In attempting to comprehend the “semantics of desire,” as Paul Ricoeur has put it, do we need to read Scripture as addressing an unconscious register to which we would otherwise not have access? Could it be that what compels, what distracts and lures, what would destroy, follows a logic which has us in its grip precisely in that it only achieves speech or consciousness by the same semantic loop which blunts access to consciousness? If desire and death are dealt out and marked by what cannot be said, then what is denied or repressed, what is unspeakable, requires a counter-hermeneutic or an alternative means of comprehension so as to follow and counter it. I presume putting this interpretive frame into place is the point of reading the Bible. It is not only that we are to meet Christ or learn about Christ but we are to put on the mind of Christ and this mode of thought must expose in the world and ourselves the matrix of death muting love and life.
The content of this hermeneutic of life is specifically summed up as a counter to a “salvation system” which kills. In various pithy sayings, so succinct that we tend to overlook their import, the point is conveyed that the mortal attempt to put on immortality is the juncture at which death becomes definitive of human identity. Jesus warns in all four Gospels, the human project of saving life ensures its loss. Taking the perishable for the imperishable posits life through means of death. Mortality, per se, is not the human problem but the positing of an immortal essence as part of mortality.
In Paul’s description, the ego would establish itself through the law of the mind and, in this way, death becomes a definitive force in the self. The “I” is involved in a struggle for life which kills – this is the human sickness. More accurately, this “I” is a being of and for death in that the dynamics which first give rise to this speech formation (in Gen. 3 and Rom. 7 and in Lacanian psychoanalysis) is a dynamic of death. Life is not in the law nor in the symbolic order of language and the sign of the turn from life to death, in Adam (“I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” (Gen. 3:10)) Paul (“I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law” (Rom. 7:14-16)) and every human, is the attempt to inscribe the self into being through this order. In Cartesian terms, the declaration “I am” (that is “my being is established by virtue of this statement”) would attribute being to a symbolic order without ontological ground and thus signals a being of death.
Paul sums up the problem in another phrase which, again due to its familiarity, we tend to reverse or misread: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (I Cor. 15:56). Doesn’t Paul have this exactly backwards? Isn’t death the sting of sin – that is, we sin and then we die – and this is according to the law? In this understanding sin gives rise to death and death is an outworking of the law. The problem, given that the law is the first principle, is death (due to sin). One must pay off his guilt for sin, according to the law, and then death is avoided. This is religion as we have it in contractual theology and in pagan religion. But what Paul says is a reversal of this: law is the power of sin, not because it is the first principle but because, in sin, we would make law (the symbolic order) primary.
Sin is the sting of death because sin is the taking up of death so that one’s life is a living death. Law is the opportunity of sin, as sin misuses the law as the source of life to escape death, and thus death is taken up with the law. This moral masochism, in Freud’s phrase, inscribes itself into the law – or the identity provided by the law. The human project of gaining life through the law is the premise of a contractual theology which depicts Christ as meeting the requirements of the law by paying off the penalty of sin (a misreading of Rom. 8:4). Every pagan sacrifice follows this logic – the god is angry because his law has been broken and requires death or sacrifice. Death is the means to life through the law. This formula, summing up the sin problem, precisely sums up human religion, even in its various Christian misconstruals. The profound tragedy is this reinstitutes the problem as if it is the solution.
Resurrection annuls the power of sin in death and the law (the law of sin and death), not because God works in this economy, but because this human economy is displaced by the divine reality of life. Through resurrection we conceive of God and reality differently, as it is clear death does not constrain God but only our conception of final reality. God does not deal in death and has nothing to do with death.
As Christ demonstrates, an understanding grounded in death cannot begin to comprehend God: “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God? . . . have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:18-27). According to the thought of the Sadducees (who do not believe in resurrection) God, not seeing fit to keep his once living creatures alive, is indeed the God of the dead. The Sadducees understood God was not subject to death, but in their imagination, if God would deal with humans death would factor into the equation – he would, indeed, be the God of the dead. Jesus’ point is that mistaking death as an anthropological absolute is not simply to misunderstand humanity but is to misunderstand God.
Resurrection destroys this dialectic with death and every dualism, in that with God death is not. As James Allison sums it up, “If God is not the God of the dead – death is nothing to him – it is not to be taken into account.” Death is not the controlling factor for God, and where it is imagined he finds death satisfying, or that he reigns over a vast host of creatures consigned to death, this marks the thought as human or sub-human. As Jesus puts it, “You are greatly mistaken.”
Every human economy circulates around death as its standard of exchange (this is obvious in idolatrous religion in offering up death to the gods but this is the Marxist critique of ideology and capitalism) and the human subject, in the attempt to possess life (the “I”) through the law is possessed (λαβοῦσα) by the law of sin and death. Paul describes the process as one of being reduced to a cadaver as this alien force found an opportunity or opening (ἀφορμν), and “came upon me” (λαβοῦσα) and reduced me to a site of production (κατειργάσατο) for desire and death. The law of sin has colonized “my members” (7.23), and “I” is at war with himself in a losing battle. “Sin came alive” as an animate force displacing life and “I died.” In this economy we need guilt, we need to make ourselves sick, we need to extract the sacrifice so as to pay off the law – the law we institute, the law we enact, and the penalties we require.
People are neurotic because they live in an economy where the pain of neurotic sin, of neurotic religion, is paying the dues required by guilt. Our morality is our immorality in that in this “moral factor,” this sense of guilt, satisfaction is found in an illness which refuses to give up the punishment of suffering (The Ego and the Id, 49). Jesus just becomes an extension of the human neurosis where it is thought he is paying off the guilt – suffering for the pleasure of God.
Realization of resurrection breaks open history and human knowing displacing death as the necessity determining human reality and perception. Where sin transforms death into a personal, cultural and religious reality, resurrection relegates death to a biological reality, and opens personhood and human community to the dynamic of life. In resurrection a new order of humanity, the 2nd Adam humanity has commenced, in which the perishable has put on the imperishable. The resurrection inaugurates the conversion of the imagination calling us to expand our categories and to reconceive our humanity according to a new order of understanding we could not otherwise know. This salvation stands over and against salvation conceived in the first Adam.
4 thoughts on “Christ Against Salvation”
The abysmal darkness that contractural theology is continues to challenge how we read Scripture. It is the air most of us breathe and your posts are the planting of new trees to purify that air. Thank you for your keen insight!
Thank you Tim! Appreciate that.
I am not sure I can wrap my head around all this. I have become increasingly convinced, in the last several years, that contractual theology, and much of orthodox christianity, is in error; but I have not quite figured out how to leave all of the baggage behind and come to a clearer understanding. If you can point me to further reading that will help peel off more layers, I would be obliged.
I presume contractual theology is not orthodox but is an outworking of a failed orthodoxy. This was not the position of the early Church but can be traced as a departure initiated by Augustine, through Anselm, to Calvin. Several streams of thought are flowing into the realization of an alternative (post-liberalism – grounded in a particular reading of Karl Barth, in part Radical Orthodoxy in its recognition of the failures of modernity, and the work of many recognizing the centrality of peace and a non-violent atonement). In this there is a vast body of literature one might consult but I am not aware of a singular extra-biblical resource that might put it all together. Keep listening and reading and if you have the opportunity, take a class through PBI (our online learning program). Will be happy to talk privately also if you should like to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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