Let's start with Trischa's questions as this Q&A was her suggestion. Trischa asks:
1. On one of your recent posts, you mentioned that you always find something after you submit your final manuscript for publishing you wish you could have included. What would you like to have included in Slavery of Death?Regarding #1 I wish I had read Brene Brown's book Daring Greatly before writing. Last fall our bible class at church did a study using Daring Greatly and I was struck by three things that really complemented some of the things I try to say in The Slavery of Death.
2. What are some ways you've found helpful to talk about concepts in the final part of the book (like kenosis, martyrological/eccentric identity) with those who haven't read the book and/or are unfamiliar with this type of Christianity and possibly even opposed to it?...[Are] there are there questions you ask or brief points you've found may help in discussing these things with people who are entrenched in a religious mindset that esteems nationalism, excellence, significance, heroism, moralism, and the like.
Specifically, in The Slavery of Death I talk a lot about the neurotic manifestations of our fear of death, which tends to manifest in a thirst for self-esteem and significance. These worries are wonderfully described by Brown in Daring Greatly, what she calls "the shame-based fear of being ordinary." I've used that line a lot in talking about The Slavery of Death ever since. I featured Brown in my lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary.
The other aspect of Daring Greatly that is helpful is Brown's discussion of how a feeling of "worthiness" is vital to face down shame as we live into vulnerability ("neediness" and "failure" in my book). In The Slavery of Death I describe how this worthiness--Brown's mantra of "I am enough."--is achieved not through the self but through what I call an "eccentric identity." That is, when your identity is "hidden in Christ" you experience a sense of worthiness, but one that isn't rooted in the ego. What a fragile foundation that would be! And the refrain "I am enough" sort of begs the question: Why, exactly, are you enough?
I expect Brown agrees with me that worthiness is a spiritual issue. She just doesn't make that move explicit in Daring Greatly. Regardless, the connections between worthiness, vulnerability and shame in Daring Greatly are all things I talk about in The Slavery of Death.
Finally, both Brown and I talk a lot about how the antidote to fear is gratitude and that gratitude is inherently a spiritual practice.
Regarding Question #2, that's really hard. On the surface you can experiment with different words and descriptions. Instead of "eccentric identity" I can talk about "gift." Instead of "neurotic manifestations of death anxiety" I can talk about "the shame-based fear of being ordinary." Instead of "doxological gratitude" I can just talk about "gratitude."
So there are ways to make the ideas as ideas more accessible. Communication is easy, but conversion is much harder. Because if the argument in The Slavery of Death is accurate then the reason people are "entrenched in a religious mindset that esteems nationalism, excellence, significance, heroism, moralism, and the like" is that these things are being (unconsciously and neurotically) used at the deepest levels of the psyche to secure self-esteem and/or existential consolation in the face of death. Consequently, people are in a fearful and defensive posture. And in my experience, it's really, really hard to untangle that neurotic knot without getting thrown out of the room. I think all you can do in this instance is hold up a diagnostic mirror so that people can see their reflection and perhaps unwind themselves a bit. The psychological analyses in The Slavery of Death is trying to provide such a mirror.
And at the end of the day, I think non-neurotic and freely loving people are relatively rare. "Narrow is the way that leads to salvation"?
What does atonement theory look like in light of your books?In Unclean I talk about Girardian theory and in The Slavery of Death I discuss Christus Victor. But neither book is, strictly speaking, about atonement theory. The material in the books can complement various atonement theologies but the books themselves don't articulate or argue for a particular atonement position. Of course, I have my personal opinions and am very skeptical of and wary about penal substitutionary atonement. But I don't think anyone who believed in penal substitutionary atonement would find my books offensive. They definitely wouldn't think my books painted a comprehensive picture of the atonement and in that they would be correct. The books aren't really about the atonement. I never raise or get into the question about the nature of God's wrath or how that wrath is dealt with via a sacrifice of expiation or propitiation.
Garret asks a related question about the atonement:
...I'm drawn to articulations of atonement that are more concrete like Girard's Scapegoat theory and Moral Exemplar. In these two articulations I can see a connection between what Jesus did and my own (process of) emancipation from sin and death. Where would you place Christus Victor on this spectrum of metaphysical/concrete? Is this a helpful spectrum to begin with? It seems that in your book you talk about Christus Victor as a set of symbols that narrates Christ's freeing us from the power of death. However, I'm having trouble seeing the causal connection between what Jesus did and our own freedom from the fear of death.While The Slavery of Death doesn't present an atonement theory, and keeping in mind Tracy's question about what the atonement might look like in the book, I'd say that I create as sort of conflation between Christus Victor and Moral Exemplar theories. Specifically, in the book the powers of sin, death and the devil are described as being psychological rather than metaphysical. Thus, emancipation from these "powers" (Christus Victor) is achieved by adopting the identity of Jesus (Moral Exemplar). This psychological treatment of Christus Victor is different from classical and more ontological and metaphysical theories of Christus Victor.
///Bruce asks a question about the resurrection of Jesus:
You talk a lot about ecclesial practices and the presence of Christ, but how exactly does the resurrection of Jesus defeat the enslaving power of death? Could your account of freedom from the enslavement of death work with Jesus who simply lived and died as a fulfillment of the law (i.e. Complete love of God and neighbor modelling freedom from the slavery of death)?Relatedly John asks:
It seems to me that to be truly set free from the fear of death, I have to live with a degree of confidence that Jesus has in fact defeated death - in some bodily material way. So first question: Do you think this is the case - do we need confidence in bodily resurrection to be set free from our slavery to the fear of death? Second - what would it look like if we were confident in bodily resurrection to hold this view in a non-violent way?I'm a bit cagey about the resurrection and life after death in The Slavery of Death. For two different reasons.
The first reason was practical. I wanted the book to straddle conservative and liberal audiences. I wanted the book to speak into belief systems that endorse the literal and historical resurrection of Jesus and life after death. But I also wanted the book to speak into belief systems where there was skepticism about those matters.
The second reason has to do with the issue John raises, about how we can believe non-violently.
I think people should read The Authenticity of Faith alongside The Slavery of Death. Specifically, one reason I don't quickly rush to discuss resurrection or life after death is that, per the argument in The Authenticity of Faith, we tend to rush toward these beliefs to assuage death anxiety. But if we do that what we end up with is a fear-based religion. Belief in life after death is a solution to our fear of death but it's generally a neurotic solution, one that leads to violence in various forms.
So how do you believe in God, resurrection and heaven non-neurotically and non-violently? I spelled out what this might look like in this post following up on my lectures at Fuller. The crux of the argument I make in that post is that if heaven and life after death is experienced eccentrically--as a gift I wait on rather than as something I possess, protect and control--then the possibility is created for us to hold onto these beliefs non-neurotically and non-violently.
But at root, The Slavery of Death is less about theology than it is a psychological analysis regarding the relationship between fear and love. So I think no matter where you stand on the metaphysical questions regarding resurrection and heaven the analyses of The Slavery of Death should supplement and complement how you experience and live out your Christian life.
Do you think one is either emancipated or not emancipated from the fear of death (an either/or)? Or is the fear of death more like a continuum where we can eventually become less and less fearful but not necessarily escape the fear all together? Do you think certain people are more prone than others to the fear of death based on their personality and psychology? Do you fear death?I think it's a continuum. More, I think this tension between fear and love exists at every moment of our lives. We never get past this. Fear or love? We face the choice over and over again.
In the book I have an Interlude on timor mortis (the fear of death) in the thought of Augustine. The point of that Interlude is to say that, at root, the fear of death is related to the value and preciousness of life. In that sense, the experience of gift and fear go hand in hand. A lack of fear in the face of death would indicate a loss of reverence or honoring of life. A lack of fear would be pathological.
So the issue isn't the fear itself but the dominion of fear, the power of fear. Fear will always exist, tempting me to put myself selfishly before others. That's natural, it's our animal nature. So the question becomes, how can love "cast out" this fear in living sacrificially for others? How can we live less as fear-driven animals and more as loving human beings?
And yes, I do fear death. But day to day this fear doesn't manifest as a concrete fear of dying (though that fear does grip me at times) than it does in my daily thirst for self-esteem, all the neurotic ways I try to secure significance. That neurosis is the most toxic part of our fear of death. Overcoming that fear in being willing to serve others in ignominious and inconspicuous ways is the day to day battle I face in overcoming my fear of death.
Basically, while I might have some mortal dread of dying by and large that mortal dread doesn't make me an asshole. It might freak me out or panic me or make me depressed, but it doesn't make me an asshole. So in my opinion, facing up to how our self-esteem projects make us sinful and violent is our real struggle with death.
Regarding the fear of death E Wo asks:
How does slavery to the fear of death work with suicide...Was someone who committed suicide "enslaved to the fear of death"?Perhaps not in a basic sense but perhaps more neurotically. (I work with the contrast between basic and neurotic anxiety in the book.) I do discuss suicide and the fear of death in the timor mortis Interlude. As I mentioned above, our fear of death is rooted in the preciousness of life. Consequently, if that anxiety is lost, if we become indifferent to both life and death, then the experience of gift has become eclipsed. In that instance life is "loss" and death is "gain." In that experience of life being "loss" or a "fail" is where I'd locate the neurotic enslavement to the fear of death.
I'm just starting the book, having read through the chapter explaining "ancestral sin" in contrast to "original sin." My question right off the bat is: What is your definition/understanding of "sin?" (just the word by itself) Some ideas I've heard over the years include: "Sin" is "separation from God," "rebellion towards God," "destructive behaviour," "anything that displeases God, whether actions or attitudes of the heart."I'd like to think that my definition of sin is as multifaceted as is the bible's. Sometimes sin is described as moral failure. Sometimes sin is described as a state or condition, like being lost or sick or blind. Sometimes sin is described as a force, power or agent attacking, enslaving and oppressing us.
One point in this regard that I make in the book is that sin, death and the devil tend to be a tangled web of concepts. I call it the unholy Trinity.
In the book I talk about bit about Paul's usage of the word sarx, concretely translated as "flesh." But some translations translate sarx as "sinful nature." As I describe in the book, I think the translation "sinful nature" is missing the point. The problem with sarx isn't that our "nature" is intrinsically sinful or guilty, but that being "flesh"--simply being a biological animal--makes us weak in the face of death and survival pressures.
So while in the book I generally use the word "sin" as being synonymous with moral failure, I see all these things as being bound up together. It's a dysfunctional cycle, a feedback loop. Sin causes death and death causes sin in a cycle of moral dysfunction, a cycle kicked off by the primal act of disobedience in Garden and one that keeps us separated from God.
That brings us to P. Fitch's question:
Is the contrast between Orthodox and western notions of sin perhaps overdrawn here, such that what we’re really doing is groping for a new way to frame the story such that we can come out from under the shadow of tired and old formulations of evangelical piety?I am trying to make the contrasts very clear and, perhaps as a consequence, overdrawing them. But in making those contrasts I'm not suggesting one has to choose (though you could if you wanted to) between the Western and Eastern views of sin. The views are not mutually exclusive but overlapping and reinforcing.
So the goal of the book, which emphasizes the moral impact of death upon our lives, isn’t an attempt to replace the Western vision of sin. The goal of the book is to point out how many Western Christians, especially evangelicals, have ignored a wealth of biblical material regarding the relationship between sin and death. The bible presents us with a dense and complex causal matrix in which sin, death, and the devil all mutually interact. Consequently, the evangelical focus on sin tends to oversimplify the dynamics of our moral struggles. So if I'm pushing back on formulations of evangelical piety I'm pushing back on its flat, simplistic and monotonous focus on sin and how salvation is envisioned as a consequence.
And regarding the Eastern view of Ancestral Sin TimmyC asks:
Is there a good resource for more detail on understanding "Ancestral sin" how that doctrine originated and contrasting it to "Original Sin" beyond the level you did in chapter 1?I don't have any great resources other than the ones I cite. The best treatment being John Romanides' Ancestral Sin. Start there and also read broadly in Orthodox Theology.
///R Vogel asks:
I just finished the first reading and am about to start my second deep dive - but the question the hovers in my mind is what prevents us from seeing the entire Christian framework, or religion broadly, as just another hero system?I think this is a constant temptation. I don't think you can ever get comfortable thinking that your faith isn't just another hero system. You have to constantly and vigilantly check on this.
Three checks come to mind.
First, leaning on The Authenticity of Faith, one check is fallibillism, holding your beliefs tentatively and provisionally. Knowing you might be wrong. Thus, dogmatism, certainty and triumphalism are all symptomatic of problems.
Second, is the eccentric experience of God as I described in this post (the same one I noted above). God is not owned by the faith community.
Finally, as I mention in the last chapter of The Slavery of Death, the eclipse of the prophetic imagination. Stated starkly: Do you have imaginative capacity to see God standing with your enemies against you? If so, and caveats about self-deception being duly noted, you can be somewhat reassured that you aren't using God to mark an in-group versus out-group boundary. The key symptom here is when God is being used by an in-group to justify violence against an out-group. Sarah Palin's recent comments about water-boarding being how we "baptize" terrorists come to mind here as an example. Not trying to get into politics in using her as an example, just observing that those comments suggest that God has become identified with the American hero system and that the prophetic imagination in regards to the American hero system has been, in this instance, eclipsed.
///Chris asks a question about how to integrate the insights of Ernest Becker with those of Rene Girard:
I guess my initial thought here (as I love Girard, so I'm trying to find a way to bridge the gap) is that perhaps mimetic theory is a better way of understanding internal societal conflict (e.g., how we deal with internal conflict based on desire and rivalry) and Becker's insights can better describe external conflict (e.g., how we demonize the 'ideological Other' in order to maintain our cultural hero system so we do not need to face our fear of death).I think there are lots of possible connections between these two thinkers and I think, Chris, this is a good one.
Does that seem like a legitimate way to understand the complementary nature of the two views? To me, it seems like this would be a way of keeping both anxiety and imitation (as Girard understands it) as foundational ways of understanding human relations - particular when it comes to conflict.
But stepping back, regarding how to integrate Becker and Girard, I think it's important to ask this question: What is more fundamental, anxiety or imitation?
I think this question is important because sometimes I think Girardians can be overconfident about what can be explained by imitation. Girardians have a great hammer--mimetic theory--and when you have a hammer, well, everything starts to look like a nail. Everything has to come back to imitation.
But for my part, as I mention in a footnote in the book, I think anxiety is more fundamental than imitation. Imitation came about in a social species like our own because it aided in Darwinian survival. Anxiety over self-preservation predates imitation and is the motive force behind imitation. We imitate because it's adaptive, which means imitation is driven and fueled by death anxiety, in both its basic and neurotic manifestations. We imitate to survive and to avoid death.
Anxiety is also what shapes and directs our desire. Before we can imitate, before we even have a sense of self, we are biologically needy and vulnerable creatures. When hunger pains hit the newborn infant there are no rivals, no triangulation of desires, no mimesis. Just basic need. Raw biological vulnerability that causes us to cry out in hunger pain. That pain and that need--the way we are born under the shadow of death--is our fundamental predicament, the predicament that, in my estimation, sits at the heart of our "sin problem."
This isn't to dismiss Girard's theory, just to suggest that there is more going on in human psychology and society than mimetic theory. Consequently, I welcome including mimetic theory in a larger psychological and sociological account of human behavior.
///Let's end with some church-related questions from lukexvx:
For my question I would want to connect that with your concept of "communities of love" that you talk about around pg 110 of your book. If experiencing a state of vulnerability and neediness is the path to love, and this requires a certain social space in which to practice it, how would that space be structured? What ecclesiological model do we use to think about this?...When you talk about Jesus' call to sacrifice in Mark 10 and the early Christian communities' koinonia in Acts 4, I ask, "what would church look like here?" Should we all move into intentional community? Do we just need to add more programs onto our existing church structure?...What examples from non-Protestant traditions (liberation/postcolonial theology, etc.) do you see as providing insight into the way forward? How do you relate to your own church in wanting to challenge it to do more, but at the same time having the patience and grace to see it as a gift?Boy, that's hard. So many theologians--me included--talk about a church that doesn't really exist. I've even heard some NT scholars argue that this is also the case with Acts 2 and 4, that those descriptions of the early church are polemical and idealized rather than real. If so, I wouldn't be surprised. Maybe the church has never existed. Church being so, so hard.
But there are communities that come to mind. Monastic and intentional communities, both old and new. The Catholic Worker movement. L'Arche.
For myself, I'm a part of an established church with all the baggage of an established, institutionalized church. But institutionalized churches vary along a continuum. So there are choices about where to place membership.
To escape the institutionalization of my church I spend most of my time at our church plant Freedom Fellowship that reaches out to the poor and homeless. There, among the poor and homeless, the "community of neediness" becomes more apparent. Life is more raw there on the margins. The needs more visible and acute. Because of this, love can begin to flow in these locations. Love can become what it should be, an economy of gifts.
So I guess my recommendation is twofold. First, there are communities of neediness out there. They are rare, but they do exist.
Second, but if you find yourself in an established church find the ministries where you can make friendships at the margins, where need is not neurotically hidden but very much on the surface. Where rent and bills need to be paid. Where failures are confessed and shared. Where getting the next meal is a concern. Or the next shower. Live and make friends in those places.
And let me end with this. More and more I'm thinking of the Kingdom of God as an event. The Kingdom of God comes--for a season, for a moment--and then is gone. Church is a place where, hopefully, the conditions for the Kingdom coming are cultivated. But those conditions don't guarantee anything. You just have to wait. And keep at the work. Make yourself available, over and over, individually and corporately.
All that to say, what I describe in the book is real. It does occur. It just doesn't last in any organized or bureaucratic way, as a "church." Consequently, there will be long seasons of church life where nothing seems to be going on.
But here and there--around this table, in this worship service, in this small group--the Kingdom of God comes. Elusively and transiently. But still, it comes.
And if my answers missed the mark or raised additional questions, please feel free to ask some more.