Bare Life

The Bare Life of the Slave

I’ve been rereading a small but rich book called “The Agony of Eros” by Byung-Chul Han, and a certain passage jumped out at me so much that I wanted to share it here:

Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave describes the battle for life and death. The party who emerges as master does not fear death. The desire for freedom, recognition, and sovereignty raises the master above concern for bare life. It is fear of dying that induces the future slave to subordinate himself to the Other. Preferring servitude to the threat of death, the slave clings to bare life. Physical superiority does not determine the outcome of the struggle. Instead, what proves to be decisive is the “ability to die,” or a capacity for death. Those who do not have freedom unto death (Freiheit zum Tod) do not risk their life. Instead of “following through to the point of death” (mit sich selbst bis auf den Tod zu gehen), they remain “standing alone within death” (an sich selbst innerhalb des Todes stehen). The slave does not venture as far as death, and therefore becomes a vassal who labors.

Byung-Chul Han, The Agony of Eros, page 19

The Law as Slavery

Dependence on acceptance based on the sentence of the “big L” Law of scripture, or of the “little l” law of the conscience, or of the easily apprehended gaze of justice, or of the opinions of others (including the condemning idol of a “God” of the conscience), constitutes bare life. It is focused like a laser on the binary judgment: “accepted” or “rejected.” It concerns primarily the issue of judgment and salvation. It is the “yes” or “no” of the wedding proposal, but not the life and romance and erotic play of lovers. It is devoid of the eros of the Spirit. An unwillingness to truly let go of the bare life of the law which leads only to survival confines us to slavery.

However, this proves difficult because one must abandon the safety of doing well, and enter into trusting the grace and love of One whom we do not and cannot control. Under the rubric of grace, life becomes one “arise Peter, kill and eat” (Acts 10:13-15) moment after another. We can only enter into the eros of faith when we abandon the law all the way to the point of death. As we give up the binary telos of “ought” we enter into the multicolored grace (Ephesians 3:10) of being justified and loved. As Paul says in many places in many different ways, through Christ we die to the law and live to Christ (Galatians 2:19). We leave behind bare life religion and enter into the eros of grace.

Willingness to Die to the Law

I am more and more convinced that this death to the law is the sense in which we take up our cross and follow Christ. We give up the bare life security of clear rules for conditional acceptance, and enter into a celebration of the hope of awestruck lingering eternal beauty and play.

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we also have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we celebrate in hope of the glory of God. Rom 5:1-2 NASB20

Our Ideals Must Kill Us

And so we are asked to abandon all hope and all life in our dependence on any form of law. From the two big loves of God and fellow humans, to the 10 commandments, to the general desire to simply be a good person – we abandon it all. We say, wretched man that I am (Romans 7:24) with no hope of repentance or change. We follow through with our thirst for love and truth and morals to the point of death. We let our ideals completely kill us (Galatians 2:19). We say, I can only accept perfection – perfect love, perfect beauty, perfect morals, perfect romance, perfect career, perfect obedience. Nothing mediocre, nothing unholy, nothing stale and lacking in passion will suffice. We come to this conclusion with Paul:

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. 1Co 6:12

Able to Not Be Able

And so abandoning trust in ourselves to adhere to our own desperate standards, we die, and this willingness to die becomes paradoxically our very life. This willingness to utterly despair of ourselves, to stop clinging to the bare life of the law, to die to our old life and our old self, and in trust in the eros of the savior for us, is the actual root of what the Christian faith really is. As Han says:

Eros is a relationship to the Other situated beyond achievement, performance, and ability. Being able not to be able (Nicht Können-Können) represents its negative counterpart. The negativity of otherness – that is, the atopia of the Other, which eludes all ability – is constitutive of erotic experience: “The other bears alterity as an essence. And this is why we have sought this alterity in the absolutely original relationship of eros, a relationship that is impossible to translate into powers.” Absolutizing ability is precisely what annihilates the Other. A successful relationship with the Other finds expression as a kind of failure. Only by way of being able to not be able does the Other appear…

Wretchedness as the Doorway to Freedom

The important function of the law in all its forms is this: it leads us to a deep emotional genuine understanding that we can and must be able to not be able. This is in fact our only choice. If we water the law down to a doable disney-ized plastic consumable, we lose the ability to not be able. The law must be allowed to breathe its perfection and grandeur fully into our minds and consciences and desires to the point of death. We must have the courage to allow our embrace of perfection to destroy us. We must enter into the pathos of our own wretchedness, and through the despair of that door discover a land beyond the slavery of the binary judgment of the law:

Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Therefore there is now no condemnation at all for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. Rom 7:24-8:2

So by the recklessness of faith we leave behind the bare life slavery and security of the law, and embrace the love and grace and freedom of Christ. We leave behind the dry desert of “ought” and enter the eros of grace.

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the [life] which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. Gal 2:20

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