Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Death as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans?

(Image from Kelley L. Ross)

Still working on my prepared responses to several scholar papers scheduled for this week's upcoming religious studies conference at Sogang University on Death, Dying, and Spirituality, I have written the following couple of paragraphs as part of my response to a paper about experiencing the numinous in the face of death (albeit reworked for this blog to leave the scholar unidentified):
The scholar offers the interesting perspective that the world's religions provide a panacea for our fear of death, by which he may mean to imply that this is their primary function, but we will have to see on this point. What strikes me about his point is that he argues that even Hinduism and Buddhism affirm continuation of the self after death through reincarnation or translation to a heavenly realm and that this affirmation of the continued existence of one's self is what helps these religions provide consolation to the average believer. Even more striking, because surprising, is his observation that even science, or perhaps 'Scientism', seeks to deny death and aims to overcome it by achieving physical immortality. Yet, he wonders if fear of death is common to humans in every epoch, and he cites the possibility that our early ancestors didn't fear death as we do today. If this is correct, he suggests, then the world's religions have developed alongside a rising sense of self-importance. This would suggest that as the individual has grown increasingly in importance, so people have grown to see themselves as individually important, and perhaps all-important, which is somewhat counter-intuitive since the great world religions claim to diminish the significance of the individual. At this point, I would note the remark by Dorothee Soëlle quoted in the paper, namely, "never are people so self-involved as when they fear death" (Soëlle, Mystery of Death, page 5), which suggests the ironic possibility that belief in immortality reduces self-involvement by removing the fear of death. Moreover, if Hinduism and Buddhism have proven attractive for many people for so long because -- despite what they may affirm about dissolution of the self as an ultimate aim -- they offer personal immortality in their popular forms and have long done so in cultures not noted for their individualism, then I wonder about the thesis that fear of death undergirds religion and that the great religions have developed along with a growing fear of death as the self grows in significance. There is at least some complexity to this issue, and perhaps even an ironic counter-argument, as I've suggested.

At any rate, the possibility that death might end not just our earthly life but even our entire being remains troubling to many of us, and the scholar cites Martin Heidegger's description of the sort of anxiety stirred up by the realisation of one's impending demise as unheimlich, or uncanny, which is understood in the sense offered by Rudolf Otto for the experience of our encounter with "The Holy," for Otto describes our encounter with the numinous in the sense of the sacred as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery both terrifying and fascinating (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy). In such a sense as this, death itself seems to take on the qualities of a fearsome deus absconditus who is not so much the ontological ground of our existence as an existential threat to our being. For most of us, however -- suggests the scholar -- perhaps as a sort of Freudian reaction formation (cf. Freud, Reader, page 295 et passim), rather than directly confronting our mortality, a belief arises in us that we shall become like the Wholly Other and live forever, the Wholly Other being a God who has not absconded but who offers a reliable promise guaranteeing the survival of our self.
Such is the current state of these remarks as I try to develop them. They sound a bit awkward to me now, partly because I've had to rework them to avoid quoting or mentioning the scholar whose paper I'm responding to, for the conference has yet to take place.

Perhaps I'll be reporting on this sort of topic over the next several days, for the conference begins tomorrow.


Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. Edited by Peter Gay. W.W. Norton and Company, 1995.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. Translated by John Harvey. NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Soëlle, Dorothee. The Mystery of Death. Translated by Nancy Lukens-Rumscheidt and Martin Lukens-Rumscheidt. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007 (Mystik des Todes: Ein Fragment. Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 2003).

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At 5:39 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I am friends with Max Becker-Pos, whose father is the late Ernest Becker, author of the Pulitzer-winning The Denial of Death, a book that puts forward the thesis that most human motivations are rooted in greater and lesser degrees of thanatophobia. I've barely begun reading the book (Max gave me a copy in 2005), but Becker's thesis is fascinating.

The Wikipedia on Dr. Becker is here. The entry on his book is here.

If you'd like a copy of Becker's book, please email me and I'll have a bootleg one made up for you. (Ssshhh.)


PS: A trailer for "Flight From Death," a movie at least partly based on Becker's ideas, can be found here. If that link doesn't work, the preview is also on YouTube here.

At 10:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Kevin, I am interested in that copy ... ssshhh...

I also experienced some tremendum before today's conference, but my responses were well taken by those who presented papers.

Oh, and I'll check those links in the morning, early.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:03 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...


I'm glad to hear you're NOT interested in a copy of Becker's book. I WON'T have a copy made up for you and sent off soon. That's a solemn promise.


At 10:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Kevin. I knew that I could trust your ethical sensibility.

There's no check in the mail...

Jeffery Hodges

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