Death and Doctrine, Part 3: Scared Christians

Given the prospect of death, many Christians seek knowledge and certainty in the face of their finitude. It never ceases to amaze me just how confident Christians can appear in their pronouncements, assertions, and judgments. And my knee-jerk reaction is always, "Really? How can you possibly know that?"

This is not to say that we cannot make passionate judgments. It is just that, at the end of the day, we recognize that faith involves doubt, risk, and courage. No Christian can claim to know anything. We believe a great deal. But we don't know.

And yet, when you listen to many Christians, you get the sense that, for some, belief is sliding toward knowledge. The reason seems clear: Belief is risky and knowledge is comforting.

What I'm saying is that dogmatism is a symptom of fear. To be dogmatic--to know--is existentially comforting. There is no doubt. No risk. No possibility that you could be wrong. And that has got to feel good. Very comforting. Soothing.

The trouble is, this fear makes you a terrible conversation partner. Before we even begin to converse you already know all the answers. And if I do start making some good points, poking holes in your comforting worldview, you get defensive and shut the conversation down.

If what I'm saying is true, the world is filled with scared Christians. And I've personally seen the fear on their faces. I've been conversing with people when I've made a point or observation that powerfully hits at their dogmatic worldview. And you can literally see the flicker of fear move across their face. They sense that you've just wiggled something deep within their worldview. Something foundational MOVED. Not by much. But it moved. And that scares them.

Have you not seen this yourself in your encounters with dogmatic Christians?

At this point, when the fear emerges, the person has a choice to make. Do I continue to go forward, knowing that my dogmatic house may crash down around me? Knowing that I might have a long and difficult journey ahead of me? Or do I retreat? Do I back away in fear, protecting my faith as it stands?

Existential psychologists have long framed the choice like this: Will you face the existential challenge with its accompanying anxieties or will you retreat and live with illusions?

At the end of the day, faith is risky. Faith implies a potential for failure. But risk and failure do not shut out the anxieties. So we pretend--living with illusions--that faith is risk free and that success is guaranteed. We trade in an authentic faith a security blanket. (And then proceed to act like a dogmatic jerk to all potential conversation partners.)

These thoughts remind me again of my recent readings from Tillich. Some final thoughts from Tillich:

"The element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted. And the element in faith which accepts this is courage."

"Where there is daring and courage there is the possibility of failure. And in every act of faith this possibility is present. The risk must be taken."

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18 thoughts on “Death and Doctrine, Part 3: Scared Christians”

  1. Traditionally, at least for Protestants, faith isn't quite synonymous with existential trust. I like existential trust as a way of talking about faith, in this I am with Neibuhr and Tillich. I think it is better than propositional belief, which is another popular alternative for how to define faith, but we haven't quite gotten the entire picture with either of these words.

    That is because faith isn't really something based in ourselves. It is not a possession we have, it is something given to us. I am reminded of Tillich who once said to a man who told him he'd lost his faith, "Whatever gave you the idea it was yours to lose?"

    Therefore, while I definitely encourage people to take the route you describe, to embrace doubt and uncertainty with courage - I don't necessarily agree that there is no such thing as knowledge coming out of faith. It may be given to us, as it was to the original disciples and Paul and perhaps many others throughout Christian history, to know Jesus Christ directly. We can't count on it, and we ought not to claim it if we don't have it, but I wouldn't rule it out.

  2. Hi Aric,
    I see that point. As a psychologist my next question would be: Can we discern, as third party observers (and my modernism is showing here), differences in the kinds of believers we are discussing?

    I think we both grant that some people believe out of existential comfort. In my analysis, the (unconsciously) scared dogmatists.

    And let's grant that, via God's grace, another person can have something that we might call "knowing." Does this person look and act different than the first? If so, how? And why?

    You don't have to answer those questions. They are just the ones that came to my mind.

  3. Yeah, great questions, and I don't really have answers, but I would probably try to start somewhere with Paul's discussion of Fruits of the Spirit. Just as a gut reaction.

  4. Here's what I'm thinking. I think the second believer would be CALM and CURIOUS.

    Calm, because they aren't threatened. Curious, because they feel secure within themselves and, thus, are excited about the prospect of conversation and learning.

    This psychological stance would provide a platform/oppurtunity for the development for the Fruits. You can "grow" from this position. Kind of like being the "good soil" from Jesus's Sower parable.

  5. Hi, Richard.

    Do you happen to have references for the Tillich quotations at the bottom of your post?

    On this --

    We believe a great deal. But we don't know.

    --, I don't want to play a game of uncertainty one-up-manship, but I sometimes wonder whether what I have is even genuine belief. I'm not comfortable saying I believe. But I'm also not comfortable saying that I don't believe. When it comes to central items of my faith, I think what I have contains some, but not all, of the elements of genuine belief. It's a mess. (I guess I'm a messy "I believe; forgive thou my unbelief" kinda guy.)

    That said, I do agree with what Aric says here:

    While I definitely encourage people to take the route you describe, to embrace doubt and uncertainty with courage - I don't necessarily agree that there is no such thing as knowledge coming out of faith. It may be given to us, as it was to the original disciples and Paul and perhaps many others throughout Christian history, to know Jesus Christ directly.

    What belief or proto-belief I do have is due to (what I take to be) the meagre religious experience I've had. With more & better religious experience, I could be a genuine, non-problematic believer, and perhaps even a knower. For all I know, some others have had the kinds of experience that would enable them to know. Paul, for instance, is portrayed in Acts as having had really primo experiences, as I recall.

  6. Hi Keith,
    The quotes can be found here:

    F. Forrester Church (ed.) (1999). The Essential Tillich. University of Chicago Press. p. 22.

    The actual Tillich peice found there is: P. Tillich. (1957). The Dynamics of Faith. Harper & Row. pp. 1-29.

    Thinking though your comment I wonder if faith even fits into the epistemological categories of belief or knowledge (whatever those mean). How about this:

    Faith is the pursuit of authenticity via the lived commitment to an experience.

    That could be fleshed out a bit and made more specific, but it might be a good start at a better definition. That is, some of us (for reasons beyond our understanding) are trying to stay true to something that we have experienced. We can't justify it on epistemological grounds for it was a subjective, personal, and historical experience. It is both known AND believed in (trusted). So we have to stay true to it to maintain psychological integrity. To walk away from it would violate deep elements of our personhood. Thus, in the end, we own and pursue this experience. Exploring it as best we can in the pursuit of living authentically, being true to who we are. In a sense, we are witnesses. Maybe even reluctant witnesses.

  7. I like how Bruce Springsteen expressed it:

    Oh [church] that feeling of safety you prize,
    Well it comes at a hard, hard price;
    You can't shut out the risk and the pain,
    Without losing the love that remains.
    We're all riders on this train.

    -from Human Touch (with slight modification of lyrics on my part for needed application)


  8. Richard: It seems right to me that faith should be understood in a way that doesn't require knowledge or belief -- something along the lines of what you suggest seems better.

  9. Richard
    I think this movement to a definition of faith in terms of authenticity to an experience is helpful.

    I think your identification of "a subjective, personal, and historical experience," is true to the reality of our subjective commitments. Additionally, I think your highlighting that "We have to stay true to it to maintain psychological integrity. To walk away from it would violate deep elements of our personhood" is also very true from a psychological perspective. There are times where I find faith captivating my attention, even if if this pseudo obsession doesn't make much rational sense (especially if I ever hope to finish my PhD in a program that is not religious studies ... otherwise I may be distracted for ever).

    One concern with this notion of subjective experience is the role of power and evil in shaping this experience. In other words, we In other words, if I had grown up in Nazi Germany, my subjective experience to which I would attempt to remain true to may have been a philosophical commitment to developing a pure race. Thus, in this case, I would imagine that we could agree that it would be helpful to break through from this shaping experience, even though it would be psychologically difficult and perhaps not true to my authentic personhood. In other words, I think we need to have some sense of understanding when we need to break free of our shaping experiences and (when appropriate) shaping traditions.

    I have found Miroslav Volf's work to be helpful on these topics... on the shaping role of our traditions, and also the humility by which we must treat these commitments. His book "Exclusion and Embrace" is helpful in identifying the central role of embracing the other (over agreeing with the other) in shaping a peaceful and just society. With regards to this topic, I think his thoughts are helpful for how we develop humility in our convictions and do not feel like our faith needs the certainty of "knowledge," and also how we learn to understand others outside of our faith commitments.

  10. Hi All,

    I agree with the main thrust of Richard's post, but would like to introduce a qualifier a la William James: "...some justification of a feeling of security in the presence of the universe exists, and...systematically to refuse to cultivate a feeling of security would be to do violence to a tendency in one's emotional life which might well be respected as prophetic." (Preface to The Meaning of Truth in Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth, Harvard, p. 171) I'm sure that James did not mean to encourage unconsciously scared dogmatists with those words.

    But I want to emphasize my agreement with Richard by way of the same passage from James: The context leading up to the James quote just given epitomizes Richard's point in a way that can sicken a person to read a century later. (Sorry! But I think the passage deserves quoting in this context, despite the fact that it is so hard to read.)

    "I [W. James] offered this [pragmatic explanation of religious belief] as a conciliatory olive branch to my enemies. But they, as is only too common with such offerings, trampled the gift under foot and turned and rent the giver. I had counted too much on their good will--oh for the rarity of christian charity under the sun! Oh for the rarity of ordinary secular intelligence also. I had supposed it to be a matter of common observation... [etc.]"

    There is nothing else like this to be found in the entire work of WJ, whose good will and good nature were so evident to all that he was known as "St. James."

    I don't happen to agree with the larger point James was making about religion here (I think it is too limited). Yet I would rather have sided with him than with the so-called "Christians" who opposed him.

    So, preach it Richard!


  11. Jesus said that faith is produced through fasting and prayer.

    So maybe faith is something we develop by putting ourselves in spiritually vulnerable positions such as in fasting and prayer.

  12. It seems to me that a lot of people equate "faith" with "belief in the unbelievable". So then a test of faith involves being able to pronounce a belief in things that no one in the modern world would in other contexts ever take seriously. This only makes the whole problem of doubt more problematic, because in that case an essential tenet of faith is that which is incredible. The fear and the suppression of doubt is all the stronger.

    The easiest way to relieve that anxiety is simply to stop equating "faith" with a requirement of "belief in the unbelievable". Then faith becomes a matter of trust in something greater than one's self, something transcendent and awe-inspiring that orients one's life. The anxiety over doubt disappears because you stop worrying about the fact that you can't really, seriously believe that anyone was conceived by a virgin or walked on water or was raised from the dead. Those who insist that such things are necessary, essential tenets of faith are creating an unnecessary anxiety over doubt.

    I have lots of doubts myself. I have doubts about life after death. But I have no anxiety over it. Either there is life after death, or there isn't. Either way, it will sort itself out when I die.

  13. “--oh for the rarity of christian charity under the sun! Oh for the rarity of ordinary secular intelligence also. I had supposed it to be a matter of common observation...”

    Since we develop our beliefs from those around us in our own culture, there is reason to believe that not all that we “know” can be true even if it feels true and certain. We will experience cognitive dissonance when “common observation” casts doubt on these beliefs. To lessen the dissonance we elevate beliefs to dogma which is above questioning. Richard sees dogma as a sign of fear and I agree.

    I have been a born again Christian and am now an unbeliever. I can see this issue from both angles. As a Christian I was always certain of my beliefs. It took a series of “matters of common observation” to cause me to doubt my beliefs. Looking back, I must have known deep down that some of my beliefs were not consistent with reality because I used to pray to never turn against my faith. Why would I pray for something unless, at some level, I realized there was a possibility of it happening?

    I wonder if the subconscious plays a part in “knowing” what is real. Maybe the subconscious is the dissonant voice. (Read “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes for a thought provoking look at the evolution of human cognition.)

    If we have a somewhat silent, dissonant voice in our head, which we try to ignore, we may end up being dogmatic and doing nutty, destructive things to ourselves and others. I think we must heed James’ call for that rare Christian charity and the ordinary secular intelligence. This may help keep our beliefs from becoming dogma.

    Rick T.

  14. Jason,
    Great quote. Love the boss. And love his new album.

    I have Volf in a stack in my "to read" list. I just moved it to the top! Thanks.

    A pertinent William James quote is always welcome!

    I think faith can be "cultivated." My main concern is that the "cultivation" metaphor requires the correct "environment" for proper growth. And what kind of environment is the best environment to "cultivate" faith? For example, in some of my bible classes at church people think I shouldn't raise difficult questions as these questions don't "cultivate" faith. But is that so? I wonder.

    mystical seeker,
    I like that analysis. Today I've been thinking of the OT idea of faith as "fidelity,' sticking with the covenant come hell or high water.

    Rick T,
    Hey, a Julian Jaynes reference! That is a mind blowing book.

  15. Good stuff, Richard. I'm going to put a link to your blog on mine. It's not as deep, but I have fun with it.


    Lee Keele

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