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Leader comment: Beyond the grave

07 May 2021

THE communion of saints is alive and well. Alive, at least, in the sense that 40 per cent of respondents to a survey in the United States, Canada, and the UK, published last month, believe that they have been in contact with someone who has died. The figures are higher when the questions in the Maru Public Opinion poll move from contact to awareness: 59 per cent in the US survey believe that people who die can remain aware of what the living are doing (46 per cent in Canada, 45 per cent in the UK). Fewer expect a reunion with a loved one, however: 47 per cent of the Americans in the survey think that they will meet someone they know after dying, dropping to 30 per cent for both the British and the Canadians.

Setting aside the fantasy that, just once, one of these surveys could canvas the views of those who actually know what happens after death, the figures show a rough correlation with the extent of Christian belief in each country — the extent, if not the substance: the invocation of saints, with the idea that they have some form of agency in the lives of the living, is not the practice of the Protestants who form the Christian majority in the US. The concept, though, is not that far removed from prayer to the person of Christ, particularly when it is considered that the surveys are testing what people believe rather than what they have been taught.

The remarkable — and some would say admirable — thing about Christianity is that it does not claim certainty where there is none. The New Testament, even in the hands of St Paul, does little to clear up the mystery of what happens after death. Paul’s dogmatic account (“Thou fool”) in 1 Corinthians 15 insists on bodily resurrection while simultaneously undermining the concept by speaking of change as from a seed to a plant: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. . . There is a natural body, and a spiritual body.” Instead, what is known is what has been deemed enough to know by every generation since the first disciples: that God’s love, expressed through Christ’s resurrection, extends beyond death to encompass all in a loving, mystical union. It is inevitable that humans will attempt to grasp these impossible truths with the rudimentary language at their disposal (such as this), and that clergy will occasionally collude in imagery about which they ought to be agnostic: “I’m sure Geoff is waiting for her, a glass of wine at the ready. . .” But these are not times, while the losses to Covid-19 remain raw, to instruct congregations in, for example, realised eschatology. It is enough to assure them of the fullness of God’s love — greater than any human love, of which it is the source and sustainer before and beyond death.

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