Discover more from Experimental Theology with Richard Beck
In my summer session class this week I was lecturing over Terror Management Theory, the body of empirical work that has, over many years, tested the seminal ideas of Ernest Becker in his books The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.
I was speaking about the tragedy at the heart of human existence as described by Becker. Specifically, in the face of death and to create meaning we invest in values that guide and ground our lives. This is all well and good, but our investment and allegiance to particular values pit us against those who espouse different values. Thus, the great tragedy of human history is how our values, the things we cherish most, inexorably and inevitably draw us into conflict with others. The values of America bring us into conflict with other nations. The values of our political party cause us to hate and despise those who vote differently. The sacred becomes an engine of violence, hate, conflict, and hostility. And this also applies to religion.
Are we, I asked my students, doomed to this fate? Is it possible to believe in God non-violently? Can we practice a faith that doesn't demonize others?
If you know my work, this was a question I tackled in my book The Authenticity of Faith. In that book I gave an answer to these questions, but since its publication I have gone on to expand that initial answer. These answers were what I was lecturing about in class this week.
I told the students that we can practice a non-violent faith if we hold our beliefs lightly, humbly, prophetically, and, well, here's where the AI showed up.
By "lightly" I mean the answer I give in The Authenticity of Faith. This is the path pursued by most progressive Christians. Fundamentalism and rigid dogmatism are pretty reliable engines of out-group hostility. Consequently, if you can hold your beliefs more lightly you avoid some of these temptations. Doubt has some moral advantages.
However, many of us have some pretty settled convictions. Must we doubt these to avoid hostility? Well, if not lightly we can hold our beliefs humbly. Two features of humility I highlight here from the cultural humility literature are 1) a legitimate interest and concern for others, and 2) a capacity for self-criticism. For example, if you're a Democrat or a Republican you can safely espouse those values if you possess a legitimate interest and concern for those who vote differently than you do and also possess a capacity to criticize the failures and abuses of your own political tribe.
That brings me to the word "prophetically." By prophetically I mean that we possess a capacity for what Walter Brueggemann calls the "prophetic imagination." The prophetic imagination, as we see in Israel's prophetic tradition, is the capacity to name and indict our systems of oppression and how they become legitimized by appeals to God. A faith that loses this prophetic capacity is dangerous and prone to falling into the darkness.
And so, that was the start of the list I shared with my students. We can practice a non-violent faith by holding our beliefs lightly, humbly, and prophetically. But there was a fourth point I wanted to make.
My fourth point concerned divine solidarity with the victim, how in the crucifixion of Jesus God is found with and among the victims of the world. This is the move, for example, that you see a theologian like James Cone make in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. If White Christian America had been able to see the crucified God in lynched Black bodies, if they had made an identification between the cross and the lynching tree, seeing God Himself hanging in solidarity with the Black victims of White Christian violence, this would have protected White Christianity from hate, racism and violence.
The word you grab here to describe this theological move is "cruciform." To look at oppression and victimhood with a cruciform perspective, to see God's divine solidarity with victims, is to practice a victimless Christianity.
So, I wanted to add "cruciform" to my list of lightly, humbly, and prophetically. But "cruciform" wouldn't fit the rhythm of the list. And I wasn't sure if I could turn "cruciform" into an adverb. Wanting to check this, I asked ChatGPT. I asked, "What would the adverb form of 'cruciform' be?"
The adverb form of "cruciform" would be "cruciformly." It is derived by adding the suffix "-ly" to the adjective "cruciform." The word "cruciform" describes something that is shaped like a cross, and "cruciformly" would describe an action or manner done in a cruciform shape or in a manner resembling a cross.
And so, that became my list.
We can practice a non-violent faith, I told my students, by holding our beliefs lightly, humbly, prophetically, and cruciformly.