Reading Ernest Becker Through Protestant Eyes
The spirit of Protestantism is characterized first and foremost by respect for the integrity of the individual conscience and the individual’s immediate relationship with God (that is, unmediated by priests, saints or other intercessory figures.) This has always been the strength of the Protestant vision, and that which has linked historic Protestantism with the rise of modern individual consciousness. But a danger lurks in the Protestant spirit of individualism. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to discern the difference between a calling from God and the baser impetus toward power, prestige and pride (as well as other foibles and pitfalls of our Darwinian-contoured will and imagination). But this temptation doesn’t surprise Protestants; the pervasiveness and impact of sin stands front and center in our theologies.
The Creator’s greatest gift to us is our spiritual nature. We possess an intuitive desire to act in accordance with the moral nature of our Creator and to transcend our baser, more self-centered instincts. Yet, if we’re honest, we tend to confuse God’s will with our own selfish will and desires, eventually even displacing God in our spiritual imagination with an image of ourselves. In short, a very key temptation highlighted by Protestant spirituality is the temptation of idolatry—the temptation to consider as “God” that which is really just a humanly-created artifact. The “God” of our own creations simply blesses us, justifies us, and gives us a sense of righteousness as we pursue self-serving individual and collective ambitions.
But a danger lurks in the Protestant spirit of individualism. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to discern the difference between a calling from God and the baser impetus toward power, prestige and pride
Ernest Becker’s work helps us identify where we have slipped into idolatry. He unmasks the psychological and social games we play: games of self-deception and unhealthy illusion. We want desperately to hide our shadow side. But in hiding, we destroy ourselves. Becker suggests that because of our mortality, we carry deep within us a longing for fulfillment and transcendence. In Christian terms, we long for a relationship with our Creator. God offers that fulfilling relationship through the invitation to participate in the Creator’s self-giving and loving moral nature. But, lured by the serpent and following the sin of Adam of Eve, we want more: We want God’s raw dominating power and indestructibility. We want to overcome our mortality by ourselves. We want to become Gods. We therefore invest our idolatrous images of God with such dominating power and immortality, and orient our moral nature, our sense of the good, accordingly.
Ernest Becker’s work helps us identify where we have slipped into idolatry.
Protestant Christianity is perpetually haunted, however, by the notion that the earthly image of the true God is found in Jesus of Nazareth, rather than in the images of our many idols of dominating power and indestructibility. By definition, Protestantism constantly reforms itself based on unmasking the idolatries toward which we tend, ever and always based on an ongoing “quest” for a more authentic historical Jesus and a more truly salvific Christ. In practice, this means an image of God that does not simply bless us, justify us and provide us with a sense of self-righteousness for our self-serving pursuits, but a God who always calls us onward into new relationships of love, self-giving and mutuality, especially with those from who we were previously estranged, even our enemies. We acknowledge, with the great Protestant theologian Albert Schweitzer, that in our “quest” for the historical Jesus we ultimately find ourselves looking in a mirror. But ideally, what we see in that mirror is not simply who we “are,” but rather what we in our most creative spiritual imagination could become, beyond the Darwinian-contoured self-centeredness of our individual and collective nature.
Daniel Liechty is a Professor in the School of Social Work at Illinois State University, where he teaches courses on Human Development in the Social Environment. He keeps his fingers in a number of pies, and has been referred to good naturedly as the Dean of Ernest Becker Studies. Liechty is the author and editor of a number of books and articles pertaining to Ernest Becker’s ideas, including Transference and Transcendence (1995), Reflecting on Faith in a Post-Christian Time (2003), Death and Denial (2002), and The Ernest Becker Reader (2005). In addition to serving as Vice-President of The Ernest Becker Foundation, Liechty regularly reviews books for the EBF Newsletter and hosts the Generative Anxiety listserv.
Kyle Roberts (Ph.D.) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently completing (with Jeannine Brown) a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans).