On the excess of death, the limits of life.
But something else comes into view, that is, the reason behind the desire for breaking, for going beyond finiteness and experiencing the infinite. This is another way of saying coming into direct contact with the Thing, experiencing community on one’s own flesh, taking pleasure in the Real beyond the imaginary and the symbolic… Yet taking pleasure in the Real, which is to say realizing the law to the point of canceling it out, would also mean touching what in life can prefer death.
Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998)
I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.
So much life is buried again in so much death. Christianity derives its every power from the death of life, from a transfiguration of a human life, enfolded into its own death. This is called rebirth: Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born again from above, not of flesh, as with human birth, but of water and Spirit (John 3:1-5). To be born again – as this phrase is interpreted several times throughout the Bible – means to die to the flesh, to deny the impulses of the living body that torments us with its ungodly desire, and to submit instead to the resurrection that comes only through the resurrected Christ. Whom the Son sets free is free indeed. And what is this freedom? That it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives through us.
We become marionettes of a supposedly living law so that we no longer have to live – to make the daily choice concerning what our lives can be. These are decided for us, by a law written long ago and understood to be embodied in the life of a man who lived a millennium and a half later and two millennia before us. I’m hitting on a theme here which has run through all the essays in this series: that in the belief/power system of Christianity, we arrive into an all-consuming totalitarianism that decides our lives for us before any given moment in which we ourselves might make that decision. It exerts this entirely devouring power through identity, through fear, through myth and story, and also through law – a law that, as Scripture says, creates both death and life, the latter of which is also death so long as we are alive. To deny ourselves, to die daily – these anti-actions mark an ideal life within the government of Christian principles.
As I think about this, I’m reminded of that quote by Viktor Frankl, the survivor of the death camps who theorized man’s search for meaning as the central motivating force in a human life: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Frankl is wrong, because even the freedom to choose one’s own way and attitudes can be stripped away if power imports its strictures of law into the mechanisms of decision that govern a person’s behavior. Certain attitudes are good and certain are evil; there is a way which is the Way, and everything else is the broad road that leads to destruction. Freedom, defined within these limits, is total accordance to a law that may not be considered except to understand and to apply. The holy law must stand beyond the profane act of questioning.
Believers will often, in an attempt to make their gospel seem relevant to seekers of today, try to strip down Christianity into certain fundamentals. They will say that the whole lot of the program is captured in those two basic commandments “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” They follow Jesus in saying that in these two things are contained all the Law and the Prophets. Or they will say that all that matters is a saving faith in Jesus as the atoning sacrifice, that in his death we are allowed entry into grace and everlasting life, the infinite gift of forgiveness for the sins that damn us. In one of the college campus ministries that I participated in, a lot of the students were obsessed with the idea of Tullian Tchividjian’s book Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, all-sufficient because he reveals the insignificance of everything beyond him, everything before him, everything after him. The desire for a simple gospel, a pure gospel, consummates in the obfuscation of everything that lay outside of the incarnated law. Fix your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.
To have Jesus is to acquire a law which may govern our entire lives and make possible a greater life beyond this one that we spend on earth, this life that is nothing more than a vapor, a wisp of fleeting smoke. It may be worth noting, not as a matter of shaming but of recognizing the lack of fit between Jesus as exemplary law and the actual nature of the lives we struggle to lead on the earth, that Tchividjian suggested a certain lack in the sufficiency of Christ when he forfeited his ministry by cheating on his wife with another woman. Why does this happen so often for leaders in the church? We should think that those who preach most vocally of the great sufficiency of Jesus, of the overwhelming peace and satisfaction in the law and grace of God, would be those least likely to desire the decadence that exceeds the Christian life.
The Christian law negates more than it affirms. As Paul says, the law tells us what sin is. The law makes death, submits life to death. Before the law, in the sense of preexisting the Law, we live. Before the law, in the sense of entering the courthouse, awaiting judgment, we all die. The best we can hope for is that we find, before the law, a rebirth so that the law can live through us, and we no longer have to live.
The Christian law consists of a series of negations. Even when it affirms something like “love,” when we bring these broad affirmations to the level of concrete action, what filters through the words are a series of “Thou shall not’s” and “I will not’s.” The “thou” becomes “I” in the moment of identification with the law. When I believe in the law – when I love the law – I say to the Law-Giver, I will not have any other gods before you. I will not make an idol to worship. I will not steal. I will not lie. I will not desire what is not mine. I will not kill (unless the fickle law instructs me otherwise). The law tells us what sin is, because the law’s only content is sin: the law is the construction of sin, evil, and death. When the law arrived, I died. We all die before the law.
Nietzsche writes that these series of “I will not’s” constitute our ongoing promise to the power structures which seek to manage our wandering on the earth. Christianity institutes a new people through a law which becomes that people’s memory, that which is said to transcend time so that at any point in history the people who ascribe to the timeless law make up the same people. We live and die before the same law that all the saints of old lived and died before, and the pendulum of death and life before the law undulates on perpetually, synchronizing a single dance to which we all falteringly step. In this way, Christianity as an institutional power gains control over large populations of people all across the globe. Government works best when it no longer needs to govern, because it has instilled all its principles of governmentality into the most intimate anxieties and felt obligations of the governed. The goal is not to enforce the law. The goal is to organize the group, and the law works as the adhesive: multitudes of singular lives who have chosen to die to their singularity in order to allow a timeless law to live through them. A Spartan army of good Christian soldiers.
In Christianity we have a perfect dispersion of law into the decision mechanisms of those who make up the Christian population, and the population becomes self-governing. This turns that population into a prime target for political leveraging, because if some policy or political value can be presented as integrally connected to the identity-forming law, the population will coalesce around that political action. We see then the emergence of a Christian Coalition, of a Moral Majority whose morality, now bound to new ideas, values, and policies, dictates that population’s political maneuvering. I know many believers whose single-issue voting on the matter of abortion drives their commitment to support for the Republican party no matter how much incoherence, in terms of morality surrounding the protection of life for its own sake, that party’s platform contains. Abortion presents a prime example of a moral issue which, being only recently politically relevant (relative to the timeless law), is used cynically by political organizations to sink their hooks into a self-governing population of religious believers who will then reorient themselves toward all the interests of those political organizations because they are the ones who care about the sanctity of life. The law dictates the issues we should care about, and as we pick up those issues and run with them, there are strings that trail from those issues to a heavy cart full of unrelated interests which we now pull forward in our zeal for the law that lives through us.
But there is also a deeper problem, I think, in the way the Christian law annihilates the world. When it is no longer we who live but the law who lives through us, we lose all the messy, beautiful excess of the world that complicates all simple notions of what life is. As we daily create our own lives, we run into contact with the lives of others, lives that exceed the limits of our lives and yet open apertures for the potential spilling-out into something utterly new for us. We become new when that which is outside us creates an opening for us to be outside ourselves, to be outside the governance of a limiting and negating law. In the words of Veruca Salt, I want the world. I want the whole world.
There was a time, halfway through high school, when I desired to leave the Christian school I had attended since preschool and spend my last two years at public school. A large part of my wish then had to do with the possibilities for the different classes I could take at another school, but also my sense that the culture of my Christian school had grown stale, lifeless, predictable in dry and arid ways. During the minor crisis of my decision-making process, the principal of my school gave a sermon at one of our weekly class chapels on the figure of Demas, referenced only three times in the New Testament. Demas used to work with Paul in his missionary ministry, but as time goes by, Paul suggests a change which has come over his partner – “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me…” (2 Timothy 4:10). My principal used the story of this figure to explain how the love of the world, the desire for a life comprised of a world beyond our Christian institution, seduces us away from the life Christ has for us. In my narcissistic paranoia at the time (the sermon may or may not have been directed at me), I felt so angry. Looking back, I see the truth now in what he said, as I see the truth now in so many of the warnings of my Christian leaders from my youth, that the love of the world does lead us away from the life Christ has for us. However, in the revaluation of values that necessarily takes place as one deconverts from a totalitarian ideology, I see that risk, that danger, as far more affirmative of life than any life written for me by a messiah whom I have never met.
I don’t want to gain a soul and lose the whole world. I want a world that exceeds me, that pulls me outside myself, a world to which I owe the better part of myself. I want a million worlds, each one breaking my simple black-and-white ideas into a technicolor sea of potential. Here I must move beyond the language of law and embark into the territory of desire. Though I carry the baggage of a law I hate for the way it instructs the negation of so many other lives, I find pleasure in joining the reckless dance of the affirmative destroyers. We who have nothing in common spin like dervishes in an uncoordinated entropic motion that looks like beauty. We collide, we swing away, ever expanding the movement into new constellated forms, allowing the motions of the others to inspire our own direction, allowing our direction to inspire re-creation by another. Before the law, our dance looks like chaos, and means death. After the law, our lives mean nothing, and so flourish dynamically, unendingly, into real lives.