Avi Garelick

The Afterworld Debt Crisis


Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known by his followers as the Alter Rebbe, was well known for his controversial support for the regime of the Russian tsar. When asked why he offered his support to a figure who was, in the plain sense, so bad for the Jews, he responded that it was spiritually imperative for the tsar to continue to reign, so that people would be able to keep their metaphorical reference for the idea of God.

This is a delightful and astonishing response. It is almost as though the Alter Rebbe was a writer for the Hypocrite Reader! While others were acting out of coarse political interest, he was carefully evaluating the effects of history on the ideological edifice of his people’s social organization.

How astute it is to suggest that the progressive disintegration of the credibility of the concept of God is but a symptom of the decline of the monarchic form!

The Alter Rebbe may have been relieved to know that he was not the first to contend with such a disintegration of metaphor. In a pair of totally awesome lectures given at Yale in 1996, Peter Brown told a story of the reconfiguration of the idea of death across the Christianities of the world at the start of the Middle Ages. As the imaginary structures of death and the afterlife shifted, so did their relationship to sin and expiation. The transformation of sin and expiation that began in the Christianities of post-Roman Europe was correlated directly to the weakening of the weight of the idea of a sovereign imperial power.

The end of late antiquity was an era which saw the flight of paradise from being an imminent presence—which could, in moments of sublime goodness, be literally glimpsed through the fabric of the living world—to a formidably distant place. This flight was accompanied by the evaporation of the average Christian’s certainty of salvation. Before this retreat, according to Brown, “belief in the almost physical proximity of Paradise went hand in hand with a strong sense of entitlement. The funeral of any baptized Christian, with its fluttering white robes, fragrance, and shimmering candles, was an acting out on earth of the solemn adventus, the entry in state of the soul into Paradise.”

This honeymoon period for the Christian afterlife disintegrated after a time, for reasons outside the scope of this essay or my knowledge. After a while, entry into paradise as a sweet release from worldly travails lost its currency and became an arduous journey of the soul through the fire of purgatory. The great existential question that faced every unsaintly Christian in this other-world order was how, given their innumerable ‘light sins,’ they could merit the presence of God in the distant kingdom of paradise. The question has persisted in pretty much every western religion ever since.

To adequately address this problem, Christian thought made what use it could of two already established systems of doctrinal imagination. Generally speaking, one was the logic of philosophy/purification and the other was the logic of empire/amnesty. Brown’s basic geographical thesis is that the logic of empire was retained in Byzantium and Islam, as indeed empire itself remained a reality.

The imperial model was the much older and more well-established of the two, so I will address it first. In this imperial model, the fate of the sinner was organized around the total power of the sovereign and the corresponding fact of his capacity for mercy. God and the emperor mirrored each other in this way. They had complete indisputable sovereignty over everything, and the ultimate demonstration of their supernatural dominance was that, periodically, they would ignore the strict logic of justice, and offer amnesty to sinners and criminals. Thus, the fallibility of strict judgment was never a product of the weakness of the sovereign, it was an exertion of his strength. It was the very proof of his power. As the organizing principle of the entire system, his subversion of it was at once its exaltation.

This kind of amnesty was a thoroughly impersonal system. An individual would not expect to rely on their merits to gain pardon, nor for that matter on their status as an individual in any sense. Justice and mercy were meted out to collections of people, all at once. There was one thing you could do to try to assure your inclusion in an amnesty. You could make sure to associate yourself with the right well-connected person within the imperial court. Intercessors were as common a path to pardon on earth as in heaven. If you were facing the judgment of the emperor, it was only prudent to seek the good graces of a party who in turn had the good graces of the king. Not unlike a kind of really high-stakes social climbing. Except that at the end your identity as a soul is completely erased and consumed by the fire that surrounds the heavenly throne.

Oh yes, the imperial model of the afterlife offers little to a Christian with a stake in the Hellenistic philosophical tradition of selfhood. That, in some sense, is the intractable paradox of the idea of one god. It is not at all easy to offer a coherent theology that leaves room for a consistent map of God’s power and a philosophically and ethically compelling notion of the self. Just in terms of scale, something is bound to be distorted.

These notions of unconstrained power became less compelling in the barbarian lands of postimperial Europe, without the thick experience of earthly empire to reinforce their imaginary structures.

Brown describes the world of early medieval Ireland as a “a land of virtually no state power and, so, a land without amnesty.” The kings of Ireland were not the makers of the law. Which is not to say that Irish kings were not powerful or violent, because in fact they were, only that their violence was accompanied by a certain discursive modesty about their status. The real heavy hitters in this world were the lawyers. These lawyers developed an intricate normative legal code which was upheld not by divine or kingly violence but by a highly developed—actually, quantified—system of honor and obligation. Irish kings were as bound to this system as anyone. As kings, they did have the highest honor price (which means that if you insulted them, you paid most steeply), but they had nothing like the ontological exaltation of a Roman emperor. Within this horizontal distribution of power, there was no room for the paradox of amnesty. Instead, an unrelentingly exact accounting of debts and restitutions persisted, without any kind of dramatic moment of restoration or return. There were no grounds for any party to transcend the law and forgive a debt. This was the kind of configuration of power, Brown argues, that was an ideal habitat for the flourishing of purgatory.

Purgatory, understood as a process of purgation of individual souls, is a product of what I called earlier the logic of philosophy/purification. Within the paradoxical constellation of selfhood and divine power generated by monotheism, this logic is far more compelled by questions of selfhood than the logic of empire/amnesty. Augustine (hence philosophy) was a father of this kind of otherworld, though it was a long time before his ideas were widely regarded by common Christians; they failed to do so as long as the logic of empire was regnant.

This journey to the kingdom of heaven hinges on an extended process of examination and repair of the soul, instead of a transformation that hinges on a simple willingness to excuse.

The fire which, in the imperial model, enacted a final transformation of human souls into a part of the divine glory, functions very differently in the purgatory of Saint Fursey, the Irish monk who evangelized throughout the British Isles: “It searches out each one according to their merits. . . . For just as the body burns through unlawful desire, so the soul will burn as the lawful, due penalty [of each vice].” Not only does the soul retain its identity and its history, that history is the essence of the process of purgation. Thus develops a facet of the system which had been lacking: a correlation between the experience of the afterlife and a project of ethics. Indeed, the experience of purgatory, insofar as it is meticulously transformative, seems itself to be a mirror to ethical self-work. Every ethical failure in one world is met with a consequence, reciprocally, in the next. This preoccupation with selfhood, once the domain of philosophers, thus becomes the concern of every Christian.

As may be clear, this precise accounting of sin and merit does more than preserve individuality. It also creates another kind of individual. One that is, in its entire history, coherent and accountable to the future. As Fursey says of his accusing demons, “And they went over all the sins that I committed from infancy onwards, including those which I had totally forgotten.” Like nightmare visions of the Irish lawyers that populated Fursey’s waking life, these demons keep ledgers through which the sum total of all of his debts, obligations, remissions, sureties, etc., constitutes his exact status. Sin and merit are the ultimate measure for all of human activity, the key for knowing the entirety of a life. The lawyers and the demons both do not admit a force that is outside justice. “If God is just, this man will not enter the kingdom of Heaven. . . . For He has promised that every sin that is not atoned for on earth must be avenged in Heaven.” The economic logic of early medieval Ireland reproduced itself within the subject’s relation to the afterlife.

Thus it seems that the late antique answer to the Alter Rebbe’s crisis of metaphor was to develop the role of the self within its religious phenomenology. As the great sweeping skies of the glorious imperial God faded with the sunset of the Roman Empire, so to speak, the Christians of the West turned a much finer focus on the intricacies of selfhood. What once surely seemed implausible—that heaven would concern itself with the ledger of debts owed by a single person—became the very foundation of interchange between heaven and earth as the idea of an imperial God drifted further away.

Early medieval Ireland was grounded in what David Graeber calls a human economy. It consisted in the incessant exchange of debts, but these were not commodity debts. They were rearrangements of human relations. Their money was never used in order to purchase commodities; it was used to symbolize relative human worth. We have to keep in mind this discrepancy between what we mean when we think of debt and what Fursey was thinking of. A transposition of a theological system of debt from one economic episteme to another implies significant alterations. A theological debt relation within a capitalist framework sets up God as an analogy to the bank that advances us the loan we need to start a business or buy a house. This loan is so massive and so foundational to your existence that it is difficult to imagine ever repaying in full. All of the work that you do and the income that you make can do a pretty good job of making interest payments, but there is no realistic way you will every resolve the debt. Aside from the periodic restitutions that the bank demands, you owe it nothing else. That is, as long as you offer your periodic cash tributes, it is quite indifferent to the content of the rest of your life activity. Thus its main presence in your consciousness is that it generates a feeling of uneasy guilt and offers no clear roadmap to redemption. If that is the kind of God we face, I can nearly hear the Alter Rebbe crying ‘down with the banks!’

What I mean to say is that the idea of a relationship with God has long been a powerful tool for how people organize their responsibilities to themselves and others. To begin to imagine the possibilities of this relation, look at how Augustine critiqued the logic of amnesty:

There is no harm in their thinking, if this gives them pleasure, that the penalties of the damned are at certain intervals of time somewhat eased. . . . But even if [the physical punishment imposed by] this wrath of God were the slightest that can be imagined—to perish from the kingdom of God, to be alienated from the presence of God, to be deprived of the abundance of God’s sweetness. . . . So great is that punishment, that no torments we have experienced can be compared to it.

He was pained to think that a good Christian might be deluded into thinking that merely avoiding punishment was a desirable outcome. For Augustine, the motivating force for his entire project was a desire for the abundance of God. The possibility of God’s love was what framed the problem of debt. It is this heady mix of adoration and servitude that still has some unique power in our present moment.