Richard Beck, the author of The Slavery of Death [Eugene, OR, Cascade Books, 2014], is a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University, a school affiliated with the Christian Churches, a self-described “evangelistic and Bible-based” denomination that believes in returning to the original teachings and practices of the New Testament. If, like me at the outset, you think that might be an unlikely place to find an appreciation of Ernest Becker’s work, think again. Beck has written a profound study of the place of death and death denial in contemporary life and Christian practice, and he draws heavily on the work of Becker, as well as the confirmatory empirical research of Sheldon Solomon and his colleagues.
Beck examines Becker’s notion of the role of self-esteem and “cultural hero systems” in allowing us to repress our fear of death, thereby closing us off, both from the realization of our true, vulnerable, existential situation, as well as from understanding and appreciating the worldviews of various outgroups. Beck understands and endorses Becker’s insight that the neurotic anxiety that underlies our death denial can all too easily spill over into violence, as we try to maintain our own heroism and our own self-esteem. One need look no further than the 2016 election campaign with its camps of “elites” (the successful cultural heroes), and the “left-behinds,” who feel that their cry for self-esteem is not being heard by the dominant culture; as we have seen, violence is often just beneath the surface.
The principal value of Beck’s work is that it finds in the Christian gospel a deep understanding of the existential demand to face and embrace our lonely finitude. Beck notes that the New Testament calls the keepers and enforcers of the cultural hero system the “principalities and powers.” He says the Christian project is to live into what the great African American theologian Howard Thurman called an “eccentric identity,” outside the purview of the principalities and powers—and consequently, in a sense, outside ourselves. Because we existentially participate in our culture whether we want to or not, we must transcend our very selves, adopting the identity of a “child of God,” that is, the identity of one who has worth outside of and beyond the worth conferred or withheld by the culture.
Beck points out that one of the key concepts in the Christian gospel is that of kenosis, or emptying. The apostle Paul asserts that he had once been one of the most successful heroes of the dominant culture: “a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Yet, he says, he now considers all of these things as “rubbish.” He has emptied himself and become an “eccentric person,” in Howard Thurman’s words, someone who has died to “the world,” that is, to the cultural hero system of the principalities and powers.
Beck cites the Gospel of John, in which Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The life to be died to is “life in this world,” life in our cultural hero system; the life to be gained is “eternal,” that is the “abundant life” uncovered when we dare to empty ourselves of the craving for self-esteem and cultural heroism and redefine ourselves as “eccentric.” Those who are “blessed,” according to Jesus, are not the proud cultural heroes, but the humble; not the culture warriors, but the peacemakers; not the rich, but the poor [in Luke] (or the “poor in spirit” in Matthew.)
Unfortunately, as Beck points out, the church itself has often adopted the role of the principalities and powers, setting up rules for heroism, rather than advocating kenosis. This is part of the tragedy of the human situation, as seen by both Beck and Becker.
Beck’s accomplishment is that he has elucidated the profound insights of Becker and the ways in which they are embedded in the original Christian gospel. From Beck’s book, both Christians and non-Christians can learn something of the wisdom of Becker’s work.
Tom Cathcart spent most of his career in health care, including stints as COO of a hospital and director of a boarding home for people with HIV/AIDS. After retiring, he and his college friend—and fellow philosophy major—Danny Klein published a book showing how a number of jokes illustrate philosophical ideas. To their shock, after being rejected by 40 publishers, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes became a New York Times and international bestseller. They followed up with Heidegger and a Hippo Walk through Those Pearly Gates, which draws on the work of Ernest Becker. It was this book that caught the attention of Neil Elgee at the Becker Foundation.