The EBF sponsored five Becker scholars in an extraordinary panel discussion on Nov. 15, 2008 at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. Prior to the evening event the panelists met in an afternoon salon to exchange ideas.
The panel featured five experts:
- Neil Elgee, president of The Ernest Becker Foundation
- Sam Keen, philosopher and author
- Daniel Liechty, compiler of Becker writings and a professor at Illinois State University
- David Loy, Buddhist scholar and Endowed Chair of Ethics, Religion and Society at Xavier University (Cincinnati)
- Joseph Scimecca, professor of Sociology and graduate program director at George Mason University.
The purpose of the event was to initiate an ongoing exegesis of Becker's published works, particularly from the theological, philosophical and spiritual perspectives. By bringing together this illustrious group of "first generation" Becker scholars, EBF intends to excite a new generation of critical thinkers. EBF plans to sponsor future events using the panel format and involving other Becker scholars. It hopes to mount similar programs in such places as the New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles areas.
Merger of Science and Religion
The topic of the panel discussion was Religion: The Quest for the Ideal Heroism. This is the title of the last chapter in Becker's The Birth and Death of Meaning. In the later years of his life, and particularly in his deathbed interview with Sam Keen, Becker posited that genuine religion represented the highest level of power and meaning, that giving oneself to God represented the ultimate immortality project.
This may prove surprising to those who regard Becker as a dark existentialist. However, a scrutiny of his mature works, written in the last five years of his life before his death at age 49, reveals Becker's regard for the Divine: "I came out of a Jewish tradition, but I was an atheist for many years and I only re-woke to the dimension of the divine gradually, through, what was the beautiful saying? 'It is not the intellect that teaches us about God, it is life that teaches us about God.' "(Excerpt from Keen interview).
Becker was a hard-nosed rational thinker who utilized a multi-disciplinary approach, drawing from cultural anthropology, psychology, and other disciplines. Yet, he also understood that science alone cannot provide meaning to life. Becker thought it a mistake for social sciences to model themselves after the natural sciences. By factoring out the human element, they became reduced to a "narrow empiricism" typified by the controlled experiment.
Rather, Becker argued for the fusion of science and religion. He ranked four levels of power and meaning that an individual could "choose" to live by: the personal, social, secular and sacred. The ideal heroism, the highest level of power and meaning, can only be found at the fourth level, the sacred, the "service of the highest power, the Creator."
In his Pulitzer Prize winning opus, The Denial of Death, Becker again focused on heroism in the final chapter entitled Psychology and Religion: What is the Heroic Individual? He concluded by stating "The urge to cosmic heroism, then, is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism. Science, after all, is a credo that has attempted to absorb into itself and to deny the fear of life and death; and it is only one more competitor in the spectrum of roles for cosmic heroics."
The panel first related their personal and professional backgrounds. They then discussed their first contact with Becker's works, and the subsequent impact it made on their lives. For Sam Keen, who served for 20 years as contributing editor at Psychology Today magazine and interviewed many intellectuals and celebrities, the deathbed discussion with Becker was his most memorable. For Neil Elgee, the founder of EBF, Becker became the focus of his life's work after retiring as a physician. The other panelists related similarly engaging experiences.
The discussion then focused on the question: how can we be a hero today? The panelists' comments touched on: the meaning of authentic religion; the intersection of science and religion; and the contemporary application of Becker's theory to a much different world today, some 35 years after Becker's death. Joe Scimecca traced the sociological roots of Becker to C. Wright Mills. David Loy compared his interpretation of Becker to Buddhist non-duality. And Dan Liechty highlighted the application of Becker's theory to practical social situations.
The event concluded with a question and answer session. The panelists were not only quizzed on Becker, but challenged to discuss their personal beliefs, and to share their experiences beyond the professional. In summary, a very successful first step in reviving Ernest Becker, who Sam Keen described as "the most unread Pulitzer Prize winner."
- This write up was written by Martin Sawa. Martin Sawa is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation. He resides with his wife Virginia in Berkeley, CA. Professionally, he operates a commercial real estate business in San Francisco. Personally, he feels fortunate to be able to ponder life's big questions. He supports the ongoing exegesis of Becker's writings.