Easter Sermon

My text today is from the book of Ed Faulkner, who, having cracked open a can of Bud at 9:30 AM on Easter morning 1969, said: “Big day for you Christians, get the fuck up.” He uttered these immortal words on Spring Break, in Biloxi, Mississippi.

He was my fraternity brother. We called him “Big Stinky” because he never figured out how to apply soap to his armpits. He might as well have been a barnyard animal, a pig fresh from the sty—-you knew he was approaching before you heard his footsteps because his stench was so powerful and repellant.

The sorority girls loved him, though, an attraction I didn’t understand until, years later, I read about pheromones and heard women say they had slept with boring or stupid men because they smelled right.

I once asked him about what he accomplished in the shower. I was sitting opposite the stalls thinking about going back to bed instead of going to class-—I thought that every morning—-when Ed walked in swinging a soap on a rope as if he were David warming up for Goliath, or, better yet, an Irish cop twirling a nightstick.

I said, “Big Stinky, what do you do with that soap? You don’t smell anything like it.”

He said, “Fuck you, Livingston.” He and I were good friends, by the way, as well as frat brothers. I realized then that he understood why we called him “Big Stinky.” He knew he smelled bad.

Over the hiss of the shower, I said, “C’mon, Ed, you don’t smell like the soap, that’s all I’m sayin’. The rest of us do. How does that happen?”

He said, “Fuck you, Livingston.” He’s a stranger to his own body, I thought. At the time that struck me as odd-—Ed was a good athlete who had been recruited from a high school in rural Illinois to play basketball for the godforsaken college we attended in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He had a great jump shot he launched from almost eleven feet off the floor, arms fully extended from his 6’ 4” frame, and at around 220 pounds, he could mix it up underneath the basket.

But there it was. In his mind’s eye, his own body was foreign territory. As I think about it now, I have to wonder if his stutter—-the worst I have ever witnessed-—had already convinced him that there was nothing to be said about what his body would do because it was an external mechanism, a machine that would go of itself. He couldn’t represent it in words, so he couldn’t attend to it as it were an object entrusted to his care.

I’m borne back to these ancient moments because, on the eve of celebrating the resurrection, all I can think about is how the ritual occasion is impossible, even inconceivable, absent embodiment, absent incarnation. Unless we believe that Jesus lived and breathed and desired like every other human being, as someone located in and limited by his body, his death has no meaning and his (alleged) ascension becomes a formality—-a foregone conclusion.

As always, I look to Hegel for some guidance in these matters, because he was first a theologian and then a philosopher and finally a social theorist, but he never relinquished his faith. And by faith I mean what Saul of Tarsus did: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11.1)

Reason or self-consciousness was an achievement of the human species, according to Hegel, rather than a natural endowment, a given. Human beings have to struggle, and so to make a history for themselves, in overcoming the irrational impulses, the passions, that determine the contours of everyday life. But they don’t “rise above” these passions by repressing and mutilating them—-no, they incorporate them in the project (or, to be less teleological about it, the process) of self-consciousness, making reason and desire indissoluble moments rather than mutually exclusive modes of apprehending the world.

You can’t think as a human being unless you’re embodied. In fact, it’s when we treat our selves as bodies, as things to be perceived from elsewhere, that we begin to have thoughts: it’s then that the subject-object distinction becomes knowable and malleable as a dimension of your own existence, not just a difference between you and the external world (your parents, to begin with). But your embodiment, your desire, is composed of impulses that reason must, and does, countermand.

So to attain self-consciousness, you have to know that your body is both the condition and the limit of your rationality. You’re divided against yourself. But reason doesn’t cancel or ignore the embodiment that gives you life and an incentive to think; instead, it changes the cognitive status and social meaning of your body. It changes the future.

That’s how Hegel retells the story of the resurrection in The Phenomenology, anyway, as a godless journey that nevertheless redeems the suffering imposed by the slaughterbench of history.

Ed Faulkner couldn’t make sense of this story because his body appeared to him as mere limit, an externality he couldn’t speak for, or do anything about. Its expiration would only prolong a silence he had felt all his life. Of course he was an atheist. The conviction of things not seen means nothing to those who are strangers to their own bodies.

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