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An Existential Approach to Liturgy

Part V: An "Existentialist" Approach - The Denial of Death

Several quotations from The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker will help the reader understand further. Becker undertakes a reinterpretation of the psychology of Sigmund Freud, claiming that the underlying fear that motivates humanity is not the fear of sex, but the fear of death. He calls such an interpretation "existential."

"The result is that we now know that the human animal is characterized by two great fears that other animals are protected from: the fear of life and the fear of death... Heidegger brought these fears to the center of his existential philosophy. He argued that the basic anxiety of [humanity] is anxiety about being-in-the-world, as well as anxiety of being-in-the-world. That is, both fear of death and fear of life, of experience and individuation."(The Denial of Death, p. 53)

What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, a consciousness, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression - and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax... (The Denial of Death, p. 86)

Becker employs the thought of Freud, Norman O. Brown, Otto Rank, and Soren Kierkegaard to show how human character, culture, and civilization are carefully crafted ventures of the human spirit to deny the limitations and finitude that our bodily nature imposes upon us.

So, consider: if Becker is right and that much of human life is constructed so as to build an impregnable bulwark against the terror of death, then why should liturgy be any different? Why should it not function as another culturally constructed defense against the limitations and finitude of humanity? And, since the liturgy does make present the Paschal Mystery - Christ's death and resurrection - doesn't it now seem that we perceive such a mystery as a threat to our most cherished defenses - at least, implicitly?

Simply put, the wager here is that people, invited to notice the "life and death" implications of liturgical prayers, scripture texts, ritual symbols, and ritual gestures (as essentially tied to the Paschal Mystery), will react with a different kind of presence - resistance. But, they will be "really present!"

Copyright © Robert F. O'Connor, S.J., 2000. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 


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Part VI
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