Heroism in the Immanent Frame

This post is a follow-up to the previous one, where I mentioned Charles Taylor’s concept of the “immanent frame”–the secular sphere that hosts and mediates discourse–including discourse about religion–in a democratic and pluralistic society. In that post, I used the writings of Ernest Becker to support my view that discourse about religion, even under the optimal conditions of the immanent frame, may always threaten to break that frame because of the strong emotions that are involved. The following quotation (from Becker’s “Denial of Death”) may help us understand why rational and dispassionate debate is sometimes so difficult to achieve.

It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as “religious” as any other, this is what he meant: “civilized” society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible.

The question that becomes then the most important one that man can put to himself is simply this: how conscious is he of what he is doing to earn his feeling of heroism? I suggested that if everyone honestly admitted his urge to be a hero it would be a devastating release of truth. It would make men demand that culture give them their due—a primary sense of human value as unique contributors to cosmic life. How would our modern societies contrive to satisfy such an honest demand, without being shaken to their foundations? Only those societies we today call “primitive” provided this feeling for their members. The minority groups in present-day industrial society who shout for freedom and human dignity are really clumsily asking that they be given a sense of primary heroism of which they have been cheated historically. This is why their insistent claims are so troublesome and upsetting: how do we do such an “unreasonable” thing within the ways in which society is now set up? “They are asking for the impossible” is the way we usually put our bafflement.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

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