living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Are You Saved? Ernest Becker, Robert Kegan, and Salvation

with 6 comments

This post is the concluding post to what will be chapter 2 of my dissertation. In it, I want to highlight the way that the psychological insights of Ernest Becker and Robert Kegan (explored in previous posts) have helped us see that growth of the psyche is traumatic, dramatic, and moves according to a paradoxical logic. Along its path to maturity, the self undergoes the disorienting loss of its former ways of maintaining stability. There is no truly developmental growth without dying to life as one had formerly known it and a willingness wait for the emergence of oneself as yet unknown. As both Becker and Kegan have shown us, our resistance to releasing our former securities is tremendous for the simple reason that its experienced as a matter of life and death.

From the perspective of theology, the terror of death and the innumerable forms of self-deception that follow from it are the consequences of sin. As Paul Tillich reminded us, “Sin is a universal fact before it becomes and individual act.” In this sense, sin is not primarily a moral act, but rather it is a fundamental characteristic of human existence. Sin is to be separated from God who is the ‘fullness,’ ‘source,’ or ‘ground’ of all being and goodness.[1] As a consequence, sin is also to be separated from the full truth and goodness of ourselves and the full truth and goodness of others. Thus, to come into self-aware existence without the consciousness of one’s being united with God, humanity finds itself immersed in the fear of death from the very first moments of self-emergence. The developmental task of spiritual growth is therefore directed principally to this single primal rupture. What has been separated in the emergence of self-identity, needs to be reunited, though on a higher level.[2]

This way of speaking is given fresh life by the work of Robert Kegan. As we have seen from his work, this single fear takes on many different forms depending on the stage of consciousness that one constructs themselves at. For most adults, realities of sin and salvation are being worked out at the social level (Kegan’s “traditionalism” stage). Here, one’s self is constructed according to the reactions of one’s social world, namely by the way the self is reflected in the faces of others. One’s concept of God is likewise constructed in strongly interpersonal terms. Here, judgement is first experienced as failing to measure up to the values of one’s social world. Potentially, if one begins to approach the outer threshold of this stage, the experience of condemnation emerges as the inability to ever attain peace by knowing oneself in the face of others. The possibility of salvation at this stage of consciousness is therefore not the possibility of pleasing everyone, but instead it is the possibility of an as of yet unknown way of constructing oneself and one’s world. This is the transition to a more self-authoring developmental plateau (Kegan’s “modernism” stage). This is a tremendous achievement beyond tribalism, but the dynamics of sin and salvation are still operative and will make themselves known according to their new formal structure. This is what I mean by claiming that salvation operates by orders of degree and intensity.

We can gain a tremendous insight into the dynamics of salvation if we consider it from a developmental perspective. From here we can see that salvation is not a matter of education. One cannot learn the necessary information to experience salvation, though the right information at the right times can help to make sense of what is typically a bewildering experience. The need for salvation follows from the dynamics of growth. From birth through adolescence, our developmental task is largely the achievement of a separate, autonomous identity. However, this work is done in the context of unfathomable insecurity. As Becker has illuminated for us, our achievement is really the quasi-achievement of crafting a suit of character armor. Again, this armor will be crafted of different materials depending upon the developmental plateau that one is on, but regardless, it will keep us safe only at the price of slowing us down and restricting our vision in various ways. For example, in order to grow beyond the ill-fitting armor that we’ve simply inherited from our parents and early social context, we must first dis-identify from our armor, risk allowing it to be removed piece by piece, then hopefully we will be able to create something more suitable to our unique individuality from the parts before the next threat to our integrity emerges.

In the Unknown

This leads me to my final point. When viewed developmentally, salvation is the affirmative experience of God-as-unknown that calls to us from beyond our present securities and way of knowing. This is a difficult thing to state, for how can one experience a security beyond one’s current capacities? We are now in the neighborhood of Kierkegaard’s “leap” of faith.[3] The experience of salvation gives one the courage to face the fear of death that accompanies the limits of one’s current mental complexity. Without this transcendent security, the risk is too great. People will stay within the hell of their inherent paradoxes rather than step into the nothing of the unknown God. To cope, such a decision is also accompanied by a despairing resignation of our potential. The voice from beyond that is singing God’s dream for us—which is simultaneously our own dream of ourselves—is covered over and shut out. It is asking of us more than we can fathom. It is asking us to have faith, and to die to the whole order of life as we have known it. To this passive dimension of salvation which calls for us to release our known securities, an active dimension must be added. Much as Kierkegaard stressed, salvation is a decision beyond reason. With the help of our constructive developmental framework, we might suggest that this active dimension of salvation is the activity of life-itself reaching from the unknown though ourselves as known and grasping the unknown. We will see this pattern repeat as we continue our exploration in the coming chapters.

This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

[1] The words “source” and “ground” should be recognized a analogies and should not be understood in their proper categorical senses.

[2] The language of “on a higher level” is necessary in order to avoid the idea that spiritual growth amounts to a sort of “return to the womb,” a resignation of human self-transcendence and a return to animal immediacy.

[3] “Faith is the objective uncertainty with the repulsion of the absurd, held fast in the passion of inwardness, which is the relation of inwardness intensified to its highest. This formula fits only the one who has faith, no one else, not even a lover, or an enthusiast, or a thinker, but solely and only the one who has faith, who relates himself to the absolute paradox.” Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Volume 1, 611.


Written by Alex

January 30, 2015 at 10:41 am

6 Responses

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  1. Hiya. I’m attempting to read through this, but I feel like I’m missing a key move here.

    I understand the idea that salvation is supposed to carry us beyond our fears, but I have trouble seeing it as more than just another attempt at heroism like you stated in your second part. In the second part, you write:

    “From relatively concrete images of a new life in heaven beyond death, to participation in a nation that will last for generations, to a more abstract identification with lofty ideals, or even identifying with the courage to live on in a world deemed devoid of transcendent meaning, Becker’s anthropological training made him keenly aware of all the various ways people earn a sense of the heroic.”

    How is this attempt at Salvation a different from other forms of heroism? Or how is it a better form of heroism compared to other ones?

    Are we trying to rid this reflexive need for heroism? Or accept our need for heroism, and just select the best?

    I know there’s a lot that could be picked apart here. I’m just trying to understand this. I love the blog and these posts. Please keep it up. 🙂

    – Rob

    Robert Stefanic

    February 26, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    • Hi Rob,
      Thanks so much for the questions! I’ve got my head all twisted around chapter 3 at the moment, so I can’t say for sure if I made this point previously or not (and if I haven’t I will be sure to include it in the final draft!), but what I think both Becker and I would like to say is that its not a matter of escaping the heroic drive, it’s a matter of attaining/receiving a heroism that is _purified_. The drive toward heroism is really the drive toward a fullness of life. In that case, its a drive for God. The problem is that most of our heroic attempts fixate on images that are far too little, they aim too low, and they have too narrow a base from which to launch. That being the case, all our various little heroic ideologies get tangled up in other competing ideologies.

      In explicitly theological language, we attempt to become a god without God. Philosophically stated, the particular is striving for the universal without the universal.

      So the task is to identify a mode of heroism that does not fall into idolatry. The image I advocate is the paradoxical heroism of Christ. As my favorite theologian Paul Tillich states somewhere, Jesus was the Christ (another heroic term) because he was able to completely sacrifice all his finite dimensions on the cross _without losing himself_. The crucifixion may have been a worldly failure, but it was an eternal fulfillment.

      Here is a heroism that avoids idolatry and ideology. It is the heroism of eternal love.

      Let me know if any of that makes sense!


      February 26, 2015 at 5:46 pm

      • It does make sense! I appreciate you taking the time to write. 🙂

        So it is another Heroic, just one that’s actually life affirming and transcendent? I understand that your specific task is centered around God, but must it be a God? Could it be anything that fills that universal striving (for example, other religions)?

        I feel I may be missing something. How is the Heroism of Eternal Love not another form of idolatry? Isn’t that just another form of worship of some ideal? Or is it beyond that?

        I’m familiar with Becker which is why I started to look for others who are grappling with his work. It seems to be rare to find people fundamentally involved with it. I don’t work with it in my day to day life (I read Becker about 6 years ago and I’m currently only an Undergrad), but I hope to work with it day.

        I guess I’m personally unsatisfied with Becker’s conclusions that our striving for Heroism is just how we’re built and that we reflexively must pick one. But it’s not really an objective that I have to him, it’s more about me being unwilling to face that fact. As you said once, “Becker can be offensive.” (I love that by the way.)

        Thanks again. This is great.

        Robert Stefanic

        February 26, 2015 at 6:23 pm

        • It’s worth slowing way down at this point, because this is crucial, and you are pointing right at it.

          There is a great difficulty here because any immortality system (even talk of eternal love) can fixate on its own understanding and therefore get hung-up in finitude and become an ideology/idolatry. When this happens the heroic urge to “go through death and yet live” fails, because death is not really gone through; one’s own understanding is clung to and not died to. Theologically, such a person is now in the service of a god, rather than the unnamable eternal power that the name God points to. But it doesn’t matter if one’s heroics are religious, or patently secular, this dynamic is present in all of us.

          The only way beyond this is a true heroism (Becker doesn’t do a great job explicitly pointing this out). A true heroism is one that really does risk going through death. The question of whether one ultimately “comes out the other side” is something that can never be known this side of eternity. We might call this a self-transcending heroism, or, to use my key term, a _paradoxical_ heroism. Again, the clothing this dynamic wears, be it religious or secular, matters little. What is essential is the formal pattern (In general, though, the mystics of all religious traditions tend to specialize in this).

          This is where I start banging my developmental psychology drum. Becker doesn’t leave us with much of a framework for thinking about the possibility of true heroics. But in the language of developmental psychology we can see an inherently self-transcending dynamic to the structure of developing human maturity. There’s a pattern of heroic death and rebirth that we all go through (to varying extents) many times during the course of our life.

          On this level it’s not simply a matter of picking a random immortality program with content that one happens to like. There will always be content to our own personal immortality programs, but the REAL goal is to grow in true heroism (and of course, my argument is that a reading of Christ through the lens of contemplative practices is one such a path).

          Hey, these are great questions, Rob. You’re really helping remember why I’m working on this project!


          February 27, 2015 at 8:49 am

          • I see. This is all very good. This is so informative.

            I’m currently reading Tillich’s The Courage to Be. Mind blowing stuff. I’ll probably have some questions once I’m done haha. I sometimes wonder why the works of Becker and Tillich never gained momentum because to me, these are some vital texts.

            When you talk about the pattern of heroic death and rebirth, I’m reminded of Campbell’s ideas of myth. Becker did talk about an ideal heroism, (I also believe that’s the name of the final chapter in the Birth and Death of Meaning. It’s something like Heroism: The question for the ideal religion) but if I recall, he kind of just settles with Christianity and ends talking about better illusions/heroism. Sadly, he didn’t get to write more as I would have love to see him fully hash out his ideas.

            So if one’s in true heroism, is it more of a path rather than a destination? Like an ideal that’s never obtainable but never the less it’s still the goal? I was raised Buddhist and think about Buddhist “enlightenment” and the type of heroism that it is.

            Robert Stefanic

            February 28, 2015 at 7:00 pm

            • Hi Rob,
              There are the murmurings of a Tillich revival of sorts, particularly among the younger evangelical crowd. I was just at a very rare conference devoted to Tillich in Oxford this last summer. They expressed a similar feeling. Why should it be that Tillich is “eclipsed?” I’m not sure I have an answer to that.

              I will definitely have to check out that chapter in the Birth and Death of Meaning!

              Metaphors of paths and destinations are frustrated by a paradoxical heroism. True to its form, a paradoxical heroism is both path and destination, as well as neither. It is the path to embracing what is already present. I know that Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating tend to think that “enlightenment” and Christian “contemplation” are very near to each other.


              March 3, 2015 at 8:56 am

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