Death and Doctrine, Part 1: The Need for Ante-Mortum Salvific Self-Verification

In this blog I've written a great deal about the relationship between death and doctrine. Mainly, I've been critical of what I call thanatocentric ('death centered") belief systems. My concerns have been twofold.

First, I've been very critical of thanatocentric soteriological schemes. In thanatocentric soteriologies one's moral status (saved versus damned) is defined at the death event. But given that we all start off in different moral climates and that death is an arbitrary event, our moral development is randomly truncated in a way that calls thanatocentric soteriologies into question. I've illustrated this in what I call the Cartesian Race. Eric Fromm perhaps said it best: "The tragedy in the life of most of us is that we die before we are fully born."

Second, I've also been concerned with how death pushes around religious belief. This analysis comes from the existential perspectives that infuse my online book Freud's Ghost. Specifically, existential thinkers have asserted that we deploy ideological worldviews to imbue life with significance and meaning. More concretely, these worldviews allow us to proceed with existential equanimity in the face of death. In short, the prospect of death is continually threatening to nullify all our workaday strivings. With death looming we are continually faced with the nihilistic worm at the core of existence: "What's the point?"

But this analysis isn't just a coffeehouse musing, over a decade of replicated empirical research has shown that worldviews (routes to meaning and significance) are explicitly involved in death repression and transcendence. And this story has a dark side. Given that our worldviews are existentially vital, we react hostilely when our worldview gets poked, prodded, or attacked. In short, much of the ideological violence in the world today can be traced back to death concerns. The conflict between fundamentalist Christians in America and fundamentalist Muslims in the Middle East is overtly about ideologies and worldviews, but covertly the issue is about death. Both groups have worldviews in place that allow for death transcendence (i.e., being saved/favored by God or Allah at the death event) but the mere existence of the other calls each worldview into question. Who has the correct vision here? It is a question that is an existential bomb. It's a question that suggests that our cherished worldviews might be arbitrary human constructions. And if that's the case then death fears surge into the mind as we contemplate the purpose and meaning of our existence.

If you read me a lot, this is all review. What I want to do in a few post is just make some ancillary comments and observations about things I've been thinking about lately.

So, my first observation: The anxiety and emotion involved in doctrinal debates.

I am a member of the Churches of Christ. If you don't know us we have an ecclesial tradition of a cappella worship. Voices only, no instruments allowed. At its best, this is a rich and amazing worship tradition. See the recent The Ascending Voice conversation hosted at Pepperdine University.

But this tradition also has a dark side. Specifically, the Churches of Christ formally broke with the Disciples of Christ in 1906 over, along with many other issues, the use of instruments in worship.

The issue of a cappella worship continues to be a hot button issue in the Churches of Christ. More progressive Churches of Christ are increasingly seeing the issue as a non-issue while more conservative churches consider this to be an issue of Ultimate importance, that to worship with an instrument will incur God's wrath and send you to hell.

Now, as a psychologist I'm not going to weigh in on this debate. I'll let the preachers of the Church of Christ work this one out. Rather, what I'd like to do, as a case study, is to analyze the psychological dynamics at work in this debate.

My interest in this case was piqued when I saw a blog post blow up on my friend (and preacher) Mike Cope's blog. In the post Mike writes about the progressive/conservative split about our a cappella tradition. And the post (as other posts before it on this topic) proceeds to blow up with over 250+ comments.

For a psychologist the comments to this and related posts are rich in data. Many of you might be interested in reading them out of anthropological curiosity. As I read the comments my overwhelming response was the degree of defensiveness in the conversation. Doctrinal positions were locked in and immovable. Reason is absent and emotions run hot.

When a psychologist sees behavior like this we think of one thing: Defense Mechanism.

For example, let's say we have this exchange:

Scenario A:
Me: "Sam, you need to quit smoking."
Sam (thoughtfully, ruefully): "I know. It's just hard."

Is Sam being defensive? No. Sam is calm and thoughtful. Open to conversation. Compare that with this exchange:

Scenario B:
Me: "Sam, you need to quit smoking."
Sam (angrily): "Who are you to talk! You're not so healthy yourself."

Is Sam being defensive? Yes, yes he is.

The point is that when you look at the blowups on Mike's blog you don't see Scenario A. You see Scenario B. Lots and lots of defensiveness.

So what is going on? Why so much defensiveness? Well, here is my analysis in light of what we know about death anxiety buffers:

Death is a terrifying prospect. This is exacerbated if one also believes there is a hell of never-ending torment. Thus, faith, belief and doctrine begin to cluster around defining the Saved versus the Lost. If the church is our lifeboat then we become very invested in making a clear demarcation between church and non-church. I need very clear lines in the sand so that I can self-verify, over and over, that I'm on the right "side."

That is, I think the need for ante-mortum salvific self-verification is at the root of many doctrinal disputes. Let me unpack this. If my faith is thanatocentric then faith becomes fundamentally about where I stand at the moment of death. Am I with the saved or with the lost? How can I tell? Well, you can tell by drawing ecclesial lines in the sand and then check--self-verify--where you stand. And you keep checking, almost daily, because death can come at any moment. Faith becomes a kind of obsessive-compulsive salvation check: Am I in? Yes, I'm in. Am I in? Yes, I'm in. Am I in? Yes, I'm in. Doctrine becomes about existential self-soothing.

Back to our case study. In my tradition, being saved was defined by being a member of the Churches of Christ. And one of the defining features of that church was non-instrumental music. For better or worse, that issue became a means of ante-mortum salvific self-verification. But what happens, as is currently being done in progressive Churches of Christ, if that line in the sand starts getting rubbed out? Blurred? Well, you start robbing people of a mechanism for existential self-soothing. You've taken away an existential security blanket. If you start rubbing out all those lines of demarcation how can you tell who is or who is not going to hell? More vitally, how can I tell if I'm going to hell? That's the real issue. Where do I currently stand? Saved or Lost?

In short, in my diagnosis, the defensiveness of these debates trace back to death concerns. The issue isn't really about doctrine at all. It's about existential comfort. And if you poke at a defensive mechanism you'll see the anxiety shoot through the roof.

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15 thoughts on “Death and Doctrine, Part 1: The Need for Ante-Mortum Salvific Self-Verification”

  1. "It's about existential comfort."

    This is so true and I also think that progressives should also remember that many are not just concerned with their own eternal fate but others.

    I've been wondering lately what would a conservative Christian parent rather hear about a son or daughter, that he is harboring a nasty heroin addiction and has fathered a couple of kids and left them, or is trying to live the life of Christ but doesn't believe 'insert salvific verification'.

  2. Connor,
    That is a good point. A drug addiction is about THEM. But, according to my post, a doctrinal dispute is about ME. Thus, I'd predict the following. Negative affect will be involved in each case. However, feelings of worry and fear associated with a drug issue has the great potential to be healthy and lead to increased relationship as we rally around the struggling child. By contrast, the worry and fear of the doctrinal dispute, being of a defensive variety, will be more neurotic, divisive and very much less likely to lead to greater intimacy. Families break up over this stuff.

  3. Yes, this makes a lot of sense to me. One question though, about whether or not I am saved. When I start making a list about whether or not certain "things" makes me saved or not am I not making salvation a matter of what "I" do rather than what Christ has done at the cross? In other words, why does the church of Christ say the sacrifice of Christ is a "free" gift, and that when Christ died he died when we were yet sinners, and then turn around and say it is invalid when we mess up on little matters like worship styles??? Why would God forgive my adultery but not my worship style?

    Why do we spend so much time worrying about whether we are in or out, when we know that Christ died for us to be in. So to make such lists, means we are doubting the blood of Christ??? Just wondering...

  4. Richard,

    I've long believed that a good indication of whether my faith is healthy can be answered by whether it motivates me to take in a wider swath of the world--larger concerns, more perspectives, bigger possibilities--or a narrower swath of the world. Does it make me "bigger" or "smaller," spiritually?

    You post seems to lend support to that view.



  5. I appreciate the post-- I have expressed that there is a difference between a faith in the Church of Christ versus a faith in Jesus Christ.

    Borrowing from you, the ante-mortum salvific self-verification comes by way of a tangible relationship rather than adherence to a doctinal system.

    I think that was the tenor of Paul's preaching; hence, he was often defending himself from accusations of preaching licentiousness.

  6. An additional aspect of this phenomenon is our fixation on (robust understanding of?) the eschatological salvation. We want to be assured that we'll be okay when we cross over into the next life.

    I, on the other hand, seem to be on the other side. I seek salvific self-verification for my life on THIS side of the death of my mortal body. Perhaps the same mechanisms are at work (the desire to be on the right side of the line in the sand), but for some reason I don't feel as silly as those thanatocentrists!

    But, I wonder if the finality of Hell or Heaven (since we've typically believe you get one or the other for all eternity) doesn't amplify some of the anxiety about doctrine and so on for those fixated on the after life...

  7. I believe that some believe that instrumentmental music in worship is a salvation issue. What I don't undstand is that if the church of Christ wants to fall a so called "pattern" then all churches need to be autonomous of each other. Different leadership. You don't see the Corithians telling the Romans what to do. Or Ephesians what they need to do. Each were autonomous of each other. We need to do the same today. Mind our own business. If one church has instuments understand that is up to the leadership of that Church. I hope and pray this issue will disolve. I hope and pray that we will above all things love one another.
    I hope and pray that the Church of Christ in the future will become more emergent and mission minded. God help us to one as you are one and to love one another that the world will see that we are your disciples.
    Great post brother.
    Keep it up.
    I have added your blog to my favorities.

  8. If we see death as the event that fixes one's fate in concrete, aren't we giving it far more power than is warranted? The only event that sealed anybody's destiny did so 2000 years ago.

    Christ's ressurrection defeated death as a proof of concept; at some future point its permanent destruction is absolutely assured. God will not allow death to lock men into a permanently hopeless state. Christ having died for all, ultimately all men will be reconciled to God, whether in this life or the next. This is the forgotten faith of Christians who faced death in the arena. History records the optimistic "universalism" of our early church fathers, for any who care to look back to the first three centuries.

    If our doctrinal squabbles reveal a desperation to "do death right," perhaps the real problem is that we have already gotten the other side of death wrong.

  9. I left the Church of Christ for an independent Christian church of the Restoration Movement. I felt led to go there, but I felt anxiety over the instrumental music, the way the church spent some of its money, that women sometimes pray and sing before the congregation, and our annual Christmas program. Over time my anxiety was relieved as I came to realize that my salvation did not depend on these practices.

    I still feel anxiety, though, when I encounter people I knew in the CoC. I sense in them genuine desire to see me right with the Lord, and that the way to do that is to return to the CoC and its beliefs. These doctrinal issues create an us/them divide, and I'm now part of the "them." I remember the secure feeling, when I was in the CoC, of having all our doctrinal ducks in a row. Not only could I check these salvation-assured items off the list, it was comforting to associate with others whose lists were checked just the same.

    In the end, I realized that I was looking to doctrinal adherence and identification with other Christians to be sure of my salvation -- and not to God alone. It is uncomfortable and sometimes frightening to take the steps toward God alone. But in so doing, I have ceased to worry about my salvation. As I hear the holy spirit guiding me and see God at work in my life, I have no reason to doubt.

    But I still don't participate in the Christmas program.

  10. I've always thought it would be interesting to have a psychological and/or sociological analysis of the restoration movement. My contention through the years is that most belief systems in any denomination are culturally imbibed rather than biblically derive.

    Do you know of any good books that have been written that make this attempt, specifically on the restoration movement?

    I continue to enjoying reading your blog even though I don't always join the discussion.


  11. Richard
    On a seperate topic, but one you may be interested. There are links to videos of talks given at Harvard Divinity School on their theology and evolution project. Some really good stuff.

    Here is the link to the entire list of topics... you have to browse a bit to find the evolution ones.

  12. Roxanne,
    That is a great point. The CoC has, historically, been tempted by a "works-based" righteousness. The worship issue really boils down to the issue of grace in our fellowship.

    I think that is exactly right. I like to see faith as "conversation" and "dialogue" (which fits in with my last series), which is an expansive notion. I like a curious faith. I like to know what God is up to with you, whoever you may be.

    It is interesting how Jesus and Paul dealt with issues similar to the CoC worship debates. Jesus was involved in squabbles about Sabbath keeping and Paul with circumcision. Both were tangible boundary markers of Ingroup vs. Outgroup.

    That's really the worst part of this, the practical fallout. Too much of Christian life is about saving my own skin and attacking people whom I feel are jeopardizing my "status." It's really depressing.

    I agree. Grace is scary. We can only tolerate diversity if we trust in God's grace. Otherwise we'll want to control our own destinies which causes us to control those who disagree with us.

    I can't agree more. Paul said, "Death where is your victory, where is your sting?" But if you look around at most Christian churches death still retains its awful power.

    It is interesting how we never shed our ecclesial DNA. Although I don't think there is anything wrong with instrumental worship I just prefer a cappella. It's how I grew up.

    I agree. How can we not be influenced by our times and circumstance? I have not read much Restoration history as of late. The books I know of that get close to the issues here (but you may have read these already) are Leonard Allen's Distant Voices and Discovering Our Roots.

    Thanks so much for the link! I found the talk but haven't yet got to listen to it. But the people involved are spectacular. It will be interesting to see where this conversation goes in the years to come. Could Christianity and evolution become partners?

  13. I think you're right.

    By the way, unless you object, I'd like to add your blog feed to the Blogdigger aggregator for blogs by members of Churches of Christ. If you're not familiar with the group, you can see it here:

    Once your feed has been added, your new posts should begin appearing within 24 hours. Peace.

  14. I prefer a capella, too. I miss the powerful singing I enjoyed and offered when I was in the CoC. But God is teaching me important things where I am now -- even through the accompanied music.

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