living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Denial of Death

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.)

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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.

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Interlude in the Form of a Dream: The Domestication of Terror

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I don’t normally begin my writings this way, but, last night I had a dream that shook me to my core. I will describe it to you shortly, but for now, I have a confession to make. For quite some time, I have been thinking and writing about the fear of death and all the various ways this fear limits our life and separates us from a fuller life with the world we live in, each other, and even ourselves. The problem is that I feel that I’ve begun to suggest that there is a relatively easy solution to the matter, namely, that we ought to simply “embrace our limitations” and accept our mortality. Unfortunately, this straightforward and easy sounding solution is, to use a technical term that a dear friend of mine is especially fond of, bullshit.

Why? The reason is apparent to anyone who has tried to boot-strap themselves into “living as if each day is your last.” The best of intentions are utterly impotent when faced with the powerful psychological forces that predominate nearly every second of our walking life. These forces suck the terror and wonder out of each moment, leaving us with an experience that is “normal” and “everyday.” It’s hard to live each day as if it’s your last because each day is already already slotted for playing our role in the cultural system that is designed (though not consciously) to keep life from being too terrifying and too wonderful, in a word: safe. And we are, all of us, committed to maintaining this safety! For that reason, the call to live each day as if it is our last gets transformed into a slightly renewed attempt to be nicer to to our kids, or perhaps taking that vacation day we’ve been putting off. But what it does not do (and how could it?) is reduce us to tearful abandon, shedding every last deadweight of normal everyday life and living into an intensity that only emerges when the illusion of safety is utterly torn away.

What does this tell us? It tells us that there are two distinct awarenesses in play and that language about the problem and solution can be appropriated on both levels but take on radically different meanings. There is the everyday awareness that we all, save but for a few exceptional occasions, inhabit (Becker will characterize this as life within the unreflective grip of our repressions) and there is awareness with all our defenses stripped bare. It is here in this latter awareness that our deepest problem lies, and for that reason only a solution that can reach here will be adequate. Needless to say, even exhortations of great seriousness to our normal everyday awareness to “embrace its limits, etc…” will be as effective as telling a solider on the front lines to “relax.”

So what drove this point home for me? I had already known it on an intellectual level. Thinkers in the Augustinian tradition like Martin Luther, Paul Tillich and Becker had already made the point for me, often in striking ways. Consider Becker’s words:

“In this way we realize directly and poignantly that what we call the child’s character is a modus vivendi [mode of life] achieved after the most unequal struggle any animal has to go through; a struggle that the child can never really understand because he doesn’t know what is happening to him, why he is responding as he does, or what is really at stake in the battle. The victory in this kind of battle is truly Pyrrhic: character is a face that one sets to the world, but it hides an inner defeat. The child emerges with a name, a family, a play world in a neighborhood, all clearly cut out for him. But his insides are full of nightmarish memories of impossible battles, terrifying anxieties of blood, pain, aloneness, darkness; mixed with limitless desires, sensations of unspeakable beauty, majesty, awe, mystery; and fantasies and hallucinations of mixtures between the two, the impossible attempt to compromise between bodies and symbols. …sexuality enters in with its very definite focus, to further confuse and complicate the child’s world. To grow up at all is to conceal the mass of internal scar tissue that throbs in our dreams. (The Denial of Death, 29.)

There it is. It was the dream.

* * * * * *

My family and I were just sitting down for supper, but the house we were in was different than the one we now live in. It was older, plaster walls, sort of a light blue colored paint, and arched doorways. The room was lit somewhat dimly, but nothing was overly amiss. As we prepared to say our meal-time prayer, my daughter Brynn realized that she wanted something from the kitchen, so she pushed away from the table and ran off. Adrian, true to form, followed right after her. This is a common theme in our home, and it was met with my own common form of annoyance. The kitchen was through a door that was across the table from me and down a short hallway, thus being out of my view. The soft clattering of dish-ware could be heard as they got whatever it was they were after.

Then, as often occurs when Mom and Dad are out of sight, Brynn starts crying. Her older brother, Adrian, is usually to blame. My annoyance is growing. Then, things get serious. Brynn’s whiny cry turns to wailing. It was not wailing in terror or in pain. She is crying out as if someone has just ripped the head off her favorite doll. My wife Megan and I shoot up from our chairs (things begin happening very quickly now). Brynn’s wailing is not stopping. We haven’t heard a thing from Adrian. Megan and I begin running towards the kitchen, then, as we reach the hallway, a bright flash goes off outside the house and everything is jolted by the concussion of a thunderous boom! At the same time, what sounds like someone taking a 2×4 and sticking it into the wooden spokes of a quickly turning wheel begins erupting from all around us. Imagine the sound of an engine that has been in an accident but is still running with the accelerator floored and mechanical parts violently tearing into each other.

We’re in the hallway now. As I enter the kitchen (Megan is gone), all the electricity goes out. Brynn is not there, nor is Adrian. I can still hear her wailing inconsolably. The sound is deafening. It’s night. I race down the stairs to the entryway. The sound of her is getting further away. As I reach the entryway the pressure all around me changes as a tremendous wind surges over the house. She’s not in the house anymore. A dog starts barking. I open the door to the outside to witness sheets of rain pouring down. Lightning is flashing. The trees are thrashing in the wind. The wooden spoke sound is relentless. Out through the rushing wind I can now just barely hear Brynn’s crying. She’s almost beyond reach. There’s no sign of Adrian…

children

It was here, at 4:45 in the morning that Megan woke me from my nightmare. Though my panicky breathing slowed within a few minutes, and though I knew immediately that it was “only a dream,” the visceral terror that accompanied the experience was slow to leave me. Like a child, I wanted nothing more than to cover my head with my blanket to keep the terror away. The hairs all over my body kept standing on end, repeatedly. And even as I write this, my body tingles at the memory. I had to write this down before the impact had worn off and it had faded into the pale categories of my everyday state of mind.

This is the mass of internal scar tissue that throbs in our dreams. Somewhere in there is the meaning of the terror of death. What could it possibly mean to “embrace one’s limits” and “accept one’s mortality” when one’s limits and mortality represent not the warm and cozy idea that “one day I will die,” but instead the utter undoing of all reason and submergence of our most cherished loves? There is no easy answer to our terror of death (nor is there a “difficult” answer, for that matter). And to the extent that I have given this impression, forgive me or consider me a fool.


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.

Written by Alex

April 9, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Losing Your Religion: Ernest Becker & the Questionable Idea of the Maturity of Secularity

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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.


Since it’s a central theme of my study is to explore the concepts of growth and maturity, it’s important to see how Becker’s work makes conventional notions of growth and maturity problematic as they pertain to religion and culture. It is commonly assumed that “outgrowing one’s religion” and entering into the maturity of a secular frame of mind constitutes growth. However, Becker places the issue in such a way that this assumption becomes highly questionable. From what we’ve explored so far, it should be obvious enough to see the ways that the terror of death and the reflexive urge towards heroism allows one to easily view society as communal enactments of the ways that people earn their sense of cosmic significance within the relative safety of a mutually agreed upon structure. Becker puts the matter bluntly: Society is and always has been, he says, “a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.”

This raises the question of whether society facilitates or limits human growth. To begin addressing this question, I propose three different ways that the idea of growth can be understood in this context. First there is growth within a mutually agreed upon hero system. Here one follows the “roles that society provides for their heroics and tr[ies] to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms.” But all is not mere conformity. As Becker points out, heroism is achieved by “allowing [oneself] to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head and shoulders.” Secondly, there is growth understood as moving from one hero system to another without recognizing the new system as yet another immortality program. Many conversion and deconversion experiences take on this character. Finally, there is the more radical form of growth that, for the first time, recognizes the nature of their own commitments and strivings as themselves elements of their own hero system. It should be noticed, however, that when this last step is taken, growth has moved beyond the threshold of what Becker calls “earthly heroism.” The matter is now religious in the deepest possible sense.

Loss of Focus

This reference to religion “in the deepest sense” requires unpacking. In a recent article by Jonathan Jong, it is helpfully shown that Becker has essentially three definitions of religion in play throughout his work. Jong uses the clever shorthand of “religion,” religion, and Religion (with a capital R) to denote the following: “The first is an analysis of culture and civilization as immortality projects, means by which to deny death. The second, which overlaps with the first, is a characterization of religion-as-practiced (e.g., by adherents of the world religions) as a particularly effective immortality project vis-a`-vis death anxiety. The third is less social scientific and more theological; Becker argues for a view of God that is in the tradition of Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich (and, arguably, Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas).” It is this latter sense I have in mind. In rough terms, the common thread that joins these thinkers that Jong mentions is the nature of their God as transcendent in the sense that God is considered to be beyond the frame of reference by which human reason operates. To mature to the point that all heroics, especially one’s own, are unmasked is to approach this threshold. This is to recognize one’s own creatureliness as it stands at the brink of an eternal void. To be off the map of earthly reason is to be exposed to the awesome terror of the Unconditioned, the highest possible heroism.

This, Becker thinks, is religion “not as practiced but as an ideal.” Save but for a few religious geniuses, the rest of us tend to earn our immortality within a system, or trading between them. This remains true here in the modern West where, in many ways, traditional religion has undergone a crisis of heroism. In our time we have witnessed the rise of Neo-Atheism and a general trend of increasing secularity. But secularity is no guarantee of a growing awareness of what one is doing to earn one’s self-esteem. In fact, secular heroics, while not subscribing to the second sense of religion that Jong identifies, seldom transcends the first. As Becker says:

It doesn’t matter if the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. . . . When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as ‘religious’ as any other, this is what he meant: ‘civilized society is a hopeful belief and protest that science money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic…

In view of this, movement between religion to “religion” is no guarantee of growth (though growth may be present). The only guaranteed measure of growth consists in the ever-increasing capacity to move from either of these two religiosities to the third. A person who merely moves from the religion to “religion” without making much progress at Religion risks (if they are reflective enough) becoming “the victim of [their] own disillusionment.” They become “disinherited by [their] own analytic strength.” By way of this strength they “put the accent on the clear, the cause-and-effect relation, the logical—always the logical. [They] know the difference between dreams and reality, between facts and fictions, between symbols and bodies.” Such a person thus

has no doubts; there is nothing you can say to sway him, to give him hope or trust. He is a miserable animal whose body decays, who will die, who will pass into dust and oblivion disappear forever not only in this world, but in all possible dimensions of the universe, whose life serves no conceivable purpose, who may as well not have even been born, and so on and so forth. He knows Truth and Reality, the motives of the entire universe.

In an highly refined and tortured way such an individual is heroically committed to to a rational framework in which everything has its place, even if they themselves do not. Their myopic god may have lost its name, but not its constricting hold on their soul. Is this growth? Potentially, for, in the willingness to accept a view of the world in which the self they had always known themselves to be has no real place, there begins to emerge a deeper unknown self from which the familiar self is looked at rather than through. This deeper self is not yet recognized, for it is now serving the role of being a window to the world, as the familiar self once did. From here it is not a long step from the “religious” to the Religious.

To sum up this section, we have seen how Becker’s framing of the idea (or ideas) of religion casts doubt on the generally accepted contemporary narrative that growing up somehow consists in casting off one’s childhood religion. Of course, for some, it may, but in such cases the reasons have more to do with individual contextual issues than any structural necessity. Becker helps us see that, whether explicitly religious or secular, growing into maturity has more to do with how honest we are about the ways we manage our death anxiety and seek after our self-esteem than it does with whether we frequent the synagogue or wherever it is that secular people go to ritualize their existence.

In my final post on Ernest Becker, we will play this same tune again, but in a different key. We will be exploring what Becker refers to as “the vital lie” of human character. Just as culture is a communal death denial structure, character is the personal manifestation of the same reality. In addressing this topic our goal will be to understand the tremendous costs involved in the process of growth. If the question is “in what sense must we die in order to attain new life?” Becker will be shown to provide a compelling answer.

Written by Alex

November 21, 2014 at 11:52 am

The Weakness of Heroism: Exposing Our Quest for Self-Esteem

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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.


From Death to Death

There is an obvious sense in which we all know that we are going to die. For this reason Becker’s thesis that it is efforts to deny death that ultimately drive human action is easy to brush off as being embarrassingly out of touch. However, Becker’s analysis cuts much deeper than the obvious and agreed upon understanding that “we’ve all got to die someday.” What Becker realizes and what the commonsense view fails to see is the element of the heroic built into all our reflections on death. The element of the heroic is the often unstated conviction that even upon the death of our body we will really, in some important sense, live. This is a blanket assertion by Becker for which he leaves no exceptions (and thus includes himself in the analysis). 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.

Waterfall on the Skoga

The heroic drive is thus a drive to go through death and yet to live on. This is a difficult idea to state briefly, since obviously the examples I have just listed do not lend themselves to ordinary understandings of “life after death.” To help clarify the meaning and to more fully understand Becker’s concept of heroism we need to move beyond Becker the anthropologist to his engagement with psychoanalysis. In this realm, heroism is a union of the psychoanalytic concepts of narcissism and self-esteem as they reflexively react to the prospect of death. This way of defining heroism is value neutral. Becker’s heroism includes the popular notion of the hero who risks their life to save others, but it would also identify a dictator who sacrifices thousands of lives on the battle field as enacting heroism.

Narcissism and Self-Esteem

Getting the concepts of narcissism and self-esteem more clearly in view will help us to understand in what “important sense” the self is thought to live on. We will begin with the concept of narcissism. At most basic level, narcissism is the life process of self-preservation and self-extension as it happens in a self-aware creature.[1] One of Freud’s enduring contributions was the discovery that we are “hopelessly absorbed with ourselves.” And that “[I]f we care about anyone it is usually ourselves first of all.” This is not meant to imply any special deviousness on the part of humanity. Becker states that humanity “does not seem able to ‘help’ [its] selfishness; it seems to come from [its] animal nature.” Though it may be possible to displace this self-centered focus, it goes so deep into our basic biological constitution, that it is far more likely to fall into forms of self-deception than achieving true selflessness.

This capacity for self-deception hints at the final ingredient to human narcissism. As we have noted, humanity is capable of transcending its immediate environment and forming abstract meanings. We have the capacity for language, tools, and the creation of images. In humanity, then, natural self-preservation and self-extension is able to be displaced from our concrete biological nature and centered on a self-image.[2] What in the protoplasm is merely organismic self-integration and extension, becomes in humanity symbolic self-preservation and extension.

Here we move from the narcissistic focus on one’s self-image to the image itself, and in doing so we arrive at the idea of self-esteem. Self-esteem is, at root, “a basic sense of self-worth,” and in humanity, as we have noted, this sense of worth is constituted symbolically. It is for this reason that people can almost reflectively cast their biological life aside in the service of an image of themselves as committed to a more transcendent ideal. The symbolic constitution of self-esteem allows humanity to, in Becker’s words, “take eternity into itself even as it gaspingly dies.” We can think here of giving their lives for honor or solidarity with their fellow soldiers, as well as suicide bombers giving their lives in service to their god and country.

This all may sound a bit too dramatic. One might think, “perhaps some disturbingly imbalanced people hanker after a form of heroism, but surely not the average people I’m familiar with.” Yet the fact is that most of us most of the time are simply ignorant of our own heroics. Since human heroism is a reflex against the terror of death, to look at our heroics would be to expose ourselves to what it is our heroics are designed to protect us from. The whole matter is really quite humiliating for adult consciousness, but for children it is a different story; their drive toward heroism is on full display. Becker’s words on this point are worth quoting in full.

In childhood we see the struggle for self-esteem at its least disguised. The child is unashamed about what he needs and wants most. His whole organism shouts the claims of his natural narcissism. And this claim can make childhood hellish for the adults concerned, especially when there are several children competing at once for the prerogatives of limitless self-extension, what we might call ‘cosmic significance.’

Becker sees the antics of sibling rivalry as openly expressing humanity’s tragic destiny. We “must desperately justify [ourselves] as an object[s] of primary value in the universe; [we] must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that [we count] more than anything or anyone else.” Words like these are, once again, offensive to us. Much like Peter, as Jesus foretells his denial, we want to say “Perhaps everyone else, but surly not me!” It is somewhat ironic, then, that the part of us that resists having our heroic urges pointed out is exactly our heroic urge itself! To admit all the ways that we are working to gain our sense of self-esteem is rightly identified by Becker as the main self-analytic problem of life. “Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about [humanity] revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn [their] self-esteem.”

* * *

In my next post I will briefly extend this idea into the realms of culture and religion, before moving on to address the key to my engagement with Becker: his analysis of character as the structure of our personal heroism. There is a paradoxical nature to all of Becker’s work that I wish to draw out. On the one hand our character formation is necessary, natural, and without guile. But on the other hand, Becker pessimism is relentless. Character is a mask we live in because of our weakness. It is a narrowing down, and a shutting out of reality. It is a lie and illusion; for that reason it craves the lies and illusion that culture and religion makes for it. And yet, in Becker’s eyes, there is no life free from these repressions. In the coming posts I will seek to solidify this conflict, for as long as we can find a way out, the paradox cannot do its work.


[1] The image Becker uses to convey this idea is well placed. “The protoplasm itself harbors its own, nurtures itself against the world, against invasions of its integrity. It seems to enjoy its own pulsations, expanding into the world and ingesting pieces of it. If you took a blind and dumb organism and gave it self-consciousness and a name, if you made it stand out of nature and know consciously that it was unique, then you would have narcissism. In man, physiochemical identity and the sense of power and activity have become conscious.” Becker, 1997, 2-3.
[2] Sebastian Moore points to Alexander Lowen and his argument “that the narcissistic personality is one who has been in the habit, since the earliest and pre-remembered childhood, of thinking of him/herself not as ‘feeling this’ or ‘feeling that’ but as ‘the person I think of myself as’.…to the displacement of my own spontaneous, firsthand, feeling-response to what happens around me.” Moore, 1985, 17.

Written by Alex

November 18, 2014 at 3:12 pm

The Problem of Death for Human Maturity: Ernest Becker

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There are very few texts so offensive as Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. So penetrating and all-embracing is his thesis that once it has been encountered, it is simply not possible to look at one’s life in the same way again. A world of meaning and action that once seemed so perfectly normal, so obvious and natural all at once appears exposed as a farce. What once seemed as as the pinnacle of human virtue and strength appears through Becker’s lens as weakness, dishonesty, and worst of all, motivated by fear.

This fear is so ubiquitous and all-pervading that no single name can capture it, but Becker goes quite a long ways by centering his analysis on the fear of death. Becker, an anthropologist by training, puts himself into conversation with an existential interpretation of psychoanalysis[1] that seeks to uncover the deepest source of what motivates human action. He concludes that, at its root, it is the fear of death that ultimately moves us. Beneath all the appearances that our lives are well organized and relatively calm, there simmers a primal terror. Becker shows how everything we do, say, think, and hope for can be shown to ultimately issue from our attempts to deny death. From our national allegiances and devotion to a political cause, to charismatic people with whom we chose to identify, to the employment we adopt, to the religion we advocate, to our hobbies and passions, to the very person we describe when we answer the question: “tell me, who are you?” all of it is masterfully designed to stave off the cruel fact that we are little animals who get sick, vomit, shit, and die.

Severed Deer Head

As a brief aside, it is worth noting here that the reason profanity is profane stems from the association of these words with our frail creaturely nature. Nearly all profanity is drawn from the realms of defecation, illness, and sex. The intermingling of these terms with religious words pulls the realm of our highest ideals down from heaven. We use these terms to “take others down a notch,” as if to say “You are nothing but a pathetic animal that will soon die and rot.” Such words are therefore offensive because they cut against the grain of our typical death denying self-perception.

We can’t tolerate thinking of ourselves in these terms. Nobody answers a request for a self description by identifying as a little, dying animal. Instead we search for more symbolically lofty means of describing who we are. The reason, Becker will stress, is that we can’t bear to face the true nature of our situation. This is exemplified in all our anal efforts to hide the baseness of our animal nature. And it is this ultimately futile, but always maintained struggle that leads us to giggle Montaigne’s aphorism that even “on the highest throne in the world man sits on his arse.”[2]

Humanity’s Existential Paradox

It is crucial, when coming to terms with Becker, that we understand what he means by “death,” and what it is that he thinks we are so afraid of losing. Becker’s thinking on this point can only be understood once we get in view his reliance on the notion of humanity’s existential paradox, what Erich Fromm put succinctly as the fact that “humanity is half animal and half symbolic.”[3]  This view, introduced by Kierkegaard into modern psychoanalysis, recognizes that death for human-kind is not merely a matter of the cessation of biological functioning, or the process of corpse making. It is that, but what makes death such a problem for humanity is our ability to mentally transcend the merely given nature of our environment. We are able to remember the past and envision the future. We have the ability to create, and participate in, not just particular states of affairs, but in universals, in meanings. And here we have the form of death that is peculiar to our status as humans. We fear the death of our meanings. There is biological death, but more importantly for humanity is this symbolic death, especially as it pertains to our “self-esteem.” After all, history is filled with examples of those who will sacrifice their biological life to preserve their sense of unity with a higher significance.

Along with this ability to move in the realm of of meanings comes the capacity that (of all life that we know) humanity alone possesses. We not only die, but we know that we will die. Death is thus more than an atomized event; it becomes a symbol for us. It carries meaning, namely, the end of our personal meaning. It is this, our greatest capacity, that gives rise to our greatest horror, a horror from which there is no escape. Thus, our typical strategy is an endless array of death denial strategies, most of which lie well below the level of our conscious awareness. In our more honest moments we can, from the standpoint of the present, envision a future that unfolds in which we eventually cease to be a participant. It seems a cruel state of affairs, like being given a brand new bicycle with the caveat that it will be taken from you within the span of an hour and given, forever, to your little brother and his friends. Enjoy.

Our inability to bear such a thought lies behind the drive to keep the thought from ever occurring. The way this is done, Becker identifies as the heroic, for it is the hero that faces death, and yet lives. To this idea I will turn in my next post.

Ultimately my engagement with Becker will be towards explicating the self that must die in the process of human maturation and shedding light on why growth is so difficult for us. In the following posts I will continue describing Becker’s approach. Feel free to click here for a link to the table of contents for all my dissertation free-writing posts.


[1] In contrast to what he sees as Freud’s myopic focus on the sexual and biological.
[2] Becker, 1997, 31.
[3] Becker, 1997, 26.

Written by Alex

November 17, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Sneak Peek: Death, Doubt, and Salvation

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The following is the introduction I’ve just finished hammering out for an upcoming paper I will be presenting in Baltimore at the American Academy of Religion conference. It also is shaping up to be the heart of my dissertation work. Perhaps for that reason, this did not come easily to me, but I’m pretty happy with it now. I’ll post the full text to my Academia.edu site after the conference, but I thought I’d offer you a sneak peek. Feedback is always welcome!

This paper argues that it is the fear of death and meaninglessness that drives us to seek salvation in some power greater than our own limited powers. However, since nothing we can point to, talk about, or conceptually define is able to overcome death and doubt, the threat of death and doubt is largely driven from our conscious awareness. In this state of blindness, salvation can be bought more cheaply. The consequence, however, is that life must be lived within the limits of our cheap salvation; for the fullness of life runs to the limit of life, and this limit, death, is something we simply cannot face. Under such conditions, intimacy, both in the form of cognitive union and human relationships, is impossible. We are too committed to living our illusions to risk being that vulnerable.

The question I seek to answer is therefore one of salvation. Faced with these circumstances, what could ever have the power to save us? What could grant us the courage to be weak, and therefore lay our defenses aside, creating the conditions for intimacy and life to its fullness? My conclusion is that the paradox of Christian salvation is such a power. In order to show this I will be introducing two different examples of this paradox in action. The first is its appearance in a philosophical mode, namely that of Paul Tillich’s treatment of reason and revelation. The second is its appearance in the mode of desire. Here we will consider the psychoanalytically influenced Christology of Dom Sebastian Moore. Finally, these threads will be brought together by suggesting that the practice of Centering Prayer can be thought of as a sort of daily training in this paradoxical salvation.

Written by Alex

October 10, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Welcome, Anger. Welcome, Fear.

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Note: This particular entry had the honor of being re-blogged on Patheos’ Cultivare blog as a guest post. Thank you to Dr. Kyle Roberts, who extended the invite.

This morning, after the kids were pretty much all set to go for the day, I flopped down on our bed as the sun was just beginning to cast a warm window-shaped glow on our bedroom wall. As I sometimes do, I picked up a book I’ve been reading and randomly opened it up to see what it could teach me. My mind has been churning ever since.

The book was Cynthia Bourgeault’s “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.” The passage I flipped to was dealing with a method of prayer developed by Thomas Keating and others called the Welcoming Prayer. The insight contained therein is overwhelming.

The method of prayer itself is deceptively simple. It is a prayer used throughout one’s day and it is practiced whenever you note that you are beginning to feel agitated (hopefully you feel agitated periodically. If you don’t you have even bigger issues!). There are three steps:

1. Focus and Sink In

2. Welcome

3. Let Go

Prayer always runs the risk of becoming a tool of repression. The Welcoming Prayer goes in exactly the opposite direction. It is designed to get us to notice what is happening in us before it gets “whisked into the unconscious” where it piles up as psycho-physical garbage.

The first step (surprisingly difficult for some) is to simply notice the upset in your bodily sensations. Don’t struggle to change them; pay attention to them. Sink into them. The second step is where the magic happens. Rather than trying to combat the turbulence within you or otherwise remove it, you welcome it. The goal is not to remove the upset but to stop the upset from having the power to compel your actions.

“By embracing the thing you once defended yourself against or ran from, you are actually disarming it, removing its power to hurt you or chase you back into your smaller self.” Bourgeault, 145.

The third step then happens almost by itself.

Wyeth, Wind from the SeaWhat strikes me as so radical about this form of prayer is the paradoxical way that it works to defuse the dynamics that cause nearly all of our social and personal conflicts. We act from compulsion, and therefore live in un-freedom, when we act out of fear. And fear is a constant feature of our lives. We fear losing goods we have and we fear not getting goods we want (a great example of this is Eddie Vedder’s recent feeling of his own mortality). Fear, when embodied, becomes our enemy. Welcoming prayer addresses the problem of the enemy by first confronting our own fears with a sort of mental hospitality.

But what of the ultimate fear, the ultimate enemy: death?

Is not, as Ernest Becker insisted, fear of death so all-pervasive and so deep that there is really no way for us to cope other than by systems of repression and therefore compulsion and un-freedom? If Becker is right, life itself becomes the enemy, for we cannot escape the fear of losing it, and along with it, all the meanings it contains for us. That’s the million dollar question, it seems to me. What does prayer look like when we stop praying against death (and thereby granting death its power) but instead, focus on our fear of death, welcome that fear, and by doing so release it. What kind of life, what kind of courage, would be possible, once our enemy has been disarmed?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” Mt. 5:43-45

“you have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Mt. 5:38-42

Written by Alex

September 25, 2013 at 9:40 am