Monday, May 2, 2016

Messages in the Sky

The initial inclination for me typically is to roll my eyes at the kind of stuff where Christians see messages in the sky specifically for them. Don't misunderstand. I'm not trying to ridicule anyone here, especially someone who is dealing with loss. But I often wonder if by embracing reality, I'm missing out on living in a perceived world in which people I loved who are now dead can communicate with me by making abstract patterns with tiny water droplets resting on condensation nuclei (read: cloud shapes).

Even when I was a Christian, this sort of folksy approach to religion completely eluded me. That's probably because I thought through this stuff when I was about six, not long after my grandfather died. Adults around me were talking about how my grandfather was looking down on me from heaven, but I had already concluded that wouldn't jibe with the religious paradigm from which I was working. Besides, six-year-old me much preferred the idea that grandpa was far, far away in some other dimension where he couldn't see me, particularly when I waited longer to seek out a bathroom than my disproportionately-undersized bladder could handle and accidentally pissed my pants. Fourteen-year-old me preferred the idea that my dead grandpa couldn't see me for different reasons.

Not long ago, my dad seemed to embrace the idea of the dead communicating with us through the weather at his sister's funeral. There was a thunderstorm during the services and the lights went out, which he immediately interpreted as her communicating with us. This seemed to give him comfort and other people played along. Now, he's a grown-ass educated man who has studied meteorology in a formal capacity and understands physical science. He's not some naive bumpkin who's never seen the world. The man went half-way around the globe and got shot at for his country. He's seen some shit. And yet in that moment of grief, at least, static electricity in the atmosphere and the sound of air expanding was his sister speaking with him from beyond the grave.

I suppose one could substitute more realistic appraisals of these situations like, "My evolved sense of pattern recognition is leading me to associate the shape of this cloud with a heart, a human organ people once thought of as the seat of the emotions. This leads me to reminisce about my dead loved-ones. Remembering them is a way for them to live on in the only way we know for sure people can." or "That loud clap of thunder reminds me of the impact my caring, loving, big sister had on my life and what a presence she was. It gives me comfort to know that those impressions helped shape me into the person I am and continue to be." But sometimes it seems way cooler to be able to believe that your dead grandfather and miscarried children personally sent you a Mother's Day gift in the sky or that your dead sister can conjure up a thunderstorm in central Florida.

People experience hurt and pain and this provides some measure of relief and comfort. It's hard for me now to look down on that and ridicule it, given those particular circumstances. Of course, I would imagine one has to be very selective about the rules of this fantasy world, otherwise it raises all kinds of questions and can get one into trouble if taken too far. Nobody really wants their grandfather, miscarried children, or big sister looking down on them while in the throes of passion or while sitting on the john and dealing with a major case of the shits. It's uncomfortable enough to have pets that do that, much less dearly departed relatives.

I have to wonder, though. Do the people who say these things know they're bullshitting themselves on some level? Is this just a way to express those remembrances and attribute significance to those people's lives using folksy mythology because that's the language they've adopted around death? Is this really just a complete denial of reality, or is it merely expressing it within the accepted cultural verbiage? Maybe it's a blurring of the two?

For most of my Christian life I looked down on people who expressed such notions for not thinking through their theology well enough and not bothering to read the Bible to piece together the implications. They weren't being biblical or consistent and were letting their emotions get the better of them. Perhaps even worse, they were expressing "pagan" beliefs about the afterlife. It seems to me that for all its intellectually-stimulating and complex sophistry, hard-core Apollonian versions of Christianity really do miss out on a lot of the fun that the more Dionysian versions get to engage in.

Additionally, it now occurs to me that in any supernatural paradigm, such silly and inconsistent things will still creep in and are often unavoidable even for the most ardent, self-aware systematic theologians. I suspect that it's all just a game of pretend they are playing with themselves. At the end of the day, many of these same cold, calculating, intellectual, high-Christianity folks still espouse things like beings that exist in invisible planes of existence interacting with the natural world, blood magic, talking animals, curses, incantations, and a god-man on a flying horse coming down out of the sky to slay an army led by a powerful, evil spirit in a final battle at the end of the world. On a practical level, they're not really any more reasonable than their folk-religionist brethren. They just stick to the script and miss out on all the other fun, imaginary and even poetic receiving comforting messages in the sky from dead people.

1 comment:

  1. My own favorite is "pennies from heaven." People find a penny on the ground and the date matches a year significant in the life of a lost loved one. That penny is then taken as a sign from that deceased person. Dear Abby has lent credence to this by publishing letters from her readers professing to have experienced it. Can't disprove it (as with everything in religion), but I can't see what sense it makes.