Death is Swallowed Up in Victory

Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Those who sow in tears, shall reap joy
He who goes forth and weeps, bearing precious seed,
Shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls away.

Therefore be patient, dear brothers, unto the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits for the precious fruits of the earth
And is patient for it, until he receives the morning rain and evening rain.

But the word of the Lord endures for eternity, 
The redeemed of the Lord will come again
And come to Zion with a song; eternal joy shall be upon their heads;
They shall take joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall depart.

Lord, teach me that I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose, and I must go hence.

Behold, my days are as a handbreath before Thee,
and my life is as nothing before Thee.
Alas, as nothing are all men, but so surely are the living.

They are thus like a shadow, and go about vainly in disquiet;
They collect riches, and do not know who will receive them.
Now, Lord, how can I console myself?  My hope is in Thee.

The righteous souls are in the hand of God, and there no torment shall touch them.

How lovely are Thy dwelling places, O Lord of Hosts!
My soul demands and yearns for the courts of the Lord;
My body and soul rejoice in the living God.

Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; they will praise You forever.

“You now have sorrow; but I shall see you again
And your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one shall take from you.
Behold me: I have had for a little time toil and torment, 
And now have found great comfort.
I will console you, as one is consoled by his mother.”

For we have here no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  

Behold, I show you a mystery:
We shall not all sleep, but we all shall be changed
And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet.
For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
Then shall be fulfilled the word that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all Praise, honour and power,
For Thou hast created all things, and through Thy will
They have been and are created.

Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.

Yes, saith the Spirit
That they rest from their labours, and their works shall follow them. 

So runs the text of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, which I was privileged enough to see performed for the first time this weekend—a masterpiece that must surely rank as one of the great musical testaments to Christendom. Although Brahms’s own Christian commitment is open to some doubt, this text, compiled by Brahms himself from the pages of Luther’s German Bible, surely represents one of the most powerful affirmations of Christian faith in God and hope in the resurrection in the face of death.  Indeed, I have little hesitation in saying that as a response to the fear of death, it is much more authentically Christian than the traditional Requiem Mass, with its morbid meditation on “that day of wrath, calamity, and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness, when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire,” and fearful pleas for mercy.  

Imagine my indignation, then, when confronted with these incoherent declarations from the concert’s program notes, courtesy of one Femke Colborne: “Brahms chose and assembled a selection of texts from Luther’s translation of the Bible. . . . [However,] the German Requiem is less overtly religious than a traditional requiem. . . . It deals primarily with the human suffering caused by death and the grief of those left behind, and although some of the texts deal with the hope of resurrection, there are no overt references to Christian dogma.”  Let’s leave aside for the moment the oddity of Requiem consisting entirely of texts from the Christian Scriptures and not being overtly Christian.  Let’s leave aside the question of how statements like “Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all Praise, honour and power, for Thou hast created all things, and through Thy will they have been and are created” contain no overt references to Christian dogma.  Indeed, let’s leave aside the point that not merely “some,” but fully half of the words of the Requiem’s text deal with the doctrine of the resurrection.

I’m particularly intrigued by the stunning claim implied by the last two clauses of that extract from the program notes—that the hope of the resurrection is not a Christian dogma.  It would be hard, in fact, to imagine a more Christian dogma than that of the resurrection of the dead.  Indeed, it was of course this doctrine, more than any other claim of the early Christians, that was a scandal and nonsense in the ancient world.  No Greek, no Roman, no barbarian or mystery religion, indulged in such an absurdly optimistic doctrine.  Perhaps it is a sign of just how thoroughly the Christian revolution has transformed the human consciousness that we now take for granted its most distinctive claims.  Indeed, perhaps Mr. (Mrs.?) Colborne could be forgiven his mistake, given the prevalence of a curiously vague and humanistic fascination with the idea of “resurrection” in Brahms’s German Romantic contemporaries, such as Mahler.  And to be sure, a vague and syncretistic hope in “resurrection” is a widespread theme in the post-Christian Western consciousness.

But I suspect that what Mr. Colborne really had in mind was that Brahms’s Requiem was less fixated with the idea of wrath, judgment, and hell, than a traditional Requiem Mass, and that since it didn’t talk about these things, there was no overt Christian dogma.  After all, we all know that what religion, and especially Christianity, is really all about is judgment and hellfire and all that.  Christianity is there to make us afraid of death, of a wrathful deity who will torment us if we don’t do what he wants.  Things like hope and comfort in the face of death, confidence of joy in the hereafter, etc., all that is quite natural and commonplace, not Christian at all.  Thus does Mr. Colborne betray the benighted ingratitude of modernity.  For of course, in the ancient world, it was clear that the precise opposite was the case.  Any pagan could’ve told you that death was fearful and terrifying, that we would probably face a wrathful deity and more than likely suffer torments after death if we fail to placate him.  Ancient religions may have disagreed about many things, but one thing they could agree on: joyful hope in the face of death, confident in a gracious God who had triumphed over death and would restore you to bodily existence, was delusional optimism.  And yet, so thoroughly has this delusional optimism triumphed, that we now take a vague and watered-down form of it (having quietly substituted the immortality of the soul for bodily resurrection) for granted, and dismiss Christianity as having nothing to offer but a return to morbidity.  



Freedom from Oppression or Freedom that Oppresses?

The great apostasy of modernity, argues David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions, lies in its concept of freedom, its abandonment of the Christian (but indeed, not merely the Christian; Aristotle understood this quite well too) understanding that freedom was about being true to one’s nature and proper end, not simply about the removal of every external impediment to one’s actions.  Modernity, indeed, says Hart, has gone to the extreme of regarding every consideration, every objective value outside of the abstract individual will as an “external impediment,” and hence is committed to a kind of nihilism:

“Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose.  We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands  higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom.” (21)

In the classical understanding, says Hart,

“true freedom was understood as something inseparable from one’s nature: to be truly free, that is to say, was to be at liberty to realize one’s proper ‘essence’ and so flourish as the kind of being one was . . . true human freedom is emancipation from whatever constrains us from living the life of rational virtue, or from experiencing the full fruition of our nature; and among the things that constrain us are our own untutored passions, our willful surrender to momentary impulses, our own foolish or wicked choices.” (24)  

The highest freedom, then, argued Augustine, was not posse non peccare — “to be able not to sin” — but non posse peccare — “not to be able to sin.”  What this meant, then, was that too much of purely external freedom, certainly in its extreme modern form, undermines true freedom, for it is a guarantee that one will go far astray from one’s proper end, that one will lose the freedom that comes from within, the self-control of a virtuous character.  However, for the ancients, inward freedom does not thereby dispense entirely with outward freedom, for it was necessary to have a genuine agency in order to develop virtue; a certain external scope to exercise free choice was thereby essential to allow internal freedom room to grow and to practice itself in action.  The slave was therefore incapable of virtue and genuine freedom.    

Christianity, however, radicalized the disjunction between outward and inward freedom.  The classical model of freedom still emphasised the autonomous subject, since freedom was the result of self-possession, the ability to be fully in control of oneself.  Christianity, however, would insist that even this freedom was bondage, because it was inevitably tainted by sin.  Only when we relinquished this striving for self-mastery, and instead acknowledged that we are not our own but Christ’s could we be truly free.  Perfect freedom then is to be a bondservant of Christ, as St. Paul will put it.  There is thus a radical interiority in the freedom of a Christian that, it would seem, remains wholly blind to the external embodiment of this freedom.  This is particularly so in the Protestant doctrine of Christian freedom, in which the freedom of the Christian coram Deo can coexist with complete external bondage, and in which any claim to have achieved freedom in the earthly realm is illusory, since it is always tainted with the bondage of sin.  


Understandably, this line of thinking has seemed unacceptable to many modern theologians.  It appears to be a stance of complete political quietism, encouraging a dangerous complacency about injustice, inasmuch as it suggests that all that matters is the liberation of the soul from the bondage of sin, no matter how many physical chains remain.  This is the doctrine, they will rant, that would preach the gospel to African slaves, while happily continuing the slave trade.  This is the doctrine that upheld apartheid.  They are no more happy when they read it in Paul.  Paul may have said that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, and yet he betrayed his message (or perhaps, some other pseudo-Paul later on inserted a different message) by calling for slaves to obey their masters, calling for wives to submit to their husbands.  The freedom of the Gospel, on this reading, is empty and indeed oppressive if it does not involve a change in external relations, a real empowerment of individuals.  The shrewder critics may even venture that this radical interiorization of freedom contributes in some way to the development of the modern autonomous subject, the concept of the naked unconditioned will that Hart identifies as the great modern heresy — that Luther, Kant, and modernity are all part of the same voluntarist line of development.


How can we then bridge these two dimensions of freedom?  Does inner freedom in Christ flow outward into an external freedom, does it break the bonds of oppression?  Does Paul’s gospel have any of the political import that so many today want to find there?  Richard Bauckham has some extraordinarily helpful things to say on the subject in The Bible in Politics, insisting both that the inward liberation of a Christian does not need an external corollary to make a meaningful difference, but that nonetheless, animated by charity, it does not rest content with oppression, which it will overthrow in due time, and often in mysterious ways:

“The interrelation between the dimensions of freedom is most frequently posed in terms of the relation between inner and outer freedom, or ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ freedom, or existential and structural freedom.  These pairs are not stable or easily delimited, but it is possible to distinguish broadly between, on the one hand, the economic, political, and social structures of freedom, and, on the other hand, the kind of personal freedom which is possible even despite oppressive structures.  That the latter kind of freedom is real and important can be seen, for example, in such extreme cases as Soviet dissidents in the Gulag, remaining free, in their thinking, of the system which oppresses them unbearably, or in the Christian martyrs under the Roman Empire, who could be regarded as the most truly free people of their time, in their refusal to let even the threat of death cow them into submission.  Such freedom in and despite oppressive structures is not only real but essential to the cause of liberation from essential structures.  It is only out of their inner liberation from the system that Russian dissidents can publicly protest against and hope to change the system.  It needed a Moses liberated by God from resignation to the irresistible power of Pharaoh to lead the people out of Egypt, and it needed the gradual psychological liberation of the people themselves to free them from Egypt even after their escape from Pharaoh’s army.  

The point is that real freedom cannot be confined to one dimension.  Inner freedom cannot rest content with outer unfreedom, though it may have to suffer the contradiction in circumstances where outer freedom is unattainable.  Where the experience of existential freedom happily coexists with structura oppression, merely compensating for it rather than reacting against it, it is to that extent inauthentic.  Admittedly, one should not press the point where, for example, the churches of the oppressed make life bearable in otherwise unbearable circumstances.  African Independent churches in South Africa, for example, provide liberation from the psychological and physical ills of life under apartheid, even if they do remain notoriously apolitical [this was written in the 1980s].  They are not to be blamed in the way that oppressors who promote purely ‘spiritual’ versions of Christian freedom for those they oppress must be condemned for abusing the gospel.  But the most impressive example is that of American black slaves, who while experiencing the liberation of the gospel, which gave them inner freedom from the dehumanizing effects of enslavement, were certainly not reconciled to their chains.  On the contrary, their experience of the liberating God sustained a longing for outward freedom which was both eschatological and realistic.  

The contribution of the New Testament’s insghts into the nature of real freedom as liberation from enslavement to self-interest and freedom to give oneself for others is also important in this context.  The oppressed who long for freedom are not truly liberated from the system which oppresses them so long as the freedom they desire is only the freedom their oppressors have: freedom for themselves, no matter what this entails for others.  In such circumstances the struggle for liberation is simply a mirror image of the system it opposes: it becomes ruthless in its own interest, creates as many victims as it liberates, and produces a new kind of tyranny in place of the old.  Outward liberation worthy of the name requires people who have been freed to live for others, and for all others, even for their oppressors.” (116-17)

Forgetting How to be Secular

In a pregnant passage of Common Objects of Love, O’Donovan argues that, rightly understood, “secularity” is in fact a Christian concept, and the modern retreat of Christianity means, ultimately, a loss of secularity, since secularity consists in the patient suspense in wait of ultimate validation, and modernity rejects faith in any ultimate validation to come:

“The Christian conception of the ‘secularity’ of political society arose directly out of this Jewish wrestling with unfulfilled promise.  Refusing, on the one hand, to give up what it knew of God, itself, and the world, accepting, on the other, that what it knew was incomplete and demanded validation, Israel understood itself and its knowledge and love of God as a contradiction to be endured in hope.  ‘Secularity’ is irreducibly an eschatological notion; it requires an eschatological faith to sustain it, a belief in a disclosure that is ‘not yet’ but is absolutely presupposed as the inner meaning of what we know already.  If we allow the ‘not yet’ to slide toward ‘never,’ we say something entirely different and wholly incompatible, for the virtue that undergirds all secular politics is an expectant patience.  What follows from the rejection of belief is an intolerable tension between the need for meaning in society and the only partial capacity of society to satisfy the need.  An unbelieving society has forgotten how to be secular.”