Dr. Daniel Liechty has been on the Illinois State University School of Social Work faculty since 1999. Before that, he was a hospice social worker, counseling and assisting patients and families in the challenges during end-of-life care. Several of Liechty’s previous books have focused on the writings of Ernest Becker, writer of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, and his most recent book, Facing Up to Mortality: Interfaith/Interreligious Explorations continues this focus and communication with diverse academics and faith practitioners on the subject of humanity’s realization of their own mortality. As with all his books, Liechty likes to say he has been writing it for some 40 years but made it his main scholarly focus for the last three years.
What inspired you to write Facing Up to Morality: Interfaith/Interreligious Explorations?
Social work encourages us to view people holistically, within a context of diversity and inclusion. This means seriously attending to the biological, social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects of human beings. I come to my academic work with a background in hospice social work and considerable training in religious studies. A focus on the spiritual and religious aspects of death, dying and confrontation with the limits of mortality encompass and define my academic work. I started my career with a number of “books” in the mental files of my imagination, and have spent the years slowly churning them out. This is my 10th book. It may well be my last, not because I am running out of ideas, but rather because the book publishing business is changing so radically that I am finding it hard to keep up!
Did the pandemic have anything to do with the choosing of this topic?
The book itself was largely completed long before the recent pandemic. But there is no doubt that, as the pandemic put confrontation with human limitations front and center of our mental horizons, this made it much easier to shop the book to potential publishers.
Who is the audience for Facing Up to Morality: Interfaith/Interreligious Explorations?
Most immediately, this book was prepared for the market of interdisciplinary academic thanatologists (the range of scholars working in the field of death studies, broadly defined). Secondarily, there is a new and growing academic field generally referred to as “interfaith studies.” This new field grew out of what used to be called Comparative Religious Studies and emerged in the context of finding avenues for peace and understanding between people in this now-radically pluralistic society. It is expected that this book will serve as a possible textbook in this new field of study. The germ of the book is the idea that while focus on religious doctrines and rituals highlights differences between faith traditions, inviting scholars from different traditions to actively interpret and work with a specific text (in this case, Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death) has a good chance of highlighting nuanced similarities between faith traditions.
The concept of “our life will end” is something all humans know. How have different cultures and/or religions learned to deal with it? What are some commonalities you see between cultures and/or religions?
Following the ideas of Becker, mortality awareness is a much broader concept than that “our life will end someday.” It is better characterized as an acute recognition that there are strict limitations on mortal beings. But this is a particular problem for human beings because we have the mental, imaginative powers (that is, consciousness) to rebel against such limitations, certainly in the symbolic realm if not the actual physical realm. Thus, we humans spend enormous amounts of energy engaging in all kinds of endeavors to mask from ourselves, at least symbolically, the fact of our mortality/limitations. Becker referred to such endeavors as “immortality projects.” Across cultures, these tend to cluster around related pyramids of power and wealth. By rising up these pyramids, we pretend, in effect, to be “more than those mere mortals” above whom we stand. The dominant religions in any culture are mainly coopted extensions of these pyramids. Yet, the core teaching of all religions, and certainly the monotheisms, is the stark recognition that “you are NOT God.” Furthermore, a very large point of agreement is that human error (sin, evil, oppression, racism, greed, you name it) stems more or less directly from our schemes to pretend that we are God, or God’s most legitimate temporal representatives, in given spheres of our lives. Spirituality is an ongoing process of pursuing “mortality awareness,” embracing our limitations positively and criticizing our roles as pretend gods. This is where spirituality (including secular and even atheistic spirituality) and ethics merge, preparing the place in which we meet as equal fellows, as “those who suffer” together, rather than constantly trying to lord it over one another (just contemplate the deep meaning of that term, to lord it over others).