Today Sarah Sentilles, writer, teacher, activist and scholar, gives us a powerful argument for new theological approaches to death. Sarah and I met at Harvard, where we were both graduate students in theology. Her presence, in person and on the page, is unique, compassionate, fiercely smart and perceptive. Sarah’s latest book is Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. For an interview and excerpts from the book, visit http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/ssentilles/2011/08/excerpt-from-breaking-up-with-god/. Visit Sarah at http://www.sarahsentilles.com
I believed in God because I thought it meant I would never die. My faith would protect me, and as far as I could tell in church, eternal life was the whole point of belief, maybe even the whole point of Christianity. How do we know Jesus was the Son of God? Because he never really dies. Because he rises from the dead. Because he lives forever. And, if you’re a Christian, and if you believe, you might live forever, too.
For much of my childhood, I carried the secret hope that I was immortal. I learned about immortality in fifth grade during a unit on Greek gods and goddesses, and I hoped I might be one of the chosen. Death happened to other people, but there was a chance it wouldn’t happen to me, especially if I was good, if I prayed, if I played by the rules. This secret fantasy warped my vision of the world around me. Believing there was a possibility I might never die rendered my life more real than other people’s lives, more important, more blessed. Decades later, when I saw The Truman Show—that movie with Jim Carey when he discovers his life is a television show—I realized my childhood vision of my life wasn’t much different, with everyone else as prop, as background, and I was ashamed.
I am sure my confession that I imagined myself immortal (something I’ve never admitted to anyone before, but Emily’s writing is so brave I felt I had to tell something new here) seems stupid, self-centered, small-minded, and it is indeed all those things. But it’s not that far off the mark from the kind of theology I was asked to believe as a child, and I don’t think it’s much different from the kind of theology you’d hear if you walked into just about any mainline Protestant church on a Sunday morning. I was taught to pray to a God who could save me. I pictured God sitting on a cloud in heaven keeping track of all our prayers. Ahmed got seventeen prayers today! I guess I’ll cure his cancer, I imagined God saying, then clapping his hands (this was a male God, and, yes, he had hands) and sending one of his minions off to work a miracle. Prayer nurtured the seeds of theological thinking that had already been planted in my mind—that there was something I could do to live forever, that there was something God could do. My mind bent into the shape it was asked to bend into. I took the stories I heard in church—about heaven and hell, about baptism, about commandments, about prayer, about rising from the dead—and I crafted a world in which death was not a natural part of human experience. It could be avoided.
But Jesus did die. He was killed, executed. That’s pretty much the only thing about him that’s known for sure. The rest of it—the angel stuff, the seated at the right hand of the father stuff, the appearance in upper rooms and on roads—was written in much later.
I heard Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker give a talk about their book Proverbs of Ashes in Cambridge years ago, and they called Christianity a haunted religion. Christianity, they said, is haunted by Jesus’s ghost because no one mourned his death. The storytellers let Jesus be dead for only two days, maybe three, depending on how you count. No one had enough time to grieve. Everyone decided to pretend he was still alive.
In Breaking Up with God, I wrote about a seven-year-old girl I knew who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her family belonged to the church where I worked as a youth minister. I taught Vacation Bible School one summer, and she and her younger brother came to my class. For one lesson, I gave everyone a disposable camera, and we went into the garden behind the church to take pictures of things we were thankful for. At the end of the day I sent them home with their cameras to take more gratitude photographs there. She was too sick to come to Vacation Bible School after that, but her brother brought me her camera a few weeks later, and before I made time to get her photographs developed, she died.
I went to her memorial service, and after the service, as I stood with the rest of the congregation in the church’s basement and watched a slideshow of family photographs, I heard someone say to the girl’s mother, God must have needed another little angel in heaven.
These weren’t words whispered behind the mother’s back in the dark. Did you hear? God needed another angel. These were words said right to the mother’s face, which makes me believe the woman speaking them meant to give consolation, to give comfort, though her words probably gave neither. I am sure Emily can catalogue the idiotic, well-meaning things people have said to her and to Rick and to Ronan (she started to do so in “Against Angels”: http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/emrapp/2011/08/against-angels/), and some of my own words are likely on that list. Most people don’t know what to say to someone facing what Emily and Rick are facing, what Ronan is facing, what the girl’s mother was facing in the basement of that church, so they reach for the familiar, for what they’ve heard before. My English teacher in high school called this phatic communion, words spoken to fill empty spaces, words spoken out of habit, routine, words that mean nothing, though they point to a deep desire to connect.
The trouble is, words like God must have needed another little angel in heaven do mean something. They paint a picture of a world controlled by a God who kills kids so he can have company in heaven. And what kind of God is that? What kind of world is that? What kind of death is that?
Words have real effects, that’s what I learned in divinity school when I studied to be a priest. Words matter. Words about God matter. You speak them and they become something else, become trees, become mines, become oil slicks, become love, become war, become violence, become peace.
If you were to look underneath the god-needed-another-angel words, lift them up like you would a rock in the forest or a welcome mat on the front stoop with the hope you might find the key to a house you’ve been locked out of, you would see fear huddled there, hiding. A fear of what can’t be fixed. The woman who said those words in that church basement—and I am conjecturing here, imagining, putting thoughts in her mind and in her heart—would rather believe God gave a little girl a brain tumor and then let her die because he needed more angels in heaven than sit with the fact that sometimes little girls die and there’s no reason for it and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. She’d rather the world be held by a monster than not be held by anyone at all.
Some deaths can be avoided. The deaths of children who don’t have enough to eat (thousands every day), of people who don’t have access to clean water or antibiotics and antiviral drugs, of people whose houses bombs land on. There’s a way to fix deaths like these, a way to stop them. But sometimes there’s nothing to do, nothing to fix or to solve, which is exactly what Emily writes again and again when she writes about Ronan, reminding us, her readers, there is no way out of this, and she knows it, so could we please have the courtesy not to bullshit her.
Emily and I went to graduate school with the poet Katie Ford, and in our thesis seminar, Katie wrote a book of poems (now published, Deposition), a dark and beautiful book about the violence humans do to one another in the name of belief and salvation. One of the students in our class raised his hand when Katie presented her work. “I think you need some happy poems in here,” he said. “Maybe you should end with a poem about the resurrection.”
“For some things there is no resurrection,” Katie said.
People whose parents die are called orphans. People whose spouses die are called widows and widowers. But there is no name for someone whose child dies. And there isn’t any good theology for it either.
But there should be. In most versions of Christianity, the central story is a story about a son who dies. Mary’s son. Joseph’s son. God’s son. But the death part of the story is often glossed over or turned into something else. Jesus rose from the dead. God meant for Jesus to die. Jesus was sacrificed. His violent death saved us. But when these explanations fall away, what you have left is a parent whose son dies a terrible death.
I need a new theology of death. One without angels and without heaven and without words that try to make what can’t be fixed seem better or less terrible or like a learning experience for everyone else, as if the purpose of other people’s suffering is to remember what really matters. I need a theology that reminds me the only thing I can do is be present. Emily just might be the one to write it. She wrote this to me the other day, on Facebook of all places: “There is so much mystery in what’s happening to our family, but when I look at Ronan, I see the only God I’m interested in talking to.”
And I know she will not look away.
I went on a trail run yesterday. It had rained, but the sun was out, so I watched for banana slugs crossing, taking care not to trample them. I was running up a hill when I heard a beautiful sound. I thought it was a bird. I am new to Portland and have not yet learned the sounds birds make here. I stopped to listen when around the bend came two women. They were holding on to each other, or maybe one was leading the other, though it was impossible to tell who was guiding and who was being guided. One of the women had long hair, and the other woman’s hair was short, and she was in some way mentally impaired—aren’t we all?—and her head was moving side to side, and she had difficulty controlling the movements of her limbs. The women were whistling. The long-haired woman whistled, the short-haired woman answered, clear, strong.
Maybe that’s what a better theology of death looks like, sounds like: two women walking on a dirt path through trees whistling like birds. Maybe Emily is the guide. Or maybe it’s Rick or maybe it’s Ronan or maybe it’s one of us or maybe we change places all the time.