Thursday, 24 March 2011

Thinking Ahead on Resurrection

My next Unitarian service is resurrection Sunday, and it is well know by now that I don't believe in the resurrection in any sense that a man, Jesus, had personal continuity and consciousness after his death. The texts are about something else and quite different. I'm just thinking ahead and, nevertheless, I want to tackle the subject more positively and like many people who take occasional services the service's sermon gets some advanced thought.

This is nothing but my first advanced draft of a sermon that might, when it appears, look nothing like this! On the other hand, it might stay close. But the following is rough text.

My starting point (again) is dementia broken down into Alzheimers - the road to total loss - and Transient Ischaemic Attacks or reduced mental ability and change in personality.

So what we are as personalities are our memories refeeding our consciousness of being conscious. We are our biographies and our stories. With Alzheimers there is a progressive loss until we are nothing, recognising no one and memories that are but a flash of the moment. Eventually old memories are lost too. Sometimes there is a memory flash, a recognition, but then it is gone, and gone beyond distance.

With Transient Ischaemic Attacks there are memories, but distorted and fantastical, so that a person remembers something like they are married to someone they divorced twenty years earlier or who had died ten years earlier. It also involves a change of personality and the puzzle is whether this is the real person emerging after a lifetime of complex social suppression of frustration or if it is just something else.

Now it is well known that I don't believe in the resurrection of Jesus in the sense that the person who died had a continuous consciousness and memory restored afterwards in a restored body. The texts seem to be saying something else in terms of the basis of legitimising authority and ritual in the new early Churches. But I want to treat the concept positively.

Resurrection implies that the person is restored and restored into a condition of perfection. Now we don't really know what perfection is, though we might speculate it involves an inner ethical condition. It must mean personal fulfilment.

Resurrection also implies the restoration of the world - indeed the cosmos - into a condition of perfection, and therefore its fulfilment.

If who we are is so much the sum of our memories and consciousness of memories, how does this relate to the fulfilment of personality, and of the cosmos.

Obviously we need here a concept of time, but time is something that varies out there objectively and varies internally subjectively. Indeed, some subjective experiences of time have objective reality. A person who travels faster will become younger than a person who travels slower, time does slow down for the traveller. A person kicked off a cliff edge, for whom time slows down, actually can read a fast moving electronic clock face that could not be read when he wasn't scared. In other words, time actually does objectively slow down for a person who is scared. It emphasises what is known in quantum physics, that the observer changes the result of external reality.

Nevertheless, whatever is our time, we are always lost to the past, that the future has not happened, and the present is but a flash that is instant and vanished. But with memory, time becomes more like a container, holding something with a breadth of time, sorting and storing in the past, and admitting new material as the future breaks into the present, with some reorientation of the self towards that future. Why do we worship, after all? In part, I'd suggest, to reorientate our reception of the coming future.

So any kind of perfection must be within a time package, within something held. Personally, it is in our memory, our autobiography. Collectively it is in the culture, that transmission of language and words and symbolism that makes meaning of all the clutter around us.

How then one might understand God in this sense? Well, God is part of the communicative system, and is received within it, and if the concept of eternity means anything, then it means piercing time at any point of the past, present or future.

Now if our universe, thanks to entropy - I spoke about entropy in my last service, and it is that compulsory capacity towards decay; properly, the dispersal of energy so that it can do no work, then the universe is going to expand towards an end of heat-death, that is when in trillions of years there is no star burning, and all black holes have evaporated. Light photons will be dispersed and useless. And remember, our universe is expanding at an increasing rate. Hardly resurrection, then. Or is there resurrection?

Memories are stored communication, and so God in communication is perhaps the perfection of memories. It's those elements of communicating who were are and what we are, and indeed what the world is, that identify what is perfect about it.

Some have the circular argument that Jesus as God the Son was perfect, and a mark of that perfection was the defeat of death, as people believed that illness and indeed death were caused by the imperfection of sin. Trouble is, we cannot do the calculation of perfection the other way, from the ground up. We don't have the data about Jesus's life or personality, nor indeed if he is the most perfect compared with anyone else who has lived about which we have no data. Perfection pretty soon becomes nothing more than a doctrinal statement and a circular argument. I think Jesus learnt, he made mistakes when he learnt, and he made mistakes throughout, and perhaps dismissed Gentiles and gentile life too easily, perhaps had an ego problem with his own role in prompting God to bring in the Kingdom, the fulfilment of Israel, at then the last days.

Perfection also works with Buddha, if at one remove: how someone could try this method and try that, and then hit upon the perfect formula of the Middle Way to overcome attachment or the samsara version of sin. Overcome that, with compassion and concentration, and you will find Nirvana.

But perfection is problematic: we would not know it if we saw it.

And in any case, surely in a planet, a solar system, a galaxy and a universe all condemned to die, and indeed we as individuals each and every one, the whole notion of resurrection is simply an ancient belief we should drop.

Indeed we can, and perhaps should, for to use the term is misleading, but rather like in the use of the term God, what we look for is perhaps not perfection at all, but rather intrinsic worth, what is of ultimate value in and amongst the mundane and both the good and bad.

If we go back to those who have suffered loss in their personalities, then the other person has memory, and also sympathy for that person, even an imaginative leap inside where someone has suffered such loss. Despite everything, it is the ability to see what is special, what is worthwhile, was was and also what is, that perhaps gives a sense of restoration. That restoration is imaginative, yes, but if comes about in the affirmative.


Fr David Cloake said...

Adrian, thank you for tackling this subject. Handled in the way that you have, so many can learn about things that we often look away from through fear or mis-understanding. I was guilty of that once, but I hope not now. Thank you

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

It's the contrast between heat-death (very ultimate) and other very ultimates. I don't believe in resurrection as such, but do think we should try and say yes to life and what is in it, good and bad.