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[Chalice] The Most Avoided Question [Chalice]

Presented April 5, 2009, by Rev. Dr. William Fox

Listen to a recording of "The Most Avoided Question"
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When I was ordained to the ministry thirty years ago, someone sent me a wise verse from Ecclesiasticus suggesting I would do well to have it constantly in mind. "Remember that thou walkest upon the battlements of the city." A minister cannot be, as the Lord told the prophet to be, an effective watchman for the people without also walking on the battlements of the city. As if stepping upon a levee at flood stage, the pulpit ought to feel like a risky place in the Easter season.

The danger, of course, is misreading the concerns of the city below. The people of that city may require some immediate sense of what the mystics called "blessed assurance." But if from the perspective of the battlements above, a much needed word of comfort has been neglected, withdrawn, withheld, or obscured, then the resulting state of mind is technically in a moment called by the ancient Romans accidie, translated as that helpless instant when a thing is cut so that it falls to the ground. It is related to our understanding of how accidents happen. In simpler terms, it is called a moment of not having anything to say. Sermons in the weeks around the Easter season, above all else, must avoid such accidents, that is, a slip and tumble into theological free fall. The best way to prevent this kind of intellectual accident is to recognize the sentimentality, nervous energy, and feelings which surround the city of a people who wish to make sense of an oft-told story set in Jerusalem. So, let me disclose something: I bring to this hour many of my own vacillating feelings and moods about the traditional Easter observance, perhaps because it seems to come on us suddenly, while we are thinking of other things-the tax season, the first weekend at the lake, the return of baseball, or the time of spring commencement. And yet, we are supposedly to come out on Easter morning into a clear view of a destiny shared by the Abrahamic faiths, that is, the promise of immortality. In all honesty, that vision is not easily come by on these days. "If a man die shall he live again?" The old question is still there and so is old habit of dodging it. The first great creed of the early Church says, "I believe in the life everlasting." There is no point at which the 21st century mind is more out of touch with traditional Christianity than at this point. It is an accidie waiting to happen or, for many people who cannot find the words to think about death and life together, they are simply cut off from one of abiding issues of life.

Why is it that this whole realm of thought and hope bulks so small in the values of our time? Not only are we tentative in answering Job's question, we are, and this is even more incriminating, careless about asking it. What puzzles me is not the fact that we do not know what to think about these matters, but that we hardly think about them at all. They are ideas, inasmuch as they are in the public domain, embedded in the fairy tales of Narnia and the almost Sci-Fi genre of the "left behind" series of novels. Why this modern conspiracy of silence which seems to surround the whole idea of immortality? How is it that it has dropped out of our thought and life, while every other intimate detail of peoples' private experience is open to the snooping of "reality" television and Face Book revelations? Paul Horgan in his novel, Everything to Live For, reminds us that "the big questions are not matters of fact but of feeling." I would be very surprised if death and the future into which it is born did not harbor the strongest feelings any one of us can experience. Yet, we have so little to say, especially in the liberal church.

Our knowledge of the way in which the human mind works should make us uneasy at our studied indifference to the subject. If immortality be true, it matters very much. You and I have been touched by people whom we miss very much; it is critical to our mental and spiritual health for us to wonder how they go on touching us or if we will be touched by them again in some new, mysterious way. Dean Willard L. Sperry of the Harvard Divinity School once ruminated that there was, after a lifetime of wondering, a mystery he would like to clear up if ever given a chance in the next world-who actually wrote the Gospel of John? He wanted to meet this man. Are there no similar questions we have saved up, the answer to which would settle our doubts once and for all?

Meanwhile, once life has raised for you Job's question you cannot safely ignore it without risking some kind of fall. If you try to put it out of your mind you succeed only in thrusting it deeper into the mind. In the hours of your sorrow or your own extremity it emerges to avenge itself upon you for your deliberate neglect of it. To put the issue on no higher ground, it is surely a valid part of mental hygiene to go on asking the question, whatever the prospect of an answer. It is not someone else's problem. You will be in a better position to deal with it, if you keep it in the open. Why, then, has this great idea dropped so far below the horizon of our constant thought? Why this conspiracy of silence which has put both death, and life after death, so far out of mind?

Perhaps because we live longer, our extended life expectancy gains us postponement. Perhaps because we are so numbed by war and violence, life seems cheaper or can best be faced daily with a joke, that we delay permanently the business of the Easter question. Perhaps because we suspect that in times past the faith of simple people in a better life hereafter has been exploited to do injustice here and now. Our pride will not let us succumb to that obvious manipulation that allowed gratuitously the slave's plea to get a final chance to cross over Jordan into camp-ground.

I will grant something else, however, about why so much silence and distrust abides today around the issue of what happens to us when we die: if it is not carelessness or laziness, then it might be a sense of puniness which inhibits our solidarity with Job.

Our reluctance to think along and travel beside the lines of the old question about the life hereafter is due in the last instance to the dismal inadequacy of all the ancient symbols by which faith was first clothed with words and to the total want of any better symbolism to take its place. Even if we believe in another life, the traditional hymns of heaven seem anachronistic; there are no new songs to serve us.

Early in the 20th century, George Tyrrell, an English Catholic who was ex-communicated for his modernism, put it correctly, long before men and women traveled in space: "The once mysterious planets and the sun itself are but material orbs like our own; and as the mind travels endlessly into space it meets only with more orbs and systems of orbs in their millions, an infinite monotony of matter and motion, but never does it strike against some boundary wall of the universe, beyond which God keeps an eternal Sabbath in a new order of existence. The heaven that lay behind the blue curtain sky, whence by night God hung out his silver lamps to shine upon the earth, was a far deeper symbol of the eternal home, than the cold and shelterless deserts of astronomical space."

The old human hunger to escape from our little earthbound astronomy into some larger world finds much satisfaction in the excursions on which science now takes us. The pictures beaming back to us are tantalizing. Emotionally, the feature article on astronomy does for us something that obviously needs to be done, something that once could be done only by the song by Bernard of Clairvaux about Jerusalem the Golden.

Our destiny, our nature, our home
Is with infinitude and only there...

But we no longer have to go to traditional religion to be made at home in infinity. Mission Control in Houston, the physicists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, or the engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt give voice to these new measurements making the strongest human will seem smaller and less able to make a difference. Meanwhile, the expanding perception of the universe has not been invested with religious symbols-we do not equate rockets with the Resurrection or the space shuttle with the Emmaus Road. Even, therefore, if we still hold this ancient faith, we have no figures of speech in which to put it into words. I think this is compounded especially in the fact of death.

Giuseppe Lampedusa in his masterwork and only book, The Leopard, describes a scene in which a young couple looks at a picture of a dead ancestor "with complete lack of interest. For both of them death was purely an intellectual concept, a facet of knowledge as it were and no more, not an experience which pierced the marrow of their bones." Something like that has happened to us when we are shown pictures of the planets and their moons. Lampedusa observes "that it was inner ignorance of this supreme consolation which makes the young feel sorrows much more sharply than the old; the latter are nearer the safety exit." Our time will feel death and the emptiness of consolation much more pointedly than an older era, if we do not come to our senses about the meaning of the traditional Easter season.

W. R. Inge, the British theologian, said years ago that God cannot be very real to a person who devotes no more than three minutes a day to the thought of God. So we might add that the immortality of the soul cannot be very real to one who thinks of it only occasionally. To overcome this impasse, this speechlessness in the face of Job's query, what must we do to find the supreme consolation about our lives and those we have lost in death? First, I think contrary to our modern exhibitionist habits of getting everything out in the open, there is a want of realism in the presence of death. We have become unreal about death: saying that it does not matter, that it is a merely trivial last happening. We pride ourselves on being honest and courageous in mind, but this is an affectation as false as a shivering child who won't get out of the pool because she is not cold. Even as the vast majority of people are perhaps cowardly and insincere at the prospect or in the presence of death, we are gazing into its mysterious and majestic face all the time. We no longer hate that death should bandage our eyes and bid us creep past. We have an ample supply of our own eye patches ready- made, and waiting the occasion.

During the First World War, Freud wrote a little book on War and Death, in which he said this radical dishonesty of the western world in the presence of death was one of its most serious moral weaknesses. The thought of life after death is meaningless unless we concede at the outset the immeasurable weight of the initial fact of death. We may try to make light of it, to belittle it or to ignore it, but we have never really succeeded. More than anything else it changes our human world for each one of us, year after year. Nothing else makes such a difference. We are not ready to ask or think about another life, if we cannot look with unblinking eyes at the one fact which is its occasion. The whole idea associated with Easter will be unreal because of our general lack of a prior realism.

Second, and this is perhaps part of the trouble in the conspiracy of silence, the religious reference is always from this life to the next life, from earth to heaven, not the other way around. The dead do not come back to us, though they do not leave us. To make this point, let me remind you of two approaches found in the Bible that are not merely distinct-they are different. You may have noticed that the attitude in the Bible toward sorcerers and witches is negative. The witch of Endor called back the shade of Samuel to serve and comfort Saul in his extremity. Anyone who reads the story must feel not only its ghostliness, but also its strong hint that something dangerous and even wrong was being done. The woman was reluctant to do what Saul asked of her; the spirit of Samuel protests at having been summoned. The whole transaction is felt to be off center and out of bounds. About twenty years ago, a clergy friend of mine who had once dabbled in psychic interests said to me about such experimentation that one must go off the deep end or leave it alone.

The reason for this constant disallowance of what we have heard named séances is based upon a deep, instinctive feeling that wherever the dead may be and whatever their lot may be, it is not their destiny to be at our beck and call. Invoking the dead from some other world to this life is felt to be a reversal of values. The whole Biblical premise for the idea of immortality is, instead, found in the story of II Samuel of the death of the child that Bathsheba bore David. "Now he is dead," says the king, "can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me. "

"If a man die shall he live again?" as our point of discussion has nothing to do with the vain hope we may bring our dead back to us. This is religiously mistaken. The memory of our dead is dear to us. We often feel them inexplicably near to us. Their example inspires us sometimes in proportion to how much we miss them. All this is true.

And yet, if there be any immortality at all, they must have their own qualitatively different life from our own. The idea, not that they shall return to us, but that we shall go to them, is constant throughout the Bible. "I leave this world," runs the saying of Jesus in John's Gospel, "and go to the Father my God and your God." In your moments of loneliness or misery or perplexity you may go to the witch of Endor, but you must not assume that the impulse that prompts it is pure, or an act of faith, or that she is a minister of religion.

If the first response is to admit the fact of death, and the second is to grant the direction of life moving toward death, for the dead do not pursue the living, then the final reflection I offer is that dying must not be a matter so much of going into some strange land as of going home. I remember a scene from a novel of a boy in Boston waiting for a street-car, and while he waits he looks down the tracks as far as he can see. Years later he said it was a revelation to him, that "it was marvelous to think about a vanishing point, and how all things went away to it. But even more marvelous was the notion which struck me one day watching for a streetcar-the notion that things might come from the vanishing point toward me." Easter may be just that moment of realization while we are waiting, waiting to go home. Maybe that is what is meant by the long range common sense of liberal religion. Or what Josiah Royce interpreted all of religion to be, as that moment giving humanity its "principal glimpse of the homeland of the human soul."

Easter, or its equivalent in other traditions, comes to us like the headlights of a streetcar traveling down the track from a vanishing point we thought was blank. It is from the direction of home. Behind that distant place we sense God is at home and it is we now who are travelers in the far country.

In the last year of my father's life, he was reading John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a classic tale I used to assign regularly to my church history students. At the end of a long allegorical journey about the pilgrimage of life, Christian must cross a murky river, from which there is no escaping. No one could tell him or his companion if the water was deep or shallow. He stepped into the stream and finally said of that deep river, "I feel the bottom, and it is good." And with that we read, "he could not see before him . . . he has in great measure lost his senses."

It is a decisive moment; he fears for his life, he entertains the question of his inevitable death-if a man die shall he live again? The scene is one of the most vivid and dramatic struggles in all of English literature. And it ends with Christian remembering a promise, "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee." At that moment we are told, "Christian therefore presently found ground to stand upon."

For many millions of people in the world, this week marks a poignant human story and question. And however we hear it or understand it ourselves, it is the ground upon which we stand-walking upon the battlements of the city-to face an unavoidable question of death and life.

©2009 Rev. Dr. William Fox

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Fox, Rev. Dr. William. 2009. The Most Avoided Question, /talks/20090405.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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