The Ernest Becker Foundation
Celebration and Appeal
We ask for your financial support just once a year, every December. So here we are with easy online access (Please Donate Here).
To review, the EBF is a public 501c3, meaning it is publicly supported, and contributions get maximum IRS deductibility. The foundation in our title stands not for endowments, as much as we’d like to have them, but for Becker’s foundational synthesis of science and religion, and the many interrelated disciplines.
Take a look at this issue of our newsletter to see if we might be living up to the challenge of active creative work on that interdisciplinary synthesis. Most notable, Becker’s spectacular science wing, Terror Management Theory (TMT), is represented here in the reports on three works by Daniel Sullivan, a protégé of Jeff Greenberg of TMT trio originator fame, with interdisciplinary vision.
Sullivan’s spirited discussion of his new book coedited with Jeff, Death in Classic and Contemporary Film: Fade to Black. (see review in our September newsletter) showed graduate students connecting with an articulate animated polished young professor who is reaching from the TMT methodology into film criticism. In two earlier publications, during his doctoral training, he delved deeply into the theologian philosopher Tillich, one of Becker’s main existential thinkers behind his interest in religion. [see Sullivan on Tillich and Growth Beyond Psychology]
So again, we have interdisciplinary dialog, just what Dr. Becker prescribed.
And one more thing: Poetry! [see John Wright below] What a way to wrap up.
By Neil Elgee
John Wright is a cherished old friend and a fellow retired endocrinologist who has become an accomplished and published poet in his later years. Also a serious Beckerite, we call him the Poet Laureate of the EBF. See two of his poems at the "Read more" link.
He has just published his fourth collection “Bumping Against the Glass,” 63 pages. I think it is a treasure and his acknowledgment note shows how valuable Becker has been for him. Also John’s bio in this little collection says he has “sustained a measure of playfulness unknown to me during the first sixty-plus years of my life.”
Sheldon Solomon Event for Students
January MALS Seminar, Skidmore College
“A Cultural Animal in an Existential Age”
The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.
--Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun
Course description: An interdisciplinary
examination of how universal human existential concerns (death, choice/responsibility, isolation, meaninglessness) have been addressed at
different times in history, with particular
attention to modernity.
Texts: The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker
The Cry for Myth, Rollo May
The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death
in Life, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, & Tom Pyszczynski (Pub. date March 15, 2015)
Clock without Hands, Carson McCullers
More Info: www.skidmore.edu/mals
Sullivan on Tillich and growth beyond psychology
By Daniel Sullivan
In recent decades, Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski have transformed a substantial corner of the world of social psychology by translating Beckerian ideas into terror management theory (TMT). This theory has in turn ushered in a new “experimental existential psychology (XXP),” examining the effects of exposing participants to reminders of existential threats (e.g., death, meaninglessness) or existential resources (e.g., God or a sense of awe).
In addition to in this empirical tradition, Becker was an interdisciplinary thinker, so there is a strong tradition of Beckerian work in the humanities, represented, e.g., by EBF VP Daniel Liechty, philosopher, theologian.
In my own work I push the question of whether “XXP” represents the full range of insights of the existentialists themselves (let alone Becker). In this connection, my colleagues and I have recently turned to the work of Paul Tillich (which also inspired Becker). In our article “Toward a Comprehensive Understanding of Existential Threat,” we attempted to leverage Tillich’s distillation of existential theories of anxiety as a framework for synthetically bringing together various findings in social psychology that have previously been viewed as competing or contradictory.
The work of Tillich, Becker, and the existentialists more generally further suggests that there are limits to what experimental studies can tell us about human experience. Studies of art and film, which Becker himself pursued, may be useful alternative sources of “evidence” about the reality of our lives and existential dilemmas. Accordingly, in my article “Tillich and Tarkovsky” (graciously encouraged by Kirk Schneider), I use Tillich’s analysis in a very different context – not to synthesize research, but rather to illuminate a work of artistic cinema. It is my hope that these modest studies go some small way towards showing the usefulness not only of Tillich’s ideas, but of interdisciplinary dialogue more broadly, in the contemporary intellectual climate.
View Daniel Sullivan's articles below:
by EBF Staff
In mid-October, the Ernest Becker Foundation sponsored a lecture at Seattle University in which Daniel Sullivan, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, presented on the topic “Death in Film, Exploring Becker’s Relevance in Cinema Studies.” This lecture is based on a recent book edited by Mr. Sullivan and Jeff Greenberg, Death in Classic and Contemporary Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which was reviewed in the previous newsletter by Patrick Shen. It is clear that death, in the form of murder, the result of violence, suicide and as a form of psychological motivation for key characters, has a long and central place in cinematic drama.
In this lecture, Sullivan outlined a number of the different categories and analyses that have emerged over the years to interpret the role of death in the history of film. Sullivan built his presentation toward the point that death themes are contextualized differently in various film genres, such as horror films, war films, and crime movies. Overall, depictions of killing have become increasingly graphic in recent film. Sullivan noted that this increased depiction of graphic death appears to correlate with the decreased ability of shared social meanings to act as adequate buffers between death anxiety and the individual.
Sullivan suggested that in applying ideas of Otto Rank and Ernest Becker to the interpretation of film, a number of counter-intuitive points begin to make sense. Replete with examples, clips and excerpts from both Hollywood and the German film tradition, the lecture culminates in a point Shen highlighted as well in his review, that though it appears in many forms and settings, the role of death in film actually serves to underline and enhance the value of life.
A highly appreciative and sizable audience composed of approximately half EBF regulars and half graduate students in the MA in Psychology Program at Seattle U, kept the very engaging and articulate Prof Sullivan occupied in dialog well into the night.
Special thanks go to Professor Kevin Krycka, Director of the MA Program, for co-sponsoring this event.
By Daniel Liechty
Of Recent Interest… is the new book by Charles Nolan, The Holy Bluff: The Search for Meaning in a Post-Religious Age (Kindle, 2013). Nolan, a Catholic seminarian turned social worker, writes from the perspective of one who knows both what it feels like from the inside to have deep religious faith, and also what it feels like to experience the ebbing and loss of that faith in the face of exposure to postmodern philosophy and the scientific worldview. He refers to the current situation, in which we can no longer simply draw without dilemma on the comforts of formal and institutional religion, as “…the strange hand we have been dealt.” He recognizes that it is both something new and unique, but also a situation in which we can learn from those who have gone before us. In this regard, Nolan finds Ernest Becker’s ideas and writings to be especially useful and moving.
In this very engaging book, Nolan begins with the idea that in our time, the very notions of truth that people once took for granted have been thoroughly undermined. Even to speak of a quest for truth has something of an ironic tinge to it. From Becker, Nolan comes to realize that it is our wrestling with mortality that creates within us the need for truth, yet whatever truth we think we have found also tends to dissolve and crumble in the face of death. This is the irony of our situation. Many readers of this newsletter will smile in recognition as Nolan narrates the period in his life in which he was shoving The Denial of Death under the noses of any friends or acquaintances who seemed even mildly interested in his existential musings.
Our Guiding Principles
"The root of humanly caused evil is not man's animal nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness, but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and acheive a heroic self-image. Our desire for the best is the cause of the worst."