Afraid of Being Afraid

In Richard Beck’s book, The Slavery of Death, he makes a case from Scripture, theology, and psychology that in our broken, post-Fall experience, much of our human endeavor is driven by the fear of death. A central notion for him is the Hebrews author’s contention that Jesus set us free from slavery to the fear of death when he defeated the devil in his cross and resurrection (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Beck tells us there are two basic forms of death anxiety. The first is obvious and primal. We experience anxiety when we don’t know where our next meal is going to come from or when something (or someone) threatens to take our life. Many people around the world experience this sort of anxiety each day as they are refugees or live in areas suffering from famine, drought, disease, etc.

The second form of anxiety is more nuanced and a lot harder to describe. We might say it is attached to the search for meaning in the face of death. This is the core issue the Preacher deals with in Ecclesiastes. In a world where everything “under the sun” is rendered empty by death, where does one find meaning? The sociologist Ernest Becker explores a similar thought in his The Denial of Death where he argues that we develop culture as a way of pushing away the looming fact of death and thereby invest meaning in our life that is bigger than our mortality. Becker believes we’re all pretty much like the Preacher, working to find something meaningful in the face of death, and that is what we call culture.

Sociology and psychology have observed (much as Scripture has) that once our basic survival is relatively secured, we begin to operate out of this second kind of fear or anxiety. The Hebrews writer would say we are slaves to it, that we serve death. Last year, I took a survey course in World Literature and was interested to see how often this theme pops up. In the oldest extant narrative we have, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient king of Uruk seeks immortality and, failing that, looks for meaning in the face of death. At one point, he says, ““I have peered over the city wall, I have seen the corpses floating in the river’s water. So too it will come to pass for me, so it will happen to me … Since no man can avoid life’s end, I would enter the mountain land and set up my name.”

Importantly, Scripture, Beck, and Becker all agree on one point. Motivated by our anxieties over death, we hurt each other. We find an obvious example in the Exodus narrative (cf. Exodus 1). A new Pharoah rises to power that doesn’t know what Joseph did for the nation. As such, when he sees the Hebrews, he only sees a threat to national security and he is afraid. Acting out of this fear, he institutes a domestic policy of Hebrew enslavement. When that fails to ease his anxieties he calls on all patriotic Egyptians to execute any Hebrew boys of a certain age when they encounter them. This narrative is paradigmatic for how death anxiety operates in human culture.

Put another way, for those of us who don’t have to worry about starving to death or living in a war zone, the reality of death is still present. Because of this, we build up structures – culture – to help us push away this reality. When I’m at the symphony, shopping at the mall, eating a great meal, playing video games, working hard at my job, or tossing a football in the backyard with my kids, I can deny the fact of death. What’s more, when I engage in this way of life I’ve helped build up, I tell myself that my life is meaningful in the face of death. But, when someone challenges that way of life, when someone threatens to unmask the reality of death that I’ve been pushing away or they call into question the meaningfulness of my way of life, I respond with violence because they reintroduce the anxiety I’m working to forget.

In the introduction of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, she summarizes this second, existential anxiety helpfully. She says, “Almost everyone is afraid of being afraid.” And history shows we’re willing to go to great lengths to deal with that.

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Afraid of Being Afraid

Being Human – Part Four

This is the fourth installment in a series exploring some aspects of the biblical call to be human. Here is where you can find parts 1, 2, and 3.

The discussion of what humanity is centered on the creation narrative in Genesis 1:26-28. Today, I want to briefly trace one way that idea is used throughout the Bible. As a refresher, here is the text from Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

As we have already noted, being human is descriptive of a way of life rooted in relationship with God as his image bearers. Being human is more of a vocation than it is anything else. We have been created to be fruitful, multiply, fill, subdue, and hold dominion over God’s creation, on God’s behalf.

Much later, Israel’s Poet in Cheif – King David – will pick up this same language when reflecting on nature and the place humankind holds in it (Psalm 8):

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

David draws on the human dynamic we outlined in the last post. Humankind has been created “a little lower than God,” but has, “been crowned with glory and honor” and has been given, “dominion” over the work of God’s hands. When David contemplates the place of humankind in God’s cosmos, he draws on the Genesis language of vocation. This is what it means to be human.

Again, much later, the Hebrews writer will pick up David’s language (which echoes Genesis’ language) in making her or his case about the supremacy of Jesus. After quoting from Psalm 8, the Hebrew writer observes (Hebrews 2:8-9):

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

The argument is simple and powerful. God created humanity to rule as his representatives but we see that has not happened. Humankind has rejected and muddled up that vocation in endless ways, both large and small. But, Jesus came in flesh- “made lower than the angels,” as we are – and fulfilled the human vocation where the rest of us had not. At every point we have forgotten or forsaken our divine calling, becoming less than human, Jesus sided with God’s intention, being what he (as a human) was meant to be.

There are lots of things we want to say about this – and we will in future posts without throwing too much out at once. Here, let’s begin by repeating something we said last time and by adding something new.

First, Scripture takes a high view of humanity. Sin doesn’t reveal our humanity – “Oh, I’m only human, after all.” Sin reduces our humanity. It makes us less than human.

Second, in not sinning, Jesus got Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 right where we have not. Jesus is the only genuine human. In that, he stands to show us what it looks like to return to our humanity. Importantly, the Hebrew writer is eager to point out, he also makes that return possible.

Being Human – Part Four