Dying to Live: The Paradox of Christian Salvation & Developmental Stages Theory
We are familiar with the story. The young person raised in a religious home goes off to college, or perhaps seminary, and loses their faith. For the family back home it is a painful and bewildering experience. Their minds fill with questions about how they could have gone so wrong. Perhaps they should have paid for the private Christian college, or if they did, their guilt is even more intense, and explanations, even harder to come by. Never would it occur to them that their growing child might be actually embodying the very death and resurrection of Christ. It might even be the case that their own resistance to facing what has actually affected their child puts them more on the side of the Pharisees than faith. How could this be?
At the center of this study stands the paradox of Christian salvation. Christianity is founded on the image of one who faced, engaged, and befriended the negatitivities of human existence, even the most radical of them all: death. In doing so, Jesus came to be called Christ the Savior. To follow this Christ, Christians are called to likewise lose their life in order to find it, to take up their cross and follow him. These are a vague and puzzling set of instructions. Perhaps because of this, the enormity of this paradoxical insight, as it pertains to spiritual growth and the way we deal with existential doubt, has hardly begun to be realized.
My aim in this thesis is to shed new light on the way that the paradox of Christian salvation transforms what appears to be death into new life during the normal course of one’s maturing spiritual life. I claim that developmental stages theories provide us with a powerful tool to analyze and understand the formal dynamics of this spiritual development. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith has already done most of this work for me. My study differs from his in two respects. In the first place, I make use of Robert Kegan’s more advanced developmental stages theory and augment it with the work of Ernest Becker who focuses on the content of what keeps people and cultures clinging to self-destructive patterns of thought and action. Becker helps us see that the often terrifying experience of psychological and, therefore, spiritual growth stems from an underlying fear of death (especially the death of our “self-esteem”) which lies well beneath the surface of our stated concepts and commitments. The second way my study differs from Fowler’s is where I go with it. After setting up my analytical apparatus I move to apply it to the rational, theological, and practical dimensions of human being by examining Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering Prayer.
My aim from this work is twofold. My first goal is to develop a constructive theological proposal that shows how Christian salvation, when understood in its full paradoxical nature, unites the theoretical work of these thinkers with the practice of Centering Prayer. And, secondly, I aim to show how this occurs in such a way that fosters the kind of psychological and spiritual growth that Fowler and Kegan identify by encouraging us to unmask our fear of death. This proposal will thus be dynamic enough to accommodate all stages of human maturation, while maintaining a focus on the universality of our fear of death as it takes on new forms at different developmental thresholds. By doing this I hope to illuminate how Christianity possesses the theological resources to transform what is so often thought of as a loss of faith into an actual advance in spiritual maturity.
Outline of Dissertation
The following is a provisional outline of my dissertation that functions as a table of contents for all posts that I have written as free-writing exercises. As they say, the hardest part is just getting the ideas out of your head and on paper. This is where I attempt to make that happen.
II. The Problem of Growth: Fear of Death & Developmental Stages Theory
b. Ernest Becker and Denial of Death
c. Robert Kegan and Developmental Stages Theory
III. The Paradox of Salvation and Reason: Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Religion
b. Stages of Human Reason and Salvation
c. Correlation and Paradox: The Solution to the Problem at the End of Rational Stages
IV. The Paradox of Salvation and Desire: Sebastian Moore
b. The Structure of Desire
c. Original Sin
d. Christ and Salvation