living through death

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

A (short) Summary of My Dissertation

with 6 comments

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.

I. Introduction

II. The Problem of Growth: Fear of Death & Developmental Stages Theory

a. Introduction


b. Ernest Becker and Denial of Death

The Problem of Death for Human Maturity: Ernest Becker

Interlude in the Form of a Dream: The Domestication of Terror

The Weakness of Heroism: Exposing Our Quest for Self-Esteem

Losing Your Religion: Ernest Becker & the Questionable Idea of the Maturity of Secularity

Gods with Anuses: The Vital Lie of Character

c. Robert Kegan and Developmental Stages Theory

The Structure of Growth: Robert Kegan’s Five Stages of Consciousness

One Foot on the Gas and the Other on the Brake: Kegan, Laskow Lahey and the Immunity to Change

d. Conclusion

Are You Saved? Ernest Becker, Robert Kegan, and Salvation

III. The Paradox of Salvation and Reason: Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Religion

 a. Introduction

Paul Tillich, Correlation & Paradox: Salvation in Human Reason (Introduction)

b. Stages of Human Reason and Salvation

Paul Tillich: Doubt, Reason & Salvation

Paul Tillich and Stages of Rational Reflection

Doubt and the Rational Dimension of Religion: Stages of Response

c. Correlation and Paradox: The Solution to the Problem at the End of Rational Stages

Paul Tillich, Correlation & Paradox: Salvation in Human Reason

d. Conclusion

Beyond “Rational” False Alternatives: “Who do you say that I am?”

IV. The Paradox of Salvation and Desire: Sebastian Moore

a. Introduction

Sebastian Moore and the Paradox of Salvation in Human Desire

b. The Structure of Desire

Sebastian Moore: The Structure of Desire

c. Original Sin

Sebastian Moore: The Emergence of Self-Awareness & Original Sin

d. Christ and Salvation

Sebastian Moore: Christ & Salvation

V. The Paradox of Salvation and Action: Centering Prayer

VI. Conclusion

Written by Alex

November 14, 2014 at 11:14 am

6 Responses

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  1. Of course, I’m miles from being considered an academe and were PhD applied to my name it would likely be in the often familiar derogatory fashion for the acronym. But reading your explantion brought a thought to mind. It seems that we humans (and perhaps especially men) , when properly motivated, are not all that resistant to placing ourselves in grave danger of death with little deep consideration. And it’s not always simply adrenaline that is the fuel. But a perceived higher cause or even just the likelihood of an adrenaline rush or a modacum of fame can be enough to set bad odds aside. Yet in other cases, as noted in your explanation, an underlying fear of death can prevent what might otherwise promise the hope of eternal, ETERNAL peace in the presence of one who loved us enough to sacrafice His son. Interesting speciies we are.

    Michael Goodwin

    November 14, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks for popping in. I wrote about some of the reasons that we can sometimes rather easily lay down our physical lives in today’s post. In short there is “fear of death” and there is “fear of Death.” The former (fear of physical death) is secondary for humans. The latter (fear of the death of our ultimate meaning and significance, that is, our self-esteem) is the real driving fear of humanity. The trouble is that we easily misidentify what will give security to our sense of self-worth. We cling to all manner of creaturely things (our ego, our profession, our *religion*), but as you rightly point out, anything less than the eternal is incapable of providing us with such security. I see this as the significance of Jesus’ total self-sacrifice. The disciples were bent on clinging to him. He was to be King! The Messiah! They were to participate in this power, on the left of him and on the right. In this sense, Christianity is a self-destructive religion… it conspires to destroy the self that fearfully clings to anything less than the eternal power that first gave us to ourselves.


      November 18, 2014 at 4:08 pm

  2. are you going to make your final dissertation available online?

    Jim Kennedy

    April 11, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    • Hi Jim,
      As a matter of fact, I just successfully defended my dissertation yesterday! I’ll try to get the final edition uploaded sometime today. Stay tuned!


      April 12, 2016 at 8:08 am

  3. Yes I saw that you succeeded. Congratulations!


    April 12, 2016 at 8:28 am

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