Barbara, Stanley and Andrea: Thoughts on Love, Training and Social Psychology at ACU's Summit

ACU's Summit conference continues today. On Monday we had Barbara Brown Taylor on campus. Yesterday, Stanley Hauerwas was with us.

And important to me, and the thrust of this post, on Monday my former graduate student Andrea was also visiting. Andrea and I got to go together to Barbara Brown Taylor's sessions and afterward I reflected a bit about how Stanley Hauerwas, due up, would have responded to her presentations. I also sketched out with Andrea how I fuse and use these two very different Christian thinkers--Barbara and Stanley--in my own faith journey.

And the bridge between these two--Barbara and Stanley--is Andrea.

Well, not Andrea exactly, but what Andrea will represent in this conversation: social psychology.

Specifically, during our time together on campus Andrea was catching me up on her doctorate research. Right now Andrea is planning to look at attributions of hypersexuality to out-group members. Throughout history, stigmatized out-group members have been viewed as excessively sexual. For example, historically Whites have viewed Black males as hypersexualized and, thus, have been fearful of Black men sexually preying upon White women.

In another example, the gay population has often been stigmatized as hypersexualized. I recall a conversation I had many years ago with a colleague who was a sociologist. He asked me point blank, "You're a psychologist, so maybe you can tell me. Isn't gay sex just about the sex?" You can see the assumption behind his question: gays are non-relational and hypersexualized, interested in "just the sex."

(Incidentally, if you want to know how I answered my colleague's question, I cocked my head and said, "Well, I actually think most heterosexual sex is just about the sex.")

Why are out-group members often stigmatized as hypersexualized? Andrea has been looking into the dehumanization literature. One hypothesis is that out-group members are often dehumanized, viewed as less-than-human, subhuman, and therefore more bestial, atavistic and animalistic. If we go on to associate unrestrained or undisciplined sex with animals then, in the process of dehumanization, we'll be prone to attribute hypersexuality to out-group members.

I bring up Andrea's research on out-group stigmatization and dehumanization to illustrate the links I see between Barbara Brown Taylor and Stanley Hauerwas.

As theologians, Barbara and Stanley are very, very different. Consequently, they created a sort of theological whiplash by presenting on back to back days.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a wonderful spokesperson for progressive and liberal Christianity. In her sermon on Monday she gave us a beautiful and breath-taking vision of religious pluralism, how God blesses us through religious strangers. As Melchizedek, a Canaanite priest of "the God Most High," blesses Abraham, God comes to us in the words and actions of Muslims, Buddhists and atheists.

And in her afternoon session Barbara spoke approvingly of the longings of those who are "spiritual but not religious," stating that those who have rejected organized religion are prophets, seekers who have left the deadness of organized religion to find a "more authentic experience of God."

Basically, what we heard from Barbara Brown Taylor is what you'd expect to hear from progressive and liberal Christians: a pluralistic and inclusive vision of the love of God.

And I loved it. Barbara Brown Taylor described, with her soaring poetry, a vision of Christianity that took my breath away.

So that was Barbara.

Then came Stanley.

Goodness, Stanley's vision couldn't have been more different than Barbara's. Where Barbara described a pluralistic vision--people of all sort of faiths and unfaiths welcoming and loving each other--Stanley embraced the adjectives "exclusivist" and "sectarian."

Why? Because becoming a Christian, according to Stanley, takes discipline and training in a counter-cultural lifestyle. Where Barbara embraced the "spiritual but not religious" crowd Stanley was dismissive, considering that impulse to be both "sentimental" and a capitulation to the very worst impulses of American consumerism and liberalism. I like how Stanley framed the issue in a morning session. He said, "It's interesting to note, when you ask Christian parents about how they are raising their children, how they will state that they are raising their kids with the goal that when they get older they can 'make up their own minds' about if they want to be a Christian."

"But it never occurs to these Christian parents," Stanley continued, "to raise their children so that when they grow up they can make up their minds about if they want to be an American. Because that--being an American--is never questioned. It's a given."

Basically, if we're going to resist Empire in its late-modern liberal and capitalistic manifestations then, well, we're going to need a Christianity with a bit more backbone.

And just like I did with Barbara, I cheered Stanley. I agree with him.

But how could that be? How can I agree with both Barbara and Stanley given the enormous theological differences between them?

Enter Andrea and social psychology.

When it comes to the big vision stuff, I go with Barbara Brown Taylor. I embrace the big-hearted, inclusive vision of Christian love, welcome and hospitality. I believe that God is love and that the one who loves, in the words of 1 John, knows God. Love is how you know God. Full stop. That's what I believe and that makes me sort of liberal.

And yet, I agree wholeheartedly with Stanley Hauerwas that this liberal vision is prone to sentimentality, superficiality and self-absorption. For many liberals Christianity reduces to tolerance. And tolerance is a far, far cry from the sacrificial, kenotic self-donation that marks the Way of Jesus.

That sort of love involves training, discipline and sacrifice.

And why is that?

Because of Andrea's research.

The trouble with Barbara Brown Taylor's vision is that the beauty of her poetic preaching and writing can hide the ugly truths of social psychology, how, as Andrea's research highlights, we are chronically dehumanizing others. Liberals and conservatives alike. In face of all the social suspicion, hostility, ostracization and violence in the world--from ISIS to the streets of Ferguson--"spiritual but not religious" isn't going to cut it. The cruciform love of Jesus is extraordinarily difficult. It involves discipline, training and communal accountability.

Consider this as well. In her talk about her most recent book Learning to Walk in the Dark Barbara Brown Taylor shared some of the riches from the Christian contemplative tradition, from St. John of the Cross to Teresa of Ávila. And I expect most of the "spiritual but not religious" crowd in the audience ate up this contemplative, mystical material.

But here's the deal. The fruits of the Christian contemplative tradition come from the monastics. Let me repeat that: the monastics. These were people whose knees bled because of how long they knelt in prayer.

You know what we'd call that?

Discipline. Training.

The Christian contemplative tradition is a severe, monastic tradition. Too many progressive and liberal Christians read someone like St. John of the Cross or Thomas Merton as if he were Joel Olsteen. An undemanding and consumeristic contemplation that is inspirational, affirming and motivational. Go you! This is a contemplation for spiritual but not religious people too busy to kneel in prayer, let alone long enough to cause those knees to callous or bleed.

But you know what? While I agree with Stanley's call for a training in Christianity he didn't make my soul sing. He didn't give me a vision of Jesus. Stanley gave me a sense of what it would take to be like Jesus, the effort involved given the social psychological dynamics at work in my heart, but he didn't give me a vision of Jesus. Barbara gave me that.

And that's the source of my critique of Stanley Hauerwas: How the preeminent theologian of the Christian virtue tradition so rarely talks about love.

All told, then, this is how I made sense of the first two days of Summit. Barbara gave me that big-hearted loving vision of Jesus. And Stanley reminded me that this vision is prone to superficiality and sentimentality. Which is extraordinarily dangerous given the social psychological dynamics at work in how we instinctively dehumanize each other.

Love is no easy thing in light of the psychological obstacles at work in every human heart. Every human heart. Love takes discipline, training and community.

Basically, Barbara (liberalism) needs Stanley (training) because of Andrea (social psychology).

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22 thoughts on “Barbara, Stanley and Andrea: Thoughts on Love, Training and Social Psychology at ACU's Summit ”

  1. Hooray! that was a hugely helpful and impacting summary!
    My sincere thanks for taking the time to describe and explain it all.
    I can see why you felt like you had whiplash!

  2. Thanks Richard for articulating what I’ve been feeling about
    liberals/conservatives for the past 15 years.
    There is definitely a tension to be aware of and Jesus also presents
    that dynamic also in the 4 gospels. I
    guess I can’t be comfortable with any system of thought or theology…anyway it
    seems that Stan is hard on himself and others at least that is in his book
    Hannah’s Child. I know Barb’s type of
    books are big sellers vrs. The discipline kind.

  3. Does anyone know of any biographies of folks that have
    combined the traits that Barb and Stan have laid out.

  4. From history I like Thérèse of Lisieux. Her mystical vision of the Little Way is about being love ("My vocation is love."), and she expressed that love even for outsiders like atheists. She felt a particular affinity for atheists. But the practice of the Little Way is the daily ascetical discipline of putting up and approaching with love the most difficult people in our lives. That combination--huge inclusive vision of love combined with daily ascetial disciplines to open and soften our hearts--is what energizes me.

    Beyond Thérèse I also look to Dorothy Day: radical hospitality combined with monastic and ascetical discipline.

    But for a more modern take, I really like Sara Miles. See her book Take This Bread. It's a great meditation on inclusion and love but it also shares about the daily and mundane interpersonal discipline required to make and sustain this vision.

    And, of course, there is St. Francis of Assisi.

  5. "But it never occurs to these Christian parents," Stanley continued, "to raise their children so that when they grow up they can make up their minds about if they want to be an American. Because that--being an American--is never questioned. It's a given."

    What is his point here? I view this as a valid criticism of how we approach national identity. I, by accident of birth, was born in the United States, and therefore posses citizenship. But it is no longer a part of my identity, nor will I raise my son to see it as such. I suspect this was not his point though....

  6. His point is that our American identity is more fundamental than our Christian identity. For most Christians in the US our root and base identity is as an American first and as a Christian second. Consequently, when the two come into conflict we'll side with the nation rather than with Christ.

    Think: Nazi Germany.

  7. I'm familiar with Richard Rohr. And he's been powerfully impactful for many of my friends.

    But I have a confession. I have trouble reading Richard Rohr. He uses a lot of "psychology" but his psychology is often spacey and New agey and I always trip up on that.

  8. Ah. So do I understand you correctly that it was more of a criticism of not applying the same standard to national identity, than of applying the standard to religion identity?

  9. When you talk about training, the first thing I think about is Luther's Small Catechism (since that's the tradition that I grew up in).
    How do we train the brains and the hearts?
    How do we train the fundamentals of Christianity and balance the legalism that sometimes occurs when we use "God's Standards" with the command and call to Love God and Love Neighbor? How do we "train" people to Love?

  10. This is agreat. I wish I could pack you in my suitcase every time I go to a religious conference so when it came time to analyze everything we heard with a group over dinner, we could get your take on it! :-)

    That was kind of a weird comment.

    You know what I mean.

  11. Well, gays, at least in the past, did have a hypersexualized culture. This may have changed post-AIDS and the first people out of the closet may have been unrepresentative of those with same sex desires more generally. But even today, gay men do have somewhat more sex partners on average than straight men.

    Similarly, black men have quite a few more sex partners on average than white men, though IIRC black women are not significantly different than white women.

    Have you looked at Lee Jussim's work on stereotype accuracy? As a psychology professor, surely you must know of it.

  12. I work in the realm of children and have contemplated the tension between the two for years. So much of how I was spiritual reared in the Fundamentalist Baptist branch was focused on training the head - as if we could be jammed with enough Bible verses, proof texts, arguments to assure us that to not choose Christianity was stupid. When I converted to Islam, I explained it this way - "Christianity says, you have to do all these rule, but don't forget Jesus loves you. Islam isn't confusing - just do the rules." I just couldn't reconcile the rules with the mantra of Jesus died on the cross. After a number of years, I did manage to break from the vortex of my upbringing and recognize the narrative of Creation, Redemption and Parousia as a more accurate representation of the Christian Faith.

  13. Of course, this also helps explain why those who are celibate are such a confusing "other" both within the church and the culture.

  14. Richard, Another
    quick question if I may…What writings of Hauerwas would be similar to what he
    said during his talk..Peaceable Kingdom, Resident Aliens or something
    altogether different. thanks

  15. Outstanding. It made me think of something I read this week in Susan Cain's "Quiet", about how American culture has replaced the goal of having a strong character with the goal of having a winning personality. I wonder how much of our sense that Huerwas doesn't talk about love is because we moderns confuse love with feeling...

  16. As a Jesus-following social psychologist, "Hear, hear!" Good luck and best wishes to Andrea in her studies!

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