Collapse: The Psychic-Social-Cultural Roots: Delivering Dark Hope #3
David R. Weiss – July 28, 2021
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This is #3 in an eight-essay series written over ten days in which I’m thinking out loud and a bit on the run about what it means to be church (or any authentic human community) … in a time of approaching ecological-social collapse. I’ll develop many of these thoughts further in the future, but I want to set out an overview of sorts. (Here are links to essay #1 and essay #2; while each essay treats a different facet of the larger project, there is a narrative arc to them. I encourage you to read them in order when possible.)
In communities of faith—as well as in visionary humanist communities—we tend to hold the conviction that somehow … God, widespread political-personal activism, strategic nonviolence, contagious goodwill, inspired community … can still turn things around. Yet, for the past fifty years almost every reputable “hard science” report has told us, if we hope to live long on this planet we have to start taking better care of it—and soon. Even in recent years, as the reports have grown more and more alarming, most still close with an obligatory paragraph that says, “But there’s still time—if we act soon enough.” There are reasons for this persisting optimism, but the hard science (see essay #2) is not one of them.
Neither is the soft science. We can document fifty-plus years of doing as little as possible—and oh so begrudgingly. The history of climate policy, corporate priorities, and personal behavior does not inspire hope. Except for exceptions (which prove the rule), no one seems ready to believe that these calls to action apply to them. But what explains our collective inaction that seems all but certain to prove deadly?
Here’s one piece that holds explanatory power.
Death: it’s killing us. It’s more complicated than that—but let me explain. Watching those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 in a frenzy of insurrectional violence I was struck by both their anger and what I took to be their fear. I recalled an image used by Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall in his book, Lighten Our Darkness (1976). He likened the (“officially optimistic”) American mindset to children who play with heightened frenzy as they sense that the bell marking the end of recess is about to clang.
The collection of folks gathered at the Capitol—white nationalists, science deniers, QAnon conspirators, and that large swath of (overwhelmingly white) persons who feel economically and politically disenfranchised by forces they don’t understand—what binds them together is their sense (for some of them in explicit pieces of their ideology … for all of them in ways that intangibly but inescapably impinge on them) that their world is ending. Recess is almost over.
And by “recess” I mean the wanton extraction of earth resources and the equally wanton white supremacist exploitation of other humans. Hardly ended, but between climate crisis and other ecological alarms and the immigration crisis, Black Lives Matter and other human rights movements the writing is on the wall: recess is almost over. Thus, an apocalyptic anxiety is afoot as regards the world that many of us have taken for granted. But the roots of this anxiety run deeper than we likely realize. And understanding these roots is essential, both to fathom the present moment and also to fashion a path forward.
Reinhold Niebuhr, in the middle of last century, remarked provocatively (in distinct contrast to Genesis 3) that it isn’t sin that causes death, but death that causes of sin. Niebuhr believed that it is our collective rebellion against finitude—really, against limits of any sort—that drives us to harm others. And what I saw playing out on January 6 was not simply an insurrection against democratic rule of law (though it was surely that); it was foremost the overwrought tantrum of white America at the prospect of finding finitude enforced—even upon them.
There is a double truth here: the folks at the Capitol in many ways represent a clear and present threat to the rest of us. Yet in other ways they also represent the tantrum tip of an iceberg that most of America stands on with them: the resolute denial of finitude.
That’s as far as my analysis got back in January. Then my April issue of The Sun arrived. It included an in-depth interview with Sheldon Solomon, one of the theorists behind Trauma Management Theory (TMT).
TMT is an extraordinarily (and uncomfortably) insightful theory, grounded in Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death (1973). Becker argued, based on his sweeping survey of human history, that because human beings are uniquely (so far as we know) aware of our impending non-being—our death—we make enormous psychic and cultural investments in denying death. It seems such an afront to have sufficient self-awareness that we regard ourselves as only a “little less than angels” (Psalm 8:5) … but then find ourselves thrust into a universe that seems not nearly so impressed with us as we are. And then we die.
Haunted by this trauma that no matter what we do we cannot escape death—or its looming leer—Becker viewed this existential fear of death as “the mainspring of all human activity”: our relentless attempt to prove our worth and establish meaning in a universe that just as relentlessly erases us. He suggested that entire cultures, religious beliefs, building projects, and most of our mundane choices are motivated by the persistent awareness that we will die, an awareness we seek to submerge beneath every bit of civilization we can build over it.
Denial of Death offers a speculative theory that is as unsettling as it is far-ranging. But is it provable? That’s what Solomon has worked to do. Through a series of experiments (track down the article, it’s pretty amazing), he’s shown how subtle reminders of mortality prompt persons to double-down on their worldviews—suggesting that subconsciously triggering their “death anxiety” leads to a more tenacious embrace and espousal of the worldview they use to “manage” the trauma of death awareness. Even when the tenets of those worldviews can be deadly.
When death anxiety seeps in, persons whose identity is bound up with liberal values become more fervently liberal—it’s how they buffer that death awareness. And persons with conservative (or white nationalist or homophobic or xenophobic) values at the heart of their identity become even more so. Tribalism becomes pronounced. In fact, those with worldviews that endorse violence become permissive of violence toward those whose worldviews challenge their own.
Solomon’s research explains how the pandemic year unfolded, with fiercely polarized worldviews colliding, and with anti-maskers driven to enact a worldview dismissive of science and the common good: it was their instinctive way of submerging the fear of the very death their actions were courting!
Solomon’s book on TMT is titled, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. For the past several decades now, it isn’t just our personal (or tribal) mortality that eats away at us. It’s the nagging awareness of eco-death: of the crushing finitude of a planet that can no longer support the lengths we go to prove our worth or establish meaning. We. Just. Might. ALL. Die.
Holy shit. That will wake us up for sure. Except—Becker’s theory and Solomon’s confirming research suggest that what this eco-peril awareness will actually do is drive each of us, individually and communally, even more deeply into the worldviews that we’ve embraced. Even if those worldviews court the very death we want to deny. We’re not turning back. We’re doubling down.
But Solomon has also identified some research-proven ways to “calm” death anxiety and its less life-affirming effects. The regular practice of gratitude and awe. A widening sense of kinship that stirs service to all. And a healthy sense of humility. There are spiritual paths that cultivate precisely these things. Solomon’s work helps us understand the sobering costs of the human dance with denial. Even more, it affirms ways that churches and other communities can cultivate qualities that allow their members to move into an uncertain future less daunted by death and more moved by compassion.
That, my friends, is the well from which we draw Dark Hope. Seven more days. Stay with me. Please.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.