Our friends over at Wheatstone Academy have begun a new bi-monthly web-magazine that they are calling The Examined Life.

I’ve done work for Wheatstone in the past few months (speaking and designing curriculum) because I am convinced they are at the forefront of transforming Christian education at the high school level.  If you are looking for ministries to promote or support financially, they should be at the top of the list.

I’ve got some idiosyncratic thoughts why we should care about cremation in the latest issue, which are a development of some themes I’ve been trying to work through around these parts.  If you have feedback, let me know in the comments.

But there are other offerings worth your time, including Brett McCracken’s take on Inception and Eric Yang’s musings on grades and the purpose of education.  Bookmark the site, and send a few dollars (or a link) their way as your thanks.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

3 Comments

  1. Matthew,
    First, let me say (if I haven’t yet on another post) that I’m somewhat new to Mere-O, but have thus far developed quite an appreciation for your writing, so thank you.
    Your thoughts over at the Examined Life were quite interesting. The “Overton Window” moving along the cultural continuum sounds at times like the notion of a paradigm shift (or, perhaps it is a precursor to such).
    Additionally, I agree the idea that we need to reflect on the fringes is important. Still, there are two difficulties in doing so that came to mind and, if you have a chance, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them.
    First, there’s a lot out at the fringes. How can we (i.e., what practical steps can we take to) discern what fringe elements will be the most influential, and which ones will dissipate? An understanding of this (which, of course, will have no templatic answer) may be central in this topic, especially given your observation that when the majority becomes aware it may already be too late.
    Second, there seems to be an interesting tension between induced change at the fringes and the potentially positive role of “dense networks of culturally influential leaders,” who, presumably, are not at the fringes. How do we motivate these leaders to “unite behind a common cause” when 1) the cause is at the fringe, and 2) the leaders generate their own culture and sense of importance of a particular set of (usually) non-fringe issues?

    Reply

    1. Phil,

      Thanks for the kind encouragement. It’s much appreciated.

      I think your two questions are right on the money, and interrelated. If you want to know which *ideas* at the fringes are going to move the window, look at those ideas which currently have purchase in the university. I’ve got James Davison Hunter and Nancey Pearcey both on record saying that, and I think it’s right.

      As for the second, I think most “elites” (that’s a non-derogatory term for me) do have their own culture and make ideas non-fringe, but I really think they also are on the lookout for fringe ideas that they can pull up into their world. Usually, they co-opt the ideas and alter them in ways that fit their pre-existing narrative, as Peter Jackson did with Lord of the Rings (it’s not really a great example of this, but it’s the only one I can think of right now). In terms of getting them all behind something that we agree upon…well, I think the only way to set about doing that is to replace them. : )

      Best,

      matt

      Reply

  2. Some thoughts about “Cremation and Cultural Change”. First, I’ll say what I think are the key underlying issues here as I see it. The traditional view of the human person as union of body and soul, though by no means the only view out there even among Christians, has a necessary complexity that leads to confusion and leaves open two general ways to go wrong. One way of going wrong isn’t better than the other -they are both very wrong and very bad. Believing wrongly on something as complex as the unity of human persons is a lot easier than believing rightly. Here is Meilaender and Kass expressing just this truth. The key is to steer between them without careening into either extreme, and both extremes are anything but straw men.

    “… two general directions in which we might go wrong. We could think of human beings as just bodies: a complicated animal to be sure, but one for whom the animating principle is, finally, complex chemical interactions of the brain, as neuroscience studies it.

    Or we could picture the real person as just soul: an immaterial consciousness that is not essentially embodied and that may one day be able to cast off the biological substrate upon which it currently depends and achieve a kind of intelligent immortality that is not dependent on the body.” -Gilbert Meilaender

    http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=20-01-030-f

    “Against the materialists who believe that all vital activities can be fully understood by describing the electrochemical changes in the underlying matter, a more natural science would insist on appreciating the activities of life in their own terms, and as known from the inside: what it means to hunger, feel, see, imagine, think, desire, seek, suffer, enjoy. At the same time, against those humanists who, conceding prematurely to mechanistic science all truths about our bodies, locate our humanity solely in consciousness or will or reason, a more natural science would insist on appreciating the profound meaning of our distinctive embodiment.” -Leon Kass

    http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/looking-for-an-honest-man

    So after that setup let’s get back to the cultural aspects. Would it be less likely for soldiers to mount operations to recover fallen soldier’s bodies where they expect some others will be killed (as they actually do) if they knew that the families of the dead soldier(s) will cremate them? No. No, even if they knew the dead soldiers would respectfully buried (for whatever bizarre reasons -this is a thought experiment) rather than returned to his unit and eventually his family. Because demonstrating reverence for the embodied life does not rule out cremation.

    The bottom line is that there is a right way and a wrong way to cremate from a Christian perspective. If the motivation springs from sources that don’t demonstrate reverence for bodily life, then it’s bad. If the motivation is to demonstrate reverence for bodily life then it isn’t. Does burial make it more likely that the dead live on in our hearts? For some yes, for others no. Frankly, I’m probably in the no category not from any ideological view but merely from psychological makeup. But whatever.

    Is burial at sea compatible with a reverence for embodied life? Of course. Meilaender quotes Thomas Lynch saying “Ours is the species that keeps track of our dead.” But this was never considered incompatible with thing such as burial at sea if done properly. And it isn’t necessarily incompatible with cremation if done properly. The question you are raising amounts to this: does cremation lead to a tendency to have beliefs that are closer to one of the two extremes that Kass and Meilaender, and in fact common sense, tell us are the main ways to believe wrongly about the nature of human persons? Or to put it another way, does burial inhibit to any degree thinking incorrectly (in terms of the traditional view outlined above) about human persons? I’m not inclined to mount a disagreement just now, but I do think it is culturally conditioned to a significant degree such that the case is harder than you may think, and in the end may rest on shared cultural assumptions that probably lie outside of Christianity proper.

    But whatever. I’ll just say that honestly I think this issue is a sideshow. It is appropriate that Meilaender in his article gives cremation a brief mention before diving into the heart of the matter. Today we have the opportunity to discuss actual challenges to the reverence for embodied life that are far, far more dangerous and direct, and certainly independent of the burial/cremation issue. It is very revealing that the Evangelical community has no real interest in anything having to do with the ethics of organ transplantation. It’s “giving the gift of life”, right? How could that be bad in any reasonable circumstances? How could “reproduction technologies” be bad as long as we avoid discarding embryos? And the only applied ethics professor at your Alma Mater is on a crusade to make the removal of nutrition and hydration tubes from the cognitively impaired “permissible” for any reason whatever, and you can hardly walk across campus without tripping over a university magazine where he says something like this fact “is just so” (as the last one I saw did). That’s an argument worthy of a Phd, now isn’t it? Not to worry though since he’s “against euthanasia”. The rest of the Evangelical community repeats this as if it reflects a considered view that would rule out anything but the most *politically* extreme.

    The Evangelical community is absent from these debates partly because if discussed openly these issues would divide congregations, and a large and growing church is considered a good and successful one. I think the other major reason is just that bad metaphysics leads to bad moral judgements, and Christians are as wedded to bad modern metaphysical views as the wider culture. The Evangelical church now has little to say and little involvement on the matter of death itself, as opposed to reminding us of the apparent fact that we’ll all die. So they defer to doctors and bioethicists on any important questions about death itself, and probably most of us have heard of the popular expression now current that these folks represent “God in a white coat”. A fitting expression that communicates who is filling the cultural vacuum created after the church ceded its view to so-called experts.

    This is not going to be popular to say, but I think that rather than offering subtle insights and judgments about the culture at large and its views on death, Evangelicals would do well to first tend to their own cultural views on this issue if they wish to be heard. Otherwise they don’t have the moral authority to make such judgements regarding the wider culture, and I don’t see how they could change a culture’s view of death (or anything) in a positive way without a clear view on the matter to begin with anyway.

    Reply

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