May 27, 2008


Life and death in the Bible: The Power of God for Christians and Jews by Kevin J Madigan and Jon D Levenson (Spengler, 5/27/08, Asia Times)

Theology was dethroned as queen of the sciences two centuries ago. This splendid book supports the case for restoration. How are we to make sense of a world in which the raw issues of life and death - secular society's failure to endure life, and traditional society's embrace of death - overthrow the trifling calculus of political science? The world has buried Karl Marx's economic man and Sigmund Freud's libidinous man, and the shovel is ready for Martin Heidegger's "authentic" man. Levenson and Madigan show instead Biblical man in his confrontation with death, and in so doing hold up a mirror to us.

Resurrection is among a handful of recent theological texts that radically affect our view of the world, including works by Michael Wsychogrod and Fergus Kerr, as well as a new translation of Franz Rosenzweig's chief work. It is doubly remarkable as the joint effort of a Jewish and a Christian scholar. [...]

One might go farther, and assert that the Biblical understanding of life and death still prevails today among most of the world's six billion souls. The materialism of modern political science sadly misjudges the demands of the human heart. Nations are willing to fight to the death because their national life already has become a living death, in just the way the Bible saw it. In their hearts they already have gone down to Sheol, and the world holds no greater terror for them than what they live each day.

Resurrection draws a red line from the earliest response to death in the Hebrew Bible, to the promise of resurrection in the flesh in the 2nd century BC Book of Daniel and in Christian doctrine. Madigan and Levenson show how basic to Jewish and Christian belief is the promise that a loving God will redeem his faithful from death, in the full unity of body and soul. This is the promise of redemption that has sustained Jews and Christians through the centuries, and given them a perception that their life in this world participates in eternal life. Thus they are alive even in death.

But what of those who feel abandoned to death? By the same token, they are dead even in life. From this existential experience of life and death, the authors show how deeply the hope of resurrection in the flesh is embedded in the Hebrew Bible. [...]

For Christians the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the revelation on which the faith is founded. Resurrection in Christian doctrine is the reward of the individuals who leave their Gentile nations to take part in the new people of God and become part of Christ's resurrection. Christian identity is as just as social as Jewish identity, for Christians believed they are saved through adoption into a new people. Madigan and Levenson show that the sacrament of baptism for early Christians was inextricably tied to rebirth and resurrection. Thus Christians rescued themselves from the maelstrom of death that took hold of the late Roman Empire.

It is a conceit of modern materialism that identity no longer is social, but rather individual; we choose our pleasures, and, if the mood strikes us, shop for a religion the way we might choose a neighborhood. We fancy ourselves rational beings. If we are not quite beyond good and evil, for law and custom still discourage rapine and murder, we certainly are beyond sin and redemption, which we have replaced by stress and therapy.

Modern materialism has weaned the industrial world off spiritual food, like the thrifty farmer who trained his donkey to eat less by reducing its rations each day. "Just when I got I had him trained to live on nothing," the farmer complained, "the donkey had to die!" Like the donkey, the modern world has died when its spiritual rations were cut to nothing. We refuse to acknowledge that our deepest needs are no different from those of Biblical man. We fail to nourish them and we die.

What Benedict XVI calls the anti-culture of death will reduce most of the industrial world to a geriatric ward by the latter half of his century, and to ruins to be picked over by immigrants not long thereafter. We experience death in life, but our intellect and our technology enable us to deny the prospect of death.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 27, 2008 6:52 AM
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