Skip to content

Death, Martyrdom and the End of Words

I like words.  No, I love words.  I confess that I especially love theological words that I can often italicize, either because I like to emphasize them or (even better), because they are Greek or Latin words, the mere transcribing of which lends credibility to any argument.  Ekstasis, perichoresis, hypostasis, circumincessio, logos incarnandus, unio mystica, kenosis, plerosis, prolepsis, eschatos, koinonia, visio dei and other such fabulous words and phrases are ones that I want to throw into my writing whenever possible.  And I will continue to do so.

However, I would like to suggest that often the mere use of powerful words from our tradition can serve as a way of doing little more than playing a theological role-playing game in which we pretty much just talk a lot of shit without saying anything real.  To say it differently, and with more ironic flair, we often spend all our time doing “ontology” without even wondering about what our musings about the nature of being have to say about who or how we ourselves must be.

Many theologians who have drank from the patristic wells have seen how the Christian naming of Jesus as God, and the doctrine of the Trinity constitute a radical interruption in the history of metaphysics which is incredibly subversive.  To say that life is victorious over death is the to basically crush the larxnx of the entire world’s intellectual history under your boot in one fell swoop.  If Jesus’ resurrection, rather than our inevitable deaths are the true outcome of the world and all human stories, then everything is different.  It is a claim that literally destroys everything we’ve ever thought about the world and resurrects something entirely new in its place.  If life, rather than death is determinative of the being of the world then, quite literally everything is made new.

However, we’re often able to say such things in ways that are so boring and utterly suspect because of the way in which we ultimately fear what it might mean if our radically Christian view of the world might be true.  Do we dare live as if life rather than death will finally triumph?  And not just finally, but now, in my life and in my concrete comings and goings?  The simple fact of the matter is that the wider wisdom of the world constrains our lives in ways that are far to manifold to count.  We live as though self-protection is, at the end of the day, really how things must be done if we’re to really live.  Oh, sure we still play our linguistic role-playing games, and say stuff like “being is ek-static” or “personhood is realized in communio”, but such statements are really just words that are thrown out by a bunch of people who live their lives pretty much on the basis of the “denial of death.”

I intend to malign no one except for myself.  The point I am making is simply this: our ontologies don’t matter unless they are embodied in our lives.  The problem with doing a radically Christian ontology is not that it isn’t possible or that no such radical ontology exists, the problem is that we’re not able to live with the results.  If we truly believe that the resurrection rather than death is the last word about life, that means that we’re going to have to live as if death does not matter.  And we’re just not quite ready to swallow that.  Can we really live in a way that bears witness to our confession that life is more powerful than death.  Can our ontology be an ontology of martyrdom?

The thing is, most of us won’t because if we do then we have to die.  And death, despite our claims and italicized words is pretty much still sovereign over our imaginations.  If I were to state what I think it takes to be a truly great theologian, it would probably be something along the lines of “One who practices the rationality of the martyrs.”  The question for us is whether or not that is a rationality we are willing to follow to the end.


  1. Hill wrote:

    Right on. I’m glad to see the subject of martyrdom taken up here, as it is something that has encroached upon my consciousness recently, mainly as I revisited some of Cavanaugh’s writings and reflected initially on the life of Oscar Romero and then the great martyrs of the Church throughout history. Truly an overwhelming thing to consider, martyrdom, that is.

    Take a look at this article by Cavanaugh entitled “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed By It? Romero’s Challenge to First-World Christians.” It confronts the issue of martyrdom in the modern world in a refreshing and compelling way:

    Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden,

    I really enjoyed this post. A little self deprecation on using fancy words mixed with a bold challenge to live as if the Resurrection really did define our being. This is good stuff.

    Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 9:30 pm | Permalink
  3. Drew wrote:

    I have been thinking along these lines a bit lately. It is not just living “as if death does not matter”, but first accepting death as a natural progression of life as we know it and embracing it as a gift. I do think that especially in Western ideas there is a tendency to avoid death rather than embrace it as many other cultures do. But it is by embracing nothingness that we understand what resurrection truly means. And it is through resurrection that we understand the fullness of living. And my distaste with much theology is that it seems to almost purposefully ignore the pragmatic issue of actually living the doctrines that are articulated by such … words.

    Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  4. andrew wrote:

    this is meditation, as i understand it, is pretty spot on. i live a romanticized life as a ‘student of theology’ with little recourse between learning and living. that’s what makes the likes of barth and von balthasar so compelling. barth really did believe there is something radically different, hence his own romanticized mythos. balthasar, too, had gone out of his way to make sure that his aesthetic vision was understood in connection with his actual experience of the world and his faith as such. the closest i have come to that experience of late is the ‘lived experience’ of reading balthasar.
    but, in marginal defense, i do live in minnesota and it is -1 degree outside today. there is little ‘living’ to be done in weather so ferocious.

    Friday, January 18, 2008 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  5. roflyer wrote:

    Truly inspiring, Halden. The question comes down to this: can we believe that Christ really conquered the greatest evil, that is, death?
    If we believe this we can truly love the other freely without fear or reservation that all will finally end in separation. Yet, we can continue to believe that death still separates and so we mourn. What does this mean for how we mourn the death of others?

    Friday, January 18, 2008 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  6. michael wrote:

    Chris Huebner makes the same point pretty much in his book on ‘The Precariousness of Peace’, and it’s a good one.

    Friday, January 18, 2008 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  7. WmPaul wrote:

    Well, great. Go read the famous theologians in the 20th century who have offered depictions of the Christian Life in terms that are strongly keyed or maximally oriented, let’s say, to the Resurrection–notably Barth, Jungel, and von Balthasar, and Tom Torrance, I guess–and then go read the criticisms of those thinkers. One of the key questions is how to do justice to the reality of death–even if it is not the final word–as experienced. The thinkers above certainly bear a family resemblance, a theological community of sorts, but approach the death-in-light-of-the-resurrection differently.

    Friday, January 18, 2008 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Hello, Paul. I have in fact read extensively in all the thinkers you mention, and plenty of critiques. I suppose if you have any sort of actual bone to pick with what I said, I’d ask for you to make that plain, rather than simply implying that I’m not well-read, when any perusal of my previous posts would show you otherwise.

    Friday, January 18, 2008 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  9. WmPaul wrote:

    No such implication intended. Just wonder what implications—or anthropological correspondences– to the hope and assurance of the resurrection you envisdion beyond avoiding being paralyzed by the fear of death.

    I think bearing witness is a, if not the, fundamental category of discipleship and think bearing witness to the resurrection is at the heart of the Christian Life as set out by the NT. I’d call it an ethic or mode of response, not so much an ontology, tho’ one might include it within an ontology or theological anthropology.

    For those of us who have drunk deeply (and happily) from the wells of Paul and Barth,to name two thinkers, major questions arise about how one does justice to sin (a surpassed reality for Barth–and what does that mean?) and to death in all its materiality and finality (even if it is a penultimate finality–and what does that mean?).

    The question might be posed “Is there such a thing as being overconfident in, or too keyed to the resurrection, so that death is not given it’s due in our descriptions and understandings of the human predicament?” Or, “Exactly what kind of confidence do we find in the New Testament in the resurrection, and can there be an overconfidence?” Paul speaks of being “sorrowful, yet rejoicing.” Some theologians in my list in the previous post, have been accused of lopping off the first part of that. Others have been accused of acknowledging death rhetorically but not, not really, substantially. A criticism levelled at Barth is that he does not due justice to the substantiality of creation and the reality of sin and death. I am not saying I accept that criticism lock stock and barrel. But I do think there is a great danger in the, let’s say, daily talk of the church, our common parlance, of getting the tone and content of our resurrection talk wrong.

    Because I want to order my life, and my thought as tightly to the resurrection as possible, and am therefore in fundamental agreement with you, I have no ‘bone to pick.’ I think we are underserved in the Church on the whole because not enough thinkers and priests think about or speak about eschatology and ethics.

    But, to push you and readers further along, let’s just say that when you write

    “If we truly believe that the resurrection rather than death is the last word about life, that means that we’re going to have to live as if death does not matter”

    the last phrase is a little incautious. The question is, “Well, hang on. In what way does death matter?” Death has been changed, but it has not been evacuated of its felt finality, its tragedy, its grief, and more, has it?” God hasn’t erased death, even if it’s absolute sting has been removed.

    Dealing with the relationship between the ultimate and the penultimate is difficult for me in many areas in the Christian Life and in this one especially.

    Friday, January 18, 2008 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for the clarification, Paul. I don’t know if my latest post on “Basic Ontology” might make some things more clear, but if not I hope that such things will become clear in future posts. I do at least see what you’re saying now.

    Friday, January 18, 2008 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site