Sunday, 19 April 2009

Shawn Mackay meets Paul Tillich

One of the stories that has featured in the news this week is the death and funeral of Shawn Mackay, a young ACT Brumbies rugby union player who died after being hit by a car during a tour of South Africa. A low-profile player, unknown to even many rugby fans, has become a celebrity in death.

Why is the media, and the public, so interested in the ordinary death of an unknown young man? Why did we follow the daily details of his injury, initial recovery, death and funeral? Partly I suppose it is the genuine fame of a number of his team-mates, and partly the fact that it’s just a tragic story that tugs at our heart-strings. But there's more.

We like to hear about the intimate lives of famous people, and sports stars play a particular part in this fascination. Whereas the lives of Hollywood celebrities just seem bizarre, and politicians carry an aura of power, sports people seem very ordinary. Sure, they can run, swim, hit or kick a ball better than anyone else, but they are not particularly powerful, or particularly well-educated, they come from ordinary and often poor families, and after their brief youthful fame they will mostly retire to ordinary (albeit comfortable) lives. What could be more ordinary, then, than an elite sportsman who is hardly even famous? We want to hear about them because we feel we are hearing about ourselves.

Of course this ordinariness is both paradoxical and illusory. Our very interest in its ordinariness makes it extraordinary. If they were really ordinary, we would never hear about them. Their fame itself makes their lives different. Hundreds of young people die in car accidents every year, and they all have funerals at which their family and friends praise them, and cry. For your funeral to feature on prime time news you have to be different.

Yet this wasn’t what struck me the most. What really got my attention was their talk about Shawn Mackay being in heaven. If rugby is the game they play in heaven, they said, we know who would be captain.

You hear this a lot, from ordinary people, from sports people, in Australia and elsewhere. People often have the feeling that their dead parent, grandparent or sibling is looking down on them from heaven and approving (always approving) of what they do. When my father died, my young nephew (whose mother is a devout catholic) added him to his pantheon for bedtime prayers – Jesus, Mary and Grand-dad. My father would have found it hilarious, and in catholic terms it’s probably blasphemous although hardly serious coming from a four year old.

What’s interesting about this is that Australians on the whole are not very religious, and its not necessarily religious people who talk about their late relatives in this way, although many Christians certainly do. From week to week we will hardly think about God, heaven or religion. Yet when we are faced with death, we have a deep need to believe in immortality and future happiness for the dead person, and for ourselves. Barring serial killers and paedophiles you never hear anyone talking about the departed being in hell, or being just gone.

I’ve just finished reading The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich. He mentions this very phenomenon. Belief in the immortality of the soul, he says, is not really a Christian belief in the sense of being biblical – the bible talks in terms of resurrection, not an immortal soul. If anything it’s Platonic, but even Plato doesn’t envisage the individual continuing as they were in this life, only the soul returning to the realm of pure forms in which it is stripped of the dross of accidental individual characteristics. Our belief in the dead going to heaven is not Christian or Platonic, it’s folk religion.

The main thrust of Tillich’s book is about how we affirm our being (the “courage to be”) in the face of the key existential anxieties that face all people. He identifies three interlocking sources of anxiety
  • the anxiety of fate and death – our fate is out of our control and ultimately we’ll die
  • the anxiety of guilt and condemnation – we have done wrong and will ultimately be condemned for it
  • the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness – we doubt the sources of meaning and ultimately our existence may be meaningless.
He then discusses the ways in history and philosophy that people have faced these anxieties and developed and maintained the courage to assert their own being in spite of them. It’s a complex discussion and I’m not sure I understand it all, so I certainly won’t try to explain the intricacies of it. Suffice it to say that he identifies that for his time (the 1950s) the predominant form is the anxiety of meaninglessness, expressed in existentialism. His answer (in my simplified form) is encounter with the “God above God”. This is not the God of the philosophers who can be analysed, categorised and dissected by philosophers and theologians, and who has been killed off by the existentialists. This is the God we encounter after the death of that God when in the despair of our meaninglessness we encounter the power of being, the ground of all being, the eternal.

Tillich was speaking from the point of view of an academic theologian, immersed in the philosophy of his age. He was also a German exiled by the Nazi regime, watching as his country descended into barbarism and genocide.

This is where an archetypal “ordinary person” comes in handy. It’s unlikely that either Shawn Mackay or his mates took time out from their busy schedule of training, playing, drinking with team-mates and visiting sick kids to catch up on 20th century existentialism. Nor, despite being Australian, have they been personally touched by genocide, as opposed to seeing its results on their city streets without understanding them. On the other hand the obligatory hospital visits would have put them in plenty of contact with suffering and death.

So my guess would be that despite devoting their lives to getting a piece of inflated synthetic fibre past 15 huge opponents and over a white line, it may not have occurred to them that their existence is meaningless. They do, however, know that they will die – especially since Shawn has just done so.

In the absence of any real religious faith, in the absence of a serious philosophy of existence, how do they cope with the reality of unpredictable, looming death? They are forced back onto our society’s folk religion which tells them that death is not the end of everything, that there is a good existence beyond death in which the dead can continue their lives. They tell themselves that they are immortal.

Then they go back to carrying that ball over that white line with even greater fury and devotion than before, drawing extra meaning from the idea that their departed mate is watching from that place of immortality. They believe a win will somehow make him feel fulfilled, and desperately wish it would also fill up the emptiness of their grief.

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