Love and Death on the Road

In my Psychology and Christianity class here at ACU, we've been having some conversations about death anxiety and love. Those conversations reminded me about a post I wrote a few years ago (to follow and lightly edited), about about how my argument in The Slavery of Death intersects with The Road, Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

If you've not read The Road or seen the 2009 movie based upon the book, what follows is a quick summary highlighting the aspects of the plot that are relevant to the argument in The Slavery of Death. Spoiler alerts ahead.

The Road follows "the man" and "the boy"--a father and son--who are traveling down a road in a post-apocalyptic American wasteland. We're not sure what has happened, but everything is covered with ash and food no longer grows. Most of the book follows the man and the boy searching for canned goods as they pass through empty towns pushing a shopping cart carrying all their belongings. A couple of times in the book, because they cannot find food, they come to the edge of starvation.

Beyond starvation, the other danger the man and the boy face are roving bands of cannibals. Because of the food shortages it appears that humanity has taken one of two moral paths. The man and the boy call themselves "the good guys" because they have chosen not to resort to cannibalism in the face of starvation. However, some others--whom the man and the boy call "the bad guys"--have resorted to finding and keeping people for food sources. They even, it seems, use pregnant women as food sources to eat their babies.

Consequently, much of the suspense in The Road is the man and the boy trying to stay clear of or having encounters with the bad guys, the people who have turned to violence in enslaving others to use them as food. The man carries a revolver with a single bullet. He is saving it to kill the boy should he ever be taken by the bad guys. And he also shows the boy how to shoot himself so that, should the man ever die, the boy can kill himself if he is ever about to be captured. In The Road it is better to shoot your child rather than have them eaten. Or to have your child preemptively commit suicide.

Depressed yet? Clearly, The Road isn't a happy book.

With this much of the plot in hand, let's turn to to discuss why I consider The Road to be a sort of laboratory for the thesis of The Slavery of Death.

In The Slavery of Death I make the following argument. We are biological creatures prone to anxiety in the face of death. As animals we have to be concerned about our survival. This makes us selfish and self-interested. As I argue it in the book, this biological need and vulnerability exerts upon us a constant moral tug causing us to put our needs above the needs of others. It's this inclination that sits at the heart of our "sin problem." It's this tendency--rooted in basic survival anxiety--that causes us to be incurvatus in se (curved/turned inward upon the self).

In short, we are not intrinsically wicked. We are anxious. And that anxiety--the biological imperative to survive--is what causes us to become sinful in how we come to reduce human life to an animalistic, Darwinian game of survival.

Now, the argument of The Slavery of Death is that this basic survival anxiety can be overcome by love. Love can, in the words of 1 John, "cast out fear." Love can replace our selfish survival concerns with concern for others. We can, in love, "lay down our lives for others." Love transforms fearful animals into human beings. Instead of fear causing us to be incurvatus in se we can become excurvatus ex se, curved outward in love toward others.

But there is a problem with this formulation and I wonder if you noticed it when you read The Slavery of Death. Specifically, love is being built upon a very shaky moral foundation: the survival needs of a biological animal.

These were the issues we were discussing in my class.

Specifically, all this conversation about love is all well and good when we have enough food, clothing and shelter. After we have met our basic needs we can share our surpluses with others. But what happens in the limit case? What happens in the face of a Malthusian catastrophe when there is not enough food to go around? Will not all this high talk about love collapse in the face of massive biological need?

Stated starkly, is not love a sort of moral luxury? Something we can spare until life become truly desperate?


I hope you can see in these question how The Road is an examination of the psychological issues as work in The Slavery of Death. For while The Slavery of Death is largely about our neurotic anxiety in the face of death (our worries about self-esteem and significance), The Road sweeps past neurosis to focus with laser-like intensity upon the relationship between love and basic anxiety, a fear not about being "significant" but about literal survival. It seems relatively easy to show how love can overcome neurotic anxiety, how I can forgo self-esteem enhancement to wash feet and serve in unnoticed locations, not letting my right hand know what my left hand is doing. But is it possible for love to overcome basic, survival anxiety in the face of something like mass starvation?

That is the moral question at the heart of The Road. Is love possible in the world envisioned by The Road?

Because if love cannot be found in The Road then biological need and vulnerability would be revealed to be the moral singularity of human existence. Love and humanity would be the moral luxuries of "civilization," useless surplus goods like a diamond ring. At root, we'd be revealed to be animals. Nothing more.

And so, with that as backdrop, let's return to The Road looking for love in a world of starvation and cannibalism. Looking for love in the limit case.

In this search I think we can find love in The Road in four places.

First, and most obviously, we find love in how the man loves the boy. If The Road is anything it is a prolonged meditation on the love the man has for the boy. This love also undergirds the spiritual themes of the book. In a widely quoted passage from early in the book:
He knew that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.
So the love the man has for the boy is the primary story of love in the book. And throughout the book this love is described as the inbreaking of the divine. The boy is the "word of God" speaking to the man. And late in the book the boy is described as the tabernacle, the container of God's presence:
He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He'd stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle. 
If I were being bold I'd argue that The Road is a prolonged meditation on the notion that "God is love." There is discussion of God in The Road. Prayers are offered to a grey, ashen sky. But God is absent and silent. God is, rather, found in the love the man and the boy have for each other. God is found in that love. God is that love.

A second place you find love expressed in The Road is the distinction made frequently in the book between the bad guys and the good guys, those who have turned to cannibalism and those who have not. And to be clear, the cannibalism isn't the eating of those who have died of natural causes but the enslaving or killing of others in order to use them as food.

This is a very bleak scenario, and The Road posits this vision as the inevitable moral outcome in a world of mass scarcity. In The Road the Darwinian survival of the fittest reaches this, its logical conclusion.

Morality here boils down to its final, ultimate question. The moral question behind all moral questions. The question you reach in the end if you push hard and far enough on a biological creature: In the limit case, would you kill and consume others?

Like in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy The Road posits two paths, one path is the path of virtue and holiness, the path of "the good guys." The other path is the path of depravity and wickedness, the path of the "the bad guys." Like Moses did with Israel, The Road presents a stark choice: Choose which way you shall go. Will you shed blood to live or will you refuse to kill even though you may starve? According to The Road this is the question that sits behind all ethics. This is ethics in the most extreme situation imaginable, the limit case.

And as we see in The Road there are "good guys." True, while many have been reduced to bestiality under the Darwinian pressures, there are those in The Road--the "good guys"--who refuse to kill others. The "good guys" retain their humanity. The good guys are not animals, they are human beings who see others as human beings. I count that as a form of love.

Let us now return to the love the man has for the boy.

At this point, a cynical, Darwinian reader might be saying, "I understand how the father loves the son. But this is familial, even mammalian, love. The love of a parent for his or her genetic offspring. Emotionally, yes, this is love. But is it true altruism? For is it not the case that all biological creatures selfishly benefit by ensuring the survival of their genetic offspring?"

This question brings us to a third location of love in The Road: the love of the boy for others.

True, in The Road the love of the man is almost fanatical in its focus on the boy. For the man, only the boy matters. All others will be sacrificed, must be sacrificed, in order to protect and ensure the survival of the boy. This mainly manifests in the book as the man's refusal to share food with anyone else other than the boy.

But throughout the book the boy--the "word of God"--begs and begs the father to share. And the boy is often successful in this. The father is constantly pulled out of his moral tunnel vision that only the boys matters. Where the father is blind the boy sees the needs of others. And so the boy and the man, in the face of scarcity and starvation, do share with others. This is altruism.

Finally, we come to our fourth example of love in The Road, the example that comes at the very end of the book. Remember, spoiler alerts.

Again, The Road is a prolonged meditation on the heroic sacrifices the man makes for the boy. If The Road is anything it is a portrayal of the endurance and fierceness of a father's love.

But is this the limit of morality, the best that love can do? In the limit case, is this--parental love--the zenith or morality? Or is there something that transcends this love?

The Darwinian critique noted above returns: Is the love of a biological parent for their child truly the highest form of love we can aspire to?

Is familial love the limit of love?

The Road answers no. There is more love in the world than a parent's love.

At the end of The Road the man dies. The boy is left alone and must now fend for himself in a world of bad guys.

The boy is soon approached by a man. Is this man a good guy or a bad guy? We find out that he's a good guy. He is also father, he has a wife and two boys. They are a family, something the boy has been longing for. And concerned about the fate of the boy now that the man has died this family welcomes the boy.

And the woman who adopts the boys speaks of God. The final scene in the book with the boy:
The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best  thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn't forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.
Again, the divine love on display in The Road is very much the immanent love between persons. The boy can't talk to God, but he can talk to his father, the one who loved him so passionately. And the woman who speaks of God compares the Spirit of God to the breath of humans--"the breath of God was his breath"--passed "from man to man through all of time." Again, I could argue that the theological theme of The Road is the notion that "God is love."

For our purposes, I'd like to draw our attention to how the adoptive love of the family for the boy transcends the biological matrix. The love of the man for the boy in the book is heroic and divine. But it's not the final or even highest act of love in the book. The final and highest act of love in The Road is when the family welcomes the boy--who is not one of their own--into their family. The family, in love, is willing to carry this extra survival burden. This is a love--a love associated with God--that transcends the Darwinian, biological struggle.

To conclude, let me say that this analysis of love in The Road does not exhaust the spiritual themes in the book. And many of these other spiritual themes are not as rosy and the themes I've pointed out here.

But I do think it clear that love is found in The Road and that love functions in the face of death very much as I describe in The Slavery of Death. I was gratified to find that the vision I articulated in The Slavery of Death was found on The Road. In The Road, when life is pushed to its absolute limit and placed under the severest Darwinian pressure, love can be seen triumphing over death. Love can be seen making us human in the face of death. In the love of the man for the boy. In the refusal of the "good guys" to kill others in order to survive. In the love of the boy getting his father to share with others. And in the final adoption of the boy into a family speaking of God.

The Road depicts the Fall at its absolute, apocalyptic worst. William Stringfellow says that the goal of the Christian life is to walk humanly in the Fall. And in The Road, despite all odds, we see this happen. We see in The Road love conquering death. Love making us human. In the end, we don't have to become animals. We have a choice in the face of death.

We can be human.

We can love.

The Moral of the Sneetches: On Neurosis and Capitalism

I was sharing in one of my classes about the relationship between neurosis and capitalism.

"Neurosis," I said, "is the fuel for the engine of capitalism."

Other theologians have described how capitalism is an economy of desire. To keep the engine of consumerism humming along, capitalism creates, fuels, and feeds off of desire. But I like focusing on neurosis rather than desire. Because the desires capitalism exploits are rooted in feelings of inadequacy. Consumerism is driven by how we purchase our way toward status and significance. We buy our way toward self-esteem.

Neurosis is what we're pointing to when we talk about "keeping up with the Joneses." The Joneses have a bigger house or a nicer car or a new pool. Those things make us feel inadequate and insecure, like we're falling behind. And all these feelings are examples of neurosis.

Describing all this to my class, I said that Dr. Suess' story about the Sneetches is the best commentary I've ever seen about neurosis fueling capitalism. Notice how, in the story, neurosis--feelings of inferiority and superiority--create and fuels consumer demand, and how Sylvester McMonkey McBean makes a fortune off the neurosis.

That's the moral of the story of the Sneetches (full video here).

Neurosis is the fuel for the engine of capitalism.

Living Within a Sacred Matrix

Here's something else about Leviticus.

While modern readers tend to get hung up on the archaic strangeness of Leviticus, the overall logic of the book makes sense. Whatever we might think of its particulars, the Levitical code embedded life within a sacred matrix. The code tangibly imbued life with sacred weight and texture.

Again, whatever we might think of the specifics of the Levitical code, we do need sacred weight and texture. We need seasons and rituals to hallow time, events, people, promises, values, places, life transitions, tragedy, and loss. Even atheists hallow funerals and marriages and light candles at sites of national tragedy. 

And yet, in the day to day grind it's hard to hallow in our secular, disenchanted age. We don't have a sacred matrix. And this is one of the reasons why I think faith is so hard for many of us. Instead of living within a sacred matrix that gives our lives holy weight and texture, we experience belief as a choice to be made moment by moment, day after day. Faith is in our heads, an intellectual thing, rather than as the sacred texture filling our lives.

This is one of the reasons that, as a Protestant, I'm so attracted to Catholic aesthetics. The sacramental aesthetics of Catholicism--the candles, statues, beads, icons, incense--helps create a sacred matrix. I think Protestants who struggle with faith can learn something from this.

If you struggle with faith, think levitically. Get out of your head and live within a sacred matrix.

Wave Offerings

As I describe in Reviving Old Scratch, Freedom Fellowship, the mission church I attend, has a charismatic worship style. Hands are raised and waved.

We also have praise flags, made of colorful fabrics with "Jesus" written on them. When the Spirit moves them, worshipers at Freedom will go pick up a flag and wave it during our praise service.

Charismatic worship, all the hand and flag waving, isn't my comfort zone. But I embrace how my friends worship.

And in reading through the book of Leviticus recently I found a bit of biblical warrant for all the waving. As a part of the sacrificial system there were what are called "wave offerings," where grain or a part of an animal sacrifice was literally waved before YHWH.

Admittedly, there is some distance between the Levitical wave offerings and our Jesus praise flags, but the whole notion of waving to God as a sacrifice of praise is rooted in the Bible.

And while I'm not keen to wave a praise flag myself, I'm happy to help my church family with any biblical justification they might need to lift those praise flags high.

Journal Week 15: The Author Not On Social Media

If you've tried to look me up on social media you'll know I'm not on Twitter or Facebook.

There are times I get angsty about that. How will I build an audience for this blog? How will I push out news about a book I publish?

Most of time, however, it's such a huge relief not living on social media. True, I'm blessed that I have a day job that pays the rent. I don't need to build a publishing and speaking platform to support a living as a writer. If I was a full-time writer, then yes, I'd need to full court press social media. That would be a part of my job.

But having a job, I don't need to push like that. Sure, by not pushing I'm reducing my "voice." But I think I've done enough spiritual work on myself to not get overly worried about the size of my impact upon the world.

People ask me all the time, "How's you book doing?' And I always say, "I have no idea." Truly, I don't keep up with it. I just want to be proud of my books, I don't need to sell them.

And the trade-off in staying off of social media is so, so worth it.

On Tribes and Community: Part 9, Liberalism is Loneliness

In light of my recent posts about post-evangelical Christian loss and nostalgia, our longing for a tribe, let me point you to Christine Emba's recent column in the Washington Post, "Liberalism is Loneliness."

Emba's column is a reflection on Patrick Deneen's recent book Why Liberalism Failed.

The heart of the matter, as I wrote about two weeks ago, is how Western liberalism dissolves traditional and historical sources of connection and community. Liberalism dissolves group affiliations and treats us as rights-bearing individuals who stand alone before the state. In my posts I said that liberalism has an aerosolizing effect upon groups, it atomizes and then disperses us.

Here is Emba summarizing this impact and its consequences:
As liberalism has progressed, it has done so by ever more efficiently liberating each individual from “particular places, relationships, memberships, and even identities — unless they have been chosen, are worn lightly, and can be revised or abandoned at will.” In the process, it has scoured anything that could hold stable meaning and connection from our modern landscape — culture has been disintegrated, family bonds devalued, connections to the past cut off, an understanding of the common good all but disappeared.

And in the end, we’ve all been left terribly alone.

That’s the heart of it, really. Liberalism is loneliness. 
And like I mentioned in my series on tribes and progressive Christianity, we suffer when we're not a part of a tribe. As Emba observes:
Over the past 15 years, the U.S. suicide rate has increased by 24 percent; the rise in so-called deaths of despair is constantly in the news. The most liberal nation in the world reports less happiness and more pain than its illiberal counterparts. We may have traveled to the “end of history,” but the majority of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track. And we’re desperately, desperately lonely. 
So what's the solution? Emba concludes by suggesting that we're going to have to become a whole lot more intentional about forming close knit communities. She brings up the Benedict Option, a vision that appeals to conservative Christians but leaves progressive Christians cold. But as I've argued, progressives need their own version of the Benedict Option to deal with the isolation and loneliness that liberalism is producing.

But this is going to be a hard labor, especially for progressive Christians whose embrace of liberalism makes it hard for them to form the close-knit churches they crave. Again, progressive Christians need to embrace their own Benedict Option. As Emba concludes:
Yet the deepest solution to the problem of liberalism is as personal in scale as its deepest quandary. To overhaul liberalism, we will have to overhaul ourselves, exchanging an easy drift toward selfish autonomy for a cultivated embrace of self-discipline and communal responsibility. As daunting a project as reforming a political order might seem, this internal shift may be just as hard.

Meeting Our Stranger God at Your Church: Discussion Guide and Bulk Order Discounts Now Available!

First, thank you to everyone for all the positive feedback about Stranger God. It's so encouraging to visit churches who have been reading the book and hearing your stories of how the book is challenging you and drawing you into practices of hospitality and kindness. The Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux will do that to you!

For those of you working with churches and groups interested in hospitality, Fortress Press just made it easier to order Stranger God for your people.

First, just a reminder that Stranger God how has a free, downloadable Discussion Guide that teachers and discussion leaders can use to lead conversations about the book.

You can download the Discussion Guide here (PDF).

Second, Fortress Press is now offering up to a 50% discount for bulk orders. Bulk order prices and ordering details can be found here.

Now you can order a bunch of books for your staff, ministry leaders, Bible classes, small groups, discussion groups, and book clubs at an affordable price!

Join the Becks on the Typology Podcast!

If you missed it, Jana and I were recently on Ian Cron's Typology podcast. You can listen to the episode here, or search for Typology on your podcast app.

Ian's podcast and his book The Road Back to You is focused on the Enneagram. In the podcast Ian and I talk about my initial skepticism about the Enneagram and ways it's helped Jana and I in our marriage. Jana is a 2 and I'm a 5w4.

If you don't know your type or want to start exploring the Enneagram you can take an assessment here at Ian's website.

A couple of things about the content of the podcast.

First, Ian and I spend some time talking about things that cut across the types--virtue, mental health, and IQ specifically--as well as raise questions about the stability of the types across situations and contexts. I think these are really important observations about the Enneagram (and any personality model) as they point to ways where the Enneagram is incomplete, and even unhelpful in some situations.

But the other thing about the podcast that's noteworthy is that Jana is also a quest, and we talk a bit about our marriage. This is a part of my life that regular readers have not heard much about, in my writings or on other podcasts I have done.

And you can hear on the podcast the most beautiful sound of my life:

Jana's laughter.

On Tribes and Community: Part 8, A Post-Evangelism Church?

I wanted to make one other comment before moving on from this series about tribes and progressive Christianity.

In Part 3 we asked the question, "If progressive Christians would like a tribe, why don't they just create one?" In answer we listed reasons why it's hard for progressives to create, maintain, and grow their churches.

But one of the answers I failed to mention is that many progressive Christians aren't just post-evangelical, they are post-evangelism.

The progressive impulse toward tolerance and inclusion, along with a post-modern stance on truth, leaves progressive Christians in an awkward position in regards to evangelism, sharing the gospel with non-believers. Evangelism smacks of judgementalism, I'm right and you are wrong. Worse, evangelism can tend toward colonialism, the history of white missionaries being sent to save dark pagan savages.

A related issue here is that progressive Christians are burdened by so many doubts that they lack the necessary conviction to feel passionate about sharing the gospel with others. If you're not sure you believe any of this stuff, how can you be expected to convince others to believe in it?

In short, progressive Christians tend to be poor evangelists. And for many progressive Christians, that's a feature, not a bug. The tolerance and the doubt--avoiding the "sin of certainty" as Peter Enns puts it--is the whole point of the progressive Christian journey.

And yet, that makes it difficult for progressive Christians to create or maintain a church of any size, a local tribe where they can belong and share life in thick and rich community.

Basically, if your church is post-evangelism your tribe will dwindle and vanish. Another reason progressive Christians so often find themselves alone.

Journal Week 14: Sentimental

I don't know if it's growing older, or if God, after decades of work, is finally breaking my heart. Or maybe I'm just slowly going crazy.

I find myself growing increasingly sentimental. I'm quick to tears in the face of beauty, suffering, and the passing of time. The ache springs out of this great affection, sympathy, and joy.

It's not a mountaintop experience, triggered by beautiful locations or charismatic speakers. The fount of these tears is the ordinary. This is a mysticism of the gutters and alleyways.

It's like that mystical moment Thomas Merton had standing on a busy city sidewalk, looking at all the passing people and feeling great love for them. The blind now seeing clearly. I'm no Merton, but my tearful moments are like that.

A flash of love and joy when beholding the world.

Have Fun Out There: On Golf and the Sermon on the Mount

With the Masters golf tournament starting today, I was reminded of a post from 2011 (below and slightly edited) when I compared obeying the Sermon on the Mount to playing the game of golf. As you watch the Masters this weekend, ponder the following:
 
I was out at the prison leading our weekly Bible study. I'd just finished reading the entire Sermon on the Mount--the Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapters five through seven. After finishing, one the inmates raises his hand.

"Is this attainable?" he asks.

The question gave me pause because just the day before we had been talking about the Sermon on the Mount in our Sunday School class. The argument the teacher made in our class was that the Sermon was unattainable. He made the argument Martin Luther popularized, that the Sermon is intended to humble us, to show us how salvation by works is impossible.

So, is the Sermon on the Mount attainable?

I guess it all depends upon what we mean by "attainable." When I look at various parts of the sermon, even the hardest parts like turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, I am pretty certain people have attained these standards. Christian history is full of biographies of saints who have loved enemies and turned the other cheek.

The point being, in any given moment of any given day I think the Sermon on the Mount is attainable.

Given that assessment, the question might move on to issues of sustainability and maintenance. Is it possible to sustain, decade after decade, a faultless adherence to the Sermon on the Mount?

I think the Sermon on the Mount contains the answer to that question in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our sins."

So we are walking a fine line here. On the one hand, you don't want to say that the Sermon is unattainable, because clearly it is attainable. We really should try to attain to the ideals set out in the Sermon. And, with the help of God, we actually can attain these things.

But on the other hand, the Sermon is so imposing we know we are surely going to fail. A lot.

So how are we to thread the needle?

Well, this might be the worst metaphor you'll ever hear, but I'd like to compare the Sermon on the Mount to golf.

I don't golf a lot. But when I'm visiting my family I golf with my Dad. He's very good. I'm...less good.

If you don't know anything about golf all you need to know for our purposes is this: Golf is hard. It's a frustrating and infuriating game. Hence Mark Twain's quip: "Golf is a good walk spoiled." If you've ever played golf you know exactly what Twain was talking about.

There were times, particularly in my early years with the game, where I felt that golf was a form of Calvinistic self-loathing or Catholic self-mortification. I felt that you could either whip yourself for your sins or go golfing. The two seemed equivalent, spiritually speaking. And there have been times on the golf course when I would have preferred whipping myself rather than looking for another lost ball because I keep slicing my drives into the woods.

The point here is that golf is attainable on any given shot but, due to its difficulty, not sustainable. Even the pros make double bogeys. In 2011, Rory McIlroy was leading the Masters before going into the final round. He shot an 80. Watching Rory on the 10th hole of his final round I thought, "Hey, that's where I end up on golf courses! In someone's backyard." Five years later, in 2016, Jordan Spieth blew up. And don't get me started on Greg Norman in 1996.

The point is, golf is so hard even the pros melt down.

In this, I think golf is kind of like the Sermon on the Mount. Attainable on any given shot, any given hole, any given round. But too hard to be sustainable. There will be bogeys and double bogeys. (Or, if you're me, a whole lot worse.)

And given this degree of difficulty and likelihood of failure you often see golfers come unglued on the course. I've seen golfers curse, throw clubs, break clubs, throw clubs into ponds. Or just give up and drive off the course. Some, out of frustration, give up the game.

Similar things, I think, can happen with the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is so hard we can become demoralized and self-loathing. And this can lead to quitting and giving up.

I've wrestled with these sorts of reactions in my golf game and in my Christian walk. In my early years with golf I got angry a lot. But as I've matured I've learned to keep my cool, even when I get an eight on a par three (this happened last week). I've learned to focus on the process rather than the outcome. And because of this I've improved a lot over the years.

In short, despite golf's difficulty and my repeated failures, I've found joy in the game of golf. I'm happy on a golf course. Even when my score is bad.

I'm looking for something similar in my relationship with the Sermon on the Mount. If I approach the Sermon with a grim Puritan rigor I don't think I'm going to be very pleasant to be around. I'll wind up wrapping a Beatitude, like a seven iron, around a pine tree. But if I can find joy in the climb then I think I can make progress over time. The key to becoming a skilled Christian is to practice the faith with joy. Even in failure. The alternative is guilt, shame, and anger. Which leads to giving up on the game. Our journey of faith then becomes a good walk spoiled.

So pick up your clubs and take up the Beatitudes. Be prepared to succeed. You can actually, on any given hole and in any given interaction, attain the state of perfection. You can make a par and you can act like Jesus. The Sermon or a drive in the fairway really is attainable. Mere mortals can pull it off.

Still, you're going to fail a lot. So be prepared for that as well. Because how you react to the failure will in large part determine if you keep coming back, and if you'll get better and more skilled as time goes on.

So, blessed are the merciful, and this putt breaks a little to the left.

Either way. Have fun out there.

On Tribes and Community: Part 7, Progressive Christians and the Benedict Option

In my post yesterday about raising Millennials as liberals, I bet a few readers were thinking, "What about the Benedict Option?"

That is, isn't one of the big points made by Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option that we need to raise our children in a tribe if we want them to be faithful Christians?

So let me say a few things about tribes and the Benedict Option.

Let me start with this. I agree with with Rod Dreher on two key points.

First, Christianity demands more than liberal tolerance.

Second, tribes are necessary for spiritual formation.

I've described all this before in my call for a progressive version of the Benedict Option. Cruciform, self-donating love is way, way more than liberal tolerance. Cruciform, self-donating love is hard, sacrificially hard. Consequently, we need a tribe to form us into the ways of Jesus.

In short, progressive Christians need a Benedict Option.

My problem with Rod Dreher's articulation of the Benedict Option--that the counter-cultural way of Jesus requires a community of spiritual formation--is how little he talks about Jesus. Rod talks a ton about prayer, liturgy, church going, orthodoxy, tradition, monasticism, and sexual ethics. But he rarely writes about Jesus. He rarely talks about love.

The greatest failure of Rod's book The Benedict Option is how he left out the progressive versions of the BenOp, intentional communities like the Catholic Workers and the New Monastics such as Jonathan Wilson Hartgove's Rutba House. To say nothing of Jean Vanier's L'Arche communities. Rod says he left these groups out of the book because he finds their way of life too radical for ordinary Christians to emulate.

But I call bullshit on that.

For example, in his book and on his blog Rod waxes on and on about the monks of Norcia. But why doesn't Rod find the monks of Norcia too radical for ordinary Christians to emulate? I doubt many of us are lining up to take vows of celibacy and poverty. Rod sure isn't.

But what the monks of Norcia can do for us, as they do for both Rod and I, is inspire a monastic way of life that we can, to greater or lesser degrees, emulate in our own lives. I pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

But if that's true of the monks of Norcia, why can't that also be true of the Catholic Workers and the New Monastics? This is my point.

I agree with Rod that Christians with day jobs, families, and mortgages aren't going to live the way the Catholic Workers live. But nor will they be able to live like the monks of Norcia! Yet both groups can inspire ways of life that we can, to some degree, emulate. And yet, the monks get included in the Benedict Option and the Catholic Workers do not. Why?

I think Rod left them out because the progressive politics of these communities don't fit with his preferred narrative of what the BenOp is supposed to be and look like. In short, Rod's vision of the BenOp is too partisan. And that's a shame. There is a progressive Christian version of the BenOp and Rod is refusing to call attention to how these Christians are living into the way of Jesus in sacrificial and beautiful ways.

All that to say, progressive Christians have a BenOp and they need a BenOp.

Even liberals need a tribe for spiritual formation.

On Tribes and Community: Part 6, Our Kids Are Liberals

The other reason I've been thinking about tribes has to do with raising our children in the church.

Last week I wrote about our small group discussing our being raised in smaller, more conservative Christian churches. Theologically, we moved away from those faith communities, but relationally we look back with great fondness on our childhoods. Again, for a lot of post-evangelicals, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

And really, for all of our small group it was just the best of times. We've changed our minds, theologically, but we have uniformly warm memories of our childhoods in the Churches of Christ. To be sure, a lot of people have been burned badly in our faith tradition, but those aren't our stories.

Anyway, we were talking about how our kids now view the church. We've become liberal in our views and so we've raised our kids as liberals. We've preached messages of tolerance and inclusion. And we've been successful. Our kids don't look on the world with judgment and suspicion. They welcome difference.

But we've noticed that this comes with a price. Our kids don't have the same loyalty to the church as we do. We were raised conservatively, so going and being loyal to a local church is hardwired into us. We can't imagine not going to church. It's who we are. But our kids weren't raised by conservatives, they were raised by us, post-evangelical liberals. Consequently, our kids don't have that same loyalty toward the church.

So we were talking about this paradox in our small group, how our kids weren't raised by our parents, they were raised by us, and how that's made our kids unlike us. Especially when it comes to how we feel about church.

Basically, our kids aren't post-evangelicals. They are liberals.

And to be clear, since we're liberals, we think this has been a wonderful accomplishment. We're proud of the generosity and kindness of our children as they move through a pluralistic world. So we're not lamenting that they are liberals. Our kids care passionately about racism, sexism, and oppression.

But we are starting to lament how our kids are being sent out into the world without a tribe, without the deep sense of belonging we experienced as children. Our kids are beautiful people, but we worry they are sacrificing life-giving, face-to-face community in the tribe for likes on Instragram and Snapchat. Millenials are tolerant, but they are also anxious and adrift. And there's more to Christianity than tolerance. More on that in the next post.

All that to say, we've seen the trade-offs between liberalism and the tribe that I've been discussing in these posts playing out in the lives our children as well.

On Tribes and Community: Part 5, Tribes and Self-Criticism

The question I left us with last week in Part 4 was if we can create a tribe without all the bad stuff.

I think so, I hope so. I do think, however, that every tribe brings into our lives a suite of temptations that have to be monitored and managed. We need a tribe, but tribes have a dark side that needs to be resisted.

I wrote about this last fall. I made the argument across a few posts that since we can't 100% eliminate the temptations of a tribe we should at least join a tribe that has resources for self-criticism. From one of my posts last fall:
I don't know if humans can ever escape creating tribal affiliations and identities. Wanting to be a part of a tribe seems hard-wired into the human psyche.

A tribe gives us a home, a place of community and belonging. And yet, tribes are also the source of much evil. Prejudice, scapegoating, war.

The best we can hope for, I think, is being a part of a tribe that has resources for self-criticism.
I then went on describe how the Old Testament enshrines this self-criticism. Ponder the witness of the prophets. Israel canonizes self-criticism in the prophets. Self-criticism becomes the Word of God for Israel.

The voice that Israel elevates as God's voice is a voice that criticizes the tribe.

Of course, this doesn't prevent Israel from falling into tribalism. Tribes will be tribes. But in the prophets Israel built in capacities for self-criticism that help keep the tribalism in check.

All that to say, I don't know if we can wholly avoid the temptations of the tribe, but we can join and create a tribe that has the resources to push back on its worst impulses.

Resurrection

May your sight burn with the flames of grace
as you stand over the bones--
ivory white and stacked high in the sand--
to behold the roaring wind
bringing the dead, clattering, back to life again.

May your despairing heart be singed with joy
as you walk with a stranger
along the road.

May your life be watered by the dew
when Love surprises you in the morning.

May you stand defiant before the logical world
as the prophet of the impossible,
to thunder in sackcloth at their disbelief:
"Why seek ye the living among the dead?"

Journal Week 13: The Stations of the Cross

I've written about this before, about how I attended Catholic schools from the 6th-12th grades. I was a Church of Christ kid, so I can't say, from a religious perspective,  I had an open heart about the Catholic Church during those years. I judged most of what I experienced as wrong.

But I loved the Stations of the Cross. I'd never experienced anything like it. The Stations of the Cross remain my favorite liturgical activity.

Maybe that's morbid, but I think I had a keen sense from a very young age that life was filled with sadness, brokenness and tragedy. And nothing I had experienced spoke into that pain like the Stations of the Cross.

So today, here on Good Friday, I'll be making my way to a Catholic Church to walk once more through the Stations.

Step by step with Jesus all the way to Calvary.

On Tribes and Community: Part 4, Can You Have a Tribe Without All the Bad Stuff?

I started this series on tribes because of a conversation in our small group. Jana and I are a part of a small group at our church, a group of four couples who gather on Sunday nights to share life and prayer together.

One night we were talking about our shared experiences growing up in smaller, conservative Christian communities. (We all grew up as members of smaller, more fundamentalist Churches of Christ, and now attend a larger, much more liberal Church of Christ.)

The stories we shared growing up were all wonderful. All those great stories and experiences being in a small little tribe. True, there were hard stories and sad stories. But most of us look back on those times with great fondness.

And when to turned to talk about our larger more liberal church it paled in comparison with those memories. True, a lot of this comparison is likely due to childhood nostalgia. But we also felt that there was something missing in the larger, more liberal church that we experienced in the smaller, more fundamentalist church.

There was a disjoint between agreement and community. Theologically, we disagreed with the churches of our youth. But we loved the community we experienced there.

By contrast, we agree with the liberal stances of our current church, but find it lacking in community and intimacy.

Pondering this contrast, my friend Grant asked, "Is it possible to have that sense of community and intimacy we experienced in those small, fundamentalist churches without bringing along all the bad stuff?"

I've been thinking about that question ever since.

Because it seems like one has to pick their poison. We flourish in tribes, but tribes require loyalty and submission to the group along with a clear sense of in-group/out-group boundaries. But submission and boundaries have a very dark side. So you embrace a liberalism where there are no boundaries between you and anyone else in the world and refuse to give loyalty to the group that could trump your personal autonomy and choice. Such moves most definitely expel the temptations of tribalism by effectively disbanding the tribe. We've become inclusive and tolerant, we're now liberals, but we've become homeless, isolated, and adrift. We've lost the tribe and long for it.

Thus Grant's question. Do we have to choose here? Is it really an either/or?

Can you have a tribe without all the bad stuff?

On Tribes and Community: Part 3, Can Progressive Christians Form a Tribe?

So the root of post-evangelical nostalgia seems to be our deep, human longing for a tribe.

Progressive post-evangelicals look back at their time as being a part of a tribe as a time when they belonged and worked alongside others with a sense of shared, common purpose. And all those things are highly correlated with happiness.

So why, it might be asked, don't post-evangelicals just create a new tribe? Why not leave behind the bad stuff in evangelicalism and keep all the good stuff?

The trouble, it seems, is that progressive Christians struggle with tribes. Religiously and psychologically.

Religiously speaking, given their bent toward inclusion and cosmopolitanism, progressives bristle at the very notion of tribe, especially a religious tribe. Tribes create tribalism, a line between insiders and outsiders, something that progressives are working very hard to eliminate.

Psychologically speaking, following the work of Jonathan Haidt regarding the moral roots of liberals and conservatives, liberals do not privilege the moral foundations of ingroup loyalty, sacredness, and respect for authority (which includes respect for traditional authority). And those three things, I expect you'll have noted, are critical ingredients for creating and maintaining a tribe. Loyalty to the group. A shared sense of sacred purpose. Respect for tradition and authority. Lacking these binding ingredients, progressives tend toward individualization.

Liberalism, I like to say, has an aerosolizing effect upon groups, it atomizes and disperses us, separating and isolating us as individuals. When liberalism hits a tribe that tribe isn't going to last very long.

Beyond these religious and psychological reasons, post-evangelicals also have their own personal stories that make them wary of tribes. Having been hurt by the evangelical tribe, many post-evangelicals are very reluctant to join any group that has a strong, tribe-like dynamic. It's too triggering. Too many ghosts.

Incidentally, can you see how this makes it hard for progressives to think and act like Christians, as described in places like Acts 2 and 4? Mutual love, covenantal fidelity, and koinonia all require a communal imagination and commitment, putting the interests of the group above your own. But any request that sounds remotely like "Hey, the group needs you to do this." pushes many post-evangelicals into a panic. And in the face of that panic there's just no capacity to create Christian community.  

All of these dynamics push post-evangelicals to run as lone wolves rather than with a pack. Religiously speaking, progressives see tribes as antithetical to Jesus' inclusive vision of love. Psychologically, progressives lack the critical ingredients--loyalty to the group, reverence for the sacred, respect for authority and tradition--required to form a tribe. And personally, post-evangelical Christians just have too many scars to make joining another tribe desirable or attractive.

So yes, while progressives long for a tribe, as everyone does, they struggle mightily to create and participate in one. And even if they can, these communities are often fragile, fleeting or failing. Witness the frequent progressive lament about trying to find, start, or grow a progressive church.  

And yet, to echo the prior post, tribes are necessary for human flourishing. We feel unmoored, lonely and adrift as isolated, aerosolized individuals living life in late-modern capitalism. Social media might lessen a bit our felt sense of isolation as we "connect" online. But as we all know, a hashtag isn't a home.

Surfing from screen to screen will never heal the ache we feel separated from the tribe.

On Tribes and Community: Part 2, On Homecoming and Belonging

Sebastian Junger's recent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging makes the argument that the great source of suffering in our modern world is the loss of tribe, the loss of belonging to a tight knit community that grounds us, supports us, and gives us a sense of home and purpose.

In the first part of the book Junger discusses the curious case of white people on the American frontier running off to live with the Native Americans, and even returning to the tribe after being rescued from captivity. The tribe had a captivating allure that the town apparently lacked. For example, while many whites went to live with the natives, the reverse almost never happened. Native Americans weren't attracted to the ways of the white man. As Junger writes:
The proximity of these two cultures over the course of many generations presented both sides with a stark choice about how to live. By the end of the nineteenth century, factories were being built in Chicago and slums were taking root in New York while Indians fought with spears and tomahawks a thousand miles away. It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans—mostly men—wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened: Indians almost never ran away to join white society. Emigration always seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, and it left Western thinkers flummoxed about how to explain such an apparent rejection of their society.
What was the source of the attraction? According to Junger, the Western world made a devil's bargain with the Industrial Revolution: Material affluence over the tribe. The factories of the Industrial Revolution required a mobile source of labor, peasants who were uprooted from land and kin, dislocated from the tribes that for generations grounded their lives and identities with purpose and meaning. True, standards of living began to rise, the poorest of city dwellers having access to luxury goods previously only available to nobility and royalty. But the price of this material affluence was a loss of the tribe, the loss of tight-knit community.

For a time on America's frontier, the contrast between tribes and affluence was starkly visible, two ways of life living side by side. But eventually, the tribe lost and all that remains in America is a rootless collection of isolated individuals. Affluent individuals, to be sure, but tribeless, and now suffering the psychological effects of the fateful choice the modern world had made. Loneliness. Anxiety. Depression. Addiction. Meaninglessness. As Junger writes:
And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone. The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.
In the second half of Tribe Junger, who is a war correspondent, turns to an analysis of the psychology of soldiers, especially their trouble in returning home after a tour of duty. Junger's discussion turns on two observations.

First, war is hell, but many soldiers look back at their time in a "band of brothers" as also one of the most significant and meaningful times of their lives. Not the horrors of war, of course, but the solidarity of a tribe where everyone was willing to sacrifice and die for each other. There is nothing in the modern world that even comes close to replicating this experience. Thus, many veterans, to echo the last post, describe their tour of duty as "the best of times and the worst of times."

Second, Junger goes on to argue that the rising rates of PTSD among veterans is not simple exposure to trauma. Junger argues that PTSD is less about trauma than about reintegration into society. PTSD rates were lower in WWI and WW2. And while it could be argued that this was simply a product of a poor understanding of what "shell shock" involved back then, Junger makes a different observation. Because of the draft and the industrial support the wars required back home, WWI and WW2 were national, collective experiences. The trauma was shared.

Consequently, it's no surprise that PTSD first started getting diagnosed with the Vietnam War, where vets faced a chilly and even hostile reception back home. In a similar way, most Americas don't serve in the military, causing our professional military personnel to feel increasingly isolated and dislocated from American society. In short, PTSD incidence climbs less because of the trauma but because the trauma isn't being shared by the tribe. As additional evidence for this point, Junger cites the low PTSD rates among the Israeli military, where over half of the nation serves, at some point, in the military. In Israel the trauma is shared by the tribe.

Junger's observations about the military make two points about tribes. First, as his observations about shared trauma illustrate, it's not just that tribes make us happier. Tribes help us carry our pain and suffering. The best treatment for trauma is a tribe.

Second, beyond sharing trauma, vets struggle to reintegrate back into society because nothing in society compares to the shared, sacrificial purpose vets experience in the "band of brothers" during military service. The thin, vapid, solitary, and commercialized existence of modern life--where life is lived moving from screen to screen and from one Super Bowl party to the next--just can't compare to the courage, valor, solidarity, and shared purpose vets experience in the tribe of their military units.

In short, our need for a tribe isn't about reducing loneliness, about how nice it would be to have a few friends over for dinner tonight. Tribes run deep into the human psyche. Tribes are integral to human flourishing. Tribes help us carry our suffering and pain, and they give us a sense of shared purpose and meaning.

Tribes give us a home.

And this, I would argue, is the deep source of post-evangelical nostalgia. They have memories of being a part of a tribe.

Yes, tribes create tribalism, and there are toxic, dysfunction, and abusive tribes. But without a tribe there is listlessness, loneliness, and pain.

On Tribes and Community: Part 1, Progressive Loss and Nostalgia

It's not news to anyone that many progressive, post-evangelical Christians are obsessed with evangelicalism.

They are, after all, post-evangelicals.

Which means they are working out who they are in relation to evangelical Christianity. So there's a lot of "That is no longer me" contrasting in post-evangelical, progressive Christianity. I no longer read the Bible like that. I no longer see the atonement like that. I no longer think of LGTBQ persons like that. And so on.

Who you are now is defined by what you were then.

And all this is experienced as a great gain and joy. And yet, there's also a sense of nostalgia and loss among post-evangelical Christians. A part of the reason post-evangelicals have a hard time emotionally moving on from evangelicalism is that a part of them misses it.

They don't miss all the bad parts they've moved on from. What they tend to miss is the community. This ache was poignantly expressed in Rachel Held Evan's 2012 lament "Who will bring me casseroles when I have a baby?" 

I know Rachel has since found a faith community and has had a beautiful baby boy, with another baby on the way. Congrats Rachel! So I hope someone did and will continue to bring her casseroles. But that lament in 2012 perfectly captures the longing for community that seems so elusive for many progressive Christians.

Another recent example of this ache is Peter Enn's post-evangelical lament "The Hardest Thing for Me about What I Do":
What’s hard is losing friends, a community, a sense of belonging, a shared narrative.

It’s not so much about friends becoming enemies, but the more subtle disorientation of not really fitting anywhere.
What I want to do in a few posts is talk about tribes and this post-evangelical ache for community, where it comes from and why it seems to be so elusive, why it's so hard to leave all the bad stuff and keep all the good stuff. And the start of our exploration is this simple truth. If you ask post-evangelicals to talk about their childhood and early adulthood growing up in evangelicalism, many will describe it like this:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

And in that mixture of nostalgia and loss is a complicated story about tribes, about why we leave them and ache for them at the very same time.

Journal Week 12: Rugged Rosaries

Regular readers know I like to use prayer ropes and beads to pray.

I'm hard on prayer beads. I carry them in my pocket wherever I go. So I've broken a few strands.

Looking for something more sturdy and durable, I was directed to Rugged Rosaries, makers of "unbreakable paracord rosaries."

Rugged Rosaries markets itself as a maker of rosaries for manly types. They have rosaries like the Rattlesnake Paracord Military Rosary and the Memento Mori Skull Rosary. If that vibe puts you off, don't let it. They make a great product.

Plus, as the author of The Slavery of Death, I kind of want a Memento Mori Skull Rosary.

But because St. Francis is important to me, I opted to get the San Damiano Rosary (pictured here). And to add a little Christus Victor flavor to the rosary, I had them add St. Benedict and St. Michael medals. You can add all sort of medals to customize your rosary.

Now, I don't actually pray the rosary with these prayer beads. I use the beads to say the Lord's Prayer and the Jesus Prayer. The reason I opted for this product is because, well, it's rugged. I'm not particularly manly, but these are prayer beads that can take a beating and will last for years. I carry them in my pocket wherever I go.

Stranger God Discussion Guide Now Available!


Fortress Press asked me to create a discussion guide for Stranger God so that the book can be easily used by churches interested in moving more deeply into the practices of hospitality. The discussion guide can be used by teachers, equipping leaders, and discussion groups to facilitate conversation and reflection about hospitality while reading Stranger God together.

So if you're at a church that's interested in welcoming the people in your pews and city, consider using Stranger God and its discussion guide to start those conversations and help your church take those first steps.

You can download the discussion guide here at Fortress Press' Stranger God's website.

Here's the introduction letter I wrote for the discussion guide:
Dear Readers and Discussion Leaders,

This discussion guide is for groups who have some shared interest in the practices of hospitality and who are reading Stranger God together. I expect this guide will mainly be used by classes, small groups, or reading groups associated with churches or faith-based organizations. However, the topics and the discussions prompted by the book and this guide are applicable to a wide variety of organizations—and even for individuals reading on their own. Please feel free to adapt or adjust the wording of any question to fit your context.

I wrote many of the questions and discussion prompts to facilitate a lot of storytelling. I hope your group embraces the storytelling. I think sharing and listening to stories is a practice of hospitality. So share your stories, and listen well to each other. God will show up. I also hope many of the questions and prompts promote rich and deep discussions about how we might better “welcome each other as Christ welcomed us” (Romans 15:7).

If I have any overarching goals for the book and this discussion guide, they are these:

First, when we think about hospitality, we tend to think of one of two things: having people over for dinner or volunteering with a ministry or service organization. To be sure, hospitality takes place in those locations. But I’d like us to explore hospitality as a 24/7 experience, as something that begins in our hearts and can be practiced every second of every day, even with those closest to us at home and at work.

Second, I’d like readers of the book and those using this discussion guide to spend some time mapping the emotional terrain of their hearts. If we want to become more hospitable, we have to start by shining a light into those darker corners where hospitality isn’t quite as easy or natural. When I look in the mirror, I’m not as welcoming, kind, or loving as I could be. I expect you feel the same when you look in the mirror. As uncomfortable as it may be, let Stranger God and this discussion guide bring you to that place of honesty. The journey of hospitality begins right there.

Third, and this is my big agenda, I’d like for you to start thinking of hospitality less as an event you put on (like a dinner or a block party) or service you perform (like volunteering at a food bank) and more as an intentional, daily, habit-forming practice. I’d like for you to think of hospitality as a spiritual discipline that is teaching you how to love. A practice you can do anytime, anywhere, with the person standing right in front of you.

To help with this, some of the chapters have “Hospitality Homework” associated with them, little practices your group can try for a week and report back on. These homework assignments might be the most formative experiences you’ll have with the book and each other. So, let me encourage you to take them on. These practices changed my life. And my final prayer is that they will soon lead you to a meeting with our stranger God.

Blessings on your journey!

--Richard

The Authenticity of Faith: Part 9, Turning Toward Reconstruction

So The Authenticity of Faith concludes with what Van Tongeren, Davis, Hook, and Johnson describe as a trade-off between anxiety and hospitality. Doubts are an emotional burden to carry, but they make you open to difference.

So that's where the The Authenticity of Faith ends. But for many readers, and eventually myself, that ending is unsatisfactory.

The issue goes to what I've been talking about more and more on this blog, the need for reconstruction after a season of deconstruction. The Authenticity of Faith is a book for the season of deconstruction, it pushes a reader to confront defensive, fear-driven beliefs. This is a hard emotional labor, but there are benefits, the trade-offs. And yet, is this the end of the road? A life filled with existential angst, open to others, yes, but filled with unease and anxiety?

These were the questions that haunted me after the publication of The Authenticity of Faith. Was anxiety to be our lot in life if we want to love and be open to others?

This didn't seem quite right to me. As I thought about Jesus's psyche and contemplated mature faith as its described in the Bible, I saw love and hospitality coupled with peace, tranquility and joy. And what of Jesus' repeated injunctions "do not be afraid" and "do not worry"? Anxiety and angst, it seems, are not supposed to be the ruling emotions of the mature spiritual life. Doubt does crack a defensive faith open, but it doesn't seem that the resultant anxieties produced by doubt are the ultimate end game. Doubt is an important stop on the journey, but doesn't seem to be the final destination. 

But that presents us with a bit of a psychological puzzle. Is it possible to retain the hospitable openness of doubt yet leave the anxiety behind? Is it possible to experience peace, joy, and comfort from faith without slipping back into a defensive dogmatism?

Is there something beyond the trade-off described at the end of The Authenticity of Faith?

I felt there was, so I kept exploring. And the fruit of that exploration was eventually published in my book The Slavery of Death, which I consider to be the sequel to The Authenticity of Faith.

I don't want to go into an a review of the argument made in The Slavery of Death, feel free to pick up the book. I just wanted to conclude this series by saying that I consider The Slavery of Death to be a continuation of the journey started in The Authenticity of Faith. If The Authenticity of Faith is the journey of deconstruction, The Slavery of Death picks up from there and begins the journey of reconstruction, pushing through the anxiety/hospitality trade-off to envision a hospitable and loving faith that rests into peace, joy, and grace.

The Authenticity of Faith: Part 8, The Trade-Off of Anxiety and Hospitality

Once again, the big issue tackled in The Authenticity of Faith is assessing the claim of Sigmund Freud that religious belief is solely motivated by a need for comfort and consolation. Tackling that question requires a new sort of apologetics, a turn away from debating metaphysical propositions to examining the psychological motivations of religious believers.
So, was Freud right?.

Taking a cue from William James, the answer is no. There appear to be varieties of religious experience.

So, William James was right and Sigmund Freud was wrong. That conclusion, I think, is worth the price of the book. Still, this exploration of religious psychology only really matters if the these religious experiences differ in how they affect behavior.

Again, fear makes people behave badly. This includes Christians. So our interest here is if religious experiences are associated with a variety of behavioral outcomes. And, of course, we're most keenly interested in how religious believers treat other people, especially people who are different.

So having identified the Winter and the Summer Christian types in The Authenticity of Faith, I go on in the final part of the book to explore, in studies I have published, how these believers react and respond toward things like outgroup members, artwork, and the body.

The big take-home message is that Winter and Summer Christians do respond differently to the world. Winter Christians, in the studies I've published, are more tolerant of difference, have different aesthetic sensibilities, and are more comfortable with the human body.

Summarizing this work, in the final chapter of The Authenticity of Faith I make the argument that religious experience involves a trade-off between anxiety and hospitality.

Certainty, conviction, and dogmatism reduces our anxiety in the face of life. Having all the answers feels good. That's the upside. The downside is that certainty, conviction, and dogmatism makes you suspicious and wary toward people who have different beliefs. And that suspicion sows the seeds of intolerance.

In contrast, if you don't have all the answers in the face of uncertainty and tragedy, if you can't tie a neat theological bow on top a cancer diagnosis or a hurricane, there is an emotional price to be paid. You will carry a burden of anxiety. Meaning will be harder to secure. Life will be more uncertain and perplexing.

But there is an upside here. If your questions outweigh your answers, you're in a much more open posture toward people who have different beliefs. If you don't have all the answers, maybe they can be of help. In short, doubt can make you more hospitable.

The trade-offs explored in the final chapter of The Authenticity of Faith have recently been independently summarized and given empirical support by Van Tongeren, Davis, Hook, and Johnson (2016) in their article "Security Versus Growth: Existential Tradeoffs of Various Religious Perspectives."

Van Tongeren, Davis, Hook, and Johnson describe the religious experiences we've been exploring (Summer vs. Winter Christians, healthy-minded vs. sick soul) as Security versus Growth. Security-focused beliefs are focused on dealing with existential anxieties and concerns, providing us comfort and consolation. By contrast, growth-oriented beliefs are beliefs that are concerned with bridging the  ideological divides that separate groups. This is the same dynamic explored in the final chapter of The Authenticity of Faith.

Van Tongeren, Davis, Hook, and Johnson have a nice summary illustration of the trade-offs between Security and Growth-focused beliefs:
This is a great visual for the trade-offs involved. Security-focused beliefs have greater meaning, less anxiety and more comfort. But there is a price-tag: Less tolerance.

By contrast, growth-focused beliefs have greater tolerance, but pay an existential price (greater struggle for meaning, more death anxiety, less existential comfort).

So, summarizing the last eight posts (BTW, there's one more post tomorrow about where my work went after The Authenticity of Faith), in the words of Ecclesiastes, what is the conclusion of the matter?

Two conclusions.

First, Freud was wrong. There are religious varieties. There is more to religious belief than existential consolation.

Second, this debate matters because there is a trade-off in religious experience between anxiety and hospitality.

As I write in final paragraph from The Authenticity of Faith:
Perhaps, then, in the final analysis, faith, dogmatically understood, must be traded off for love. Doubts are the burden the believer must carry to keep her eyes opened to the suffering of others. It is as Moltmann described it, “The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world.” What, then, might be the ultimate proof of the authenticity of faith? Perhaps it is as simple as St. Paul suggested in the First Epistle to the Corinthians:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

The Authenticity of Faith: Part 7, Winter Christians and Religious Commitment

In my last post, I introduced you to the Defensive Theology Scale (DTS), a scale I developed and published in 2004. The goal of the DTS is to assess a suite of beliefs within Christian populations that reduce or buffer existential anxiety.

Now, the issue raised in the last post was if there are Christians who score low on the DTS, Christians who eschew the beliefs the DTS assesses.

The answer, obviously, is yes.

For example, in the face, say, of a childhood cancer diagnosis, there are Christians who would reject any assertion that God willed or had a plan for giving that child cancer. In fact, there are many Christians who would be highly offended at the suggestion that God has a hand in childhood cancer.

In short, yes, there are Christians who reject the beliefs assessed in the DTS, some strongly so. William James calls these Christians sick souls, and in my research I call them Winter Christians.

Since its publication in 2004, the DTS has been used by many other researchers to investigate existential dynamics at work in Christian samples, to sort people into religious types. It's exciting to see the DTS being put to good use.

That said, the DTS has some issues that researchers are reckoning with.

To understand these issues, we need to dig into the dynamics I'm decribing with the label "Winter Christian." I discuss these dynamics in Chapter 6 of The Authenticity of Faith.

The heart of my analysis regarding Summer and Winter Christians begins by comparing what I call the polar versus circumplex models of faith and complaint.

Many Christian communities and believers implicitly or explicitly work with a polar model when it comes to relating complaint to faith. Complaint toward God involves experiences of lament, protest, disappointment, frustration, anger, and doubt toward/about God. According to the polar model these experiences and expressions of complaint are symptomatic of faith problems, and are, thus, the polar opposite of faith. According to this model, then, strong faith should be characterized by a lack of complaint. No lament. No protest. No doubt.

In short, the polar model suggests that faith and complaint are antithetical impulses:
In contrast to the polar model, I describe in The Authenticity of Faith a model that argues that the relationship between communion/engagement with God and compliant may be circumplex, not as polar opposites but as two dimensions existing at right angles. This model suggests that communion/engagement with God and complaint can co-mingle and co-exist. Faith, in short, can be a complex mixture of communion and compliant with God:
Again, as I described in Part 5 of this series, if you know your Bible and church history, you're very aware that faith and lament regularly mix together. So the circumplex model is a better map of religious experience than the polar model.

When we go on to label the quadrants of the circumplex model, we can become very specific about what we mean by Summer versus Winter Christians:
As you can see in the top two quadrants, the distinction between Summer and Winter Christians is not a distinction between those who are engaged and in communion with God versus those who are not. Rather, the distinction between the Summer and Winter Christian is the degree to which complaint, lament or doubt intermingles with faith, communion and engagement with God. Summer Christians are those whose communion with God is generally free of doubt and lament. Winter Christians are those whose communion with God is infused with doubt and lament.

So, how does the Defensive Theology Scale fit into this scheme?

The DTS mainly assesses the complaint dimension. Those scoring high on the DTS (those endorsing consoling beliefs) would be low on the complaint dimension, moving them in the Summer Christian direction. Those scoring low on the DTS (those rejecting consoling beliefs) would be higher on the complaint dimension, moving them in the Winter Christian direction.

But the circumplex model is two-dimensional, and the DTS doesn't help in assessing the vertical, communion dimension, the degree to which one is engaged with God. For example, an atheist would score low on the DTS, simply because he rejected any and all beliefs about God. Consequently, a low score on the DTS, by itself, couldn't distinguish the Winter Christian from the non-believer.

That creates problems for researchers who want to use the DTS to identify Winter Christians. This issue was pointed out to me by Ron Wright, Paul Jones and the psychology faculty from Southern Nazarene University, who have used the DTS extensively in their research. Ron Wright knows more about using the DTS in Christians samples than I do.

The way Ron and the SNU research teams get around this issue with the DTS is that, alongside the DTS, they also assess religious commitment in their research with Christian samples. Religious commitment scales assess the degree to which one engages in religious activities and practices, like going to church, praying, and studying the the Bible. The measure of religious commitment assesses the vertical, communion/engagement dimension of the circumplex model. (An aside to researchers: I also think a measure of intrinsic religiosity would tap this dimension.) Winter Christians, as assessed by those at SNU, are those who score low on the DTS (high complaint) and high on religious commitment (high communion).

All that to say, to answer the question raised in the last post, yes, there are Christians who eschew the beliefs assessed by the DTS. There are Winter Christians.

That said, as the researchers at SNU have pointed out, one can't use the DTS all by itself to identify these sorts of believers. The DTS assesses only one dimension of the two-dimensional circumplex model, so a measure of communion/engagement with God (e.g., religious commitment, intrinsic religiosity) is also needed.

And with that question answered, we reach the final, most pressing question. Summer and Winter Christians might believe different sorts of things about God and cancer diagnoses, but do they behave differently?