More About Arthur C. McGill, Charles A. Wilson & Per M. Anderson
Arthur C. McGill was the Bussey Professor of Theology at Harvard Divinity School. A distinguished philosopher and theologian, he also taught at Amherst College, Wesleyan University, and Princeton Univeristy.
Reviews - What do customers think about Death and Life: An American Theology?
Worth Any Christian's Time Jun 20, 2007
Arthur McGill is a relative unknown in American theology.
His works have mostly been consigned to the "out-of-print" stacks. A quick Google search for "Arthur McGill" turns up only 1700 results, while Google Scholar weighs in at a whopping 47 and Google blogsearch turns up 7 results, 5 of which don't have to do with the author.
Imprecise measurements of a person's relative popularity, to be sure, but indicative nonetheless. McGill is firmly lodged in the back of the theology closets, piled behind tomes better known thinkers.
But popularity is no indicator of value, and in Death and Life: An American Theology, Arthur McGill has composed a gem that is worth serious reflection by theologians and laypersons alike.
This relatively short work--95 pages--is broken into two parts. In the first, McGill analyzes America's attitudes toward death, where death means not the biological end of man, but rather the "losing of life, that wearing away which goes on all the time." In the second, he articulates what he takes to be the Biblical understanding of death in this broader sense. Throughout, he is poetic and provocative as he works to tease out how American Christianity has been co-opted by a secular view of death and the resurrection.
His first section, while interesting, is simultaneously stimulating and problematic. He argues that the American view of "life" means "having." It is "always optimistic, always affirmative." Death is, in this sense, a disruption, a mangling of the normal. Poverty, sickness, disease and unanswered needs are abnormal and accidental. Wealth is a fundamental state of mind, not simply a fact. As a result, we work hard to become what McGill calls "the bronze people," people who maintain the appearance of life without having the substance of it. In doing so, we avoid the fundamental reality of sin and pain, a reality that is "intolerable." "The world is awful," writes McGill, "but Americans do not usually say so."
McGill is almost right on this point. Reality is not awful--goodness is. It is goodness that we hate and avoid, a tactic which drives us to believe that the perversion is the deepest reality when it is still a perversion. The world is not awful--it is good, but the sort of good that is demands the redemption and defeat of sin. Sin is the lesser reality--goodness the higher.
While equally provocative, McGill's second section is somewhat more successful. Despite continuing his error of making sin "a matter...of our basic identity," McGill demonstrates how Jesus' identity comes from outside of himself and how as Christians, we must "die" and discover that our identity comes from outside of ourselves, from God. We must let go of the "tecnique of having," of possessing ourselves and cultivate a posture of gratitude and acknowledgment that our being is in God, not in us.
What compels us to possess ourselves, our possessions and our relationships? The fear of death, in which we refuse to acknowledge that all that we have is God's, not ours. This fear of death is conquered in the resurrection which "discredits one fearful possibility--that perhaps there is some fatality in the world, or some historical agency, some cosmic necessity or some other power which will disengage us from God's constituing love, which will establish itself as the source of our identiy, and which will thus give us an identity that will be marked by loss, disintegration, and death."
What does having an "ecstatic identity" look like? For one, it is a position of worship to the Father. Because the Father "engenders and communicates life," He is worthy of worship. It is in the death of Jesus that the Father is glorified. John 15:8 claims that the Father is glorified by the bearing of "fruit," which is what happens when Jesus dies on the cross. It is as a result of this self-giving act that Jesus is to be worshipped. When we acknowledge our own position of dependance and need, then we are prepared to worship the Father and the Son, whose "identity does not depend on and does not consist in the life which he holds onto and the life which he offers....Without detriment to his true self, [Jesus] can give away everything of himself."
It is at this point that McGill demonstrates how the message of Scripture is in tension with the spirit of our age. If we are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we must give out of our abundance to the point where we too are in need, as it is in his position of need and dependance that the Son glorifies the Father and the Father glorifies the Son. In perhaps the most personally challenging part of McGill's work, he argues that the love of neighbor demands the impoverishment of ourselves--that we have more in order to give more away, even to the point of poverty.
McGill's work is never perfect--he is at points repetitive and at other points obscure. His notion of "reality" could be improved significantly by the resources of Augustinian or Thomistic thought. At points I wanted him to be more clear in his writing. But the subtitle "An American Theology" perfectly captures is project in this work. By setting his theologizing in the context of American beliefs and values, he attempts to convict the reader as much as instruct. In this, he is highly successful.
McGill's work seems to be forgotten, but it should not be. By approaching Christianity and our culture through the lens of death, he is able to drive beneath the surface of our lives to the heart of our fears, our desires and our actions. Death and Life: An American Theologyis 95 pages of theologizing that is worth any Christian's time.
A tantalizing peak at a new ontology of compassion and reception Feb 11, 2006
If there is anything negative to say about this book it is its length, which is just long enough to tantalize without fully going into a system of analysis. As the other reviewers have already noted, McGill critiques traditional metaphysics that understand life and being as essentially "persistance," or form (eidos). In fact, though not explicitly mentioned, McGill thinks that systems of metaphysics or ontology that are set up a priori and then used to analyze the cross always come up empty. And rightly so, because if the Christian system is correct, then the magnitude of the ontology of the Cross shows that if "existence" or "man" or "God," are to mean anything, they will only mean what they mean in relation to this event. So that, while we may take a traditional stance and attempt to ontologize the cross with it, if the cross and the crucifixion are true, then they will modify the traditional conception.
This is indeed the result that McGill sees. He doesnt consider "being," or "life," as persistance, or inherently opposed to death, but rather all forms of existence include death within them. That is to say, my existence in relation to God is continual only becuase I continue to recieve myself from God at every moment (what McGill and others like Pannenberg term ek-stasis or ecstatic relationality, essentially recieving onesself from outside the self from others) In fact, the ultimate irony is if I attempt to procure security for my continued existence I break the cycle of continual recieving, and so ironically in an attempt of self-preservation, I have eliminated the very possibility.
McGill takes this conclusion from Christ's life, seeing in Christ's self-consciousness not conciousness of himself per se, but immediately of the Father, so that in knowing Himself He knows immediately God. Christ then comes to die (McGill adopts the Johannine Christic quotation that a seed must die to bare fruit) peacefully giving himself, so the essential power and life of God is in self giving/self-recieving to communicate and engender life. Hence the very basis of self-identity is self-dispossession and constant recieving, rather than hypostatically contained being.
McGill contrasts this to what he calls "The Bronze People," namely those in society who attempt frantically for perpetual youth through beauty products. In this instance McGill rightly notes that the irony of this position is that it is inherently negative rather than positive. What he means by that is "perpetual youth," is not so much a positive attribute (i.e. being actually perpetually young) as much as it is a deliberate self-deception and avoidance.
In fact, this frames what McGill sees as the technique of "having," and the method of "avoidance," that is, when problems arise we attempt to secure our identity against change by taking into our posession goods and things and skills that we have "power," over and so may cope with disaster. Hence part of our consumer ethos is undeniably based upon a type of anxiety that seeks identity as self-posession or inherent wealth (McGill disturbingly notes the economic metaphores that go along even with love, e.g. I must "attract," someone, that is, I must have inherent wealth to be attractive to them) This is, of course, disasterous that we even teach our children that failure is merely incidental rather than essential, so that they themselves engender this idea of trying harder to achieve sucess, or knowledge, or whatever object/idea may be utilized to guard against failure and death.
Even further, he traces an conceptual path that links two commonly held and represented notions of death: 1.) that death itself is a type of hypostasis, that is an entity, obscure and cryptic, that kills and strikes at us, he terms this the "demonic," view of death. Secondly, it seems taking a cue from Niel Postman's "Amuzing Ourselves to Death," that the 2.) view is that death is represented (especialyl by the media) as inherently unexpected and unnatural (hence the bronze peoples strive to avoid perpetual signs of decay...it is telling how plastic surgery, cosmetics, and fashion are at an all time high. Not necessarily that these are bad in themselves or generally, merely that they reflect a certain socio-economic belief system.)
Briefly, I did have some problems with this book. Firstly, as another reviewer poited out, McGill's analyses of the Bronze People is not entirely convincing, and it seems to certain extents that McGill is almost deluding himself as to the actual intensity of his descriptions of this ignorance of death's inherent part of life. This may or may not be due to the fact that it was written almost twenty years ago (at least the original essays) and so media conceptions of death, with 9/11, and the many tsunamis and hurricanes, that death is now becoming more of a regularity in life. There could be other sociological factors as well, but the main point is, is that despite the profundity of the analysis, it must be taken with a grain of salt.
My second criticism is (although based on a minute portion of his book) based upon what almost seems to be a critique of the church's buying into this idea of "avoidance," that the marks of death should be removed and resisted from situations where they are present. Now, in light of the rest of McGill's argument,s this does make some sense, and the church (viz a viz McGills understanding of being and life) should approach other need not with a position of faux "un-neediness" that is, as an entity with all the answers, but rather with humility and expression of its humble need. That said, McGill's criticism is ambiguous at best, and I for one had trouble with mcGill's conception of just what the church should look like. Should we not erase signs of decay? Should we not engender some inherent value? Does not now Christ and His Spirit dwell in us so that despite our neediness we now have a center of inherent value that at the same time is constantly recieived?
This brings me to my third criticism. It seems that McGill has somewhat overstated his position on ecstatic identity, that is constantly recieving ourselves from another. This is, of course, a brilliant theory when taken moderately. However there are certain times when McGill seems to have the person devolve into merely a passive relation of need.
It seems implausible on many grounds that we merely constantly recieve ourselves from God because just who is recieving if the act of recieving is the full extent of our identity? Do we not have to precede this giving to some extent in order to recieve at all? McGill's implicit answer is that since God so irreducibly precedes us that His act of Giving posits us as a being that recieves, so that we would not have to precede the constant act of recieving because our priority over recieving is itself gift that cannot be preceded. This is an acceptable answer that both respects the priority of the person (which must exist to receive, and so doesn't dissolve into the relation itself) while also maintaining the idea of reception and gift (in that our preceding is itself a creation and gift of God as a positing of identity itself), but it then brings up the problem that if our very existence is described as gift in this sense, one has to wonder why merely existing as the identity given (which McGill would reject as a form of concupiscence) is not then a form of receiving? Why, if the basic underlying core of our identity is gift, should not the living of this identity be reception of the gift so that no further reception is needed?
Again, these questions are implicitly answered by McGill's understanding of the crucifixion, that the only true response to gift is not acceptance and self posession of the gift, but rather, taking a cue from Jesus steadfastly setting Himself towards the cross, that the very act of recieving reorients our awareness of identity into a constant recieiving from the gift giver. How radically this would alter how we deal with eachother! That in recieving from someone, this does not nullify my neediness to that person, but sets up continual and repeated neediness to them, and vice versa, those who recieve from me now constantly receive. This on the surface sounds like a violent system of dependency that many Feminists and Marxists would dismiss as empty and inherently moving towards hegemony and struggle. But the beauty of the system is that it basis itself not on our strength (which would indeed lead to hegemony) but on the constant reception of Christ's love, so that our neediness and constant reliance upon eachother is a function of our reliance upon the ultimate Source. So what then is exactly my compaint to McGill? It is that I had to extract this argument, that it, while in some areas a glimmer of its light shines forth, for the most part is vaguely implicit (more explicit in the last chapter, but nonetheless...)
The same criticism is level at his explanation of Jesus' self consciousness being outside of himself. Again I understand and wholly support what McGills apparent intentions were, that we should not draw a boundary around ourselve and label everything else "not me," but rather, "I am by virtue of a constant recieving. My "I am" exists by virtue of a recieving that constantly comes from beyond myself." But nonetheless McGill doesn't outline how this applies to the Father? Is the Father in Himself ultimate source and so the ultimate giver of gifts while Himself being un-needy? Again, the implicit answer given by McGill is that the Father makes Himself dependant on the Son, and so in Giving the SOn the gift of the SPirit, the Father is now reliant upon the Son giving the gift back through a new cycle of dependance that culminates in the cross. But again this is speculative as McGill doesn't go into it.
These are small complaints however, and McGill should be applauded for his enormous contributions. I can only hope that this line of thinking is taken seriously in the coming theological discussions. For more detail on McGill's thought, I recommend his "Suffering, a Test of Theological Method."
A Very Good Little Book May 10, 2005
This book is absolutely amazing, as the other reviewers have already pointed out. I would like to add that the book is a pretty easy read and does not require a great deal of prerequisite theological knowledge, so it is accessible even to new explorers of the Christian faith. That doesn't mean it sacrifices content; the book offers fresh insights for even the well-educated Christian.
My one problem with the book is that the argument for his diagnosis of what he calls the "bronze people" is somewhat weak and not entirely convincing. The second part of the book, however, where he begins to discuss the idea of a decentralized and dispossed identity, is very good and makes up for all the deficiencies in the first part.
This book offers fresh ways to think about the nature of sin, worship, atonement, and other concepts central to the Christian faith. I only wish that someone would expand on the ideas presented here.
There is nothing else out there like this book! Aug 30, 2004
This thin book is packed with unique insights about how American society "worships death" by giving death and growing old the ultimate power over almost everything we do. McGill argues that we must live from an "ecstatic identity," receiving all as gift and grace, even suffering and death. He writes this book like a novel, with multiple references to pop culture and literature to make his point. One of the best, most challenging theology books I have ever read for a general population. Enjoy!