Kyle Roberts

Kyle Roberts

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).

What is the demographic of the students you teach in terms of age and background?

It’s a fascinating mix. United is a small seminary, and a stand-alone seminary in that it’s not connected to a university and it was begun with intentionally loose denominational ties so it would have an ecumenical flavor. But as a historic mainline protestant school, of course it attracts students from the mainline denominations like the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and we have a vibrant Unitarian Universalist presence as well. But we’re also seeing growth in students from non-denominational and progressive evangelical backgrounds, as well as Catholic students, non-Christian students, and a number of students who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition (i.e. the “nones”).

As far as age, the students at United tend to be a little older than is typical for seminary (the average age of a United student is around 45). Students come from all walks of life; some have been in active ministry positions and are just getting around to formal seminary training. I would say the majority of students that I’ve encountered at United however, have significant life experience post-college before they start their seminary career intensively. That life experience adds a wealth of insight to the classroom dynamic.

Can you tell us about your recent course, “Death, Evil and Alienation”?

I taught a course regularly in my previous seminary, Evil and Suffering, but it was a more traditional theological approach to the topic (theodicy questions like, “Why would God allow evil and suffering in the world?” and “What is the relation between divine providence and human agency?” for example). When I came to United, and as my interest in Becker increased, I decided to teach an elective on “Death, Evil, and Alienation” as a kind of next step in my own development regarding the questions around evil and suffering. The course moved from focusing on traditional theological approaches to the more integrative approach that Becker takes.

View from inside a wellPeering deep into the reality on the ground, so to speak, is what I’ve found really exciting about teaching the course with Becker at the center. I decided to make the course revolve around The Denial of Death and The Worm at the Core and started with the film, Flight From Death, to give students the same introduction that I had to Becker years ago. It was certainly one of the best, if not the best, course experiences that I’ve had in years of teaching. The configuration of the students we had and the level of interest that they continued to express opens up a really powerful way of looking at the world. Some people chuckle when they hear the title of the class because it’s hard to think of three harsher, darker, words/concepts to mash together than “Death, Evil, and Alienation.” But it’s really not about death, primarily. It’s about life. It’s about hope and it’s about conflict and about how we understand ourselves better in such a way to move towards a more hopeful, a more peaceful way of living with each other. It’s about striving to overcome what is so difficult to overcome in the human condition.

What were the reactions to Becker?

What really hit the mark in this particular class is the way that Becker as an integrative thinker brings existential philosophy and theology to a point of practical application; namely, the existential import of these ideas as they play out in our collective, social, and political context and in the way our individual psychologies come together in very dynamic and sometimes very troubling ways.

I also think the practical and pastoral implications are really what hit home for students. In fact, I had some chaplaincy students that went to the dean and said that this course needs to be a required course for the chaplaincy program because there are just so many implications in terms of dealing with people who are dying. How do they face death? What are they thinking about as they’re going to those ominous medical appointments and just generally dealing with the finitude and precariousness of life? Students saw exploring these questions as very pastorally relevant.

Some people chuckle when they hear the title of the class because it’s hard to think of three harsher, darker, words/concepts to mash together than “Death, Evil, and Alienation.” But it’s really not about death, primarily. It’s about life.

Did you have any key moments, passages or points that you think would be important to share with others who might be teaching similar courses?

The film was kind of a signature moment. That was early on in the semester so it primed them well. The reaction in in general was one of fascination and intrigue. The film made them want to really explore these ideas more.

Each week, I assigned two students to bring in a “death image”; that is, to find and present a cultural artifact, an example of something in art, film, news, media, anything related to what we were discussing in class. Of course with all that was going on last fall, a lot of it did revolve around terrorism, war, and the geopolitical conflict we find ourselves in. It shows the extent to which Becker and TMT do shine so much light on these conflicts that seem to perpetuate themselves again and again.

Pedagogically, the class presentations by the students was probably the most powerful assignment. It gets them thinking throughout the week. They’re attentive to what’s going on and how these theories connect with real stuff happening in real time. They become culturally attuned to the realities of death anxiety.

Another experience that worked well happened on the last day of class. We have an art room where students can go work on creative projects and professors can use it as a teaching and learning resource. I took my students down and had them go through random magazines in order to create a collage that represented for them the intersection of death and evil, or death and alienation. It might seem like a less than academic way to end a course on high minded theories, but in actuality, the experience was effective because it gets you out of thinking in a pure cognition way to be able to say, “wow, this image really symbolizes or illustrates exactly what Becker was talking about or exactly the problem that we are confronted with in society, or within ourselves” Whether it’s about materialism or idealist conceptions of youth and beauty, or celebrity culture, or medical technologies or advertising or politics, It easy to find examples of death denial at work right in front of us. It’s something I’d definitely recommend.

Do you have any advice that you would share with other Becker educators?

Richard Beck's "Slavery of Death"I think it actually worked well to have the class be centered on Becker, but not exclusively be a course on Becker, or even exclusively on Becker and Terror Management Theory (TMT). We spent six weeks – three on the Becker and three on TMT- and that was enough to get the key point across. It was enough to grasp the fundamental theories, to see the integrative connections, even to dovetail back into Kierkegaard and theological existentialism. Afterwards, we moved on to a more traditional theological discussion of evil and then into the philosophy of alienation.

The one thing I might have added to the syllabus, in retrospect, was Richard Beck’s book, The Slavery of Death. It’s an exposition of Becker. He’s an empirical psychologist but is very integrative with theology, too. I think adding his interpretation of Paul and exploration of the relationship between sin and death in the New Testament would have been beneficial for a theology class focusing on Becker.

Otherwise, as anyone who’s read Becker knows, there’s so many ways you can go with it, and so many different slants you can take. It just depends on the discipline and the particular slant of the course and what you want to do with it.

They become culturally attuned to the realities of death anxiety.

Final thoughts?

The extent to which religion can be a force for good or a force for evil, either constructive or destructive, that was a very profound point that kept coming up in our conversations. The power of religion to go either way, either direction—and it can shift on a dime. It can be incorporated into a message of peace and of project of love, or it can motivate the spread of conflict and violence and other destructive behavior. I would put a point on it to say, if you teach Becker in a seminary or religious context, that ambiguity and instrumentality of religion is something you really wrestle with. And that’s where theology in its critical mode becomes so important.

The topic in general is such a unique challenge because the whole idea is that death isn’t something that people like to talk about, or want to engage with. We tend to pull back from those terms or withdraw from those conversations. When you have a major thinker whose whole focus is about that problem, I think there is an inherent tension in getting the word out, getting the message out. But of course, the truth is that message isn’t just about death, it’s about life. It’s about living well, even if in the shadow of death.

Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

With time to spare before a flight out of Pisa, I recently looked in on the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the famous tower of Pisa leans. The Piazza is the size of a football stadium. A medieval wall encloses a cathedral, a baptistery, the tipsy bell tower, a green lawn, and a humungous crowd. At first glance it’s sacred Disneyland. But there’s much more going on than meets the eye.

We depend on habit and familiarity to make overwhelming reality user friendly. Like a factory, habit uses repetition to make us productive—you don’t have to think about tying your shoelaces. But habit also imprisons us. To grow, to solve new problems, you need to “break” clunky old habits. The ultimate problem, that everything changes and dies, can make your everyday life feel like a lifeless habit.

Wonder opens an escape tunnel out of the prison of routine. The use of “awesome” or “fabulous” as an all-purpose grunt of approval shows how important wonder is. Slang is trying to force amazement and awe into everyday life. Tourism likewise organizes wonder to be a handy product. The trouble is, escape from habit into amazement or wonder can mean blowing your mind, which may feel ecstatic—or terrifying.[1] So tourism usually promises that you’ll experience “awe” from a comfortable mental couch—like TV.

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Programmed Life Who's in charge here?

Kirby Farrell | May 28, 2016

Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

One afternoon last year local police pulled me over. When I said hello and asked what was wrong (inspection sticker out of date—duh), the cop ignored me and stuck to his script (“Let me see your registration,” etc.). In a crime novel he would have had “steely blue” eyes. He seemed ridiculously grim, as if arresting a murderer. It was partly self-importance—the rapture of a uniform and a badge. But what most struck me was his icily impersonal manner.

Being aggressively impersonal allows you to dominate someone from behind a mask, as if the Law, not you, is making the demands. You’re just doing your heroic duty while the Law commands the other person like a slave.

This is puzzling because impersonal correctness is a management technique used to insure efficiency, objectivity and fairness. If all officers follow the script, there’s less likelihood of abuse, incompetence, or misinterpretation. It’s industrial technology: you write a program and it carries out a particular task as if by magic. In factories this works brilliantly. Machines and workers programmed like machines repeat prescribed steps over and over, producing more stuff at lower cost. In your personal life, a strict program may take you to an otherwise unreachable goal. The right routine can free you to create.

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Hospice: Preventing pain after death

James Salwitz | May 13, 2016

Dr. James Salwitz

Dr. James Salwitz

David was 42 when he died from stomach cancer.  He spent the last year of life receiving useless chemotherapy and debilitating radiation.  More important, David was in terrible pain, all the time.  He lay in bed for agonized months, as the cancer destroyed his ribs, back and lungs.  Finally, David was rushed to a hospital, plugged into a breathing machine and invaded by countless IVs.  Agitated, in pain, he died despite a futile storm of tests, drugs and several rounds of rib-cracking CPR.

His wife, previously positive, happy and successful, never recovered. She quit work, drank heavily, and spun into a therapy-resistant depression.  12 months later, she used those same pills to take her life.

At the time of David’s death, his son was 17. The teenager found comfort in the kind of pharmaceutical intervention that come from bottle and needle.  A high school dropout, he was in jail by 20, and although paroled at 23, found the streets too much.  Back in prison by 26, his life dissolved to rubble.

David’s suffering, poorly controlled during that precious last year of life, and the tragedy of his last days, were a direct result of the failure to plan for the inevitable and the inexcusable negligence of his caregivers to provide comfort. That misery transferred to those he loved. David’s pain continued after death.  

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Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

Everyone wants to be rescued. It could be Tarzan plucking you out of the croc’s jaws. Or someone loaning you $5. Praise for some virtue or talent can rescue your self-esteem from self-doubt or depression. A new lover may save you from loneliness or the terror of rejection and self-disgust. Romance promises to rescue you from the tedium of yourself or the monotonous people around you.

You get the picture.

The idea of rescue seems to be built into us. We are among the most social animals on earth, and after all, what are friends for? They’re folks you’d rescue and count on to rescue you. In politics, progressives believe people come together to save each other. Conservatives imagine that you save yourself.

In the big bad world, “warriors” save you. In psychosis and some religions, messiahs play a leading role. A St Bernard with a cask of hootch under his chin answers if you phone in an avalanche. If you’re over troubled waters, you can count on “God” or belief in God. If you’re rescuing a needy and hung-up lover, heroic rescue can make you feel ten feet tall till you hit your head on a door lintel one time too many.

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Larissa Fitzpatrick

Larissa Fitzpatrick

In the mock travel narrative, Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift chastises humanity for hostile behavior, believing that people capable of reason fail to act reasonably when blinded by their personal illusions of reality. More than two centuries after Gulliver’s Travels was written, Ernest Becker also perceived a link between illusion and violence. Becker theorized that humans, terrified of their inevitable death, create a world of symbols, or immortality ideologies, that give their lives meaning and stability. Our need to conceal our death anxiety is so powerful that we often become intolerant of people with ideologies that threaten our own. Although living in different centuries and nations, Becker and Swift commonly found frustration in mankind’s inability to see reality and failure to reach its highest potential.

To show readers the danger of distorted reason, Swift uses satire to call attention to paradoxes, hoping to reveal the absurdity in certain accepted beliefs and behaviors. In the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver enters the land of the Houyhnhnms, where he finds himself surrounded by difficult paradoxes, many of which are self-inflicted. He encounters two new groups of beings: one appears to have reason and one does not. Gulliver’s fear of insignificance among these groups drives him to blindly follow the individuals with reason, ironically leading him to become completely unreasonable. We, like Gulliver, experience many paradoxes in our lives. We are born only to die, and by attempting to conquer our anxiety, we make the world a more menacing place. However, by using self-analysis, unlike Gulliver, we can see the absurdity in our situation. By wrestling with our fears rather than denying them, we can analyze our behavior without dangerous bias, allowing us to experience our knowledge of death as a method of embracing life.

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Becker with Real Bullets

Charles Nolan | March 26, 2016

Charles Nolan

Charles Nolan

Turn on CNN any night of the week and you’d think you were watching “Escape from Evil, the Movie”. It’s not about theory any more. It’s not an armchair discussion. The armchair is at the controls of a tank. Case in point — after writing that last sentence, I clicked over to check my email and found a link to the breaking story of a suicide bombing in Istanbul staring back at me from the top of the page. The picture on this page is from that story. If I want a different picture, I’ll be able to check again tomorrow and find a new one, with a new story behind it. Carnage, masked men waving automatic weapons in the air, American crowds demanding “no entry” for Muslims, the body of a refugee child who died trying to escape the war zone – the pictures are easy to find — too easy. So what has this got to do with Ernest Becker? Everything.

BeckerUntitled2’s central point in Escape from Evil, that our need to deny our own deaths and helplessness is the driving force behind the eagerness with which individuals allow themselves to be carried away by group ideology, with destructive results, has seldom been so clearly in the headlines. The line between religious, political and ethnic groups has been blurred to the point of irrelevance. Accusations that Islam is a “political system masquerading as a religion” are answered by Jihadist fears that Western economic and political muscle will spell the end to their “way of life” (a term that signals dangerous ground whenever it is used). All sides concerned believe that they are doing God’s will, substituting concepts such as “Liberty”, “Freedom” or “The American Way” for the Supreme Being in the slightly more secular West. Either way, it’s all about identity, what Becker called the “hero project.” The individual becomes a hero by sacrificing all for the group, killing its symbolic enemies and risking or losing their own life in the process. The fact that one can deny their own death by literally, actually dying is probably the hardest piece to grasp in this scenario, but the most important if we are to understand it.

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The Cosmic Hero as Mystical Ideal

Victor Carrington | March 14, 2016

Victor Carrington

Victor Carrington

A. Review of the Humanistic and Existential Themes
Themes in humanistic and existential psychology focus on the essential nature of man, as descriptive rather than explanatory or applied theories, and on the innate potential for growth through self-awareness. Self-awareness is achieved through sincere open introspection, building on insights and realistic perspectives that go hand in hand with client empowerment. Incongruences between values and actions are points of conflict, of inauthenticity, that produce stress and diminish functioning in a person’s life. To align values and actions, individual motives are examined in context with values and priorities, adjustments are made to these based on insights and the individual lives a more authentic existence. Often, the incongruity is caused by a reliance on external validation, approval, or fears related to alienation. Inevitably, the person must consider his or her roles in society as subordinate to the essential character of being. This depth of philosophical examination leads to ultimate questions about the human condition, the essential nature of humankind, personal meaning and purpose in context with the cosmic or collective, and finality of life.

Freedom is tied to a minimum trust in oneself, such as confidence in capabilities and acting on them independently. Freedom is expressed through creativity, health, love, individuality, being and becoming, all in the face of external limitations. The idea is to express self in spite of obstacles, to orient the mind to potentials of empowered thought and action rather than the restrictions of life. Anxiety repression is a disempowering force that draws the mind into a downward spiral of complexes and dysfunctional behaviors. Experiencing unconditional positive regard builds client courage and confidence to strip away an extraneous outmoded self-concept and roles. The client is then able to reengage creatively between the outer and inner worlds and the inevitable anxieties caused by confronting life paradoxes.

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Buffalo Trump: Closing the frontier again

Kirby Farrell | January 24, 2016

Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

Instead of saying someone died, some folks a century ago might say he “went to the happy hunting ground,” or he’s gone “to join the Indians.” The euphemism referred to the closing of the American frontier in the late 19th century. The saying made the near-extermination of native Americans sound regrettable but also humorous. Like the 20C fad for westerns, the euphemism was a way of acknowledging but taming guilty violence.

The phrase sounds quaint now, but its spirit is alive today in the wish that all immigrants were socially dead and gone. Media have pumped up Donald Trump’s vow to rout the aliens who want “our” land. It’s one of the oldest American myths. Vowing to make America great again, Trump’s campaign follows the formula of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West” show.

For thirty years Bill Cody made a living by restaging the white American hero’s conquest of the frontier, the nation’s biggest real estate deal. In reenacting the Indian wars, the show’s pageant battles magically undid Custer’s last stand and the shameful slaughter of Indians. The replay turned murderous greed (“the only good Indian is a dead Indian”) into celebrity appearances and a paycheck for a reluctant but impoverished Sitting Bull.

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Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

What better way to celebrate the holiday season than to give some thought to scapegoats?  We cope with the darkest time of the year by loading up undying “ever” green trees with a symbolic harvest of ornaments and lights that reassure us spring will bring more life. Unlike the greedy One Percent, Santa Claus delivers generous wish-fulfillment. In the Christian story a scapegoat is born who forgives everybody.

The idea of the scapegoat is an astounding psychological tool for managing morale. Humans have been persecuting “enemies” for ages. It’s how we’re built. You feel guilty or ashamed or merely inadequate, and your group helps you to blame yourself. So you find a scapegoat to carry off the bad qualities in yourself. You may speed up the process by helping the scapegoat suffer and die. Perhaps the whole group lends a hand.

A scapegoat, then, is a tool for taming or expelling self-hatred.  From birth, we want to be better than average. Society rewards heroes and stars. But it’s a treacherous dream. If everybody’s a star, then nobody is.  And if you can’t be altogether perfect no matter how hard you try, you’re faulty.  If self-esteem is ambivalent this way, it’s hard to respect the middle. This is why the Greeks recommended the “golden mean” to each other while fighting to the death to be heroes.

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