January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
October 26, 2013
The good news, Paul announces, is that it’s possible to die while you’re still alive. It’s possible to survive your own death and, remarkably, to be all the more alive for it.
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
This is what salvation—not as a future event but as a present tense reality—looks like. To experience salvation is to experience early onset postmortality.
In early onset postmortality, your day of judgment arrives before your life ends. And then, in the time that remains between your final judgment and your final breath, you discover what it is like to have faith persist beyond belief and to have love abide on the far side of the law’s fulfillment. You live a life that is no longer aimed somewhere else. No longer mortal but not yet immortal, you’re free to discover what it means to be human. Just irreparably human.
In Moby Dick, Melville recounts an instance of early onset postmortality.
Ishmael, having hardly survived his first lowering of the boats, adds up the now palpable dangers involved in whaling and decides that, “taking all things together, I say, I thought I might as well go below and make a rough draft of my will. ‘Queequeg,’ said I, ‘come along, you shall be my lawyer, executor, and legatee.’” Then, Ishmael says, after his last will and testament have been drawn and sealed,
after the ceremony was concluded on the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault. (331)
Like Lazarus, Ishmael has survived himself. He has already attended, Tom Sawyer-like, his own funeral. He has acquired a clean supplementary gain of so many months or weeks. And in the aftermath of his prevenient funeral, still breathing, an immense stillness settles in his breast and the stone is rolled away from his heart.
A playful exuberance takes hold and he’s empowered to act with the kind of grace and freedom that the threat of death and judgment, while still pending, had denied him. He has become (like the gods?) capable of laughter.
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing momentous, now seems but a part of a general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object. (329)
Like Christ crucified, Ishmael can say, it is finished. And, like Christ, he now finds himself expansive. Outlasting his death, he’s gripped by an earnest jocularity that is free of resentment and capable of swallowing all events, creeds, and beliefs, no matter how angular or gnarly. He gulps down life and breathes its troubles with capacious lungs. Though he still walks the earth, he has already passed by the pearly gates and entered the rest of the Lord. But having entered this rest, he doesn’t stop. He takes it with him and keeps on walking. And, as a result, he’s free to return to his ordinary life and its ordinary business as something other than means to a future end.
Having passed the point of judgment, having had all of his good and evil works already tallied in the book of life and that account closed, his work becomes play.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick or the Whale (New York: The Modern Library, 1992).