Ernest Becker in his 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning, The Denial of Death, a book that continues to command respect, focuses on a human paradox: death is a reality, but we deny it. In our attempt to achieve immortality, he says, we all adopt what he calls a heroic strategy – which inevitably fails.
From a perspective of Psychology and Philosophy he comments, ‘Psychology narrows the cause for personal unhappiness down to the person himself, and then is stuck with himself… All the analysis in the world doesn’t allow the person to find out who he is and why he is here on earth, why he has to die, and how he can make his life a triumph. It is when psychology pretends to do this that it becomes a fraud… Thus, the plight of modern man: a sinner with no word for it.’
He observes that religion is an illusion that provides help for some. He says, ‘Religion takes one’s creatureliness, one’s insignificance, and makes it a condition of hope… What is the ideal for mental health, then?’ he asks. ‘A lived, compelling illusion that does not lie about life, death, and reality… As an ideal, Christianity,… stands high, perhaps even the highest in some vital ways, as people like Kierkegaard, Chesterton, the Niehbuhrs, and so many others have compellingly argued’.
It’s not my purpose to analyze Becker’s thesis, but rather to respond to his view that Christianity, at best, is still an illusion. And to do this, let me take up Isaiah’s words that go to the heart of the human predicament. Handel brilliantly set them to music in his Messiah: All we like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way,… (Isaiah 53:6a).
Guilt. It is an uncompromising statement of the objective nature of human guilt. But these days we disagree. We explain guilt more in terms of feelings that need to be addressed on the couch of the psychiatrist rather than as sin to be confessed to God. If we have any sense of sin today it’s our sense of failure to live up to our own expectations.
So guilt is more an experience within us, a feeling we have to cope with somehow, like anxiety.
God. That said, it is important that we ask how God views us. The story is told of an occasion when at the High Table of a London University College, the philosopher, C.E.M. Joad was asked, ‘Tell me, what do you think of God?’ To which he replied, ‘My greater concern is what God thinks of me’.
Isaiah says, All we like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way. All – that’s everyone of us. Not men as opposed to women; not white as opposed to colored; not rich as opposed to poor; not the West as opposed to the East.
Nor is it that we have collectively gone astray. Certainly that is true, but the point is that each one of us individually has strayed from truly loving and honoring God and loving our neighbor. As the Prayer Book ‘Confession’ puts it: we have erred and strayed like lost sheep. Following too much the devices and the desires of our own hearts we have broken God’s holy laws, and there is no health in us.
So what has God done? He could have extinguished us forever, but that would have meant he had failed in creating us in his image. He could have made us robots, but that would have eliminated an important principle in our design, namely choice. God did neither of these things. Instead, as Isaiah tells us, he chose another way, a costly way: the Lord has laid on him (his Servant) the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6b).
If ever a tragedy, or suffering, demanded an explanation, it is Jesus’ death on the cross. As Isaiah predicted, Jesus didn’t utter a word. Like a sheep being led to the slaughter, he was taken to his death. Why didn’t he come down from the cross?
When we look at Jesus’ death through the lens of the New Testament we have a clearer picture. In Colossians 1:19-20 we read: For in him (Christ Jesus) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. When Christ died, God came to terms with our failure, accepting the pain of our sin, accepting the penalty of our sin, and bearing in himself our sins in his body on the tree.
Isaiah 53:10b prophesied concerning God’s Servant: He will make his life an offering for sin,… (53:10b). And Isaiah continues: He shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. The Servant will see his offspring: He will live and be exalted.
The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, witnessed by hundreds (1 Corinthians 15:6), authenticates God’s intervention in human affairs. Clearly there is more to our existence than the material world and the form in which we find ourselves. Christianity is not an illusion. It gives us meaning and hope.
© John G. Mason, Anglican Connection
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