Friday, May 9, 2014

Hardy and Beck

I was reading Richard Beck's new book The Slavery of Death last week (I love everything this guy writes - head over to his blog Experimental Theology for more). With his trademark blend of theological and psychological analysis, Beck explores the idea that "our slavery to the fear of death often manifests as idolatry, as service rendered to suprahuman forces", such as apparently durable and meaning-making institutions, cultures, or value systems.

And he argues that it is insofar as I receive my identity as a gift from outside myself, through Christ the kenotic giver, that I am set free from the fear of failure, or meaninglessness, which are so pervasive in our world and which Beck would see as neurotic mutations of the basic fear of death itself.

The mechanism that Beck identifies seems to be involved in the questions we've been thinking about under the heading "Creation and Meaning", where I've referred to the threat to the "meaning-making project of the future" posed by the scientific news that humanity's current planet-wide growth trajectory is probably unsustainable.

It's also visible in ordinary professional life.  In A Mathematician's Apology, Hardy writes
Mathematical fame, if you have the cash to pay for it, is one of the soundest and steadiest of investments.
But his argument doesn't seem able to assuage his anxiety
 Yet how painful it is to feel that, with all these advantages, one may fail. I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100 . A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down books, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell
could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia Mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated.…
In the Apology, Hardy begins by describing himself as "a man who sets out to justify his existence and activities".  For years, I have hardly been able to read those words without a tear.  Thank God that the business of "justifying  our existence and activities" does not rest with us. 

1 comment:

Frotastic said...

So, I suppose the solution to everything is to let go and let God determine your worth and activities? Where do I buy an off switch for fear of death and meaninglessness?
Have you found one?