The Denial of Death and the Practice of Dying

corybeckersite | October 1, 2014

“The denial of death” is a phrase from Ernest Becker, and the title of his most famous book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Becker’s book focuses on how we human beings develop strategies to fend off awareness of our mortality and vulnerability and to escape into the feeling that we’re immortal. “The practice of dying” is a phrase used by Socrates, as recorded by Plato, for describing one aspect of how a person becomes morally mature. Socrates is urging us to face into our mortality and to let an awareness of death purify our motives.

I think that Becker and Socrates are both on the money. Denying death/or practicing dying are well juxtaposed as two basic responses to our awareness of mortality. So I want here to investigate these two responses and follow out some of their consequences.

Two Contrasting Orientations
I’ll begin by recapping Becker’s main thesis in The Denial of Death.

As a cultural anthropologist, Becker was searching for explanations of why human society develops in the way that it does, and he was particularly interested in why human society is so violent, why different social groups are so intolerant and hateful of each other. By the time of writing The Denial of Death, his ninth book, he had reached the conclusion that he had found a very important explanatory principle for understanding human behavior and human culture. This principle, summarized with extreme brevity, is as follows. Human beings are mortal, and we know it. Our sense of vulnerability and mortality gives rise to a basic anxiety, even a terror, about our situation. So we devise all sorts of strategies to escape awareness of our mortality and vulnerability, as well as our anxious awareness of it. This psychological denial of death, Becker claims, is one of the most basic drives in individual behavior, and is reflected throughout human culture. Indeed, one of the main functions of culture, according to Becker, is to help us successfully avoid awareness of our mortality. That suppression of awareness plays a crucial role in keeping people functioning–if we were constantly aware of our fragility, of the nothingness we are a split second away from at all times, we’d go nuts. And how does culture perform this crucial function? By making us feel certain that we, or realities we are part of, are permanent, invulnerable, eternal. And in Becker’s view, some of the personal and social consequences of this are disastrous.

First, at the personal level, by ignoring our mortality and vulnerability we build up an unreal sense of self, and we act out of a false sense of who and what we are. Second, as members of society, we tend to identify with one or another “immortality system” (as Becker calls it). That is, we identify with a religious group, or a political group, or engage in some kind of cultural activity, or adopt a certain culturally sanctioned viewpoint, that we invest with ultimate meaning, and to which we ascribe absolute and permanent truth. This inflates us with a sense of invulnerable righteousness. And then, we have to protect ourselves against the exposure of our absolute truth being just one more mortality-denying system among others, which we can only do by insisting that all other absolute truths are false. So we attack and degrade–preferably kill–the adherents of different mortality- denying-absolute-truth systems. So the Protestants kill the Catholics; the Muslims vilify the Christians and vice versa; upholders of the American way of life denounce Communists; the Communist Khmer Rouge slaughters all the intellectuals in Cambodia; the Spanish Inquisition tortures heretics; and all good students of the Enlightenment demonize religion as the source of all evil. The list could go on and on.

In my view, Ernest Becker was right about this core thesis. I think it is accurate to say that a denial of death pervades human culture, and that it is one of the deepest sources of intolerance, aggression, and human evil. The notion of immortality systems is an especially useful diagnostic tool. It is easy to spot people (including oneself, of course) clinging to absolute truths in the way he describe–and it is not hard to understand why they do. It is not just anxiety over physical vulnerability. It goes deeper than that. We all want out lives to have meaning, and death suggests that life adds up to nothing. People want desperately for their lives to really count, to be finally real. If you think about it, most all of us try to found our identities on something whose meaning seems permanent or enduring: the nation, the race, the revolutionary vision; the timelessness of art, the truths of science, immutable philosophical verities, the law of self-interest, the pursuit of happiness, the law of survival; cosmic energy, the rhythms of nature, the gods, Gaia, the Tao, Brahman, Krishna, Buddha-consciousness, the Torah, Jesus. And all of these, Becker says, function as “immortality systems,” because they all promise to connect our lives with what endures, with a meaning that does not perish. So let’s accept Becker’s thesis: that fear of death and meaninglessness, and a self–deluding denial of mortality, leads many people to these “immortality systems.”

But then again: is this true for every person with a passionate commitment to a meaning that endures? Are there Buddhists or Christians, for example, whose convictions and commitments do not constitute an evasion of mortality–who on the contrary face up to and embrace their mortality? In The Denial of Death, Becker tells us that there certainly are such people. In the fifth chapter, titled “The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard,” Becker applauds Kierkegaard’s portrayal of the person who does not lie about the human condition, who breaks away from the cultural network of lies that ward off the awareness of mortality, and who faces the precariousness and fragility of existence–with inevitable anxiety. Becker praises these people for their courageous “destruction of…emotional character armor.” Such a courageous and frightening passage to honesty is symbolized in the literary figure of King Lear: through the terror of being stripped of all his illusions of invulnerability, he comes finally to a profound if tragic reconciliation with reality. As for actual cultural representatives, he mentions Zen Buddhists, but “in fact,” he writes, it is a process undergone by “self-realized men in any epoch (88-9).”

Becker affirms, then, that it is possible to face up to the human situation. The denial of death is not inevitable. But what must be done, how must one proceed, to engage in this process of courageous self-realization?

Above all, Becker says, adopting a phrase from Luther, you must be able to “…taste death with the lips of your living body [so] that you can know emotionally that you are a creature who will die (88).” Then quoting William James (who is himself quoting the mystic Jacob Boehme), Becker further describes this “tasting” of death as a “passage into nothing, [a passage in which] a critical point must usually be passed, a corner turned within one (88).” Thus in this process of self-realization, Becker writes, the self is “brought down to nothing.” For what purpose? So that the process of what Becker calls “self-transcendence” may begin. And he describes the process of self-transcendence this way:

Man breaks through the bounds of merely cultural heroism; he destroys the character lie that had him perform as a hero in the everyday social scheme of things; and by doing so he opens himself up to infinity, to the possibility of cosmic heroism …. He links his secret inner self, his authentic talent, his deepest feelings of uniqueness … to the very ground of creation. Out of the ruins of the broken cultural self there remains the mystery of the private, invisible, inner self which yearned for ultimate significance. …This invisible mystery at the heart of [the] creature now attains cosmic significance by affirming its connection with the invisible mystery at the heart of creation.

“This,” he concludes, “is the meaning of faith.” Faith is the belief that despite one’s “insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force (90, 9 1).”

This, then, is what we might call good faith, not a flight into some immortality system. And clearly, some Christians, some Buddhists–at least the Zen Buddhists Becker himself mentions!–have faith in this sense, a faith that Becker characterizes as growing out of tasting one’s own death, embracing one’s own nothingness, and affirming–not a known ultimate meaningful–but an “invisible mystery” of ultimate meaning.

So Becker is suggesting a difference between (1) inauthentic clinging to the supposed absolute truth of an immortality system; and (2) authentic faith in a mystery of enduring meaning. Psychologically the distinction here is between (1) turning away from the awareness of death, and possessively claiming certain knowledge of eternal meaning; or (2) tasting one’s own mortality, and placing one’s trust in a mystery of eternal meaning.

Now Becker doesn’t always emphasize this second possibility of authentic faith. One can get the impression from much of his work that any affirmation of enduring meaning is simply a denial of death and the embrace of a lie. But I believe the view expressed in the fifth chapter of The Denial of Death is his more nuanced and genuine position. And I think it will be worthwhile to develop his idea of a courageous breaking away from culturally-supported immortality systems by looking back in history to a character who many people have thought of as an epitome of a self-realized person, someone who neither accepts his culture’s standardized hero-systems, nor fears death: the philosopher Socrates.

When Socrates was brought to trial in 399 BC before a jury of 501 Athenian citizens on charges that included impiety and corrupting the youth, he disappointed most of the jurors (and irritated many of them) by not petitioning for leniency, or appearing intimidated by the penalties he might face if found guilty. And when the jury condemned him to death, he remained composed, and spoke carefully about the consequences of the judgment first for himself, and then for Athens.

Through Plato we understand that Socrates’s typical tranquility and self-control never left him throughout his month in prison and up through the final minutes of drinking the hemlock. The eyewitness report has it that he drank the cup of hemlock “calmly and easily,” and had to chastise his friends for their weeping. Combined with other testimony about Socrates’s bravery as a soldier–and the record of his dangerous refusal to obey what he considered to be immoral orders from the leaders of a temporary govemment-all this adds up to the portrait of someone very much at ease with his mortality.

What accounts for it? Did Socrates’ courage come from a psychological denial of mortality through embrace of some “immortality system?”

Let us look at what he had to say about death to the jurors at his trial immediately after his condemnation. “Death,” he said to them, “is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or … it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another (Plato, Apology, 40c-d).”

Those are in fact the only alternatives: maybe its nothingness; maybe it isn’t. Socrates shows himself prepared for either eventuality. Note well: there is no dogmatic assertion of an immortal afterlife here. An assertion like that would, after all, contradict Socrates’ first principle of conduct, which is to never assume that one knows what one doesn’t know. Earlier in his defense speech Socrates had stated the matter about death carefully: “To be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows what one does not know …. [Not] possessing any real knowledge of what comes after death, I am also conscious that I do not possess it (29a-b).”

Death is a mystery. Maybe it is annihilation. One simply can’t know otherwise. Socrates is psychologically open to his physical death and possible utter annihilation. But still this does not unnerve him. And if we pursue the question: why not?–we do not have to look far in Plato’s portrait of Socrates for some answers. Plato understood, and captured in his Dialogues, a crucial element in the shaping of Socrates’ character: his willingness to let the fact of death fully penetrate his consciousness. This experience of being fully open to death is so important to Socrates that he makes a point of using it to define his way of life, the life of a philosophos–a “lover of wisdom.”

Let us consider this life of the philosophos as Socrates understands it. It is – famously – “the examined” life. Meaning? That it is a life committed to the ongoing search for how best to live. Now in every society there are plenty of people–like the character Callicles in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias–who would say that the best life is having as much power and pleasure as possible, which of course means always being able to successfully protect oneself and one’s friends from any encroachment on their privileges, from discomfort, from pain, and of course from death. In the Gorgias Plato makes the character Callicles a wonderfully eloquent spokesman for this outlook. Callicles says: any way of life is shameful that doesn’t make its highest priority the ability to save oneself frorn suffering pain or death at the hands of other people.

Plato has Socrates replying to Callicles: “My good sir, just reflect whether what is good and noble is not something more than saving and being saved. Perhaps the true man should ignore this question of living for a certain span of years and should not be so enamored of life. . . ” (Gorgias, 512d-e). Socrates is indicating to Callicles that really caring about goodness–genuinely desiring to do what is good, as one understands it—inevitably shifts the value of physical comfort and even physical survival, demoting them somewhat. Too much concern with avoiding pain or with physical survival gets in the way of doing the right thing. A real effort to become good means: keeping attention focused on the things that help one to be good, and learning to avoid distractions.

What are the main distractions that keep us from making ourselves morally better? Socrates lists the obvious: material prosperity (i.e., money and possessions and clothes); status and reputation (looking good in the eyes of others); bodily pleasures; and all the emotions that keep us bound to these things. Naturally, Socrates observes, we love these things when we are children. But to cling to them as the highest priorities once we become morally conscious adults is sad–in fact, this is what is a truly shameful way of life. So Socrates chastises the Athenians at his trial: “Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honour, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?” (Apology, 29d-e). In order to morally improve one’s soul, according to Socrates, it is necessary to purify it from such distractions. In the dialogue Phaedo, he tells his friends: “The body fills us with loves and desires and fears and all sorts of fancies and a great deal of nonsense, with the result that we literally never get an opportunity to think at all about anything (Phaedo, 66c).” It is simply impossible to steadily deepen one’s understanding of how to become a better person without a sustained effort to break free from these distractions. And this effort, says Socrates, is the true struggle, the true agon, of human existence. People think the real problem in life is to escape harm and death. “But I suggest,” Socrates says at his trial, “that the difficulty is not so much to escape death; the real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong (Apology, 39a).”

Now there is a key point in the Socratic testimony that must be considered carefully. He indicates that when a person does take goodness seriously, he or she finds that this is only possible on the assumption that goodness is not ephemeral–not an illusion, not just a reality constituted by personal opinion. To orient one’s life by the compass of a real commitment to knowing and doing what is good only happens through assuming that goodness is really real, enduringly real: that there is a moral dimension of meaning that does not come and go like flesh, or reputation, or money, or power. As Kierkegaard puts this same point in his book Either/Or: To choose the ethical is to “choose the eternal”–however clear or not this is to the person deciding to be ethical. Does this mean that, if you decide to really commit yourself to being ethical, suddenly you are claiming to be in possession of absolute truth and eternal meaning? No—it means that you trustingly affirm that the ultimate basis of your moral decisions and actions is an enduring dimension of meaning, and not like the latest fashions, the things that come and go. What Socrates shows is that to become committed to the moral improvement of one’s soul is a process that involves both trust and transformation. He describes the transformation as a catharsis, a cleansing, in which the soul is purged of false opinions about what is really real and really of value. The catharsis lets the perishability of perishing things–including the perishability of one’s own body and maybe of one’s soul as well–be fully acknowledged. But this full acknowledgement of mortality and perishability can only take place through a kind of psychological re-orientation, in which trusting affirmation of a non-perishing ground of goodness becomes the ordering principle of one’s life. This is the only way we can break free of the power of those bodily and social distractions which otherwise keep us enslaved and turned away from the good.

So we have come to the crucial point. The Socratic catharsis is a matter of letting death penetrate the self. It is the acceptance of the perishing of everything that will perish. In this acceptance a person imaginatively experiences the death of the body and the possibility of complete annihilation. This is “to ‘taste” death with the lips of your living body [so] that you … know emotionally that you are a creature who will die; “it is the passage into nothing” in which “a corner is turned within one.” And it is this very experience, and no other, that enables a person to act with genuine moral freedom and autonomy, guided by morals and not just attraction and impulses.

This catharsis and its effects were so vividly and impressively realized in Socrates that his life became a revolutionary image of true human existence for his friends and for later generations. As Eric Voegelin puts it, “The life of Socrates was the great model of the liberation of the soul through the invasion of death into earthly existence” (Plato, 43). And we come across one of the most memorable formulations of this liberating catharsis in the dialogue Phaedo, where Socrates describes it as “practicing death.” Socrates says that this is what the true philosopher does: practices death. Of course all kinds of people call themselves philosophers. But a real philosopher is easily defined: it is someone who truly loves wisdom. And since wisdom is the ever-deepening understanding of how to live a truly good life, no one can be a lover of wisdom except by continually dying to the perishable and focusing on what is truly lasting, letting the fact and possibilities of death penetrate the soul. True philosophers, Socrates says, “make dying their profession,” and so to them of all people death is least upsetting. And if someone is distressed at the prospect of dying, Socrates concludes, it is “proof enough that he is a lover not of wisdom but of the body (Phaedo, 67d-68c).”

Fine words of course. But Socrates’ life and actions, particularly at his trial, became their guarantee for many people. As we say nowadays, he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. It was manifestly a real habit of living life open to death that formed the basis of Socrates’ exhortations to his friends, and finally to the Athenians at his trial, to (as he put it) “look forward to death with confidence.” Both through words and behavior, Socrates indicated that death can be embraced as a meaningful structuring condition of human life, rather than feared as a threat to meaning, when genuine concern for the good, real moral dedication, has led one to base one’s life on the affirmation that one is participating in an enduring dimension of moral meaning. Maybe this participation continues in some fashion after physical death; maybe not. It does give a lot of people inspiration to think so. And so, as long as we don’t presume to know what we don’t know, Socrates says, hoping that the soul has some kind of immortality is “a belief worth risking; for the risk is a noble one (Phaedo, 1 14d).”

Let us try to be clear about just what Socrates is saying here.

1. First, he is indicating that it is rational to found the guiding orientation of one’s life on trust in a non-perishing ground of meaning. Why? Because our experience of moral concern leads us to understand that we are involved in lasting meaning, and because we can only achieve a life worthy of our moral capacities if we do found our lives on such trust.

2. Second, it is a risk, but a “noble” risk, to hope that something more than complete annihilation awaits the soul. Therefore, Socrates concludes, it is all right for people to use accounts and images of the soul’s possible immortality “to inspire [them] with confidence (114d),” not because those accounts are known to be true, but because they can help people escape evil by basing their lives on trust in an enduring dimension of reality.

Now let us return to the comparison of the two basic orientations we started with. On the one hand, Becker has explained how most people suppress the awareness of their own mortality and vulnerability by identifying themselves with religious or political or cultural “immortality systems” that feed their “hunger for righteous self-expansion and perpetuation (Escape From Evil, 64, 135),” making them aggressively intolerant of people who believe and act differently, since alternative worldviews challenge their own ideologies of death-denial. And then there is Socrates, on the other hand, who does not conform to this portrait of the death-denying immortality-seeker. He does not evade consciousness of his own mortality; he tastes it to the full. He does not perpetuate his culture’s support-systems; in fact he makes a point of criticizing Athenian habits and values in his defense speech. Above all, he is not intolerant of or aggressive toward different others, but always ready to listen and discuss.

So I shall suggest this: that Socrates, in line with what Becker indicates in The Denial of Death, has an open-minded and authentic faith in some kind of enduring meaning, a faith that makes him not only unlike the psychological type of the death-denying immortality-seeker, but makes him in fact its opposite: the self-realized person who “practices” death.

Restating and Clarifying the Contrasting Orientations
What I wish to do now is probe a little deeper into this contrast, and at the same time consider why the example of Socrates as a “self-realized” person often falls a little flat for modem readers. This has to do partly with changes in language, but more to do with changes in our modern conception of what human beings are. To clarify this last point, let us return to the Socratic experience, and approach it more in modern terms and from modern presuppositions. We can begin by asking about Socrates’ experience of his own human consciousness.

The Greek philosophers–the Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle–emphasized the experience of human consciousness as a participation in reality. When they identified the specific human difference as the presence of nous–intellect, or rational intelligence–in the human psyche, they understood each human “intellected” soul (psyche noetike) to be a participation in an ultimate ground of reality from which all intelligible things, including human beings, have emerged. For Plato and Aristotle, human conscious intelligence is thus part of what we would call “nature;” the ordered things of nature must have a source; and that mysterious originating source must be characterized also by intelligence–by Nous–because human conscious intelligence is quite obviously not self-created but given to itself: it has emerged from the same mysterious ground as everything else.

So when Socrates takes his own moral intelligence seriously, and in doing so discovers a non-perishing basis of moral truth, he discovers his own existence to be participation in a reality that has two distinct dimensions of meaning: a dimension of things that perish, and what he trustingly affirms to be a non-perishing basis of moral reality and moral insight. The “practice of dying” is a matter of learning to live in the tension “in–between” these two dimensions of meaning. Again: human existence is not just the life of perishing existence: it is not the existence of a stone or a tree. Neither is it a life of self–sufficient and permanent being. Human existence is a life “in-between” these, participating in both.

Becker often notes that humans are mortal beings that know of their own mortality because they have a perspective that transcends mortality. For Socrates and the tradition that follows him, the human perspective can transcend mortality because human beings actually participate in, actually experience, a non-perishing dimension of meaning. In other words, “non-perishing meaning” is not some abstract idea concocted by the mind out of nowhere-it is data in consciousness itself, found in the fundamental experience of one’s own consciousness being a participation in a ground of meaning whose enduringness one comes to understand through moral striving.

Therefore human consciousness is, not exactly bounded by death, but rather informed by death. In us, the knowledge of death structures a consciousness that reaches beyond the limits of the perishable. Conscious existence is not just mortality plus an extraneous and grotesque dollop of intelligent awareness. It is a true union of opposites; it is participation in perishing and non-perishing reality simultaneously; it is the tension of living in-between perishing and non-perishing reality; it is life structured by death.

Kierkegaard has essentially this same view of human existence, a view that Becker praises in The Denial of Death. Because we are this tension of opposites, says Kierkegaard, in order to be authentically human we need to accept the mystery and responsibility of participation in both of these dimensions of reality that constitute life structured by death. Most people fall short of this authenticity, he declares. They flee its difficulties. And there are two basic ways of doing this. People either (1) immerse themselves in the dimension of things that perish, the things and pleasures of the world, which allows them to evade the awareness of death: the attitude summed up in the advice to “eat, drink, and be merry.” Or they (2) cling to some false certainty about immortality, imagining that some kind of immortality is their assured possession, and this too allows them to evade the awareness of death.

Both types of inauthentic existence involve running away from the awareness of death, not allowing the fact of death to penetrate into consciousness, not facing up to the human situation, and not undergoing the crucial moral catharsis. So Kierkegaard, Becker, and Socrates all agree: the denial of death is indeed at the center of human inauthenticity. Kierkegaard and Socrates would further insist that authentic human living–the open embrace of life structured by death–can only be rejected or embraced to begin with, because perishing meaning and non-perishing meaning co-constitute conscious existence.

If this notion of human existence as a unity of participation in both perishing and non-perishing reality sounds odd to modern ears, it is mainly because philosophical and scientific–and consequently popular–thought during the last few centuries has been busy constructing a very different image of the human person. The image of participation has been changed and simplified into an image of two entities: a body, and a mind inside the body that has intelligence and ideas. This is the image that eventually came out of Descartes and Hobbes and other early modem thinkers, and wound up as a portrayal of human beings as mental entities encased in physical entities: a mind-thing imprisoned in a body–thing. Now a mind-thing imprisoned in a body-thing cannot experience participation in the ground of reality. Why not? Because it is imprisoned, isolated in the head. It can only have ideas about it and “project” them out onto reality.

What becomes, then of the non-perishing dimension of meaning? Accepting the modem image, we could have faith that we have a relation to non-perishing reality only through first conceiving of a non-perishing reality–let us call it “God”–in the isolation of our bodily-encased minds, and then projecting that conception onto a “beyond” of things, and finally engaging in the desperate procedure of believing that it is real and that we have a connection with it in spite of not knowing anything of the kind.

In other words, as long as self-understanding is dominated by this modem image, human consciousness cannot make sense of its own experience of immediate participation in a non-perishing ground of reality. And therefore, it cannot really make sense of its moral striving–since what is the point of the struggle for goodness if goodness is nothing more than temporary private opinion? Thus the modem image of human nature short-circuits the Socratic and Kierkegaardian understanding of existence, and leaves us with the familiar contemporary mess of radical moral relativism.

This modern image of human existence is tenacious, though–partly because it is so closely connected to the modem view of what real knowing is, a view that enjoys an almost unassailable status. It might be summarized with extreme brevity as follows.

If the mind is a thing encased in the physical body that only knows reality through the mediation, through the channeling, of the physical senses, any valid knowing has to validate itself through the presence of the relevant sense data. And this means that all true knowing is the type of knowing involved in the natural sciences, where empirical verification must take place through quantifiable data. Data that cannot be mathematically measured, such as the data consciousness discovers in its own activity and awareness–for example moral insight–can never be a matter of knowing, merely of opinion.

How could the Socratic experience of discovering that the moral autonomy of the soul involves a non-perishing dimension of meaning ever be verified, if the data of sense, quantifiable data, are the only relevant data for affirming truth? The life of Socrates–an exemplary model for over two millennia of the moral liberation of the soul through the catharsis of practicing death–is, in this view, a life based on nothing more substantial than a private irrational belief.

So to sum up: what has happened is that the enthronement by modem philosophy and science of an image of human nature as a thingly mind entrapped in a thingly body, has made all symbolizations of a non-perishing dimension of reality non-credible to many people–particularly to the intelligentsia, who emphasize their modem credentials by presenting themselves as the cultured despisers of religion. And, of course, one of the reasons why this modem image is so popular and so resistant to critique is what it appears to promise. If we go back to the founding texts of modernity, to the writings of Descartes, of Bacon, of Hobbes, we find a great optimism. If there is no participation in a mysterious origin of non-perishing meaning, there is no mystery essential to human existence. If there is no such participation, then all knowledge originates only in human consciousness itself. And if there is no primal mystery, and if all meaning is of human creation, we can hope one day to bring nature, human society, and history fully under human control.

In his last book, Escape from Evil, Becker wrote: “Hubris means forgetting where the real source of power lies and imagining that it is in oneself (37).” I would suggest that imagining that notions of a non-perishing dimension of meaning are the pure creations of an isolated human consciousness, entails a forgetting of where the real source of consciousness lies: in the experienced mysterious ground of consciousness, which grants us the quite rational opportunity of a free and loving commitment to an enduring dimension of meaning.

Of course, in some sense, human awareness of the non-perishing mystery in which it participates remains alive and well, because people keep striving to be moral, and they keep asking questions about that experience. Human questioning will always keep uncovering the eternal dimension of meaning, keep introducing people to the Socratic catharsis, and keep leading people to what Becker called a life of courageous self-realization. But they can be helped to do so by promoting insights like those of Becker on the choice between denying death or facing up to mortality.

Like Becker in his chapter on Kierkegaard in The Denial Of Death, what I’ve tried to show is that the problem does not lie in the notion of human participation in imperishable reality. Rather, where the problem lies is in the self-comforting delusion that one possesses eternal meaning, and especially in the measures people take to defend their feeling of righteous invulnerability, especially through aggression. Authentic faith, by contrast, affirms enduring meaning in the context of an open if anxious acceptance of mortality. And so one must conclude that there are two opposites to authentic faith. One is the dogmatic clinging to an immortality project; and the other is the equally dogmatic insistence that enduring meaning is an illusion. Both of these are denials of our real human situation, making up two sides of the same counterfeit coin.

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