living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Maturity

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.

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

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The problem this chapter (a list of all posts in this project is here) has aimed to address is the phenomena of faith loss among Christians whose critical ability has attained the capacity to undercut its own historical and philosophical foundations. These are those for whom historical arguments regarding the Bible and the historical Jesus have become important, but also have failed. Such people tend to also have a similar relationship to philosophical arguments for God’s existence. The heart of this chapter has been an attempt to describe in a rational mode how what is often termed a loss of faith is, in reality, a necessary element of rational development. We have shown how Scharlemann’s appropriation of Tillich paints a broader philosophical landscape in which to make sense of the problem and also avoids the nihilism that threatens any systematic thought that is unable to anchor itself in reality. The basic problem was shown to be a truncated conception of reason combined with the lack of recognition that reason (reflection and response) proceeds through a series of stages whereby the objectival is “lost” at each transition due to the activities of criticism and doubt. The solution was shown to be Tillich’s correlation of reflection and response and the anchoring of both these moments in a paradoxical reality and presence.

How do these ideas relate to the work of Becker and Kegan that we examined in the previous chapter? To begin, we should recall Becker’s description of humanity’s existential paradox as a creature capable of tasting the eternal, but nevertheless being bound to the limits of finitude, and most notably, being subject to death. In reality, the vast majority of human-kind experiences this paradox as an unbearable contradiction. And it was here that Becker then vigorously rubbed our noses in all the various individual and communal ways we set about denying of our existential condition. When these ideas are extended into the realm of human reason it is easy to see how criticism and doubt can be used in exactly this way to protect ourselves from potentially threatening realities and powers. In this way, critical reflection and doubting response can give up the task of truth-seeking and become merely self-protective, thus stifling growth and maturity.

But what of those who begin to experience the edges of their own ways of knowing as not mere contradiction, but as paradox? These are the ones who begin the great risk pushing the edges of their rational world. Kegan provided us with a rich framework to make sense of this moment by way of a series of mental paradigm shifts where what was previously held as subject became capable of being reflected upon as an object of thought. Likewise, Scharlemann traced for us a cultural history of this very same movement. In addition to this Kegan is also well known for moving developmental stage theory beyond an exclusively cognitive focus to include the emotional dimension of human life, and to that extent Scharlemann’s appropriation of Tillich again resonates strongly with Kegan’s work. This is seen clearly in Scharlemann’s classification of reason into its reflective and responsive modes. Thus, Scharlemann was able to give us a historical road map of the reflective and responsive aspects of human reason that further reinforces the analytic power of Kegan’s model.

Shattered Ice

In an effort to lessen the abstraction of this chapter we have periodically considered the doubts that the young Paul Tillich faced about the historical foundations of his faith. We will now conclude this chapter by returning once again to this problem which continues to this day in both scholarly and popular forms. It seems that scarcely a year goes by without a new slew of articles and television programs that ask us to consider “who was Jesus, really?” The implication tends always to be that the Jesus you think you know, the Jesus you pray to, and the Jesus that you trust to keep you and your loved ones safe in this life and the next is not at all the real Jesus. Some even evidence a certain glee in this “gotcha” moment. However the question that we are here urged to consider is not unlike the one that Jesus himself asked his own followers, and we would do well to attend once again to that narrative.

Who do you say that I am?

In the introduction to this chapter we reflected on Peter’s answer to this question: declaring Jesus to be the messiah. This became a problem for Peter because, the messiah that he had in mind was roughly the functional equivalent of the “Jesus that you trust to keep you and your loved ones safe in this life and the next.” Upon exposing Peter’s self-protective and self-aggrandizing hopes, Jesus’ reaction was intense and immediate: “Get behind me Satan!” Now, let this sink in. What does this mean for the believer and for the cultural debunkers? For the believer Jesus refuses to be a temporal security. And for this reason he embodies the criticism of the debunkers before they even have a chance to speak. To participate in salvation is, therefore, not to have one’s temporal securities vindicated (for example, by embarrassing the cultural debunkers by producing a world-renowned scholar to expose their arguments as foolishness). Instead, to participate in salvation—as Tillich eventually learned—is to mirror the paradoxical motions of Christ.

This concludes our exploration of the paradox of salvation in the dimension of human reason. In the next chapter we will view it from the perspective of spirituality and theology in the Christology of Sebastian Moore.


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.