living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘anxiety

Thomas Merton: The Basic Sin of Christianity

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Being a Christian has never been easy for me. There have been numerous seasons where I’ve wanted to simply ditch the whole program. Yet, over the years, I eventually came to see that I had good Christian reasons for my dissatisfaction. This morning I came across a wonderful passage by Thomas Merton that helps illuminate what I mean by that. He suggests that Christianity is tempted with a single basic sin. He says that,

The basic sin, for Christianity, is rejecting others in order to choose oneself, deciding against others and deciding for oneself. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 172.)

It is a simple statement with powerful depth. With that single sentence Merton essentially captures all the various elements of my religion that made it nearly impossible for me to remain. From the stubborn defense of cherished readings of the Bible against other truth-seeking discourses (such as the empirical sciences) to the exclusivist theology in which only those who believed the right things would attain true humanity and avoid everlasting torment. All of these things amounted to the choosing and defense of oneself and one’s ideas over against the destabilizing possibilities that others represent.

Merton and the Dali Lama

During my own religious crisis, I would often say that what I wanted more than anything was truth. If my religion, and therefore the meaning of my life, was not in fact truth, I wanted to know that. While I was in seminary I encountered some who seemed much more keen on preserving the meaning of their life in the form of their religion. I was always unsettled and aggravated by such encounters. At the time, I interpreted it as a conflict between truth and Christianity, and as such I felt a growing pressure to leave Christianity. It would be some time yet before I came to see the conflict as having much more to do with the sin of self-justification.

Merton drives the point home powerfully:

Why is this sin so basic? Because the idea that you can choose yourself, approve yourself, and then offer yourself (fully “chosen” and “approved”) to God, applies the assertion of yourself over against God. From this root of error comes all the sour leafage and fruitage of a life of self-examination, interminable problems and unending decisions, always making right choices, walking on the razor edge of an impossibly subtle ethic (with an equally subtle psychology to take care of the unconscious). All this implies the frenzied conviction that one can be [one’s] own light and [one’s] own justification, and that God is there for a purpose: to issue the stamp of confirmation upon my own rightness. In such a religion the Cross becomes meaningless except as the (blasphemous) certification that because you suffer, because you are misunderstood, you are justified twice over—you are a martyr. Martyr means witness. You are then a witness? To what? To your own infallible light and your own justice, which you have chosen.
This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus ever did or taught. (Conjectures, 172.)

In contrast to much of what passes as Christianity in our day, Merton helps us see that the true mark of Christian faithfulness lies not in vigorous demonstrations of certainty, or in a zeal to defend the purity of the faith against the contamination of others (be they political, religious, or otherwise). Such are the machinations of self-preservation. True Christianity is just the opposite. True Christianity, like Christ, exposes our self-preserving tendencies. True Christianity cares little about whether or not it is true Christianity, for its eyes are no longer anxiously searching itself for its own justification. In the power of grace, one’s “self” is allowed to pass away, and others cease to be a threat. A posture of defense turns to a posture of hospitality.

This is not a form of Christianity that I have any temptation to leave. It is not open to my critique, but rather I find myself always exposed in its presence. But not only exposed, also accepted, and called by its beauty. It has been a long road, but I am deeply grateful for thinkers like Merton who have helped me see that what seemed like unfaithfulness was in reality the movement of a deeper stirring. I pray that we all might find such light to live by, beyond pretension, defensiveness, and fear.

Written by Alex

August 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

Sebastian Moore: Christ & Salvation

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In the previous section we outlined Sebastian Moore’s theory of original sin. There he characterized original sin as a self-limitation of life that is necessary for our emergence into self-aware existence, but that gets stuck in exclusively that self-limited way of being. Growth beyond the relative safety of our socially-bound self-limitation is powerfully resisted, based, as it is, upon a fundamental mistrust of life that goes all the way back to the first experiences of being an autonomous reality separate from our mother. As both Becker and Kegan have helped us see, our fearful reliance on coping strategies formed along this developmental journey has the effect of alienating us from each other and from our own potential as life becomes more complex than the original conditions under which they were formed. We noted how these original conditions gave rise to the persistent human habit of attempting to find our identity by always measuring ourselves against others. Such is our “first focus” that we cling to because it is the world in which we first entered as self-aware beings. That being the case, it is understandable that our first focus easily becomes our only focus. However, our desire is unlimited, and for that reason our efforts to attain unlimited significance by measuring ourselves against limited others leads us to eat each other alive, as is amply reflected in the world’s constant war between the sexes, the social divisions that result from economic inequity, the conflict between racial, cultural, and religious others, and even the alienation between coworkers, family members, and friends.

The problem, therefore, consists of two parts. The first is that our true desire has been repressed. We easily settled for much safer forms of desire, and for that reason, we are easily led by the nose, allowing others to tell us what we should do, what we should love, and who we should fear. The second part of the problem is that for those whose deeper desire has begun to break through the surface of life, nothing in the world can satisfy it. Such people are like the Ebola virus, burning themselves up as well as the people around them with little regard for the impracticality of their actions.[1]

Moore articulates the Christian solution as being not so much the creative repression of a genius, as Becker argued for, or the unrepression of the insane, as Becker felt the evangelists of unrepression must end with. Instead, Moore shows how Jesus leads his followers on a two two-step journey that mirrors the two-fold problem of the human condition. Jesus first awoke his disciples to their true desires, but then, as the one who stretched out his life beyond the limits we set upon it, he revealed to them resurrected life. Or as he puts it in another place, “We are to become, first, honest, then cosmic.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)


How does Moore work this out? From what we have seen so far, we can view the story of the emergence of original sin as the story of the loss of the child in us, a foreshortened sense of our desirableness. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) In view of this, Moore encourages us to see the story of Jesus as the story of one who retains this child and, for that reason, is without original sin. We must also recall what was said earlier on the two general ways the problem of original sin is solved, namely, by way of indirect and direct awakening.

We are now ready to see the specific way that Moore conceives of Jesus as conquering sin. The basic pattern is that Jesus experienced his own desirability directly (union with the Father), and for that reason was able to bring about the indirect awakening of desire in those around him. Nothing too radical is on display at this point since these are the movements that, to varying degrees, occur between people every day. What makes the Christ event incomparable is its intensity and what occurred in the dramatic death of Jesus.

In terms of intensity, the Christian story is of one who’s experience of his own desirability was off the map of normal human experience. As Moore says, “his influence was the maximum possible within the limits of person-to-person contact. The charm, the magic, the allure of Jesus swept the whole range of human interaction, exhausted the possibilities of mutual awakening.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) It was this spiritual mindset that enabled Jesus to utterly cut against the grain of expected social norms, pouring forth a compassion that had no limit. No fragile ego limited his ability to reach out toward the members of society that represent the elements of the (predominately male)[2] psyche that are repressed during its developmental journey: the opposite sex, cultural “others,” moral transgressors; and, perhaps even more significantly, those who are explicit reminders of death; the poor, the sick, and the political oppressors. This intensity produced a new hope for human existence. It created what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God,” and produced, precariously, heaven on earth. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.)

However, this new hope collapsed in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Since Jesus awoke those around him to the maximum extent possible within the limits of social arousal, there could be no comparable level of social arousal after Jesus. There could be nothing except for the other awakening: “the direct awakening of the sense of being desirable, by the One by whose desire we exist.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.) Moore sees the whole validity of the Christian message to hang on the series of encounters after Jesus’ death that gave rise to this awakening. This transition, so famously bungled earlier by Peter and the request of James and John (Matthew 16:13-23, Mark 10:35-45), was the “ah ha” moment that Jesus had been trying to instill in his disciples throughout his ministry, but it took his removal from the scene of creaturely existence and the disciples subsequent reflection on the nature of his removal for the insight to finally click. The cross effected for them the horizontal explosion of social (indirect) arousal into the vertical dimension of mystical (direct) arousal.

What was the nature of Jesus’ removal, and why does it matter to our discussion? Moore stresses, that the nature of Jesus exit from the scene of creaturely existence was that of one who chose their own sacrifice. This is not suicide, or even the passion of one who runs into a burning building to save another. The gospel memory is of one who “set his face towards Jerusalem,” in the full knowledge that his vocation was leading inexorably to his death. Moore sees the essential quality as being found in Jesus’ initiation of a final act of friendship with the ultimate enemy of human life: death.

For the sinful condition that is ours, death is repressed…, banished, ‘queered’, thrown outside the city. At the same time we know that this rejected status of death is the sign of our…lostness, of an incapacity-to-feel that we cannot deal with. To meet the one who connected with, who befriended, who claimed, this our rejected death, would be to encounter an enormous and incomprehensible love. This love of us in our wretched unconnectedness, shown in the embrace of what we reject in horror, is intellectually nearly impossible to understand, but our deepest and simplest knowing moves out to it. At the heart of the Christian experience down the ages, the uncomprehending sufferer stretches out to the free, willing, understanding sufferer. And thus outstretched, the uncomprehending sufferer can at last received the communication of the incomprehensible inflictor as love, and see this in the fact of the victim raised from the grave. (Let this Mind Be in You, 129-9.)

The significance of this cannot be stressed enough. We have seen that crux of Moore’s concept of original sin was the dynamic of self-limitation of our desirability (and therefore desire) that occurs during the process of psychological birth and growth, combined with our resistance to growing beyond that self-limitation. The result is our separation from each other, our potential, and God. More than that, it is not just “separation,” it is the creation of enmity, disgust, even horror at all dimensions of reality in ourselves and others that press beyond the edges of our self-created membrane. (See Richard Beck’s Excellent book “Unclean:%20Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and MortalityUnclean” for more on the role of disgust as it pertains to our capacity for offering hospitality) And at the root of it all stands the terror of death, for it is ultimately in response to the terror of death that our our fragile ego has been created. As it stands, humanity is largely arrested at its “Oedipal self-understanding.” We “take it for reality itself” and thus “impose on society and on the universe that distrust of life, that self-repression, which was once appropriate when we were engaged on the business of becoming separate and sexually distinguished selves.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

In other words, we set our own limit on the meaningfulness of our life in our refusal to grow…. We build an invisible wall round our life. Outside that wall, uncharted by us, is death. For what does it mean to be ready for death? Who is? To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit—which is death. We don’t live this life to anything like its fullness. And what this means is that we don’t believe in the glorious being that each of us is. Massively we repress the sense of our greatness and our desires, in consequence, are weak.…Thus we create a wall round ourselves, within which we live. And far beyond that wall is God’s limit on us, death, the threshold of his loving embrace. (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)

It is exactly here that Jesus initiated the final breakthrough for his disciples. Though they remained uncomprehending throughout his life, the final intensification of their relationship with him at the last supper, followed by Jesus’ own self-removal as the object of their devotion, led to the ultimate crisis and transformation. Their awareness of the final enemy, death, had to be transformed, and when this occurred new life flooded back down through all levels of their awareness. Religious, cultural, and economic divisions were radically transformed in the new life that poured forth, as well as those of gender and social relations. Salvation was in this way an in-breaking of a hope that outstripped the disciples’ expectations that were possible under their former awareness. At the same time, their salvation consisted in the experience of a reunion with their own basic goodness. They knew themselves for the first time, as they come from the hand of God, “desirable because desired.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.)

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.

[1] These remarks remind me something Becker said. “…[H]uman heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head an shoulders.” (The Denial of Death, 6.)
[2] Given the patriarchal nature of Jesus’ time we might expect that the social norms would mirror the psychological patterns of the male mind.

Jean Vanier: What does it mean to be fully human?

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What does it mean to be fully human? Everything I have ever written has in some way been aimed at this question. The paradoxical title of this blog points toward the answer. The same goes for the quote I highlight at the top of this page by Leo Buscaglia (If you don’t know who Leo is, do yourself a favor and watch some of his old talks on YouTube). Unlike the animal world which moves according to the relative ease of instinct, humanity lives by way of freedom in thought and action. But with the loss of instinct’s prepackaged game-plan comes the question: What does it mean to be human? What are we doing here? How should we spend this brief miracle of self-aware existence?

For a creature of instinct the question cannot arise, but for humanity, the question forms our very essence. To be human is to ask the question of what it means to be human. And with this question comes anxiety. Instinctual life has the character of unreflective security. Here thought, desire, and action are a unified whole. You can see this clearly in the lives of little children. For children, thought does not restrain desire and action (which makes them both delightful and maddening, depending on how much one must be exposed to them!). Anxiety emerges as this child-like unity is transcended.

Adult life is both reflective and insecure. In his classic book, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm points to this separation from an original unity as the central problem of human existence. We long to return to this unity and have come upon many solutions that are only partially adequate. Of these solutions, he lists the temporary but intense induction of orgiastic states (either sexual or trance types), the surrender of the thrill and danger of freedom by way of conformity to a group, and the gratifying but impersonal immersion of the self in productive work. All of these solutions address the human problem, but they are all limited by the fact that they embody a sort of return to a past unity. As Ernest Becker put it, “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

Jean Vanier

Only with a new unity is it possible for humanity to be “fully alive,” to be “fully human.” This new unity is a love beyond fear. It is fear that limits our capacity for love, and it is our limited capacity for love that keeps us separated from each other, from the world we live in, and even from ourselves. This insight stands behind my attempt to make a connection between the idea of adventure and salvation in a paper I presented in Oxford last year. Love tears down the walls that we have carefully maintained to keep ourselves safe. For this reason, I am delighted to hear that Jean Vanier has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. He is the author of Becoming Human and is the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. His message is simple: By inviting in those who are vulnerable and different, we can develop the capacity to embrace our own vulnerability, and in so doing enlarge our capacity for love, for being fully alive. I’ve taken my own swing at articulating similar ideas, but first, listen to his own words. They have the authority of a remarkable life behind them!

Update: I went on to write a bit more about this here.

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

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Although this marks the beginning of chapter three in terms of my dissertation, it’s really here that my academic journey began. Having been raised in the relatively passive and mystically oriented environment of Catholicism, I later became involved with Protestant evangelicalism which stressed one’s individual decision in the process of salvation. I lost my faith among the evangelicals; or rather, it was here that my capacity to think about faith was awakened, then frustrated in a way that I could not understand at the time.[1] Looking back, the trouble for me was that the individualistic element in evangelicalism was stressed so much that the element of mystical participation that I had received from Catholicism was lost. What I was left with was a rationalized form of religiosity. It moved on the surface of life but had difficulty making contact with the depths.

What I mean by this can be seen in the shape of the existential crisis which occurred in me during that time. The form of this crisis was the impasse created by my unconditional drive to affirm the meaning of my life as revealed in the love of Christ, colliding with my likewise unconditional drive to arrive at the truth concerning the historical ground of that fundamental affirmation. Did what was said to have happened, really happen? If, as my evangelical friends believed, the truth of the former rested on an affirmative answer to the latter, then the honest doubt would always be a corrosive force on the meaning of my life. Under these conditions there was no way out, for the truths of history are impossible to be known without the criticism of doubt.[2]

Apologetic Books

It was here that the work of Paul Tillich was introduced to me. His writings did something to me that no other religious writers I had read to that point were able to accomplish. He united the mystical, participatory dimensions of Catholicism with the individualistic, prophetic dimensions of Protestantism in the form of a paradox. Bringing this movement to light will be the goal of this chapter.

In terms of my own story, this can be seen in Tillich’s statement that “Jesus could not have been the Christ without sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ.” This was a revolutionary way of encapsulating something I had sensed but could not find the words for. Pace my evangelical friends, Jesus as the Christ is not a stable historical ground on which one might try to anchor one’s faith. Instead, the image of Jesus we get from the gospels is of one who deflects all attempts to make him an object of temporal security. In the terms of first century Palestine, that object of temporal security was thought to be the emergence of a sort of spiritualized king capable of throwing off the Roman occupation and ushering in a utopian reign of God. This figure was to be the “anointed one,” meshiah in Hebrew, or in Greek, christos, the Christ.[3]

Tillich helps us see how radically Jesus transformed these titles. His kingdom was “not of this world” in the sense that he served the eternal Father whose compassion extended to all, even the Romans. As such, his kingdom could not established according to the divisions of this world. In fact, any mindset that sought security in this-worldly terms would either be deflected by Jesus or be forced to kill him. For this reason both attempts to accept Jesus or to reject Jesus in this-worldly terms amounts only to seating oneself with the opposing side. The life of Jesus is an embodied paradox. Because of that, as Tillich continued, “any acceptance of Jesus as the Christ which is not the acceptance of Jesus the crucified is a form of idolatry.” (The Dynamics of Faith, 122.) And likewise, any denial of Jesus as the Christ with the affirmation of Jesus as the crucified is a form of faith. This is a puzzling way of speaking. For now, simply allow these words to be suggestive hints at what will soon be explained with more precision.

In this chapter, by way of Robert Scharlemann’s analysis of Paul Tillich’s theology, I will be seeking to show how the paradox of salvation appears in the dimension of reason. The themes of the terror of death and stage transition will once again be in play. In the dimension of reason the terror of death emerges in the form of doubt. Though doubt can be used as a form of self-protection, I will here be focusing on doubt as it pertains to our deepest commitments and hopes. Self-protective doubt is truth-avoiding, whereas the form of doubt I will be addressing is truth-seeking. The difficulty is that, from a temporal perspective, to encounter truth is simultaneously to encounter death. Thus truth-seeking doubt is often something we avoid. The argument that will be presented is that, like psychological development, reason proceeds through stages where the reflecting subject is progressively “lost” as the structure of reason deepens and the scope of doubt increases.

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.

[1] It seems to me that I must have been somewhere between Kegan’s “traditionalism” and “modernism” at this time. I was developing the capacity to by my own person in a way distinct from my earlier culture of embeddedness (Catholicism and my familial norms), but I was not yet able to hold my new developing ideology (evangelical Protestantism) as an object of reflection. It’s categories simply were “the” categories for me.

[2] Without knowing it, I had wandered into Lessing’s Ditch which states essentially that eternal truths cannot be proved by historical truths. “That, then, is the ugly great ditch which I cannot cross, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make that leap.” (Lessing, Philosophical and Theological Writings, 87)

[3] This matter is complex. See E.M.B. Green for a summary of pre-Hasmonean “this-worldly” factors leading to the development of these terms (The Meaning of Salvation, 38-39) James Kugel gives further insight into the development of more “other-worldly” expectations and the development of “apocalyptic” literature (How to Read the Bible, 655-657) Finally, E.P. Sanders gives a good overview of what can be made of first century usages of the titles messiah and christ. (The Historical Figure of Jesus, 240-243)

Written by Alex

February 6, 2015 at 11:55 am

Prayer And A Principle of Addiction

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Recently I’ve begun the daily practice of a form of prayer popularized by Thomas Keating called “Centering Prayer.” It’s a contemporary updating of an ancient form of prayer that is marked by its peculiar lack of an object of thought. In fact, it is precisely the release of all objects of thought that characterizes this prayer. So instead of “Lord help me find my watch!” (a prayer with and object), we have “Ah! That’s right! I’ve lost my watch! Where could it be? [release]… [silence].” (prayer that releases its object)(Incidentally, and interestingly, I once found my watch during a prayer of this sort!).

At any rate, the aim of Centering Prayer is to, as Keating says, make the subtle effort necessary to cease all our usual efforts and so cultivate a “docility to the Spirit.” In other words, to get over ourselves and be present to what the truth of any given moment holds for us. There’s a lot more to it, but I’ll save that exposition for another time. You get the point.

This morning during prayer I was taught an interesting lesson about my own potential for addictive behavior. For the previous two days prior I had been spending an inordinate amount of time playing a stupid (quite fun) iOS app where you fly around with little airplanes and shoot other planes (You can also upgrade your equipment, buy new aircraft, and add on sweet special abilities like ultra-fast target acquisition!).



What I noticed was that as I settled into silence… there—was—no—silence. Every moment was filled with the sound of the warning buzzer of incoming missiles, banking jet fighters, and machine gun fire. I simply could not release these images and sounds. Now, to a certain extent it’s simply impossible to completely quiet the mind for long periods of time. Most of my prayer times are a steady oscillation between mental activity, release, and silence. But this was different. There was no silence. The full 30 minutes was filled with noise from start to finish. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

What I’ve come to see is that what I was experiencing was a conflict of anxiety management systems. These last few days I’ve been exhibiting addictive behavior toward this game not simply because it’s fun and makes me feel nice for a little bit. I’ve been addicted to it because it’s begun to play the role of soothing my anxieties (which are ever present). Centering Prayer is also designed to deal with our anxieties, but not by drowning them out, or intoxicating ourselves. Centering Prayer is designed to acknowledge our anxieties as they bubble to the surface, but then, in faith, release them and so be free from the compulsions they carry with them. What I experienced this morning was a conflict of ways of handling my own anxiety, the addictive type, and the faithful type. And though it may seem as though the addictive type won out, I feel like my eyes have been opened in important ways and the addictive power of the game seems to have been broken as a result.

All of that leads me to articulate a principle of (non-drug induced) addiction that I’ve never seen so clearly: We become addicted to things/activities/etc that play the role of masking the anxieties of life. These addictions can be more or less benign, a glass of wine every night, a silly game, buying lots of shoes, picking scabs, whatever. But regardless of how socially acceptable they are, they all represent forms of unfreedom, the inability to cope with life on its own terms, the need for a prop, a mask, a crutch.

My goal is to ever reach toward the faithful type of dealing with the anxiety of life. This is the only road I see toward freedom. It is a path that finds liberation not by avoiding, medicating, or denying the doubt, ambiguity, and terror of existence but by embracing it and being embraced by it. To practice the release of faith in this moment is a deeply courageous act, perhaps “the” courageous act, but the result is freedom, freedom from fear of non-being in all its forms, from death, from meaninglessness, even from the fear of life itself. May we be free. May we train for it.

Written by Alex

July 12, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Theology

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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

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On Ultimate Reality and Historical Factuality

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The following is a (slightly edited) excerpt from a letter I recently wrote in which I attempted to explain why I’ve found Paul Tillich to be so helpful in my own life of faith. [begin]

His [Tillich’s] significance in my own life has been great. Perhaps his greatest impact has been with regard to my perennial anxiety born of a conflict between my faith and my rationality. For all of my life I have lived in a place of deep faith. I would often put it to others as, “I can’t not believe.” At the same time, however, I’m a natural skeptic. I find it easy to entertain the notion that many of the historical underpinnings of my faith are not nearly so historical as I’ve been raised to believe. I’m sure you can see how this might raise some issues for me. Especially since I’ve since gone on to do some fairly rigorous—and not terribly affirming—study in this area.

So here is the problem that continued to develop: The meaning of my life, something unconditionally held (my faith), was apparently attached, in some sense, to conditionally held historical arguments. In light of this I was in a state of constant and near crippling anxiety. I was forced into a place where the meaning of my life could very well come completely unglued if the weight of various arguments shifted. It was terrible. I would lie awake many nights groping for some way to shore up arguments that were not as strong as I wanted them to be. And my skeptical self hated my faithful self for this. There was a split in my person. My rational faculties were being opposed to my passion. I was disintegrated. I can recall numerous nights that ended with me lifting my sleeping son from his crib, holding his warm body close to my chest and repeating, “this is real, this is real, this is real.” This love… real.

Tillich saved me from this place. His approach is essentially Augustinian in the sense that God is encountered at our personal intersection as a finite beings with infinity. In other words, it is in our very depths that we meet God. In this way we simply cannot meet God by opposing our various faculties (e.g. faith and reason, as it is usually framed). No, a dynamic and vibrant faith is an integrated faith. Faith is not a separate faculty that can be opposed to others, but instead it is the “depth dimension” possessed by each (e.g. rational [desire to know ultimate reality], aesthetic [desire for ultimate meaning], moral [unconditional seriousness of the moral demand], etc.).

On this account faith is not “believing stuff on limited evidence,” but rather it is one’s being apprehended by the divine. It is unconditionally felt. And here’s the important bit, no discovery about external reality possesses the power to destroy one’s faith (which gives a more helpful meaning to the “I can’t not believe” remark above).

To take an extreme example, one could conclude that the historical evidence provides very little grounds for supposing that Jesus physically rose from the dead, yet because one’s ultimate concern is encountered in the gospel of Jesus, Jesus would not lose an ounce of significance in one’s life of faith because of it. I have not concluded this, but it doesn’t frighten me to entertain the notion, and that’s not really the point. The point is, Jesus could have been “just” fully human (whatever that means), or a total fabrication and remain a perfectly adequate vehicle for my faith. It is not the factual veracity of a historical nature that is essential to faith, but the degree to which the symbol (in this case Jesus) maps Reality (big “R”). That is the point. And, oddly enough, it affords a higher place to Jesus as expressing Ultimate Reality than a mere assent to the factuality of some historical event. Because of this, the meaning of my life is no longer tied to tentative historical arguments as it once was (though I remain interested in them). I am now free to get on with the business of stumbling after the vision of the Good I see in Christ. To put it simply, I am free to follow Jesus because I love him, not because I am historically certain.

The beauty of this understanding of faith is the way it frees the faithful not only from the fear of biblical studies (a problem common in contemporary evangelicalism), but also the way it frees them from the fear of modern science. And those are but two particular instances of a general possibility, the possibility of encountering the world from our best stance at all levels of our person. As I see it, Tillich’s understanding of faith has the power to render useless the whole fear-driven anti-intellectual apparatus that presently exists within much of contemporary Christianity. What might our communities look like if we were no longer driven by fear, but instead drawn forward in Christ’s love?

Written by Alex

August 2, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Posted in Theology

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Evangelicalism and anxiety

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Ever since I started hanging around evangelicals (12 or so years ago) I’ve noticed—among a whole host of laudable and praiseworthy qualities—a persistent anxiety within their culture. You can hear it in their sermons and their songs. You can see it in the sorts of books they read (or don’t read) and movies they watch (or don’t watch). On an academic level it becomes even more acute when you read their bible scholars and theologians. What is this anxiety to which I refer?

As I see it, it is that anxiety which is born from the tension between the meaning of life and the unity of truth.

Similar (but less adequate) ways of putting it would be the the tension between: faith and reason, the Bible and science, theological conservatism and liberalism, “Bible believing” Christians and those who entertain critical biblical scholarship, etc… Those experiencing this anxiety are faced with a strong temptation to settle for a fretful ideology, rather than a vibrant and integrated faith. There is the worry that following our questions too far may lead to the undermining of our faith. In this post I intend to explore this dynamic. A constructive response will be the task of later posts.

Although the rest of Christianity is by no means exempt from the sort of anxiety I’m concerned with here, evangelicalism tends to exacerbate it in a way unique to itself. The following three propositions begin to demonstrate why. Evangelicals tend to,

1. see salvation as based upon a cognitive understanding of “faith.”
(That is, “faith” means believing in the factuality of certain things external to one’s own experience)

2. see the “authority of Scripture” as a matter of supreme importance rather than the “authority of God.”

3. place a low emphasis on “interpretation,” and a high emphasis on Scripture as “God’s Word.”

Taken together, these three propositions bring about a situation where the unconditional faith placed in Christ becomes extended to an unconditional acceptance of a fairly face-value reading of Scripture. From this we get such mantras as “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” As long we don’t ask too many questions it is now possible for a person to comfortably buttress the reoriented meaning of their life (conversion) with God’s straight-forward truth as found in the Bible. The meaning of life found in their received gospel is affirmed, and all is well. But then the trouble starts…

For those evangelicals who are encouraged to spend time studying the Bible, they are often taught about the need to avoid “proof texting” (reading passages without attention to context). And with this one little word, “context,” the trouble begins; for to understand context, one needs to ask questions. And asking questions can lead places that don’t sit comfortably with 1-3 above. For example: Why do Bible translators render some words differently? What does the author mean by X, Y or Z? Who wrote this book anyway? When was it written? Where? What else was going on during this period? Why do certain segments of narrative repeat themselves in seemingly contrary ways? How did other cultures of the time understand this idea? And so on. Such standard questions force us to recognize the interpretive dimension of our interactions with Scripture as well as reveal a very human side of the text that more superficial readings find easy to ignore. Thus, we have our fourth proposition which most evangelicals should find uncontroversial:

4. Interpretive success is dependent upon attention to context.[1]

A fifth proposition that I’ve heard tossed about in evangelical circles regards one of the two poles of the tension we are exploring. It may not be as common of an emphasis, but I doubt that many evangelicals would find it to be controversial.

5. All truth is God’s truth (the “unity of truth” principle)

With this fifth proposition in place we are now in a position to see the basic problem: If the meaning of our life is found in our embrace of the gospel of Christ, and if reception of that gospel is based upon faith (understood as believing the factuality of certain things), and if these “certain things” are derived from Scripture, then we ought to read and believe Scripture. If, in the process of reading Scripture, we are taught to take context seriously, then we will ask questions. But if one asks enough questions, one will eventually discover that most biblical scholarship doubts  the factuality of much that is recorded in the Bible (even evangelical scholars are beginning to accept this), and they have many good reasons behind their doubts.

Did you feel your blood pressure just rise?

If you did, you are likely steeped in the dynamic I am describing here. Your intuitions regarding the unity of truth are being opposed to the meaning of your life. This is a scary place to be, for it appears that one or the other will have to be be abandoned. It is this anxiety, combined with an unwillingness to abandon what has become the deeply felt meaning of one’s life, that causes many evangelicals to accept the second horn of the dilemma and vigorously oppose (or systematically ignore) nearly all biblical scholarship. On a larger scale it is this same dynamic that drives the evangelical opposition to science. Just like biblical scholarship, scientists offer good reasons to doubt a straight-forwardly historical reading of a number of cherished biblical texts (Most obviously, the creation narratives).[2]

What I want to be clear at this point is that I’m not concerned to debate whether or not scientists or biblical scholars are correct in their assessments (although I tend to think they are likely on the right track). Instead, I want to call attention to the way hitching the meaning of our lives to a problematic view of faith leads to a fear of vigorous inquiry into any and all questions of interest. If faith is understood as believing in a certain set of facts that have occurred “out there,” or “back then,” then the meaning of our life will always be threatened by the possibility that asking too many questions will end up showing that “it just ain’t so.” This fear leads to a dis-integration of our person. Our rational capacities are tyrannized by fear. If in Christ we find “life abundantly” (Jn 10:10), and if that life encourages love of God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, then a life characterized by intellectual anxiety is a deplorable situation. What I hope to show in the future is that this anxiety is not necessary. The meaning of our lives cannot be threatened by the unity of truth, for the meaning of our lives is a complex not exhausted by “external” reality.

And so ends my analysis of the problem. I’ve done my best to articulate the mess as I see it. In future posts I hope to suggest a way forward. Contrary to what one might infer from the foregoing, I have a deep love for evangelicals. I think their emphasis on the personal and unconditional commitment to Christ offers something very important to the wider body of Christ. However, I’ve seen this zeal become directed in such a way that it threatens to “dis-integrate” individual evangelicals, as well as scare off thoughtful people who might otherwise be quite compelled to sympathize with Christian faith. As such, this ought not be read as an attack, but rather a labor of love.

An interesting question to ponder here would be “how big is the context?” Are there any levels of context that are “out of bounds?”

It is worth noting also, that this is often the same dynamic that brings about such heat in political disputes, for visions of the good are being opposed to each other. And our “visions of the good” are where we locate the meaning of our lives.

Written by Alex

June 16, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Posted in Theology

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