Self, death and mystical consciousness

In “The Idolatry of God” and in some of his other work, the philosopher-theologian Peter Rollins makes use of Jacques Lacan’s concept of the “mirror stage” in child development to indicate that at a very early stage of our development (between 6 and 18 months) we first become aware of a distinction between ourselves and the “other”, that this represents the inception of the sense of self. In two recent posts,  “The Fall and Rise of Original Sin” and “Falling further”, I developed a reading of Genesis 2 & 3 which saw Original Sin as being in substance the self-centredness and self-seeking which stems inevitably from the development of this sense of self, which agrees well with Rollins conception. Quoting from the Alcoholics Anonymous book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”, “The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear—primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded.” What AA describes as “character defects” I think we can reasonably call “original sin”.

I’m currently reading Richard Beck’s latest book, “The Slavery of Death”, which I picked up after writing the previous posts. Beck, interestingly, starts with a reading of Genesis 2 & 3 from the perspective of the Orthodox Church which sees death as originating in this story (which I don’t) but then equates the fear of death with original sin, and as the effective power of the devil; he goes on to develop this concept. He quotes the Orthodox theologian John Romanides’ “Ancestral Sin” in saying “Any perceived threat automatically triggers fear and uneasiness. Fear doers not allow a man to be perfected in love… Being under the sway of death and not having real and correct faith in God, man is anxious over everything and is ruled by selfish bodily and psychological motives and, thus, he is unable to love unselfishly and freely. He loves and has faith according to what he percieves to be to his own advantage… Thus, he is deprived of his original destiny and is off the mark spiritually. In biblical language, these failures and deviations are called sins. The fountain of man’s personal sin is the power of death that is in the hands of the devil and in man’s own willing submission to him.”

I note, however, that death is the ultimate threat to the self, so with the reservation that I think the sense of self and fear for loss of any part of what is regarded as “the self” is more fundamental even than the fear of death (and gives rise to it) I can follow on with Becks other arguments. I’m certainly with him in not considering that it is necessary to posit a personal embodiment of sin and evil in order to call this self-centred sin diabolical, something of the devil; personally I do not find the concept of an anthropomorphic personification of evil to be useful, but others may do so.

Beck goes on to discuss the conception of evil in the world developed by William Stringfellow and Walter Wink (inter alia) as being the Powers and Authorities; all groupings, ideologies and systems in the world are identifiable as the physical expressions (at the least) of what can be regarded as spiritual powers, and pursues the concept that inasmuch as we give our allegiance to such human structures, whether these be employers, political parties or ideologies, football clubs, governments or even churches we are giving our allegiance to effectively diabolical powers which are, in effect, giving ourselves over to the power of death (as all such structures will end, i.e. die, and also their demands are inimical to us living our own lives for ourselves and our loved ones, and so these allegiances become a partial death.

At this point I need to recap on one of the fundamental aspects of the mystical experience through which I inevitably see existence, that of the disintegration of the boundary between self and other, between self and God. This has a number of results – firstly, I am unable to see others as in any real sense separate from me, and thus the mechanism which Rollins posits of the fundamental drive being to exert control of the other ceases to have real effect, insofar as I remain in contact with the mystical experience. That which is me, the self, can and does expand to include all those around me, or all people of my town, my area or my country, or all of humanity, or all living things, or all that exists inclusive of such part of that-which-is-God which is not immanent in all of those more restricted categories.

Seeing this from the point of view put forward by Rollins/Lacan, this viewpoint relieves me of the need to seek some external object which will give satisfaction, which will make whole the lack seen in the self when considered in relationship with the Other; there is, in truth, no “Other” (or, formulated differently, there is no “self” to put in opposition to the Other. Rollins points out that the loss, the lack felt in the inception of the sense of self, is illusory in that before the inception of the sense of self, there was no self to have anything taken away from; from my point of view the lack is illusory because the boundary itself is ultimately illusory.

Seen from the point of view of Beck’s writing, I am similarly relieved of the fear of death (and this should not be taken to indicate that I am not extremely scared of most of the ways of becoming dead, as I am not a great fan of physical pain, nor to indicate that all of my subconscious mechanisms share this view – this is “SR” speaking here with unconditional assent from “GF” but lesser support from “EC”, and none from mechanisms such as the “reptile mind”). Nor is it something I can claim as an achievement – the initial experience was either given or thrust on me out of the blue, though I have expended energy on repeating and building on it.

Beck does caution in these words:- “In summary, timor mortis is a fact of life and a regular feature of the Christian experience. The fear of death is always with us, moment by moment and day by day, and its absence would signal an indifference that could be, by turns, pathological, triumphalistic, or a spurning of the gift of life. The fearlessness we should seek is not an emotional blankness in the face of death. Such a blankness would be unable to make a distinction between life and death, and thus would be an act of ingratitude to God for the gift and goodness of life. Rather, the fearlessness we are speaking of involves an overcoming rather than a numbness, a refusal to let death be a motive force in our decision making and identity formation.” Having gone through a period of several years of severe clinical depression, I can testify to what it is like for this to turn to a pathological indifference; a year ago, I really had no way of making a judgment between life and death from any of my own resources, and am here now largely because I considered that I owed it to people who cared for me. It is not like that now, but it is also not a conscious overcoming. It is not triumphalistic (what do I find to triumph in in that this particular part of the All does not fear death?) and since the depression lifted, I am all too ready to give thanks for the gift of life.

One of the ways in which this lack of fear can make sense to me is touched on by Beck; in his formulation (which owes much to Ernest Becker) our fear of death is alleviated by making some contribution to the power or authority of our choice, as that contribution is seen as persisting for the life of that power or authority which we (wrongly) think of as immortal; Beck talks of the “hero system” in which achievements within some human system are valued and extolled, and give a sense of self-worth which placates death anxiety. Granted, Becker (and thus Beck) see this as a way of alleviating anxiety about death while I see it as alleviating anxiety about the wider context of diminishment of the sense of self, in particular linked to the desire to control the “other”.

For me, I view this more as a limited way of moving towards the mystical erasure of the boundary between self and other; inasmuch as we identify with some organisation, it becomes to an extent a part of the self, and that part may well survive the death or the individual. Of course, it may not survive the individual, and hence we suffer a major loss of identity in, for instance, the closure of our employer’s business (or our losing our job with it), the end of a marriage, the fall of a state (or radical change in it) or the disgrace of an ideology, for instance in the fall of communism as seen as a viable way of structuring society. It seems to me that people (in the main unconsciously) actually do perform this transfer of self-identity ; I am enabled by the mystical consciousness (again, insofar as I remain in close touch with it) to move my concept of self to such structures temporarily, but only fleetingly, as more extensive identifications (or less extensive ones) are always available.

One of Beck’s major themes is our reaction to the “other”, and he elsewhere builds on (for instance) Rene Girard’s concepts of mimetic violence and scapegoating and on the concepts of holiness and purity (in “Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality”). In “The Slavery of Death”, he devotes some time to outlining how the neurotic desire to protect the system in which we trust to alleviate our fear of death (in his formulation) or in which we invest a major part of our sense of self (in mine) leads to rivalry, exclusion and conformity and even violence. This has echoes in some of Rollins’ work as well, where he looks to destabilise excessive reliance on our favoured structures; “Insurrection” and “The Fidelity of Betrayal” are along those lines, as are his “transformance art” occasions.

Beck goes on to talk about various techniques for improving what he calls an “eccentric” sense of self, “eccentric” in that it is not focused within the individual, drawing substantially from St. Thérèse de Lisieux. In the main, I see these as “act as if” methods. Modern psychology is confident from much experimentation that “act as if” works, and that as you act so will you eventually come to believe. As an aside, I feel that this rather punctures the Apostle Paul’s strictures against works righteousness; certainly feeling smug about works is a negative thing, but actually acting in the way you would wish to have flow from your inner convictions does clearly operate to produce those inner convictions. On this I’m with James; faith without works is dead.

Finally, Beck goes on to talk about what he describes as “the slavery of God”, in which a conception of God becomes part of a death-avoiding concept of self-valuation, and is then protected at all costs. Beck rightly identifies this as a form of idolatry. So, of course, does Rollins in “The Idolatry of God”, seeing the idolatrous “God” as being the “big other” which can fill the void resulting from our sense of primal loss. Both writers suggest ways in which this can be avoided, Beck’s being less dramatic and contraversial, and probably therefore more practical. I commend both books, and frankly suggest that if you’ve read either “The Slavery of Death” or “The Idolatry of God, you should go on to read the other as well.


I would also go on to strongly recommend the development of a mystical consciousness, which tends to resolve both problems, except for one thing – my own experience is of being given this, and I’m uncertain to what extent the various practices which various mystics over the ages have recommended can function to create a mystical consciousness where none existed previously. Beck’s practical suggestions and Rollins’ radical ones may, however, go some way towards this – and so do meditation and contemplation.

Enough of writing about it, I need to go and act!

The Power of Parable – and metaparable

At “By Common Consent”, there is a review of John Dominic Crossan’s “The Power of Parable: How fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus”.

This interests me particularly for two reasons, firstly because BCC is a Mormon site, and I don’t get to look at Mormon sites very often. The more important reason, though, is that I read this book last year and would unhesitatingly recommend it as a radical new look at the Gospels.

I go along with most of what that review says; I love the direction of thinking Crossan is pursuing, but do not think he supports his hypotheses sufficiently rigorously for me to say “Yes, this is the way it was”.

But Crossan tells a wonderfully engaging and convincing story about how and why the Gospels were written, and one which is well worth considering as a possible way of reading them, and a new way which gives an additional and sometimes surprising set of insights. At the least, it can be regarded as a parable of its own (about writing parables about a teller of parables one of which is perhaps itself about parables – which is even more “meta” than the comment which starts the review).

I’m not sure I want to try to suggest what kind of parable it is, though. In a way, it’s a challenge parable, the “marginalised person” here being parables themselves. In a way it’s a riddle parable, because the stories themselves become significant of something other than what they first appear to be. I don’t at the moment see any indication of example parable there, but wouldn’t be surprised if someone were to correct me.

One thing Crossan does do here, however, is use the texts we know well to tell us some stories about the early development of Christianity and its transformation from being a Jewish sect to being a religion crossing divides of ethnicity, and to underline a particular understanding of Jesus. It’s an understanding of Jesus which resonates extremely well with me, and I like the book fine for that. It is, however, too limited an understanding of Jesus to reflect all that I consider Jesus to be to us now, even if (as I rather suspect) it may reflect a very substantial part of what Jesus was during his lifetime ministry.