living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Elsewhere on the inter-webs: On Being Absolutely Right

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rightA dialogue occurred recently on Facebook that I thought was worth sharing. A friend of mine who is trained in psychotherapy and theology recently posted a somewhat exasperated question:

Is anyone else wondering how much of our relational dysfunction and brokenness (in couples, families, churches, organizations, governments, cultures, etc.) is being sustained or amplified by our need to be right?

He went on to explain how the language of “being” right tended to exemplify language of “fusion,” that is, the tendency we have to fuse our identity with people, things, nations, causes, etc…. Our identity, thus wrapped up in some external thing, leads to a situation where we feel our very selves as attacked if that thing is threatened or questioned in any way. To threaten the object is not simply to threaten something we like, it is to threaten us.

Another listener popped in with a remark about how Christ had bought his need to be right on the cross.

Seeing my moment, I chimed in:

From a theological POV, X has it pretty much right. If our “fusion” was with the one who clearly manifested the faith of self-removing love. Then, it seems, nothing could threaten our identity, for precisely our identity (in its existential dimensions) is crucified with Christ. In such an act we move from being the crucifiers to being the crucified and so manifesting the ultimate acceptance that goes with it.

But my friend, not unaware of these matters, knew just what buttons to push next. He replied,

Alex, is this *a* theological POV or *the* theological POV? You bring to mind the issue of whether, to what degree, and in what sense(s) we can fuse with Christ without fusing with certain particular beliefs we possess about him. (Not that we necessarily should or shouldn’t fuse with particular beliefs.) I suppose that gets into discussions of mystical union and whatever else. Stuff I don’t study as much these days and will have to leave to guys like you.

It was here that I decided to go all blog on this, so starting now, I will begin my response.

To the extent that there is logos in theo-logy, it will always be *a* POV. In fact, this is really the christological question: How can Jesus of Nazareth (*a* particular man) be God (Universal)? The question you raised initially was one of identity fusion. We need to bring in the matter of existential anxiety management (Ernest Becker) to make more sense of the ridiculous need to be right that drives the fusion and tends to make it toxic. As Becker says, people (or any finite things) make bad transference objects. That is, fusing our sense of self with finite things ultimately ends badly since all finite things are themselves subject to the very death and distortion we are trying to escape in our acts of fusion.

What I have proposed is de imitatione Christi (the imitation of Christ), or better, union with Christ as a way past this. The problem is that we need to fuse our selves with a power that overcomes the death and meaninglessness of existence, and in order to fuse with this power it must be concrete. Abstractions are too diaphanous to get a hold on. And here comes the problem: anything concrete is finite.

However, in the picture of Jesus as the Christ we have the paradoxical union of the absolute victory over death/meaninglessness and a concrete bearer of this victory. Yet, unlike all other finite things, to fuse one’s identity with this picture actually avoids the toxic dynamics you raised initially.

How can this be? Was Jesus not a finite person? Are not the records of his life likewise limited and therefore open to doubt and fanatical defense? Can not his name be invoked to extend one’s own ego over and against the egos of others? The finitude of Jesus of Nazareth makes this forever a live possibility, and sadly a regular reality.

But such a fusion would not be with the Christ as the tradition gives it to us. Such would be the fusion of Peter. Peter imagined that Jesus would be the Christ in such a way as to resolve the existential anxiety of the threatened Jewish people, but he was shocked to discover that the Christ-likeness which Jesus had in mind was realized only in suffering and death, not in self-preservation, but in self-removal. The Christ that the tradition gives to us is a paradoxical one. It is a king who is manifested through death.

Therefore, to fuse ourselves with Christ is to fuse our self to this paradox: that we live through death. Anything that lacks this paradoxical form is the fusion of Peter, to which Jesus said: “Get behind me Satan!”


Written by Alex

August 1, 2013 at 10:30 am

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