The Deus Ex Machina in Insurrection and The Authenticity of Faith

Continuing with my engagement with Peter Rollins's book Insurrection let me swing back in light of my last post and point to other areas where I'm in significant agreement with Rollins.

In fact, there is a great deal in Insurrection that overlaps with the work in my recent book The Authenticity of Faith (I've linked to the publisher as Amazon is now back-ordered). In many ways, much within The Authenticity of Faith makes the empirical, research case for what Rollins is describing in Insurrection.

You can think of The Authenticity of Faith as Insurrection in the psychological laboratory, statistics and all.

For example, recall that at the start of Insurrection Rollins begins by talking about god as deus ex machina. Deus ex machina is Latin for "god out of the machine" and it refers to an ancient Greek plot device where a god, in the form of a Greek deity, would swoop in to resolve the plot (e.g., rescuing the hero after he/she made a self-sacrificing choice). And by "swoop in" I mean literally swoop in as the deity would be lowered in on ropes (hence the phrase "god out of the machine"). In short, the deus ex machina is a plot contrivance to get us to a happy ending. The god rescues the story from ending on a tragic note.

Rollins contends in Insurrection, rightfully so, that for many Christians god functions in just this manner. God is a fixer, a band aid, a balm, a Santa Claus, a force field, a butler, an answer, an opium. When life gets hard, when our life story tends toward tragedy, god is a deus ex machina that is lowered into our lives to save the day and make us feel happier.

This has been a criticism of religious faith for a very long time. In The Authenticity of Faith my focus is on Freud's influential version of this argument (Rollins also cites Freud in Insurrection), that god is a form of wishful thinking and existential consolation.

One question I try to answer The Authenticity of Faith is if all religious believers use god as a deus ex machina. The problem, obviously, for a researcher like myself is how you go about assessing this among Christians. You can't just describe the deus ex machina version of god and then ask people, "Is that how you feel about god? Is your god a deus ex machina?" Few would admit they are using god in this way.

So, what I've done in my research is to identify a suite of beliefs that are associated with a deus ex machina theological configuration. People are more willing to endorse particular beliefs in comparison to asking them to honestly assess their unconscious motivations regarding belief in god. These beliefs are assessed in an instrument I created called the Defensive Theology Scale:

Deus Ex Machina Beliefs as Assessed by the Defensive Theology Scale

Special Protection: In the face of a hostile universe, the belief that God will especially protect the believer (and loved ones) from misfortune, illness, or death. The universe is existentially tamed.

Special Insight: In the face of difficult life decisions, the belief that God will provide clear guidance and direction. God’s guidance reduces the existential burden of choice.

Special Destiny: In the face of a life where meaning is fragile, the belief that God has created a special purpose for one’s life, a “destiny” that makes life intrinsically meaningful.

Denial of Randomness: In a life full of random, tragic, and seemingly meaningless events, the belief that God’s purpose and plan is at work. No event, however horrific or tragic, is existentially confusing or disconcerting. All is going according to plan.

Divine Solicitousness: The belief that the omnipotent God is constantly available and interested in aiding the believer, even with the mundane and trivial. God is an “eternal servant,” our Cosmic butler.
In my research I use the Defensive Theology Scale to assess the degree to which people have a deus ex machina view of god as described by Rollins (and Freud). I then compare these people who score low on the scale, those who eschew these beliefs.

So when you sort people in this way do they behave differently? More specifically, do they behave in the ways Rollins describes in Insurrection?

Part 3 of The Authenticity of Faith has some answers to those questions based upon a couple of different empirical investigations I've conducted. One of those I'll highlight in my next post in the Slavery of Death series.

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10 thoughts on “The Deus Ex Machina in Insurrection and The Authenticity of Faith

  1. Amazon informs me, "Good news!  My shipment of 'The Authenticity of Faith' is coming sooner than first hoped."  Maybe end of next week delivery?  Thanks for this preview and tie-in to recent posts/discussions.

    On the 'Defensive Theology Scale,' the cause of my dark night / crisis / turning point "moment" would most aptly be attributed to severe cognitive dissonance with the validity of 'Special Protection,' and to a lesser extent, 'Special Insight.'  Experience has a way of disproving those theological/mental constructs, if you know what I mean.

    I really do believe that in the two decades that followed that moment, I have been testing out the validity of the latter three defenses:  Special Destiny, Denial of Randomness, and Divine Solicitousness.  I think the key, for me, was not so much in expecting concrete, absolute answers to those "questions", but the mental acquiescence to the questioning itself, and an openness to answers that I don't expect, and, as time goes on, a making peace with the inability to know the answer to some questions.  From time to time, usually when "stressed" I have been tempted to fall back on one or more of those 'Defensive Theologies.'  Uncertainty -- fear of the unknown -- generates a strong desire for absolutes to hang onto...

    What I remember most about that moment of "awareness" 20 years ago was a sense of peace during and after my prayer, that even though my circumstances still sucked (only child still dead), it (life, the outcome) was going to be O:K...God was "with" me.  And he was good.  For my own sanity, I have had to make an attempt to find meaning in what happened, and to live on in such a way that my child's death (and his life!) won't ever have been in vain.  In other words, what will I make of it?  Or better yet, what will it make of me?

  2. Richard,

    Sorting through the categories in your "suite," I find that I sometimes go first to any and all, as in "any port in a storm," when initially facing tragedy or its possibility--a reaction on being numb due to trauma, protective but not very reflective.  Only later as I "get a grip" do I move through the deus ex machina slough of despond to a faith more helpful and, eventually, healing and hopeful.  The spirit is willing to be courageous and determined in the face of fear and terror, but the flesh sometimes falls asleep, denies or hallucinates because of horror.  Who will save me from this body of death even when I cling to it?   Even if I cannot think or speak?  Abba.

  3. Hopefully not too far from your discussion, I've been wondering about this phenemenon on the pages of the Christian scriptures....and then the cry, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?". But then I remember Tony Campolo's great borrowing from his African American brother's great sermon, "it's Friday, but Sunday's Coming!". Hope...the anchor of the soul. THE anchor! In the words of the old gospel song...."Be very sure......your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock.". Inthe darkness of her long night, Mother Theressa's faith was so profound, so deep, that I believe the audacity of hope flickered every time she moved in love toward the hopeless. Love transcends...

  4. I will have to put my vote in for the fourth one - Denial of Randomness, as it is the only view among those listed that seems to include all of mankind and all of creation. The others seem especially suited to the orthodox or traditional "Christian" mindset in which only the "believer" - or "special" ones - will receive God's blessings. Whether He actually exists, as I believe He does, or we have simply invented Him, I see God in Christ as the personification of love, and the realization of our hope -- the only one capable of restoring all things. And I speak of "hope" here as a "confident expectation" (as in the proper rendering of 1 Tim 4:10, and Rom. 8:20-21), and not the mere wishful thinking that the typical "churched" Christians indulge in -- that they "hope" God can defeat Satan; convince the rebellious to reconcile; defeat death; save the world; etc. And if there is any possibility that things are NOT going "according to plan," why place any trust and faith in a "god" who is only "hoping" that things will turn out all right. 

  5. Richard, I have been up and down your Defensive Theology Scale so many times in my life.  The only way I can accept my life and my God is to stop at number 4, Denial of Randomness and switch it around to Acceptance of Randomness.  This after the loss of two children, my husband to cancer and a near fatal car accident that left me with continuing physical and health problems.  The acceptance of randomness is (like in Susan N's writing) the realization that these things have happened and I have the choice of what I am going to do with these situations in my life.  The problem is, as I age I am finding it harder and harder to treat my increasing health problems in a positive and productive manner.  As with the many other "declines" we face in getting older, the loss of flexibility, both physical and emotional, is one I struggle with.

  6. ((seniorcit)) -- I read your post yesterday, and it has been tugging on my heart.  You have experienced so much loss and grief in your life.  I just want to give you a hug.  Your will to choose acceptance, and your strong spirit of hope is such an encouragement to me.  I would like to share with you that I have formed many friendships with those who live in a local nursing home.  Through our years of fellowship, I have witnessed their struggles (failing health, absent loved ones, loneliness, depression, etc.) but also their great courage and faith.  They, like you, inspire me to be brave.  They express gratitude for my visits, but I tell them (and I mean it) that I'm the one receiving the biggest blessings from them.  I express my perspective on their situation -- not ideal in most ways -- that they are still so valuable to and loved by God.  They go around their "home" and stay on the lookout for new kids on the block, whom they can befriend with hospitality and kindness.  It's really so beautiful to see these senior "saint" friends of mine generously giving away the only thing they have:  Love.  I'm glad that you found your way to this blog, seniorcit.  Thanks for sharing these heart-thoughts.  I hope that God will send you an "angel" or two to lighten your load and encourage you.  ~Peace~

  7. Googled into this by accident, stayed to enjoy. Happens I accidentally falsified my faith-school's teaching at an early age. Like a cartoon, I pulled one (1) stray thread and the entire coat unravelled. That school hastily out-placed me with a very, very coy reference...


    Later, faith-strong friends asked how I could live without theistic comfort / protection / guidance etc etc. I'd politely reply that such faith was no better than homeopathy. At best, a placebo. Probably, false hope. At worst, a fatal distraction...

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