Summary: Differing perspectives on theological issues allow us to both see other views and approach our own views with more clarity.
I have recently started reading Richard Beck’s blog Experimental Theology. I was briefly introduced to Dr Beck 10 or 12 years ago via a mutual friend at a conference, but it is only recently that I have started reading him.
The Slavery of Death is an attempt to explore the way that the Christus Victor model of the atonement* interacts with the way most western Christians view the relationship between Sin and Death.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition does not reject the Penal Substition model of the atonement, but they tend to emphasize the Christus Victor model as more in line with their theological positions. So much of what Beck is doing in this book is telling the story of Christianity again (for us Western Christians), but through the lens of Orthodox views.
The traditional western story is that death was introduced to humanity (and maybe the whole world) after the sin of the garden. But…
“According to the Orthodox, the real issue at the heart of Genesis 3—the biblical story of “the Fall”—is not focused on establishing a causal model regarding the sin/death relationship and how we inherit a moral stain from our ancestors, but is mostly concerned about the etiology of death and who is to blame for introducing death into the world. In other words, the Eastern Orthodox tradition understands Genesis 3 to be more about theodicy (a story about where death came from) than soteriology (a story about where sin came from).”
So for the purposes of this book, Beck is playing with the idea that it may be sin that was introduced into the world because of a fear of death (if you eat of this tree you will live forever) and not the other way around. This is particularly important today because,
“All these advances that delay our eventual death appear to be a good thing, and they are, but death really hasn’t gone anywhere. What has happened is that all these advances have created an illusion of immortality, making it feel as though death has been banished from our lives. Because as a day-to-day reality, it largely has been. This is why speaking of death is generally avoided, why death is pornographic.”
Which is why the fear of death (and he is pretty broad about what this encompasses) is really the root of sin, especially today when we like to pretend that death is far from us.
The implications of the fear of death are wide spread. One of the most interesting implications is Beck’s reflection on the pursuit of continual growth and excellence.
“By excellence I’m pointing to the impulse in our culture where being satisfied with being “average” or “normal” or “good enough” is somehow an admission of defeat or failure, a giving up or a throwing in the towel. By excellence I’m pointing to the neurotic drivenness that demands constant improvement, that this year—personally or institutionally—has to be better than last year. But as should be clear, this is impossible. You can’t get better and better and better. Again, we are not gods with infinite resources. We are finite, limited creatures. We have a ceiling, a limit. Past a certain point, you can’t get better. That is, unless, you start borrowing—or robbing—from other facets of your life. You can get better at work if you begin to borrow some time or energy from, say, your family. To get better at work you can work longer hours by spending less time elsewhere. Because this is the only way a finite creature can get better. Not being a god you can’t tap into an infinitely deep reservoir of time and energy. You have to borrow from somewhere to get ahead elsewhere. In this we see how excellence presupposes a false anthropology that assumes that we are gods and not human beings. Human beings, of necessity, have to be “good enough.” Or, at the very least, excellence entails sacrifice—borrowing from one aspect of life to get ahead in another area. Sacrifice-free excellence is unavailable to us. We are not gods.”
I am struck by this in part because I am coincidentally also reading James KA Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation, which is looking at our need for interpretation (because we are imperfect, finite, limited beings) as another view of this same issue.
Beck is also a psychologist and on the constructive side of this book is using the tools of psychology as confirmation that sin is related to our fear of death. Beck believes that the Christus Victor model of the atonement (understanding Christ as a victor over sin and death and an example of how we should live this life free of the power of sin and death) is useful in breaking the power that sin has over our lives.
The second half of the book explores the idea that Baptism and other sacramental activities are not symbols, but an overt,
“renunciation of Satan, sin, and the evil powers at work in our hearts and minds…Sin, in this view, is less about hedonic craving than it is about our slavery and bondage. The issue isn’t temptation as much as it is identity and how we ground our sense of self-definition and self-worth. So, as I’ve tried to describe above, our baptismal renunciations are less focused on willpower (i.e., saying “no” to temptation) and more concerned with a deep reconfiguration of our personhoods.”
This is not a long book and much of it is focused on telling a new narrative about the Christian life. But some of it is also dense with theological, philosophical and psychological language. Originally it was a long series of blog posts that Beck re-wrote into a book. There are a few places where its origin as blog posts shows through, a bit too much repetition in places and not enough in others.
But on the whole, this 148 page book is well worth the read to explore how our theological blind spots can make a difference in a variety of areas of our lives.
The Burner, a blog based at Fuller Seminary is currently hosting an online discussion of the book.
*It is important to remember that the differing biblical models of the atonement are theories, supported by scripture, but not the actual atonement themselves. They are descriptions to help us understand what happened with Christ’s death and resurrection, but no human language can fully explain all that happened at that event. And as James KA Smith argues in The Fall of Interpretation, it is part of our human nature that we have limited understanding (or are finite beings) and are not gods. The major biblical models of the atonement are Penal Substitution, Christus Victor, Moral Influence and more. Here is a Wikipedia introduction to different models of the atonement.