‘Now I Am Become Death…’ | Theology of Decay | Rituals [1]

Micah Redding has an interesting post bouncing off some of the thoughts I’ve posted here, which reflects on baptism, and whether this represents a ‘ritual to signify the end of rituals.’

My immediate thought was of the lines from the Bhagavad-Gita, made famous by J Robert Oppenheimer in an interview in which he recorded his thoughts in the aftermath of the first atomic bomb test:

‘We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.’

Funny how these things go, but I then caught a few minutes of a BBC4 programme yesterday – ‘After Life – The Strange Science of Decay.’ (around on iPlayer for 6 days from today) and that threw up some interesting connections.

So, here we go… some quick thoughts on death, rituals and a theology of decay…

Firstly, I think it’s interesting to highlight the difference between death and decay. We might even say that it is not death itself that we are afraid of, but the process of decay that comes after. The just-dead body appears still to be of this world, or at least functionable for use in another world, whatever or wherever that might be. The embalmed or preserved body is frozen in time, still holding the tension between this life and the next.

But once decay sets in, things turn nasty. The decaying body is a thing of horror: beauty takes quick leave, and the ‘frozen’ nature of the corpse thaws into warm rot. Zombies are dead bodies in decay. The fear of the decaying body is this: it is no longer fit for transport or use elsewhere. The decaying body is returning to this earth; breaking down into its elemental substances, ready for re-use. The decaying body thus tells us something about our place in the material cycle of things: we are not elevated, we are atoms, chemical bond… we were dust, and will be dust again.

This fear of decay leads us to desire, if not eternal life, then at least some preserving medium which will keep our material bodies from disintegration. But in terms of ecology, this is a disaster: decay is a vital process, without which life on earth would cease to exist.

Without organic decomposers (bacteria and fungi) decaying dead organic matter, vital nutrients would be trapped and never be released back into the soil. Plants would therefore be unable to grow and every ecosystem would collapse, as plants are at the base of every food chain: the cycle of life would grind to a halt. Not only that: if nothing decayed, the dead bodies of all living creatures and plants would litter the globe. We would literally be climbing over undecayed bodies.

Actually, there have been periods in history where this has (partially) been the case. In the carboniferous period, large quantities of wood were buried and not broken down because the bacteria and insects that could effectively digest them had not yet evolved. These fallen trees were laid down as coal deposits, dark and cold and undying.

In other words, death will come to us. But decay – the transition from death into the new cycle of life – requires ‘agents of decay.’ Without these agents there is nothing can be broken down and reused.

So what the hell has this got to do with baptism? Well here’s my hunch: rituals are agents of decay. And at the moment they are seriously lacking.

I want to expand on this in the next post, as this is getting far too long for the average digital attention span [joking!], but, in brief, I want to propose that not only are we living in a culture – theologically and otherwise – where death is taboo, but, more seriously, we have  a paucity of communal ritual which moves in post mortem to bring about healthy decay. And the result of this: dark, undying deposits which are unavailable to be broken down and re-used.

Now here’s the thing: what I think Pete Rollins is doing with Insurrection is offering not only a path by which people can experience death (of poorly-thought-out beliefs) but also a way of participating in decay: the breaking down of these beliefs that can open them up for re-use.

But via Hamlet, Catholic persecution and the Occupy movement, I’ll get to that in the next post.



4 responses to “‘Now I Am Become Death…’ | Theology of Decay | Rituals [1]”

  1. I’m pretty sure the paucity of ecological awareness in our society contributes to a greater fear of death and decay. (It has plenty of other negative repercussions!) Though anyone who can genuinely quip; “Well, s/he’s pushing up the daisies now!” is possibly not so badly affected.
    On the other hand, maybe a degree of ecological sensitivity can aid the perception of beauty in dead things? I often find I enjoy a bouquet of flowers when they have perished as much as when they were freshly cut. And I relish the scene in ‘American Beauty’ where Ricky, filming an expired bird, responds to Angela’s query of his motive with: “Because it’s beautiful”.

  2. I quite agree. I think our culture of materialism, and the connected ‘replace, don’t repair’ attitude means we have lost the ability to see a decayed object as a rich resource for further use.

  3. darryl.cole.silvestri

    kester, how does this thought interact with things you have said previously about how things that you and pete are saying are heading in a different direction than the thrust from new monastic endeavors? my impression is that ritual is something new monastic movements would embrace greatly. and if i am mistaken you seem to be advocating for incorporating more ritual into our lives.

  4. Yes, ritual is something that new monasticism would embrace. But I think they would do so in a way that ‘ritualised ritual’, if that makes sense. I would want to explore the idea of ritual as something wider than just a theological or liturgical practice, and see it as a wider communal, cultural thing.
    It may be that NM’s would say the same thing, but I don’t think that changes much. My beef with that movement and the different directions it may be taking are not so much about the practice of ritual, but more about hierarchy and community formation.