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Homily for the Funeral of John Edwin Smith

from the “Sermons and Services” collection


December 17, 2009

The hymn, “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide,” was a favorite of Alfred North Whitehead who wrote, “the first line expresses the permanences, ‘abide,’ ‘me’ and the ‘Being’ addressed. And the second line sets these permanences amid the inescapable flux. Here at length we find formulated the complete problem of metaphysics.” I remember John Smith pointing out this passage to me with approval when I was an eighteen year old undergraduate and he a distinguished senior professor already twice my age. At the time I did not understand Whitehead’s point or John’s insistence on it. When I was twenty seven, however, and our first daughter died, its truth and importance began to sink in. Philosophy is not to be “thought” so much as “experienced,” a lesson many of us came to understand from John Smith.

As to time, John lived a long and very full eighty eight years. When I met him fifty two years ago he had already been through college, seminary, and graduate school, had published his first book and a number of articles, had taught six years at Barnard, landed the job at Yale and begun his family; I met Robin in her mother’s arms and Diana in her belly—the next generation. That year John was offered Tillich’s chair at Union Seminary which he turned down to stay at Yale, explaining to me that one has to nurse an institution for a long time to make a real difference. A few years later when I was in graduate school he became chair of the Yale Philosophy Department and for the rest of his life dedicated himself to a vision of philosophy for the department and country that made a place at the table for all traditions of thought. Academic politics can be bruising, and I only hope that he took some comfort in the fact that he was not involved in church politics, which are so much worse. One summer when he was chair his secretary quit suddenly and I filled in for a fast couple of months, to be succeeded by Pat Slatter, who abideth yet! For the rest of his life John threw himself into the needs of his day, book after book, conference after conference, supporting one society after another, class after class—my youngest daughter who was in one of his last courses in 1991 reports that he was still a dynamo in the classroom. For many years he struggled with the health of his beloved wife, Marilyn, and when she died he was devastated. But he did not give up. My last email correspondence with him on the day he died was about supporting systematic philosophy in America through the Josiah Royce Society. He never gave up that “fast-fall” of projects that engaged him throughout his long life. He is, for me, the very paradigm of a person who lives the life given him with fullness of Spirit.

Usually it is bad form to be philosophical in a death-and-resurrection funeral sermon, but John was a philosopher and everyone who knew him is more philosophical because of that. He would surely want us to think about him in time and eternity. He learned from Tillich that religious symbols mean much more than they seem to say. I’ve mentioned some of the fast-moving passages in his temporal life, and there are other stories to be told there too, particularly within the family. What abides in all this? For some, the abiding things are those that seem to be longlasting within time, like the everlasting hills or Pat Slatter’s tenure in the Philosophy Department. For others, including Whitehead, the abiding things are those that last through all times. But I think myself that the truly abiding domain is eternity within which the passage of time takes place. Eternity is not itself temporal or everlasting but is a depth dimension, as John would say, in every passing moment that makes time’s flow possible. This is the “complete metaphysical problem.” Eternity is that domain of reality in which all the modes of time, past, present, and future, are together. They are not together temporally, one before the other, but eternally, such that, as each moment becomes present, it adds to the past and reshapes the future. In eternity, which is God’s life, every moment of John’s life is there as a future possibility, also there as a creative, decisive, present moment, and also there as a past actualized bit of his life. In the divine eternity, John is still the young runner crouching with the tension of possibly winning the race, still the runner pounding down the track, still the victor hands raised high. In the divine eternity, John is still the young father planning for his children’s education, immersed in the responsibilities of his job, and thankful that he already had tenure. In the divine eternity, John is the old man looking back at his accomplishments, worried that he could have finished off a few things better, wondering what to do about the Royce Society. Every date of John’s life is a future possibility in the divine eternity, every date a finished actuality, and every date a present spontaneous live happening, all these dates with the different modes of time together eternally. Time’s flow requires the real togetherness of past, present and future.

This is almost impossible to comprehend with our temporal imaginations. Nearly every religion schematizes eternity to the temporal imagination with images of an afterlife in a heavenly superspace. This is perfectly legitimate and we can think of John looking down with compassion on us mourners and grading my sermon. But the symbol of resurrection into eternity means so much more than this. Who is John in eternity—only the wise old man of ten days ago? No. In eternity John is the young runner, the brilliant student, the lover pitching woo, the father of young children, the academic with generations of students, the scholar at every stage of maturity, the friend of people long dead, and the friend of people still young—all these moments are together in John’s eternal life.

Can we say that this eternal identity is who John is now? Not quite. “Now” is a point within time and eternity is not in time. Rather, time with all its nows is in eternity, the divine life. For all the energy in the fast-fall of events through which John lived his life, that temporal passage is set in a larger eternal context within the divine life. What abides is the eternal divine life that makes temporal flow possible and real. In the fast-fall of our events when we are struggling to cope responsibly with the past and the future we don’t think much about the divine eternal context of all this. But remember all those parables of Jesus where he said, “Wake up! You think this is the kingdom of the world, but it is the kingdom of God.” He did not say “I will overcome the world.” He said “I have overcome the world,” for he knew his eternal home in God. Jesus was the light that came into the world, as John the Evangelist said, to show us the truth about our eternal life in God, which is our resurrection. At no time can we be separated from the eternal God, as Paul said. Now is the time for us to remember the eternal context of our lives and give thanks. We can do this because we have to stop and contemplate John Smith’s life, death, and resurrection.

John, like us, is, always has been, and always will be, eternally alive in God. We now know the moments of his eternal life add up to eighty eight full years of temporal living. We who are still living temporally cannot rest because we have to cope with tomorrow. But for John the race is finished: “Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord; And let light perpetual shine upon him.” We give thanks for this man in whom the Spirit of creation is so robustly manifest. Abide with us, fast falls the eventide. Amen.

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