a permanent hair shirt, Paul tries to ensure that human existence is so uncomfortable that we desire the freedom of the afterlife. Paul was probably a man without joy in his life and without the love of his fellow citizens. I suspect that Paul was feared by his associates rather than loved by them and his denigration of pleasure and joy probably became accepted rather than being an idea that was warmly embraced.

The tendency to idolise the afterlife as evidenced in Pauline literature is sometimes mirrored in popular culture. The film “Casper” witnesses  the ghost having fun and the film sets aside sadness at an early death in favour of a happy and idyllic existence. “Casper” is an example of the living having an inferiority complex when compared to the dead. In this film we desire the freedom of death so that we too can have fun and be like Casper. This is a great shame and I would suggest that as an alternative perspective, humanity should be determined to enjoy this world for what can be experienced.

A place for transitions
© Godric Godricson

Seeing "Through a glass, darkly" often begins in the cemetery as a place where the living and the dead come into contact and where we begin to say our ‘goodbyes’. We collectively start to reflect upon our humanity and we begin to reflect upon our mortality. Regrettably, this is also the place where Paul’s statement is used uncritically by ministers of religion often without analysis. Quite often, we listen without comment even if we disagree.

In reality, the cemetery is a complicated crossover place of transitions and a site that has often existed for a very long time. In England, cemeteries are often a thousand years old although more modern cemeteries serve the same function. In simplistic terms, the living lay to rest their dead in the cemetery and we see this as a sort of parting of the ways. We can also see the cemetery as a sort of hygiene tool that separates the corruption and decay of death in favour of the garden. In more complex terms, we can also see the cemetery as a metaphysical jump-off point into eternity where we are committed to the geographical location and to the Church as an institution (other religions have their own equally valid version). The cemetery is an entity at a number of levels. Paul arguably would see the cemetery positively because it signals an end to life, physicality and enjoyment and the start of a sort of “Casperian” existence.

The joys of life
© Godric Godricson

Although Paul did perceive the after world, "Through a glass, darkly", this doesn’t mean that life on earth is really without joy or happiness or worth.  This would be to judge this existence far too harshly and with little compassion. Putting it simply, Paul didn’t value life as he lived it and he probably missed out on entirely simple pleasures. Paul’s comment is like the writers of “Casper” who praise the life ahead rather than enjoying the life that we have. “Casper”  as a film makes the life of the ghost more desirable than the life of the living and,  similarly, Paul makes the life ahead more worthy than that we currently have.  Now I can hear some people say “Quite so!” My point is that in ‘bigging up” the afterlife Paul simultaneously denigrates the physical Creation of life on Earth that we experience through our current senses.

The glory of Creation
© Godric Godricson

Paul's often quoted phrase ignores the physical world of light and colour and sound in favour of the unknown. It is as if Paul is getting into the grave and covering himself with dirt in favour of a quick death. This desire for oblivion isn’t natural and seems to be an expression of Pauline fervour rather than a route map for immortality. The zeal of the newly converted?  Paul isn’t someone to be emulated. Instead, Paul is someone to be pitied. Paul has probably never known the joy of the world and seen the colour of flowers and harvested wheat. Paul is seeing  "Through a glass, darkly" because he perceives this world poorly. We can imagine Paul desiring  a death that would hasten the crossing over of his soul to a certainty that was easier to deal with compared to the  uncertainty of life in the physical world. Perhaps in the cemetery way ahead becomes clearer?

The view from the cemetery
© Godric Godricson

So, we have a well used phrase "Through a glass, darkly" that is often quoted and is seen as a sort of standard statement. People with little or no theology use the phrase without criticism and by using the phrase they effectively praise Paul rather than pausing for a moment and praising the whole of Creation. What I would like to emphasis is that life on Earth can be beautiful and joyful. Whatever your religion, (you may also have no religion), life can be fun and by our enjoyment of the created environment we also give thanks for that Creation. The cemetery is a very real starting point for a transition to the ‘other world’ where we start to say goodbye but it is not the centre of our world. We bid farewell to the departed, comfort the living and create pilgrimage points for our family and even our entire culture. We set up monuments and we cry and we also realise the limits as our own mortality. Cemeteries are useful places and we do well to preserve them and the individual identity of the departed for the future.

Listen to the phrase "Through a glass, darkly" in a critical manner and don’t be overwhelmed by it. Pehaps you could have a look at 2 Maccabees  with its emphasis on Resurrection, intercession and prayers for the dead. Much more engaging an arena than Paul and 2 Maccabees implies a communion of this existence and the next. The cemetery becomes more of a place of communication than one where everything goes a little fuzzy.

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