Mortality, Morality, & Mystery
A recording and transcript of a recent lecture by Ephraim Radner
Even after a worldwide pandemic, mortality remains an uncomfortable topic for most in our culture. As Americans, we don’t like being confronted with our limits, and we struggle against our need to depend on others. But this American intuition is hardly biblical. Biblical flourishing does not involve the transcending or denying of our limits; rather, it involves actively seeking to live within those limits with gratitude, faith, and dependence on the God who has let them be. Cultivating this kind of faith is perhaps the biggest task for the American (and first world) Church today. And it is this same faith—a faith that can find God in the face of our limits—that Perishable Goods seeks to help the Church revitalize.
To this end, we are excited and privileged to share Ephraim Radner’s recent lecture, “Mortality, Morality, and Mystery.” (On October 27 of this year, Jared helped the Church of the Resurrection in Washington, DC, host Dr. Radner for this talk.) Dr. Radner is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, and was formerly a rector and missionary. The following is a transcript of his lecture, reproduced with the permission of Dr. Radner. (Perishable Goods does not claim any rights to this piece.)
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Let me begin with a small personal note, and that is that after almost two years of steady decline, and real physical suffering, my father died just a couple of weeks ago at the age of 95. I had a conversation with my 70-year-old sister, who lives far away in New Zealand, about all this, and we talked about the emotional element involved in the loss of our father. Yes, we agreed, we're both deeply sorrowful. But no, we are not broken with grief. And it's not just because he was already a very elderly man at 95, and had lived a full life. Rather, it was the fact that both she and I were both much older ourselves than when our affections were first nurtured by our father. And my sister said, given our age—I’m 65, she’s 70—we are both now wrapped up in death. We realize that it is part of who we are in a way we never did when we were younger. Now, of course, she's right. And I think anybody who gets older recognizes this in some way. So what I'm going to do in what follows is to provide a very condensed—so I'm warning you—logical, and thus somewhat abstract argument for this observation that my sister made. In a few minutes, in other words, I want to lay out an entire theology by considering what it means to be “wrapped up in death.” What it means, that is, to realize that we are born to die, as some have put it. That the very nature of our being is shaped by our liability to and final certainty of dying.
Now it’s well known that younger people are less attuned to this reality, though how much that is our present culture, rather than a universal sensibility among the young, I'm less clear. I think it's mostly the former—I do think it's probably more the culture, for various reasons. But somehow, eventually, most people do realize that their lives are actually constituted by their dying. What they have done, the relationships that they have had, their loves, their disappointments, exhilarations, sorrows—all of these are entwined with a deep transience, and they're resonant with a kind of sense of our final limitation as a destiny. And as this realization grows, that is to say, as we age, the world actually begins to look different. And our relationships shift in their substance. As a pastor, I've met a few elderly persons who are deeply afraid of dying, but not many. I have met, however, many elderly people who are puzzled and even lost in the face of their deaths—or simply, perhaps, filled with regrets, or gnawing frustrations, something that is perhaps more disturbing than fear. But have I met people who are terrified by their deaths? Hardly ever (I’m talking about old people).
The reality of mortality which I'm addressing this evening is fundamental to who we are. The category is definitive of our being. Not only does death mark the limit, the literal defining of a boundary to our lives in a temporal sense, but far more profoundly, this ending characterizes everything we do as we live. We only begin in one place; we can only ascend so far or descend to such a boundary; we can only think for a few days; we can only react within very strict parameters—and so on. Everything about our existence is about starting and terminating, and doing so within a very narrow scope. And finally, necessarily, there is no alternative to this.
I point out this comprehensive aspect of mortality because in fact, mortality in our era is something we approach mostly only temporally, rather than as something that defines our temporality—our sense of time itself. The very reference of the word “mortality” in contemporary writing is usually to a punctiliar medical event, as in “rates of mortality” that you can trace, for instance, over this or that period of years. If you look at academic discussion of mortality, you can also trace over the past century a shift of interest away from the broader notion of mortality as referring to the limited character of our lives of human life—at best, this is somehow something only that philosophers worry about—to one that is focused quite narrowly on what some people have called “the death process,” that is, to the physical or biological mechanism of human disappearance, and decomposition itself. So if you look up the word “mortality” and titles of books, that's almost always what they're talking about. Bestsellers by Newland and others are about what happens to our bodies when we die. They're not about “what does it mean to be a human being who dies?” These are two very different questions.
Interestingly, this shift to mortality as event, rather than as condition, has given rise to its own cultural outlook, sometimes called the “death awareness movement,” which is aimed at trying to get people to look unblinkingly at our temporal demise, and to put on, if you will, your big boy pants in the face of the fact that we’re all going to die. The death awareness movement can either be nihilistic—sort of a “life sucks, and then you die” bumper sticker—or, more soberly: don't overly invest in anything, be mindful of the present, and so on and so forth. And there are a whole bunch of books out there about this. One popular book from this perspective is by a very well known journalist named Oliver Burkeman. It's called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, the four thousand weeks in question being the average lifespan, in weeks—about 80 years. Books like Burkeman’s, [concerned with] how to live moderately given that you will soon die, can rightly be seen as an effort to retrieve the traditional understanding of mortality as a natural condition—but for our era, now purified of its, as they're viewed, religious confusions, in the form of what is basically a modern Epicureanism, sometimes colored by Buddhist intuitions. These are bestsellers out there now.
But as I understand it, and my understanding, yes, is coherent with traditional religious views, mortality engages the quality or set of qualities that inform our existence as a whole. And of course, existence presumes a life. Mortality, then, is essentially a kind of life. Indeed, as I will point out, it is the whole of life. It is what life is. Mortality is not a kind of death, except insofar as death also preserves life. Mortality on this reading is a vivified and vivifying reality that permeates human life. As the poet Yeats wrote, “Nor dread nor hope attend / the dying animal; / [A] man awaits his end / Dreading and hoping all”—the “all,” here, encompassing the breadth of human perception, thought, and feeling.1 That is to say, animals live without knowing that they live, and do so in the shadow of a certain death, whose form, however, remains uncertain. Human beings, however, know [that] they live, because they also know that they will die. And therefore, their knowing is always anxious. What this indicates, then, is that mortality is a rich, existential reality, not simply a temporal metric. Mortality is lived; it's not something that is simply observed. And while this may seem obvious, it's mostly forgotten in our culture. And with that forgetfulness, religious faith itself, I would argue, easily dissolves—because I think the two are essentially connected.
Mortality’s features, in fact, are not individually quantifiable at all, and cannot be measured as such (in other words, saying simply “this person lives 95 years, this one 15 years, or 44 years,” as if we were only talking about the temporal identity of a single organism). Rather, the comprehensively existential character of mortality, that takes in reactions, responses, communications, activities, and their meaning, signifies that our lives are always given in a complex, contextual framework—one that, in the case of human beings, is inevitably social. We are social beings. Everything about us is connected to something else. A human life always takes place somewhere, and that “where” is necessarily defined by other human beings. So, if mortality is about limits, it is about the way limits are always presented within a network of people. One cannot ever simply say, “I am born, and I die.” Properly, one must say, “I am born, and I die, because my life is given from, with, and to other lives.” To talk about mortality is always to talk about a human person within a set of complex, though limited, relationships. Mortality is essentially an anti-individualistic reality. You're always born to somebody. And you will always live because of other people. And you will die in some kind of shape that has been given by other people.
What some of these more socially-oriented features of mortality are is quite numerous, but I'm going to list a few right now. If they seem obvious, don't kid yourself. Most of us don't think this way about ourselves consistently. So first of all: dependence on others, and on other things. We live because we are born from parents and are placed within a landscape of things and people and the vast realities and experiences that take them in—other lives, other places, other experiences, other histories. Mortality means dependence on something outside of us.
Two: interacted dependents. That is, our lives do not just appear from and among others, they persist in this network of interaction, so as to biologically survive, to learn, to experience what one might call meaning, that is, the identifiable experiences of joy or sorrow, hope, interest—all of which only appear within a life with others. Everything about our limited life is bound up with other people in our interactions with them.
Three: the limited scope of all aspects of this life is clearly bound up with our mortality. Because our mortal lives are defined by their interaction with other mortal lives and creatures, everything about us disappears quickly—relationships, productivity, and so on. We can only impose ourselves upon the world to a very tiny extent. Furthermore, such self-imposition is experienced only in a context in which these elements are always shared, reshaped, coerced, wrenched away by the limiting forces of others and of our environment.
Fourth, mortality is characterized in our lives by the dynamics of what I would call a catastrophe. The fact that virtually everything in our life is dependent on other people and on contexts outside of us—everything about our lives therefore can change radically and quickly based on all these other things in their own limited scope. So think about Ukraine right now. Think about the terrible floods in Pakistan just a month ago. Our mortality and its limiting definition is ever imposed upon us as a vast and frightening burden that takes in everything at once, sometimes, in a way that mirrors our own personal deaths. Sudden endings are a feature intrinsic to mortality. And that is why the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as the quote goes, and any settled plan will most certainly go awry.
Now all this leads to two more elements—qualities, as it were—that color the essence of what it means to be alive as a mortal creature, and then orient all of our relations in the course of our lives. So number five, our lives are about reception, rather than assertion. Most of our lives is about things we receive from others, and from outside of ourselves, rather than about what we make. Limitation means externality, and its experience can only be received; it cannot be willed, and it cannot be escaped. So reception is essential to what it means to be a mortal creature on the very fundamental basis of our being at all.
But the corollary of that, number six, is that dispossession, rather than possession, describes the temporal dynamic of our lives as a whole. That is, to live is to exist in such a way that most of what we receive is also taken away. Indeed, at some point, it is all taken away. That's what it means to die. That is the underlying direction of our lives. And it is central to the biblical assertion, as Job says: “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will return.”2
Now, none of these six things is meant to sound grim, although it probably does. I am, in fact, simply providing what I believe is an empirical description of things as they actually are. This is just what a human being is, like it or not. What we do with this reality of who we are, of course, is another matter. There are to be huge implications to these kinds of inbuilt and inescapable constraints on our lives, all of which characterize our mortality. And hence, a failure to take mortality seriously will result in a failure to live truly—truly in the sense of honestly, as well as in the sense of being in tune with the truth, or as Stanley Hauerwas the theologian put it, “with the grain of the universe.” So, for instance, we must ask ourselves (since in fact, our culture's formative thrusts no longer provide us with such answers): what accounts for this mortal life that we have? And how does this accounting properly shape our attitudes and decisions? Because if we don't ask this kind of question, we are most certainly going to live dishonestly. And ours is a culture of dishonesty on almost every level in this area.
Now, I believe that to ask the question, “What accounts for this mortal life, and how does this accounting properly shape our attitudes and decisions?” is to press us directly into the realm of existential inquiry within which the Christian gospel makes immediate sense—indeed, is grammatically coherent. It fits, if you will, perfectly. It is true that while a few people commit suicide, most do not. And they do not because they sense that our mortal life, understood in the way I just outlined it, is indeed good, and is filled with goods worth cherishing. Most people recognize what these goods are, furthermore: having children, having a family, experiencing and giving affection, having common meals with other people, drinking together, expressive song that one sings with others, labor, and so on. Even aching sorrow is a good within this kind of context. Furthermore, to account for these goods, most people intuit that like everything else, these goods are given to them—given to us—as goods, rather than merely constructed by us as diverting pleasures. Remember, as I mentioned a moment ago, that reception is a key element in mortality. We are shaped to be receiving beings. If there are goods in our lives, these goods, then, are given to us. They are not invented by us. And if truly good, finally, we sense their given character is grounded in our nature, in the nature of a reality that is larger than our own experience—because that's the nature of being mortal.
Thus, mortality, just because of its limitations and imposing interactions, seems to indicate that we are given something good in our lives, something that touches what is beyond the limits of our own being. The term human beings have given to this aspect of their mortality is a familiar one: createdness. To see myself as a creature in part means that I recognize that my limits are not my own. They represent something actively provided from elsewhere. My limitations do not just reflect who I am; they are part of the shape of the whole world that is itself given from beyond itself. And thus, createdness—that is, being a creature of a creator—has been the most usual and universal existential premise people across history have drawn regarding their mortality. Note the two things go together absolutely intimately.
Now, as I warned you, I'm running through a logic here, not exploring it. But it's a very profound logic. And one shared, as I said, by almost all the peoples of history, most of whom felt their mortality with much greater acuteness than you or I do. There certainly are and there have been alternatives to this logic, but they have been confined to a few elite and educated minorities, and it's worth understanding that. Ancient and modern Epicureans, that primordial philosophy of exhausted materialism—what is just is without remainder, we just come to be from the matter of an unknown originated universe, and this coming to be is but one miniscule moment in an infinitely large and complex process of cosmic movement, whether evolutionary or deflationary—that's basically what our modern materialistic scientific worldview is, but it's also one that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. We can either enjoy this moment according to this view, and its peculiar contours, or not. But the choice is simply ours, and there's no reason one way or the other. But all anything is, according to this view, is matter in movement. The Nobel Laureate Stephen Weinberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, are two examples of this very elite Epicurean vision. One is a theoretical physicist, the other a preternaturally sensitive poet. But these are hardly popular exemplars. We may have heard of them, maybe we read these people. But either now or in whatever form in the past, Epicureanism was and still is a social luxury. It has a little to do with the shape of human life as it has been shared across time.
To be sure, there are many people today who live their lives as practical Epicureans, giving little thought to the origins of their mortal existence, but they also live at the same time—and this is not a paradox, it's obvious that they would—with the practical belief and the transcendent value of their mortal goods: their children, their parents, their families, their work. The fact that in modern Western societies, the notion of createdness has fallen away as a ground to this sense of mortality’s goods is a cultural phenomenon rather than one of logic. There's nothing logical about the fact that people no longer think of themselves as creatures. It's something that we've been shaped by a cultural current into taking on ourselves.
We are mortal. And if we're mortal and limited, dependent and receptive, and our actions are relativized, and their effects, within constrained temporal and causal bounds, but if at the same time, just these constraints constitute the shape of our existence as given by a Creator—that is, by God—then all the elements that are ingredient to our mortality have been just in this recognition granted a divine significance. That's the key logical consequence I would underline here. For this consequence, in turn, leads us to locate goodness itself, and the pursuit of goodness, or honest and true existence, in the actual realities that define our mortality, not somewhere else. A true life—a life with God, that is—will be one bound to personal dependence, i.e. birth and nurture. A true life with God will be bound to humanly network survival, and its meaning, that is to say, family and local community. And such a true life will be defined by toil, and struggle, protection, weakening, and death, but also by the generative elements that derive from this: procreation itself, and the ongoing continuance of created life.
So, that’s my first part. That's mortality. And mortality, if we think about what it is—and whatever the rate of our lifespans has changed, the rate of mortality is still one hundred percent—if we bear that in mind and take it seriously, and think about what accounts for it and what we're accountable to because of it, createdness simply is a given. It’s a given, and if you don't want it, you don't have to have it, but you are left with nothing else.
Let me move, then, to the second part of my talk. Mortality—now, morality. Mortality leads to morality, at least of a certain kind. For mortality indicates the shape of our decisions for limited goods: goods received, rather than manufactured on our own. But what are we given?
Precisely mortal bodies. Our bodies, understood in their physiological framework, are the vehicles of our mortal existence. The intimate connection between body and meaning is given here in all of its press. In a way, mortality means that morality is always bodily. But created mortality—mortality’s corollary—means that bodily life, therefore, is also divinely significant. It's spiritual, in that sense. The body-soul dualism that has been more or less prominent in Christian self-understanding has, as we know, risked obscuring mortality as a divine good, from top to bottom. The Christian tradition has, in fact, wavered between two views of mortality. [First,] what I call the Intrinsicist view, which says that our mortal nature, including our deaths, is and always was built into our created being—“you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” Genesis 3:19. Mortality is intrinsic to who we are as created by God—that's one view. An alternative view in the Christian tradition is the Extrinsicist view, that says that mortality was imposed on us subsequent to our creation, by Satan, sin, a human mistake, and so on. However, practically, these two views, whatever individual theologians have said—and there is no dogmatic agreement here, no conciliar decree on whether mortality is intrinsic or extrinsic, there is no orthodoxy on the matter—practically, the two views have existed for Christians in a dialectic of experienced understanding, both together. More real has been the claim of the body’s shaping of the soul, the body's priority over the soul, one way or the other. As Paul writes, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to what he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”3 That sums up the bodily morality of mortality, right?
There's an Anglo-Saxon poem that I like to use to make this point, entitled, of course, “Soul and Body,” in which the soul in this poem addresses the body—and the body is now dead, as it awaits the resurrection.4 The body, as it lies there with the soul, watching its decomposing friend, is being eaten away by vermin and worms. And the soul can do nothing but look upon its mate, its body, in a kind of paralysis, knowing that its soul’s own fate is bound entirely to what this corrupted physical pile of bodily rot once did. And so the soul says to the body, you have to answer for us both at the Day of Judgment. That is, my fate as soul is bound to your life as body. And then the soul goes on:
Then there will be no joint so small in your body that you must pay retribution for every one singly, when the Lord shall be fearsome in his judgment. And what have we done for our sakes? We must soon afterwards brook twinned miseries, just as you the body have ordained for us here before!
The soul is sort of upset at the fact that she can't do anything. It's all in the power of the body. And yet the two go together.
Now, it's a bit stark, I admit. But the point, if you think about it, is really kind of liberating. This life, in our body, is our life. There's something wonderful about that. It's not somewhere else. This really is the life God has given me. We need peer under no rocks to get at the secret, or stand around with our eyes cast heavenward, tearing for an answer, or find ways to cast off what we have been given in the flesh, in order to find the truth. None of that. Rather, our births, our parents, our children, if we have them, our families, our growth, our struggles, our toil, our loves, our generations, our losses, our pain, our illnesses, our weakening—it's all enough. It's all powered by the miraculous wealth and grace of God. The life of bodies, which are limited and offered up to God, is all the stuff of our spirit’s life that it needs. It's not the spirit’s shell, it's the spirit’s very form.
Now, if indeed the mortal body is tied up with eternal reality, that's fine—that’s true. But it's tied up as mortal, as defined in the ways I've just listed. And the morality of mortality, then, will be different from a morality based on the bodily escape into immortality. Rather, the morality of mortality will simply follow the shape of the body's limits—as I said, birth, family, toil, survival, weakening, death—with meaning, in the forms of joy, sorrow, hope, given just in the parameters and experience of these limits. In the form of its mortal limitations, morality, furthermore, is thus a matter of ordering these limits—all the things that are about “just here.” While there may be consequentialist outcomes to what is “just here”—what Jesus calls “reward[s] in heaven”—“just here” is not about rewards, by definition, because “just here” ends. So “just here” is not about “just here” rewards. There are rewards—it's in a different dimension, as it were. And heaven is not about what is given “just here.” “Just here” means being born, living a certain way, and dying, and that this is enough to constitute the full gift of God.
So what does it mean to order the limits of what is “just here” in our mortal lives? We can speak here of a design, though not in terms of a plan to achieve a purpose, but a design in the artistic sense of sketching the fundamentals of an outline, its proportions, its relative integration of parts. The Italian Renaissance had a notion of disegno (the Italian word for design)—which, interestingly enough, was first applied to God—of design as the skeleton of beauty. By analogy, we could say that mortality as grounds for morality has no purpose beyond itself, except that God has made it. Morality is thus what ethicists call deontological: it's based on what God gives—what God commands, you could say—not what we make up. To the extent that our lives are given to us in an utterly limited and temporally relative fashion, we can only act with what we have received from God. And we can only do what fits within the limits of this reception. We cannot change the constraints that have been placed upon [us] that define our lives; we cannot make them better in a way that outstrips what we are given relatively: our bodies, our lifespans, our transient genetic and familial relationships, our labors simply to survive in the framework of a time that moves us from birth to death. Rightly ordering this small scope of bodily life, according to God's will, is, in this sense of disegno, beautiful. It is true. It is good. And all the rest is either irrelevant, or ugly, or false, or evil. It's a very radical claim. The morality of mortality is very different than what we are taught today, according to which [we] judge our lives, which is all based on achieving something that is somehow beyond the present.
It is of course, in this context of mortal bodies—and so many contemporary social disputes are being waged, but without much sense of the actual force of the limits this context involves—our bodies are received as gifts, and they serve a brief mortal passage to death. And their constitution involves the generative and nurturing struggles of, yes, codependence (in this context, a good, not a bad word) with other people. Matters regarding the sex we are given, the shape of our bodies as given, their use, their relations, and their disposal obviously all come into play “just here.” Discerning our way through present disputes about all this, I realize, is not easy. But take out the utilitarian claims that are common in the ethics of our day—what do our actions get us by acting in such and such a way?—take that out, as well as the conviction that time changes things for the better (amelioration)—which can’t, because we only live a few years, and we can't get much done—what we are left with is our bodies as they have always been, more or less, ordered in the few years granted us. Scriptural ethics is, I would argue, but the deontologically articulated form of God's inventive design, whose tools permit our own limited crafting of a beautiful life. We can make our lives beautiful, but within this small scope of what we have been given.
Interestingly, Scripture—and Paul makes this explicit in 1 Corinthians 12—speaks of beauty in just this moral way, that is tied to mortality. He does so in a very peculiar fashion, using the term “honor” or kabad in Hebrew. Honor your mother and father. Honor the emperor. Honor God. These are all things Paul says, and other people say in Scripture. What does “honor” mean here? It’s related to the Hebrew word kabod, which is translated in English as “glory.” And both kabad, honor, and kabod, glory, refer to a kind of weight: a heaviness, a substance. To honor is thus to make or count something as heavy, as weighty. It's the same word—oddly to us, perhaps—that we translate into English from the Bible as “hardened,” as when God hardens Pharaoh's heart, or as making the eyes of sinners heavy, and thus dull. It's interesting—”honor” and “hardening” are really the same word. When we honor parents, or God, at work is a dynamic you see of gift and receipt, which, as I have been emphasizing, is at the core of mortality. We honor those to whom we give ourselves away, to whom we laden with the gift of [ourselves], and we are honored when we receive from them. Mortality is a way that God honors us, because it is all gift. That's what mortality is: all gift, without remainder. And these burdens reflect that giftedness, that is, the “this is not ours” or “this is not my reality,” of who we are. And the deepest gift we can give is ourselves and expanding our lives for another. The morality of mortality in this perspective is the ordered design of receiving and self-giving that which is fundamentally all that we have from God, our bodies.
Let me just go off-script here, because I had a conversation in the car two days ago. I was driving down to Philadelphia with a friend of mine in Toronto, who is a little younger than I am. He and his wife have three children, and the eldest of his children, his son, was born with very severe Down Syndrome. And I know the family well. He's now 24, something like that, and he can barely speak much, and he can't do much, and so on. And they have been caring for him their whole life in many ways. They both have jobs, daughters going to university—they have a life like anybody else. But it's all circumscribed by taking care of Rafi. Somebody has to be there, they have to get this and that, and organizing, and insurance, medicine. I've watched this, everything—who's there, who goes, who gets to do this. And so I was talking to my friend the other day, and it came up. He teaches a course in disability studies at a seminary, and he said, you know, it's very hard to get [my students] to realize that our relationship to Rafi really is a gift. Our need to take care of him, and his burden upon us, is actually what God has given us to make our lives full. It's a miracle, he says—not that I've always enjoyed it, obviously. I mean, it's been a terrible burden in real ways. But, he said, this is so hard for people to understand—so hard. And he said, at one point, they had [nursing] students who would come and help out with Rafi, and one of the things they did in their training was help him bathe. And he said, you know, most of us would think that helping some sort of not very well-developed human being, who doesn't really say much or anything, bathe, be naked—would be really hard. And he said, these students realized after doing this that there was something marvelous about just being able to cherish another body without any other purpose. Not their children, not sexual. There's a body, and it needs cherishing. He says it's been transforming.
So, honoring is the way that God speaks of the beautiful, and it's done bodily. So God honors us most fully, then, in what? The incarnation—and the cross of Jesus, his son. And so too marriage, as a sign of that gift, is an honoring of the spouse. And so children honor parents by tending them, and parents their children, and on and on. The whole of the law, the Torah, outlines this design of mortality, or the morality of mortality. What is beautiful, in our sense of the term, is, in Scriptural terms, as I said, what is honorable: the image of the gift of God. When our mortal lives are so ordered as to cry out with all creation, in Augustine's famous phrase, “you have made me, you have designed me, and our lives have reached their perfection.”
And so here I turn to the third last part: mystery. A morality of honoring, let us say, takes us into the life of God, of our Creator. Remember, createdness is the corollary of mortality. And thus a life that honors our creator in the way that I've just summarized it—ordering our bodies according to the designs of God given in Scripture—is one that reflects God's creating person somehow. The fact that our mortality is itself a revelation of God is its most powerful aspect as a gift. God shows himself to us in our mortal lives, because he's our Creator. We only know God as our Creator because we are faced with our mortality. So it's the revelation of God. God shows himself to us in our mortal selves.
And this is what I mean by “mystery.” Translating the Greek of the New Testament, a mystery is the unveiling of a previously hidden purpose of God, that however has, for all its prior obscurity, long been at work. So let’s just be clear: in the New Testament, a mystery is not something we don't know. A mystery is something that's actually revealed, that was hidden, but is revealed—it's revealed about our salvation. The word “mystery” in this sense is significantly used, as you may know, in Ephesians 5, on the subject of marriage:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it… So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth it and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church. For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.5
Now, I think this is a hinge text for all Christian life and ethics. And in it, the now-revealed secret purposes lying at the heart of God's life, as our Creator, are laid out in Jesus's death for the church, figured in the marriage of husband and wife, explained in decidedly bodily terms of joining and dying. And just as in the context of husband and wife, the term “honoring” also appears—and in 1 Peter and elsewhere—right after this, when it comes to children. We order our lives and, in this case the fundamental framework of husband and wife being joined and having children, literally dying for one another (mutuality, by the way, is implied, not explicit, in an earlier verse)—we do all this according to the single act of Christ Jesus. He is the perfect human being, we are told. He is the one new man, we are told. He is the second Adam, we are told. He is the image of the Father, we are told, in whose image we are both made and brought into conformance, we are finally told. So his body and what God does with the body of his son is what defines the miraculous gift of our own mortality. That is to say, the ordering of our mortal lives according to the morality of mortality, as I have indicated, is a revelation of the character of God, and the vehicle, the very form, the schema, the design, the beauty of our participation in God's life. Do you see what I'm saying? All the stuff I started with—we get sick, and we die, and we can't do this, and we can’t accomplish that, and frustration, frustration, frustration—all of that turns out, actually, to be the thing God gives us to have us enter into his life. It is a revelation into the mystery of God.
So I want to end here reflectively. Mortality, morally grasped, is our divine participation, our divine image. And this does indeed go against a lot of popular and, to some extent, some traditional Christian perspectives. An exclusive Extrinsicist view of mortality—as, say, thinking that the fact of being in the midst of life we are in death must be the result of an evil imposition (that phrase from the prayer book)—if left unchecked, presses us to view our lives as ultimately a moment only, given in which to plan and effect our escape from our lives. Why am I here? It's only to get things done so I can get out of here. That's what a pure Extrinsicist view of mortality would be, or could be. Taken to the extreme, the Extrinsicist view of mortality asserts that the body is a waystation at best, a prism at worse. And the resurrection is then viewed as a re-creation of something now discontinuous completely, with the “just here,” with the “just this body and these limitations.”
But I think Ephesians 5 gives the lie to this view. The mystery that Paul lays open, and what I just read and talked about, is that the divine Son of God reveals his divinity in dying for his church in a way that somehow comprehends the mortal life of husband and wife. And we can move on to children honoring parents and parents nurturing children, as Paul goes on to do in Ephesians 6. This life of honoring with our bodies, we are told, is the perfect human life. The perfect life of the resurrected body, therefore, is [in] the body that dies for spouse. Now I'm not trying to parse this. We're also told that he will never die again, with respect to Christ (Romans 9). Yet there he sits, our Lord, the perfect human being upon the throne, we are told, as “a Lamb that was slain.”6 Whatever the case, death has not been wiped away. It is still visible, somehow, in the transcendent, miraculous transfiguration of God himself. Our future, then, it seems, is one of perfect sacrifice, whatever that means—not no sacrifice. I don't know what it means, but I do know that it means it's not no sacrifice. Without tears, we're told, but nonetheless, just this giving or being given away, this being delivered up. Or, we could say, immortality is a perfect mortality. It's not the opposite of mortality. It's the perfection of mortality. Now, to understand that, which I believe is the Christian gospel, is a project for our churches, certainly, and for our society in which we live and witness. Thank you.
Y. B. Yeats, “Death.”
2 Corinthians 5:10, KJV.
Anonymous, “Soul & Body.” Soul & Body | Old English Poetry Project | Rutgers University.
Ephesians 5:25, 28-33, KJV.