In the end it is not God who matters -- you can’t “scrute” the inscrutable -- but rather it is human beings we struggle to understand. If art is the communication of the relationship between a person and the universe and if religion -- in the sense of spirituality -- is a person’s direct perception of the sacredness of the universe, then what matters is that person’s ability to send and receive, to get into harmony, to mesh, merge and emerge. All in the interest of survival.
“Back in the day” when my thesis advisor John Godbey was still trying to make some kind of Christian out of me, the crash of the Uruguayan Rugby team in the Andes was still relatively new. (1972, I think. Jonestown happened in 1978 while I was in seminary.) I read the reports and books and included the story in my thesis about the “Poetics of Liturgy.” John didn’t like that much. He didn’t like the extreme and gruesome and neither did my classmates. Now, with the original manuscript completely reframed as “The Bone Chalice,” I’ve got the movies as well as the book to work from.
“Alive” is the “Hollywoodized” version with Ethan Hawke, gorgeously filmed and focused on heroics. Included in the 1993 DVD is the film of a visit back to the crash site twenty years later with commentary by “Nando,” one of the boys who walked out. “Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains” (2007) is the thirty year anniversary and this time the men return with their teenaged children, several of them daughters. This version is made by a European documentary team, using interviews and re-enactments. The men speak in their own language, sub-titled. They go in and back out on horseback.
The accident itself is one of those recurrent intersections of ferociously atypical weather, pilot-error, an unforgiving place, and a blithe feeling of entitlement carried easily on the shoulders of privileged young men. The actual cannibalism, completely justified in the name of survival, is less interesting to me than the intellectualized fact that in the slightly more than two months when the company was stranded, they were an excellent illustration of what it can mean to be human. (I’m reading “Generation Kill” about the young men in the Iraqi war at the same time. It is very parallel.)
The two thresholds, one of entrance and one of exit, were aerial, in by plane, out by helicopter. The worst moment, the “abandon all hope” turning point was hearing on the radio that the search for survivors had been called off. Then they rallied with memories of the families that loved them and the emergence of leadership to form communitas. (This sequence is what I identify in my thesis as “the dilation of the spirit.” In Mass, it's Confession of Sins and Assurance of Pardon.) Consciously aware that no one of them could survive without the others and that each of them was responsible for all the others, they had an “organic” solidarity in the sharing of their thinking and actions. It was easy to arrive at the understanding that even in death they could contribute to the survival of the others. These were emotional young men, but they were also highly rational, and their religious training gave even the atheists among them a scaffolding and vocabulary. (You can’t be an atheist without the concept of “theism.”)
These were physical young men, both in terms of prowess and in terms of tenderness. They were not afraid to embrace, to punch (it kept the blood moving), to sleep tightly together, to rub life back into feet. When one lost courage, the others pumped theirs into him. Their parents had done this for them since childhood. Their fathers were strong and protective; their mothers were loving and guiding. Afterwards they said that the philosophical discussions put into their mouths by script writers were not really so necessary while they sat, day after day, in the sun on seat cushions against the outside of the fuselage. They knew in their muscles, their guts -- not just their brains. They went by their feelings, as they would in a ball game. But they also used strategy, as they would in a game.
The numinous mountain glacier in its confining cirque of stone gave them blind suffering, transcendent vistas and then, when they had let down their guard in the night, another smashing into death, literally taking their breath (spirit) by burying them in avalanche. This pressed them even more sharply into the need to act for their own salvation. Even so, several had visions of great peace. Delays meant more deaths, but also better weather, so the balancing point moved until the two chosen travelers were persuaded to go, take that last risk.
There was a dark side to the rescue which is shown more clearly in the documentary version. Almost the minute the two messengers staggered into a cattle camp, journalists arrived, vultures avid to know all the details, especially when they realized there was cannibalism involved. The defense then was a religious one, quite formal: the idea that is often mocked from outside the Christian faith as cannibalism. Jesus’ metaphor of Holy Communion being the ingestion of his body and blood to commemorate a sacrifice that could save souls.
In my opinion, the historical shift from hunter/gatherer/herder culture to an agricultural wheat and vineyard culture, was probably accompanied by the shift from blood sacrifice (perhaps at first human but then a hunting kill and later part of a domestic animal -- maybe even a “holocaust,” a whole lamb) to bread and wine. Think about Abraham and Isaac, think about Jacob and Esau. They strike me as nervous attempts to justify the shift. I do not think we have recovered yet. Men still sacrifice their sons; brothers still compete for the heritage of their fathers with “sacrifices.” This is the understructure of Christianity exposed in this incident and also in war. (Bush: “they tried to kill my father.” So how many sons and fathers did HIS war kill?)
Every time there is a new change of larger circumstances, the dynamic of so-called culture is bent and corrupted. We are in a time when our planet is crashing and we are confused about how to respond. Our telescopes bring us photos of terrifying splendor and we are lonely in our terror. One way to stay sane, to adapt enough to survive, to keep our feelings justified with rational responses, is liturgy, reaffirming the deep patterns of human “brain wiring.” The sacrifice, no matter whether bread or flesh, is always us, ourselves and each other.
That’s not some consoling Christian dogma -- it’s the plain raw fact. I say raw -- uncooked, as the anthropological metaphor would term it. More about “cooked,” later. I think our increased power is causing us to sacrifice whole populations at once as well as the planet that is our source and sustenance.