Lazarus: Life, Death, Faith

The Lazarus Project
The Lazarus Project

The Lazarus Project: a Novel by Aleksandar Hemon was the book I happened to be reading when we got the news that Steve’s sister Karen had died. I took it with me to California, but read little of it until the long flight back to Florida, when I became totally engaged. Hemon, a Bosnian refugee who learned English as an adult and won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004, is a magnificently gifted writer. In the midst of mourning Karen, I copied out several passages that resonated with my tender feelings.

Splendorous temples were built on the belief that death does not erase the traces of those who lived, that someone up there busies himself with keeping tabs, and is going to send down Mr. Christ or some other delusional prophet to resurrect all of the disintegrated nobodies. The promise is that even when every trace of your life vanishes absolutely and completely, God will remember you, that he might devote a speck of thought to you while reposing between putting up universes.” [p. 107]

Karen would have rejected such skepticism. She had complete faith that a loving God awaited her in Heaven. I find that degree of faith hard to achieve. I believe in a Divine Spirit, but like the Buddhists I have met in the monthly Interfaith Cafe in Delray Beach, Florida, I just don’t know what happens to us after we die. I do know that we are composed of stardust and I suspect that to stardust we will return. Here’s Hemon again:

 My dreams were but a means of forgetting, they were branches tied to the galloping horses of our days, the emptying of the garbage so that tomorrow–assuming there would be a tomorrow–could be filled up with new life. You die, you forget, you wake up new. And if I cared about God, I would be tempted to think that remembering was sinful. For what else could it be, what would remembering all those gorgeous moments when this world was fully present at your fingertips be but a beautiful sin? [p. 127]

That last sentence made me think of Joe, who had so many “gorgeous moments” with Karen, that he is now so painfully remembering. If remembering such moments is a sin, then I want to be a sinner. Because Karen’s death was so sudden, more of Hemon’s words struck with special force.

Death must be pleasant, the pain and shock of its infliction notwithstanding. But that pain belonged to life, the body had to be alive to feel it. I wondered if George’s [a character in the novel] living body and its pain would be undone when he died,…if he would experience the bliss of release and relief, the joy of completion and transformation, of dumping the garbage of existence…the postorgasmic moment of absolute peace, of coming home, the moment when the fog of life floats away like gunsmoke and everything is finally nothing.

Perhaps that was what Mr. Christ deprived Lazarus of. He may have been okay dead; it was all over, he was home. Maybe Mr. Christ was showing off to Lazarus’s sisters; maybe he wanted to show that he was the boss of death, as he was the boss of life. Either way he couldn’t just leave Lazarus alone. Once Lazarus was thrown out of the comfy bed of eternity, he wandered the world, forever homeless, forever afraid to fall asleep, dreaming of dreaming….[p. 178-79]

Such  an outrageous, challenging book! It made me re-read the eleventh chapter of the Book of John, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, from the dead, only days before He himself was put to death. Then I wrote to my friend Joanne Hutton, who knows a lot about theology and had also just read Hemon’s book:

Dear Joanne, I seem to be in the midst of a faith crisis—an imperfect storm of the death of my sister-in-law, who seemed to have no doubts about her faith in God and her acceptance of Jesus Christ as her Savior; a Coursera course I’m taking from the University of Copenhagen, “Origins: Formation of the Universe, the Solar System, Earth and Life”; Aleksandar Hemon’s remarkable book; a recent sermon I heard on Lazarus; celebrating Christmas with family; and taking care of my darling grandtwins, who provide some glimpses of immortality, or at least, of the future. This storm is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses—older friends who speak little of belief, but put their faith into action and young relatives and former students who are doing such wonderful things as architecture, astrophysics, website design, teaching, scholarship, conflict resolution, photography, parenting and community organizing.
Joanne replied thoughtfully and lovingly, in the midst of her own Christmas preparations:
First thoughts: our Rector, Luis Leon, [St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, the “President’s church”] likes to differentiate between faith and belief.  And he affirms, and I agree, that there’s a difference between living a life of faith and having doubts, such as you express.  We all have doubts.  Perhaps Jesus had his doubts in Gethsemane when he surely knew what was coming.  All the Saints of the church record periods of doubt and some even despair.
I, too, am struggling with what it means to call Jesus “God”, which of course, was a construct of Paul and the gospel writer John. What makes sense to me is to envision God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – to see God in three guises or roles – but not to limit God to those three, however.  I can understand Jesus, then, as someone who brought a redeeming message to the world.  A message that’s been abused and misused [just like Mohammed’s message has been abused and misused], but that nevertheless is life giving and characterized by love as I understand Love.
Does being able to think give us any privileges?  Yes, and hence enormous responsibilities – at least in the Judeo-Christian construct. The imagination and reasoning powers we possess come closest to expressing that assertion, in the creation story, that we’re made in God’s image.  If God is a creative God, then we are a creatures who are also creative.  If God is the Word, the Logos, we, too, can speak (argue) and articulate (name things – see Genesis) and bring concepts into life.   If God is a redeeming force — well, can we, too, redeem?  As Jesus did?  In some sense we “sanctify” our time and those activities and things that are special to us.  So the Christian trinitarian story and construct makes sense in these ways to me.  But it’s certainly easiest for me to conceive of and talk to that Creator aspect of God.
Joanne recommended I consult Francis Collins’ book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which Jim Cooley in Charlotte promptly lent me. Collins, who led the Human Genome Project and is now Director of the National Institutes of Health, has made his own journey from atheism to faith. He found much to chew on in C.S. Lewis and quotes Immanuel Kant: “Two things fill me with constantly increasing admiration and awe, the longer and more earnestly I reflect on them: the starry heavens without and the Moral Law within.”
So that’s where I am now–filled with awe about both our place in the Universe and the biological wonders within our bodies, subject though they be to disease and death. My moral law is Micah 6:8–“do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.” I’m grateful to be alive in this remarkable age, to have wonderful friends and relatives I can turn to for counsel, and to be inspired by these books to think more deeply about the most fundamental questions.

 

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