The custom of imposing ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, has the potential to encourage us to think that mortality is something we should repent of. The opposite is the case. We are not asked to repent of our mortality, we are asked to remember our mortality. Remembering our mortality is an important way to repent and to amend our lives. Since God made us mortal, mortality is not the problem. The problem, a huge problem, is the tendency to deny our mortality, to think that death should not apply to us. Clinical studies inspired by Ernest Becker show that denial of mortality leads to violent and insensitive behavior while some measure of acceptance leads to a much more humane way of relating to others, of connecting to others. I can’t help but reflect that in a great many fantasy novels, the villain tries to gain immortality which can only be achieved by stealing the life substance of others; an extreme example of how denial of mortality inevitably leads to victimization of other people. Such villains are always so deeply isolated as to be living deaths, no matter how many years they survive in this world. But if we accept our mortality, we put our trust in the crucified and Risen Lord, the true giver of life. When we accept our mortality, the time we have to repent becomes precious and we are ready to spend this precious gift wisely in the way we live so that others, too, may live.
In December 1927, the New York Times announced that Freud had doomed religion with his book The Future of an Illusion. In The Authenticity of Faith: the Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience, psychologist and professing Christian Richard Beck evaluates this claim. Beck points out that Freud did not debunk religion by refuting the classical proofs of God’s existence but by arguing that religion was ego-centric wishful thinking that we must outgrow. We could respond by suggesting that atheism is wishful thinking; a wish not to be accountable to God. There is that but there is much value in taking Freud’s critique seriously to see if it holds up to Christianity as it is actually lived which is what Beck does.
Beck turns to Ernest Becker to evaluate Freud’s thesis. Becker (the focus of Beck’s book Slavery to Death) argued that denial of death was a prime motivation in human behavior, leading us to seek “heroic” acts levels to stave off the reality of death, an example of what Freud called sublimation. (See Escape from the Denial of Death) It happens that there have been many scientific studies of Becker’s thesis by his followers and they tend to show that the more one is reminded of mortality, the more rigidly one defends one’s worldview and denigrates others. This applies to any worldview, not just Christianity.
Beck then brings in the Psalms of lamentation (a large chunk of the Psalter) and the spiritual darkness that Mother Teresa admitted to as counter-indications that wishful thinking is the only dynamic in Christianity. Beck could just as easily have brought in St. John of the Cross who wrote about “the dark night of the soul.” Beck then turns to William James who pre-dated Freud in his scientific study of religious experience that was published in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James distinguished between “healthy-minded” believers and “sick souls.” The terms are misleading in that “healthy-mindedness” is superficial and leads to denial of life’s difficulties and so is not really that healthy. Meanwhile, “sick souls” wrestle with cognitive dissonance and inner darkness in a way that makes them more resilient and authentic in the long run. The Psalmist of lament, Mother Teresa and St. John of the Cross would be “sick souls.” Beck notes that the charges Freud and Becker make about wishful believers applies well to what James called the “healthy-minded” but not at all to the “sick souls.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace” seems to fit James’ distinction quite well.
Since there had been no scientific investigations of James’ categories, Beck has filled this gap with his own field work. First, participants were given a questionnaire to give ratings as to how “healthy-minded” or “sick-souled” they were and then they were given a task such as to evaluate an essay by a Christian and one by a Buddhist. Not surprisingly, the “healthy-minded” respondents denigrated the Buddhist while the “sick souls” were much more tolerant in their attitudes. The same result came with tests on comfort with the Incarnation (such as whether one admits Jesus might have had diarrhea) or evaluating two works of art, one imaging healthy-mindedness, the other more focused on life’s pain. In each case, there was strong confirmation of James’ distinction of different believers.
It is worth mentioning René Girard’s theory of the origin of religion in collective violence in this context. Girard does not think that early humans wished for pie in the sky and then made up a religion to get it. Rather, they responded to social crises by killing or expelling a victim. The camaraderie that resulted from this act and the institutionalization of sacrifice was the payoff. (See Two Ways of Gathering) In fact, belief in a heavenly afterlife is quite a latecomer in world religion. The social solidarity of collective violence can easily be achieved these days without a deity. Freud himself made a dogma of his ideas and expelled all dissenters. In Girard’s thinking, it is the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death that expose sacred violence for what it is. Girard’s thought adds weight to the correlation between being “healthy-minded” and prone to expelling those who differ. Beck does not say anything about the Paschal Mystery, but the cross at the center of Christianity should be enough to suggest that Christianity has its own built-in critique of wish-fulfillment in Freud’s sense or “healthy-minded” religion in James’ sense. One need only read the Epistles of Paul to see this self-critique at the origins of Christianity. I think Beck would agree since he sees a much deeper love among the “sick souls” than among the “healthy-minded” and he notes that in 1 Corinthians Paul says that love is the greatest virtue of all.
Beck’s exploration of Freud and James is of great importance for coming to grips with a theological anthropology and pointing in the direction of authentic faith and genuine spirituality.
Richard Beck’s new book The Slavery of Death works with the powerful thesis of Ernest Becker which states that fear and denial of death fuels human aggression. I have read both of Becker’s books (Denial of Death and Escape from Evil) and I find Becker’s analysis of this phenomenon compelling. Moreover, much scientific testing has verified Becker’s theory. Beck outlines Becker’s demonstration this existential fear of death and its subsequent denial leads to striving for heroism. For Becker, heroism is a compulsive drive to succeed, to prove that one matters, and to gain recognition for one’s efforts. One might think that there is nothing wrong with any of this but this neurotic striving for “heroism” comes to the expense of other things in life such as family and friends. Moreover, the social settings for such striving tend to magnify aggressive behavior so that not only fearful individuals but the social groups as well persecute others to validate themselves.
Impressive as Becker’s insights are, they are very bleak and they don’t offer humanity any constructive way out the denial of death except, perhaps, a heavy dose of Stoicism. Most humans find this cold comfort at best and an impossible prescription at worst. Might as well join Jean-Paul Sartre in a life of existential despair.
Richard Beck brings Christian theology and spirituality to Becker’s insights which brings us into a whole new ball game. To begin with, he notes the importance the Eastern Orthodox Churches give to Death, rather than Sin being the prime enemy that Jesus must destroy. He adds depth to the slavery to “heroism” by comparing it to the “principalities and powers” of the world denounced by St. Paul. Beck then uses the social and anthropological thought of Walter Wink and William Stringfellow (who deserves to be much more remembered than he seems to be) to help us see the strength of social forces that pull us into a “heroic” mode. Much more important, Beck shows how an eccentric life can pull us out of this death anxiety so as to live a healthy, loving life. Beck is not talking about being somebody’s eccentric uncle; he is talking about living a life centered outside the self. He uses Arthur McGill as a resource for understanding how love and concern for others benefits the one doing the loving by pulling us out of ourselves. Jesus, of course, is the perfect example of eccentric living. Jesus was positioned fully out of himself out of concern for others and also his grounding in his heavenly Father. That is why, although he feared the painful death to come in Gethsemane, he had the courage to endure it. Lest one be overly daunted by the extent of Jesus’ self-sacrifice and that of people like Teresa of Calcutta, Beck also shows how important small sacrifices on a daily basis are for eccentric living. These are within reach of everybody. The “little way” of Thérèse of Lisieux is are stirring and practical example. For Thérèse, eccentric living can be as simple as pushing a wheelchair of an elderly sister who complains bitterly over every bump on the way. It is such eccentric living that leads to Jesus’s resurrected life which we are all invited to share.