Month: February 2017

You are dust

I try to read Lent books every year and spent the afternoon browsing my local Waterstones for this year’s selection. En route to the religion section, I chanced upon a table full of books about death: ┬ádeath from the perspective of a surgeon; the memoirs of an undertaker; collections of writing about death etc. The notice on this table had as its central feature a quotation (I can’t remember who it is from): “it is only mortality that gives meaning to life”.

ash-wednesday-detail

Like Death Cafes, these are secular attempts to terms with the reality of our mortality. As such they are no bad thing, and certainly good deal better than the culture of repression and euphemism that has been a stable feature of particularly English and American culture for centuries. Yet there is a sense in which we can never fully come to terms with death. Built into the fabric of our materiality, it nonetheless confronts us as something alien. It is an end: the frustration of hope, the fracturing of relationships, the loss of the familiar. There is ultimately no sense to be made of it, because it marks the absence of sense. To move on from here would take a miracle, which is precisely what Christianity holds out to us.

Lent is, I think, a way of practising death. Its denials are lettings go of the things of life in anticipation of that final letting go which, in virtue of our baptism, we can now undergo trustfully. Whilst our faith points beyond death, our nature still fears it, and we cling superstitiously to possessions and position, in the hope that we might somehow cheat our own cosmic irrelevance and make a permanent mark on the universe. Through giving up time, food or comfort during Lent we try, under grace, to break the grip of these attractions. Indeed in a way we attempt to loosen our grip on life itself. For anyone who wants to save their life must lose it.

Advertisements

Eagleton on Materialism

the-contradictions-of-terry-eagleton-5206

At the moment, I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s latest, Materialism. It’s a useful setting out of a particular account of what it is to be human, drawing on Aquinas, Marx, and Wittgenstein and amongst others. As you might imagine, I’m a sympathetic reader. Like much of his recent work, it engages with theological topics at some length. One passage in particular struck me:

The doctrine of the Incarnation means that God is an animal. He is present in the Eucharist as the everyday stuff of bread and wine, in the mundane business of chewing and digesting. Salvation is not primarily a matter of cult and ritual but of feeding the hungry and tending the sick. Jesus spends much of his time restoring damaged human bodies to health, along with a number of deranged minds. Love is a material practice, not a spiritual sentiment. Its paradigm is the love of strangers and enemies, which is unlikely to generate much of a warm glow.

The kind of materialism in which Eagleton is interested is not the belief that nothing exists other than material entities, which would obviously be incompatible with Christian faith. Rather, he espouses what he calls somatic materialism, the taking seriously of the embodied, fragile, historical, and conditioned nature of human beings. His immediate target is, I suspect, the tendency to overlook these aspects of ourselves on parts of the contemporary left. But Christians too need reminding of the materialism at the heart of our faith, and I commend this book warmly.