living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Faith and Final Truth

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The pretensions of final truth are always partly an effort to obscure a darkly felt consciousness of the limits of human knowledge. Man [sic] is afraid to face the problem of his limited knowledge lest he fall into the abyss of meaninglessness. –Reinhold Niebuhr

I’ve been reading Niebuhr’s “Nature and Destiny of Man” recently. I share this particular quote more as a confession than a challenge, and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment. But first, a bit on the context.

Niebuhr pegs the predicament of humanity as the tension between freedom (the potential to transcend all limits) and finitude (actuality of our creaturely limitations). From this tension is born anxiety. Anxiety the experience of the human dilemma. On the one hand it is the concern that by actualizing our freedom we might transgress our creaturely limits and therefore be destroyed. On the other hand, it is the concern that in seeking to avoid the risk of our freedom we renounce something essential to our humanity and therefore undergo self-loss through inaction.

This, for Niebuhr, is the fundamental insecurity of the human condition. Anxiety (following Kierkegaard) is the precondition of sin as either pride or sensuality. I wont be dealing with sensuality in this post, but pride is defined as the attempt to escape our human insecurity by making ultimate our own finite and provisional “programs”/convictions/agendas.

In my own history, I’ve had a number of good friends who identify as atheists. They posed the threat of ultimate meaninglessness to me. Looking back, I can see how my desire to find a historical or theological argument that could be used as a final demonstration of truth was really the temptation of pride. Such striving never did solve my situation of anxiety; it only made it worse, for I never lost sight of my own limitations.

It’s an unfortunate thing that the culture of our day (including much Christian culture) identifies faith with the pride I’ve just described (believing things ultimately on the basis of provisional evidence). This is unfortunate especially since faith in its true meaning is the real solution to anxiety. Faith is the concern that grips us from beyond the point of view of a threatened finite self staring out into a world. Faith both comes to us and through us. It is the courage to accept our ultimate acceptance. Without such faith love is not possible, for when we live out of our anxiety, the encounter with another is a potential threat, rather than an opportunity for reunion.

This is why I post Niebuhr’s quote as a confession. What I had once called faith can be better understood as the sin of pride. Since then faith has become for me not the possession of a “final truth,” but the state of being gripped by something unconditional both within myself and within the world I inhabit. It is being embraced by a reality which includes but transcends both. And when the contents of this faith are centered on the crucified God, the fruit is not anxiety or fear, but faith, hope, and love.

Written by Alex

December 1, 2011 at 8:52 am

Posted in Theology

Tagged with , ,

7 Responses

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  1. We (Tara and I) just spent like 2 hours talking about this (we are driving home from IL). We were totally 100% with you until the very last sentence. Can you explain what you’re trying to convey with “And when the contents of this faith are centered on the crucified God, the fruit is not anxiety or fear, but faith, hope, and love.” in another way?

    Tyler & Tara

    December 3, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    • Two hours talking about this? You two are the best! 🙂

      I’m glad you raise this concern since I think in my initial post it’s both unclear and important. The reason I think a certain uneasiness might be felt here is that “the crucified God” symbology has the same potential as any other finite religious symbol to lose its symbolic nature (i.e., finitude becoming transparent to the ineffable Ultimate) and instead take on “demonic” traits by claiming ultimacy for itself as a finite entity or event.

      In fact, this is exactly what was happening in my own case that I described above. Rather being grasped by the love demonstrated in the Christian symbolism and allowing it to open me up to the mystery of being (the Ultimate, God, Being-itself), I felt the need to defend its finite elements or lose the meaning of my life. My ‘god’ was finite—it was a historical theory, a metaphysical doctrine, a philosophical argument—and anything finite that claims to be the Ultimate is a demon. …and demons split the human personality; rather than reunion with self, God and other, the self is disintegrated, estranged, separated.

      So that’s the negative side (which is a formal element present in all religious symbols). I certainly don’t mean to reintroduce that dynamic with my last sentence. What I do mean is this. Every instance of human faith can be described on the formal level or the material level. Formally, faith is ultimate concern. Regardless of the contents of faith, all instances of faith take on this shape. But we can’t be ultimately concerned in a total abstraction. There needs to be an element of concreteness in order for faith to have ability to grasp us and relate to the concreteness of our decidedly concrete lives. The problem is that the more concrete our religious symbols are, the more they tend to lose ultimacy. So that’s the basic tension: concreteness and ultimacy.

      What I mean by the contents of faith being centered on the crucified God is this: In the picture of Jesus as the Christ we have a the most concrete of all things, a human life, that, in renouncing all finite dimensions of himself, revealed the ultimate as unconditional, self-negating love towards reunion of the separated. The crucified God stands in contradiction to all the frightened little gods that demand submission out of their own threatened anxiety. The crucified God, on the other hand, is the God that appears in that love which manifests in suffering for, not warring against.

      Any Christian theology that wants to have the “Christ” without the “crucifixion” is idolatry. It is pride.

      Coming over for another evening this time home?


      December 3, 2011 at 3:26 pm

  2. Thanks! We love talking about this stuff 🙂

    That makes much, much more sense! But, we disagree with and/or are confused by the conclusion that Jesus’s crucifixion is a picture of faith, love and hope.

    We both see the symbol of a willingness to renounce the physical/material world in order to re-unite with the devine as a very powerful one (albeit, in our view, unnecessary–the devine can be found anywhere–within us, around us, in the physical, etc).

    The Bible’s interpretation of Christ seems like a pretty poor example of this symbol.

    1. Man says the entirety of the human race is fundamentally broken (struggling to think of many conclusions a person could draw that are more egotistical than this)
    2. Man is convinced by a voice in his head / apparition that allowing himself to be killed is the only solution (Luke 22:42-44)
    3. Man dies in an act that is supposed to be sacrificial, yet he knows his death is temporary.
    4. ???
    5. Human race… saved?

    Perhaps this is making it too concrete, but it looks a lot more like maniacism than love.


    December 5, 2011 at 9:20 am

    • Yeah, the steps you relate don’t really do it for me either.

      I think part of the difficulty here is moving beyond the place where the imagery (as imagery) is an affront to our modern consciousness and looking at the deeper existential roots and meanings they are communicating. Towards this end another difficulty arises, namely, that the world these symbols grew in is rather remote to us, and further that the familiar contemporary usage (corruptions?) give us the illusion of thinking we know what meaning is being related.

      We can see 4 basic steps in the development of Christian religious symbols that help show the problem.

      1. These symbols arise and grow in their own religious culture and language (this is the pre-Christian origins, e.g. “messiah” = “anointed one” = “king” = “a king like David and the golden age” and “Son of God” = Israel Hs. 11:1, Ex 4:22, and sometimes “the King” Ps. 2:7)

      2. New meanings are given to these symbols by those to whom they had become alive as expressions of their self-interpretation and as answers to the questions implied in their existential predicament. (Christian appropriation, e.g., “messiah” merged with Isaiah 53 becomes a suffering bringer of the new age)

      3. These meanings are transformed further when used later to interpret the event on which Christianity is based. (the patristic synthesis with Greco-roman philosophy and beyond)

      4. Finally there is the distortion by popular superstition, supported by theological literalism and supernaturalism.

      With that in view, I think we’ve opened up space for a valid criticism of symbolic usage. You do just this above.

      In my own case, the picture of Jesus as the Christ is the symbol of my faith for the central reason that in this picture we see God seeking to reconcile the world through self-sacrificial love. If one goes all supernaturalist/literal on that, the symbolic power vanishes (for those of us who have had our critical awareness piqued) and we are left with a dubious narrative in which divine child abuse somehow opens the doors to a supernatural world above the world for those who can believe it (and yet… even on that level there is diversity. The pharisaic strand in the texts point to a mode is one of resurrection and Christ’s return rather than a Stoic notion of world conflagration that we see in, for instance, Revelation and the apocalyptic strands).

      In any case, there’s really no reason we should feel forced to read the Scriptures that way.


      December 6, 2011 at 8:22 pm

  3. I have long understood that the supernaturalism/theological literalism I was exposed to as a child was the result of what amounts to a misguided, centuries-old telephone game. I have no doubt there are deeper, more nuanced messages in the bible–certainly they don’t amount wholly to the crude summation I gave of the crucifixion.

    I also understand that when you speak about Jesus there is a depth of knowledge behind your statements that I do not come anywhere near sharing. Even so, there has always been a consistent root in your dialog (and most others who define themselves as Christian) about faith which I do not understand.

    Here is one example: “…the picture of Jesus as the Christ is the symbol of my faith for the central reason that in this picture we see God seeking to reconcile the world through self-sacrificial love.”

    I don’t understand why the world needs to be reconciled, or why that would be a good basis for faith, or what uplifting impact a faith based on this idea would bring about. It seems like a system of belief that unnecessarily pits man/woman against him/herself and nature, as well as misguidedly giving the impression that they are somehow separate from god.

    Can you expand on what you mean by “…the picture of Jesus as the Christ is the symbol of my faith for the central reason that in this picture we see God seeking to reconcile the world through self-sacrificial love.”?


    December 6, 2011 at 10:12 pm

  4. I think the critiques you raise here are valid ones. I share your concern that Christian theology has the potential to deepen people’s anxiety and experience of separation.

    In my own case, the symbol God transcends the division of subject and object, thus speaking of God as “separate” in any ultimate sense is ruled out. The whole idea of God being separate from the world developed with nominalism in the 14th and 15th centuries and was later reinforced by Luther and his followers.

    What I see Christian language of separation as getting at is our own experience of the contrast between essential being and existential disruption. Essential being is the harmonization of the tensions of existence. Yet our experience is not one of harmonization, but of tension, even complete breaks. These breaks occur out of the anxiety born of the recognition of our own limits. The knowledge of our limitations leads us to strive to maintain ourselves, and in the process we run from one side of the existential polarities to another.

    To take one example, if we feel the weight of the world as a determining destiny, we are threatened and run to a freedom that is free of all destiny. Rather than a balance between the limits of our destiny and freedom, there manifests un-centered, even chaotic, acts of freedom for its own sake. Thus, “reunion” in this one case is the reintegration of freedom and destiny, of our ability to “stand on our own feet,” and the fact that the very “feet” we stand on and the place we stand in is given and not a matter of our own freedom.

    They way the picture of Jesus as the Christ mediates the power of this reconciliation is by showing forth a love for us in which the self is accepted ultimately prior to any ability to harmonize the tensions by its own volition. The turning point happens when this acceptance is accepted, the need for anxious, polarized acts of self-preservation vanishes. One is thus freed to “live in the Spirit,” which is the cessation of anxiety that leads to a freedom to live for others. In other words, to live out that same unconditional love that first grasped the self.


    December 9, 2011 at 7:51 am

  5. Some good stuff here, Alex. I’m in recovery with you myself. 🙂 It’s been enlightening, to say the least, to realize how much my apologetic fervor, whatever its degree of acumen, was driven by anxiety. Trying to cross-pollinate theological and social science categories somewhat these days, I’ve had some interest in anxiety and in the twin sides of the pride coin as I often think of them (wicked/sinful and weak/insecure). Anxiety is central to one of the schools of thought in marriage and family therapy that I’m really drawn to (Bowenian). I appreciate how you’ve discussed faith relative to anxiety here and it reminds me of a Greek word study I did during my MDiv. I examined every instance in the NT where Jesus used the expression “you of little faith” (oligopistos) and found it interesting that in nearly all, if not all, cases he was using it in a context where the people he was talking to were afraid/anxious about something. In addition to already thinking “trust” is a better equivalent than “belief” for faith, I find myself wondering if “fear” is a better equivalent than “unbelief” for a lack of faith.

    Shane Moe

    December 9, 2011 at 8:35 pm

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