The Fuller Integration Lectures: Part 1, Can We Believe in God Non-Violently?

Two weeks ago it was my privilege to deliver the 44th Annual Integration Lectures for the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. I delivered two lectures regarding my recent book The Slavery of Death.

In many ways, in the US at least, Fuller is ground zero for the integration of psychology and Christianity as Fuller was the first faith-based institution to offer an APA-accredited PhD in Clinical Psychology. So it was quite an honor to be invited to deliver the lectures this year, which was also the 50th anniversary of the School of Psychology as well as the 25th anniversary of the Travis Research Institute at Fuller.

I've engaged with the work of many of the scholars working at Fuller, in both the School of Psychology and in the Seminary. So it was wonderful to finally meet many of them. And it was a rich experience having psychologists, biblical scholars and theologians sitting in the audience for the lectures.

I thought I'd take a few posts this week and next to share some reflections about the lectures and some of the breakout sessions I attended.

I'd like to start with a few posts sharing thoughts I had about the four responses to the lectures, which were all quite stimulating and helpful to me.

In this post I want to reflect a bit on a part of Dr. Winston Gooden's response to my first lecture. Specifically, Dr. Gooden, Dean of the School of Psychology at Fuller, wondered about how our beliefs in God can be held non-neurotically and non-violently.

If you don't know my work well let me quickly explain the issue. In both The Authenticity of Faith and The Slavery of Death I make the case made by Ernest Becker, and supported by the empirical work of what is known as Terror Management Theory, that our self-esteem is constructed by the pursuit of "cultural heroics," the ways in which any given culture defines a good and meaningful life. However, according to Becker this pursuit of significance is, at root, a flight from death as the pursuit of significance and meaning is being driven by a desire to "matter" in the face of death. We all want to make a dent in the universe, to have the cosmos recognize our life, to register that we existed.

By and large all that is a good thing as our neurotic pursuit of significance leads to culture creation. We build, work, and create. Psychologists call this sublimation, where neurotic anxiety is channeled into culturally valued outlets.

But there is a dark side to all this. Specifically, the cultural worldviews that support our pursuit of significance can become challenged and relativized by out-group members. People and cultures who don't share our metrics of "success" threaten the foundation of our self-esteem projects. And this makes us anxious.

So in the face of that anxiety we engage in what Terror Management theorists call "worldview defense." Basically, we denigrate, demean and demonize out-group members in order to protect our self-esteem projects and, thus, continue to experience meaning and significance in the face of death.

Importantly, this is no mere speculation. Worldview defense has been observed in the laboratory. For example, in a study I focus on in The Authenticity of Faith Christian participants have been found to become increasingly anti-Semitic--denigrate Jewish persons--when they were made to ponder their eventual death.

All this goes to Dr. Gooden's question. If our worldviews are being driven by neurotic anxiety and this anxiety makes us violent how can we believe in God non-neurotically and non-violently? Because, as we know, religion often sits at the heart of our worldviews.

How, then, can our faith be emancipated from, in the words of Hebrews 2, our "slavery to the fear of death"? A slavery that makes us violent toward others?

This was a question I tried to answer in The Authenticity of Faith. But in many ways that answer wasn't wholly satisfactory. In The Slavery of Death I try to improve upon that answer and it's the answer I gave at Fuller to Dr. Gooden's question.

In The Authenticity of Faith my argument is that doubt is what protects us from believing violently. That is, if you hold your beliefs provisionally you'll retain your openness and curiosity toward out-group members.

However, there is a cost to be paid for that openness. Specifically, if you hold your beliefs provisionally you'll forgo the existential benefits of conviction, certainty and dogmatism. Doubting makes you more open and hospitable toward others but doubting also leaves you open to a lot of uncertainty in the face of death.

Basically, The Authenticity of Faith posits a trade-off between hospitality and anxiety. The more open your are to out-group members the more existential anxiety you'll have to carry. Conversely, the more dogmatic you become the less anxiety you will feel but at the cost of being less welcoming and tolerant of those who disagree with you.

That's where I left things in The Authenticity of Faith. But in many ways that's not a very satisfactory ending place. Specifically, while doubt may be a prerequisite of love--by creating an openness toward difference--doubt doesn't pull you into love. A lot of doubting Christians are 1) spiritually spinning their wheels (e.g., they don't know if they are Christians or agnostics) or 2) emotionally suffering (often to the point of clinical depression) given the weight of existential anxiety they are carrying.

So in many ways The Slavery of Death is a sequel to The Authenticity of Faith in trying to retain openness toward others but situating the provisionality of belief in a more helpful way.

If you've read The Slavery of Death (or recall the earlier blog series) you know the crux of the argument I make: eccentricity.

Specifically, using the work of Arthur McGill and David Kelsey, I use the notion of eccentricity to contrast an identity rooted in either grasping or gift. That is, if God is a possession of the faith community then God needs to be protected from the threat of others. This is why belief becomes violent. If God is owned by a faith community then they can assert their proprietorial rights over God over against others. That's the root of dogmatism: We have God and you don't. God is for us and against you. God is here experienced as a possession.

And this is the the important thing to note: possessions have to be defended. Because possessions can be lost or damaged.

If, however, God is received as gift then the faith community can never possess God. This is the notion of eccentricity, that God is outside the boundaries of the faith community. And if God is outside the boundaries of the faith community then the faith community has to wait on God. The faith community is always looking for God outside of herself. And this expectant searching keeps us looking for God in the world and in the Other. It's a Matthew 25 orientation. God is always showing up in unexpected places and faces.

God is found in the stranger.

This, in my estimation, the how The Slavery of Death improves upon The Authenticity of Faith. Doubt is replaced with the experience of gift.

Critically, gift keeps the provisionality of doubt. Gifts are never certain. They are hoped for, but they are not under our control. You can never be certain of gift. You can't be dogmatic about gifts. And you can't protect a gift you don't possess.

Let me be concrete. Consider the relationship between a belief in heaven and death anxiety. Shouldn't our belief in heaven help us with our death anxiety?

Well, that all depends. As I argue in The Authenticity of Faith for many a belief in heaven is, in fact, symptomatic of a fear of death. Belief in heaven is being clung to because it is a comforting belief in the face of death. But the problem, as we've noted, is that if belief in heaven is being motivated by fear you'll behave aggressively toward anyone who threatens that belief. In that instance the belief in heaven is comforting--it reduces anxiety--but it also makes you violent.

Phrased in the categories I use in The Slavery of Death if heaven is possession, if it is something you control and possess, then that possession has to be protected from threats.

But if heaven is experienced eccentrically, if heaven is a gift rather than a possession, then I don't have to protect it from others. Because I don't possess heaven. I have to wait for it as the gift. And because heaven is outside of my control--because it's a gift rather than a possession--I can't guarantee heaven. Or be certain of it. All I can do is cultivate a posture of openness and surrender, to say with Jesus "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

So that's the root of the answer I gave to Dr. Gooden.

How can we believe non-neurotically and non-violently? By cultivating eccentricity.

To experience God and heaven as gift rather than possession.

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18 thoughts on “The Fuller Integration Lectures: Part 1, Can We Believe in God Non-Violently?”

  1. Very helpful and clarifying. Thank you. An extension of this challenge to hold not only the metaphysical side of belief with open hands but the moral. It seems inherent in morals that a sense of "right" prevails. It's hard not to see this with the paradigm changing shift with respect to gay marriage going on. What was not tolerated (gay marriage) now informs the legal framework by which intolerance with respect to gay marriage is not tolerated. (I mean it will be tough for anyone holding a conservative view on marriage not be be branded a bigot going forward. I happen to see that as largely warranted, given the history. But it represents a failure of grace... I wonder whether a Mandela or MLK of this new civil rights issue will step forward.) At any rate, it's a further challenge--not to your framework, per se, but to human nature's ability to make use of your framework..

  2. In A.J. Heschel's book, The Prophets, he makes two points regarding God that, I believe, most Evangelical Christians have not yet recognized. First, God is the subject, not the object. And, secondly, We do not appropriate God in thinking of God; our thinking of God should be of God's thinking surrounding us. I am convinced that these two observations help to keep us from making God a possession, a tool for our purposes.

  3. Wow. I really needed to hear this today. A beautiful and accurate description of doubt and dogmatism, love and fear. Thank you. This seems to be a good reminder as we head into the Lenten season. I'll be pondering eccentricity today...

  4. If I may Richard, I'd like to add one more nuance to you piece here that is already brimming with it.

    The word 'faith' is illuminating something that stems from the human capacity for reality; namely, that we have to move toward horizons without ability to know with certainty what lies beyond that horizon. For instance, when I plan a trip to the grocery store, it's impossible to know that I'll return safely until I have. But before I go, I'll be measuring the situation for the credibility of my premise of safe return i.e., condition of car, weather, neighborhood. Yet because innate to this situation, I can't have all the information, I don my seat belt.

    Contrast this to going through this same moment by way of certainty. Certainty is is either 100% or 0%. When the one involved by way of certainty clicks their seat belt, they're immediately in contradiction with themselves. Christian's typically mistake certainty for faith. (The word 'faith' btw, is simply the noun form of its verb form, "believe'.)

    So the move your speaking of, isn't about adding 'doubt'; faith is innately aware that not all the information can't be had- that we must move toward horizons which themselves are in plain view, but their other-side's are not. And we do this every day that we live humanly- regardless of one being or not being religious.

    Faith, something innate to being human in the way thinking is, has within it the property of openness. Certainty lacks it completely. When certainty is one's way, one must be in the business of protecting it or else everything you describe so well above ensues- regardless of one being religious or not....

  5. For some time now I've been composing in the back of my head an essay - "The 10 top reasons I feel uncomfortable in Church". I think this post (and the one before, about Sara Miles) are helping me to see more clearly what my problem(s) are, and they are based on the effort to box in (hold, possess, control).

    As one with a terminal illness, I find myself getting very resistant (violent?) toward the various platitudes that are offered to me … from "you'll be in a better place"(as if life is horrible) to "FIGHT for yourself, you can live as long as you want to" (as if death is the ultimate enemy). I feel as if I'm forever coming up against the fear of death, and finding my own way through this tangled mess of fear and control (both in myself and in others). I love this way of ECCENTRICITY. What you are calling openness and surrender, I am calling emptiness and nothingness. And then life/death begins opening up …


  6. Emptiness and nothingness are words that do have contact with the Christian mystical and contemplative tradition. And regardless as to the terms, as you note, the posture toward life and death--openness and surrender--is the critical spiritual issue.

  7. Beth, I do so much appreciate your comments. They are so honest and powerful, and you state your suffering in a most beautiful way. I, personally, have silently screamed many times, "I wish everyone would stop giving me answers!!!!!". I need the silence that births the whisper of God, even when God has to step around and push aside some of sins to get to my ear.

  8. Richard, thanks again for a fine and thought-provoking (as well as understanding-suggesting) post. When teaching Genesis I used to show a clip from the movie Titanic, where Jack is dining in 1st class, there is a nice short scene where Jack admits having won his ticket and the toffs suggest: "All life is a game of chance." and "A real man makes his own luck." and Jack replies that life is a gift. The two toffs present worldviews that are very common in contemporary Western society, Jack presents a more biblical view - I think.

  9. I think you're right in clarifying that, Richard. It is the posture, not the words. And openness to whatever really does turn one into a different direction than certainty. It's almost breathtakingly freeing. Beyond not-knowing and way beyond agnosticism.

  10. Dear Richard, I would like to hear your own opinion about the following paradox.

    Calvinists believe that God bound people to sin and that they had absolutely no other choice.

    If this were true, I would feel a deep compassion for criminals and view them as victims instead of as culpable.

    Yet convinced Calvinists tend to be the most heinous fundamentalists one could ever imagine.

    They passionately defend eternal hellfire and brimstone even if they know that the doomed people could not have chosen otherwise.

    How do you explain this paradox?

    To my mind, consistent Calvinists are similar to Nazi Germans supporting their Fuehrer.

  11. That's a pretty strong formulation and I'd be hesitant to use it with Calvinist friends.

    But I do get where you are coming from. I have a great antipathy for Calvinism. More, to be sure, with its cruder and popular manifestations than with the very best theologians within the Calvinist tradition.

    The consolation I find is that most Calvinists don't seem to act on their beliefs. Functionally, they often behave that Calvinism isn't true. They tend to act as if they had free will. They tend to assume everyone at their church is one of the elect. Etc. I find Calvinist theology oddly disjointed from how most Calvinists actually live. Which is a hopeful thing in my estimation.

  12. Most
    Calvinists live like Arminians (they hold themselves and others responsible for
    their actions). And most Arminians pray like Calvinists (they submit their
    requests to the will of God).

    From chapt. 5 of The Jesus Manifesto, Sweet and Viola

  13. I'm interested in exploring Becker more. Which of his books would you recommend? Or which to read first perhaps...

  14. I am interested in how TMT syncretizes (or not) with Mimetic Theory? They seem to be trudging over similar ground.

  15. They both try to get at the psychological roots of violence. Mimetic Theory, obviously, says violence comes from mimetic rivalry. Becker and TMT would root the origins of violence and rivalry in anxiety, mainly survival/death and existential/death anxiety.

  16. You have to grapple with what I'll call the "fundamentalist's quandary," which is the question of how much eccentricity can be tolerated without becoming non-Christian? Where do you draw the line and why? If you don't draw a line, what value is it to say you are a Christian?

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