The Denial of Death

(A cautionary note – I am not a Becker expert at all, but I have read The Denial of Death and some articles by Becker and by the people who continue his work. It remains the best way I currently have of trying to understand the explosive responses to GA this year.)

My last post broke my previous record for most comments ever – but I realize that all of the comments are from five or six people. I also think that whatever ‘conversation’ was going on in the comments thread lost hope for progress a few days ago. Hence, another post, and I don’t guarantee any further responses to the last comment thread. Read it if you want to get a great example of a half dozen people frustratedly talking past each other.

I said in the aforementioned comments that I would talk about why I think conservatives are so worked up over what happened at General Assembly. If you haven’t heard, what happened is that evil liberals destroyed Christianity forever. They denied Christ, burned Bibles, tortured babies, forced people to marry goats, declared themselves terrorists, and did all of this while innocent conservatives wept bitter tears and begged them to stop committing such atrocities. But alas! The purity of the conservatives was not enough to sway the baby-torturing liberal hordes, who proceeded to eviscerate Presbyterianism for all eternity. Now, all that is left is to watch it hemorrhage and die a slow, lingering death. (This is sarcasm, internetland)

At least, that’s the impression you get when you read blog posts about it.

What really happened, the two things that keep getting mentioned, which both of course have to do with THE GAY, are that the GA voted to get rid of the Authoritative Interpretation regarding homosexuality and the Church, and also voted to amend the Book of Order so that “amendment B” (the anti-gay-ordination one) would be omitted.

You can read about it all here if you want.

The response to these two actions, from their opponents, has been… has seemed absurd to me. At the very least, genuinely amazing. The removal of the Authoritative Interpretation takes effect immediately, whereas the change in “amendment B” needs to be ratified by a majority of the Presbyteries. But to read some of the responses to GA, you’d think the baby-torturing was true. You’d think that this was the end of the Presbyterian church, forever.

There is all kinds of extreme and frankly offensive language coming out of this turn of events. The commissioners are accused of all kinds of moral and intellectual failings. They are ascribed false and even infernal motives. People say they are leaving the church for this reason, that this is the worst GA in the history of the PCUSA. You get the idea.

At first I was baffled by the extremity of the language, but then I remembered my Ernest Becker, and I realized that the extremity came from the fact that ordaining homosexuals is messing with the conservative immortality project.

The basic gist of Becker’s theory, now called Terror Management Theory, is that human beings are motivated by their awareness of the threat of death to invest in belief systems that stave off this anxiety by offering a form of immortality. When these “immortality projects” are threatened, the terror of death surfaces and causes rapid escalation. This is why, for example, a person will murder another person for a flag, or why the Inquisition happened. The fear of death is transferred to the fear of something we can lash out against – the other, who is threatening our belief system.

Now, it is very difficult to parse out the various parts of an immortality project. It is all caught up together, and a threat to part of it is often perceived as a threat to all of it. I also want to be clear that this is not something that only a certain group of people do – it is something that everyone does. There is clinical evidence that ‘terror management’ is universal across cultures, economic strata, and so on. It just so happens that equality for homosexuals is a threat to the conservative immortality project and not to the liberal one. I would say that, in general, George W. Bush and everything he says and does are threats to the liberal immortality project, which is where you get the crap about comparing Bush to Hitler (something I have never done, but have been accused ad hominem of doing time and time again…for some reason.)

(There is also a lot more interesting stuff in Terror Management theory, but that’s not as germane to this topic.)

As I said above, the whole of an immortality project, often because so much of it is unconsciously taken on, is bound together in most cases. It is like a spiderweb – tug on even an obscure part, and the whole thing trembles, and the terror of death rears its ugly head, and provokes a disproportionate response.

I’ve already gone through the process of cutting away some of my own immortality project, even understanding that it is largely an unconscious construct that I can’t even fully grasp. I was doing this before I ever read Earnest Becker, for reasons unrelated to him or his theories. It is possible to change your system of belief, but it is painful and difficult. I did it at various times because of ethical changes in my thinking, or the realization that something I was clinging to was idolatrous. I say this only to say that it is possible to modify such beliefs, with a lot of effort, not to say that I have done it sufficiently and have no further work to do.

I realize that the homosexual issue is caught up in a lot of other issues on the surface, issues of theology and Biblical interpretation and ethics – but I think those are just the thin veneer over what is actually going on emotionally. Many of the heated response to GA I’ve read have nothing to do with cool consideration and rational discourse – they are the frantic responses of people who feel genuinely personally threatened by what is going on. They are the response to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. They are like the scrambling of passengers on a ship that is hit and is sinking.

Nothing so dramatic has happened, but saying that and trying to demonstrate that it’s true won’t have an impact on the deep-seated emotional response to a change that threatens the immortality project. It will be experienced as a threat to everything – a threat to salvation, in a word. Even when far more important decisions remain to be made, and in a world chock-full of far more threatening disagreements about Christ, morality, sex and so on, it will seem like the sky is falling, and that’s the kind of talk that we get. The sense is that if we ordain homosexuals, then everything else has to go out the window as well – all of our beliefs about God, all of Scripture, all of the confessions, all of Christian history. This what they’re saying has already happened. Its like saying the sky has already fallen, but somehow the chunks only hit the conservatives among us.

I don’t know how to rationally engage someone who is in the throes of panic, racing around looking for the nearest life-boat, whether it is the EPC or whatever else is available. I think that, for a while perhaps, the best way to respond is to patiently wait for the panic to subside. This will involve enduring a lot of really insulting language, but we’re a family, dysfunctional as we eternally are, and your family can always hurt you worse than anyone else.

I’ve opened up an ongoing conversation with a parishoner of my internship church over homosexual marriage and ordination. He and I are in polar-opposite positions, but he seems willing to talk things out with me in a patient and mutually respectful way, and I honestly always get a thrill out of that kind of interaction. I look forward to our back-and-forth. Its the kind of thing I have sometimes found through blogging, the kind of thing that actually makes this worthwhile and more than just an exercise in egotistically thinking what I write is worth reading.

(What I don’t look forward to is two more years of being told that I am destroying Christianity, but no one who knows me personally has ever said that, so that’s a comfort. At least these are the accusations of strangers.)

The ship is not sinking. The sky is not falling. Christianity is not under threat. Morality is not under siege. But without time, this might be impossible for us to see.

If it were that easy to threaten our faith, it would have died out long ago. We would never have heard of Christianity, except perhaps as a footnote of the ancient world.

In the meantime, I can try to understand, in the ways that I can, what is going on here. Try to empathize, perhaps, even identify with it. There are definitely things that unreasonably threaten me, and “my side” is full of its own overreactions on other issues (I put that in quotes because “my” side changes depending on what issue you’re talking about).

And if people need to leave, then they need to leave. We’ve schismed before over “moral” issues, over “clear, Biblical” stances, and we’ll probably schism again. We’re Protestants after all. Schism is what we do. And morality is a conversation that changes over time, as is Biblical interpretation, as are all human endeavors. This just…seems to be how it goes. I don’t have a more eloquent way of putting it.

4 thoughts on “The Denial of Death

  1. Doug,While I haven’t read much from “the conservative side” I won’t deny your characterization of the response, although I haven’t seen the response you mention.In an attempt to move beyond what happened on your earlier post (with some grammer corrections) I am cutting and pasting my last comment in the hopes that we can generate something interesting, if not well I tried.Just for grins, let’s try this.Since we are dealing with a political situation, (limiting this for now simply to the situation going on in the PCUSA regarding ordination) and a significant part of politics is compromise. Could you or one of your readers propose a compromise that would satisfy the pro-glbtx?? ordination folks, be supported by scripture (without going too far out on a limb), and allow the anti-glbtx?? ordination folks to feel like they can at least swallow hard and live with it? Or at least allow us to feel like it is over and we can move forward.Take a shot.Also, you appearantly are all alone (or at least in a really small minority) in your willingness to limit ordination to such a small segment of the glbtx?? population. I haven’t heard anyone else on your side call for anything less that ordination of all glbtx??.Or y’all could take the easy road to victory.Let’s see what happens


  2. Does not Christianity per se represent a “denial of death?” I mean we’re all about the resurrection to eternal life, right? What is Becker saying that is different? I don’t know how this is necessarily a “conservative” pre-occupation.On another note, cheer up. You’re spending most of your time attacking those who lost the vote at GA. Your perspective won. Enjoy it. And anyway I don’t think “conservative” rhetoric is any more overheated than the usual plaints of how not affirming homosexuality represents “spiritual violence” and how the PCUSA’s decisions lead to hate crimes when they are not gay-affirming (typical language from gay advocacy groups).


  3. Presbyman:Sorry, I thought I was clear in saying that this is not a conservative pre-occupation, but a human pre-occupation. If that wasn’t clear, I hope it is now. All I’m pointing to is my perception that, in this case, I can account for what I think are extreme responses to the GA using this theory. Otherwise, I’ve got no freaking clue why people are being so extreme.And yes, you point out extreme rhetoric that comes up from ‘my’ side sometimes. As I said in the post, liberals have their own immortality projects.As for Christianity being an immortality project – yes, it is. My contention is also that it is more than what Becker is talking about – that, in fact, Jesus is depicted as making every attempt at making it something different – but that’s for another post.I can’t say I’m really cheery about GA. I don’t think “my side” won. If there is a majority of Presbyteries that ratify the GA’s action, then I’d call that a victory for homosexuals who want to be ordained. What we have is a step in what I think is the right direction, but unfortunately, we’ve also got more fighting in the near future.Craig:There is no easy road to victory, and any victory that doesn’t involve the whole people of God is hollow.And I’m for the ordination of “GLTBX” people, but I didn’t want to expand this discussion farther than it had to be.My comporomise is as follows: Local option for all Presbyteries, in which they set ordination standards. I think that a main Biblical example would be the agreement made at Jerusalem (and later broken, but that also happens a lot) between Paul/Peter and their small group and James and the Jerusalem church, for there to be an allowance of two ‘gospels’, one for the circumcised and one for the uncircumcised – for Jews and for Gentiles, that is. (In Greek, the “gospel of the circumcision” and the “gospel of the uncircumcision)In that case, there was a lot of conflict, two sides that each thought the had the whole of the truth, one side wanting to reach out to an excluded group without forcing it to change (because Paul felt God’s call and Peter had his Cornelius experience) and the other side wanting to retain the group definitions they had inherited from past Jewish practice. I think that agreement might be a good model for a way to solve this problem.Anywway, that’s a Biblical example that comes to mind anyway. There’s stuff in the BoO and confessions that I could come up with too, but its a start.That’s been my solution, if I was all-powerful PCUSA hegemon, from the start. Not perfect, but everyone gets some of what they want, and gives up some of what they want.


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