living through death

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

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A Brief Overview

It is often thought that Christianity keeps its adherents in a state of perpetual immaturity. As a sociological fact, this may be hard to argue against. Much that goes by the name Christianity looks quite near to what Ernest Becker described as a fearful “death denying ideology.” In theological terminology, such ways of being amount to self-salvation programs. The terror of death drives us to avoid all forms of death. Yet, at the heart of Christianity stands one who chose his own death and encouraged his followers to take up their own crosses and follow him. Such an act, apparently, has an important role to play in an understanding of Christian salvation. In this thesis, I make use of developmental stages theory to illuminate what that role is. I argue that Christian salvation is founded on a paradoxical death that is best made sense of in light of contemporary developmental stages theory, in particular, at the thresholds of developmental stage transition. To illuminate this claim I trace out the logic across the rational, desirous, and active dimensions of human being. These dimensions are explored, in order, by way of Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering prayer. Taken together, it is concluded that Christianity has tremendous resources for helping its adherents come to grips with their death denying strategies and therefore enlarge their capacity for psychological and spiritual maturity.


We are familiar with the story. The young person raised in a religious home goes off to college, or perhaps seminary, and loses their faith. For them and for their family back home, it is a painful and bewildering experience. Their minds fill with questions about how they could have gone so wrong. The parents wonder if they should have paid for the private Christian college, or if they did, their guilt is even more intense, and explanations, even harder to come by. Never would it occur to any of them that the maturing young adult might be actually embodying the very death and resurrection of Christ. It might even be the case that the parents’ resistance to facing what has actually affected their child puts them more on the side of the Pharisees than faith. How could this be?

At the center of this study stands the paradox of Christian salvation. Christianity is founded on the image of one who faced, engaged, and befriended the negativities of human existence, even the most radical of them all: death. In doing so, Jesus came to be called Christ the Savior. To follow this Christ, Christians are called to likewise lose their life in order to find it, to take up their cross and follow him. These are a vague and puzzling set of instructions. Perhaps because of this, the enormity of this paradoxical insight, as it pertains to spiritual growth and the way we deal with existential doubt, has hardly begun to be realized.

My aim in this thesis is to shed new light on the way that the paradox of Christian salvation transforms what appears as death, doubt, and faithlessness into new life during the normal course of one’s maturing spiritual life. I claim that developmental stage theories, specifically the work of Robert Kegan, provide us with a powerful tool to analyze and understand the formal dynamics of this spiritual development. I augment Kegan’s theory with the work of Ernest Becker, who focuses on the content of what keeps people and cultures clinging to self-destructive patterns of thought and action. We might think of Becker as providing a sustained analysis of why we are so often in the company of “those who seek to save their lives.” Becker helps us see that the often terrifying experience of psychological and, therefore, spiritual growth stems from an underlying fear of death (especially the death of our “self-esteem”) which lies well beneath the surface of our stated concepts and commitments. After setting up my analytical apparatus, I move to apply it to the rational, passional, and practical dimensions of human being by examining Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering Prayer.

Liminal: Sunset over Rice Minnesota

My aim from this work is twofold. My first goal is to develop a constructive theological proposal that shows how Christian salvation, when understood in its full paradoxical nature, unites the theoretical work of these thinkers with the practice of Centering Prayer. And, secondly, I aim to show how, contrary to our intuitions, a certain kind of death in the realm of our rational, desirous, and practical life (doubt, disaffection, and inaction) can lead through disintegration into a deepening maturity. This thesis will thus be dynamic enough to accommodate all stages of human maturation, while maintaining a focus on the universality of our fear of death as it takes on new forms at different developmental thresholds. By doing this, I hope to illuminate how Christianity possesses the theological resources to transform what is so often thought of as a loss of faith into an actual advance in spiritual maturity.

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.

Sebastian Moore: Christ & Salvation

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In the previous section we outlined Sebastian Moore’s theory of original sin. There he characterized original sin as a self-limitation of life that is necessary for our emergence into self-aware existence, but that gets stuck in exclusively that self-limited way of being. Growth beyond the relative safety of our socially-bound self-limitation is powerfully resisted, based, as it is, upon a fundamental mistrust of life that goes all the way back to the first experiences of being an autonomous reality separate from our mother. As both Becker and Kegan have helped us see, our fearful reliance on coping strategies formed along this developmental journey has the effect of alienating us from each other and from our own potential as life becomes more complex than the original conditions under which they were formed. We noted how these original conditions gave rise to the persistent human habit of attempting to find our identity by always measuring ourselves against others. Such is our “first focus” that we cling to because it is the world in which we first entered as self-aware beings. That being the case, it is understandable that our first focus easily becomes our only focus. However, our desire is unlimited, and for that reason our efforts to attain unlimited significance by measuring ourselves against limited others leads us to eat each other alive, as is amply reflected in the world’s constant war between the sexes, the social divisions that result from economic inequity, the conflict between racial, cultural, and religious others, and even the alienation between coworkers, family members, and friends.

The problem, therefore, consists of two parts. The first is that our true desire has been repressed. We easily settled for much safer forms of desire, and for that reason, we are easily led by the nose, allowing others to tell us what we should do, what we should love, and who we should fear. The second part of the problem is that for those whose deeper desire has begun to break through the surface of life, nothing in the world can satisfy it. Such people are like the Ebola virus, burning themselves up as well as the people around them with little regard for the impracticality of their actions.[1]

Moore articulates the Christian solution as being not so much the creative repression of a genius, as Becker argued for, or the unrepression of the insane, as Becker felt the evangelists of unrepression must end with. Instead, Moore shows how Jesus leads his followers on a two two-step journey that mirrors the two-fold problem of the human condition. Jesus first awoke his disciples to their true desires, but then, as the one who stretched out his life beyond the limits we set upon it, he revealed to them resurrected life. Or as he puts it in another place, “We are to become, first, honest, then cosmic.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)


How does Moore work this out? From what we have seen so far, we can view the story of the emergence of original sin as the story of the loss of the child in us, a foreshortened sense of our desirableness. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) In view of this, Moore encourages us to see the story of Jesus as the story of one who retains this child and, for that reason, is without original sin. We must also recall what was said earlier on the two general ways the problem of original sin is solved, namely, by way of indirect and direct awakening.

We are now ready to see the specific way that Moore conceives of Jesus as conquering sin. The basic pattern is that Jesus experienced his own desirability directly (union with the Father), and for that reason was able to bring about the indirect awakening of desire in those around him. Nothing too radical is on display at this point since these are the movements that, to varying degrees, occur between people every day. What makes the Christ event incomparable is its intensity and what occurred in the dramatic death of Jesus.

In terms of intensity, the Christian story is of one who’s experience of his own desirability was off the map of normal human experience. As Moore says, “his influence was the maximum possible within the limits of person-to-person contact. The charm, the magic, the allure of Jesus swept the whole range of human interaction, exhausted the possibilities of mutual awakening.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) It was this spiritual mindset that enabled Jesus to utterly cut against the grain of expected social norms, pouring forth a compassion that had no limit. No fragile ego limited his ability to reach out toward the members of society that represent the elements of the (predominately male)[2] psyche that are repressed during its developmental journey: the opposite sex, cultural “others,” moral transgressors; and, perhaps even more significantly, those who are explicit reminders of death; the poor, the sick, and the political oppressors. This intensity produced a new hope for human existence. It created what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God,” and produced, precariously, heaven on earth. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.)

However, this new hope collapsed in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Since Jesus awoke those around him to the maximum extent possible within the limits of social arousal, there could be no comparable level of social arousal after Jesus. There could be nothing except for the other awakening: “the direct awakening of the sense of being desirable, by the One by whose desire we exist.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.) Moore sees the whole validity of the Christian message to hang on the series of encounters after Jesus’ death that gave rise to this awakening. This transition, so famously bungled earlier by Peter and the request of James and John (Matthew 16:13-23, Mark 10:35-45), was the “ah ha” moment that Jesus had been trying to instill in his disciples throughout his ministry, but it took his removal from the scene of creaturely existence and the disciples subsequent reflection on the nature of his removal for the insight to finally click. The cross effected for them the horizontal explosion of social (indirect) arousal into the vertical dimension of mystical (direct) arousal.

What was the nature of Jesus’ removal, and why does it matter to our discussion? Moore stresses, that the nature of Jesus exit from the scene of creaturely existence was that of one who chose their own sacrifice. This is not suicide, or even the passion of one who runs into a burning building to save another. The gospel memory is of one who “set his face towards Jerusalem,” in the full knowledge that his vocation was leading inexorably to his death. Moore sees the essential quality as being found in Jesus’ initiation of a final act of friendship with the ultimate enemy of human life: death.

For the sinful condition that is ours, death is repressed…, banished, ‘queered’, thrown outside the city. At the same time we know that this rejected status of death is the sign of our…lostness, of an incapacity-to-feel that we cannot deal with. To meet the one who connected with, who befriended, who claimed, this our rejected death, would be to encounter an enormous and incomprehensible love. This love of us in our wretched unconnectedness, shown in the embrace of what we reject in horror, is intellectually nearly impossible to understand, but our deepest and simplest knowing moves out to it. At the heart of the Christian experience down the ages, the uncomprehending sufferer stretches out to the free, willing, understanding sufferer. And thus outstretched, the uncomprehending sufferer can at last received the communication of the incomprehensible inflictor as love, and see this in the fact of the victim raised from the grave. (Let this Mind Be in You, 129-9.)

The significance of this cannot be stressed enough. We have seen that crux of Moore’s concept of original sin was the dynamic of self-limitation of our desirability (and therefore desire) that occurs during the process of psychological birth and growth, combined with our resistance to growing beyond that self-limitation. The result is our separation from each other, our potential, and God. More than that, it is not just “separation,” it is the creation of enmity, disgust, even horror at all dimensions of reality in ourselves and others that press beyond the edges of our self-created membrane. (See Richard Beck’s Excellent book “Unclean:%20Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and MortalityUnclean” for more on the role of disgust as it pertains to our capacity for offering hospitality) And at the root of it all stands the terror of death, for it is ultimately in response to the terror of death that our our fragile ego has been created. As it stands, humanity is largely arrested at its “Oedipal self-understanding.” We “take it for reality itself” and thus “impose on society and on the universe that distrust of life, that self-repression, which was once appropriate when we were engaged on the business of becoming separate and sexually distinguished selves.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

In other words, we set our own limit on the meaningfulness of our life in our refusal to grow…. We build an invisible wall round our life. Outside that wall, uncharted by us, is death. For what does it mean to be ready for death? Who is? To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit—which is death. We don’t live this life to anything like its fullness. And what this means is that we don’t believe in the glorious being that each of us is. Massively we repress the sense of our greatness and our desires, in consequence, are weak.…Thus we create a wall round ourselves, within which we live. And far beyond that wall is God’s limit on us, death, the threshold of his loving embrace. (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

It is exactly here that Jesus initiated the final breakthrough for his disciples. Though they remained uncomprehending throughout his life, the final intensification of their relationship with him at the last supper, followed by Jesus’ own self-removal as the object of their devotion, led to the ultimate crisis and transformation. Their awareness of the final enemy, death, had to be transformed, and when this occurred new life flooded back down through all levels of their awareness. Religious, cultural, and economic divisions were radically transformed in the new life that poured forth, as well as those of gender and social relations. Salvation was in this way an in-breaking of a hope that outstripped the disciples’ expectations that were possible under their former awareness. At the same time, their salvation consisted in the experience of a reunion with their own basic goodness. They knew themselves for the first time, as they come from the hand of God, “desirable because desired.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.)

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] These remarks remind me something Becker said. “…[H]uman heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head an shoulders.” (The Denial of Death, 6.)
[2] Given the patriarchal nature of Jesus’ time we might expect that the social norms would mirror the psychological patterns of the male mind.

Sebastian Moore and the Paradox of Salvation in Human Desire: Introduction

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What is it that most animates human life? As children we play with friends and test our parents. As adolescents we begin looking for love and finding out “who we are.” As adults we raise families, engage in politics, build nations, make war, go on vacations, participate in religious communities, get a jobs, volunteer at charities, shop for insurance, buy McMansions or, perhaps, build tiny homes. Is there a unified drive that stands behind all of these activities? If Ernest Becker’s work is still top of mind, one might be tempted to answer that deep down it is all ultimately the fear of death that drives human activity. But if one looks closer it becomes apparent that before there can be a fear of death, there must be a desire for life. It is this limitless desire that makes our eventual perception of the actual limitations of life so unbearable. This is, once again, the existential paradox of human life, and it is this paradoxical relationship between conscious desire and the knowledge of death that drives the human animal.

In view of this, what theology of salvation could possibly be adequate to address this existential paradox? To be clear, I don’t mean by this question the much weaker problem of how to live a relatively decent life that measures up to our desires as we have limited them. What I am pointing at here is the crushing desire that leaves a lump in your throat and that makes all of life seem but a monotone facade once it has been experienced. C.S. Lewis points to this form of desire in his description of his first encounter with what he later came to call “joy.” His recounting is worth quoting at length.

As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation of course, of desire; but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past.…[A]nd before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, that whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. it had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. (Surprised by Joy, 16.)

Leaf on Frozen Lake Reno Near Glenwood MN It is possible that my reader will have no idea of what I am now referring to. This is to be expected since the great majority of our lives tends to be a focus on much more attainable and less puzzling objects of desire. Yet it is my claim that behind these particular desires there stands an unlimited desire in which all particular desires find their home and are given their meaning. Much more will be said about this in the coming sections, but for now, get in your mind the desire that drives adventurers and makes you long to be adventurous. Think also of the desire that moves all lovers and makes you want to be in love.

Such a form of desire is a problem because nothing in this world can satisfy it. And because its relationship to all other particular desires, as their ground and end, all particular desires are likewise caught up in the problem. We are left with a dilemma: Either we can avoid having the sweetness of this deep desire awoken in us and thereby attempt to avoid the ache of its lack of fulfillment in this life (like Tolkien’s Hobbits [with the exception, perhaps, of those of Tookish descent] we can steadfastly refuse to go on adventures!), or, on the other hand, we can open ourselves to this desire, knowing that in this life heartache will be our constant companion. I ask again, what theology of salvation could address such a situation?

This chapter will be an attempt to articulate an attempt to respond to this question. In chapter two we developed an anthropology by way of the psychological insights of Ernest Becker and Robert Kegan. There we learned that growth amounts to a repeating pattern of self-protective self-limitation and transcendence of these same limitations leading to greater freedom to explore new potential in thought and action. In chapter three we dealt with the question of truth from the dual perspective of reflection and response. There we learned that both he reflective and responsive activities of reason progress through a series of stages whereby the activities of criticism and doubt force reason into a paradox that cannot be met according to the resources of its current stage of reflection or response, but can only be transcended. The criticism and doubt from the previous stage are in this way answered, but not on the same plane upon which they had operated. In both cases a form of death preceded new life. Previous forms of knowing, desiring and relating were sublated into a more complex and embracing way of being.

To this I now introduce the work of Sebastian Moore. Over the course of several books Moore has worked out a Christology that aims to answer the existential paradox that we have been articulating.[1] He stands firmly in the Augustinian tradition and is well known as a theologian of desire. Moore makes explicit use of Becker’s work, seeing in it a scientific anthropology that harmonizes with his own theological intuitions. What Moore adds to our picture is an explicitly theological focus on the dynamics of growth and salvation. Where Scharlemann and Tillich presented the dynamics of salvation in human reason, Moore provides us with a soteriology of desire.[2]

The basic shape of Moore’s theology is contained in his conception of Jesus as the liberator of desire. Moore characterizes human desire as having its origin in our original sense of experiencing ourselves as good. We will be addressing this aspect of Moore’s thought in the next section. This original experience of early childhood is progressively diminished along one’s developmental journey, and, as a result, so is the intensity and scope of our own desires. This is Moore’s theory of original sin. This idea will be explored in the section following our discussion of original desire. The first step in the process of salvation is then to reawaken our original sense of ourselves as good. But this reopens the problem we raised above, namely that unlimited desire seems to be a cruel joke within the limits of creaturely life. This leads to the final step. Having awoken unlimited desire, Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and the cross, teaching us to detach our desire from the merely creaturely dimension of life and lose it within the divine movement that courses through all life in freedom and grace. Before moving on to the first section on desire, I will close this introduction with Moore’s own tremendous summary of what he calls his “big discovery.”

The discovery is that Jesus awoke desire in his followers; that the desire he liberated is that infinite desire whose infinity we seldom sense directly; that this desire for life in its fullness chafes at life’s limits and so moves in a mysterious harmony with death…that this desire was altogether beyond the power to own, and so found its place-to-be in Jesus: the awakener of desire becomes its containing symbol. Thus the destruction, the dismantling, of the symbolic place of desire brought desire itself to the crisis that death will be for each of us. Living they died, were carried beyond this world, knew what the dead know. And the focus of this spiritual enlargement, its agency, was the crucifixion of Jesus. (The Inner Loneliness, 120.)

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 Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger; The Fire and the Rose Are One; The Inner Loneliness; Let This Mind Be in You: The Quest for Identity Through Oedipus to Christ [2] However, this matter is made complex since the conception of reason we dealt with in our time with Scharlemann and Tillich includes the activity of desire in the both the reflective and responsive modes of reason, but perhaps especially in the responsive mode. Moore will speak often about the “awakening” of desire, which is essentially reason’s response to an objectival presence.

“Look Where I’m Pointing”

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In the fall of 2006, the same year my son, Adrian, was born, my dad passed away. The absence of his presence in my life was brought to mind this morning while Adrian and I hurried out the front door to the bus stop. Somewhere high in the chilly fall sky a lone Canadian goose could be heard as it passed over. The sound of geese will never cease to remind me of my dad, a man whose life revolved around the hunting seasons.

As Adrian and I walked over to the bus stop, I said to him, “I wonder what it would be like if I still had my dad? It’s such a strange thing. How would life have been different for us if you still had both your grandpas?” After silently walking the last few steps to the mailbox where we wait for the bus, Adrian said, “you still have your dad.”

Adrian's Hands

Not really expecting that one, I stopped and looked over at him. There he stood, head slightly down, but eyes looking up into mine, with one of his fingers pointing to his chest. “What?”, I said with a chuckle, “You’re my dad?”

“No.”, he said, looking somewhat insecure but still determined to get his point across, “look where I’m pointing.”

It was so beautifully appropriate. Of all the things he could have said, he decided to forego words to the preference of a gesture. He said, “You still have your dad.” and “Look where I’m pointing.”

After wrapping my boy in a big hug (what else could I do?), I stood there thinking of the words of Karl Rahner on the question of where our loved ones are who have passed on. The point he made really struck me. To enter into God, to die, is to enter into the same silence in which we creatures experience God. Somewhere in that paradoxical proposition that “God is nowhere and God is everywhere” lies the answer to the question of where our loved ones have gone. They are “with God,” and that means they are nowhere and that they are everywhere.

“That is how my dead imitate Your silence: they remain hidden from me because they have entered into Your Life. The words of their love no longer reach my ears because they are conjoined with the jubilant song of Your endless Love. My dead live the unhampered and limitless Life that You live; they love with Your Love; and thus their life and their love no longer fit into the frail and narrow frame of my present existence. I live a dying life…so how can I expect to experience their eternal life, which knows no death?” Karl Rahner, Encounters With Silence 57.

Written by Alex

October 28, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Posted in Life, Theology

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