I feel drawn to revisiting some of the more obscure Bible sayings. The phrase on my mind today is “Let the dead bury their own dead.” As someone who has taken the role of burial rites very seriously, I’m troubled by this verse. Even when I have been the only person present at a burial (one of the most heart breaking experiences of my life), or once when I was the only person present with a single woman, burying her sister and last remaining relative, these are tender moments of healing and reflection.
At first reading the dismissive saying “Let the dead bury their own dead” seems callous, insensitive, and lacking in compassion. It was even part of family responsibility in Hebrew culture to ensure that loved ones had appropriate burials. Scholars have tried to explain it in various ways.
In Hebrew and Aramaic language, written without vowels, it looks like this “Lt th dd bry thr wn dd”
Having some fun with the dd, which is an ambiguous Aramaic word, you come up with a number of possibilities. It could be dead, deed, dad, dude, dodo, dud or doodah. So it might actually be any of the following-
“Let the dude bury the deed” or “Let the dad bury the dodo ,” or
“Let the dud bury the dude,” or “Let the dad bury the dead,” or
“Let the dude bury the doodad.”
Serious scholars have variously translated it as let the dying bury the dead, let the grave diggers bury the dead, or let the next of kin bury the dead.
I prefer to interpret it metaphorically as an urgent call to keep evolving. Expect death in so many ways- death to previous beliefs, death to previous stages of life and development, death to relationships, death to dreams, death to worldviews. Expect and greet death when it come as a challenging invitation to enter into a new and emerging consciousness.
Hegel was a German philosopher who explained change in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Hegel argued that the world was in a constant process of transformation from lower to higher orders of existence. Each new order, he said, emerged as an idea, or "thesis" and each thesis carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction or "antithesis." This might also be called its shadow. But out of the inevitable clash between thesis and antithesis, a new and more perfect order was destined to emerge- the synthesis. In its turn, then, this synthesis would now function as a new thesis, sparking another antithesis until finally history fought its way forward to the ultimate synthesis - the total realization of the world spirit. This was Hegel’s dialectic. As an aside, can you imagine Hegel breaking up with his girlfriend? “It’s not you; it’s the realization of world spirit dude!”
For Marx it was the economic movement from feudalism to an industrialized bourgeoisie as its antithesis, which led to capitalism as the synthesis. He then predicted that a class conscious and oppressed working class would rise up to create socialism as a new synthesis. This, for Marx, would be the total realization of world spirit. Imagine trying to split the bill with Karl on a date!
Teilhard de Chardin approached the issue of spiritual evolution from the same perspective. For him, evolution evolves through complexity and chaos, drawn towards the great Omega point or divine consciousness. I’ve experienced a few Omega points in my time, but they were usually followed by sleep and not divine consciousness.
For this dude, the process doesn’t need to have an end point. The process continues indefinitely. There is no end. There are just countless new beginnings.
You could say that Christianity arose out of the dialectic doodah between Greek and Hebrew thought. Christianity keeps evolving from thesis to synthesis and we shouldn’t be surprised that change is hard. The antitheses (such as transcending a personal God or disputing the inerrancy of the Bible) don’t proceed without great heartache.
The key point is that the synthesis will both preserve and also negate some aspects of the thesis. Hegel said that "to supersede (or you might also say transform) is at once to preserve and negate."
As we deal with inevitable change in our lives, in our families, in our churches, in our worldviews, in our religions, transformation will come as we both preserve and negate what has come before and even that which has created us. So, we don’t need to lose our loyalty to our family or to our religion or our country. What we lose is the sense that our whole identity grows out of our loyalty to family, religion or country. What we give up, or have die within us, is an exclusive attachment to family, religion, country or even self.
Let exclusive attachments to old worldviews die. Let exclusive attachments to tribalism die. Let exclusive attachments to nationalism die. All those things which by their nature exclude must be negated to evolve in consciousness or to mature. The energy of each stage remains. Love flows as a constant energy throughout.
This is always a balancing act. It is not an easy process; in fact, deaths are by definition full of grief.
Huston Smith put it this way: “Many things in traditional worldviews deserve to be retired, for example, their views of the physical universe, which has been permanently superseded by science, and their social platforms of slavery, caste, gender relationships, and so on. In those cases, let the dead bury their dead.”
Change is inevitable. The cycles of life are in constant ebb and flow. The arrival of change, even in the toughest of life situations is a reminder to let go, even just a little. Let the past remain buried, with lessons learned and integrated, with memories in place. Let the past be buried. We change what we can in the present. We accept without judgment that which we cannot change right now. We seek the wisdom to always know the difference.
"If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren't afraid of dying, there is nothing you can't achieve." (Tao Te Ching)
You don’t need to go looking for death. It will find you. You don’t need to glibly enjoy death, licking your lips for the emerging transformation. Let it be a burial, and allow yourself a period of mourning. Just don’t resist it when it comes.
In the words of Kafka, “You do not need to leave the room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” (Kafka: The Great Wall of China: Stories and Reflections)
Seed of Inquiry
You are safe to question old beliefs and stop believing them if they no longer make sense to you. You are free to rid yourself of assumptions and prejudices that are stale reminders of another time.
You are free to grow and change and make mistakes. Learn and heal and do it in your own time.
Say to yourself: I am courageous and free. I am on a journey of open inquiry.