Escape from the Denial of Death

cemetery1Richard Beck’s new book The Slavery of Death works with the powerful thesis of Ernest Becker which states that fear and denial of death fuels human aggression. I have read both of Becker’s books (Denial of Death and Escape from Evil) and I find Becker’s analysis of this phenomenon compelling. Moreover, much scientific testing has verified Becker’s theory. Beck outlines Becker’s demonstration this existential fear of death and its subsequent denial leads to striving for heroism. For Becker, heroism is a compulsive drive to succeed, to prove that one matters, and to gain recognition for one’s efforts. One might think that there is nothing wrong with any of this but this neurotic striving for “heroism” comes to the expense of other things in life such as family and friends. Moreover, the social settings for such striving tend to magnify aggressive behavior so that not only fearful individuals but the social groups as well persecute others to validate themselves.

Impressive as Becker’s insights are, they are very bleak and they don’t offer humanity any constructive way out the denial of death except, perhaps, a heavy dose of Stoicism. Most humans find this cold comfort at best and an impossible prescription at worst. Might as well join Jean-Paul Sartre in a life of existential despair.

Richard Beck brings Christian theology and spirituality to Becker’s insights which brings us into a whole new ball game. To begin with, he notes the importance the Eastern Orthodox Churches give to Death, rather than Sin being the prime enemy that Jesus must destroy. He adds depth to the slavery to “heroism” by comparing it to the “principalities and powers” of the world denounced by St. Paul. Beck then uses the social and anthropological thought of Walter Wink and William Stringfellow (who deserves to be much more remembered than he seems to be) to help us see the strength of social forces that pull us into a “heroic” mode. Much more important, Beck shows how an eccentric life can pull us out of this death anxiety so as to live a healthy, loving life. Beck is not talking about being somebody’s eccentric uncle; he is talking about living a life centered outside the self. He uses Arthur McGill as a resource for understanding how love and concern for others benefits the one doing the loving by pulling us out of ourselves. Jesus, of course, is the perfect example of eccentric living. Jesus was positioned fully out of himself out of concern for others and also his grounding in his heavenly Father. That is why, although he feared the painful death to come in Gethsemane, he had the courage to endure it. Lest one be overly daunted by the extent of Jesus’ self-sacrifice and that of people like Teresa of Calcutta, Beck also shows how important small sacrifices on a daily basis are for eccentric living. These are within reach of everybody. The “little way” of Thérèse of Lisieux is are stirring and practical example. For Thérèse, eccentric living can be as simple as pushing a wheelchair of an elderly sister who complains bitterly over every bump on the way. It is such eccentric living that leads to Jesus’s resurrected life which we are all invited to share.

Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (2): Abraham’s Offspring

Jacob_Blessing_the_Children_of_Joseph_-_WGA19117[Continuation of Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (1): Cain and Abel

God promised Abraham that he would have as many descendants as the dust of the earth. (Gen. 13:16) I like the later image of the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17) but the earlier image ties in with the creation of humanity out of dust, thus making it clear that descendants of Abraham (like us) are part of God’s ongoing creation. That’s how expansive God’s blessing and being God’s blessing can be.

When Abraham and his nephew Lot found there was tension between their herdsmen, Abraham suggested that they separate and he gave Lot the choice of taking the land to the left or the land to the right. This is quite the opposite from what most of us do which is the first see what the other desires and then desire it for ourselves. Instead, Abraham renounces desiring what his nephew desires and goes in the other direction. (The better-looking land turned out to have its liabilities but that is another story.)

Unfortunately, Abraham does not renounce mimetic desire and rivalry when it comes to his sons Ishmael and Isaac. In spite of being called to be a blessing and promised as many descendants as the dust of the earth, Abraham fails to believe that both of his sons can inherit the blessing he has been given by God. Far from fighting each other, Ishmael and Isaac play well together but they fall victim to the rivalry between their mothers. (Women are equal participants in the mimetic rivalry game in Genesis.) Abraham casts Ishmael out so that his favorite son born of Sarah can inherit the blessing. God, however, makes it clear that there is a blessing for Ishmael, too, even if Abraham did not believe it.

Following his father’s example, Isaac assumes that only one of his two sons can receive his blessing and, like Abraham, he wants to give it to his favorite son. Rebekah’s involvement in this rivalry causes this Isaac’s scheme to misfire. This time, it is the son who receives (takes) the blessing who is exiled where Jacob spends many years in rivalry with his kinsman Laban. When Esau re-enters the story on Jacob’s return, we can see that Esau has done well for himself and has no need to envy his brother’s success. Apparently there was a lot more of a blessing left for Esau than Isaac thought.

Jacob stubbornly upholds the family tradition of disbelief in the scope of God’s blessing and singles out his favorite, Joseph, over/against his ten older brothers. This time the fratricidal strife has enough brothers to create a scenario of collective violence. In contrast to the primitive sacred, however, the unanimity is not complete. Both Reuben and Judah, separately, make plans to save Joseph but they both fail. If they had stood up to their brothers, the mimetic process would likely have been redirected in a peaceful direction. The upshot of the story is that Joseph ends up becoming a blessing to Egypt and to lands far beyond and he saves his own family through his foresight in collecting food during the years of plenty. (Joseph’s making the Egyptians buy back the food that had been taken from them does make Joseph less generous than his God.)

Before he dies, Jacob blesses the two sons of Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh. He crosses his hands to indicate that Ephraim will be greater than his elder brother, but he gives both boys the same blessing. Finally, through excruciatingly painful experience, Jacob has learned that God has blessings for all of Abraham’s offspring.

Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (1): Cain and Abel

Cain_slaying_Abel,_1608-1609Fratricide is a running thread throughout Genesis. The rivalry portrayed in its stories do not involve romantic triangles as in novels and plays, but rather, the disputes are over blessings, the other running thread throughout Genesis.

In Creation God blesses humanity with all that God has created, but humanity rejects that blessing for the sake of one tree that then shrank to a barren landscape. To begin the process of re-gathering a scattered humanity after the Tower of Babel, God calls Abraham to leave his father’s house, i.e. the scattered, rivalrous civilization he was born in, and move to a land God will show him. When Abraham leaves the entanglements of mimetic rivalry behind, whole new vistas of possibilities suddenly present themselves.

God then tells Abraham:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” and by him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12: 1-3) We are so habituated to getting (or taking) blessings that we often fail to notice that God said Abraham would be a blessing and a blessing not just for him and his household but for all households. The intervening verse that God will curse those who curse Abraham is discordant. If God really is in the business of blessings, then God is not in the business of cursing. After all, Jesus did not curse those who cursed him and worse. However, we could say that when we curse someone who is a blessing, and through Abraham everybody is a blessing, then we are consumed by our own cursing.

We see all this already at play in the story of Cain and Abel who fight over a blessing and the supposed lack thereof. Genesis does not tell us why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. Girard’s theory of collective violence founding culture leads me to suggest that tilling the ground was a factor. There could have been mimetic rivalry among nomadic herders of sheep but tilling the ground like Cain was all the more conducive to rivalry over particular plots of land, such as Ahab’s coveting Naboth’s vineyard. The proliferation of vegetative dying and rising deities in mythology suggests that landed economy lead to mimetic crises and their resolution through collective violence. On the other hand, when we note the alleged zero sum blessings in the fratricidal strife that follows, maybe Cain jumped to the conclusion that when Abel was blessed, there could be no blessing for him.

What is decisive is that when Cain’s offering was rejected, or he thought it was, he embroiled himself with Abel, which was also to exile God. God called out to Cain, something God continues to do with violent humans to the end of time, but Cain would not let go of his preoccupation with his brother until he had killed him.

Afterwards, Abel’s blood cried from the ground. This is a marked contrast with the fratricidal myth of the founding of Rome where the blood of Remus was silent. Like Romulus, though, Cain was a founder of culture while Abel was the first prophet as defined by Jesus in Mt. 23:35, that is, a prophet is a victim. Abel’s blood seems to have cried for vengeance. The author of Hebrews, however, says that the blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” More proof that God is in the business of blessing and not cursing.

Proving Shylock Right—Or Wrong

ShylockThe first thing that usually pops into anybody’s mind when Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice comes up is the cardboard stereotyped Jew Shylock. After Auschwitz, we cannot slip into enjoying this caricature the way earlier audiences might have if so inclined. On the contrary, we are apt to dismiss the play now that we realize how lethal such stereotyping can be. The second thing about the play that usually comes to mind is Portia’s set of three boxes where it is not the gold or silver covers that lead to her riches, but the unattractive lead cover. Appearances can be misleading and so perhaps it will be worth looking for what is beneath the ugly stereotyping.

It’s hard to find any gold under the ugly exterior of Shylock’s behavior, but it is equally hard to find any gold under the apparently more attractive exterior of Antonio’s behavior. Antonio is noble in that he is willing to give surety to a loan for his friend Bassanio, thus accepting the risk, but the way he treats Shylock is shameful. In one respect, Shylock is offering to do good to an enemy, but in another, he is hoping that the interest-free loan will lead to Antonio’s downfall by the extraction of a pound of flesh. It is important to realize that both men are mimetic doubles, rivals in the quest for increasing wealth for the sake of wealth.

In Shylock’s famous speech, when he is taken to task for his vengeful terms, he insists he is exactly the same kind of man as any of his Gentile rivals:  “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Which is what would happen to Antonio if a pound of flesh is cut out of him. “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” Shylock’s detractors are trying to distinguish themselves from Shylock because they are merciful, but mercy is conspicuously lacking in their treatment of Shylock.

Meanwhile, Bassanio is often thought to have proven himself wise by choosing the lead casket, which wins him the hand of Portia in marriage. The speech he makes before making the choice, however, shows that he is not wise by cunning and calculating in his own desire for wealth. “Thus ornament is but the guiled shore/To a most dangerous sea.” Bassanio is so used to disseminating that dissemination is what he expects of Portia. And he is right.

The famous trial scene features Portia’s famous praise of mercy: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” This is as golden a speech as any in Shakespeare. But—mercy is—again!—lacking in dealing with Shylock. By the end of the trial, he has lost his wealth, his livelihood and his religion. Portia’s words seem to echo Ecclesiasticus 35:20: “Mercy is seasonable in the time of affliction as clouds of rain in the time of drought.”  But her actions belie the beautiful words, thus proving Shylock right when he says that when wronged, Christians revenge—just like Shylock. Unfortunately, we have a golden casket with nothing rich inside. The words, however, really are golden and invite any of us who rejoice in Shylock’s downfall to open our hearts to accept this gift from heaven.

Seeing with More than the Eyes

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyJesus’ healing of a man born blind in John’s Gospel (chapter 9) is much more remarkable than fixing the eyes so that they can see. In order to really see, the healed man would have needed a radical overhaul of his neurological system so that his brain could grasp what was being seen. John didn’t know about neurology but he did know that really learning to see involves at least as radical an overhaul of our human system to heal our deeper levels of blindness.

John shows us the blindness surrounding the blind man when the disciples ask Jesus if it was the man’s own sin or the sin of his parents that caused him to be born blind. The notion that the poor guy sinned before he was born should be enough to show us how blind this attitude is. This blindness was compounded by excluding the blind man from the religious practices of Judaism because he was blind. Neither the Jewish leaders nor even Jesus’ disciples could see any potential worth in the blind man.

That Jesus would take the man’s blindness as an occasion for revealing God’s work rather than for blame is to put mud on everybody’s eyes to recreate the world for us. The Jewish leaders react to the healing with anger. They seem determined from the start to discredit the healing rather than change their own way of seeing. Their search for blaming was rewarded when they discovered that the healing was done on the Sabbath.

It is important not to let Gospels stories such as this discredit the Jewish practice of the Sabbath. It was a great gift for Jews and for Christians who treat Sunday in a similar fashion, a day for renewal. That is the key: a day for renewal. The use of mud paste clearly refers back to the creation of humanity out of moist clay. The blind man is being recreated. In sharp contrast to the paralytic in John 5 who remained as paralyzed as he ever was no matter how much he carried his mat, the formerly blind man shows himself to be renewed at a very deep level. The clever way he handles the hostile questions from the Jewish leaders reveals a man with sharp intelligence and wit. Meanwhile, the Jewish leaders make it clear that their initial judgment that the blind man was a sinner and an outcast was immutable. As long as he was blind he was an outcast and once he could see, he was cast out for being healed by the wrong person in the wrong way. There can, of course, be no renewal, no re-creation if we insist on being immutable, neither can we see renewal or re-creation even when it takes place right under our noses.

But the man shows even more. James Alison’s concept of the “intelligence of the victim” suggests that the blind man had insight into what life was about and what God was about because he was blind and an outcast. He was given the opportunity of repudiating Jesus the way the paralytic did, which would have brought him approbation from the community, but instead, he staunchly defended Jesus, which landed him in the precise place of blame and expulsion as Jesus himself. It is in this place that the man really sees.

The disciples fade from the story after their question about who sinned, but far from really disappearing, their circle expands to include all of us who read and hear the story. This expansion forces us to choose: will we let Jesus re-create us in the place of shame shared with the man born blind, or will we hop out of the circle so that our lives will continue to be etched in stone?

Ignatiusly Reading

Ignatius_of_Loyola_(militant)[This is a companion post to Quixotic Reading]

Reading in a life-giving way is not primarily a matter of reading but of living; of how we read our lives. Don Quixote idolized Amadis of Gaul, Emma Bovary idolized her lovers and Werther idolized Lotte. The primary reason for the Werther effect is that readers of Goethe’s novel committed the same idolatry through mimetic desire as did Werther. If we are too embroiled in our mimetic desires to have eyes to see what Cervantes and Flaubert see, then we will only see what Goethe seems to have been able to see when he wrote Werther: the despair of desiring a woman desired by another who has made that woman unattainable. That is, the way the readers of Werther were living their lives affected their reading and their reading reinforced the way they were living their lives.

In his incisive study of Don Quixote (The Humble Story of Don Quixote; Reflections on the Birth of the Modern Novel) Cesario Bandera leads us to the heart of the Don’s problem and ours: “God-like Amadis is not God. God transcends empirical reality but does not ignore it or make it irrelevant.” The more we look at the world around us and interact respectfully with it, the less apt we are to be swept away by the fantasies of mimetic desire. God “demands an absolute act of faith beyond empirical reality, but such an act of faith does not obliterate the inherent rationality of the world ‘out there.’ The act of faith is essential only to prevent empirical reality from becoming a god unto itself, an idol.” (p.155) Bandera is alerting us to the problem of allowing our models to distort the world around us, making models like Amadis or Albert (Lotte’s husband) the lens through which we interact with the world instead of God.

Ignatius of Loyola provides an instructive contrast to Don Quixote. According to his Autobiography, Ignatius liked to read the same sorts of chivalrous romances the Don Quixote did and, while he was recovering from his battle injuries, he asked for this sort of literature, but only a life of Christ and a book of the lives of the saints was available, so he read those instead. These books changed not only what Ignatius read, but how he read. Not only did he stop to think about the things he was reading, he also stopped to think “about the things of the world that he used to think of before.” That is, Ignatius was using what he read to connect him to real life, the life God had created rather than what life looks like through the lens of an idol like Amadis. During this time of struggle and repentance, Ignatius then confesses his infatuation with the idea (not reality) of going into the service of a “certain lady,” oblivious to “how impossible it would be.”

But then Ignatius started to think about what it would be like to imitate Saint Francis or Saint Dominic who had imitated Christ? Such thoughts gave him consolation that thoughts of soldiering and chivalry did not give him. Here were models that were challenging but not impossible. Ignatius was spurred on to develop a spirituality based on the imitation of Christ, not an imitation of external actions only but, more important, of cultivating the inner disposition of Christ’s charity for others that was to become the backbone of his Spiritual Exercises. Bandera draws the contrast for us when he says that “unlike Christ, Amadis cannot give his follower what he wants without ceasing to be Amadis.” (P.157) That is, Amadis, if real, would be what Girard calls a model-obstacle whom Quixote would need to best in combat, which would change Amadis for the worse if Amadis was vanquished. Christ, on the other hand is a model without rivalry, who wishes to be imitated without rivalry. Ignatius discovered that Christ creates an abundance of charity that can only become more abundant through imitating him. The idea of imitating Jesus led to a real pilgrimage to Jerusalem and then to a real spiritual pilgrimage of imitating Christ for the rest of his life.

Quixotic Reading

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaIt is both interesting and significant that the mimetic desire revealed in two of the novels discussed by René Girard in Deceit, Desire & the Novel are derived, not from other people, but from characters in literature.

Don Quixote famously went mad with a desire to imitate Amadis of Gaul in the medieval romances of this knight errant, while Madame Bovary’s desires were fueled by the sentimental novels she read. The literature consumed by both characters gives them distorted visions of reality. Don Quixote mistakes windmills for evil giants and a barber’s basin for a knight’s helmet. Madame Bovary sees the lovers of her life through the lens of the romance novels and fails to see them as they really are until it is too late.

Of the two, Don Quixote is much more removed from “reality” than Madame Bovary. Yet, although the novels Madame Bovary has read seem to mirror “real life” and are thus “realistic,” it is she who seems to be even more confused about “reality” than Don Quixote, to the point of being smothered by fantasy so that what self she has disappears. C.S. Lewis offers us a key insight here when he says : “Children are not deceived by fairy tales; they are often and gravely confused by school stories. Adults are not deceived by science fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines.” Lewis seems a bit sexist here but the underlying point is clear enough. “Realistic” stories present models and stir up desires that seem realistic but are traps that catch the unwary reader.

Curiously, Don Quixote’s fantasies have a contagion of their own. An unnamed man accuses Don Quixote of having a “talent for making anyone who has anything to do with you mad and senseless.” It is curious that Don Quixote is blamed for the insanity of others, as the other people are arguably making themselves insane by staying on Quixote’s case to the point of obsession. In the second part of the novel, a duke and duchess spend huge amounts of time and expense to mirror Don Quixote’s desires in theatrical fakery. They themselves seem to be caught up in Quixote’s madness as much as their victim.

In both cases, there is something of a collective violence around a victim. In the case of Don Quixote, his singularity provokes a spontaneous, improvised conspiracy to bring him to his senses. In the case of Madame Bovary, the social system of mimetic desire is fully developed to the extent that both Madame Bovary and her irresponsible husband and lovers all act like puppets of the ambient fantasy fueled by the novels and the culture industry.

Novelists such as Cervantes and Flaubert are faced with the enormous challenge of revealing the truth of mimetic desire in a medium that is normally used to reflect and fuel mimetic desire. After all, it is the latter tendency that makes huge profits for the producers of this and other media. In the second part of Don Quixote Cervantes does not disguise his indignation over copycat offshoots of his work and other ersatz imitators. Perhaps the main thrust of the second part was to mirror the misunderstandings of his readers in the Duke and the Duchess.

It isn’t enough to write novels revealing mimetic desire. Also needed are readers who can truly see what these novels reveal. If Cervantes was exasperated by the readers of his time, imagine his apoplexy over a musical featuring an inspirational song about following impossible dreams. For Cervantes was showing us in his novels that successfully imitating fictional characters is truly impossible. Don Quixote could not live Amadis of Gaul’s life any more than Emma Bovary could live the lives of heroines in the novels she read. They could only live their own lives, which they failed to do.

Werther is another fictional person who was widely imitated for a time. Heartsick and overwhelmed by his mimetic desire for a woman already promised to another man, Werther kills himself. The publication of Goethe’s novella was followed by an epidemic of suicides throughout Europe. This phenomenon is still called the Werther effect. Drowning in the mimetic desire of fictional characters can be deadly.

So how do we read in a way that is life giving? The short answer is to seek life where it can be found, where Don Quixote found it at the end, in repentance. I will give a slightly longer answer in my next blog post.