Is the hatred that once stalked the Heartland still alive?
A theologian who will complicate the thinking of all

What's the first thing you'd say to or ask of a dead person?

Survey work done this year by the Pew Research Center suggests that lots of Americans experience some kind of visitation by a dead family member in a dream or some other form.

Cemetery-lightHere's the thrust of the Pew study to which I just linked you:

  • Around half of U.S. adults (53%) say they’ve been visited by a dead family member.
  • 34% have “felt the presence” of a dead relative
  • 28% have told a dead relative about their life
  • 15% have had a dead family member communicate with them

Before we let our scientific minds dismiss all this as unbelievable nonsense, let's remember that Jesus himself is reported to have had that very experience -- and in the presence of a few of his closest followers.

You will find that in Matthew 17, in what usually is called the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. It goes like this in the updated edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

There's more, but that's enough to show you that Matthew reported Jesus talked to dead people. Peter really seemed to get into the act, not just believing what he was seeing but deciding that the obvious response to seeing long-dead dead people was to build a tent for them. Thoughtful of him, I'd say.

Well, different religious traditions handle such questions about communicating with the dead in different ways. It may surprise you to learn that I am in no position to say which, if any, of those ways is correct.

What I do know is that it's foolish to dismiss the experiences that others may have about connections to the dead. I personally have never had a dead person talk to me in a way I could hear, but I have done my best to keep from losing my memories of people with whom I was close. And sometimes I even imagine brief conversations I'd like to have with one or more of them now.

Similarly, after I've died I'd like for my bride, children, grandchildren, other family members and friends to think of me occasionally, perhaps as they read or reread one of my books or stumble across something else I've written that somehow has survived. Or maybe they'll suddenly remember that I never paid a debt I owed them. (You can't take debts with you, either.)

But I don't want them hanging on to the idea that I'll be wandering back to communicate directly with them once I'm gone. If they want to talk with me, now is the time to do it.

(The photo here is one I took several years ago at Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City.)

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A few days ago, Pope Francis made some remarks that focused quite directly on his critics in the U.S., and I think he identified a problem that exists not just in faith communities but in American politics. As this America magazine article notes, "Addressing the Jesuit brother who had raised the question, Francis remarked, 'You have been to the United States and you say you have felt a climate of closure. Yes, this climate can be experienced in some situations. And there you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.'”

Ideology replacing faith is the core issue and concept here. You see it not just among some Catholic critics of the pope, but, more evidently, among many non-Catholic Christians who identify as evangelical or conservative or fundamentalist. It's why so many of them got drawn into Trumpism. But, of course, you also see ideology replacing faith among some Christians who identify as progressive or liberal. Some of them get so committed to issues of social justice that they ignore -- and eventually forget -- the theological underpinnings of their commitments. In many cases, ideology detached from its theological roots is in danger of being rootless and, thus, a potential victim to the shifting winds of thinking that is merely political.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted on Sunday, it's here. It's about the new Alvin L. Brooks Center for Faith-Justice at Rockhurst University in Kansas City.


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