Meaning, freedom, cross, and death
In which I talk to the atheists within me. Nov 2011
Christianity is no different from many other religions and philosophies, and Christians are no different from other people. We all face the same basic problem, which is to work out who we are, why we are here, and what on earth the world is about. We all have to deal with the unpleasant fact that we will die.
Christianity is one more philosophy, one more set of stories and ideas trying to make sense of the inexplicable mystery of our existence. It does not make much difference whether we explain this mystery with the hypothesis of a God, or whether we say it is all somewhere combination of chemicals that quite easily may not have happened. We are all trying to make sense of ourselves and the world.
In the end, no one can tell us the answer to these questions. No one actually knows; there is no formula whereby we can reliably demonstrate what life means. There is no repeatable experiment. We have to make up our mind, and our life, on the way through.
My observation is that there are a few folk who suggest life and existence is all chance and chemicals. There is no meaning. There is no purpose. I don’t know how people can consistently live with that idea. When I get to feeling like that might be the truth, I still determine that I will create some meaning. I will make a purpose. Why else keep going?
The big ideological divide in life seems to be between those who decide life is all about them, and those who seek the common good. This decision cuts across all the religions (or non religions) that we espouse. There are self espousing Christians who, as far as I can observe, are nonetheless practically living to the song “Look out for number one.” They, and theirs, are the most important people in the world.
I also observe strongly committed atheists who are deeply committed to the common good. Religion, or the lack of it, is not the issue.
When we look to live in the world, and to work politically, or make friends or allies, this other division is far more fundamental than philosophy, religion, race, age or politics.
It is difficult not to centre the universe around ourselves. In a very real sense we are at the centre. We can, after all, only know the world through us. We are an evolved animal. Our basic background and deepest instinct, is to fight or flee, to survive at all costs. It is this biology that enabled us to develop and persist as a species! Probably, in our earlier days, it enabled us to thrive in a hostile environment, and gave us part of our evolutionary advantage.
We may, even now, philanthropist and patron of the arts, decide that the world revolves around us, and that our cooperation and sharing and giving, is really only to further ourselves and our own.
We can also make a different choice.
To reiterate: the basic theology or philosophy of all our lives, call it what you like, makes one of two choices.
I have just outlined the first path: ultimately, when we remove all the niceties, life is about looking after number one.
The second path comes from the recognition that our future, as individuals, and as a species, lies in the common good. Whatever we feel about ourselves, we are not the final centre. The final centre for humanity, its future and its acme, lies in community. This basic theology or philosophy is the other path we can follow.
All life comes down to one or other of these two paths. For those who choose the second path, much of our effort will go into transcending and growing beyond the primitive path from which we have evolved as a species.
Christianity is one path, of many, which see the future of the species, and the hope of a somewhat explicable and satisfying life, in following the path which seeks for the common good.
There is doubt that some of us who claim the name Christian, are still in the place where we are mostly concerned about ourselves, and trying to explain away or deny our mortality. Such a position is using some of the language of Christianity, but has not understood what it is really saying about the essence of life and meaning.
This should not be seen as a flaw in the Christian faith, or any other religion or philosophy. As I see it, we all have to grow from the little child who is at the centre of the universe, to a more mature person. We learn to play together for our common benefit. We learn to work together so we can hold down a job. And then, I think, we have the potential as Humans to transcend enlightened self interest, and find deeper meaning.
It is fair to wonder if there is a third path.
For some folk, whether it’s because of the mere struggle to survive, or because they are seduced by the glitz of the consumer world, or they are in avoidance mode, none of what we are discussing is a pressing issue.
They are, apparently, not thinking about meaning and purpose very much. I suspect that such a life tends to default to the first path, the path of self at the centre of everything. That is the kind of animal we are, and for immediate survival it is a very good strategy.
Who could blame people living in extremis for such an approach to life? But for us in the wealthy world, I’m not sure it is accurate to call this a third path. It is really an unconscious, or immature, way of life.
What then are the aspects of Christianity which distinguish it from the other philosophies of the second path? First of all, I do not think it has much to do with the hypothesis of "God." When careful Christians, and other religions, talk about God; and when ''non religious" folk talk about ultimate meaning and purpose , we all end up fairly quickly at an impasse where we are forced to admit that we mostly don't know.
At base, Christian Theology is reduced to the via negative. We may say “God is like...” but in the end, we can only say “God is not that.” If we could accurately define God, that God would not be God.
All of us humans would be well served if we were a little less certain and belligerent about the basis of our knowing. God or no-God, in the end, we all take an intuitive leap.
Instead, Christianity is distinguished from other Ways by at least two things.
One, of course, is its attachment to Jesus of Nazareth. He is seen as the model, the pioneer, the acme, the one upon whom to disciple oneself. He reveals God to us; living life his way opens us to the reality we call God.
Historically this has been bound to exclusivist ideas, and often violently so. It’s understandable, given the origins of the faith in violent times, and the alliances (or the hijackings) of the faith with political movements.
In truth, Christianity does not need to claim exclusive knowledge or salvation, and even in the New Testament, the beginnings of this understanding are clear. I follow the Christian Way; that’s about as exclusive as I can get. But equally, I find great insight and encouragement from Islamic and secular friends. I trust I can provide some insights and support in life to them.
The second distinguisher of Christianity from other Ways is found in what we could call its extreme adherence to the notion of the common good. The Good is firmly based in community with all people, not in the achievements of the individual self. The Good relates to community of all people with the biosphere itself, and even the Cosmos. We might more commonly call it living in just harmony, or sustainably with all creation. Like most who follow the second path in life, Christianity has much to repent here.
Christianity is not about “enlightened self interest." The common good is not something to support because it helps me. It is not a means to my ends. The common good is, for Christianity, the ultimate development of Humanity. There is no Humanity without the common good.
Christian Theological language would say that self, community, and God, including all creation, live in harmony with each other in the ultimate world. That world is called, in the language of the New Testament, the Kingdom, or Realm, of God.
Other Ways may have similar, or analogous, notions. Where Christianity is distinguished from its partners on the second path is in its story of the cross.
Understand what I am saying.
Each philosophy on the second path and ultimately, each one of us, is saying "This is the way I understand to be the best way to travel to understanding and enlightenment and our full potential as human beings.”
There are many routes being followed seeking to achieve this outcome, and there are many similarities between them, Sayings such as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” are common to many people and ways.
On its sometimes similar route to other philosophies, the one distinguishing feature of Christianity is the cross on which Jesus was crucified. It sees the way to full humanity is through the cross. Christians are instructed to take up their cross and carry it daily.
The cross is not a sweet piece of gold jewellery on a chain. Neither is it glorious art on a cathedral window. It is an instrument of execution and torture. It is an instrument of political oppression. It is the weapon of Empire. The Romans used it to keep control.
The cross, essentially, was the promised end for those who did not accept that Rome was God, and that the real meaning of life was riches and idolisation for the ruling elite of Rome.
The way of the cross is a way of life which stands in opposition to all that Rome was, and in opposition all that the Romes of today desire. It sees that the Roman Way of our day does not answer our need for meaning and purpose.
It is an uncompromising commitment to the communal good. It is not the politics of compromise. It does not say "I have done what I can, so now I will relax and look after me and mine.” The cross says, "I will not stop trying to bring about full justice and completing the common good, even if it kills me."
The path to full humanity is too stare down the powers that be, and to take them on regardless of what it costs us, It is not that one seeks to be killed; the early church very soon reacted against those who sought a quick salvation forcing a martyrdom.
In this sense the cross is not glorious. The Christian story is not one of victory. It does not tell of a hero who wins despite all the odds. Jesus is not a whistleblower or resister, for example, who in the end is revered and feted. There is no Mandela here, no aging Desmond Tutu.
The way of the cross leads to betrayal, to defeat, and to total abandonment. In the crucifixion Jesus is pictured calling 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"
Any telling of the Christian story which avoids this has missed the point. Any discipleship which avoids the cross and makes Christianity "cool,” or “hip,” or preaches the financial blessings of God, is falling far short of the challenge of the cross. So, too, is any theology of the cross which avoids social consequence, and becomes a means only of personal salvation.
As with any journey on the second path, those who follow are only too aware of how poorly they measure up to their aspirations. It is not this I am talking about. I am talking about the kind of Christianity where the cross is dispensable or optional; or the kind of Christianity where the cross is something Jesus did for us, but not really something that applies to us.
To follow, is forever to be counter cultural, iconoclastic, on the side (mostly) of the losers in society. It is to deny ourselves and our opportunities of comfort. Our affluence and influence, should we be so fortunate, are for the service of others rather than our own benefit. It is in the elevation and empowerment of others that were healed and through which we grow. Self integration and personal growth apart from these things is ultimately a self service, and risks becoming a denial of death.
I have frequently written on this site about the need for compassion. Compassion, I have said, is what humanises us.
Compassion is not immediately obvious as the thing which enables survival. It is counter intuitive. It is not always easy to see the evolutionary advantages of altruism. Indeed, Paul’s famous statement in Galatians 3:28, that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus...” would seem to be anti-competitive.
But the biological evolution which has brought us this far, must be tempered and infused with a deliberate and controlling flavour of compassion, if we are to go much further as species.
Our ecological crisis, driven by competition and exploitation, and the dangerous mythology that Growth is Necessary for Economic Survival, threatens to wipe us out as a species. We are making the earth uninhabitable.
The faith of Christianity, and other religions too, is that compassion is the humanising factor that can help us survive this crisis. What we need is not more efficiency, or more technology. We need more humanity....
There is a reason, however, to speak about this need for compassion (the old word is mercy) in terms of the cross.
The obvious reason is that compassion is not to be limited. It may lead to “a cross.” But there is further reason to speak about compassion in the shade of the cross. The cross keeps us real.
In his book Death and Life, Arthur C. McGill writes
[The love which is proclaimed in many churches] carefully disregards the outcome of love. These churches speak of love as helping others, but they ignore what helping others does to the person who loves. They ignore the fact that love is self-expenditure, a real expending, a real losing, a real deterioration of the self. They speak of love as if the person who is loving had no problems, no needs...
[The] proclamation is heard everywhere today. They say to people: "Since you have no unanswered needs, why don't you go out and help the other people who are in need?" But they never go on to add "If you do this, you too will be driven into need.” (I’m quoting from Richard Beck’s extended review of the book.)
Whatever benefits being compassionate may hold, and there are many, love and compassion also cost us. We live in the shadow of a cross, because we abandon our own safety and court death when we truly live compassionately.
If we are not struggling because of our compassion, if it is not costing us and straining us, then perhaps we ought to wonder if our compassion is real, or simply self serving; a kind of ab-use of others disguised as mercy, so that we may feel good.
The notion that life comes through death on a cross is a paradox. In the same way, life comes through our “self-ishness” and safety being diminished, not built up.
In the article I quoted before, I said
The key impediment to the survival of the species, and the key impediment to signs the kingdom of heaven, is my animal need to survive.
As an animal I learned to eat to excess when there was food in front of me. I learned and evolved to get fat in the good times, and the fatter the better. It would increase my chances of survival in the winter, and when enemies destroyed my crops, or caused me to flee from my hunting grounds, or when the droughts came.
I learned, and evolved, to get hold of as much stuff as I could carry and then, later, as much as I could store, squirreling away for the hard times. The success of consumer society is not based around my enjoyment of my goods; it is based around my fear of being caught without, and of dying because of it.
This is so deeply ingrained in us that we are barely aware of it. We avoid death; we deny it; we push it back. Medicine has gone beyond healing, and is now about death prevention. The law pretends to guard us against greedy relatives or rogue doctors turning off life support, but the dying of Karen Ann Quinlan, and others, suggests a deeper unconscious motive. We are afraid of death. We will kill others to stay alive. It is the animal way.
In the end, to be human, we must overcome our fear of death. It is in dying that we are raised to life! To be raised to life we must transform our biological heritage and find a new way of being animal.
In Matthew 6:24 it says ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The reason is clear. Wealth is what we use to survive and postpone death. If we cannot overcome this insecurity, we must eventually use resources that could give life to someone else.
Death is ever present in our considerations of life. It drives much of activity. It is a little difficult to re-present this in church, and to a non church attending audience, because it has been so heavily emphasised before.
Much of what I have heard in church has been death avoidance, or death denial. Preachers promise people they will not have to die. Essentially, they parrot the line in John’s gospel, from chapter ... 26 everyone who lives and believes in me will never die, while glossing over the first bit: 25 ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live...
The cross is a deliberate discipline of staring death in the face. It protects us from safe compassion. It always calls us to risk more. It challenges our fear of death.
We began this essay saying “we all face the same basic problem, which is to work out who we are, why we are here, and what on earth the world is about. We all have to deal with the unpleasant fact that we will die.”
A working out of who we are, why we are, and what life is about which ignores or denies our death, is no answer at all. It is simply a more thorough, and more detailed, denial.
My own experience is that the denial of death, (stealing the title of Ernst Becker’s book) has been the most difficult issue to face as I have sought to find meaning and purpose and life. Accepting death, as much as I have been able, means many of the other questions have simply faded away.
As I lose my fear of death, it becomes bearable not to have all the answers. As my fear of death lessens, I am able to follow lines of inquiry which were once too frightening. I am not bound to inadequate traditional models of God which are unsustainable, such as theism, because I am no longer afraid to leave them. Losing even a little of the fear of death is like slicing a Gordian knot which has had life all bound up and tangled.
We might say Christianity is a path, a discipline, for confronting our fear of death, and overcoming it.
Beck, continuing his reflections on McGill’s work, says
According to McGill, Americans are dominated by a culture of death avoidance. Fearing death we create identities built on possession and ownership. As McGill says, "I can do this securing in two possible ways. First, I may try to seize bits of the world for myself. Second, I may act in such a way that I will be approved by other persons or forces so that, in reward for something I have done or because they expect themselves to benefit from me, they will deliver some bit of reality over into my control." McGill calls these two routes to identity aggression and appeasement.
“What propels people to possess? Their fear of death, their fear that their identity will be taken from them.... [When we define our identity] in terms of a reality which we can have and which we can securely label with our own name, we live under the dominion of death; we live under the dominion of dispossession. We live in terror of death, of having this bit of reality which we call ourselves, taken from us. Our whole existence is controlled by that terror.”
I don’t think such an analysis is limited in its application to Americans. It speaks truth to us in Australia, as well. We have been so successful in health care, affluence, and avoidance, that I meet people in their forties whose first funeral experience is the funeral of their parents; finally, it cannot be avoided.
The Christian tradition calls our fear of death a slavery.
Hebrews 2:14-15 is one example:
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
In a previous article I took from Richard Beck some words from John Chrysostom.
[H]e who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to him 'who counteth not even his life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24].
Or as the theologian McGill says
[B]ecause I no longer live by virtue of the reality which I possess, which I hold, which I master and keep at my disposal, I am free to share myself and all my possessions with others. Above all...I can be honest with others. I can be open before them. I do not have to draw a line to mark the boundaries of my reality where I place a sign which says "Keep Out." I do not have to conceal my being behind a wall in order to keep it mine and to prevent others from taking it from me. Since I never have myself, I can never be dispossessed of myself. In short, in all my relations with other people I am freed from the anxiety of having always to keep possession of my own reality in order to be.
To say I am free of the fear of death would be to claim an experience of reality which is not mine. I am not saying this because I know that in extremis, when that car is bearing down on me I react with as much animal will to survive as anyone else.
I say it because I have far to go. True, death has lost a lot of its sting.... [and] the fear ... of what will happen to me when I get old, of whether I will have a job; all those markers of our fear for life, have begun to soften and blur.
But I am also afraid. I do not wish to die. I still “seize bits of the world for myself, ” (see above) as I seek to carve out an identity in my writing and riding. I am not empty of self. I am not free.
But the attempt to love, to be compassionate, and live for the common good, works against that fear and pride. And the constant reminder and challenge of the cross protects me from complacency. In a strange way, it has ceased being only a challenge, and is in some odd sense, a comfort. It’s as though my view of the world has shifted. Theology of the cross is no longer simply arcane theory needed to pass an exam. It begins to make sense.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
My question is this: If I don't "have myself" how can I "be?" Do I then simply exist?
You asked: If I don't "have myself" how can I "be?" Do I then simply exist?
I think the answer is, “Yes,” except that it is not “cease to exist” in the negative sense we commonly think of, which is all loss, and to be avoided at all costs.
I find there are times where I have responded to what I see as the call of the gospel upon me, and have “lost” myself in another way. I don’t have to worry about whether I am doing the right thing, or if I am becoming more Christian, or what tomorrow brings. Or even how I can serve God. I simply do not exist; I just am. I disappear into doing whatever it is that is the task for the day. I get to the end of such a day realising I have been unusually free.
It is not something I can decide to do. It is a gift which comes from seeking to serve, and somehow getting beyond thinking I am doing the right thing, or doing duty. It is a positive getting lost in something else.
I think McGill is trying to suggest that if we are thoroughly grounded in Jesus for our identity then we do not have any fear that our identity will be taken from us. Our identity will transcend the things that normally diminish us. If we are making our own identity as we go, then if it is ever at risk, we are at risk. If you say to me that I cannot preach anymore, or publish my web page, then who will I be? My being is bound up in the identity I have created for myself. But if my identity is outside of myself, in something that is greater than me, and not contingent on circumstance, then what can threaten me? (Who can bring any charge against God’s elect?)