Thursday, September 11, 2014

Theory About Fear of Death Bolsters Faith

(From the September 11, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It seems lately that I am surrounded by death. From this newspaper I learned of the deaths of three staff members of Grand Haven Schools, a fellow community columnist,  and the young son of a local family. Meanwhile celebrities Robin Williams and Joan Rivers recently passed away. In addition, I attended funerals for the father of a friend and the mother of another friend.

I did not know most of these people. But the sudden increase in the news of deaths is striking. The people range in age from child, to middle aged, to senior citizens. They are common local folks and international celebrities. The causes of death vary. It is a reminder of mortality.

Then I got an invitation to attend a speech on campus about the subject of death. I haven’t attended the speech yet, but I read a book chapter written by the speaker. Essentially, this speaker will hold forth on “mortality salience”, or being conscious of death, and something called “terror management theory,” which posits that human beings, being conscious of their inevitable death, are in danger of being overwhelmed with anxiety. People respond by constructing cultural worldviews, which vary but have in common the “psychological function of providing meaning and value in the face of death.”

These worldviews range from religious conceptions of an afterlife to leaving a legacy of accomplishment or accumulating wealth while alive. This latter worldview is the subject of the speech he will give next week: how fear of death leads to conspicuous consumption.  In other words, people are so uptight about eventually dying that they buy a bunch of stuff while they are still alive just to distract themselves.

I’m an open-minded guy, so I can see how there is some truth to this. But I take issue with the over-generalization of this theory—even with some empirical studies he mentions—to all of humanity. Some may consciously or unconsciously buy lots of things as a distraction from a fear of death. But there could also be more variables, such as trying to keep up with social pressure. Or maybe they simply did well in life and can afford to have nice homes, cars and other benefits of wealth.

I also would challenge the idea that all or most people are out-of-control spenders. Here again, certainly that is evident in American society. In fact the Wall Street Journal recently had an article about people with six-figure salaries living paycheck to paycheck because they can’t control their spending. But I know many people who live simply, spend frugally, and are not attracted to mere things.

While I am a thoughtful academic, I also am unashamedly a Christian. I subscribe to the Christian “worldview” that the speaker coming next week considers to be, like all worldviews, a fiction. (Never mind that his theory is also a worldview and subject to consideration as fictitious by others). I believe with billions that that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a victory over death. That is a not a fiction I cling to in order to ease anxiety about the truth of death. It is a truth I profess to challenge the fictions this world throws at us.

The author concludes that humans will be better if they gave up these various psychological functions, accepted our “puniness and ultimate mortality,” and “consume life instead of being consumed by consumption.”

I wonder if the author realizes how much his own assertions mirror the teaching of the Bible. The word  “puny” is used in some translations to describe man’s condition relative to God. The inevitability of our mortality is a frequent theme. There are also many cautions against greed, consumption and the “love of money.” A famous passage asserts that “it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”

But the issue of fear of death is where Christianity diverts from this secular terror management theory. The phrase “do not be afraid” is replete in the Bible, spoken by prophets, angels, apostles and Jesus himself. The Christian Gospel teaches that rather than accepting death as inevitable in the manner of ancient stoics, we can accept that Christ defeated death on our behalf by dying on the cross, and being resurrected. There is nothing we can do to earn eternal life, we can only confess our sins and accept the gift of salvation. And we are not to consume life because we will one day die, but live in grateful joy and glorify God because death is not the end.


I will listen with interest to the speaker next week. But I’ll tell you right now that I am not going to admit to a fear of death or denying the inevitable. On the contrary, I accept my mortality without fear, and precisely because of that I won’t deny the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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