Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category


Soulnerd: The Third Spiritual Option

August 28, 2012

TDF Guest Jeremy Sherman

“Life is like getting on a boat that is about to sink.”

-D.T. Suzuki

“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.”

-Ernest Becker

We are mirror mortals, the first known species with the capacity to imagine the full arc of life and to know in definitive detail that we die.  We get on the boat; we row with great enthusiasm knowing that no matter our destiny, our real destiny is the inky deep.  We invest in our journey, conscious that we must eventually divest.

And it isn’t just the one death.  Getting on a boat that is about to sink is a fractal experience played out in the arc of minutes, hours, years, eras, epochs and millennia. Every day something dies.  You lose your glasses, your friend snubs you, you realize that the thing that thrilled you yesterday isn’t great after all.  Over the months, too, the people and joys come and go.  Then each of us dies.  Our families die.  Our civilizations fall.  Our species.  The universe itself is terminal. Everything we embrace as exciting and new comes with its time-release aging, decay, and breakdown.  When you buy a pet dog you buy a pet dog’s death.

None of this would matter if we never got on the boat.  But here we are. We care. When we fall in love, investing, it’s like a taste of heaven—joy eternal. When we break up, divesting of each other, it’s a little taste of hell—dissolution eternal. The deeper you go in the more it hurts to come out. Whether we choose to divest or divestment is thrust upon us, there it is, the inevitable, looming no matter where we go.

This view of life fits with disconcerting snugness.  Because we throw our lot in with the garden, we grieve when we’re cast out of it.  Because we accelerate into what enthuses us, our brakes squeal and our wheels shudder when we are forced to stop.  Union is sweet, disunion is sour.  Yes, no one gets out alive, but also no one gets out without great grief and loss, and here we are, knowing we’ll be evicted eventually. And what can we do about it?

I’ve had a hard time with the word “Spiritual.”  Powerful but ill-defined words make me wary.  Since I can’t find much consensus about what it means, I feel at liberty to offer my own definition.  Spirituality is one’s overall strategy for coping with the challenge of investing, knowing that one must eventually divest.  Spirituality is a kind of preparation, a pre-grieving. Defined this way, I see three main spiritual paths, each with myriad variations, but still ultimately just three:

1.     Make One Eternal Investment: Build a pillar of belief to hold onto, one thing from which one never divests for all eternity, something that can’t be credibly challenged or tested and proved wanting, something that explains why people leave and people die and why there has to be so much pain and disappointment and letting go, a belief perhaps that explains how it will all make sense by and by or will be made equitable in the world beyond, a belief that makes the world beyond—the eternal realm–one’s primary focus, aiming us toward its purpose ever after and toward the happily ever after that we expect to come from serving its purpose ever after.

2.     Let Go Into Thin slices: Since letting go is the hard part, make a practice of divesting.  Practice divesting by being present in every instant. Excise memory (of what’s lost) or projection (to what’s in store). Be here now, quieting the hungry ghosts of intellect and conception.  Become one with nature which doesn’t think, theorize, speculate or foresee, but just is.  Return to animal simplicity. In pain, simply say “ouch.” In pleasure simply say “ah.”  Don’t generalize or theorize about implications. Know the arc but live in the moment, the cross sections, one slice of life at a time.

3.     Make a study of the arc: Put one’s grief in context of the patterns structures and trends of human and natural affairs. Study that larger context with heart and head full open, feeling waves of sorrow and joy and thinking about and analyzing the waves, using your intellect and capacity for conception, giving voice to hungry ghosts, the desire to understand, and to manage, to minimize grief but also to face it squarely.  Study it through the many disciplines, culture’s long arguments, quests, debates and accounts, the peculiarly stubborn attempts to see clearly that constitute intellectual culture.  Cut a path through big time, the “long and wide now” by absorbing evolutionary biology, intellectual history, philosophy, anthropology, and above all, literature. Become worldly so that you can say of whatever life deals you, “Yes, this too life has in its vast and intricate creative capacities.”

Every once in a while people ask me if I’m spiritual or have a spiritual practice.  By their definition I think they’re asking about the first two kinds, in which case my answer is an obvious no. But I balk a little because though the third kind is in some ways an anathema to the first two, it feels like my spiritual path, so I haven’t known exactly what to say.

My deepest spiritual experience came by reading a novel about a normal couple divorcing.  It was during my first mid-life crisis (I’ve had two and am expecting one more).  My wife was in love with someone very spiritual. My marriage and my career were both falling apart. My eldest son was showing signs of severe chemical imbalance. My expectations of success as a man felt snuffed.  I was terribly uncomfortable in my skin, crying every day, an embarrassment to my wife and children, an endless font of anxiety imposed on my friends.

I had to get away and decided to spend a month in rural Guatemala where I had worked in my early 20’s.  En route I stopped off to see my brother, an English Professor living in Chicago. He asked me what I brought to read on my journey.  I showed him my books, all Buddhist tracts. “These are all so aspirational,” he said. “Why not read some fiction?” He gave me a book of short stories by John Updike spanning the arc of an ordinary marriage. It captured people just as we are. It laid us wide open in precise non-judgmental detail, including all our shocking neediness and coldness and yet free from authorial scorn.  It was  people just seen.

On a bus from Guatemala City to Livingston, a long drive that flew by I was thoroughly absorbed, feeling as one with us, but not in some platitudinously abstract “we are all one” kind of way.  Rather, intimate with the details, and generalizing intellectually with my heart wide open experiencing the full catastrophe of being one of us, fearful in our embraces, haunted by the pairing of investment and divestment. It was grace, forgiveness from the universe, but grace in the fine details set in the context of the real predicament, not in God’s sweeping and peculiar forgiveness for His making us wrong on purpose.

On my spiritual path, Updike is a master, as are so many practitioners of fiction.  Though I now work among theorists and scientists, philosophers and psychologists, I contend that no theoretical or scientific or spiritual work is anywhere near as capable of representing what this is, this life of ours, than good fiction. Literature is a yoga, a soulnerd’s intellectual-spiritual practice of contour-fitting what we know to what is so.

[Cross-posted from Jeremy Sherman’s Mind Readers Dictionary]


Mixed feelings about same-sex marriage

May 22, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I knew it would happen–that somehow the issue of “same-sex marriage” would push front and center into the politics of our nation leading up to November’s elections. For the last 20 years, this issue pops up before elections as predictably as dandelions in my front yard, assuring an energized turnout from the religious segment of the Republican base.

I confess. I have mixed feelings about the dispute centered on “same-sex” marriage. That’s probably a dangerous thing to say in relation to such a polarizing matter. Neither side wants to see this as anything other than good versus evil. Let me explain.

Certainly I support full civil and human rights for all people without exception. That is not the cause of my mixed feelings. My concerns focus on the question of marriage itself as it is practiced in the USA. If we simply open up marriage as it is currently practiced to any couple that desires it, that is in one sense a “step forward.” But in doing so we miss an opportunity to make needed and necessary changes in our current practices that would be beneficial on a number of different fronts.

Most specifically, our current marriage practices perpetuate a problem in the relationship between church and state that could be easily remedied, and the by-product of that remedy would also totally solve the problem of same-sex marriage. Presently, ordained clergy have state sanction to declare a couple legally married. Regardless of the justification this had historically, it is no longer justified. Furthermore, since this practice essentially turns every ordained minister into an ad hoc administrator for the state, a good case could be made against it on Constitutional grounds.

There are two aspects of marriage that should be conceptually separate, but which get too easily confused because of our current practices. These are the LEGAL aspect, which pertains to rights, responsibilities and privileges under the law, and the HOLY aspect, which can only be conferred by the blessings of a community, and in which the state has no place and must remain neutral. Much of the rancor related to same-sex marriage, rancor that divides our nation right down the middle, is a direct result of practices that seamlessly align these two very different aspects of marriage. One side feels that to deny same-sex partnership its recognized legal status is clearly discriminatory. The other side objects that were the state to sanction same-sex marriage, they would be forced by the state to recognize as holy that which their interpretation of true religion tells them is not holy, a clear intrusion of the state into their religion.

I would like to see the sanction to declare a couple legally married withdrawn from religious clergy and placed completely in the hands of secular state administrators, such as Justices of the Peace. It should be clear that marriage as a LEGAL status emanates from the state. Those desiring to enter into the legal status of marriage would go to a designated secular official of the state, declare their intentions, and have this legal status bestowed on them by the state official. Those who want to enter into HOLY matrimony, receiving the blessings of their chosen community for their union, would go to the official designated by that community for this purpose, for whatever ceremony is in keeping with the customs of that community.

In short, I would like to see “civil unions” for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, as the recognized legal status for a couple, conferring upon all who enter into it with the same legal rights, responsibilities and privileges. Conferring this legal status is what the state is fit to do.

Those desiring to have their union recognized by their chosen religious community as a condition of Holy Matrimony are then free to pursue that within their chosen religious community, in addition to the civil declaration, or for that matter without the civil declaration (though they would then not enjoy the legal status of union.) While this might seem radical to Americans (and no doubt many of the professional clergy would resist having their marriage-declaration powers withdrawn) it is the standard practice in many nations today.

This approach completely solves the same-sex marriage dispute that is dividing our nation, because it dissolves the religious aspect of legal marriage. It is clearly in better keeping with the non-establishment clause of the Constitution, because it does not even temporarily put religious clergy into the position of being clerk for the state. Each religious community would be free to decide for themselves what unions they want to bless, and how to bless them with whomever designated to officiate, without overtones of legal discrimination for their customs. Whether a given religious community chooses to bless or not bless any particular union would be of no interest to the state, as indeed it should not be. Those belonging to communities that refuse to bless some unions as holy would still be expected to respect the legal nature of the civil unions of fellow citizens outside their communities, and would have no reason to feel threatened by doing so.

My hope has been that the issue of same-sex marriage would spark a much wider critical examination of current marriage practices in the USA. I fear that the current headlong rush into solidified positions on same-sex marriage, hammered out in the context of power politics and the coming election, will actually hinder the process of real critical examination of current marriage practices. Discussions quickly devolve into a bifurcated pattern of “for it” or “against it,” but “how might we agree to do this thing differently” remains off the table. Clearly a missed opportunity. That is why my feelings are mixed.


Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools

May 10, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I listened in the other day on a conversation among students sparked by a news report on a proposed Alabama bill that would allow churches to teach religion classes to public school students for credit. []. The teaching would take place off campus, would require parental and local school board approval, and the parents and churches would have to cover any cost incurred, including transportation. The conversation revolved mainly around the question of what should be taught in the public schools about religion, if anything at all. Though I have strong ideas on this topic, I remained an eaves dropper on this conversation, both to avoid professorial intrusion into the situation, and also because I have an outlet for my thoughts in this blog spot. So here goes…

Let me begin by saying that this question is more than merely academic or theoretical for me. It engages me directly, as a father of a public school child, as a citizen taxpayer, an educator, and as a religiously affiliating person. Early in my career, I taught World Religions in a secular (though private) school and history/social studies in public schools. Raised a Christian (Mennonite), I am the male partner in an interfaith marriage, a gentile father in a modern Jewish family. We are members of a small Reform congregation that is situated within an overwhelmingly Christian Midwestern town. My daughter has always been the only Jewish girl in her public school classes through the years, and one of only a few other-than-Christian students in her school.

While for religious minorities it is often most expedient to support a blanket “no religion” policy for the public school curriculum, I don’t agree. Teaching about religion should not be ignored because, as contributions to The Denial File have repeatedly underlined, religion is one of the most pervasive elements of individual and communal human life. An educated human mind inevitably seeks answers to deep questions of purpose and meaning in life, and most people naturally turn to the teachings and practices of religion in response to those questions.

Starting at the earliest levels, we can help students recognize why people take their religious beliefs so seriously. At the same time, with increasing sophistication across the curriculum, we can help students recognize that by its very nature, religious beliefs and practices are always tentative and partial. Individuals and communities of people will naturally find some types of beliefs and practices to be more satisfying for themselves than others. It is one of our strengths as a democratic people that we do not always line up together in complete agreement, but that we strive to keep the conversation vibrant and alive.

Specific content of teaching on religion in the public schools will vary, depending on the grade level. Likewise, there is a good case to be made for infusing such learning throughout the curriculum, as it naturally arises, rather than offering specific courses. But two points should guide us throughout: 1) teaching about religion should not be ignored, and 2) teaching about religion must underscore the value of religious pluralism.

Far from being a necessary threat to strong religious faith, recognition of this fundamental pluralism (including strong doubt, agnosticism and atheism) yields the most valuable opportunity we have to learn from each other, and to develop and mature in our encounter with life’s deepest questions. All religious faiths (and most secular social philosophies) place some form of the Golden Rule (mutuality in respect and concern) at the heart of their teachings. If we have the courage to infuse this basic teaching throughout the public school curriculum, not only our children but our larger democratic social institutions will greatly benefit.


Let the Dead be Baptized

April 20, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Recently there was a minor uproar when people learned that it is a practice of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to “baptize the dead.” Although this practice is supposed to be limited to the direct bloodline ancestors of Mormon people (thus assuring that those of their ancestral line will be assured of salvation in the afterlife) the practice apparently has expanded (without official sanction from the church hierarchy) to include others as well. This was seen to be particularly offensive to Jewish people and others who felt that this posthumous “claim” of people for Mormonism is a breach of the American “truce” between religions on which our particular brand of tolerance is based.

I have some strong feelings about this situation myself, but have purposely waited until the hubbub has died down a bit before expressing them publically. I think we can well assume that if Mitt Romney indeed becomes the Republican presidential candidate, we will hear about all of this again in the course of the campaign. Therefore, now seems like a good time to express what I have to say about it.

All religions have their way of remembering and honoring the dead. There is nothing about this that should be discouraged. Most of the time, the rituals of remembering and honoring are expressed in prayers. I am not an expert on all Jewish practices, but in the services of my own (Reform) congregation, the Mourners’ Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is the culmination of the service itself. Most of the time, those mentioned specifically by name in this part of the service are Jewish people. However, that is not always the case. We are a congregation in which a very high percentage of the marriages are “mixed,” meaning one of the partners does not come from a Jewish background (this is very typical for Reform, Reconstruction and Conservative congregations, less so for Orthodox congregations but rising even there.) If a person requests the name of a non-Jewish relative to be mentioned during this part of the service, there is no objection at all, at least in my congregation. That a non-Jewish person’s name is included in this part of the service is a sign of deep respect and a signal that we are all connected as one human family, regardless of religion or ethnic origins.

Clearly, in every religious service in the country you will find similar ritual inclusions of people who are not members of that religion themselves. I can hardly imagine anyone with any sense objecting to having others mentioned in prayer or other rituals who are not members of that particular faith.

So, apparently, in demonstrating their remembrance and honor for people no longer with us in body, Mormons include not only prayer but baptism in their rituals of respect. Thought experiment. Most of us, I think, would be positively touched to learn that local Mormon congregants had mentioned our recently deceased parent or close relative in prayer. I think this would be true even if we did not particularly believe in the efficacy of prayer itself–we would recognize in any case that such prayer was a signal of respect. Why would we feel any different then, if we do, to learn that in addition to prayer for our deceased parent or close relative, there had also been a ritual baptism?

I think this would be because in our own Christian churches, baptism is associated with inauguration of membership, and so it may feel like Mormons are “claiming” as members those who did not, in life, wish to be members. However, we should keep in mind that the “offense” occurs only because we are reading our own understanding of the meaning of baptism into the Mormon practice. But this is not legitimate. If as part of a service emphasizing Christian love, a minister claimed Gandhi as an “honorary Presbyterian,” of Lutheran, or Baptist, or what have you, would that be so offensive? I think not, and I suggest that the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead is no more than that–a sign of remembrance, honor and respect.

Now, baptism of deceased Jewish people has some different undertones. There is a long history in Jewish and Christian history of “forced” baptisms, of living Jewish people being baptized against their will, and we honor in memory those many Jews who chose fines, exile, and even death, rather than to submit to Christian baptism. To learn that Anne Frank and other Holocaust victims have been ritually “baptized” in Mormon memorial services cannot be easily separated from the feelings associated with centuries of forced Christian baptism. Because of this, such baptisms should never be done in the public arena (which Mormons would never do in any case) and it would be good if Mormons did not publicize the specifics of this ritual. But Mormons have never forced baptism on living Jewish people, and so again it is not right to impute the same motives of those who forced baptism on living Jewish people onto Mormons. Baptism of the dead is an inner-church Mormon ritual signaling remembrance, honor and respect for those being symbolically included in the ritual.

If and when discussion of this practice hits the public airwaves again, as it surely will during a Romney run for President, I would hope we can all just chill out a bit, and put this practice in the same context as prayer for the deceased. Building tolerance for each other is anything but easy, so let us not suspicion each other about the rituals we employ for rituals intending remembrance, honor and respect.


Right Policy, Wrong Reasoning

March 13, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Unlike Huffington Post commentator Sarah O’Leary ( I do not at all doubt the deep sincerity of the US Roman Catholic Bishops’ objections to the extension of birth control access among American women, nor their abhorrence at the thought that employers who share their convictions against such practices will be expected nevertheless to provide for it in their employee health insurance plans. The Bishops and others of similar conviction have every right to their views. They are right to object to policies of the Obama Administration that would make birth control measures readily accessible to American women. That said, I should add that in my view, the Bishops are very wrongheaded in their convictions. Yet they do us all a service to religiously patrol the borders of religious liberty.

Americans highly value religious liberty, and in general we support a “hands off” policy toward religious beliefs and practices. This approach is wise politically and theologically. However, this hands off approach is not absolute. There are numerous examples in which we desire and expect the State to intervene to protect our fellow citizens against the sincerely held convictions of a minority of religious believers.

Regardless of their sincerely held religious convictions, we do not allow parents to withhold standard necessary medical treatment from their children. We deem this unfair to those children, our fellow citizens. Regardless of sincerely held religious convictions (and plenty of biblical precedent) we do not sanction bigamous or polygamous marriage. We deem this unfair to the second and third wives and their children, our fellow citizens. In these and many other cases that could be cited, we desire and expect the State to intervene on behalf of the health and welfare of our fellow citizens, even though it means contravening the undoubtedly sincere convictions of a minority of religious believers.

Thus with clear studies indicating that women’s general health is significantly improved with regular access to effective birth control procedures, it is completely in line with our generally hands-off approach to religious liberty for the State, in the interest of protecting our fellow citizens’ health and welfare, to pursue a policy that maximally facilitates birth control access for any woman who wants it, even against the sincerely held convictions of a minority of religious believers.

But I would caution against dismissing this all as just so much politics. The religious liberty issue has merit, and needs to be examined closely whenever it arises. We do not want State authorities to simply presume they can act willy-nilly against the deeply held convictions of religious minorities. We should be grateful that the concern has been raised in this case as well.

The Obama administration could have handled this with more tact and diplomacy, and quite frankly, for a supposed Constitutional scholar, Obama’s own pronouncements on what does and does not constitute legitimate religious convictions betrays a woeful lack of deep understanding of the issues involved in the concept of Separation of Church and State. Nonetheless, their concrete policy is clearly the correct one, in line with the historical precedent of what we expect from the State, to protect the health and well-being of our fellow citizens.


The Good Place of Religion

August 15, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Sunday afternoon, while driving through west Bloomington (what we might call “the poor side of town”) I saw a sign that said “Free Sale.” Intrigued, I followed the arrow to a bunch of tables with all sorts of stuff on them. The idea of this “Free Sale” (which learned takes place every other Sunday afternoon) is that if you have something to give, you put it on a table. If you need something you see there, you take it. It was like the old hippie days, the Diggers and the Hog Farm, all over again! So now I wanted to find out what was behind it all. I got into a conversation with the people running the affair and learned that they are a collective dedicated to “raising up the neighborhood,” with projects including a whole free education program (if you have something to teach, just sign up for a time, if you want to learn something someone is teaching, just show up at that time), a garden vegetable exchange, and weekly democracy discussions, and other such projects. Included also are some regular buying ventures, such as a food store stocked with things going out of date at local grocery stores (3x weekly pick up at the stores) and a sort of crafts store stocked with items like embroidery made by local community people.

So, social work professor that I am, I immediately thought of this project as something that could potentially involve some of my students. I exchanged contact information, but then the thought hit me that these energetic, scruffy-looking folks may be part of some religion, and I had to check that out, given that my affiliation is with a large, secular state university. If they were indeed religiously affiliated, that would not be a problem in and of itself, but if I were going to encourage my students to become involved in some way with their activities, I would need to make clear to students up front that this is a religiously affiliated organization, so that students could make their decision to become involved with this information in hand. I explained my position to the neighborhood organizers, saying explicitly that if there were going to be any proselytizing, either of student volunteers or as any part of the program, I would need to know this front so that there would be no surprises for students who decided to get involved.

Their answer was very interesting. They said, in effect, that while many of them are Christian or of other religious commitments, there was no uniform religious basis for what they are doing. Their unifying desire is to build up the neighborhood at the grass roots level. And while some of the individuals among them are clear that their motivation for this work does spring from religious teachings about love for others and concern for the poor, I could rest assure that (and this is how they said it) it all comes from “from the good place” of religion and I wouldn’t have to worry about proselytism. All are welcome to join in the work regardless of religion or no religion, with no distinctions made.

This week I have been mulling over that phrase, “the good place” of religion. It is a peculiar phrase, but said what needed to be said rather succinctly. They recognize the difference between the “good place” of religion and, what(?), the rest of it? What gave the phrase its clear meaning in this situation was exactly the work they are doing. “By their fruits you shall know them,” is how the Good Book says it. I sure would like to see more of the good place, and a lot less of the rest of it!


And when did you stop beating your wife…?

June 6, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Well, May 21st came and went, without occurrence of The Rapture, as famously predicted by Harold Camping ( As rumor has it, Camping has reset the date for sometime in October. All of this seems very strange to most people, and in general we assume that the plausibility of any belief system is inversely proportional to the number of people who hold it as true. But to those caught up in this Rapture and End of the World belief system, the very enormity of the rejection and dismissal by outsiders is taken as further evidence for the correctness of the belief itself.

Are we really so immune to this intellectual move, a move summoned to rationalize the reality that we see in order to ameliorate the cognitive dissonance caused by having our view rejected by others? For many strict Freudians, the only motive that anyone could possibly have for rejecting the Oedipal theory is that the person were still laboring under the strains of an unresolved Oedipal Complex. The more vociferously opponents argued against and rejected the theory, the more their rejection demonstrated the correctness of the theory to those who held it as true. This would be true of any theory that contains as part of the theory itself an explanation for why people might be expected to resist the truth of the theory. As in the line of inquiry, “And just when did you stop beating your wife…?” the conclusion is contained in the premise. There is an undeniably stop element of this in Ernest Becker’s ideas on death anxiety/immortality striving as a root motivational strategy in human behavioral psychology (what I have called the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety.) It is very easy to slip into a mode of thinking in which someone’s opposition or rejection of the theory is interpreted as an exhibition of “denial.”

Having spent much of my early scholarly career investigating all kinds of strange, sectarian belief systems and trying to understand how it could be that people could hold to these beliefs, I am naturally suspicious of any statement that assumes a logic of “the more people think it is ridiculous, the more true it must be!” Nevertheless, it is clear that really profound theories, theories that strongly question much of what people take as “common sense,” cannot be expected to find immediate assent in the marketplace of ideas. So how can we navigate this potential conflict responsibly? Here is my suggestion.

1) Make oneself as familiar as possible with Terror Management Theory. TMT is composed of empirical studies built on Becker’s basic ideas and, after 20-plus years of research, these studies have been showing Becker’s ideas to be very robust in laboratory testing. This alone places Becker’s work on par with the best of any depth-psychological theories available, and a cut or two (or twenty) above most of them.

2) Cultivate a view of Becker’s work as a broadly connecting theory and resist the temptation of diagnosing “death denial” every time someone sneezes. Undoubtedly, on the everyday level, there are much more simple and convincing explanations for most human behavior. On that level, the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety will be no more convincing that these other perspectives, and often seem much more distant and abstract by direct comparison. GDA Theory begins to demonstrate its power and utility as we try to find some basis for unifying these more partial theories to see what they might have in common. If we reflexively pull out the death denial theory to explain every little human behavioral frailty, it starts to look more like an ideology than as a robust theory.


Steve Earle, Me, And Ol’ Causa Sui

May 26, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

Musician and author Steve Earle has long traded in stories of limits and transcendence of limits. This is the case in his latest offering. Perhaps I should say offerings because he has simultaneously released a novel and an album of the same name, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive. This title, in turn, is a Hank Williams song. The novel revolves around Doc Ebersole, a fictional friend of Williams who is being haunted by the singer’s ghost ten years after his death.  The novel has met with critical praise.

The focus of this posting is a particular song on the album entitled simply, God Is God. The lyrics follow.

God Is God by Steve Earle

I believe in prophecy
Some folks see things not everybody can see
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me
And I believe in miracles
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing
Yeah I believe in God
And God ain’t me

I’ve traveled around the world
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust
And as our fate unfurls
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust
And I believe in God
But God ain’t us

God of my little understanding, don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all

I received the blessins
And Every day on earth’s  another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
Just another lesson
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got
Maybe this is why I’m here on earth, and maybe not
But I believe in God,
And God is God

What I find interesting in these lyrics is the use of traditional religious symbols and images in a modern way that is consonant with Ernest Becker’s insights. Images of mighty mountains and burning bushes, of miracles and prophesy, singing angels and little lights that shine are juxtaposed with the wisdom of knowing that you don’t know. I associate the insight most clearly with Socrates but it is found in philosophy, religion, and psychology. Earle addresses a “God of my little understanding” and acknowledges “every day that passes I’m sure about a little less.” His search for meaning concludes “maybe this is why I’m on earth and maybe not.”  Undergirding all this uncertainty is the causa sui realization that he is not the ultimate author of his mortal fate. God is God. Earle’s response to this reality would draw a knowing smile from Becker. When he refers to every day as another chance to get it right and commits to let his little light rage against the night he gives expression to the existential faith of a Tillich or Kierkegaard. Beyond these insights, Earle’s way of believing is also important. It is a tentative faith that leaves room for doubt and stands in contrast to the ideological extremism that characterizes too much religious expression. At the same time, it is powerful enough to allow him to rage, and most importantly, to create. Living in this liminal space is perhaps a way forward. Steve Earle is a fine traveling companion.


Depositing Religion On The Doorstep of Psychology

April 11, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

The title of this blog is a reversal of Ernest Becker’s famous statement that psychology deposits us on the doorstep of religion. He was speaking to the impossibility of psychology fully answering the existential dilemma that is at the heart of the human condition. While I believe Becker was correct on this, I think it is also true that psychology can help us frame our questions in a clearer way and so point us to more productive outcomes. A case in point is the recent talk given by social critic Naomi Klein on the question of climate change denial.  Klein’s talk can be found here:

Her main point is that climate change deniers, both the scientists and those who readily accept their findings, are ideologically driven to defend a certain worldview. Of what does this worldview consist? Briefly, it is composed of a strain of Christian faith, laissez-faire economics, and frontier rugged individualism. These elements stand over and against not only any attempt to regulate polluting companies, but any attempt to rein in the consumer appetite for more, more, more. To quote Klein, “When they say climate change is a threat to the American way of life … infinite growth, infinite expansion is embedded into people’s definition of themselves and of their country. It is their mythology that is under threat.” Klein goes on to argue that scientific facts by themselves cannot address the anxiety experienced by the climate deniers whose worldview is threatened. She counsels addressing the underlying ethics and values of the competing worldviews. She says that we should realize that there is an ideological war going on and should be willing to fight it on that level. It is at this point in her argument that we can benefit from the insights of Becker because if irrationality can appear in the scientific arena, it most certainly can appear in an ideological war. Moving from scientific fact to ideological debate does not address the anxiety that undergirds the conflict. This is where religion is deposited on the doorstep of psychology.

A recent study by Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart, and Jason Martens points to the psychological foundation of climate denial. The study is entitled “Death and Science: The Existential  Underpinnings  Of Belief In Intelligent Design And Discomfort With Evolution.”  It can be found here:

While climate change and evolutionary theory are distinct topics, I suggest the psychological dynamics are very similar. The study is highly detailed with nuanced findings and it is impossible to do it justice in this short space. For our purposes, a very brief summary must suffice. In short, the researchers tested how the meaningful worldview held by subjects correlated with acceptance or rejection of both evolutionary theory (ET) and Intelligent Design Theory (IDT). By exposing subjects to mortality salience questions—questions that make them aware of their inevitable death—the researchers found that subjects moved toward the theory that best supported their worldview. Those lacking strong natural science backgrounds were more likely to be drawn to an IDT that tacitly supported traditional western cosmogony. Conversely, those with a strong natural science background were more likely to accept ET. In both cases, subjects gravitated to the view that supported existential meaning. One major takeaway of this study is its confirmation of the idea that society functions to give people a meaningful worldview and a significant role to play within that worldview. To quote the study, “The present research suggests that the attitudes toward scientific (or seemingly scientific) views and ideologies can be partly shaped by unconscious psychological motives to maintain security and ward off existential angst through the cultivation of meaning and purpose.”

The upshot of all this is that meaning trumps reason. That might be fine were the stakes not so high. When ecological devastation lies in the balance, our need for comfort cannot be allowed to trump reason. Here, the insights of Becker are so important in allowing us to understand the underlying motives and name them clearly. As Confucius said, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Becker’s work gives us the language to name “the truth of things.” One positive finding of the “Death And Science” study is that subjects could be moved toward that more accurate naming and find existential meaning in the ET worldview through education.

One final thought: There have been studies suggesting that imagining oneself flying or in flight can act to assuage our mortality anxiety. If we could somehow get the climate deniers and IDT proponents up in airplanes and then reintroduce them to Darwin’s naturalism …


Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

March 28, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

The Christian observance of the season of Lent, the period of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter Sunday, is inaugurated by the sacramental known as Ash Wednesday. In the Catholic form of the ritual, ashes produced from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are placed on the forehead of the believer. The priest or lay distributor says “Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” The ashes remain on the forehead for the remainder of the day as an outward sign of the need for repentance in one’s life.

This ritual has seemed to exert a strong and unique hold on the psyches of adherents.  I was surprised to hear a priest express exasperation at the fact that Ash Wednesday sometimes outdraws Easter in attendance. Ernest Becker helps explain the appeal. In The Denial of Death, Becker explains how Kierkegaard stands in the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition wherein, “Education for man means facing up to his natural impotence and death.” Becker goes on to say, “It is only if you ‘taste’ death with the lips of your living body that you can know emotionally that you are a creature that will die.” The power of the ritual stems from the fact that it effectively touches both the existential and public spheres of our life. On the one hand it is completely individual and concrete. Ash fragments tumble into eyelashes causing you to blink. As an individual you decide whether to leave the ashes on all day (as is the religious expectation) thereby letting one’s religious freak flag fly, or, enter the anonymity of secular culture by washing them off. On the other hand it is a public affair often involving hundreds of people and you are ‘Man’ not Dan or Neil or Erika. Your personal identity, even as it is emphasized, is transcended by your animal condition.  We taste death simultaneously on two levels.  This deep insight,which is terrifying at its core, takes place in the comforting culture armor of religion. The hope of Easter resurrection sits on the horizon. And yet, for that moment, “Remember Man…….”

For several reasons, Ash Wednesday occupies a good place in my own life. As a kid, the weirdness of it was attractive. It had a darkness about it, like something from a Neil Gaiman novel tumbling into Anytown U.S.A. In retrospect it seems likely that the ritual prepared the way for a later interest in Becker’s work. I got it before I ever understood it. As an adult, a house fire added to the truth to which Ash Wednesday points. About 10 years ago we lost the second floor of our house to fire. Thankfully everyone got out okay but we lost a lot. The initial pain of pitching things soon took on a liberating feel. The trauma of loss gave way to a sense of freedom from stuff. This ‘giving up’ or sacrifice is the key component to Lenten preparation. My daughter took it a step further, using charcoal from her burned bedroom for art projects and keeping a baggy of ashes from the fire for her own annual idiosyncratic Ash Wednesday ceremony, ‘tasting death with lips of her own living body’.