Believing in God Non-Defensively

This week with an interlocutor I was describing the relationship between my books The Authenticity of Faith and The Slavery of Death. Specifically, I see those two books as my attempt to address, for myself, what I've always struggled with as a central question my own faith journey: How can my belief in God be held non-defensively, non-neurotically and non-violently?

Pulling from my books, last spring I summarized my answer to that question in a post, but I want to share that summary again for both my conversation partner and because what follows is, in a condensed form, my best answer to what I consider to be one of the most pressing questions facing people of faith and faith communities: How can our beliefs in God can be held non-defensively, non-neurotically and non-violently?

To start, the non-violent part might need some explaining.

In both The Authenticity of Faith and The Slavery of Death I work through the case made by Ernest Becker, a case supported by the empirical work of 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.

By and large all that is a good thing as our neurotic pursuit of significance and meaning 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. Consequently, people and cultures who don't share the values that undergird 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.

In this we see how neurotic defense mechanisms can become the fount of out-group hostility and violence.

Which brings us back to the question: given that 1) religion sits at the heart of our cultural worldview and 2) these worldviews are often being driven by neurotic death anxiety and 3) this anxiety makes us violent, how can we believe in God non-neurotically and non-violently?

As I framed the question in The Slavery of Death, in the words of Hebrews 2.14-15 how can our faith be emancipated from the "power of the devil" that is rooted in our "slavery to the fear of death"?

In The Authenticity of Faith my argument was 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, as I describe in The Authenticity of Faith, there is a cost to be paid for this 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 will 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. And I think the dynamics between the hospitality/anxiety tradeoff is one of the most significant insights I've ever had. But in many ways this isn't a very satisfactory ending place.

Specifically, while doubt may be a prerequisite of tolerance--by creating an openness toward difference--doubt doesn't infuse the experience of faith with feelings of joy, gratitude and transcendence. A lot of doubting Christians get stuck, spiritually spinning their wheels (e.g., they don't know if they are Christians or agnostics) or emotionally suffering because of the excessive cognitive rumination (often to the point of clinical depression) that accompanies doubt.

So in many ways The Slavery of Death is a sequel to The Authenticity of Faith in trying to retain openness toward others by re-situating the provisionality of belief in a way that allows joy and gratitude to replace the neurosis and cognitive rumination associated with doubt.

If you've read The Slavery of Death you know the crux of the argument I make in how to connect the provisionality and openness of belief with gratitude and joy (as opposed to doubt and cognitive rumination): 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 the faith community comes to 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 always approaching to us from outside the boundaries of the faith community. God comes to us as the stranger. The faith community is always pursuing God outside of herself. And this expectant searching keeps us looking for God in the world and in the Other. This is a Matthew 25 orientation. A Road to Emmaus orientation. A Good Samaritan orientation.

Hospitality, then, is rooted less in doubt than in eccentricity, in the outward-facing expectation of gift. Cognitive rumination is replaced with the capacity to become "surprised by joy," to borrow from C.S. Lewis. Instead of being trapped in your head you're opened up. 

This, in my estimation, is 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 a gift. You can't be dogmatic about gifts.

And you can't violently protect a gift you don't possess, especially gifts that are received as manna, as a grace that is received anew over and over, day after day.

Manna is gathered each day with joy and gratitude. Grace is a gift that cannot be hoarded and stockpiled.

We cannot own manna. We can only receive it.

And that moment by moment posture of openness, expectation and thanksgiving reduces our neurotic and violent fear that grace can be lost, damaged, broken or taken away from us.

It cannot.

So we look into the eyes of strangers with expectation and joy, looking to discover the gift of a brother and a sister. We open our hands and heart to the Bread of Heaven to be gathered anew each day.

Like Jesus, it is this posture of open handedness that makes us relaxed, joyful, grateful, and peaceful.

This is the grace, the "good transcendence," that makes us non-anxious and non-violent.

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