Faithfully not denying Death

I’ve long felt a faith that’s mostly concerned with ‘getting saved’ is a poor kind of faith.  This means I found Richard Beck’s book Freud's Ghost and the Quest for an Authentic Faith, a welcome confirmation.  The book, free and and on the web, is an unblinking look at our problems with death.

He provides some extensive and enlightening quotations from Becker’s Denial of Death, from Walter Bruggemann’s The Message of the Psalms, William James Varieties of Religious Experience, and Paul Jones Theological Worlds. These are all used to consider the implications of the claim that religion is just too convenient to be true. He asks “don't we all deep down prefer religion to be true? Don't we all deeply wish religion to be true?”

Beck asks us to take Freud seriously.

"Religion [is] the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity."
“The effect of religious consolations may be likened to that of a narcotic.”

Religion is a narcotic. That's basically Freud's view. And the word narcotic is well-choosen. For narcotics do two things. First, they dull the pain. Second, they give us pleasure. And Freud suggests that religion does this: It dulls the pain and makes us happy.

So, when I ask you to take Freud seriously I'm asking you to do this: Accept the fact that religion functions as a narcotic.

He concludes that Freud is not necessarily correct in this claim, but that for many people, he is exactly correct.

He quotes (Greenburg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynki, T. 1997. Terror management theory of self- esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, pp. 61-139). San Diego, CA: Academic Press)

Self-consciousness also engenders vast potential for terror. Because knowing that one is alive necessitates the horrifying recognition of one's vulnerabilities and inevitable death and of the fact that death and disease often occur tragically and prematurely for reasons that can neither be anticipated nor controlled. This awareness of the inevitability of death in an animal instinctively programmed for self-preservation and continued existence created the potential for a paralyzing terror, a problem that needed to be resolved if our species was to remain a viable contender for survival on a planet fraught with danger.

This awareness drives the need to contruct "paths of 'meaning' and 'significance'" to relieve the terror of living.  Religion can too easily be such a path.

People who have read Spong’s latest book, Eternal Life: A New Vision, will find much that resonates with Beck's starting point, although Spong is dealing with another question. The two books read well together; each shining a light on the other.

The awareness of our own mortality is so terrible, in the real sense of the world, that it takes a real effort to become conscious of it. Such fear can be almost comical; I remember a workmate lumbered with preparing a body for a bush funeral.  He was in such a hurry to nail down the lid of the chipboard coffin one frosty morning, that he nailed the corner of his coat under the lid. His companion said that rather than prise up the lid, he cut the corner off the coat. At the same time, this is inexpressibly sad.

At the time I laughed... and crowed a little.  I know now I was deep in my own denial, all the while sort of aware of it, but not caring to look to closely.  Beck, very gently, asks us to take a look.

He asks if it is possible to have a faith which is not simply about the denial of death.  He believes it is, but only if we take the insights of Freud fully 'on board.' He suggests a path by which we might test the likelihood that we are simply in denial, or if our faith is perhaps more grounded in reality.

Like Spong in Eternal Life, Beck is insistent, albeit gently, on thoroughly examining the way in which we can deceive ourselves with our faith.  This will be either refreshingly honest and liberating, or a frightening confrontation, depending on the reader.

Although he recognizes that we all have temperamental differences in the way we approach life and faith, Beck is suspicious of a faith that is too much a “summer faith,” which does not feel the terror of life. “Groping toward an authentic faith,”  (also the title of his third chapter) involves a confrontation with our fragility and death.

Beck includes into a strong critique of Penal Substitutionary Atonement theology which is almost ubiquitous within modern Christianity.  He sees that it is also connected with our unconscious terror management.

The book is well worth reading. You will find the front page and the table of contents here.  I found that it quickly and painlessly converted to ereader format using tlpdb, and put it on my PDA. The same could be done using MobiPocket.

Andrew Prior



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