Wednesday 9 September 2015

The dead are a living reality

It seems natural and spontaneous to humans to regard the dead (the ancestors) as a living and powerful reality, sometimes present, sometimes accessible; retaining an interest in the living world and sometimes having some role to play in it.

Christians are divided on this subject - for example some denominations prohibit prayers for the dead, mainly on the grounds that the living can do nothing to assist them - but it may be that practices which support an awareness of the dead will support belief in the reality of life after death, and sustain hope in the expectation of Heaven.

In a modern secular context, to be interested in the dead and to claim a knowledge of their condition, or to communicate with them, is regarded as the most pitiful type of wishful thinking; but even the slightest knowledge of the many historical societies with such interest contradicts this.

An active interest in the next world and in the dead is accused of encouraging escapism, an avoidance of harsh realities and in general rendering people unfit for this world. Those who maintain a belief in the importance of the dead must expect to be laughed-at and despised for their embarrassing childishness (unless they are 'ethnic', when such beliefs are not just permitted but admired and praised - demonstrating that secular moderns covertly regard ethnics as pitifully, laughably juvenile)

Yet there has never in history been a more escapist, avoidant and all-round unfit culture than our current society of media-addicted passive spectators, fans and gossipers! The faddish, effete decadence of modernity stands in the sharpest possible contrast with the enduring courage and toughness of societies where the dead were regarded as real and important.

It is secular modernity, with its hedonistic alienated nihilism, that has lost touch with reality - and is projecting its own deepest faults onto the religious.

Indeed, what is really going-on is that those who despair are accusing those who do not despair of living in a state of delusion - the secular modern accusation against religion is not so much of dumb-happy avoidance, as of a failure to acknowledge the reality of utter hope-less-ness.

For modernity, the definition of courage has become to acknowledge and embrace existential despair as the underlying reality.

To the extent that acknowledgement of the continued reality of the dead is part of a world view of hope, engagement and eternal human relationships; then naturally it needs to be mocked and scorned and embarrassed out of existence.


David said...

Yes and we quickly sensor and stamp out such spontaneous musings in ourselves and each other. A patient told me yesterday in a posture of profound embarrassment that "I know this sounds really stupid, but....I sometimes talk to my grandparents (now deceased) on long walks alone in the countryside..." I immediately replied honestly and without a hint of derision "Well what is wrong with that? Many people believe that there is life after death and that our relatives do not just cease to exist as the modern world might have it..." She regarded me with a look of vague surprise and the said "Yes, we'll maybe they have come back as bumble bees or part of a tree or something?!" I left it at that but I noted to myself, how odd that as modern's we would rather frame the fate of our deceased ancestors as just material recycled as insects or plants in order to make the notion of a spiritual afterlife more acceptable to modern materialistic thinking. More rationale and completely abandoning even the notion of a concrete soul capable of consciousness and communication...but then the contradiction is she is trying to talk to these rationalised bumble bees, which indicates that beneath this is a spontaneous assumption of an enduring personality of her relatives beyond death. The impulse is alive and well but the modern context completely nullifies, rationalises and derides such spontaneous beliefs.

John Fitzgerald said...

On the political level, the idea that the dead have a part to play in the shaping of society is a key one. For all truly conservative thinkers, from Burke to Scruton, society has been a compact between the dead, the living and those yet to come, i.e, we don't live in a bubble of 'the now' - we have a past and we have a future - we need to honour the dead and prepare the world for the unborn as well as getting things right in the here and now.

On the spiritual level, Charles William's 1945 novel, All Hallows' Eve, offers the best (certainly the most believable) portrayal of the post-mortem state I have yet encountered. The living and the dead work in tandem in this story, each playing his or her role in the achievement of Grace.

Williams also wrote an astonishing, mind-bending poem called, Taliessin and the Death of Virgil, where the prayers of Taliessin, in late 5th Century Britain, provide succour and aid to Virgil at the actual moment of his death. Conventional notions of time are transcended here in a poetic milieu where the most important thing for Williams was that his characters - both living and dead - should follow St. Paul's dictum: 'Bear ye one another's burdens.'

Grace will do the rest.

Bruce Charlton said...

David - interesting experiences.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - CS Lewis and his brother Warnie both found All Hallows Eve very convincing in the way that you describe.

It is a fine book, but I don't myself respond in that way; and although I used to share that idea of ultimate reality as being out-of-time (I wrote about this in some blog posts a few years ago) eventually I found it was over-powered as an explanation, and led to too many problems in describing the human condition; and I now regard time in a commonsense/ relativistic kind of way as linear and sequential, but running at very widely-differing rates in different times and places and for different entities

Bruce B. said...

I think about deceased ancestors quite a bit. I wonder (sometimes to my shame when I’m sinning or dishonoring them) whether they can see or hear me. They sacrificed so I could be here. I have named most of my children after them, some whom I knew, some who are long dead. I suppose it’s just a superstition but they call to you, demanding remembrance and honor and representation. Their beliefs and attitudes shape mine. This, to me, is what it means to be a “traditionalist.”

Men, in particular, fathers seem to hold special attention for us men. Sometimes, I do talk to them. “Papa, I’m sorry”, etc.

Leo said...

From All Hallow's Eve:

"Her good fortune had preserved her from any experience of that state which is-almost adequately-called "death-in-life"; it had consequently little prepared her for this life- in-death. She was a quite ordinary, and rather lucky, girl, and she was dead."

Yes, moderns are little prepared for life in (or after) death.

Leo said...

In the movie Amistad, John Qunicy Adams and the escaped African slave Cinque are conversing just before the Supreme Court trial. Cinque tells Adams they will not be alone. Adams says, yes, that they will have justice with them in the court. Cinque tells Adams they will have his ancestors with them. He says he will summon them, and they will come because he is all they have.

Leo said...


These quotations flip a previous notion. We are not praying for or to our ancestors. They are praying for us.

Lost Pilgrim said...

It's a hard standard to live up to for most of us. Who wants his grandmother to see him engaged in sin? Who wants to appear a coward before his grandfather who fought Nazis or waded ashore at Iwo Jima in WWII?

Bruce Charlton said...

@LP - Good point.

Of course, there is the opposite too, and perhaps more commonly. There are those whose ancestors were horrible.

Nowadays (and for the past several generations) some of the worst types of criminals and the most selfish, cruel and neglecting parents have (for the first time in history, probably) been very successful at having lots of children that survive (survive, albeit, no thanks to the parents).