What do Ernest Becker, René Girard, Anders Nygren, Daniel Gilbert and the Book of Romans have in common?

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Many moons ago I heard about a book that won the Pulitzer price for General Non-Fiction in 1974: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. The title intrigued me, and so I ordered it from the USA. (I could not find a single copy in the whole of South Africa…)

The book blew my mind. To this day I regard it as the best “non-theological” commentary on the human condition that I have ever come across. I followed it up with Becker’s Escape from Evil, and the experience pretty much repeated itself. And I am still working through his The Birth and Death of Meaning. Slowly…

I don’t think these books are everyone’s cup of tea, but they exposed me to a line of thinking that helped me greatly to understand the predicament of being human, as well as my Christian faith.

The only other scholar in the field of the human sciences whose writings had a similar effect on me was Rene Girard. His work on mimetic desire, conflict and scapegoating is fast becoming legendary. It is also becoming extremely popular, which is perhaps unfortunate. Girard has been, and is being enlisted as an apologist for a number of causes and doctrinal novelties that I doubt he would have personally endorsed. Sadly, this is often the case with profound thinkers who are no longer with us.

Added to this, Girard is a human being and his insights are certainly not complete or perfect. One does not have to agree with every tenet of his theory to gain much from it (the proverbial fish and bones). To elevate him to the status of guru is unwise. Many of his views do not sit well with conservative evangelicals, but that does not have to create an either/or conflict. His main contribution is in the field of anthropology, and his readers should consider for themselves what the implications are for their theology. For instance, the notion that you HAVE to reject the penal substitution theory of atonement in order to gain much from Girard is, in fact, not true. His work is multifaceted, and can be thought of as a series of self-contained units, each flowing into the other. There is no need to follow him slavishly, or to adopt each of his conclusions.

I have often thought of these two men as Cyrus-like servants of God, in the sense that they fulfilled a spiritual purpose without knowing that they were doing so, or at least the extent to which they were doing it. I suspect that Girard discovered it along the way, but that he was too modest to actually make something of it.

To elaborate on these purposes would fill a book, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say that Becker’s assessment of the human condition is pretty dark and damning, and that he suggests, as an objective scholar and social scientist, that “primitive Christianity” may be the only answer to the succession of failed immortality ideologies and “hero-systems” that have marked the human race since the dawn of time. Biblical Christianity, of course, takes the problem of death really seriously. Modern Christianity, according to Becker, is simply another “hero-system” or effort to deny death, and thus he relegates it to the same status as all other immortality ideologies. (All Restorationists may now applaud.)

The irony of these scholars’ work is that it has been mostly overlooked by mainstream theologians and believers (Girard’s work is finally being noticed, as mentioned, but this only happened relatively recently), seemingly because it did not come in the stereotypical theological wrapping. But this is in fact what makes it so powerful. As young researchers neither of them were crusaders for a cause or motivated by some or other belief system that created a research bias and predisposed them to looking for clues that would fit into an existing schema. They truly “stumbled” upon the powerful truths that they ended up articulating for the rest of us, and only later related it to the sphere of religion.

My all-time favourite interview is of Girard telling how he discovered that the Decalogue’s Tenth Commandment reveals mimetic desire to underlie all divine moral codes, and that it did so millennia before he came up with his theory. He notes that he finds it absolutely befuddling that this obvious fact has been overlooked by theologians. (First five minutes of interview – you can skip the rest).

To me Becker and Girard’s work represents two sides of the same coin: Mimetic desire is in fact the subjective response to the reality of death, and thus our greatest and most sophisticated effort at denying death. (Eve found the power to dismiss God’s warning of impending death through the enchantment of desire).

What we covet is in fact the life of the neighbour, and the closest we can come to this is to appropriate his/her possessions. In the process the neighbour is “sacrificed” to effect the life-exchange and overcome death. Our fascination with vampirism is but one testimony to this subconscious drive within.

This, of course, is where the gospel comes in. My greatest companion volume to Becker and Girard is Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros (another largely forgotten work) – a book that shaped Karl Barth’s theology significantly.

Barth beautifully summarises Nygren in these words:

Love, as Eros, is, in general terms, the primordially powerful desire, urge, impulse, and endeavor by which a created being seeks his own self-assertion, satisfaction, realization, and fulfillment in his relation to something else. He strives to draw near to this other person or thing, to win it for himself, to take it to himself, and to make it his own as clearly and definitively as possible. In Agape, however, the one who loves never understands the origin of his search as a demand inherent within himself, but always as an entirely new freedom for the other one… And because he is free for him, he does not seek him as though he needed him for himself as a means to his self-assertion and self-fulfillment…. He loves him gratis. That is to say, he desires nothing from him, and he does not wish to be rewarded by him.

The book that completed the puzzle for me was Daniel Gilbert‘s Stumbling on Happiness. His groundbreaking work in regard to affective forecasting reveals that we desire things because we anticipate that they will make us happy. In this way we become slaves to our projections of a happy future self who inevitable ends up being grumpy about everything we have accumulated and achieved for him/her when we finally meet him/her.

Gilbert is not a believer, but his insights into the things that make humans tick are worth noting – and a lot of fun to consider alongside a Bible open to Ecclesiastes.

I was blown away when I discovered the book of Romans to be an eternal and majestic exposition of all of the above, especially Paul’s interpretation of the Mosaic law as a vehicle to reveal that God handed humanity over to desire as a result of rejecting him, and that none of us, no matter how religious, can suppress the power and dictates of desire, and so we “all have sinned”.

It is indeed impossible to understand the much disputed Romans 7, or even Romans 2, without these insights. In Romans 7 Paul represents the religious persona trying to do good but being tripped up by desire, revealing him/herself as a lawbreaker and in need of a saviour. In Romans 2 he hints at this by telling very “righteous” people that they were doing exactly the same as the “sinners” whom they were judging.

To conquer covetousness, and in the process fulfill the intention of the law as revealed in the tenth commandment, something called “love” is needed, that is, the ability to joyfully take what is mine and hand it over to my neighbour, as opposed to taking what belongs to my neighbour and appropriating it for me.

Agape is therefore diametrically opposite to covetousness, and here Nygren is helpful.

This suggests a reversal between the subject and object in the sacrificial drama, and this, again, is where Girard becomes helpful. The identity of the scapegoat is changed, and the “living sacrifice” is revealed as the only one with the ability to live this life of love and service and so fulfill the law by proving him/herself to be covet-free.

However, to do so, the underlying death-conquering motive that manifests in denial, mimetic desire and “heroism” must be dealt with, and this can only happen where there is an actual participation in the life that is really life. Hence, an identification with the life of God (as opposed to the apparent life of the neighbour) is necessary as the first step to be delivered from acquisitive, mimetic, erotic desire.

Romans 4’s Abraham reveals this action as something called “faith:” “My body is as good as dead, but God can give life where there is none!” The acknowledgment of “my body of death” is imperative as a basis for faith, and so Paul’s despair in Romans 7 as a result of his inability to conquer mimetic desire is intended to produce this very cry “who shall deliver me from this body of death” as a precursor of the faith that followed and that would lead to an impartation of Spirit-life in Romans 8, and thus to the new identity of a “living sacrifice” in Romans 12 (one who has died yet is alive, like Isaac & Christ) who is finally able to live the life of love and service expounded upon in chapters 12 right through to the end of the book.

Interestingly, the introductory passage to the “practical” section of the book, in the first verses of chapter 12, reveals that the “renewing of the mind” has to do with not thinking higher of oneself than you ought to, but to think with sober judgment, namely as a particular, single member in this new, resurrected body of Christ.

Thus chapters 1 to 11’s covetous narcissistic self that seeks to be served is exchanged in 12 to 16 with an “alive” sacrificial self that seeks to serve, and who never thinks of itself outside the boundaries of its particular calling in the community of the saints. Thus the rivalry that is prohibited by the tenth commandment, underlying and constituting the covetous self, is done away with completely. Envy and inferiority, as well as pride and arrogance, are also done away with.

In the place thereof, an identity with a very particular calling and equipping, whose life is shared with others, is encountered, embraced and accepted. The only rivalry that is left is revealed by Paul (tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure) to be the following: Outdo one another in showing honour! (12:10)

I have been long convinced that most of our psychological ailments spring from the cognitive dissonance triggered by the failure of our death-denying, hero-aspiring tendencies.

In other words, our failure to keep up with the Joneses drives us mad. And so it should, for God is telling us to go back to the right tree. I have found in Romans a paradigm to challenge our most basic and dearly held presuppositions, rather than just another “therapy” aimed at helping us to live up to our delusions. In fact, in my experience virtually all efforts at therapy represent efforts to assist us to better deny death and to better actualise or authenticate ourselves.

The converse is also true. I have been completely astounded at the impact of going the opposite route, namely using the above truths as a basis for counseling (anti-counseling?) brothers and sisters in the Lord. Truly, only those who are willing to lose their lives can find it, and any therapy that is not based on this truth is tantamount to doing interior decorating on death row.

Ironically, the Buddhist insight into desire as the cause of suffering and its related ideals of selflessness and Nirvana are now being “discovered” by many Christians, causing them to reject Christianity in favour of a philosophy of selflessness and slow, restful religion. Yet Buddhism or any of its derivatives cannot compare with the majestic way in which Paul expounds these very same things – the “primitive Christianity” referred to by Becker.

The Bible has a much more sophisticated and practical approach to desire and selflessness than what you can find in any branch of Buddhism, or anywhere else in the entire universe for that matter, but you have to read carefully to find it.

(This post was originally a comment on the blog of David McAnulty)

Eros: The Love that Seeks a Reward

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. John 13:34

The ancient world was no stranger to the idea of love. Love for friends, women and God were the great themes that inspired the early poets and orators. Particularly the Greeks made much of love, and many regard Plato as the all-time greatest expositor of the love theme.

In the midst of this world Jesus Christ comes along and speaks of the ‘new command’ to love. What on earth could he have meant?

We merely need to compare the love of Plato with the love of Christ to find the answer. Plato chose the Greek word Eros for his definition of love. The word implies sensual love. Eros is the enchanting experience of being drawn to a person or object that holds the promise of fulfilling or satisfying you in some way. Eros is always motivated by reward, and as such always egocentric. It is the desire, urge and impulse to actualise and authenticate the self, and its excitement is derived from the people, instruments and gods who can assist with the journey. Eros is equally at home in worlds as far apart as romance, business, politics and religion. Indeed, it can be said that Eros provides the fuel for the rat race.

Christ chose another Greek word for love: Agape. Agape is the love of God, which means it is a love which seeks nothing, because it already has all things. Agape springs forth from a position of utter contentment, and so it seeks no compensation or reward. It is free and unconditional, and seeks to create value instead of demanding it.

Clearly, only those who find all their satisfaction in Christ can love in this way.

The Heart of the Pharisee IV

4 Turning Religion into an Idol

The primary difference between the Pharisee and the Christian is to be found in the area of their motives, we have seen. The Pharisee, as with all depraved humanity, suffers from a terminal disease called covetousness, which could be defined as the primordial desire and drive of humanity to regain what was lost with the spiritual fall of their ancestors. This drive towards self-assertion is well captured by the Greek concept of Eros, and lies at the heart of all idolatry. The New Testament introduces Jesus Christ as the bread of life for a starving world, and as the pearl of great price that makes a person gladly leave all he has in order to gain Christ, with thanksgiving and contentment being the reward and outcome.

Religious Idolatry

In this chapter we shall ask the question: ‘Where does that leave the Pharisee who rejects Christ?’ The answer is not difficult to come by. The Pharisee, like all human beings, is an idolater. Idolatry, as we have seen, originates in the heart and manifests as desire. It is humanly impossible to overcome this inner force of desire through effort or will power, which is why no human being can effect his or her own salvation. To turn from the obvious idols of this world, such as money and sex, is to deal with a symptom and not a cause. A religious conversion is entirely useless if it does not address the state of the covetous heart within. The heart will remain idolatrous even if a man converts to religion. The only conversion in such a case will be the conversion of the idol, not of the individual. Carnal idols will be exchanged with religious ones, and this is where Pharisaism comes in.

The Pharisee’s error is that of confusing the law of God with an end rather than a means. Being blind to its real purpose, the Pharisee does not go beyond the law, but tricks himself into a position where the law becomes his focal point, and so the object of his idolatry. He believes himself to have found the pearl of great price, and this explains why he has no interest in rumours about other pearls. The very religion that was intended as a schoolmaster for a mere season in his life, to guide him to Christ and to maturity and freedom, has ensnared him and made him its slave. The object of his covetousness, which provides him with his reason for being, is his religion.

In this sense the Pharisee is distinct from the sinner. He fornicates not with the world, but with religion. He uses it as an object of desire, to calm the restlessness of his soul and as a substitute for God. This he does in the name of God. The Pharisee loves the law, but he hates the lawgiver. As his greatest interest is that of self, as is the case with all depraved people, every religious deed he does is for the sake of self. His religion is nothing but sophisticated paganism, and the god he confesses a mere projection of his own thinking, suited to his own desires, and created in his own image.

It is significant that Paul, in Romans 2:1, after having discussed the birth of Paganism and idolatry (1:18-32), says to the religious Jews: ‘…you who pass judgment do the same things.’ The statement is a strange one, especially if one considers how religious the Pharisees were. But the riddle is solved in chapter 7, where we see that even the most righteous Pharisee is a lawbreaker as a result of his inability to keep the tenth command. And so the damning statement of chapter 2:1 culminates in chapter 3:9-12: ‘…Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin…There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no-one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one…’

This explains why the Pharisee hates the message preached by Christ. Christ demands a denial of the self, even of the religious self.

The New Testament on Why the Pharisee is Attracted to Religion

The problem of Pharisaism might be described as that of religious Eros. It is a fascination with God, all for the wrong reason. It is the pursuit of spirituality motivated by covetousness. It is, to use Paul’s term, ‘godliness as a means to gain’ (1 Tim. 6:5), and it was pointed out by Christ as the driving force behind Pharisaic religion: ‘Everything they do is for men to see; …they love the place of honour…; they love to…have men call them “Rabbi”.’ (Matt. 23:5-8). The ‘hypocrites’ of Matt. 6 had the same problem: They gave to the needy to be ‘honoured by men’ (v. 2), they prayed to be ‘seen by men’ (v. 5), and they fasted to ‘show men they are fasting’ (v. 16). The point of Matt. 6, of course, is that we should not store up treasures on earth, but in heaven, for ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (v. 19-21), and the hypocrites are provided as an example of religious people whose treasure was on earth, as they prefer their reward in the here and now (The words ‘they have received their reward in full’ are repeated in each of the above cases, and each time contrasted with ‘your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’)

The New Testament authors were aware that it was possible to practice Christianity with ulterior motives. James, for instance, points out that it is quite possible to pray to God for the sake of self (Jas. 4:3), and Paul reminds us that it is equally possible to preach the gospel with impure motives (Phil. 1:15-18). Doing ‘the right deed for the wrong reason’ can therefore indeed be described as treason, as Blake reminds us, and nowhere is this more true than when those right deeds include religious acts.

If we take the above seriously, then we must admit that we are dealing here with two very different species of religious people, and, indeed, two very different religions. ‘Godliness as gain’ and ‘godliness with contentment’ (1 Tim. 6:6) are two bipolar opposites that have nothing in common, and never will have.

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Religious Orientation

So great and obvious is the difference that it has been identified in the field of psychology of religion, with Gordon Allport’s concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic religious orientations representing the backbone of the research. The difference between the two orientations are defined as follows by Allport and Ross (Cited in Kahoe 985:24 (4) 409):

‘Extrinsic Orientation: Persons with this orientation are disposed to use religion for their own ends… It serves other, more ultimate interests. Extrinsic values are always instrumental and utilitarian. Persons with this orientation may find religion useful in a variety of ways, e.g., to provide security and solace, sociability and distraction, status and self-justification. The embraced creed is lightly held or else selectively shaped to fit more primary needs. In theological terms the extrinsic type turns to God, but without turning away from self.

Intrinsic Orientation: Persons with this orientation find their master motive in religion. Other needs, strong as they may be, are regarded as of less ultimate significance, and they are, insofar as possible, brought into harmony with the religious beliefs and prescriptions. Having embraced a creed, the individual endeavors to internalize it and follow it fully. It is in this sense that he lives his religion.

The well established Allport and Ross Scales have been used in numerous studies focusing on the correlation between religiousness and a variety of personality variables and prejudices. For instance, in a study of 850 volunteers, reported in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity (Watson, Morris, Hood & Biderman 1990, 9 (1): 40-46), it was found that ‘Intrinsics’ were lower than ‘Extrinsics’ in what is called a ‘pathological form of narcissistic exploitativeness’. Extrinsic religious orientation was also shown to be correlated with ethnic prejudice in a 1967 article by Allport and Ross (1967, Vol 5, No 4, 432-443).

By pointing to the above, I am by no means implying that Allport has given us a psychological definition of the difference between Pharisaism and Christianity. His concepts involve much more than this, but they are helpful as a scientific confirmation of the fact that the locus of religious people can generally be defined in one of two ways, and, of course, one cannot help but to notice the resemblance between these definitions and the conclusions drawn thus far in these articles.

The Murder of God

Another helpful perspective from the arena of psychology comes from psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. Peck’s interest in human evil is rather unorthodox for a psychiatrist, especially one as famous as Peck, and comes under scrutiny in his People of the Lie (1983). Peck converted to Christianity after he authored the bestseller The Road Less Travelled, and followed it up with this study on human evil. Peck has been somewhat of a controversial figure in Christian circles, but I quote him here primarily in his capacity as a scholar and student of human behavior.

Frustrated with the lack of a ‘body of scientific knowledge about human evil deserving of being called a psychology’ (43), Peck wrote People of the Lie, drawing, amongst others, from the works of Erich Fromm and Malachi Martin. Peck’s definition of evil is helpful to us, as it touches on the very issues addressed above, albeit with a different focus: In The Road Less Travelled, he defines evil as ‘the exercise of political power – that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion… – in order to avoid…spiritual growth’ (298). In People of the Lie, he says: ‘It would, I believe, be quite appropriate to classify evil people as constituting a specific variant of the narcissistic personality disorder.’ (1983:145). According to Peck, evil is ‘live spelled backward…Evil is in opposition to life. It is that which opposes the life force. It has, in short, to do with killing…I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is also that which kills spirit…’ (1983:46).

Peck acknowledges his indebtedness to Fromm in this regard: ‘Erich Fromm…broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others – to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line. Distinguishing it from a “biophilic” person, one who appreciates and fosters the variety of life forms and the uniqueness of the individual, he demonstrated a “necrophilic character type”, whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.’ (1983:47).

Reading the above, it becomes clear why Peck sees evil as a variant of narcissism. To use our terminology: It is a coveting of the other for the sake of the self. As such it could be described as love gone toxic, parasitical rather than life-giving, a black hole rather than a light. It is a desire for the life energy of another, a type of psychic vampirism, resulting in the murder of his or her spirit. The case studies discussed by Peck in People of the Lie clearly show how this toxic love is fostered by an underlying sick dependence on one or more other people, and even how narcissistic personalities could be attracted to one another with the sole purpose of having their desires gratified in and through such a sick relationship, or ‘incestuous symbiosis’ (1983:133), such as in the case of ‘Hartley and Sarah’ (1983:122).

Evil, therefore, can be described not only as the opposite of ‘life’, but also as the opposite of love, as Peck’s definition of love includes the nurturing of another’s spiritual growth (1978:85). Evil, according to the above definitions, could therefore be seen as an inversion of the second of the two greatest commandments. It is not love for the sake of the other, but love for the sake of self, and therefore the exact opposite of love.

The question that arises at this point is this: Is human evil a phenomenon that is only prevalent in human relationships, or can it also present itself in the relationship between a human and his god? To put it another way: If the inversion of the second commandment is such a real threat, why not also, and even more so, the inversion of the first and greatest commandment? If we can love others for the sake of our selves, why can we not also love God in this way?

What would one call an imposition of the will not only on others, but also on God, and, if I may adjust Peck’s terminology slightly – a desire to make him controllable, to diminish his unpredictability and originality, to keep him in line, to foster his dependency, to discourage his capacity to think for himself? I believe the word is ‘crucifixion’. What happened on Golgotha 2000 years ago is not only a timeless display of the love of God, but also a brilliant analysis of human evil as it boils over the brim of history. Nowhere exists a better and more graphic picture of humanity’s attempt to put God in his place than that of a band of wicked men nailing Christ to a wooden cross.

The sad part of the story is that the murder of God took place in the name of God, as it always does. It is the religious who make it their business to determine the place and the purpose of God, not the sinners, and so it is the religious who get upset with the God that does not fit into their scheme. As Peck put it in What Return Can I Make?: ‘ They [the Pharisees] murdered Jesus. The poor in spirit do not commit evil. Evil is not committed by people who feel uncertain about their righteousness, who question their own motives, who worry about betraying themselves. The evil in this world is committed by the spiritual fat cats, by the Pharisees of our own day, the self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination.’ (Cited in Peck 1983:80).

The Enchantment of Religion

It needs to be stated that the phenomenon of Pharisaism is a product of both people and context. We have thus far focused mainly on the human motivators behind Pharisaism, but we dare not ignore the motivators inherent in religion itself. As these articles are about the former and not the latter, a few brief remarks would have to suffice.

There is no place that offers better concealment and disguise for the person with narcissistic tendencies than the religious environment. Keeping in mind that ‘the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it’ (Peck 1983:77), a great many sick people find solace within the four walls of the church, oftentimes to hide not only from others, but also from themselves. No doubt some of these ‘conversions’ could be described as ‘religiously-colored psychological conversion which brings some unity and harmony to a troubled person’s life’ (Conn 1986:9). Moreover, the church offers great social benefits for the lonely soul, and it is one of the few places in the world where people will politely listen to you if you have something to say, regardless of whether it be a testimony, a word of encouragement, a prophecy or a tongue. Indeed, it is the one place on earth that will still give you acceptance when all other institutions have ceased to do so. If we talk about a platform from where the self can be asserted, actualised and authenticated, then few places offer such an ideal one as the church.

When it comes to the ministry the lure is even stronger. The advantages, both temporary and eternal, of being a mouthpiece for God are great. With the package comes status and influence, and other benefits might range from mystical powers to material wealth, depending on the context of the ministry or denomination. Walter Conn, in his book Christian Conversion: A Developmental Interpretation of Autonomy and Surrender (1986), provides fascinating insight into the psychology of conversion, and shows how people convert to religion for different reasons. No doubt the same can be said about the call to the ministry, and a theological case might even be made out of the life of Judas Iscariot, who clearly had ulterior motives for joining the band of disciples. Perhaps it would be correct to say that the ministry is the one occupation that simultaneously appeals to the two greatest needs of humanity, namely the need for self-actualisation and the need for God. You can, in other words, get the world with heaven thrown into the package. You can eat your cake and still have it. You need both, or the equation won’t work. As one of the world’s top female televangelists said recently, ‘If God’s not going to work for you, then why serve him?’

The Enchantment of Theology

An area that requires a separate treatment, albeit a brief one, is that of theology. Is there any true theologian or student of Scripture that cannot identify with C. S. Lewis’ comments on doctrinal books being often more helpful in devotion than devotional books? As he puts it: ‘I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.’ (1985:30). Fundamentalists might frown about the pipe, but the principle remains true. Theology has an inherent enchantment that is unlike that of any other discipline, and I can barely imagine a professional life more perfect than one spent studying the thoughts of the great Christian minds of history.

Yet this is exactly what the Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer warns against in his Faith and Justification: ‘Theology is not a complex system constructed for their own entertainment by scholars in the quiet retreat of ivory towers. It must have significance for the unquiet times…’ (Cited in Lane 1984:182). Karl Barth, who also had a reputation for clenching a pipe between his teeth, warns against ‘scientific Eros’, namely Eros, as defined in the previous chapter, in intellectual form: ‘It is the soaring movement by which human knowledge lets itself be borne towards its object and hurries toward them in order to unite them with itself and itself with them, to bring them into its possession and power, and to enjoy them in this way…When scientific Eros evolves in the field of theology, it characteristically and continually confuses the object of theology with other objects. So far as Eros is the motive of theological work, God will not be loved and known for God’s sake, nor man for man’s sake. This situation can only explained by the nature of Eros: every attempt to love and know God and man is made in the quite conscious and deepest interests of the theologian himself, in the self-love of the one who produces this theology.’ (1963:198-199)

In a chapter with the telling title The D-minization of the Ministry, David F. Wells makes the following comments: ‘Insecure ministers who are stripped of importance hope to be elevated through professionalization to the same social standing as other professionals, such as physicians and lawyers. And the Doctor of Ministry degree (D. Min) is the principal tool that seminaries offer to achieve this parity.’ (Guinnes & Seel 1992:175-176). He adds: ‘…among those who have graduated with the degree, 78 percent said that they expected to be more respected in the community and 73 percent expected to be paid more. (p 180).

It is clear, therefore, that the study of God can serve as a substitute for God himself, and so as an idol. It is also clear that the Pharisee, especially, is highly vulnerable to the power of this idol. ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5:39, 40).

Theology as entertainment, theology as scholarship, theology as status, theology as a motivational tool, theology as a prosperity message; whatever the case may be, theology as anything but service and love unto God and others is toxic theology, and should be discarded like all waste.

The Bottom Line

This, then, is the heart of Pharisaism. It is the coveting of God and his things for the sake of self. It is religious utilitarianism, and it always includes the murder of the true God for the sake of setting up a counterfeit, fashioned to our image and likeness, behaving like we want him to. The basic problem of sin, as expressed in human covetousness, underlies the phenomenon of Pharisaism, and it gives rise to motives and intentions that are much discussed by psychologists but oftentimes ignored by theologians.

The irony of the Pharisee is that his effort to keep the law makes him blind to his impotence to do so. The tragedy of the Pharisee is that he exchanges the idols of the world for religious ones, without knowing it. And so, whilst appearing righteous on the outside, he is unrighteous within:

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness’ (Matt.23:25-28).

‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men …Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:6-8, 18-23)

The Heart of the Pharisee III

3 Covetousness: Roots, Nature and Cure

It is not only in the medical world that diagnosis precedes treatment. When we read the biographies of the saints, we are struck by the similarity between their conversion experiences and the New Testament pattern of conversion discussed in the previous chapter. ‘For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was Legion.’, writes C. S. Lewis’ in Surprised by Joy, commenting on the experience that drove him to his knees as ‘the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England’. (1955:181-182) I have chosen Lewis for his eloquence, but his testimony is by no means rare. Thousands upon thousands have experienced the overwhelming effects of their own depravity, leading them to call on the name of Christ.

If this Spirit induced self-diagnosis stands so central in the process of true conversion, and if it is so pivotal a distinction between the Pharisee and the Christian, then we dare not treat the subject lightly. The question that addresses itself to us is this: If so powerful a force, if so inherent to all lost souls, if so alien to true righteousness, if so intrinsic to Pharisaism, then what exactly is covetousness?

Covetousness as Compensation for Deprivation

The answer is not as complicated as we might think. It is because of dispossession that we seek to possess. Coveting is the fingerprint of the deprived person. It is compensating for loss. Coveting is taking revenge on a world that has robbed you. It is the fallen creature’s effort to fill the proverbial God-sized vacuum in his soul. As such coveting invariably leads to idolatry, to the breaking of the first commandment, with an idol being nothing but the covetous person’s object of desire – that which he believes can fill the vacuum on the inside; a false or counterfeit god, in other words. This is also how it is defined by Paul in Col. 3:5, where he calls covetousness ‘idolatry’.

The act of coveting is therefore based on a lie, namely that fulfillment is to be found in something other than God himself. As C. S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity: ‘What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could…invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.’ (Lewis 1952:50).

Contentment in Christ

In the light of the above, it becomes clear that for salvation to be truly salvation, the problem of covetousness must be resolved. If covetousness is the natural response of the person without God, then it should follow naturally that where God is found covetousness disappears. Put in another way: If the tenth commandment was designed by God to drive the sinner and the legalist to Christ, then the sinner and the legalist, once driven to Christ, should have the ability to keep the tenth commandment.

The question, therefore, is whether the man in Romans 8 can fare better in practice than the one in Romans 7. Is there any truth to the old Keswick maxim that we ought to ‘get out’ of chapter 7 and ‘into’ chapter 8, and so escape from the life of defeat? The answer is yes, and it has to do with the nature of the command broken in Romans 7, namely covetousness. As discussed, the morally ‘faultless’ man in Phil 3:4-6 became the spiritually defeated man in Romans 7. Yet, after his conversion and his new life described from verse 7 in Phil. 3, we read that contentment replaces covetousness: ‘I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…I can do everything through him who gives me strength.’ (4:12).

As pointed out, it is often thought that the belief that Romans 8 presents us with a life free from the defeat of Romans 7, is a pietistic and unrealistic one, tantamount to believing in sinner’s perfection. This, of course, is not the case. To understand this we need to understand that the command not to covet is one never kept by willpower or effort, the way we keep the first nine commandments. If it were, Paul and every sincere Pharisee would have been able to keep it. We can explain it by way of an analogy: Covetousness is an appetite. Like hunger, it cannot be stilled by choice or will. It requires a filling, and once this has happened the pains of emptiness disappears. If we are commanded not to hunger, then implicitly we are commanded to eat, and once we have done so we no longer are hungry, even if we try.

In the same way, contentment is what happens when the filling of God’s Holy Spirit does that which no other idol can do, so much so that covetousness is no longer given further thought. Augustine’s famous sentence captures the essence of this great truth: ‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’, and so do the words of David in Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.’

Such a filling changes the way a person looks at the world. Commenting on his conversion, Leo Tolstoy said: ‘I ceased to desire what I had previously desired, and began to desire what I formerly did not want. What had previously seemed to me good seemed evil, and what had seemed evil seemed good. It happened to me as it happens to a man who goes out on some business and on the way suddenly decides that the business is unnecessary and returns home. All that was on his right is now on his left, and all that was on his left is now on his right; his former wish to get as far as possible from home has changed into a wish to be as near as possible to it. The direction of my life and my desires became different, and good and evil changed places…’ (Baillie1955:Day 38).

With contentment comes a radical change in desires and motives, therefore, and a careful perusal of Romans 7 and Phil. 3 reveals, indeed, a striking contrast between the motives of Saul the Pharisee and Paul the Christian. In Rom. 7:18 the driving motive is: ‘I have the desire to do what is good…’, and in Phil. 3:10 it is: ‘I want to know Christ…’ The difference between these two wishes exemplifies to us the difference between the Pharisee and the Christian, and should be noted.

Contentment and Agape

It has been pointed out that the tenth commandment is a negative summary of the Old Testament law, intended firstly as an indicator of personal spiritual incapacity, and secondly as a pointer to Christ who does what is impossible for the law and the flesh. As a non-coveting person, therefore, the mark or fingerprint of the saved person becomes contentedness. If we were given a New Testament equivalent summary of the law, stated positively, we would therefore expect it to be: ‘You shall be content’, and we shall now see that it is exactly this, and more.

If covetousness is the desire to possess, then the opposite thereof, namely non-covetousness or contentedness, should not only be the desire not to possess, but a desire to give. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the previously discussed Matt. 19, where a man under the law is charged to overcome his covetousness by giving all his possessions to the poor. If covetousness is the mark of the unsaved man, then an unconditional giving from a position of utter contentment is the mark of the saved person, and we shall now see how the great commandments of love for God and love for neighbour, contained in and revealed by the Greek term Agape, fulfills this function.

Agape is a concept so foreign to the depraved man that God arranged his whole plan of salvation around a grand display thereof so as to reveal to us what is meant by it. Being the God of utter contentment – the non-covetous God who has no need of anything – he gave from his contentment solely for the sake of the other: Not to possess, not to fulfill unmet desires, not because of any ulterior motives, but gratis and free. And then, after this magnificent display of Agape, he charged us: Go and do likewise.

It is because of contentedness that Christians can love, the reason being that theirs is a love that requires nothing, for it has already gained all things. The love of this world is the love of Eros: A love fueled by desire. It is willing to give because it expects to receive. It is driven by a goal, by a destination, and it can only be kept alive as long as the dream remains. Christian love is different. It dreams of nothing, and that is why it is eternal and unconditional. It cannot be disappointed, for it expects nothing, and it expects nothing because it has all things.

A person who still covets is a person who cannot love as God has loved, for God loves from a position of contentment, not of need. His is a love that is free, not one of compulsion, and he expects us to love in the same manner. True love, therefore, is only to be found on the other side of the cross. Like faith and hope, love is exalted above every single occurrence in this world. It is free, the fruit of choice and not of need. Like faith and hope, love cannot be touched by torture, pain or death. It is free, and like faith and hope it will remain when all other things disappear. The reason for this is simple: Like faith and hope, love is the fruit of contentedness. It reaches down, not up. Like faith and hope, it is an expression of rest, for the work is finished.

Eros as Lack of Contentment

The Eros of Plato’s teaching is the very antithesis of this love. In Barth’s words: ‘Love, as Eros, is, in general terms, the primordially powerful desire, urge, impulse, and endeavor by which a created being seeks his own self-assertion, satisfaction, realization, and fulfillment in his relation to something else. He strives to draw near to this other person or thing, to win it for himself, to take it to himself, and to make it his own as clearly and definitively as possible.’ (1963:197). About Agape he says: ‘In Agape, however, the one who loves never understands the origin of his search as a demand inherent within himself, but always as an entirely new freedom for the other one… And because he is free for him, he does not seek him as though he needed him for himself as a means to his self-assertion and self-fulfillment…. He loves him gratis. That is to say, he desires nothing from him, and he does not wish to be rewarded by him.’ (1963:201).

As such, contentedness expressed in Agape becomes the distinguishing mark of the true Christian. It is this, more than anything else, that separates the believer from the unbeliever, the Christian from the Pharisee. It is the sign that all worldly striving has ceased, and that the chasm between the ninth and tenth commandment has been bridged successfully. It is the only gain promised by the Bible (1 Tim. 6:6), and it is perfectly accessible to all, because it has to do with wanting less, not with having more.

Implicit in the two greatest commandments, therefore, is the command not to covet. Quoting Matt. 22:37 and 39, Francis Schaeffer writes in True Spirituality: ‘Coveting is the negative side of the positive commands…We must see that to love God with all the heart, mind and soul is not to covet against God; and to love man, to love our neighbour as ourselves, is not to covet against man.’ (1982:204).

It requires mere simple mathematics to draw the above insights to their logical conclusion. The covetous religious man in Romans 7, the Pharisee, is someone who cannot fulfill the great commandment of Agape. Of course one can only imagine the kind of protest that such a statement would draw from non-Christian religious quarters, and especially from the Jewish fraternity. After all, they had Lev. 19:18 long before the concept of Christian love was birthed, and as a command it occupied an important position in their faith. It should be noted, however, that Jesus’ strange words in John 13:34 ‘A new command I give you: Love one another.’, does not appear so strange when read with the qualifying ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ Put another way: The love of Christ is so vastly different and infinitely richer than the love commanded in Lev. 19:18, that it is called a ‘new’, and so a totally different command. This also explains the towering presence in the New Testament of an obscure Greek word that was hardly ever used before then, and devoid of meaning until Christ came and gave content to it. Agape replaced Eros in the New Covenant, and the two are worlds apart. As Barth put it: ‘Agape is related to Eros, as Mozart to Beethoven. How can they possibly be confused?’ (1963:201).

Contentment as an Antidote for Loving the World

If we do not understand the above, we can never understand what is meant by passages such as 1 John 2:15-17: ‘Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives for ever.’ Neither would we understand a number of Jesus’ statements: ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. ‘ (Luk. 12:15); ‘…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Luke 12:34); ‘…any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’ (Luk. 14:33).

These commands are not intended as the rigorist rules of the monastery, nor as bargaining tools for negotiating salvation, but rather describe the natural outflow of the soul who has found contentment in God, who needs nothing else, and who gives even what he has. The Christian story is that of a hungry man who has been to a great banquet, and, who being thankful and no longer blinded by hunger, desires to invite others to the meal. As such these ‘commands’ of the New Testament are descriptions of the nourished man, rather than road signs pointing to a diner. The Pharisee, on the other hand, is a starving man who is too proud to acknowledge the fact, who imitates the nourished man in a desperate effort to hide his starvation, but who is attracted to every garbage can in the process – driven by the burning emptiness on his stomach. The great pretense of the Pharisee is his pretense of not being starved.

In understanding the above, we also understand what is meant by the statement ‘Christ is the end of the law’ (Rom. 10:4). The law, of course, was not just given to bring the universal problem of covetousness to our attention, but also to temporary curb the devastating effects of covetousness, namely stealing, murder, adultery, and so on, or, to use our analogy: to protect the starving from poisonous scraps. In this sense we were ‘held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.’ (Gal. 3:23). It is obvious then that the law, being designed for the starving man, no longer applies in the same way to the nourished man. He keeps the law all by himself, for reasons already mentioned, and so the law is fulfilled in his life.

Contentment and Motivation

Is Christian Contentment the Opiate of the Church?

A common accusation that is often leveled at Christianity is that of it being a ‘pie in the sky’ religion. Christians’ heavenly mindedness leads to no earthly good, we often hear, and Marx, following Feuerbach, has been more frequently quoted for his ‘opiate of the people’ line than anything else he had said.

The philosophy behind such statements is clear to see: Contentment, when taken too far, becomes dangerous. Where a person is robbed of an earthly goal, a certain fatalism and passivity sets in, replacing former motivation. In a sense it is this philosophy that underlies the argument taken up by Paul in Rom 6:1: ‘What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?’ In other words, once we are no longer motivated by the prospect of earning God’s favour through the doing of good deeds, why should we do good deeds? It is an important question, and relevant to us as it represents the typical question asked by the Jewish religious person and Pharisee, trying to come to terms with the implications of the covenant of grace, and fearing the implications of letting go of the control of the law.

The question is also relevant as the worldview set out in the previous pages are rejected by many as too idealistic to be practical. Once we turn around like Leo Tolstoy, where do we go, what do we do, and why do we do it? Can a world without Eros survive? If Christianity strips us from ambition, then what remains? Are we doomed to a monastic life? Do we then fit Marx’s description of a drug addict experiencing another world whilst oblivious to this one?

These questions are not addressed often enough, and certainly not always answered as they should be, especially in the culture we live in. As they don’t fall in the main scope of these articles, they cannot be discussed in great depth. Yet a few comments are necessary as they do represent an important difference between the motives of the Pharisee and the motives of the Christian.

Four Post-resurrection Motivators for the Christian

In the first place: Paul’s answer to the question in Romans 6:1 provides us with a startling insight. He points to the cross and our co-death with Christ, and to the power of the new resurrection life in Christ. We are given a new raison d’etre through these events, brought about by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whatever we now do, whether in word or in deed, we ‘do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ (Gal. 3:17), ‘as working for the Lord, not for men…’ (v. 23), and ‘struggling with all his energy, he so powerfully works in us’ (Col. 1:29).

Secondly, thanksgiving is mentioned above as a component of the new life, and, as a motivation, is found and commanded throughout the New Testament (Eph. 5:20, Phil. 4:6, Col. 3:15, 1 Thess. 5:18, etc.), and even prescribed as an antidote to covetousness (Eph. 5:3,4). The reason is clear to see: One does not give thanks except as a response to something received. As the obvious fruit of contentedness, we need not say anything more about thanksgiving.

Thirdly, we are driven and motivated by love, as discussed earlier. The motive of the Christian is love, and every deed done by the Christian is, and should be, done because of love, as pointed out in the classic opening verses of 1 Cor. 13, where we read that all the great religious deeds are done in vain if not because of love.

In the fourth place, we are motivated by the hope of the resurrection and future reward in heaven (Phil. 3:20-21, Rom. 8:17-25, Jas. 1:12, 1 Pet. 1:3-5, etc.). As this is a motivation that appears to be suggestively close to covetousness, and also one that is found in other religions like Islam, questions may be asked about its legitimacy as a spiritual and post-Eros motivation. Also, its apparent lack of spirituality is further enhanced by the fairly general knowledge that humans have a strong psychological need of a future goal; an ‘axial point’ as Karl Jaspers called it, and referred to by Victor Frankl as follows: ‘It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future…And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence’ (l959:115).

Indeed we are promised reward, and indeed we deal here with an issue that seems to challenge the main thesis of these articles, namely that the contrast between Pharisaism and authentic Christianity is the very contrast between covetousness and contentment, between Eros and Agape, between narcissism and selflessness, between gaining and giving, between being served and serving. Indeed it would appear that here we find evidence that Christianity is just another form of wish fulfillment, an ‘illusion invented to meet personal needs’ as Freud believed, and as such on the same par as all the idols and philosophies of this world.

The problem seems insurmountable when we consider how the gospel is often preached nowadays. Armed with the parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:44-46) we incite the masses to swop earthly reward for heavenly treasure, believing that we are guiding them from carnality to spirituality, when in fact we are not. We still appeal to the old covetous nature, preaching godliness as gain, and creating more Pharisees than true believers.

The question we need to ask is this: What exactly is this treasure, if not the ability to become moral, if not the resurrection and ensuing eternal life, if not streets of gold and a mansion in heaven, if not happiness and peace? The answer is not as difficult as it seems. The treasure is Christ. He, and he alone, is the goal of salvation. He is the treasure in the field, he is the pearl of great price. Oftentimes, like foolish children, we ask ‘What will heaven be like, and what will be our reward?’, stubbornly forgetting that he is our reward. To think in terms of a celestial copy of this world is to misunderstand both heaven and the gospel. If we can manage to look past the streets of gold and the mansions, we will see the overriding metaphor employed by God to reveal to us the secret of heaven, is that of a marriage. It is the ultimate union between God and man, with all the romances of history being nothing but prophetic dreams. And, like all true romances, the confession that accompanies it is ‘I don’t care where we live, as long as we can be together.’

Needless to say, the bride who is excited by the marriage prospect because of the fringe benefits thereof, should not be called a bride but a prostitute. The prostitute is often contrasted with the true bride in Scripture, for instance in Rev. 17 and 19, and the difference between them is not hard to figure out: The prostitute is the one who engages in an act of intimacy for the sake of selfish gain, and the true bride is the one who loves because of the lover.

So then, the driving force between the fourth motivator, behind our hope of heaven, is also Agape. It is nothing but the desire to consummate the relationship between us and Christ, and so strong a desire it is that it overrides all human ambition. As a matter of fact, without it we cannot understand the apparent paradox between the words of Christ in Matt. 11:30, where he refers to his yoke as easy and his burden as light, and that of Matt. 7:14, where he calls the road that leads to life narrow, with only a few finding it. The problem is resolved by Agape, which makes the greatest burden seem like nothing. Perhaps nothing describes it quite like the well known confession of love: ‘I will climb the highest mountain, I will swim the deepest river, with a song on my lips and a rose between my teeth…’

Our one and only motivation, then, can be summarised as that of Agape – Agape towards God, flowing over into Agape for our neighbour, and manifesting itself as a powerful driving force from within, an overwhelming sense of contentedness and thanksgiving, and a powerful vision of eternal union with our loved one.

In conclusion, let it be stated that if these motivations appear precariously weak as the driving forces behind both our Christianity and our lives in this world, and also poor as a substitute for the ambitions of this world, then it is only because we are unaccustomed to the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the power of love, the joy of contentedness, and the reality of the coming age and our union with him.