Kenosis: Dying a Criminal’s Death


κένωσις (kénōsis), means an “emptying,” from κενός (kenos), “empty.”

Phillipians 2.5-8 (KJ):
2:5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
2:6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
2:7 But made himself of no reputation [made himself nothing or emptied himself (ἐκένωσε, ekénōse)], and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
2:8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

[5] Think like Jesus: [6] Though he was God, he didn’t cling to his God-ness. [7] Instead, he gave up his status, choosing to become a servant and to be made human. As such, [8] he humbled himself before God and died a criminal on a cross.

In Christian theology, kenosis is the concept of the ‘self-emptying’ of one’s own will and becoming entirely receptive to God. The kenotic ethic is the ethic of Jesus, considered as the ethic of sacrifice. The Phillipians passage urges believers to imitate Christ’s self-emptying.

Something similar might happen in peak experiences like flow in art or sport, a syncope of the self. But, paradoxically, the self-emptying seems to be accompanied by a sense of self-fulfilment, a sense that the peak experience expresses the self (hence, for Maslow peak experiences are characteristic of the self-actualized). (Alternatively, some feel that once the self is emptied the void fills with “the world,” hence the sense of plenitude that often accompanies peak experiences.)

The issue here is what is emptied in the self-emptying: the history of the self (not usually, because artistic and sporting experience is based on internalised practice and learning, i.e. they utilise memory), the sense of self (yes, if you mean the focus on an external object [thing or goal]; no, if you are an “autobiographical” artist), etc.?

Less lofty, but as beholden to this dynamic, are tropes like the trainee artist as apprentice, art as mere craft or a kind of slavery, experience (human or bodily) as the material of art, etc., etc.

syncope: in rhetoric, cutting letters or syllables from the middle of a word (a metaplasm, i.e. an orthographical figure); in medicine, a faint or loss of consciousness
but also, perhaps, a “bracketing” (ἐποχή, epokhé) of the self.

epokhé: the theoretical moment where all judgments about the existence of the external world, and consequently all action in the world, is suspended. This concept was developed by the Greek skeptics, in particular, Metrodorus of Lampsacus, and plays an implicit role in skeptical thought, e.g. Descartes’ method of doubt. The term was popularized by Husserl, who elaborates the notion of “phenomenological epoché” or “bracketing” in Ideas I. Through the systematic procedure of phenomenological reduction, one is thought to be able to suspend judgment regarding the general or naive philosophical belief in the existence of the external world, and thus examine phenomena as they are originally given to consciousness.

What I am suggesting here is a kind of inverse epokhé, but we might go one step further: on the basis of claiming that we do not know anything, Pyrrho, the Skeptic, argued that we should suspend judgment or withhold assent. It is not that we have no rationale to choose one way of action or another; rather, one kind of life or action cannot definitively be said to be “correct.” Instead we ought to live according to custom, law, and tradition.

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