Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
In his classic The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argues that the fear of death is the single universal human trait. That is, humans, as humans, are characterized by knowledge of our mortality, and fear of that mortality. From this starting point he weaves a both creative and insightful synthesis of psychology and religion, arguing that what both ideas of mental health and religious beliefs and practices have in common is a bolstering of the human in the face of mortality by appealing to what he calls the heroic.
The heroic is the drive to be a part of something greater than one's self, something that will survive the death of the body. Becker sometimes calls this an "immortality project," something that allows us to affirm life in the face of the existential crisis created by awareness of the inevitability of death. This awareness - which entails both knowing that I will die and that death is an extinction of myself and not some transferring of my personality to some other reality - hangs over humanity in the "age of reason," in which science has displaced religion and rendered it impotent as a "hero-system" (that is, as a system that builds up the heroic in the face of death, that allows people the freedom to live despite awareness of their mortality). When religious narratives, beliefs, and practices can no longer be believed, lived out, and trusted, a crisis of meaning is created. Death can't be denied, but hangs over all of life, rendering it utterly meaningless.
It is through this lens, as well as through the lens of the apostle Paul's words to both death and the church in Corinth that open this post, that I wish, for a moment, to view the relationship between life, death, and resurrection. My thesis is that Becker is basically right about the collective psychological implications of both the specter of death and the figurative death of religion - one of the reasons why, since Becker's own death in 1974, we've seen a "turn to religion" in sectors like continental philosophy. In that "turn to religion" characterized by, among others, Slavoj Zizek and Gianni Vattimo, however, the problem of the loss of religion as a "hero-system" is not solved because of the ironic detachment from belief. It is not an accident that, despite their great insight into the relationship between Christianity and Western Culture (whatever can be meant by those two words, which point to monoliths that can and should be toppled, torn apart, and scattered into a plurality of "Christianities" and "cultures"), neither Zizek nor Vattimo address the traditional Christian doctrine of resurrection.
This brings me to the second part of my thesis here, which is that resurrection, understood in the Pauline sense, is not quite a "denial of death," and in fact involves an affirmation of the reality and power of death, which is then overcome by resurrection. That is, in order for one to be resurrected, one must die - really die. This is partly what is meant by the enigmatic scene we find in the 11th chapter of John's gospel, were Jesus stands outside the tomb of Lazarus, who he is about to call out of the tomb, weeping for his friend. For, in that moment, Lazarus was dead, really dead.
In this sense resurrection and immortality have nothing in common. Someone who is immortal is someone who, by definition, is not mortal, not subject to mortality, to death. In resurrection, however, this is not the case. Mortality is a must. To be resurrected one must not only be subject to death, one must actually die, and really die. (This emphasis on really die is part of what is reflected in credal language of Jesus's descent into hell, a poetic way to say that Jesus really died in the face of heresies that claimed that Jesus' death was not really a death, but only seemed like one. Such language was later literalized, resulting in some beautiful stories of Jesus, on Holy Saturday, going into hell and freeing the dead held there.)
Paul is very clear on the relationship between death and resurrection, noting that resurrection presupposes death. "What you sow," he writes in I Corinthians 15:36, a few verses before the quote that opens this post, "does not come to life unless it dies." This is a metaphorical way to speak of the necessity of death preceding resurrection. And, in fact, for Paul both death and resurrection are understood both metaphorically and literally, with the pattern of death and resurrection being imposed on life both prior to and following bodily, biological death. "I die every day!" he writes, speaking both to a kind of psychological death to the claims of self and to a willingness to endure danger and hardship in the service of the gospel.
This boast, "I die every day!" points to part of what Becker means by the heroic. By being swept up in a cause greater than himself, a cause that will outlast his mortal body, the apostle Paul secures for himself a kind of immortality. This kind of materialistic psychologizing of faith employed by Becker is the kind that Slavoj Zizek is comfortable with. It steers clear of the content of Paul's faith, and instead analyzes its function. But, in doing so it risks collapsing immortality (understood here, of course, with a kind of ironic detachment, for of course we don't mean a literal immortality, but rather both a social immortality and an illusory, even delusional immortality - Paul really will die, but is able to behave as though he won't, affirming his life in the face of the inevitability and meaninglessness of death) and resurrection.
This ignores the fact that Paul has no interest in immortality. He is not articulating a doctrine of immortality, a doctrine of the denial of death. Rather he preaches both the reality and the necessity of death. To gloss this over is to miss the whole point, and thus to construct a very un-Pauline Paul.
Of course, in minimizing the extent to which death, in Paul, is understood metaphorically rather than literally, I also run the risk of constructing an un-Pauline (or even anti-Pauline) Paul. After all, the same Paul who speaks (both metaphorically and literally) of the reality and necessity of death is also the Paul who, wrestling with the implications of his understanding of an immanent parousia writes, in I Corinthians 15:51, "We will not all die.":
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
This passage may read like a denial of death, the hope of an escape from death. And it is tempting, but far too easy, to dismiss that implication by saying that Paul is here speaking/writing metaphorically, even poetically, painting a beautiful linguistic picture of something that is not to be taken literally. But, as seen above, for Paul the metaphorical, the poetic, does not rule out the literal. The two are often not either/or but both/and, with the metaphorical implications of a passage reinforcing the literal. This is, of course, true with his language of death, in which the deaths died daily reinforce the literal truth that death precedes resurrection; that one must die, really die, in order to be raised from the dead.
So, is Paul here contradicting himself? Or, perhaps better, is he missing the most powerful implications of his own understanding of the relationship between death and resurrection? Yes. Like the rest of us, Paul is only human, and might be shocked - whatever healthy opinion he had of his understanding of the implications of the Christ-event - that his words have since his death been ascribed to God.
In any event, it strikes me as significant that after this rather than denying death Paul gives death enough credence to taunt it. The letter may be addressed to the church in Corinth, but the words that open this post are addressed to death itself. "Where, O death, is your victory?/ Where, O death, is your sting?" These words are a rough quote of Hosea 13:14, but used here in a distinctly Pauline way. They have been taken out of their context both within the Hosea text and within that text's anxiety about the fracturing of the covenant between the Northern Kingdom and God and the impending destruction of the Northern Kingdom. In Hosea the text is concerned with the survival of a nation - another "hero-system." The plagues of death, the destruction of Sheol, are coming to the Northern Kingdom. But in Paul these words take on a new meaning. Rather than being death's taunt to a nation about to be destroyed, they become our taunt to death itself. Rather, then, than trembling in the face of death, Paul's words address death directly, speak into the face of death, and render death something not to be feared, but rather embraced.
This functions much like a "hero-system" in Becker, but again it is not quite a denial of death (though Becker's thesis does not depend on understanding "denial" in the way that I do here). Death is real, even if for a moment, swept away by his own words, Paul forgets this. But the reality of death, rather than hanging over every life, robbing it of meaning, actually confers meaning to life by opening up the possibility of resurrection.
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