Sunday Meditations: The Fear of Death

I have been reading The Slavery of Death by by Richard Beck, one of the rare books that I would recommend without qualification (so far).

Beck is a psychologist and a theologically-minded Protestant.  In his book, he begins by noting that the Eastern Orthodox have latched on to a relationship between sin and death that doesn’t get a lot of air time in Protestant doctrinal formulations.  It is the view captured in verses like 1 Corinthians 15:56 – “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.”

There are passages in the Bible that portray death as a consequence of sin.  Yet, there are other passages that seem move death to the top of the hierarchy.  Sin becomes a means to an end, which is death itself.  Beck argues that both ways of looking at the relationship of sin and death are correct, but notes that in western Protestantism, we tend to overlook the latter.

Because he is theologically minded, Beck looks at different passages with this in mind and also talks about how certain theological categories, like the Atonement, can be enhanced by thinking of death as a primary force which causes, among other things, people to sin.  Death becomes an enslaving force, not just in the sense that everyone dies, but in the sense that the fear of death has dominion over the living while we are still alive.

As a psychologist, this is where Beck spends most of his time, illustrating the impact the fear of death has on both individuals and institutions – impact that is being empirically proven in tests.

One of the more interesting impacts, and where the book spends most of its time, is the idea that our cultures (national, religious, corporations – any collective entity that has a culture) typically define some way for us to leave our mark.  By performing according to certain standards, we achieve something in our culture that will outlast us because the institution will outlast us.  One example might be someone who works their butt off to close a large deal for their company.

Beck points out how easy it is to derive our senses of identity from these cultures (which only exacerbates our fear of death from losing our identity), internalize our cultures’ way of looking at life such that it becomes a primary driver in our own thinking and behavior, and the personal and social ills this can create up to and including attempts to destroy cultures different than your own because they invalidate your path to immortality.

It was at that point that I could not help but think of the rancor associated with most theological disagreements in Christianity.  It’s not just that you and I disagree, it’s that my immortality is somehow in jeopardy if it turns out your path is correct.

It is at this point that Beck also notes something in the first century worldview that I have noted a time or two on this blog: that the demonic, satanic realm and the operation of powers in the world that are not supernatural but still transhuman (like empires, corporations, etc.) are two facets of the same phenomenon.  It’s not the satanic kingdom of demons OR the Roman Empire in the first century; they are both the same thing.  One is the body, one is the spirit – an indivisible entity.  And this applies to other institutions Jesus may refer to, and they overlap in many ways in the New Testament.

In contrast to this way of living, Beck offers a definition of identity that other theologians have referred to as “ecstatic” or “eccentric.”  In this scheme, your identity – the you that makes you you that we hope will live on in some sense – is not something you create or maintain or that was bestowed upon you by a larger institution, but rather is something given to you by God who is completely in control of what constitutes that identity, how that identity gets used, and what ultimately becomes of it.

If we can begin to wrap our arms around that sense of identity, then we are free to give anything away, take risks on behalf of others, love completely, and ignore institutional expectations of what our values or behaviors “ought” to be to earn your place in the pantheon.  Because you can’t lose what you never had.

My identity is something given to me by God.  There is nothing about this entity called “Phil” that does not come from God.  He adds to that aggregate and takes away from it, sometimes in line with my wishes, other times not.  There is no “Phil the Awesome Lean Operations Consultant” or “Phil the Barely Mediocre Father.”  There is only what He has given me at this time for whatever His schedule and purposes dictate.  If I could learn to truly embrace that (which I do not in many ways), what would I fear at that point?  What would I withhold?  What sins would I cling to if I didn’t need them anymore?

Anyway, it’s a very good book.  I’m still working on it, but if time had allowed, I could easily have read it in one sitting.  I don’t know if all the theoretical connections are real in every aspect, but they are definitely worth thinking about.