Monday, November 25, 2013
seeking birth in death: a new way of discerning fresh expressions
I’m currently reading The Faith Lives of Women and Girls. Qualitative Research Perspectives. Edited by Nichola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips, recently published by Ashgate, it offers 19 chapters of original research on key aspects of women’s and girl’s faith lives. It uses a range of approaches – ethnographic, oral history, action research, interview studies, case studies – to help explore faith from a feminist perspective.
I’ve got stuck on the chapter by Jennifer Hurd, “The Relevance of a Theology of Natality for a Theology of Death and Dying and Pastoral Care: Some Initial Reflections,” (Chapter 17, 195-205). Hurd is a minister, aware from her experiences in recent years that there are changes in attitudes and practices within church and society concerning death and dying. She sets out to research the pastoral and theological relationships between birth and death.
As a theoretical frame, she uses the work by Grace Jantzen on natality, who has argued that the predominant choice of western civilization from Graeco-Roman times to the postmodern age has been characterized by violence and death. Jantzen calls this “necrophilia.” The result has been destructiveness, fascination with other worlds to the detriment of this one, and an antipathy toward the body and sexuality.
Jantzen suggests an alternative, which she terms “natality,” one characterized by beauty, creativity, new beginnings, flourishing and love of life. Her focus is the potential to make new beginnings, evident in new birth. But not only about birth. All beginnings that are becomings that make for creativity, life, health and wholeness.
Hence the Christmas Carol, Angels from the realms of glory
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar:
Seek the great Desire of nations;
Ye have seen his natal star:
Hurd then interviews people experiencing death and dying and argues that in these narratives is the presence of natality. She draws out four threads from Jantzen – embodiment, engenderment, relationality, hopefulness.
So why am I stuck?
- First, I read Jantzen in my PhD and it has been helpful to my current writing to re-find her.
- Second, with my dad dying, I’ve recently been through the valley of the shadow of death.
- Third, I’m concerned about gender and leadership development.
- Fourth, I’m fascinating by how change does, or does not happen. Hurd comments how “often, feminist theology has responded to the necrophilia of patriarchal church and society by declining to address death.” (Hurd, 199).
So why am I stuck? Well it’s got me thinking. You see, it’s so tempting, especially in church circles to avoid the hard conversations about death and decline, and it’s fascinating to read how Hurd argues that both death and natality are threshold experiences, a shared liminal experience.
“Undoubtedly, natal elements have always been a major part of Christian theology and pastoral care.” (205).
But Hurd finds natal elements not after the death, but in death, dying and bereavement. This includes a continued relationality, “contrasting with the ‘letting go’ which is sometimes part of pastoral care in bereavement.” (205) Which for me is truly fascinating. This is not a “letting go” of declining bodies (and by extension, dying churches). This is finding a new becoming in their midst.
What I’m pondering is not a “inherited church” dies, so that “fresh expressions” live. Rather lets explore natality in all of life – in ways that offer relationality, hope, embodiment, for all.
It also means that while death is inevitable, the process will not be seen as failure, but as a pathway through which new life is possible.
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