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.