The Ernest Becker Foundation
|LOV IX: Living Religion - Inspiring Love, Subserving Enmity|
The 9th Annual LOV conference, Living Religion: Inspiring Love, Subserving Enmity, which took place October 3-5, 2003, was an unusually rich program focusing on applying Becker's ideas to a critical support for religious experience and thought. Opening the conference, David Loy, a professor of philosophy at Bunkyo University in Japan, spoke on Religion as Umbrella, Opiate and Toolkit: A Buddhist Perspective on Death Anxiety. In Loy's fascinating perspective, dilemmas are deftly resolved by utilizing western terms to critique central concepts of Buddhism—emptiness and karma.
Although Buddhism is perhaps the most psychological of all major religions (or belief systems), Buddhist psychology has no solid point of contact with Western psychology. Such familiar terms as role, self, will, motive, ego, identity, projection, transference are largely absent from Buddhism, leaving the western reader and practitioner grasping for familiar ground. Loy deftly employed Becker's insights to illuminate key concepts of Buddhism. If, as Loy quoting Becker suggests, the central dilemma of human existence is to cope with our ineluctable fate of facing our death with awareness, religions offer us the dual possibility of serving as an opiate/umbrella, diverting our attention from our fate, or as a tool kit/generator of mythic visions enabling new types of heroism. Religions exist in dynamic tension between these two possibilities.
Loy noted that in areas of Asia in which Buddhism is the dominant cultural religion, Buddhism also commonly serves the role of opiate/umbrella. But Buddhism also serves a liberating role, as exemplified in the story of the Buddha's home-leaving story. Growing up in a home and an environment where death did not exist, as a young man the Buddha left his comfortable surroundings and went to live in the forest, where the awareness of death inspired a spiritual quest. Drawing comparisons with Kierkegaard, Loy drew attention to the use of death anxiety as a school to promote self-transformation. In such practices as graveyard meditation, the various schools of Buddhism use practice as a means to overcome the human tendency to self-delusion.
Loy said that in the Buddhist perspective, our fundamental repression is not death denial per se, but "emptiness anxiety," by which he means that our sense of self is ungrounded—insecure, and shadowed by a sense of "lack." Following this view, the Buddhist concept of anatta, or selflessness, is a concept with which to combat our human tendency to resist change by remaining frozen within a fixed identity. For self-transformation to begin, and for the self to relate to powers beyond itself, the self must be destroyed, brought to nothing. At the end of a process transformation, in which we allow the "bottom to drop out," we arrive at an opening up and creativity at the core of our being. At this point, instead of projecting our fears outward (scapegoating) Buddhist meditation may facilitate spiritual transformation, an experience of Godhead. This, Loy suggested, may be open to empirical, scientific exploration.
Finally, Loy moved on to the key Buddhist concept of karma (and associated doctrine of rebirth). Often understood as "fate," the concept is associated with concepts of good and evil, and atonement. In distinction to pre-existing practices of control of fate through the proper performance of ritual, Buddhism creatively substituted the concept of motivation. We control our fate and construct ourselves by what we choose to do. Character is comprised of our conscious decisions and actions. Karma reflects what we choose. By focusing on motivation, the three poisons of greed, ill-will, and delusion can be transformed into generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.
Re-introducing the Western concept of transference, Loy compared the purity of intention to "positive projection." As we transform our karma through right intention, we grow into what we want to become. In Zen terms, when we adopt a teacher, we only think we are learning from him. In fact, it is our right intention which instructs us, not the teacher. Loy reconnected this aspect of Buddhist practice to Becker's concept of the dual role of religion: to continue man's denial of death or affirmation of transformation.
Loy's presentation was a brilliant exploration of key concepts of (the West's) Enlightenment project and Buddhist enlightenment. One is left with a need to ask Loy to respond to criticisms of Buddhism in Becker's own work. First, Becker invidiously compared Buddhist self-renunciation with Christianity. Christianity, Becker observed, counseled renunciation in this life in order to achieve happiness in the afterlife. Buddhism, Becker observed, counseled renunciation in this world and renunciation of the next world as well. Was Becker's aversion to Buddhism based merely on a lack of knowledge, or a more profound antipathy? Similarly, Becker particularly criticized Zen Buddhism as containing the seeds of authoritarianism. Does this reflect an early, limited understanding of Buddhism, or is this a criticism of enduring value? These may be questions for further discussion at future forums on Becker and religion.
The following morning, the conference shifted from lecture to two dramatic presentations. For the past number of years, peace activist Bernie Meyer has been assuming the persona of Mahatma Gandhi for school programs and other forums in which to discuss Gandhi's life and philosophy. In this presentation, Meyer as Gandhi was interviewed by Dan Liechty, and then also fielded questions from the audience, focusing especially on the role of religious faith in his life and work. Following this, Steve James and Ken Swain, who have been hosting a public access program entitled "Perspective," showed clips from the program and fielded questions on use of media for disseminating Becker's ideas.
Sheldon Solomon continued conference proceedings with a fascinating account of the evolution of religion. Scientists have long asked themselves what factors make humans unique, set apart from their hominid ancestors. The obvious answers are language, art and religion. And yet, from the perspective of most specialists, there is a dilemma in that answer. From a standard evolutionary point of view, only language has evolutionary advantage. Opposing this traditional view, Swiss Classicist Walter Burkert has argued that art and religion are also adaptive. Solomon elucidated Burkert's arguments and demonstrated their compatibility with extensions of Becker's ideas.
Art and religion are historically bound, not supernatural. They are created institutions. Furthermore, they are enduring institutions, suggesting there is adaptive advantage. (i.e. if it were useless, it would disappear.) Yet religion is problematic, and causes most of the world's problems, for although humanly created, it makes use of supernatural principles. Searching for the evolutionary advantage of religion, Burkert argues that humans began living in groups prior to the rise of agriculture. In all likelihood religion assisted hunting and gathering groups to collaborate.
Moreover, religion likely contributed to social stability. In a parallel with Becker, Burkert argues that in psychological terms, religion is what fortifies us to evolve in the face of despair, arising out of an overriding fear of death. Burkert theorizes that hunting actually may have increased early man's awareness of death, thus increasing the need for a religious response. Moreover, given the level of cooperation among sizable communities of people required in the hunting of big game, ritual, as a precursor of religion, may have played a key role in the development of this ability. The archeological record indicates that rituals had to do with sacrifice and killings. Sacrifice, in turn, transforms our concerns about death into a means to sustain life. Solomon then drew on other sources, noting that the first footraces were religious rituals, involving sacrifice of animals. The first foot racer to return poured wine over the victim. The essence of these rituals was a flight from death and an affirmation of life. Solomon suggested that even today, reminders of mortality tend to intensify our belief in religion—even among atheists!
As theologian Paul Tillich maintained, in opening up the depth of man's spiritual life, we touch the holy, the source of ultimate courage. But of course, as critics of religion have argued, when priests turn laws into absolutes, they justify their use to persecute the heathen. In so doing they mistake the beliefs of faith for reality itself. Arguing for toleration, playwright Tom Stoppard noted that there is never a better time to be alive than when everything we believe is wrong. But true believers tend not to believe the archeological and genetic record, which is that we are all descended from the same 200 original humans.
Ending on a solemn note, Solomon confirmed the wisdom of those who have pointed out the folly of following true believers. The Roman philosopher Seneca, for example, pointed to the realist who asked himself how the world would be after his death. Answer: just as it was before his birth. Finally, quoting Camus, Solomon noted that in a time of pestilence, we learn, there is more in men to admire than to despise.
Continuing conference presentations was the contribution from Herbert Anderson, Director of Pastoral Care at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Seattle, entitled, "The Wages of the Denial of Death are Sin: Understanding Human Evil in Light of the Fear of Death."
As the sole presenter from an explicitly Christian point of view, Anderson had a dual challenge; first, to explain the existential, Christian point of view to the audience in order, secondly, to interpret Becker in terms of a Christian perspective. Anderson stressed that death appears paradoxical: it is both an abrupt end, an interruption of life, and a fulfillment of life, an act of consummation. In existential terms, we are given the gift of paradox, and must struggle with ambiguity. Most truth is paradoxical. The deepest contradictions of life are not to be resolved, but lived in the light of paradox. In Christian terms, the Cross represents paradox: in order to live, we must die. In his treatment of Kierkegaard, Becker concludes that as long as man is ambiguous, he can never abolish anxiety. The challenge of faith poses a new task: to remain open to a multidimensional reality.
Becker talked about tolerance of ambiguity on both the individual and the social level. While he was an exquisite interpreter of man’s existential dilemmas, Becker was not content to leave matters at that level. He also saw the need for man to endure contradiction and paradox at the social and political level. Particularly in Bush’s post-9/11 America, our nation needs to reflect on its inability to live with uncertainty. Persons able to tolerate ambiguity are able to celebrate diversity. As Anderson commented, there never has been a better time for this nation to cultivate this quality. In Christian terms, the challenge is to follow Christ and yet to live with doubt and ambiguity. In Tillich’s words "Christianity demands that one accept suffering with courage as an element of finitude, and affirm finitude in spite of suffering that accompanies it."
Referring to the explicitly social and political sphere, Anderson examined the phenomenon of apathy and suffering. The alternative to apathy, Anderson maintained, is the embrace of suffering. To embrace suffering, we must (re)learn to lament, for lamentation is how we endure in the face of suffering. It is this ability to lament that has been missing from Christian vocabulary. Christian prayerbooks have eliminated songs of lament. The inability to lament also limits the opportunity to build community.
The next major address was given by social ethicist Merlyn Mowrey. She spoke on "The Sacred Cosmos: Transcendence Without Absolutism." This lecture focused on the central dilemma of Ernest Becker’s later writings, that on the one hand the most satisfying psychological, emotional and spiritual state for human beings is the sense of connection to an Absolute source of transcendence; but on the other hand, this is exactly the most potentially dangerous state because it places us beyond moral strictures and therefore much more likely to commit horrible acts of destructive violence with a complacent or even righteous sense of purpose.
This presentation continues the investigations Mowrey has been conducting into the deep meaning of what Becker called necessary illusions. Becker suggested that human beings are pushed forward by the urge to deny mortality and attain a heroic self-image. Illusion, necessary but ‘fictional’ constructions of reality in which we inhabit these heroic roles, is an evitable part of this process. Absolutism is the surest defense we have against exposure of our illusions to the withering deflation of our death denying, heroic self-image. The fall into absolutism is inevitably connected to our attempts to prop up and defend the fictions of our social constructions against all threats, and absolutism in turn justifies the destructive violence required in this defense. Becker suggested that while this human dilemma is an intrinsic aspect of our very nature, there was possibility in certain kinds of religious formulations of transcendence that would foster a positive sense of attachment to absolute transcendence, absolution of existential guilt and a sense of cosmic heroism, while actually taming our urge toward rage and violence in our defense of this sense of transcendence.
Although Becker did, of course, acknowledge the dangers of religious illusions, Mowrey is much less confident than Becker in the positive functions of religious illusions, and much of her work has been aimed at criticizing from various perspectives Becker’s formulation of religious illusions and offering possible correctives to Becker’s formulations from within the context of Becker’s own theories of death denial. In this lecture she very adeptly explored a religious philosophy of nature as one possible path by which the positive functions of religion could be gained, while providing a construction of the absolute that is much less prone than Becker’s to the dangers of self-righteous destructive violence in its service and defense.
Closing the conference was the lecture, "Laughing at Death: The Evolution of Humor to Disarm Fundamentalism," by Neil Elgee, the Founding President of the Ernest Becker Foundation. Here, fundamentalism essentially means religious and social philosophies that are closed off to self–examination and self-criticism, and thus which maintain a suspicious and defensive stance toward all that is outside of its reality construction. Elgee demonstrated how fundamentalist views of reality are easily understood as defenses against chaos, the Void, which are symbols of mortality and death. For progressive growth to occur, windows to the Void must be opened, if only for short peeks, allowing us to hold our cherished reality constructions more tentatively and less defensively.
Following the work of Richard Alexander Peter Berger, Elgee took the first steps of developing what might be called an aesthetics of humor, a philosophical understanding of humor that is able to distinguish between ostracizing (from simple kitsch to biting irony), and affiliative forms (from buoying up the in-group against The Others, to teasing inside the in-group, to self-directed irony) (though all of these in their particular expressions may be "funny" and elicit laughter). If we think of ourselves as enclosed in our reality constructions, kitschy expressions simply confirm us in our prejudices, for example, by going for the laugh at the expense of already denigrated persons or groups. At the other extreme, sacrilege or obscene expressions tear such a wide hole in our enclosure that our exposure to the Void is so radical we can do nothing more than draw back in horror and shut it down as quickly as possible.
Neither of these expressions is likely to produce positive growth. Both actually confirm the standard prejudices—kitsch by confirming the rightness of the reality construct, and sacrilege and obscenity by forcing us to strengthen the walls of our enclosure against the outside. In contrast, truly aesthetically appropriate humor allows us to look at our foibles and prejudices (for example, self-directed jesting) at the social and power hierarchy (the court jester, or modern carnival inversions of hierarchy come to mind here) allowing, as it were, real contact with the chaos beyond, yet enough guarded and of limited duration that we do not simply draw back in horror. Such"'sanctioned" contacts of that which is beyond the boundaries of our dominant reality construction germinate, producing a more "user friendly" curiosity about the beyond, which may eventually foster more porous borders in our reality construction, an extension of our boundaries, an ironic mindset, more openness to the realities of others. Humor in the best sense, then, is a direct path toward tolerance and positive growth.
Laughing at Death
Becker “too dark?” He said laughter reflects a very advanced stage of faith and grace. See Neil’s "Laughing at Death: The evolution of humor to disarm fundamentalism.”
Download a .pdf version of Neil's essay here.