The bottom line, as they say in the business world, for any religious system — for faith — is what it does with the body and therefore with death. How intimately and realistically does it engage that moment that always sits in the core of human consciousness? Rumi made the observation that “The cure for pain is in the pain.” My gloss on that is: “The body is not afraid of death; only the mind, incomplete in its relationship with the body, is afraid of death.”
So, this piece raises the question of somatic competence. And its pivotal statement about Christianity is the remark about “somatic grasp of the resurrection of Jesus.”
THE TRUTH OF DEATH AND OTHER FAMILY SECRETS
Perhaps it is time for Christians to take stock of the fact that something really special is going on in this period of history. The studies in the sociology of religion generally support the opinion that there is a massive shift in spiritual consciousness taking place in Western society and organized Christianity is not leading it.
I would like to offer the perspective of some one who left the Roman Catholic church and the priesthood thirty years ago and has never looked back.
The basic autobiographical facts are these: I grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Chicago and joined the Jesuits when I was nineteen years old. I went to India as a missionary, had the extraordinary experience of ordination to the priesthood in Patna in the State of Bihar, and two years after that left all those associations and traditions. Then I went on to still more graduate school, obtained a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago, got married, had children, got divorced. I do not go to church at all any more. My children are not baptized. I regard church as a developmentally obsolescent institution.
And now I live in what I call the dying zone. That is to say, at the age of sixty-four, every day I read or hear about men my age or younger dying. Three years ago I attended the funeral of a high school and college classmate. The zone is even more clearly marked for me by the experience of triple by-pass surgery eight months ago as I write this now. The series of events that make up that experience center on the loss of blood supply to the heart, the myocardium’s consequent partial paralysis, and the peculiarly intimate sensations that accompany that stiffness.
On three separate occasions during my treatment I felt my body unarguably fail me. The subtle but insistent sensation of angina pectoris, the intense attentiveness of a cardiac intern observing me for any shift from angina to infarction, and the remarkable emptying of thoracic energy due to a vasovagal response to a procedure after surgery — these all stood me purely and simply at death’s door unambiguously, unapologetically, unpretentiously. What is perhaps most important, I had the singular benefit of being brought to this moment gently. The physical assault presented itself unattended by any extrinsic distractions, such as the malevolence of an enemy, the chaos of a social catastrophe, or significant pain. And so death in its simple purity came to me, not defeat, rejection or trauma. I gained a new intimacy with it. I know it now in a way that I never did before. It has moved from being an idea to being a fully bodily reality, as bodies that I have touched disappear, and as my body shifts its momentum more and more from producing living cells to destroying living cells.
So, the truth of death, Part One, is that it happens to everybody, and it will happen to me.
So in recent months I have had to look very carefully at what I have done with christianity. It appears to me to be doubly paradoxical. On the one hand, in order to grow spiritually I had to discard what most people would ordinarily think of as christianity. But on the other hand, while I have discarded all of the social attributes of christianity, I have become more and more indebted to its essential ontology and world-view. This means that I have no interest membership, ritual, sacraments, hierarchy, or teaching authority. On the other hand I value in the extreme the person of Jesus and the event that started the institution of christianity.
(I am looking at my Juiceman II juicer as I say this, watching it spew out some of the fifteen pounds of carrot pulp it produces every week in order to get at just the juice. It brings to mind an absurdly homely metaphor for such a large idea, but one that in spite of its inherent banality, seems to have some validity. In growing to where I am today, I have “de-pulped” christianity. I have thrown away most of it, what many people would regard as its essential feature. But I have kept the juice.)
If membership, ritual, sacraments and teaching authority are gone, what is left?
Well, that would be the fact that there stands at the headwaters of western civilization a death that was so powerful in its first impact on the human race that it re-aligned the geopolitical forces of the Mediterranean basin and Europe in a scant 300 years. This event is of course the death and resurrection of Jesus. Culturally and historically it seems that there is not a more dramatic shift in human experience than the one that took place between the ascendancy of Caesar Augustus and the ascendancy of Augustine of Hippo.
My journey out of christianity was at the same time a journey into the resurrection.
I do not understand all of the laws of history and psychology that underly this apparent paradox. But I think I understand some of them. And one of these laws is that every generation of christians gets the resurrection according to its own developmental needs. And, since the history of culture is the history of the development of the human ego, this will mean a different take for each different generation as the human race moves through history.
So, what is valid for one generation will not necessarily support the growth of the next. The immediate followers of Jesus did not fully get the resurrection . I think that a careful reading of the letters of St. Paul shows this very clearly for him. All those who ever encountered Jesus were simply men and women just as we are. As history has progressed, the human grasp of him keeps on evolving.
And now we are at a peculiar juncture in human history. The resurrection is still as powerful as it ever was, but for the very first time, it is accessible in the public domain. The churches think they own the resurrection, and there was once a time when they did. But with information technology at the stage it is now, clearly they do not own it any longer. The resurrection of Jesus is an historical event. The literature is available anywhere. Anyone who is the least bit curious can examine it.
Let us look for a minute at the status of the resurrection in contemporary culture. The April 8, 1996 editions of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report all featured cover pictures of the risen Jesus. I happened to be in O’Hare terminal that week-end and while I was waiting for a plane I noticed these three magazines side by side. All three cover stories (of these “secular” journals) recounted the impact on christianity of a group of theologians who gather periodically in a format called the Jesus Seminar. The members of the Jesus Seminar — who teach theology at divinity schools or departments of religion in various places in the U.S. and Europe — hold the opinion that after all is said and done, the resurrection of Jesus as a bodily, historical event, simply did not happen. They agree with the pithy pronouncement of the German theologian Gerd Ludemann that the resurrection is “an empty formula” that must be rejected by anyone holding “a scientific world view.” The Newsweek article makes the following observation about the approach of the Jesus Seminar: “According to this elaborate academic protocol, the Resurrection is ruled a priori out of court because it transcends time and space.” (p. 65)
The Newsweek article also notes that “a Harris poll taken in 1994 found that 87 percent of Americans believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.” (p.62)
This is of course a situation that has always existed in christianity. There has always been an element of doubt. It is present in the gospel accounts themselves in the reaction of Thomas to the reports of his colleagues. It was a lively issue among the very first generation of christians in the time of St. Paul as reported at length in the first letter to the Corinthians where Paul responds passionately and at length to his own rhetorical question: “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor 15, 12) And although Thomas appears to have been brought around to the majority view by a subsequent contact with Jesus, there is no report on the effect of Paul’s remonstrations on the doubting christians of Corinth.
So, the Jesus Seminar is just today’s form of a point of view that has always been around. The scent of doubt continues to hang over the event. And the doubt gets all the ink in the Easter issues of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.
The minority view today is expressed perhaps more elaborately than it was in the distant past. The members of the Jesus Seminar write large books and scholarly papers with hundreds of footnotes. And those who disagree with them also write extensive tracts on the other side. It seems to me that the books are actually a smoke screen that conceals the true foundation of the difference of opinion.
For it seems that the opinion as to whether Jesus rose from the dead or not was originally a bodily perception that preceded all thinking. The resurrection of Jesus, if it actually occurred, was undeniably a bodily event. Perhaps no event in human history is so critically and essentially somatic. So, the way some one has to know that the resurrection is “real” or not is the same way that some one knows that the food is good or the air is bad. There is a bodily way of knowing things to which the story of the resurrection makes either a valid or an invalid appeal.
If the resurrection of Jesus did really happen, then it had to come about something like this: (1) A network of intimate personal relationships forms (between Jesus and his followers) in which full, normal body contact is completely verified. This would include odors and pheromones. (2) A very public death occurs (“and there came forth blood and water”). (3) A bodily experience occurs after the death that is perceptually identical with the bodily experiences of companionship before the death. This also had to include odors and pheromones. (4) A resulting shift of inner-outer perceptual standards occurs that the New Testament called metanoia and which is certainly some sort of shift in personality structure. In this shift, the observer is thrown into an unprecedented conflict between his/her somatic perceptions of reality and his or her mental constructs about reality. In this conflict between sensing and thinking the observer encounters the part of the body/self that does not die. In order for there even to be a debate about the matter, something like this had to happen.
If the story of the resurrection does not engage your senses in the same way that it did for the original eyewitnesses, then you stay in your head. The proposition that the body can exist outside time and space is illogical. If you are inclined towards study, you might easily spend numerous hours in libraries, get a degree, and write a book that “proves” that the resurrection is not real. On the other hand, if the story of the resurrection does engage you somehow on the somatic level, then you gravitate towards the opposite opinion. Again, if you are inclined towards study, you might write a book that makes that case.
But the books are just devices to make the decision look more rational than it really is. They are most powerful for those who live in their heads, not in their whole bodies. They are currency for a head-tripping sub-culture, and it should come as a surprise to no one that in this culture at this time that a head-tripping sub-culture should have a considerable following.
So, I don’t actually read the books. I may look them over cursorily to make sure they contain all the elements of rationalization I have learned to expect from them. But I don’t read them with any genuine interest. Their conclusions are after all completely pre-formed. There is no drama in the arguments. Nothing new is ever uncovered by the mental process.
But what does interest me acutely about the resurrection debate is the light it throws on the depths of doubt among christians about the source event of christianity.
It prompts me to ask about the modality of that assent of the 87 percent. Eighty-seven percent after all is a very high figure. I’m not sure that you could get that percentage of the American population to affirm that the world is not flat. So it seems very reasonable to ask: what kind of assent are we tapping here? Is it a more or less unthinking, automatic notional assent based on reflex cultural conformity? Or is a transformative , real assent based on an actual bodily experience? Or, more intriguingly still, is it somewhere in between?
Of course our experience with the distribution of opinions in any social body would lead us to hypothesize that the opinions of those 87 percent of Americans who say they believe that Jesus was raised from the dead are normally distributed between the poles of unthinking, notional assent on the one hand and somatically grounded real assent on the other. This means that there would be a relatively few people at the extreme ends of the distribution, and many people towards the middle.
This means that most of the 87 percent of Americans who say they believe that Jesus was raised from the dead do so because they have heard it often from authorities they have chosen not to doubt. It has the status of conventional wisdom. They are like Brazilians who “know” what snow is without ever having had the somatic experience of it. If you take one of those Brazilians to Minnesota in January and have them wake up to a snowy winter morning, then he or she would go through a transformative experience, as the idea of snow turns into the somatic experience of snow, as notional assent turns into real assent. This would be an event of true revelation and of true enlightenment with respect to the nature of snow.
The same is obviously true for a shift from notional assent to real assent in regard to the resurrection. If my gut guess about the culture is correct, then there is much room for such a shift. The truth of death, Part Two, is that the resurrection of Jesus pierces the veil, but only when it is experienced somatically.
And so the question naturally arises: how does one put the body back into the resurrection?
Here is how it happened for me.
The first incident I can recall happened in 1963. In what I remember as my very first formal class in New Testament exegesis in the Jesuits, Fr. Herman Vollkaert, S.J. had us read to ourselves John 20, 19: “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood in their midst.” Then he shouted at us, “What happened?” (In his manner of teaching, as I recall, he did a lot of shouting.) In the moment of that question and the discussion that followed, I realized that all I had been previously taught about christianity was superficial and lame. I was 30 years old at the time and had been in the Jesuits for 10 years. But it was only at that moment that something shifted in my body, and I realized that Jesus was part of a reality that was open-ended and mysterious.
The shift was so unconscious and subtle that I had no language for it at the time. It was only much later on, probably 20 years later on, that I realized when looking back at my life that that was a crucial turning point. That was the moment when I started to think that maybe I was in the wrong place, maybe I should be living my life in an entirely different manner.
The second incident I recall was on the eve of my actual departure from the Jesuits. This was in December 1966. When I got to the point where I knew I was going to leave, I planned out the day when I would stop saying my daily morning Mass. On that day I went to the chapel where I had been doing it, in order to see what, if any, emotional reaction I would have. The scene was on an upper floor of St. Stanislaus Retreat House in Parma, Ohio.
I was prepared for a twinge of sadness or guilt. But what actually did happen was quite different and startled me in the extreme. I stood there and looked at the little altar, the chalice, the vestments and missal that I was never going to use again, and what went through me was a gentle but definite feeling of relief. It was as if my body released some toxins it had been holding on to all my life. (Several years later, when I was experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, I did have the experience of my body releasing toxins when I was coming down from an acid trip. It was only then that I identified the feeling of relief I had felt in the chapel as a release of toxins.)
The third experience in the recovery of my body that I can recall was actually a series of experiences in 1986 and 1987. During that period of time I was investigating the offerings of New Age therapeutic workshops. In three separate events I experienced what psychologists would call the release of childhood memories, in which certain extremely standard defining moments of trauma in my early life came to the surface of my consciousness. Each of these experiences had its own grounding and completing effect upon my life. Each of them contributed towards a more secure sense of my self.
Also in this period of time I embarked upon the project of writing out the whole story of my experience with Catholicism. This resulted in a book called Outgrowing Catholicism — A Study. A Practical Guide. A Personal Reflection. The writing of this book was extremely clarifying for me, but its tone had too much anger in it, and it only analyzed the break-down of the old belief system. It did not offer anything to put in its place. As a religion editor at Doubleday tersely put it in turning down my manuscript, “You have to give them something.” And so I ended up having to publish it myself. I sent out review copies and in the end sold a few hundred books. The rest are still in my basement locker. The book was a commercial disaster, but a therapeutic success. I got my past out of my system.
The fifth experience I can recall took place right after writing Outgrowing Catholicism. When I finished the book I realized that I needed to learn more about my body. This was in 1991. It so happened that I encountered at that moment a woman by the name of Kay Ortmans, who was then 84 years old, and had been teaching body awareness for over fifty years. She is well-known in bodyworking circles for her seminars conducted over many years at The Wellsprings Foundation in Ben Lomond, California in the Santa Cruz mountains. In 1991 she was living in semi-retirement in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was, but was still taking students, giving massages, and holding small workshops.
I ended up studying with Kay for two years. She and her followers and other students gave me my apprenticeship in the workings of somatic energy. I spent hundreds of hours assisting and giving and receiving bodywork, in movement workshops and free-associational drawing, all to the accompaniment of classical music. There came a point in time when I had to break away from that tutelage, in order to explore more deeply my own manner of working with those energies. That is when I moved back to the Chicago area.
In Chicago I completed the acquisition of the basic set of tools I now use to maintain and nurture my spiritual life. I took a six months workshop in Hakomi for body workers. The Hakomi method of psychotherapy and Hakomi Integrative Somatics is an approach to self-awareness first practiced by Ron Kurtz in the 1970s. It is now practiced and taught by him and the members of The Hakomi Institute of Boulder, Colorado.
The result of all this process is my present condition: a life of simple usefulness in the dying zone. The truth of death, Part Three, is perhaps best said in the words of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind): “Because you think you have body or mind, you have very lonely feelings. But when you realize that everything is just a flashing into the vast universe, then you become very strong and your existence becomes very meaningful.”
As I look back on my journey I have an over-arching thought about the difference between the tools for spirituality that I discarded with the church and the tools for spirituality that I use now. It seems to me that the core of the difference has to do with the choice between staying awake in the face of pain and going into trance. The main technologies used by all the churches are essentially trance-induction techniques with regression-inducing effects. This is particularly true of the Mass and the more so when it is performed in the womb-like vaults of cathedrals. In saying this I do not feel that I am making a criticism. I am just making an observation. Karl Marx apparently thought he had scored a big point when he said that religion is the opiate of the masses. But Karl was in the opiate business himself with his manifestos and his programs. He never really got it that opiates have always been a crucial part of social life, and that they are not in themselves a bad thing, but a good thing. Just ask any emergency room physician. They are only bad when you get addicted to them.
So, my view of the church’s technology is that it suits a certain stage of human knowledge about how to handle emotional pain, and it suits a certain average level of pain in the society in question. Moreover, it has been a very successful technology. Under the regime of christian ritual, people got spiritually healthier. That is why they were always breaking off into heresy. In most (but not all ) cases, heresy meant that now that mom had taken such good care of them, they were ready to go off on their own. Of course, mom was never ready for this until her work turned out to be so successful that it influenced not only Martin Luther, but also the Duke of Wittenberg. So then we had The Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the modern world. The sociologist Robert N. Bellah put it this way:
The historic religions discovered the self; early modern religion found a doctrinal basis on which to accept the self in all its empirical ambiguity; modern religion is beginning to understand the laws of the self’s own existence and so can help man take responsibility for his own fate. (American Sociological Review, 1964.)
So, in this period of my life I distinguish between sleep technologies and wake-up technologies, and am very resourceful about acquiring instruments of wakefulness. The basic technology of spiritual growth after pain has subsided to a manageable level is extraordinarily simple. It is composed of silence and honesty, then more silence and more honesty. That to me is the “sum of the law and the prophets.” I meditate. I study scriptures of all traditions. I walk. I drink carrot juice. The truth of death has made me fall in love with consciousness.
Yet, it would be easy to fall asleep. The conventionalities of culture are still profoundly uncomfortable with death. Culture offers opportunities for distraction, denial and sheer numbness at every turn. But, to accede to these blandishments of convention feels to me like a negation of the very core of self, whose innermost quality is simply to be conscious. To know more, to feel more, to be aware of more — this is human destiny, human joy and ultimate communion with the infinite.
So, having arrived at a position of friendliness with death, I realize that I have also taken a position in regard to my inherited culture. I am a dissenter from its profound ambivalence about the event.
This is a culture, after all, where there is a great following for powerful and dramatic feelings about death. Fear and grief are felt in all directions: “Rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light.” My own emotions are more in the direction of “Smile, smile, smile at the dawning of the light.” And so, since really durable social connections depend on sharing fundamental feelings about the fundamental events of life, I have found it advisable to become a cleverly disguised contemporary anchorite.
I work; I eat; I sleep; I watch some TV, read The New York Times and write a little. I live the life of a recluse. I used to have this fantasy about moving to the Chisos Mountains and running a gas station in the middle of nowhere like Ellen Burstyn in the movie Resurrection. But now I realize that I am already there. I get about two phone calls a month. I make four or five. That is my social life. At work I am well tuned-in. I handle computers, deadlines, clients and vendors with a high level of competence. I like the work. I like the people I work with. We occupy a hot little spot in the pharmaceuticals marketing business. It is demanding; we do it well; we take pride in it. It is a strong spiritual connection, this act of producing things people need. But it is not intimate.
So, while dissenting from some of the basic emotions prescribed by my inherited culture, I still obtain satisfaction out of merely hanging around and supporting the human enterprise of making our way through time. I also observe the play of forces in the world. I smile and sometimes cry at the ebb and flow of them. This is my life in the dying zone.
But I do miss the human companionship, and so I think a lot about what a culture would look like that is much friendlier with death, much surer about it as positive destiny, more balanced, relaxed and secure. That is the only culture in which I could have any real friends, because the durability of social connections depends on having the same fundamental feelings about the fundamental events of life, and it is not possible to lie successfully about these things at close quarters.
And that is why I am still interested in the Church of Rome. It is such a large institution. It contains such an important kernel of spiritual knowledge for the whole human race. It could make such a great contribution to spiritual growth. Yet it hangs on to its ages-old sleep therapy. So, I just sigh when I think of how stuck it is. And I try to say something helpful.