Escape 18: Our Bodies our Deaths: What evil has history wrought?
Chapter 6 in EFE ends with a section called The Demonics of History. How to summarize Becker’s arguments here? Not without some difficulty: every sentence is jam packed with meaning. In the last post we noted that money is the new immortality ideology but ‘new’ here means after the fall of primitive society and the rise of classes some 10 to 12 thousand years ago in some parts of the world, much later in others. But, it’s complicated. As Becker writes:
If we say that ‘money is God,’ this seems like a simple and cynical observation on the corruptibility of men. But if we say that ‘money negotiates immortality and therefore is God,’ this is a scientific formula that is limpidly objective to any serious student of man…We see the changes from tribal modes of achieving power to money modes right before our eyes.
In the early days of French ‘exploration’ in North America, once the Huron, Montagnais and other tribes understood the power of the invaders from Europe they didn’t need to be coerced to let go of their previous immortality ideologies. They were confronted by a relentless and powerful new god, one that did not want to compromise with theirs, a god who showed that the only way to salvation and eternal life was in the worship of it and it alone. The earliest ‘conversions’ had been gotten with bribes and coercion, but in time that was no longer necessary.
Think; if a race of men with advanced learning, health, and weapons were to land on our planet and tell us about the god who sustains them in Alpha Centauri, a new religion would sweep over large numbers of people overnight and discredit most of our institutions.
So, money represents real earthly power, but its power is sacred. Money gives power now! No need to wait on an earthly death for apotheosis.
Man has become dependent on social symbols of prestige that single him out as especially worthy of being remembered in the eyes of the gods and in the minds of men. But for an animal who actually lives on the level of the visible and knows nothing of the invisible, it is easy for the eyes of men to take precedence over the eyes of the gods. The symbols of immortality power that money buys exist on the level of the visible, and so crowd out their invisible competitor. Man succumbs easily to created life, which is to exercise power mainly in the dimension in which he moves and acts as an organism. The pull of the body is so strong, lived experience is so direct; the ‘supernatural’ is so remote and problematic, so abstract and intangible.
Indeed the pull of the body is strong but it’s the body that is the source of sin. The body dies and that’s not an acceptable outcome for such a narcissistic species as our own. That’s why we divide ourselves into body and soul. The body dies but the soul lives on. The soul is an immortality project in the real sense of the term. The body leads us into temptation. It’s the source of all death and guilt. As I get older, in my penultimate years, I feel that as the life drains out of me I am betraying our most cherished immortality symbols and I must feel guilt for the loss of life. But the immortality ideologies that dominate the planet now are betraying me because their promises of immortality are empty ones. It’s interesting to me how the symbol of the devil represents “physical, earthly, visible power and on this planet easily holds sway over his more ethereal competitor, spiritual power.” (p. 85)
As we noted earlier we need evidence that we are being heard by the gods in our search for immortality; that assurance does not come easily. But if we can convince ourselves, as the Calvinists suggested after some initial stumbling, that how we conduct ourselves on this planet may be an indication of where we will end up after we die, that can give us some comfort but it also can bring on anxiety. As Becker writes:
No wonder economic equality is beyond the endurance of modern democratic man: the house, the car, the bank balance are his immortality symbols. Or to put it another way, if a black man moves next door, it is not merely that your house diminishes in real estate value, but that you diminish in fullness on the level of visible immortality – and so you die…the decline of traditional religion has eclipsed the god whose eyes judged merit according to the goods you piled up…In other words, modern man cannot endure economic equality because he has no faith in self-transcendent, otherworldly immortality symbols; visible physical worth is the only thing he has to give him eternal life. No wonder that people segregate themselves with such consuming dedication, that special ness is so much a fight to the death: man lashes out all the harder when he is cornered, when he is a pathetically impoverished immortality seeker. He dies when his little symbols of specialness die.
This is a long quotation but I feel no qualms in putting it down here for you to read. It sums up a great deal of Becker’s thought in this chapter. Over time we came to distrust invisible symbols of immortality. As Becker writes: “Immortality power, then, came to reside in accumulated wealth.” (p. 87)
So, in a world dominated by secular immortality symbols, where we judge people on their possessions how do we understand the concept of sin? In a world where our immortality is gotten by bartering with the gods, sin meant distancing oneself from invisible power. It might mean angering the gods by not performing a ritual properly or by ignoring prescribed behaviours.
Sin is the experience of uncertainty in one’s relation to the divine ground of his being; he no longer is sure of possessing the right connection, the right means of expiation.
Sin, in a Christian sense, defines a situation, created by certain actions or thoughts, that distances the believer from his God. It’s a denial of the symbolic side of humankind. And, of course, it’s our symbolic side that is the seat of our immortality. The body betrays us, drags us down. No wonder we often speak of the body in terms that connect it to the earth and in doing so we can barely mask our loathing of it. Sex is ‘dirty’ unless of course it’s sanctioned and made acceptable by the application of essential rituals to ‘cleanse’ it. In this sense, it’s easy for men to think of women as the source of evil and death. Men can think of themselves as purely symbolic creatures whereas women’s bodies are the source of temptation and descent into death. Women bleed monthly, they bleed in labour, they give life, but in so doing create death. They are the carriers of death by giving birth. The idea is perverse but any simple and cursory study of the ethnographic record easily demonstrates how widely it was, and is still, accepted. I will explore this further in subsequent posts, but for now I have to wrap up this already too long post.
So what does it mean to sin in a secular world? Well, I don’t agree completely with Becker in his conclusion here. He claims that we’ve avoided sin by “simply denying the existence of the invisible dimension to which it is related.” (p. 89) But, in my mind to sin in a secular world that promises victory over death by the accumulation of wealth, sin must be the inability to accumulate wealth. The poor, by definition, are sinners of the worse kind. But how do we atone for this sin? In a Christian world simply asking for forgiveness and promising to lead a better life can be enough. In a secular world it’s not so easy. Of course we make the poor pay for their ‘sin’ by treating them like shit. “There, that will teach you for not being wealthy.” Becker concludes:
History is the tragic record of heroism and expiation out of control and of man’s efforts to earn expiation in new, frantically driven and contrived ways. The burden of guilt created by cumulative possessions, linear time, and secularization is assuredly greater than that experienced by primitive man; it has to come out some way…The point I am making is that most of the evil that man has visited on his world is the result precisely of the greater passion of his denials and his historical drivenness.
One thought on “Escape 18: Our Bodies, Our Deaths.”
Reblogged this on Roger Albert – Always a Sociologist and commented:
Be sure of this: in our society, poverty is sin.
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