Slavery of Death
January 20, 2014

In two recent books, The Slavery of Death (2014) and Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (2011), Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University, explores the connections of theology and psychology. Both books examine the overlap between biblical themes and psychological research.

The Slavery of Death begins with an examination of the Orthodox view that death, rather than sin, is the primary human predicament. For Orthodox interpreters, Genesis 3 is an etiology of death, explaining how we find ourselves in a world infected with death. Though mortality is the result of an ancestral sin, for the Orthodox our sins are responses to our mortal condition. Paul’s term sarx (flesh) doesn’t describe inherited sin, but corruptibility, perishability, our biodegradable nature.

Beck argues that this provides a “simpler” and more straightforward picture of the connection between Adam’s sin and ours than the Augustinian one: “A vulnerable, biodegradable creatures in a world of real or potential scarcity, we are prone to act defensively and aggressively toward others who might place our survival at risk” (11). The “works of the devil” emerge from fear of death, which includes fear of any diminishment of our being – of our reputation, possessions, respect, status, influence, achievements.

In the psychological portion of his book, Beck distinguishes between “basic” and “neurotic” anxiety. The former is anxiety about survival. Even here, the works of the devil arise from death of death and deprivation: When resources are scarce we hoard, compete, fight and even kill to survive. Neurotic anxiety characterizes more affluent cultures, where physical survival is not often in doubt. Here, worries are not about basic necessities but about our self-concept: “Feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, obsessions, perfectionism, ambitiousness, envy, narcissism, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, self-consciousness, guilt, and shame are all examples of neurotic anxiety, and they all relate to how we evaluate ourselves in our eyes and the eyes of others.” This too, Beck argues, expresses a fear of death, since our defensive and selfish conduct aims to protect the life as we know it (28-29).

Beck fills out the psychology of death anxiety by using the work of Arthur McGill (Death and Life: An American Theology) and Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death). From McGill he draws an analysis of how the American ethos of success emerges from a desire to escape all traces of death, every sign of “weakness, debility, ugliness, and helplessness” (quote from McGill, 26). We keep death at a distance, leaving our dying in the care of professionals and putting our cemeteries outside of view. An entire cultural ethos is rooted in a fear of death.

According to Becker, the fear of death goes deep. It’s a constitutive aspect of our identities. Every human being, he argues, aims for heroism, for a sense of significance, worth, and achievement. Each culture is a “hero system” that lays out the pathways that lead to heroism, and, importantly, each of these hero systems is a system promising immortality. Each is a means to “defeat death” by achieving immortal heroic fame. For Becker, then, “our identities are being driven, deep down, by death anxiety” (37). As Beck summarizes the point, “Becker helps us see this slavery [to death], suggesting that our sense of life meaning and self-esteem, the very bedrock of our identities are actually forms of death denial, an existential defense mechanism, an illusion to help us avoid the full force of our existential predicament” (38). Hero systems have their uses; much of the art, culture, political achievement of civilizations occurs because the hero system sublimates the fear of death into productivity. But that doesn’t change the fact that neurotic anxiety is at the base of individual and cultural life.

Drawing on the work of Walter Wink and others concerning the “principalities and powers,” Beck explains how the fear of death operates in institutional settings. Like the hero systems of cultures, institutions have their own pathways and channels of advance, the set ways that one achieves prominence, significance, and worth. Those within an institution internalize the spirit of the institution, which makes it exceedingly difficult to leave the settled pathways. Our sense of worth gets bound up with our status in the institution, and we fear the “death” of giving up status, position, titles, etc. Institutions are, however, another form of death denial; they pretend to immorality, when in fact they are as mortal as individual people. Striving to get to the top in an institutional setting is a heroic pursuit in the face of death. It’s another expression of the fear of death. We become servants to principalities and powers out of death anxiety.

If this is the case, and if fear of death produces the works of the devil – rivalry, strife, greed, violence – then a propensity to produce the devil’s works is at the foundation of our identity. Escaping the fear of death requires a radical transformation of self. We need to die to our death-selves if we are going to do something other than repeat the devil’s works.  This is what the gospel promises, as it announces that Jesus has overthrown death, and has defeated the one who had the power over death, that is, the devil. The gospel promises deliverance to those who have been slaves through their fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). By freeing us from the fear of death that leads to self-protective, aggressive, and violent actions, the gospel frees us to the vulnerability of love. It enables us to practice the dispossession and self-donation that is the heart of love, without fear that we will be diminished in the process. We have our identity elsewhere, eccentrically in God, and so are freed from the anxious need to please others and to raise our esteem in their eyes. (Beck helpfully discusses, and affirms, Augustine’s late observation that fear of death expresses a normal biological instinct. The gospel doesn’t make us angelic, without concern for survival; but it enables us to overcome slavery to the fear of death, which is the dominion of the devil.)

Beck lays out a number of ways in which we who have died to the fear of death can “practice resurrection.” Cultivating “doxological gratitude” reminds us that our self is not a possession that must be protected, but a gift from a generous God. When we are grateful as an act of worship, we expose “the self-esteem project as idolatry, as a route toward self-glorification or as service to the principalities and powers” (101). Specifically, doxological gratitude should be expressed in singing: “Singing is the exorcism of fear. Singing is the practice of creating, cultivating, and sustaining the courage we require to engage in acts of resistance as we face down the principalities and powers and . . . even death itself” (104). Prayer “denies the ultimacy of the powers” and “helps us resist internalizing the spirit of the powers” (105).

These practices enable a life of love. Love is inhibited by the fear of death. We avoid self-giving because we are afraid we will lose ourselves. We avoid the neediness that Beck, strikingly, says is an essential aspect of love. If we are going to live in love, we need to be freed from death. “Perfect love casts out fear,” John says; Beck shows that perfect love is only possible when the fear of death has been overcome in the practice of resurrection.

Beck’s book is splendid in many ways. His focus on death as the source of sin is convincing, and, as he says, sidesteps some of the theological challenges of the Augustinian notion of inherited guilt. His psychological discussions are penetrating.

I have, however, several criticisms of the book. First, Beck unnecessarily polarizes the Orthodox and Augustinian views of the relation of sin and death, and thus unnecessarily polarizes different sorts of atonement theory. We might, for example, note that guilt is a form of the fear of death, which would imply that forgiveness of sins involves a release from that fear. We might also note that the Augustinian view highlights separation from God, which is itself a form of death. In any case, we cannot dispense, as Beck is inclined to do, with the category of wrath. It’s far too prominent in Scripture, and if God’s wrath is real then salvation must involve some solution to wrath. In short, given the rich variety of the biblical descriptions of sin, death, guilt, atonement, deliverance, etc., it seems better to seek ways to reconcile rather than oppose different emphases.

Second, Beck short-circuits the biblical portrait of love and self-donation. He rightly stresses that selfless giving involves sacrifice, a giving up, and rightly and profoundly explains how the fear of death interferes with the life of love. But he doesn’t close the circle. He quotes Philippians 2, but ends with “death on a cross” and leaves off the “therefore, God highly exalted Him and gave Him a name above every name” (74-5). He talks much about self-donation, but less about the promise that those who lose their lives receive them back. He does occasionally take note of this divine reciprocity (80), and toward the end of the book he helpfully notes that self-gift is repaid by the benefits of living in the community of the kingdom: On the other side of sacrifice, “we find abundant life within the koinonia of the Kingdom” (108). In general, I had the sense that Beck was worried about turning the gospel into another hero system, another neurotic pathway to significance. Because the promise of reward to self-giving isn’t emphasized, Beck ironically is forced to talk about the limits of a life of sacrifice (106-7). But if the dynamic is “we give without thought of return, and God gives us back in abundance,” then the talk of limits is out of place. Put otherwise, I wish Beck had considered another Orthodox theme, that of deification, instead of (or before) talking about “ceilings” and “limits” and before saying “Past a certain point, you can’t get better” (63). As Nyssa said, because we are creatures of God, He determines our limits. We are as capacious as He would have us be, capacious enough to house the Spirit; our energies are as inexhaustible as He would make them, and His own resources for restoring our resources are infinite.

Finally, Beck doesn’t say much positive about institutions. His analysis of the perverse incentives built into institutions, and his ability to trace these incentives to the fear of death, is eye-opening and sobering. But he says almost nothing about the redemption of institutions, how institutions might be liberated from the fear of death so that their participants might devote themselves to serving life rather than death. Perhaps he doesn’t believe institutions are redeemable, a position that would smack of Manicheanism. Perhaps he believes they are redeemable, and if so I hope he will devote his considerable talents, learning, and insight to expounding on just that topic in a future work.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.

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