Symbolic Immortality and the Hatred of Others
I’ve often asked a variation of this question: Why do Christians fight each other so much? Think Rob Bell, John Piper and Mark Driscoll.
I have a couple theories.
The main one is this: selfishness. Egotism. Narcissism. Sin. Whatever you want to call it. That wrongful attitude that puts the almighty ME above everything else. Even though we claim to be like Jesus, our selfishness proves otherwise.
But there’s a couple other theories as well:
Two: we become tribalistic and smear on the hate to all the “others” who aren’t a part of the “evangelical” tribe, or the “American” tribe, etc.
The third theory is the sibling rivalry theory; that those closest to us are usually the ones who have the greatest potential to receive our love and, when we disagree, our hate.
My main theory for us evangelical /protestant types is that we’ve simply vested too much of the Christian life into orthodoxy and too little into orthopraxis and orthopathos, so that any small disagreement warrants hate mail.
But here’s another theory that’s right up my ally, that few of us — including myself — have heard of.
It comes from Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker. Becker combines the denial of death, symbolic immortality and — at least in this discussion — religion to offer an explanation for hatred. And if you’re interested in Becker’s theory, here’s the short of it:
Denial of death, according to Becker, is an all encompassing explanation for human endeavors.
Death, though, for Becker has two levels of meaning: The first level is phyiscal death. After all, how many times a day do we attempt to distance ourselves from death? Do you eat healthy? Do you wear a seat belt? Do you stand more than 14 inches away from the microwave, and put on a radiation suit if you must go within the 14 inch safe zone?
The second understanding of death plays more into our discussion. This type of death can occur during life. It’s the type of death that takes place when we experience a loss of meaning, worth or affirmation.
On a corporate/community/national level, Becker would say that religion, war, art, science … nearly every human endeavor is an attempt to save us from this second understanding of death … from the void of nothingness … the forgotteness that comes when we’re simply a nobody.
And this type of denial of death … of being apart of something meaningful … is a symbolic immortality, as its something that will live on beyond us.
Robert J. Lifton coined the phrase “symbolic immortality” and he posits five ways we attempt to obtain this type of immortality:
Through the produce of our lovemaking. Ex.: Children, grandchildren, our family.
Through our art work, scientific discover or our product. Ex. Ford, Mozart, Darwin, etc.
Through the well-being of nature. “So that our children can live better than we do”; the green movement.
Through a transcendent experience. Buddhism, the born again experience, nirvana
Through our involvement with a community larger than ourselves. Political party, religion, etc.
The hatred of others, posits Becker, occurs when somebody else’s symbol starts to tread on ours. If you threaten my children, you threaten my significance … my contribution to the world … my stake in something greater … my symbolic immortality.
If you threaten the work of my hands, you threaten the mark I’ve made in this world. You’ve questioned my worth and contribution and you’ve essentially diminished and cut off my contribution … the thing that’s made me significant.
And finally, if you threaten my religion … if your community of faith overtakes my community of faith, you’ve questioned my/our story. You’ve diminished our chance for meaning in the history of humanity. If you question us, you call into question our meaning … our worth … our contribution … and for that, we will fight you.