On the Collective Personification of a Year and the Devil in Our Current Politics

It’s two days after Christmas, and I’m sitting in the coffee shop down the road from my house mulling over the news and the past year and what the new year will hold.  I just heard about Carrie Fisher’s passing, and I’m bracing myself for the social media onslaught of people bawling that 2016 is the absolute worst, that it couldn’t even let one celebrity’s brush with death pass unclaimed.  The year’s taken on this bizarre psychic form of a beast that ravenously devours everything we looked to for hope; it’s taking our beloved icons from us, it’s giving a platform to bigotry, it keeps hurting us.


I am under no illusions that the period of time we call CE 2016 doesn’t contain within its boundaries a hellacious number of terrible events; however, I’m pretty much over the memetic personification of the year.  There have certainly been lots of victims this year, but it strikes me as dishonest to suggest that the culprit of all our collective angst and trauma is the anthropomorphized year.  People die, even beloved famous ones.  Sometimes that’s because of directly malicious actors, and sometimes that’s because human beings are fragile creatures who wear out after a while.  Most of the famous people who died this year did so because of the human condition; Bowie had cancer, Prince had a bad reaction to his pain medication, Ali was old and living with Parkinson’s, Fisher had a heart attack.  These are natural ends to human lives.  They still suck, and they still deserve to be mourned, but they’re not the result of some great malicious entity scheming to make us all more anxious and depressed and afraid.  There’s nothing of the devil in this aspect of the year.

Where I do see the devil (and I mean that in the most metaphorical sense; Satan is, after all, a fictional character) is in the political movements of the year.  My Christianity’s been severely battered over the last few years, and these days I struggle to imagine a supernatural universe.  The Christianity that I was fostered in during my early adulthood has shown itself to be a callous, hypocritical farce concerned more with maintaining its own Empire than actually doing the work of Christ in the world.

Let me be explicit on this point: I’m speaking to white evangelical Christians.  In America, eighty-one percent of you voted to elect an antichrist for president.  Your vision of the universe is more horrific to me than abject nihilism.  You have no moral credibility in my eyes, and you never will again.  Your lord is Power, your love is yourself, and your mission is the glorification of monstrosity.  I believe Christ is ashamed that you bear his name, and I weep that you’ve so poisoned a message that was meant to be for all people.

I see a lot of the broad political movements this year being rooted in a concept that Richard Beck explored in his book The Slavery of Death (I did a series a couple years ago on that book, and its been popping back up in my thoughts somewhat frequently in the last few weeks).  Beck’s basic thesis is that the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin misses the mark, and a more accurate model casts out this concept (which is deeply misogynist in its construction) in favor of something that reverses the causality in the relationship between sin and death (to wit, “sin leads to death” is more accurately reformatted as “death leads to sin”).  We commit sin because we are afraid of dying, and the purpose of Christ was to demonstrate to us how to live without fear of death in order to allow us to be freed from the anxiety that leads us to sin.  We struggle to find some semblance of permanence, and because we implicitly understand our own mortality (probably the greatest curse that came with sentient intelligence) we’re attracted to things that appear greater than ourselves.  I see this instinct playing out on a massive scale with the political backlash progressivism has experienced in the past few years (don’t forget, our psychic troubles didn’t begin with 2016).  Conservatives, specifically older generations of conservatives, are more acutely feeling their mortality these days.  The world is changing, and people and problems that were previously invisible to the beneficiaries of the status quo are refusing to remain invisible.

This existential dread that the older generation is feeling, combined with the wave change coming with the new generation that threatens to wipe out what they see as their legacy, leaves so many people vulnerable to exploitation by nihilists, narcissists, and solipsists.  That man is all three together, though I doubt the internal workings of his mind are sophisticated enough to recognize these as the systems of thought that drive his actions.  He’s just as lost and scared as his followers, but he has the amoral temperament necessary to arouse in them their worst impulses to sin.  He’s looking for a permanent legacy, and he’s both unconcerned with the consequences for others and unaware of the futility of such a course.  The world outside his mind is irrelevant to his happiness, and we’re all going to suffer as he clutches for something he can’t have in the last few years he has left on this planet.  With his careless, irresponsible talk of reigniting a nuclear arms race, I fear that he’s going to drag us all into oblivion with him.

Here’s the thing that most infuriates me about this specter of universal destruction for the human race: every person of the older generation I speak to about these concerns dismisses this fear categorically.  It’s inconceivable to them that something that bad could happen.  They share a common faith in the strength of institutions and safeguards that they elected that man to break apart.  He was a “shake up” candidate, someone meant to stick it to the government elites who are out of touch with real white Americans.

You can’t vote for someone intended to be a brick through the storefront window and then turn around and claim that the window won’t even be scratched now that the brick is thrown.

I think this widespread headblindness about the risks involved in electing that man are rooted again in existential dread for the older generation.  Subconsciously they’re aware that they can’t keep what they have, and that dread is driving them to act selfishly.  When you’re only looking at another decade or two of life, short term benefits outweigh long term ones, especially if you’ve bought into the nihilism that accompanies fear of death.  The older generation voted for what they think will benefit them, and they’re refusing to acknowledge that the consequences for the younger generations will be dire.

I see parallels with this attitude in the housing crash of a decade ago.  One of the things I remember from the time just before the crash was my mother frequently complaining about the stupidity of what they called in the mortgage industry ARMs — adjusted rate mortgages.  These loans were built around the idea that you buy a house and use a repayment plan that starts off with a minimal payment so the buyer can afford the house in the short term, but it’s backloaded with ballooning payments that quickly become unsustainable unless the buyer’s income drastically increases.  These kinds of loans were designed to short the buyers; the loan company made more immediate profit irrespective of the financial ruin awaiting buyers who were signing on to ARMs.  Short term profit for one party was prioritized over the long term consequences for the other party shouldered with the burden.

This is what I see in the thinking of the older generation and their collective decision to back a candidate who represents long term instability in favor of short term gains for themselves.  Our parents bet against us, and they’re too scared to admit it.  To do so would undoubtedly be devastating to their sense of self; imagine living with the knowledge that you betrayed the interests of your children after a lifetime of paying lip service to the idea that you want them to live better than you.  If I ever have children and knowingly do something like that to them in the future, then God forgive me.

There is room for hope in this dark assessment of what the elders are doing to us.  In the weeks since the election, I’ve spent a large amount of time dissecting what’s happened and why various people acted the way they did in that moment with some close friends.  One of my best friends, in one of those collective grieving sessions we’ve had regularly in the last two months, told me the story of her father’s vote.  He was an ardent supporter of that man, someone who genuinely believed the rhetoric about helping white blue collar workers.  He wasn’t deluded into thinking that man was a person of any moral integrity or worthy of admiration; he just heard a message that he believed would benefit him.  In the days leading up to the election, he called his daughter for a serious conversation.  “I believe this is what’s best for me, but you’re my child, and you have a lot more time left than I do, so what do you think is best for you?” he asked.  She told him she thought Hillary Clinton was the better choice for her future.

And that’s how he voted.  Not as a man looking for the short term payoff he could enjoy, but as a parent trying to do what parents are supposed to do: thinking of what’s best for his child’s future and trying to enact it.

Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 9: Practicing Resurrection)

This is probably the meatiest chapter in the whole book, as it tries to get into specifics of what practicable actions are available to Christians who want to cultivate their faith in a manner that helps enable them to act in ways of self-expenditure that are contrary to the fear of death.

There’s a lot to cover, but I want to focus on just a couple of the larger points that Beck makes.

The first point, and I think this one is really big because of its implications for the way Christians deal with each other, is how self-expenditure looks when practiced in community.  Up till now, all of Beck’s examples of martyrdom have dealt with individuals practicing self-expenditure at the radical end of the spectrum of Christian action.  Even centering the discussion around the idea of martyrs is pretty daunting, since the common understanding of martyrdom is one of self-sacrifice to the point of death.  It’s scary to think of giving so much of ourselves in that way, but even if we take on the challenge of mastering our fear of death so that we can give freely, we’re still left with a practical problem: how far should we go in self-expenditure?  A person who gives too much of themselves runs the real risk of becoming one of the needy they they’re trying to help.

Beck argues that the amount of self-sacrifice assumed is largely a personal question.  There’s no clear agreement in any Christian tradition about what degree of martyrdom is the standard of good practice.  Some people can give much more of themselves than others, and I think Beck’s estimation is that that’s okay on an individual level.  We don’t all have to be martyrs to the same degree as Mother Theresa or Stephen.  What we must keep in mind though, is that self-expenditure isn’t something that’s supposed to be practiced individually.

Using the episode of the young rich man whom Jesus told to sell all his possessions, Beck illustrates that self-sacrifice should be done in community.  We make ourselves vulnerable through our giving, but that vulnerability becomes mitigated when done in community with other givers.  As Beck puts it, adding the dimension of community turns self-sacrifice into a form of economy, where we help those in need and receive help when we need it.  He goes on to point out that this model is extremely rare, as church communities in affluent parts of the world tend to be built around maintaining the illusion of self-sufficiency.  Everyone is getting by fine, so there’s no need to help each other out (Beck alluded to this problem much earlier in the book when he was discussing the deathless delusion that affluent cultures tend to engage in).  Nonetheless, being realistic about the difficulty of creating communities like what Beck describes doesn’t change the fact that they’re worth aspiring to, especially since the ethos of self-expenditure scales up from an individual level to a community level.  He doesn’t say this explicitly, but I get the sense in reading about how Beck imagines churches that are free to give of themselves in order to help others that he’s dreaming of a way to reconcile different branches of Church (not necessarily from a theological perspective, but in the sense of recognizing our unity as parts of the family of Christ despite our differences).

The second point that Beck makes addresses the question of how everyday people can practically commit to self-expenditure.  He’s a fan of the Little Way, an ethos promoted by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a nun who spent her short life living in a convent before she died of tuberculosis at 24.  The Little Way describes faithful practice as something that happens quietly in small steps.  Becoming better at self-expenditure doesn’t require making grand, impractical gestures of sacrifice, but looking for ways to help others, like being kind to people who are socially difficult (this may not seem like much of a cost, but it is a real expenditure to show kindness to difficult people).  What I think Beck wants to emphasize here is that we should be aiming to grow in our ability to give of ourselves, but we don’t need to be intimidated by the big impossible-looking examples because small steps count too.

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.”

Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 7: The Sign of the Cross)

In the previous chapter, Beck discussed the concept of the eccentric identity, and how our embracing this identity that centers outside ourselves can help us overcome our death anxiety.  It’s good stuff.

This next chapter introduces multiple interrelated concepts all interpreted through the vision of the cross.  Though I recognize that the discussion of identity in the previous chapter is important, and that it’s even framed with reference to the example Jesus sets in his life, it feels like it doesn’t quite reach any sort of conclusion that explains the significance of Christianity in general and the crucifixion in particular.

I suspect these feelings are largely personal and relate to my experiences as an evangelical Christian.  For all of my criticisms leveled at that branch of the Church, I learned from it that the crucifixion matters, and I still believe that.  Jesus lived as an example for Christians, but it’s also important to remember how he died and wrestle with the meaning of that act.  This is the chapter where Beck really explores that facet of the faith.

Now, I’ve written about theories of atonement before, but it’s been mostly in critique of the implications that come from theories centering on the satisfaction of God’s wrath through a method of scapegoating (I think the connection between this practice discussed in Leviticus 16 and the crucifixion is usually overlooked because it’s not as clean a metaphor as the Lamb of God, and the scapegoat isn’t slaughtered but turned loose to die in the wild).  I’m not a big fan of God’s wrath, so typically atonement theories that include that characteristic are nonstarters for me when considering theological models.  Anyway, the explanation that Beck promotes here is devoid of wrath and considers instead how the crucifixion demonstrates to the utmost degree what we’re called to do in following Christ.

It begins with a consideration of martyrdom and what that role actually means.  The Greek word from which martyr is derived simply means “witness.”  It’s largely because of the ultimate fate of many martyrs in the early Church’s history that the label carries connotations of dying for one’s beliefs.  As martyrs, we’re supposed to be witnesses; the literal dying part is a possibility in certain extreme situations, but it’s not the entirety of the role.  At the same time, Beck makes a case that martyrdom does involve submitting to death in small ways through the renunciation of our possessive identities.  By refusing to place value in the hero systems that prop up our death delusion, we become martyrs both in the original and contemporary meanings.  As Beck says, “there is no qualitative distinction between the martyr and the Christian in everyday life.  The distinction is only quantitative, a difference not of kind but of degree.”

The way that we grow into this martyr role involves committing to a kind of asceticism in our practice as Christians.  Typically, ascetics in the Christian imagination resemble John the Baptist or the prophet Zechariah, people who deny themselves all kinds of physical comforts as a way of demonstrating their message or heightening their own experience of God.  It seems like very extreme behavior to be an ascetic, especially in modern industrialized settings where comfort for the privileged is so easily acquired.  We think of this behavior as possibly virtuous, but not for everyone.

One issue that I’ve wrestled with recently is the problem of Christian identity (particularly in the more liberal vein that I find myself in) with relation to the world.  Evangelicalism is a highly problematic system, largely because of its emphasis on setting members of the community apart from the rest of the world through strict doctrinal regulation, but Christians within that branch of the Church tend to have a much easier time maintaining their spiritual identity (if they’re not on the outs or heading towards farewell territory).  As I’ve pushed more into liberal territory and considered theological systems that emphasize universal love and redemption, it’s definitely felt like the lines between my spiritual identity and those of non-Christians have blurred.  On the one hand, this isn’t such a bad thing because it’s a breaking down of barriers to communication and mutual empathy.  On the other, it does sometimes leave me wondering what makes identifying as a Christian so special (for anyone following along at home, yes, this line of thinking does feed into a recursive loop with the problem of buying into worldly systems by wanting to belong to an in-group that I think is “special”; I’ve not yet figured out how to resolve that tension).

In Beck’s proposed system, the Christian identity, besides being eccentric through its focus on divinely received identity, is important because of its emphasis on asceticism (which Beck defines as an acquiescence to small instances of death through self-expenditure for the sake of others).  Most people are familiar with the Christian preoccupation with renouncing the ways of the world, and this is how Beck suggests that we do it.  We reject the values of principalities and powers in favor of a life devoted to undermining our own self-preservation instincts.  We try to empty ourselves of the striving to survive (Beck says that this doesn’t mean adopting an attitude of death seeking, so much as an indifference to our own survival).  We’re supposed to follow the example of kenosis Jesus sets and Paul describes in Philippians:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8

I’ve mentioned kenosis before as a useful concept for considering the problem of theodicy in a cosmological model that incorporates evolution, and also as a helpful idea for considering how God might combat the principalities and powers using people in the world (old posts can on those topics can be found here and here; perhaps unsurprisingly, the second one is a response I wrote back when I was first engaging with Beck’s ideas).  Here, kenosis serves as a metaphor for the ascetic attitude Christians would try to adopt in the Christus Victor model that Beck’s discussing.  “Self emptying” effectively describes how we symbolically allow ourselves to die as part of the indifference to death that comes with rejecting the death delusion and our idolatry to it.

The next obvious step, if we’re following Jesus’ example, is resurrection.

Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 6: An Eccentric Identity)

Up to this point in the book, we’ve been exploring a lot of stuff related to the problem that people are faced with.  We’re all going to die, we all know it, and we just can’t seem to stop hurting each other in the quest to avoid it.  It’s heavy stuff, and as I’ve been reading through the book and blogging my thoughts about it, I have to admit that it’s gotten harder and harder to keep going, because every chapter, while certainly interesting, has opened up a new facet in how we continue to screw ourselves over because we’re afraid of dying.

It’s probably fair to say that there’s an additional personal dimension going on here, as I’ve been sorting through the recent news I got about what subject I’m going to be teaching at work in the coming school year.  As I’m writing this it’s been about two weeks since I heard about the change, and it still sends me into dour fits when I dwell on it.  The thing is that I was given a choice about this whole thing.  Without going into details, my boss explained that I could stay where I was, or I could move positions so she could hire someone else who I’ve been trying to help get a job for a while.  I said that if she needed to move me to hire that person, then I’d do it.

I think I’ve wondered every day for the last two weeks why I didn’t tell her I’d rather keep my old job.

So clearly, that’s been coloring my perspective as I’ve been writing this series, and I suspect it’s been a large part of why diving back in for each entry has been so difficult.  You can only take so much reminding that your anger over losing a job you wanted to keep is coming from that fact that you want to be thought of as significant because you’re afraid to die.

I suppose while Beck’s been talking about the language of demons (which I’ve complained about before) I’ve been wrestling with my own.

Fortunately for everyone involved, this chapter turns from the problem that Beck’s been so thorough in laying out, and begins discussing the solution.

About the first third of this chapter recaps the problems of death anxiety and how submitting to the principalities and powers only feeds into that anxiety.  It’s a good, brief refresher if you’re like me and reading this book slowly.

The real meat of this chapter comes when Beck begins discussing first the problem of societal standards of “excellence.”  This is an extension of the principalities and powers discussion from the previous chapter, but here Beck gets into the constant pressure we feel to give more to things that we think are of value: our jobs, our hobbies, our churches.  The problem with this pressure is that it relies on us buying into a model of sacrifice where the altar is whatever principality we’ve chosen to follow in our rush to avoid mortality, and the sacrifice is our time and resources that could be spent on other worthy pursuits.  I actually wrote briefly on this topic last summer, and it’s interesting to look back at that post now in light of what Beck’s discussing here.

What Beck points out is that most of the time we’re lying to ourselves about what we can accomplish.  We have expectations that we’ll constantly improve and every year will be better than the last.  It’s the typical kind of doublespeak most people are familiar with when it comes to work: we have our annual performance reviews and we’re supposed to have goals for the year to reflect what kind of growth we want to have.  God forbid you say that you’re content with your current performance and that you’d just like to maintain.  Beck points out the cost of constantly growing and improving in one aspect of life means that you inevitably sacrifice resources that would go to other aspects.  A promotion means additional responsibilities, which means more time allocated to work, which, if you don’t have any spare time in your work week, comes from personal time that could be spent with family or pursuing other interests.

The point that needs to be reiterated here is that these sacrifices of time are all in service of death denial, and therefore, in service of death itself.

Naturally, this realization can make us angry, and we want to fight against it.  Like I said, I’m teaching a subject I don’t want next year, and I’ve been angry about it because it’s felt like a setback in my career.  I want my old job because it was mine and I lost it.  I’ve been wallowing in what Beck describes as possessive identity.  According to Beck’s reading, preoccupation with possessive identity is something that Jesus warns against in the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.

– Matthew 6:19-21

This warning about putting stock into material things is typically used in many branches of evangelicalism as evidence for a focus on otherworldliness (set aside the fact that a renunciation of the material world falls into Gnostic territory).  What Beck’s suggesting here is that instead of that traditional reading, we consider Jesus’ words as an excoriation to move away from the possessive identity into what Beck terms the “eccentric identity.”

The eccentric identity is a focus on putting one’s identity outside oneself and letting it rest in one’s relationship to God.  It’s a comforting idea, and one I think I’ve come across before in reading one of Donald Miller’s books (I think it was Searching For God Knows What), although here Beck goes further by pointing out that the benefit of the eccentric identity is that it allows a person to center themselves in a way that they eliminate possessive feelings about their own identities.  Without possessiveness, we’re free of the anxiety that comes from knowing what we own will die.

It’s this freedom from anxiety that characterizes Jesus’ life and ministry.  He represents what it means to live fearlessly in relation to God, and how that fearlessness enables true acts of love, the kind that can be personally very costly.

Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 5: The Principalities and Powers)

Last time Beck discussed how death anxiety is still prevalent in contemporary affluent culture by pointing out that wherever possible we tend to engineer our surroundings to be devoid of reminders of mortality, and our self delusion about death is constantly under assault from others who fail to adhere to the same cultural hero systems that we do.

In this chapter, we’re moving on from the prevalence of death anxiety in society to explore how it leads us to invest in what Beck refers to as “the principalities and powers,” a translation of the term archai kai exousiai from the New Testament that has both spiritual and material connotations.  This phrase is probably most famous from Ephesians 6:12:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm.

Beck points out that the use of this term varies in meaning along a spectrum from purely political to purely spiritual connotations, but most of the instances where it appears is a mixture of the two.  The general point he’s trying to make is that ancient thought saw a connection between spiritual and political forces.  It follows logically from the common feature of ancient societies that the rulers were often viewed as, if not expressly divine, then an instrument of divine will (this is also true of not so ancient societies with the maintenance of the divine right of kings in European monarchies well into the Modern period and America’s own national myth of Manifest Destiny that still colors the way we approach our country’s governance).

Proceeding from that assertion, Beck gets into a discussion of the concept of suprahuman forces, trends and attitudes in culture that exist on a macro level but which are largely invisible when examining individuals.  At this point we get into a discussion of the language of possession and demonic influence when discussing the actions of people.

So, this is another instance where Beck has to wade into a relatively sticky topic.  Like his sidelining of any discussion about the devil’s literal existence back in chapter 2, the concept of possession is one that Beck tries to keep restricted to the infection of death-obsessed ideas.  I’m on board with what he’s saying about how we become entrenched in the thinking that permeates our methods of death delusion.  We throw ourselves into the ways of our workplaces or our social clubs or our political parties because we think these are things that matter because they’re going to outlast us.  The only problem is that everything’s mortal.  Businesses close and clubs shut down and countries disappear.  Dedicating ourselves to an institution, a principality, a power, is ultimately pointless because it’s still feeding into the death obsession that we don’t want to admit we all have.  Beck points out that all of this stuff is easily defined by a simple concept: idolatry.

Idolatry, for anyone not familiar, is the sin of putting anything ahead of God.  It seems really simple on the face of it, but then you get into all kinds of complications with figuring out what kind of actions do prioritize God over everything else (it’s not as straightforward as some people might like to believe).

Anyhow, Beck calls all of these institutions and ideals that we devote ourselves to idolatry, because at their root they’re all about staving off death in some fashion, which is futile.  Whatever you may personally believe about the nature of God, there’s nothing doing when it comes to humanity ending human mortality.

I’m cool with all of that, but going back to the language of possession, I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable with it.  I’ve said in the past that I can see how it’s useful for discourse, but Beck’s insistence on using the terminology strikes me as giving a concession to more conservative Christians for the sake of neutrality when it reframes the conversation in a way that not only allows but encourages a certain interpretation of the concepts being discussed.  The fact that much of this chapter is spent defending the use of possession language only underscores just how much work has to be done upfront to try to keep those assumptions out.

This chapter concludes in a pretty desolate place, because our takeaway at the end of this section of the book is that death is inescapable, and everything we do ultimately serves our obsession with escaping it.  Next time we’ll start on Beck’s last section, where he discusses what it looks like to try to break free of our fear of death.

Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 4: The Denial of Death)

Okay, it’s time to take all the stuff that Beck’s been explaining about Eastern Orthodox theology up to this point and put it in brackets while he gets on with discussing the psychological theory behind his premise.

In this chapter Beck begins by explaining that death anxiety gets expressed in two basic forms.  The first form, which we’ve already been thinking about a little bit, is called (rather simply) “basic anxiety.”  This is the kind of anxiety that’s typical in Hobbesian or Darwinian scenarios where there’s a scarcity of resources and the threat of failure to survive is imminent.  It’s a pretty straightforward model, and one that we’ve already touched on a bit in previous posts (I think at some point I concluded that combating this kind of anxiety relies on building communal relationships where we’re all looking out for each other’s needs).

The second form (this is the one that most of this chapter is concerned with) is “neurotic anxiety.”  It’s the death anxiety that appears in affluent societies that don’t have to deal with scarcity on a regular basis.  Beck lays out some causal factors that he thinks point towards how neurotic anxiety has become the primary form of death anxiety that is dealt with in modern, industrialized countries.  The three major changes that Beck notes relate to how we access food, how we interact with the diseased, debilitated, and dying, and where we place the dead in relation to us.  Essentially, because the supply chains for these various goods and services have been compartmentalized so that most people don’t see the direct connection between killing something and eating it, or facing mortality up close and personal in the home instead of in removed locations like hospitals and funeral homes, we’ve become inured to the reality of death.  Besides those factors that distance us spatially from death, Beck also notes that medical advances have also distanced us from it temporally; where two hundred years ago a person was fortunate to live into old age, it’s now expected that most people will make it into their 60s and beyond.

We’ve engineered a society where death is not something we’re forced to think about until it is right upon us.

The problem with this system, at least as I understand it, is that we’ve created a system where we’re deluded about our own mortality.  We imagine we live in a deathless society, and whenever death intrudes on us, it’s seen as something catastrophic and aberrant.  Of course, any thinking person knows that’s not the case; we’re all keenly aware of our own mortality, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.  It’s this suppressed recognition of mortality that creates neurotic anxiety in us.

Neurotic anxiety gets expressed like this: we know that we’re going to die, and, finding the idea of our own mutability unbearable, we strive to create some kind of legacy that will ensure a kind of immortality.  This legacy can be anything from having children to making art to working for the long term well-being of our workplaces.  We all have something we’re trying to leave behind as a way to beat out death.

Beck rightly points out that the combination of this striving for legacy and the illusion of deathlessness creates a social expectation that everyone do whatever they can to keep up appearances of everything being “fine.”  We can’t acknowledge that things are going wrong, because if we do then we’re poking holes in the mass delusion.  If something bad happens to you, then you dare not display your distress.

(On a personal note, I’m feeling this point especially strongly right now because I got some bad news about work this week.  Due to circumstances largely outside anyone’s control, I’m going to be teaching math next year instead of language arts, and I’m, quite frankly, pissed about it.  It’s not a change that jeopardizes my job or my income, but it still feels like a career setback because my passion is language arts; spending another year teaching math isn’t going to do me any favors in learning how to better teach the content that I love.  It’s been a weird few days as I’ve been trying to process the news, and in conjunction with reading this book, I’m trying to accept that I’m not really okay with it.  That doesn’t mean I won’t do my job, but it’s kind of liberating to accept that I don’t have to be happy about it.)

To begin digging into how all this willful delusion about mortality feeds into sinful behavior, Beck pulls in the work of Ernest Becker, a prominent psychologist whose work has spawned a branch of psychology that explores terror management theory.  The basic idea behind terror management theory is that we’re prone to building cultural hero systems (think about how any given group has its idols that exemplify everything that group thinks is valuable in a person) which we can use as standards to measure our own success within a group.  Essentially, we make up rules for a game and then try to excel at those rules in order to make ourselves feel like we matter.  This is all well and good, except that we can’t acknowledge that we have those hero systems in place.  They’re supposed to be transcendent ideals that outlast the humans who aspire to them.

Of course, that all falls flat on its face when two cultures interact.  The problem with upholding a set of universal ideals is that it doesn’t take long before we encounter someone who has a different set of universal ideals, and then we’re faced with the problem of who (if either) is actually right about their ideals being truly universal.  Competing in-groups remind everyone that we’re just playing a game here, and we don’t really know whose system is the best one for achieving a legacy.  Because they break the illusion of universality, people with whom we disagree are constant reminders that we’re going to die.

In order to deal with that, we create systems of division where people who disagree with us get foisted out of the group and labeled as aberrations, abominations, demons, etc.  They quite literally threaten our way of life, so we have to do something to devalue their position so that we don’t perceive it as a legitimate threat.  That’s the only way to maintain the facade that the way we do things is worthy and right and how we get our immortality.

No wonder the culture wars just won’t stop; everyone really is fighting to hold on to what gives their lives meaning.