No Happy Mediums: Stringfellow on the "Afterdeath"

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
(1 Cor. 15:19)

He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.
(Mark 12:27)

Our blogging compadre, the PostBarthian (Wyatt Houtz), has created quite a buzz with two recent posts offering critiques of Karl Barth's (ostensibly) stern perspectives on the afterlife and eternal life; he cites two passages where Barth seems to rule out the possibility for a conscious, subjective postmortem existence for finite human beings.

These posts have elicited, in turn, spirited responses from Kevin Davis and Fr Aiden Kimel. The conversation has spilled over into Facebook and Twitter as well.

I was assigned, initially, the task of encapsulating this social media convo here, but since that task exceeds both my time and technical abilities, I offer something different -- some reflections from William Stringfellow, toward the end of his life, on the same subjects. Stringfellow -- attorney, activist and lay theologian -- had been living with his partner, the poet Anthony Towne, in their Block Island home for 13 years when Towne died suddenly in 1980. Out of his experiences of bereavement and healing, Stringfellow wrote a riveting, poignant memoir: A Simplicity of Faith (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1982). This is quite possibly the best book on death and grieving I've ever read.

Toward the end of the book Stringfellow offers "a view of afterdeath" (137-141). Like Barth, Stringfellow clearly worries that a religious sublimation of wish fulfillment fantasies undermines authentic biblical faith, supplanting it with cheap speculations; still, he approaches the topic in a way that is more personal and direct than the Barth passages PostBarthian shared. Indeed, Stringfellow is reluctant even to broach the topic of life after death at all, as it risks stirring "a mush of vain and pagan imaginings" (137). But inquiring minds and grieving hearts may find it impossible to suppress questions in this arena. That's how it is with me, at any rate. Stringfellow writes:
Any bereaved person, or anyone contemplating his or her own death, is likely to give some thought to what, if anything, happens experientially when a person dies. One reason such brooding is commonly incoherent or merely self-serving is that it presupposes the linear reality of time and does not probe the mystery of time, especially the relation of time to the bondage to death in the present age, in the era of the Fall, or the disruption of time and the emancipation from time that is implicated in conversion (137-138).
So do we have here something along the lines of the time-eternity dialectic in Kierkegaard and early Barth? Possibly, but it's hard to say. This sentence is too saturated for me to unpack here; suffice it to say that Stringfellow throughout his writings goes beyond the commonplace notion that death merely limits time to argue that the temporal realm, in and of itself and without remainder, is enthralled to the power of death.

Stringfellow draws a strong contrast between the Christian hope in the resurrection and the perennial doctrine of soul immortality, just as N.T. Wright and Jürgen Moltmann, among myriad other thinkers, have done more recently. The notion of immortality, in Stringfellow's view, in effect extends the remembrance for the dead into the sphere of speculations about personal survival after death. (What I know of the role of Sheol and Hades in ancient thought would seem to confirm this observation). Resurrection, by contrast, is altogether a different matter; but even the classic Christian faith in resurrection is not immune from ideological distortion. Stringfellow's characteristic move (though I can't explore it in depth here) is to demythologize the resurrection -- even at the cost of a certain caginess about the bodily resurrection of Jesus himself -- and to retrieve it as an existential, moral and even political reality that suffuses life and discipleship in the present. "Resurrection," he writes
refers to the transcendence of the power of death, here and now, in this life, in this world. Resurrection, thus, has to do with life, and indeed, the fulfillment of life, before death (138).
The image of Daniel Berrigan being
arrested in Block Island was turned into a
poster posing the question:
"Which one was free?"
 (I hope Richard Beck doesn't
mind I filched this image from his blog.)
What Stringfellow means by resurrection, in this sense, is captured vividly in a famous photograph of his friend, the priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan, being hauled off to jail by two stern and stolid federal agents. In May 1968, Berrigan and eight other Catholic activists, including his brother Phillip, took over a federal office in Catonsville, Maryland, where they burned draft records with napalm in a liturgical protest against the war in Southeast Asia. Instead of turning himself into the authorities, Berrigan went into hiding; he sought refuge at the home of Stringfellow and Towne in Block Island, where he was eventually apprehended by the FBI. The photo shows Daniel Berrigan, flanked by two frowning officers clasping his arms firmly, virtually beaming with joy and defiance. This is an apropos icon of the deeper freedom that resurrection represents for Stringfellow. (For more on the "Catonsville Nine" see this fine post by Richard Beck.) Bill Wylie-Kellermann recounts that Stringfellow once epitomized resurrection as "Phil Berrigan in jail," referring to the freedom Berrigan and the other prisoners exhibited in contrast to stultified, dehumanized and bureaucratized dispositions of the wardens, chaplains, guards and other prison staff (See William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, edited by Bill Wylie-Kellermann. New York: Orbis, 2013, p. 26).

Point well taken. I affirm this close integration of resurrection and resistance to oppression. Still, I bump against a theodicy dilemma: Such authenticity, such freedom are fleeting and extraordinary experiences in human life. Dare we hope for something more? True resistance against the forces of death, it seems to me, must be rooted in a reality that transcends the limitations of human experience in this world. Ultimately, if I understand mainstream cosmology at all, every single thing in this cosmos will perish -- not just sentient life, but all living beings and, indeed, even the material conditions of existence itself. What will all this struggle have meant when the end finally comes?

Put another way, doesn't resurrection faith have something to say not only about living an authentic life but about what we might hope to find when we depart this mortal coil? Stringfellow eschews false consolation here. Interestingly, he himself had endured an uncanny near-death experience while he was in a diabetic coma in a Connecticut hospital years earlier; nonetheless, he did not think this experience yielded any particular insights into the hereafter. Stringfellow does, in fact, concede there may be some sort of personal postmortem survival, but he insists that whatever this might entail, resurrection categorically bespeaks something altogether different -- something "wholly other," we might say in Barthian terms. In fact, he worries that obsessing with the putative reality of such near-death experiences can lead one to neglect the gift of life in this world. Such preoccupations can assume a morbid quality that hardly befits and affirmation of the new creation. He continues, trenchantly:
That is more than an escapist doctrine, feigning to justify withdrawal, default or cowardice so far as life in this world is concerned; it issues in idolatry of death. And its denial of the efficacy of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is tantamount to blasphemy (139).
Stringfellow writes from personal experience here. He was a close friend and counselor of the notorious Episcopal Bishop, James Pike, the outspoken revisionist theologian and social critic. Pike eschewed Trinitarian language and denied the virgin birth but, perhaps more to the point, he called out the church for its hypocrisy vis-a-vis the civil rights struggle. Several efforts by church leaders throughout the 1960s to try him for heresy never came to fruition. In fact, Stringfellow and Towne themselves co-authored two books about Pike -- one about the bishop's heresy case and, later, a biography titled The Death and Life of Bishop Pike (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976). The bishop's intense life ended in double tragedy: He was found dead in the Judean wilderness while researching a book on the historical Jesus. Earlier he had pursued a frenetic quest to make contact with his deceased son, Jim, who died of a drug overdose. The grief-striken father, Stringfellow and Towne concluded, had been "importuned" and manipulated by unscrupulous spiritualists and mediums.

Stringfellow rejects any vain imaginings that would trivialize the meaning of resurrection. If we focus on what he denies, however, it is easy to miss what he affirms. I confess that for several years I read in such passages as this one a kind of capitulation to modernist agnosticism, the theological variety of this seeming to me to be the most insidious type of all. Resurrection means how I live this life -- and that's all? Does the image of Berrigan in Danbury prison replace the empty tomb and final judgment? Sometimes I have even thought I was done with Stringfellow altogether.

Then, and this only just recently, I reread this passage with fresh eyes. I had not fully discerned here the lineaments of a hope that transcends my own fears of death, a trust in the God who fulfills promises (Luther). Stringfellow concludes:
Biblical faith promises the consummation of all created life, in all its range and diversity, in the end and fullness of time, and it offers images, pictures, parables, and stories characterizing that consummation (e.g., Revelation 21). There is no timetable, there are no literal descriptions, the biblical witness is no horoscope of the Kingdom. The veracity of the promise, thus, is not dependent upon prooftexts, predictions, or tests of God like those conducted in seances or similar demonstrations, but upon the witness of the risen life in this history in this world, as the Church, where the Church is faithful, and as the Communion of Saints.
I am so persuaded that the resurrection means the accessibility, for human beings, on behalf of all of life, of the power of the Word of God, which the whole of Creation enjoys in being made, overcoming the power of death here and now, that I expect the consummation eagerly (139-140, emphasis mine).

Now that hardly sounds like reductionist this-world-onlyism to me.

The Last Judgment, by Michelangelo



Matthew Frost said…
"If we focus on what he denies, however, it is easy to miss what he affirms." Yes! But also: when we focus on what he denies, we must be sure that we understand the denials in their specificity, rather than attempting to subordinate the things denied into a genus of which they are the only species. Same, of course, goes for Barth; I think this is possibly the best response to the whole conversation. What is denied, and what is recontextualized, stand in the service of what can be affirmed as hope—especially when that hope is totally other than what we have ever traditionally expected from the end of history and our lives in it.
Thanks, Matt. That's a good point, if I've read you correctly. Remember that dreadful movie, *What Dreams May Come*, starring Robin Williams? The protagonist is a painter. He dies and finds himself in one of his bucolic landscape paintings. The premise is that each person's heaven is what she imagines it to be. I think the movie gets is backwards: That actually would be more like hell. The reality beyond the negation of our wildest dreams, however....

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