living through death

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

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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.

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Written by Alex

August 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

Introduction

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A Brief Overview

It is often thought that Christianity keeps its adherents in a state of perpetual immaturity. As a sociological fact, this may be hard to argue against. Much that goes by the name Christianity looks quite near to what Ernest Becker described as a fearful “death denying ideology.” In theological terminology, such ways of being amount to self-salvation programs. The terror of death drives us to avoid all forms of death. Yet, at the heart of Christianity stands one who chose his own death and encouraged his followers to take up their own crosses and follow him. Such an act, apparently, has an important role to play in an understanding of Christian salvation. In this thesis, I make use of developmental stages theory to illuminate what that role is. I argue that Christian salvation is founded on a paradoxical death that is best made sense of in light of contemporary developmental stages theory, in particular, at the thresholds of developmental stage transition. To illuminate this claim I trace out the logic across the rational, desirous, and active dimensions of human being. These dimensions are explored, in order, by way of Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering prayer. Taken together, it is concluded that Christianity has tremendous resources for helping its adherents come to grips with their death denying strategies and therefore enlarge their capacity for psychological and spiritual maturity.

Introduction

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 them and for their family back home, it is a painful and bewildering experience. Their minds fill with questions about how they could have gone so wrong. The parents wonder if 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 any of them that the maturing young adult might be actually embodying the very death and resurrection of Christ. It might even be the case that the parents’ 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 negativities 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 as death, doubt, and faithlessness into new life during the normal course of one’s maturing spiritual life. I claim that developmental stage theories, specifically the work of Robert Kegan, provide us with a powerful tool to analyze and understand the formal dynamics of this spiritual development. I augment Kegan’s theory 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. We might think of Becker as providing a sustained analysis of why we are so often in the company of “those who seek to save their lives.” 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. After setting up my analytical apparatus, I move to apply it to the rational, passional, 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.

Liminal: Sunset over Rice Minnesota

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, contrary to our intuitions, a certain kind of death in the realm of our rational, desirous, and practical life (doubt, disaffection, and inaction) can lead through disintegration into a deepening maturity. This thesis 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.


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.