Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 8: Timor Mortis)

Beck takes a moment at this point in the book to clarify something he’s been discussing over the last two chapters.  In talking about how our death anxiety leads us to harm one another and how building an eccentric identity that isn’t based in possession of ourselves can help overcome our fear of death, Beck’s been slowly building a case for an attitude of indifference to our own mortality.

This break is where he stops to say, “Don’t think that being indifferent to death is the purpose of all this.”  That’s a good point to consider.  Up till now, I’ve been reading and interpreting Beck’s arguments while keeping in mind that this book is supposed to be about explaining a theological problem (how our mortal nature drives us to sin), and sometimes it’s felt a little uncomfortable to discuss the answer to sinfulness as a turn towards indifference towards our mortality.  Beck points out himself that this turn can very easily lead into nihilism or religious zealotry (and we definitely don’t want to go there).  After all, what’s to stop mortal indifference for ourselves from drawing us into thinking our own lives are meaningless, or that life in general is something that doesn’t warrant consideration and protection?

Oh, right.  Love.

In the Christian life, the ultimate purpose of any action is supposed to be a demonstration of selfless love for others.  As Jesus points out in Matthew 22:37-40, everything goes back to loving one another (and not-so-coincidentally, loving one another reflects a love of God).  That’s the key to keeping indifference to death from turning into something extreme and harmful.

Beck further tempers this point by bringing in Augustine’s writings on the subject, which he says show a gradual softening on the position of martyrological ideals (early after Augustine’s conversion he was apparently very much in favor of being willing to die for the faith no matter what, but later in his life he came to recognize that fear of death is an inescapable part of our nature and not a slight on our faith).  There’s a pretty extensive discussion of the problem of post-baptism suicide (as in, why don’t Christians just off themselves after they’ve been forgiven their sins as a demonstration of faith?) which is interesting, and has been something I’ve wondered about.  In most contemporary theologies that I’m familiar with, suicide’s a no-go because it’s not a demonstration of faith so much as a demonstration of despair (some theologies cut out the significance of the act and just say that suicide automatically sends you to hell).  Either way, there’s a definite tension between the ideal of martyrdom and the concern that adherents of your faith not go and wipe themselves out voluntarily.  In Augustine’s estimation, the reason a Christian doesn’t commit suicide after baptism is because living daily with our biological fear of death is an act of gratitude to God; though we try not to be possessive of our lives, we still recognize they’re gifts to be cherished.

As Beck puts it, “The fearlessness we should seek is not an emotional blankness in the face of death.  Such blankness would be unable to make a distinction between life and death, and thus would be an act of ingratitude to God for the gift and goodness of life.”

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