Robert Bellah & Monty Python Meet in Heaven

Clammy.

Clammy.


Douglas Collins
, one of my former professors at the University of Washington, is a fount of useful insights about academic life. He frequently advised his students to “never meet people whose books you read.” One example is, “Otherwise you’ll remember Derrida’s clammy handshake every time you pick up one of his books.” Time and again this has proven to be sage advice. I won’t name names because the majority of these people are still alive.

This brings me to the recent passing of Robert N. Bellah (31 July 2013). There is no doubt he was an intellectual giant in the sociology of religion. Most people are lucky to publish one book. The really fortunate publish one revolutionary book in their lifetime. Bellah wrote one whole revolutionary book, Religion in Human Evolution, about the Axial Age. His contributions to the very influential Habits of the Heart and Varieties of Civil Religion probably count enough for at least one revolutionary book, if not more.These last two books were characterized by a balance between admiration for the American civil religion coupled with a critique of its idolatrous tendencies. Most of Bellah’s admirers missed the latter part of the equation.

Che Bellah sorriso!

Che Bellah sorriso!

His death led to an official Cal Berkeley obituary full of deserved (although somewhat generic) admiration worthy of the great man of letters that he was. Given our Manichean political culture I was most pleased with the opening:

“Widely known as one of the world’s most influential sociologists, Bellah was a Harvard-educated social theorist who taught for three decades at UC Berkeley. Best known for his scholarship on how religion shapes ethical, cultural and political practices… His writings were said to have irked both the religious right and the secular left at various times.”

As you’ll note, the sidebar of the obituary features a link to what it calls “Bellah’s amazing email.”

This, well… this proved to be the clammy handshake for me. I’ve faithfully reproduced the contents of the email for you, along with the introductory remarks from Berkeley, in bold type. My own running commentary upon it is in italics.

UC Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah, a preeminent scholar on the soclology of religion, died earlier this week. Below is an email he sent in 2006 to his friend and former student Samuel Porter in response to the death of Porter’s father, Charles Porter, a former attorney and U.S. Congressman.

Monday Feb. 3, 2006
Subject: Death

Dear Sam:

Where were you before you were born? That’s where you will go after you die.

Paradox is a good way to get things rolling.

Well before I was born, I was in the sperm of my father and the egg of my mother, I had within me the earliest beginnings of the components of a billion or more years of life, the genes that I share with worms (a lot) and with mold (some), and the atoms that I share with the universe all the way back to the big bang. So returning to all that isn’t so bad.

The earthy poetic touch is commendable.

Further, I will join the company of saints, of all those whose cultural work has made it possible for me to have been a half-way decent person, and what I have added to the cultural pool, even when I am long forgotten, will go on having an influence (unless we become extinct soon, which is also possible) for a long, perhaps an immeasurable time.

A little bit presumptuous, but who am I to judge? The comforting theological rhetoric is appropriate for a letter of consolation.

As for eternal life, that is now. If we don’t see eternity in a grain of sand, when will we ever see it. As for resurrection, as Tillich said, dead men don’t walk. But Christ was surely resurrected in the consciousness of his disciples and is more alive today than the day he was crucified, in the faces of all those who follow his example and who keep him alive.

Here’s where all hell breaks loose. Tillich, whenever he gives reign to post-Kantian prejudices, is never a good guide. While you might not have proof of dead men walking, the whole witness of the New Testament, and the notion of a community of saints, rests upon the assumption that there were people who saw at least one person rise from the dead and live. 

Here is St. Paul in 1 Cor 15:12-13 explaining the one essential Christian belief in the most unambiguous terms: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith.” It’s as if he knew the sorts of arguments Bellah puts forward were coming. Actually, he’s responding to these very same arguments as they emerged among post-Kantians avant la lettre of the 1st century.

Perhaps the disciples Paul was scolding also thought something had resurrected in their consciousness? After all, back in their time, people didn’t rise from the dead on a regular basis either. The ancients weren’t gullible. Yet, St. Paul seems to have been after something much more substantial than resurrections in the mind.

Many wonder workers have resurrected the dead. I never understood those who think the truth of Christianity hinges on the physical resurrection of Jesus. If that is the test then a lot of nutty religions are also true. Eternal life is here and now. Christians have hardly come to a consensus on life after death. Augustine thought we would join the choir of angels in singing an eternal Hallelujah. Fine with me.

Yes, but those dead went back to being dead just like Lazarus. I must say, the tone here becomes almost unbearably condescending. It is the sort of thing that gives academics a bad name. The myopia of ignoring the consensus of St. Paul, the rest of the New Testament, and the whole of Christian tradition right up to now (or at least until 1960) is mind-boggling. 

It would also be more accurate to say that the tradition has been circumspect about speculating what our resurrected flesh will be like, what it will entail, and how exactly the afterlife will look like. I suppose the guiding principle behind this strategy is, “You’ll see!.” This should also keep us modest about making assertions of what the afterlife is not, or if it is not.

John Hick’s principle of eschatological verification applies here (despite my reservations about most of his other work); if there is an afterlife then we’ll live to see the proof, but if there isn’t, then we won’t.

Finally, “eternal life here and now” sounds suspiciously like the consumerist carpe diem that forms the backbone of what’s worst about the American civil religion. Or as the preacher saith (probably not on his best day), “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun” (Eccles. 8:15, sounds better in the KJV).

But most Americans who believe in life after death think they will rejoin their dead family members and live happily ever after. A very modern, bourgeois, kind of afterlife, hardly what traditional Christians thought. But I have no interest in destroying the beliefs of others. If thinking one will rejoin one’s loved ones helps bear the pain of death then I’m all for it. I have to look elsewhere, and, with Heraclitus, declare that life and death are one.

Here Bellah smoothly transitions from condescension into contempt.

Remember, he’s writing to someone whose father just died. What’s worse, he uses the occasion as an opportunity to take a swipe at popular religion (and I’ve defended folk Catholicism before) even though the notion of an “Eternal Now” is probably the best label for the attitudes that drive populist consumerism.

Let’s ignore the fact that the New Testament is mostly the product of folk religion written in a mostly unschooled idiom. Let’s instead concentrate upon the fact that the end chapters of the Book of Revelation, the very end of the Christian Bible (last shall be first), prominently features the image of the Heavenly Jerusalem touching down on Earth.

This means that the folk American tradition, for all its limitations and bourgeois crassness, is much closer to the tradition than any resurrections in the mind, or consciousness, or subconsciousness, or whatever else we might come up with. In some ways, unlike in Heraclitus (but anyone who tells you they know what he meant is lying), for the New Testament life and afterlife are one.

It's coming to get ya, your family, and maybe your dog?

Going down: It’s coming to get ya, your family, and why not your farm animals?

A new heaven, new earth, and some free meals. It's better than crashing a business school dinner.

A new heaven, a new earth, and some free meals. It’s better than crashing a business school dinner.

He concludes with the following, but does he mean it?

Best, Bob

All in all, what Bellah offers to Samuel Porter on the occasion of his father’s death (besides glaring internal contradictions) is not much more lively or profound than what the video below has to offer.

Bellah’s email is only remarkable for reminding us how much more serious thinking needs to be done about the fleshiness of heaven for the contemporary Christian imagination.

May Robert Bellah–with his beautiful, kindly, and lively smile pictured above–rest in peace and may perpetual light shine upon him. I hope to continue the conversation with him personally when my time is up, because I don’t think I could do him justice by resurrecting him in my limited consciousness.

Nota Bene: Don’t miss the First Things symposium on Bellah’s last book.

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