Are You Saved? Ernest Becker, Robert Kegan, and Salvation
This post is the concluding post to what will be chapter 2 of my dissertation. In it, I want to highlight the way that the psychological insights of Ernest Becker and Robert Kegan (explored in previous posts) have helped us see that growth of the psyche is traumatic, dramatic, and moves according to a paradoxical logic. Along its path to maturity, the self undergoes the disorienting loss of its former ways of maintaining stability. There is no truly developmental growth without dying to life as one had formerly known it and a willingness wait for the emergence of oneself as yet unknown. As both Becker and Kegan have shown us, our resistance to releasing our former securities is tremendous for the simple reason that its experienced as a matter of life and death.
From the perspective of theology, the terror of death and the innumerable forms of self-deception that follow from it are the consequences of sin. As Paul Tillich reminded us, “Sin is a universal fact before it becomes and individual act.” In this sense, sin is not primarily a moral act, but rather it is a fundamental characteristic of human existence. Sin is to be separated from God who is the ‘fullness,’ ‘source,’ or ‘ground’ of all being and goodness. As a consequence, sin is also to be separated from the full truth and goodness of ourselves and the full truth and goodness of others. Thus, to come into self-aware existence without the consciousness of one’s being united with God, humanity finds itself immersed in the fear of death from the very first moments of self-emergence. The developmental task of spiritual growth is therefore directed principally to this single primal rupture. What has been separated in the emergence of self-identity, needs to be reunited, though on a higher level.
This way of speaking is given fresh life by the work of Robert Kegan. As we have seen from his work, this single fear takes on many different forms depending on the stage of consciousness that one constructs themselves at. For most adults, realities of sin and salvation are being worked out at the social level (Kegan’s “traditionalism” stage). Here, one’s self is constructed according to the reactions of one’s social world, namely by the way the self is reflected in the faces of others. One’s concept of God is likewise constructed in strongly interpersonal terms. Here, judgement is first experienced as failing to measure up to the values of one’s social world. Potentially, if one begins to approach the outer threshold of this stage, the experience of condemnation emerges as the inability to ever attain peace by knowing oneself in the face of others. The possibility of salvation at this stage of consciousness is therefore not the possibility of pleasing everyone, but instead it is the possibility of an as of yet unknown way of constructing oneself and one’s world. This is the transition to a more self-authoring developmental plateau (Kegan’s “modernism” stage). This is a tremendous achievement beyond tribalism, but the dynamics of sin and salvation are still operative and will make themselves known according to their new formal structure. This is what I mean by claiming that salvation operates by orders of degree and intensity.
We can gain a tremendous insight into the dynamics of salvation if we consider it from a developmental perspective. From here we can see that salvation is not a matter of education. One cannot learn the necessary information to experience salvation, though the right information at the right times can help to make sense of what is typically a bewildering experience. The need for salvation follows from the dynamics of growth. From birth through adolescence, our developmental task is largely the achievement of a separate, autonomous identity. However, this work is done in the context of unfathomable insecurity. As Becker has illuminated for us, our achievement is really the quasi-achievement of crafting a suit of character armor. Again, this armor will be crafted of different materials depending upon the developmental plateau that one is on, but regardless, it will keep us safe only at the price of slowing us down and restricting our vision in various ways. For example, in order to grow beyond the ill-fitting armor that we’ve simply inherited from our parents and early social context, we must first dis-identify from our armor, risk allowing it to be removed piece by piece, then hopefully we will be able to create something more suitable to our unique individuality from the parts before the next threat to our integrity emerges.
This leads me to my final point. When viewed developmentally, salvation is the affirmative experience of God-as-unknown that calls to us from beyond our present securities and way of knowing. This is a difficult thing to state, for how can one experience a security beyond one’s current capacities? We are now in the neighborhood of Kierkegaard’s “leap” of faith. The experience of salvation gives one the courage to face the fear of death that accompanies the limits of one’s current mental complexity. Without this transcendent security, the risk is too great. People will stay within the hell of their inherent paradoxes rather than step into the nothing of the unknown God. To cope, such a decision is also accompanied by a despairing resignation of our potential. The voice from beyond that is singing God’s dream for us—which is simultaneously our own dream of ourselves—is covered over and shut out. It is asking of us more than we can fathom. It is asking us to have faith, and to die to the whole order of life as we have known it. To this passive dimension of salvation which calls for us to release our known securities, an active dimension must be added. Much as Kierkegaard stressed, salvation is a decision beyond reason. With the help of our constructive developmental framework, we might suggest that this active dimension of salvation is the activity of life-itself reaching from the unknown though ourselves as known and grasping the unknown. We will see this pattern repeat as we continue our exploration in the coming chapters.
This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.
 The words “source” and “ground” should be recognized a analogies and should not be understood in their proper categorical senses.
 The language of “on a higher level” is necessary in order to avoid the idea that spiritual growth amounts to a sort of “return to the womb,” a resignation of human self-transcendence and a return to animal immediacy.
 “Faith is the objective uncertainty with the repulsion of the absurd, held fast in the passion of inwardness, which is the relation of inwardness intensified to its highest. This formula fits only the one who has faith, no one else, not even a lover, or an enthusiast, or a thinker, but solely and only the one who has faith, who relates himself to the absolute paradox.” Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Volume 1, 611.