Flying over the desert of an evening, around Window Rock, over the Grand Canyon, the cool breeze a necessity for equilibrium and the star lit sky preferable for navigation; this was my singular capacity. With the veil of darkness, the arms pumping and as I gained confidence, the leap into a canyon or off a tall building (nearly absent in Page, Arizona) and I could just manage to obtain lift-off.

The ordinary family into which I was born had their abilities – special even – among mortals. I did not question their earthboundness, nor could I articulate the equation of flight with immortality, but this is how it functioned.   I was not grounded by the contingencies of bipedalism. Flight was incomparable with the local means of achieving immortality – throwing a fastball or running bases – it constituted an ontological difference. My apparent incapacities as the youngest and smallest were simply a foil. The three foot frame housed an ego temporarily fallen from the heavens. Though the slightest talent at anything might have tempered the necessity, but as it was, flying was my Kant and Plato – the equivalent of a philosophical proof of being – of innate immortality.

Freud claims, “There is no mortality in the unconscious,” and this translates into immortal capacities that seep through to consciousness. The newly minted ego is enabled by talent (as in the case of the celebrity never faced with mortality), or by religion and culture, to fly through life untouched by earthy realities. The University of Chicago sociologist, Peter Berger, pictures culture and religion as making possible an enduring identity on the basis of a manufactured “reality.” For example, the Babelites would “make a name for themselves” on the basis of an indestructible tower. To storm the gates of heaven on the ever ascending heights (cultural, national, or personal) is the human project. The temporal and mortal is “overcome” in an intensified effort to painlessly fly free from the bind of the mortal coil. Flying permits no equals, no true friendship or love, as the very point is to achieve the pinnacle of absolute difference – the oblivion of death. Freud dubs it the “death drive” as unwinding this mortal coil in the drive to life is to institute death as a way of life.

To imagine with Yeats that the soul is “fastened to a dying animal” is to miss the Pauline notion that dying begins with the soul. Paul’s “soulish human,” the “psychikos person,” is precisely the one that does not receive the things of the Spirit – life itself (I Cor. 2:14-15). In contrast to David Hart’s recommendation of the platonic idea that “rational freedom of the spirit “always strive “to subdue the brute,”[1] Paul describes this struggle as definitive of death. It is the result of the objectification of (the flight from) the body due to the alienation of sin (Rom. 7:7ff). The attempt to subdue the body through the “rational spirit” is the sign that the Spirit of life is absent, thus Paul terms this struggle as constitutive of “the body of death” (Rom. 7:24) – the equivalent of Freud’s death drive. In his cry, “Who will rescue me from the body of death,” Paul makes no mention of the rational spirit; rather, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:2).

Christ’s refusal to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple to be borne on the wings of angels (Mt. 4:5-7) is the refusal of the disassociation of the flight of the death drive. His unwillingness to attain the kingdoms of this world, objectified from the perspective of a “high mountain,” by serving the “spirit, nous, or Geist” of this world is (contra Hart) to refuse to bow to this world’s prince. While he will not turn stones to bread, Christ will offer himself as the bread of life. He will be “lifted up,” but not “so that you will not strike your foot against a stone” (Mt. 4:6), but to be the stone that men stumble over. His broken body brings us to earth and it is only in this grounded mortal condition that we can be with one another. It is the means to draw the world into fellowship (“I will draw all men unto myself”) on the basis of an alternative Kingdom. Not a kingdom in the sky but the incarnate Kingdom of “God with us,” the New Jerusalem come to earth. The disassociation of flight, or the identity through difference achieved at this world’s pinnacles, is undone by the one whose body is the true Temple. This body, raised up and ascended, constitutes not flight nor absence but the sign that he is always with us.

In the little tin church in Page the desert sand serves as the floor. Bert Layman , the iron-worker cum preacher who built the church, prays over the rough hewn communion table he has crafted in his own rough hewn image. Grandma Yakashigi, Nakagawasan, Nishikawasan, from Japan are there. Cecil, who baptized me when I was 13, the most gentle of souls, is kneeling up front. Some way Pastor Sheets from the Baptist Church has strayed in – Bert will not be happy. The ordinary folk, the only kind I know, fill the little house of worship.  The journey from dust to dust does not seem so far in this dusty crowd melding into the sand floor. Roy, the local prison guard, comes bearing the emblems and as he bends down he brings me fully awake, I look at Roy who is silent but I hear the question from the emblems: “Paul, are you one of us or not?”[2]

[1] David Bentley Hart, “Roland on Free Will,” In First Things (February, 2015).

[2] The title and ending are from a Fred Chappell novel with a different meaning worked out here.

(This is reposted from January 2015 in celebration of the community Forging Ploughshares which keeps me grounded.)

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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