Theology as Diagnosis of the Human Disease

Where the truth of Christ is understood to counter a lie and the death of Christ an overcoming of the orientation to death fostered by this lie there are an infinite variety of ways in which this overcoming is to be described.  Key throughout is the recognition that this understanding has its explanation in the lived reality of human experience. As opposed to theories of atonement focused on the mind of God (i.e. divine satisfaction, penal substitution) which do not, for the most part, engage the lived reality of human experience, an immanent explanation of how the world is impacted by Christ is readily available.  Let me suggest a direction for the theological enterprise as it engages the ongoing task of apprehending the meaning of the death of Christ.

The all-embracing category in which this is to be understood is Christ’s defeat of idolatry.  The meaning of idolatry, making the immanent absolute, need not be limited to codified systems of religion but, in the manner of Paul, embraces love of money or the reification of any non-absolute. Paul notes that the idol is nothing.  This definition can be expanded (see Marx’s critique of capitalism) not only to money but to any “nothing” transformed into an absolute something.

In the literal sense, it might seem, the idol or money are not nothing. Recognize though that the material form marks a transcendent (non-existent) entity. Silver, gold, wood, or paper, are the marker of an entity taken to be absolute and so function, most literally, as the marker of nothing.  The idol and money, alike, serve to illustrate a universal form which repeats itself in an infinite variety of manifestations. Paul describes how idolatrous desire – life under the law – is the consumptive desire which leads to death (the attainment of nothing).

As I described in my previous blog, the self, the law, and death, undergo the same reification.  The self or ego (the Greek form of “I”) is made absolute, not only in Paul’s description, but in the formula marking the inauguration of modernity.  “I think therefore I am,” is Descartes formula grounding the departure of modern thought – philosophical, scientific, and the source (in Charles Taylor’s description) of the modern sense of self.

I would claim this is simply one more manifestation of idolatrous reification.  The “I” or ego in Paul’s description is always conjoined to the law or thought (as in Descartes) so as to create an all-consuming, agonistic, dialectic. The law (not to be confused with the Mosaic Law), in Paul’s description, is simply the symbolic realm attached to human language. “I think” corresponds to Paul’s law of the mind and “I am” corresponds to Paul’s ego.  The desire of law and thought is the attainment/establishment (of the being) of the I.  The ego, in Paul’s description in Ro. 7, is an object on the order of the idol.  It eludes attainment as, like the idol, it is a non-entity.

In Paul’s description, the deceit of sin deludes the Subject into imagining that following desire is the source of life (final establishment of self) and this desire becomes the animate force of sin.  The isolated ego made absolute (the object of the deception) describes the work alienation of the law of sin and death.  The pursuit of desire for the idol or the “I” to its end point is the obliteration of self – death (“sin deceived me and I died” Ro. 7:11).  Paul describes this dynamic as the “body of death.”  It is not simply an indicator that one is subject to mortality; rather death is the orientation and fruit of transgressive and idolatrous desire and this is the telos of the first Adam.

Here the orientation to death or nothing can be understood (it is accessible to explanation) as both the descriptor of the object and end of desire. In the most obvious sense the idol (and the dynamic it entails) is a human invention which serves to absorb all of human effort as the focus of human desire.  The contradiction is inherent in Paul’s description of desire: the more one engages the desire for self the greater the frustration and alienation. This alienating force is expressed as a split within the self – “I do what I do not want and do not do what I want.” In this way the “body of death,” or the sinful orientation to death, links alienation, desire,  and death.  Paul provides an explanation for the dynamic of sin and sin is certainly not a mystery (as with Augustine’s doctrine of original sin).

Paul is not so much describing a psychological experience as he is the essence behind experience which he comes to recognize only from the perspective of being in Christ.  Romans 7 is an insight which he arrives at only when he is able to look back on his life (or the life of every “I” or Adam) from the perspective of being in Christ. Only in the exposure of this lie or in “dying with Christ” does one arrive at the limit experience in which, not only sinful desire is undone, but the “I,” crucified as it is, is displaced with corporate life in Christ.

This understanding opens up an insight to the human project which might be described in the psychological, social, religious, or economic, realms. The pursuit of self might be described in any number of ways all of which entail a false project (what Paul refers to as the deception of sin). It may take on a nationalistic or corporate shape. Tower of Babel type projects would make an enduring name through a corporate identity which functions to “storm the heavens” (attain the transcendent through the immanent).  There is an ambiguity to the project shared by all similar projects. Is it religious, technological, or social? Add in the fact that both idolatry and sexual perversion arise (at least in the record of Genesis) only subsequent to Babel and it becomes evident that religion and psycho-sexual orientation are themselves shaped by a more primordial desire.

Paul references this history in detailing the slide, as humans turn from God to nature, to idolatry and sexual perversion.  Idolatrous desire stands at the head of Paul’s explanation of the universal socio-religious-sexual failing in Ro. 1 and the individual nature of this failing in Ro. 7.  It is Ro. 7, however, which provides the primordial explanation for the universal turn (a discussion initiated in ch. 5 in his depiction of the representative human – Adam) Romans describes.

Pursuit of religious (Paul’s explanation of his own religious zeal) or social success cannot be isolated or understood apart from this primordial depth. Paul, through employing a Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, provides a genealogy of desire which opens up every realm of human endeavor. Against this background life in Christ begins to take on a fully orbed reality as we recognize the psychological, social, and holistic departure life in Christ makes.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.