Radical Islam—no such thing?

muslim-prayingWe’re still in hibernation as a blog, but I had to resurface to offer some thoughts on a question of great concern to me personally and which only resurfaced recently as I watched politicians debate language. I mean specifically Obama’s refusal to speak of “radical Islam.”

Anyone can appreciate not wanting to needlessly offend Muslims who disavow what they view as a Jihadist perversion of their faith and who don’t want “Islam” identified with such violence. I feel the same with respect to perversions of the Christian faith. This complicates things. But things are complicated. Having lived half my life in the Middle East among Muslims, I can certainly understand why one might want to reduce “Islam” and “Muslim” in our conversations to just those expressions of the faith that are loving, peaceful and morally acceptable and conclude that all other so-called Muslims are in fact not Muslims and follow something (anything) else which is in fact not “Islam.”

But this won’t do. If it would, then every religious and (even) political worldview gets the same deal, and that’s not forthcoming. How many pressured the Vatican to confess the horrors of the Crusades and ask forgiveness of Jews and Muslims? Pope John Paul II, of course, offered just such a sweeping apology. But suppose the Pope would have responded by simply reducing “Christianity” to just those expressions of it which are loving, peaceful and morally acceptable, thus branding all other expressions as absolutely “non-Christian”? What if he had said, “Look, that wasn’t the true Church acting, and so we have nothing to confess, no history to own.” That’s highly unlikely for a Pope to say, but I certainly know many Protestants who attempt to distance themselves from the “Christianity” of the Crusades in precisely this way, and it doesn’t work.

The same might be said of Christians who blow up abortion clinics and who are, as far as I know, still described as “Christians” or “Evangelicals” (preceded by one or any combination of “insane,” “radical,” “right-wing,” “fundamentalist,” “extreme,” take your pick). No objections there. No politicians insisting that it be politically and culturally unacceptable to speak of such bombers as “Christians” since their behavior is so obviously a betrayal of the non-violent Jesus. Or, more controversially, consider the worldview of Americans who supported slavery. What if we were to argue that since the best/truest vision of America imaginable, the “true America,” isn’t in fact an enslaving and prejudice vision of the world, we can simply distance ourselves from that “so-called” America which bound black people in irons and sold them as property? That wasn’t the “true America.” That was a different nation. It doesn’t work. Nor does it work in the conversation that needs to happen within Islam.

We (Obama included) do peace-loving Muslims no favor by rhetorically expunging violent interpretations of their faith from the conversation. Bernie Sanders was right this past week when during the Democratic debates he said (without actually comprehending his own statement, since he thinks there’s something to refusing to describe Muslim terrorists as “Muslim”), “There is a fight on for the soul of Islam!” Exactly. There is. But there isn’t if we refuse to call “Islam” anything but what it is when it’s at it’s best. We only win a rhetorical fight then, as opposed to truly helping Muslims come to terms with defining, or redefining, their faith.

Nobody who appreciates and understands the Quran, the Hadith, and the history of Islam can honestly think that by tweaking language in this way we actually empower non-violent Muslims to own the faith they call “Islam” with a unique authority that exposes terrorist fighters using the name as something unequivocally not Islamic. That will take time, and there are birth pangs here that Muslims will have to suffer through if they wish their language to reflect the growing, predominant faith of those who call themselves Muslims and who truly respect peace, tolerance and religious pluralism. But we don’t make it so by saying so. That will do nothing to distance Muslims from those violent aspects of the faith which they (just like Christians and others) must own and confess (just like Christians and others). Peace-loving and tolerant people who call themselves Christians today don’t get to disassociate themselves from the Crusaders, abortion clinic bombers, or even Westboro Baptist Church members, by simply defining such people out of their language. The same is true for Muslims and every other faith.

Prophets of old, righteous before God, carried the sins of apostate Jews upon their own shoulders, confessing the sins of others, sins the prophets were not guilty of personally and which they knew had no part in Israel’s true faith. And yet the prophets identified with them, as did John Paul II with his community’s failures. In the same Democratic debate mentioned above, Hillary Clinton was asked about whether she objects to the phrase “radical Islam.” She said she didn’t find it particularly helpful to talk that way. My point, on the contrary, is that it’s the only helpful way to talk. Such talking is the only way to invite the healing power of forgiveness into a conversation, opening up space for correction and new understanding. But to insist that the only “Islam” we’re going to permit to be spoken of at all in the public sphere is one which rhetorically dissociates from the violent realities of those who employ the name is to foreclose upon the possibilities of true reformation and healing.

As for whether Islam is an inherently violent worldview or not, I’ve tried to express my own thoughts here and here.

Done blogging for now (but stay tuned)

Keyboard with Coffee Break button, work concept
It’s been a two-year stretch. Not bad. I’ve certainly learned a lot. And I feel like we’ve contributed something to the direction the ‘open view’ might take, most importantly that it needn’t degenerate into Process theism nor assume a Kenotic Christology or a Moltmannian/Boydian passibilism. If we’ve managed to convince anyone it’s possible to enjoy the advantages of the open view without having to settle into any of these unsavory alternatives, we’re happy. If not, then it’s still true that we have changed and our own journeys have been immeasurably enriched here. But ministry and vocation make steady blog output difficult right now, and I’d rather shut things down temporarily than post infrequently.

All our site posts will remain available until we decide whether or not to pack things up permanently or get back in the conversation. You can reach Dwayne or me anytime. Look us up on Facebook. We’ll be around.

If you’re just dropping in now to check us out here are a few posts we recommend that get at the heart of our concerns:

God as the Highest Good
Divine experience of beatitude the summum bonum—Part 1 (Parts 2 and 3 as well)
God’s triune actuality the only metaphysical necessity

How and why apatheia can be a good thing
An open apatheia?
Vulnerability the capacity of finitude to bear God’s glory—Part 1 (see Part 2 as well)
What difference can passibilism really make?

How and why apophaticism is important
Eadem est scientia oppositorum
Unspeakably transcended—Part 1 (Part 2, 3 and 4 as well)

Jesus, the Cross, and Scripture
God enters our nightmare
ReKnewing Christology—Part 1 (Parts 2-5 also)
What is the Bible?—Part 1 (Parts 2 and 3 as well)

Our gratitude and thanks to those who have followed us and those who have dropped in now and then to comment. All our love and appreciation.

By the way: Should anyone comment or ask a question about anything we’ve written, we’ll be around for conversation. We’re just not posting anything new for the time being.

May you know a joy that is unspeakable, a peace that passes understanding, a love that surpasses knowing, and a glory that transcends suffering.

(Picture here.)

Sifr Ayoub

Writing up thoughts on Islam and violence got me rummaging through some Arabic files. I teach Arabic locally in college and love being in and around the language. And my son-in-law (married to my daughter Jessica) is a wonderful young Syrian man. Being that they’ve returned from Beirut only weeks ago and are living in our basement, I’m in Arabic every day.

Arabic is mysterious, mesmerizing, rewarding, excruciating, and addicting. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it for the past 36 years. While in Iraq a few years back I began translating through a few well-known Arabic poems. It’s in Iraq where I first met the work of Iraqi poet Badir Shakir Assayab (d. 1964). His work and influence are monumental in Arabic literature. This poem (Sifr Ayoub, “Job’s Book”) was written while Assayab was in the hospital being treated for deteriorating health (which resulted in his early death at the age of 38). In it he likens his years of suffering increasingly poor health to Job, and the odd references in the poem to the “skies,” “stars” and “moon” or to “carriage horns” and “sickly cries” all refer to sights and sounds available to him from his hospital room. No other English translation of it exists, so enjoy.

Violence and Islam

MuhammadGabriel Having contributed a response and follow-up to Greg’s ReKnew piece re: the question of whether Islam is inherently violent, I’d like to note Greg’s most recent video blog on the question in which his basic point is that the debate over the question is pointless for two reasons:

(1) The question is pointless because debating sides either waffle or prevaricate over the definition of “inhere” and so talk past each other. But more importantly, strictly speaking what a thing “inherently” is it cannot fail to be/do. If Islam were “inherently” violent, it wouldn’t be possible to be a pacifist Muslim or even to be a non-pacifist Muslim who might agree that violence can at times be appropriate but who would never himself engage his faith in terms of doing violence. And since both non-violent expressions of Islam exist, it can’t be the case that Islam is “inherently” violent.

(2) The question is also pointless for followers of Jesus because we are called to unconditionally love others whomever and whatever they are.

I want to encourage Greg not to back out of this conversation just yet but to consider reframing the question in a way that would make continuing the conversation worthwhile. I know how important the question of faith and violence is for Greg, which is why I’m surprised he ejects the conversation with so little attempt to explore different angles. I’ve explored a couple of those angles and asked for his opinion. Haven’t heard anything. So let me suggest a few things. First (and least important because it’s the more anally philosophical point), it’s not the case that whatever a thing is “inherently” it must always be doing or engaging in. I won’t push this point, but Greg may remember his PhD dissertation Trinity & Process (“That old thing” as he calls it) in which he argued things are inherently “dispositional” and that dispositions are of two kinds — dispositions that are invariantly (without interruption) exercised and dispositions the actual exercise of which varies contingently. But both dispositions “inhere” in the subject. Islam may be an inherently violent worldview without it being the case that every Muslim engage in violence 24/7. But I won’t press Greg on his PhD work. Secondly, let’s drop the word “inherently” altogether and reframe things in different terms so we can inquire into whether there being pacifist Muslims or Christians invalidates concerns or arguments regarding Islam’s or Christianity’s disposition for violence. How might we go about reframing the relevant question? Well, in Trinity & Process, Greg actually argues for the independent reality of “social dispositions,” that is, worldviews that operate on a socially systemic level even if perceptive individual members may opt out of particular aspects of the larger disposition. We might also ask how the relevant dispositional tendencies of religious worldviews are rooted in normative persons/founders (Jesus and Muhammad) and in the earliest formative histories. As I earlier stated, “violence” doesn’t belong to propositions or worldviews per se. It’s belongs to us as human beings. We upload our violence to our worldviews, and sometimes those worldviews (especially religious ones) solidify as social dispositions that reflect a general tendency to violence. Why is this important? For two reasons:

(1) A religious worldview may in fact be dispositionally inclined to violence even if particular individuals who share the worldview are disinclined to violence, and

(2) Whether a particular religious worldview is dispositionally inclined to violence might be very important for those out shopping for a religious worldview and who insist on exposing the dispositional tendencies of the worldviews they explore.

Exactly what does Greg expect the religious believers of the world to talk about given the global village we live in and the headlines that force their way into our conversation? True, every follower of Jesus ought to engage this conversation from a conviction about the truly revolutionary loving and life-transforming dispositional reality which the Spirit makes available in Christ. That’s Greg’s view too. But it begs the question with respect to competing worldviews in the religious marketplace, and to refuse to engage conversation about the relative success of competing worldviews on a question as important as religious violence seems uncharacteristic of Greg. Or to reduce all relevant questions to the “individual” perspective and not engage the larger social dispositional influences at play? Same thing. And so, thirdly, I’d like to encourage Greg not to dismiss the question “Is Islam inherently violent?” on a technicality (viz., the strict meaning of the word “inhere”). Why not engage a better more relevant version of it?

  • Does the overall worldview of Muhammad—his vision, values and faith as he embodied them and which define Islam normatively—have the [social dispositional] resources to transform violent human beings and human society on a vast scale?

And the parallel question put to Christians is not the one implied in Greg’s earlier peice, namely, “Can ‘Christendom’ transform violent human beings on a vast scale?” We know the disappointing answer to that. Rather, the question he should ask is:

  • Does the overall worldview of Jesus—his vision, values and faith as he embodied them and which define Christian faith normatively—have the resources to transform violent human beings and human society on a vast scale?

To reiterate something I said earlier (forgive me), no faith/worldview is utterly void of resources to address violence on some scale. All faiths say something about being benevolent and non-violent. Some worldviews have more redemptive power than others. Some religious worldviews may define their value and vision in terms of addressing violence more absolutely. Greg believes the Christian worldview (i.e., Christ’s own worldview in its normative function for followers of Jesus) is “violence-free” in this sense. It perfectly expresses/embodies the absolutely non-violent Kingdom of God within our fallen world. So let me repeat my questions for Greg:

  • Can you make the case that Muhammad’s own worldview, as he lived it, addresses violence in a way sufficient to reform/redeem human society on a wide scale?

I suggest that to the extent it fails at this (and I’m not saying it fails absolutely), Islam is “dispositionally inclined” (if you don’t want to say “inherently”) to violence, that is, it allows the violence in us to express itself without contradiction to Islam. Conversely,

  • Can you make the case that Jesus’ own worldview, as he lived it, addresses violence in a way sufficient to reform/redeem human society on a wide scale?

And to the extent Jesus’ worldview/life fails at this, Christianity is dispositionally inclined to violence as well. Asked differently, when Christians engage in violence in the defense or propagation of their faith, are they more or less like Jesus and his earliest followers (for, say, 300 years, until they got in bed with the State)? Similarly, when Muslims engage in violence in the defense or propagation of their faith, are they more or less like Muhammad and his followers for, say, 300 years? (Picture here.)

The problem of pigs

pigThis may seem humorous or lighthearted, but for many it’s not. I was reading through Mark 5 (Luke 8) this morning and settled into the very interesting story of Jesus’ healing of a demoniac man (vv. 1-13) and the reaction of townsfolk (vv. 14-17) to his healing and to the prospect of Jesus entering their town. The story is familiar. Jesus delivers a demonized man from the “many” spiritual agents that torment him. Upon the exorcism, the demons plead with Jesus “not to torment them” but to allow them instead to enter a heard of (some 2,000) pigs nearby. Jesus grants their request. The demons enter the pigs and the pigs hurl themselves over a steep bank and drown in the waters below. Nearby townsfolk hear of it and meet Jesus on the edge of town to urge him to take his tour elsewhere.

We have a question for our good friend Greg Boyd: Does Jesus either do violence or is he complicit in some less than perfectly loving way in the doing of violence here?

Greg’s known for maintaining the absolute non-violence of God. Being love, God cannot do violence. Even in seemingly obvious instances such as the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) or the blinding of Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13), God cannot be said to have willed the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira or to have directly taken their lives or the sight of Elymas. Other explanations have to be sought. Perhaps, Greg suggests, Peter retained lethal spiritual powers he was able to exercise independently of God. Whatever the explanation may be, it doesn’t include God willing or executing such judgment since that involves the doing of violence. This especially includes Jesus who is our only reason for believing God is non-violent benevolence. One might question Jesus’ absolute pacifism by noting his behavior in driving merchants from the Temple. Greg doesn’t see this as violence. Alright. One might suggest then that Jesus cursing a fig tree and its dying would qualify as violent on some level. But trees aren’t sentient creatures who experience pain and suffering, so it’s difficult to see killing a tree as doing it violence. We think these examples are worth debating, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant Greg that they don’t constitute violence.

Now consider MK 5/LK 8. Pigs are sentient creatures who do suffer. Consider also Greg’s concern about animal suffering within the prolonged history of evolution. It’s a main reason why Greg adopts his warfare worldview (in which carnivorousness and, well, entropy itself are the product of demonic agents wreaking violent havoc within the created order). Animal suffering is a huge theological concern for Greg. So the question here is how to relate Jesus to the possession and deaths of these pigs (assuming the story is historical). It’s not possible to argue the pigs are being judged by God in terms of what Greg describes as divine “withdrawal” (or divine “Aikido”), i.e., as an act of judgment in which God withdrawals his umbrella of protection over these pigs and allows pent-up demonic forces to execute judgment. That won’t work here because pigs can be no more objects of divine judgment than they can be subjects of moral agency. These pigs are entirely victims of violence.

Who perpetrates the violence? Obviously the legion of malevolent forces. But it’s not possible to leave the story there, because Jesus grants specific permission to this legion to take their violence out upon an innocent herd of pigs. He didn’t have to agree to the request of these demons. And there is nothing about the pigs that warrants his permitting this violence against them. So this looks like a case of Jesus being complicit in violence (for some point he wished to make no doubt, but let’s leave that aside for the moment) in a way particularly objectionable to Greg (i.e., not as a form of judgment by which moral agents are exposed to the natural consequences of their choices by divine withdrawal).

Might we suppose that the fate of the pigs wasn’t certain, that Jesus supposed things might not end so violently for the pigs and that this gets Jesus off the hook of any objectionable complicity in perpetrating violence upon these animals? No, we may not suppose this, for there is violence in the possessing of these sentient little cloven hoofed creatures, not just in their descent to drowning. Their possession is a violence they suffer, and they can only be possessed if Jesus permits it, and they did nothing to deserve Jesus’ exposing them to the violence of such possession, and yet Jesus knowingly feeds them to demonic violence.


(Picture here.)

Death and Desire, Part 2

In Part 1 I shared a bit of my own regular contemplation of death as a way of bringing before my mind my mortality and with it to discern what truths and fundamental values ground my meaning. I set out to compare/contrast how materialists and theists each bring their respective resources to bear upon the problem of death anxiety, a fear we all confront and seek to overcome.

The Christian theist’s answer, I noted, is found in Christ’s resurrection and our unending life in him. One can face immanent physical death without fear or anxiety because death no longer poses a threat to our desire for enduring personal existence. In St. Paul’s view, this hope stands or falls on the real, physical resurrection of Jesus. Remove that from the equation and Christianity evaporates. Such hope is only as plausible as benevolent theism generally and the resurrection of Jesus in particular. And to embrace such belief must appear as an absurdity to materialists, in particular to (atheist) existentialist therapist Irvin Yalom, whose own particular strategies for overcoming death anxiety I’d like to consider in this post.

Briefly summarizing how a materialist might deal with death anxiety, I suggested three possibilities:

(1) The materialist could attempt to dismiss death anxiety as an irrational fear not based on any real threat to our meaning or existence. This we dismissed immediately, since death obviously poses a threat to our meaning and existence.

(2) A second materialist strategy is the reforming of desire. Learn to cease desiring an enduring personal existence. We have it in our power to dispel this desire from our existential menu, so to speak, and with faithful effort one can learn how to give up wanting anything more than this life has to offer.

(3) A third option extends the second option. Desire must be reformed but something of the desire for permanence can be enjoyed through the recognition that although we shall subjectively cease to be upon our deaths, we shall objectively endure in the (Yalom’s ‘rippling’) effects which our living shall have upon the world. We endure in the effects of our having lived.

We dismissed rippling as incapable of addressing death anxiety considered in light of the fact that the entire cosmos, including all our ripping effects, shall grind to a cosmic halt in its own death. Our “ripples” slow to a meaninglessness that can offer the living no hope of an enduring objective meaning. The only consistent materialist strategy, it seems to me, is (2) — to abandon the desire for permanence of any sort. Bring desire into submission to the resources of materialism within the constraints of the present moment—period.

And in this matter I share Frederich Nietzsche’s (d. 1900) concern. Few philosophers if any ‘stared at the sun’ as unwavering as he did. It is in The Gay Science where we meet his oft repeated (and more often misunderstood) phrase “God is dead,” a phrase which for Nietzsche was not the conclusion of a philosophical syllogism constructed from a priori truths aimed at disproving the existence of God. What the phrase expressed is the sober realization of the utter failure of Christendom or Christian culture, its own final suicide. Modernism was God’s funeral, but as the madman in The Gay Science announced to nobody’s surprise or appreciation, people still pretended the world was something other than what must be the case without God in the equation. People continued to “live in the shadow” of God. And those Nietzsche was perhaps most incredulous with on this score were not believers but atheists themselves who embraced modernism’s scientific worldview but who failed to understand the true consequences of the death of God and who thus continued to tap into the resources (aesthetic, moral) presumed by a Christian worldview.

I suggest, similarly, that materialists by and large pretend to have access to resources (moral, existential, aesthetic) their materialism cannot supply in their effort to overcome death anxiety. One must disarm the fear which death enslaves us to by truly letting go all desire for enduring existence. After all, death cannot threaten to take from us what we have no desire for. But can desire be thus reformed within the strict limitations of materislim?

Yalom summarizes his strategy in Starring at the Sun. Early on he refers his strategies for overcoming death anxiety to the difference between “how things are” and “that things are” (a very important difference by the way). The latter describes our “everyday” mode of existence. The former represents an “ontological” mode of existence. In our everyday (phenomenological) mode we marvel at “how” things are. In our ontological mode we marvel “that” things are at all. It is when we turn to contemplate “that” things are at all that we are struck most deeply, Yalom suggests, with a sense of our transience and mortality and are in a better position to adopt those values and make those choices that will empower us to overcome death anxiety. And life is full of any number of “awakening” experiences that bring us to face this truth. Here we meet Yalom’s essential thesis (which in itself any theist would agree with): a confrontation with death arouses anxiety but also has the potential of vastly enriching life.

How’s this occur? Yalom essentially embraces an Epicurean (Epicurus, d. 270 BCE) approach based on three propositions:

The mortality of the soul. In opposition to Socrates and the later Neo-Platonists, Epicurus argued that human death spells the absolute end of the soul. (Epicurus did, however, believe in the existence of immortal gods.)

The ultimate nothingness of death. Epicurus argued death is nothing to fear since we won’t be around to experience ourselves as non-existent. We won’t know that we are dead. What is there then to fear?

The argument of symmetry. Epicurus argues that the state of our non-existence after we die is equivalent to the state of our non-existence before we were born, and the latter certainly doesn’t cause us any anxiety. Why should the latter bother us at all? To understand Epicurus’ idea of symmetry, consider the three-pane comic about Halley’s Comet below. Make a copy of the last pane (in which the man is gone) and place it before the first pane in which the boy appears. Multiply the emptiness on either side infinitely.

Yalom’s strategy for overcoming death anxiety proceeds within this Epicurean framework. When one faces the truth of Epicurus’ three propositions, desires are reformed accordingly and we are empowered to perceive the value of life joys and loving connections precisely (and here Yalom leans heavily upon Freud) because they’re transient and temporary. As with economic theory, we might say, the more transient or scare a thing is, the more valued it is. We cherish life’s connections as meaningful because they and we are not permanent.

sobering-reminder-of-our-own-mortalityWhat responses might one make to this materialist strategy for overcoming death anxiety?

One problem I have with it is that it presupposes something abiding and unchanging about how things are, which is just to say that not everything about how or that things are is transient (as Yahom claims). I think this is where I’d want to begin by asking why it is universally and invariably the case that “how things are” includes their fullest meaning and existential fulfillment in being rational, aesthetic and moral in nature. Why should existential fullness belong to those who are honest with themselves about their choices, who seek to harm none, and who truly connect in loving ways to others (as opposed to those who pursue fulfillment and meaning in harming and abusing others, in amassing wealth, and/or in exercising political power)? Why is it that invariably this is ‘how’ things are? The traditional philosophical answer to this is that the transient world of finite things invariably reflects fundamental unchanging transcendental realities, namely, ‘Truth’, ‘Beauty’, and ‘Goodness’, and that these transcendentals are convertible with the being we call ‘God’. But these are resources unavailable to a materialist for whom consciousness (and with it all manner of conscious experience, including the beliefs and valuations a materialist might embrace) is merely a physical property. Even fear of death is simply a physical property brought about by laws of physics, and so are all of the strategies we adopt to overcome that fear, which means we in fact “overcome” nothing and any strategy is as good as the next materially speaking. Given materialism, all speaking is material speaking, but that makes for a very short book on therapy.

Presuming there is nothing transcendent in/about the natural order, what is it that leads Yalom to conclude that how one person chooses to believe and live is a legitimate strategy for overcoming death anxiety while some other strategy is absurd or illegitimate? What meaning are we to give to the claim that a “physical property” (say, abusing children, or corruption for personal gain, or belief in God) is absurd, illegitimate, or meaningless? Physical properties “absurd”?

A second problem I have with Yalom’s strategy arises in a very revealing passage where he tips his hand regarding transcendental claims (like the claim that the abiding, invariant values of truth, beauty and goodness born by all things are grounded in an uncreated, enduring and benevolent mind). In discussing with a young Rabbi the possibility of our permanence being grounded in the permanence of a transcendent being, Yalom confesses, “There are time when I think that if I had to devote my life to believe in the unbelievable and spend my day following a regimen of 613 daily rules and glorifying a God who dotes on human praise, I’d consider hanging myself!”

Indeed. I’d probably want to hang myself as well if the only (or most plausible) transcendental ground I could conceive of for truth, beauty and goodness was the kind of dysfunctional deity Yalom dismisses. But the question is whether Yalom is any more consistent by rejecting outright all transcendent claims. Does Yalom believe all conceivable transcendental claims to ground the unchanging values that even he anchors himself upon are equally false or unnecessary? Whence their universal value per se? The kind of reformed desire Yalom recommends would require rejecting the very possibility of a necessary being whose existence is convertible with the transcedentals. For if a necessary benevolent consciousness as ground of the transcendentals (truth, beauty, and goodness) is rationally conceivable, then the desire for permanence cannot be dismissed in attempting to overcome death anxiety. How does one bury the desire for permanence sufficiently to overcome the fear of death if one also admits the conceivability of such desire? I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the required reformation of desire in this case necessitates a conviction greater than is possible if permanent existence were admitted to be conceivable.

Yalom responds to the young Rabbai with, “I don’t need God to find beauty, enjoy loving connections, or live a moral life.” True, Yalom may not need any particular religion’s God or any particular dogmatic scheme. But can he consistently (or rationally at all) ground these unchanging values (truth, beauty, goodness) as a successful means of overcoming death anxiety once he argues there is nothing transcendent of the material order that grounds truth, beauty, and goodness as preferable to the false joys had by those who deny these values?

(Pictures here and here.)

Death and Desire, Part 1

I think about death a lot. I contemplate my death intentionally pretty much every day. I drop what I’m doing, silence the clamor of responsibilities and the pressing demands of life, and stare at the inevitability of my own death square in its cold dead face. It’s an exercise with me. You’ll find me regularly, at some point in my day, sitting quietly and alone suspended over the Void.

The Void is our non-existence. It’s the thing we humans fear the most. Actually it’s our only fear, a fear implicit in every other fear, dressed now as anger, then as anxiety, now as some phobia or then as fear of failure or rejection. St. Paul and others zero in on this one fear as the root cause of humanity’s existential predicament, the despair implicit in every addiction and dysfunctional pattern of behavior stemming from our inability to make-meaning (I’m thinking of Marilyn McCord Adams) in the face of our mortality.

Stanford Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry Irvin Yalom has written on ‘Death Anxiety’ in Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death). He describes this anxiety as the underlying fear behind our psychoses. Some therapists don’t recognize this. They ignore the more fundamental problem (our inability to construct an enduring meaningful experience for ourselves in the face of our mortality) and end up treating symptoms. For the record, Yalom is an atheist, so we won’t agree on the remedy to the problem. But we agree that the fear of death is the root cause of our existential despair and other psychoses.

I’d like to contrast how atheists/materialists and Christian theists (but any theism that viewed divine reality in benevolent terms will do) employ their respective resources to address the problem of death anxiety. Part of my motivation for exploring this is my own interest in death and death rehearsal (as I’ve practiced it for years). Another part of my interest is an ongoing conversation I enjoy with my brilliant daughter who is both atheist existentialist, licensed therapist and Yalom fan.

What is the Christian theist’s answer to the problem of death anxiety? I can summarize it in a single phrase: Death is overcome in Christ’s resurrection and in unending life in him. Consider two brief biblical passages:

Hebrews 2.14-15: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

1 Corinthians 15.51-54: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’.”

In the end, the assurance of an enduring meaningful existence in the risen Christ is the Christian theist’s answer to death anxiety. St. Paul goes so far as to argue that if there is no resurrection, Christians are most grievously to be pitted. Why does death not enslave us in fear and empower all manner of psychoses? Because the power of death is just the threat it poses to our desire for enduring existence, and in Christ (for those who perceive it) this threat is disarmed. Hence, Christ grounds our confidence in our own enduring personal existence. What’s the logic of this consolation? Simply this—that who the risen Christ is is on the inside of who I am. And we can express the same reality conversely: Who I am is on the inside of who the risen Christ is. As St. Paul said, “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2.20)

How might a materialist advise someone struggling with death anxiety? To begin with, materialism can offer no hope of enduring personal existence. When we die, we’re gone. We cease to ‘be’. That is the materialist eschatology. This fact gives rise to our death anxiety. What might the materialist offer to remedy this dread?

One possible approach would be to convince us to dismiss death anxiety as irrational, i.e., a fear not based in any real threat to our meaning or existence. But this is not possible on materialist grounds. Death is a real, not an imagined, threat to our meaning and existence. So there’s no dismissing death anxiety as irrational on materialist grounds.

But a materialist might suggest (as some have to me) that we reform desire, namely reform the desire that empowers death anxiety in the first place, viz., the desire for permanence. The answer to death anxiety is to teach ourselves not to desire more than this life can offer. On what basis would we accomplish this? It is accomplished by exposing the desire for permanence as a survival mechanism required by pre-modern, less evolved unenlightened minds. In our distant past, our survival depended upon crude technologies that exposed us to greater risks (say, when hunting), the desire for permanence grounded a fear of dying sufficient to motivate our taking the needed risks to survive. But this same desire today is irrational in light of the technological advances of modern, enlightened society. Death anxiety is the left over residue in our pre-modern, less evolved brains. But today we have it in our power to dispel the fear associated with our more animalistic selves and to not be threatened by the truth that this life is all we have.

A third materialist strategy recognizes something legitimate about the desire to endure beyond our own deaths, and so it offers (as Yalom does) the present consolation to be had from the knowledge that our lives will in fact endure in their effects, what Yolam calls ‘rippling’. Our contributions to the lives of those who survive us and their difference to the world (however large or small) is sufficient to assuage any anxiety we might feel over the inevitability of our non-existence. We may not personally endure in any subjective sense, but we shall endure objectively in the minds of loved ones and in the significance of the contributions which our having lived made to the world. On a materialist view, this is all we have, but it’s sufficient grounds upon which to live a fulfilled existence free from the fear of death as the experience of many a materialist testifies.

This may seem bold, but I think we must dismiss this third materialist strategy. Why? For the simple reason that cosmically speaking, the entire universe (all our enduring effects included) has a life expectancy as well. It all ends in a big freeze or heat death. But it ends all the same. To suggest that death anxiety can be alleviated by contemplating the abiding effects of our having lived in the lives of those who survive us is just to ignore the material (no pun intended) point. Those effects die just the same as we do. The consolation in this case is utterly vacuous. It does nothing to relieve our fear of death to know that our memory will endure for a few generations before eventually dying the same death we die.

This leaves us with what seems to me to be the only consistent materialist strategy for dealing with death anxiety—abandon the desire for permanence which is the root cause of death anxiety to begin with.

I’ll leave it there for now.

(Picture here.)