fear, loss of control, and theological conflict

I’ve written many times on this blog about how deep fear of loss of control sits behind heated theological conflict (e.g., here). I recently came across psychologist David G. Benner’s comments on fear, and though he is not talking about theological conflict specifically, what he says is certainly applicable to various situations dealing with disagreement over ideas, ideologies, and especially what one thinks of God. (For an earlier post on Benner, see here.)

To be clear, I am not suggesting that theological disagreement is necessarily wrong or to be avoided at all cost. But when conflict is sought out or even created and the divisions that follow are hailed as the will of God, the true indicator of theological purity and spiritual maturity, I continue to believe that deep fear of being theologically wrong, and thus losing control of one’s personal and group narrative, lies at the root.

In case anyone blew past that last paragraph, let me say it again: the simple presence of disagreement is not an indication of fear. Things like anger, belligerence, win-at-all-costs, and control-of-other are.

I’ve copied Benner’s entire post below (highlights are mine), which is an excerpt from his book Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality. I like what Benner has to say about the life of faith, and I recognize myself in these words as much as I do a fair segment of Christian culture.

One of the things that block us from gaining freedom from fear is that most fearful people don’t think of themselves as afraid. Unless their fears are focused on something external most people in bondage to fear fail to recognize the true nature of their inner distress. Fear that has not found a way to attach to external sources is very hard to identify. It has many faces, all of which mask its essential nature. Some people fear intimacy while others fear solitude. Some fear loss of control while others fear a loss of image. Some fear the strength of their feelings while others fear the loss of some comforting feeling. Some fear attention while others fear neglect. Some fear life while others fear death. Some fear pleasure while others fear pain. Some fear loss of love, while others fear love itself.

But fear can be even more elusive than this. Sometimes it can have no face at all. If it is successfully avoided, it leaves almost no trace of its presence. And so those of us who are good at avoiding our sources of fear may come to conclude that fear has no part in our story. But we are mistaken. Fear—though not experienced—is still present and a source of bondage.

Fear works in such a way that the object of the fear is almost irrelevant. Fearful people are more alike than the differences between the foci of their fear might suggest. Fear takes on its own life. Fearful people live within restrictive boundaries. They may appear quite cautious and conservative. Or they may narrow the horizons of their life by avoidance and compulsion. They also tend to be highly vigilant, ever guarding against life’s moving out of the bounds within which they feel most comfortable.

Because of this, fear breeds control. People who live in fear feel compelled to remain in control. They attempt to control themselves and they attempt to control their world. Often despite their best intentions, this spills over into efforts to control others. Life beyond control is unimaginable, even though their efforts at control have only very limited success. Fear also blocks responsiveness to others. The fearful person may appear deeply loving, but fear always interferes with the impulse toward love. Energy invested in maintaining safety and comfort always depletes energy available for love of others.


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  • mark

    Rather than fear, why not talk about something like, oh, existential anxiety–the anxiety brought on by lack of certainty. To me, if there’s one thing that people long for in life–and it’s the one thing we’ll never have–it’s ultimate certainty.

    Eric Voegelin wrote a number of books on this theme, especially The New Science of Politics and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. The experience of anxiety and the longing for certainty in the face of anxiety is what Voegelin (a Lutheran) termed “gnosticism,” and he considered it the defining characteristic of “modernity.”

    The solution for this uncertainty, in modernity, is what Voegelin terms “ideology,” a conceptual construct (a “theology”?) that offers a semblance of certainty. He contrasts that experience with “philosophy,” the love of the divine ground of wisdom, of being and the source of being. Marxism, of course, is the modern ideology par excellence, but there are many other variations of ideologies that offer secular salvation. De Toqueville was a relatively early but very acute analyst of all this.

    But before modern ideologies, says Voegelin, there were also “Christian” ideologies, and this is why Voegelin chose the term “gnosticism” to describe this phenomenon: he used it by analogy with ancient gnostics who piggy backed on Christian faith, using its symbols for their own purposes. Interestingly, Voegelin defines the Protestant Revolt as the in-breaking of gnosticism into the institutions (especially the Church) in the West. If you look at it in these terms, Luther–the hopelessly neurotic and anxious monk–and the whole Protestant spirit is paradigmatic of modern gnosticism, in which faith is redefined from reasonable belief to a basically subjective certitude in one’s own salvation. A bit like being one of the proletariat, etc. The analogies could go on almost indefinitely.

    Before anyone gets on my case, let me hasten to assign blame to the Church for tolerating the type of ‘theology” and “philosophy” (Voluntarism and Nominalism, both products of the general Augustinian tradition that is the default mode of thought in the West) that leads to these aberrations of faith.

    Self-salvation through knowledge has its own magic, and this magic is not harmless. The structure of the order of being will not change because one finds it defective and runs away from it. The attempt at world destruction will not destroy the world, but will only increase the disorder in society. The gnostic’s flight from a truly dreadful, confusing, and oppressive state of the world is understandable. But the order of the the ancient world was renewed by that movement which strove through loving action to revive the practice of the “serious play”–that is, by Christianity.

    From the Introduction to Science, Politics, and Gnosticism.

    • peteenns

      What distinction do you see between anxiety and fear, since you prefer the former?

      • mark

        I guess I’d say that anxiety is more general, less specific focus than fear. That’s why I stressed the desire for certitude as central to this experience. Voegelin and others, including Eliade, can go through history from as far back as we have knowledge and give examples of how this existential anxiety reaches acute form during “times of troubles,” that this experience has a common pattern whether in ancient Egypt or elsewhere.

        Voegelin also makes a distinction between modern forms of ideology and older forms of gnosticism. Whereas older forms stressed escape from existence, modern forms tend toward transformation of reality and even of human nature to conform with their desires.

    • Bev Mitchell

      Thanks Pete and Mark for references to what look like two great books – and both for well under ten bucks!

      Fear or anxiety are surely big anchors in life – witness the physical responses of times past in castles, moats, drawbridges, and the modern versions we see debated daily in the media. The gospel is so clearly about taking all of this to the only one who can get rid of it, and doing this daily. An unhealthy quest for certainty is definitely not the way forward, as Boyd so clearly argues in his recent book reviewed here a few posts back.

      • mark

        Nie ma za co, Bev. Think nothing of it.

        • mark

          I should, however, be clear that Voegelin (not the others, Eliade and Chesterton) is by no means easy sledding. A professor of mine once remarked that no self respecting German professor (which Voegelin was) would ever allow a book of his to be published unless he were convinced that it would be totally unintelligible to 90% of the college educated public. You’d have to have known my professor to get the full impact, and humor, of the remark. “Science, Politics and Gnosticism” is the shorter and more accessible of the two. Don’t mean to turn anyone off, just be prepared for rigorous work.

    • labreuer

      Your posts are intriguing, Mark. :-) I wonder, though, whether Voegelin isn’t oversimplifying himself—or whether you are oversimplifying him. I don’t want to turn this into a Catholic v. Protestant comment, so please take what I have to say accordingly. Other people who veer off into the nether can be ignored.

      I certainly see what you’re talking about in terms of certainty; there’s actually a spate of recent Christian discussion of doubt being healthy (which I can link to if desired). But describing the Reformation as exclusively living in this domain seems quite wrong. Correct me if I’m wrong (I’m not a Reformation scholar), but wasn’t a major goal of the Reformation to break the hierarchy of the Church—a hierarchy I would argue is questioned by e.g. Mt 20:20-28? One of the ways this hierarchy was maintained was by the Pope allegedly having the “keys to the kingdom”, including the ability to declare someone damned for eternity. The ‘doctrine’ extra Ecclesiam nulla salus may be what I’m trying to describe here.

      So in addition to the one particular above, I get the sense that there were other reasons for the Reformation which just aren’t described by your description of Voegelin’s thought. Given this, would you be willing to elaborate a bit?

      • mark

        I get the sense that there were other reasons for the Reformation which just aren’t described by your description of Voegelin’s thought.

        Actually, I did allude to more specific reasons when I referred to the various permutations of the Augustinian tradition in the West, assigning blame to the Church. Voegelin’s “The New Science of Politics” has a chapter called “The Puritan Case” in which he applies his overall theory to a particular case–check it out. The idea that the Reformation actually, and somewhat paradoxically, embodies in its thought much that had gone wrong in Christian theology, and that the source of that was Augustinian thought in one form or another, isn’t new and certainly isn’t original with me. Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism offers a very sympathetic analysis of all this.

        In my original post I referred to Luther (an Augustinian monk) as “a neurotic monk.” One need only peruse Augustine’s Confessions to locate the source of this persistently neurotic brand of spirituality and theology in the West, and reflect on the fact that in the Catechism of the Catholic Church the only authority cited more frequently than scripture is Augustine to realize that the Church is currently in the grips of a neo-Augustinian revival. I’ve written about these issues at great length on my blog, so there’s no reason to burden the comments section of Pete’s blog with lengthy “summaries.” As for my thinking on issues of hierarchy and authority, I have a fair amount to say about that, too, but two posts may give an intro to my views on those questions:

        Questions of Authority

        Anselm’s Platonism and the Development of Doctrine

  • Susan_G1

    Brenner’s description of fear is not helpful (he uses it to describe nearly every ill known to plague mankind). I don’t know about the rest of the book, but he might as well substitute “being alive” for all those conditions. I, too, prefer anxiety. It is a more specific expression of fear, and can be identified and addressed. Fear cannot be erased. It is a necessary part of our psyche. We would not be human without it.

  • Marlena Proper-Graves

    I just wanted to thank you for sharing this post. You speak for so many people who may fear to speak up because they fear the loss of a job etc. So many appreciate you. Thank you for encouraging us, via Benner, not to live in fear.

  • John W. Morehead

    I found this post wonderful, as well as the previous installment much like it in 2011. Much of what you’ve said here I’ve said in various other venues in the context of Evangelicals and new religions (most recently in an essay in the Journal of Asian Mission). I think your thoughts have application to both intrafaith and interfaith contexts. Fear and defensiveness is behind much of our religious conflict, and this leads to boundary maintenance. Thanks again.

  • Brian P.

    I recall back when I was a real Christian I had a lot of these fears. Perhaps this is something that will get moderated away, but losing faith has been the greatest, freeing experience of my life. When I was a believer from time to time I would have an experience in praise and worship or in prayer that produced a freedom from fear, sure. But now, I can much more richly say I live without ultimate fear. I am free. Truthfully, I can read the red letters of the Bible now better than ever. Truthfully, sometimes I feel like I’m on the inside of the freedom the Jesus had. And like never before, I’m OK with being wrong. Whatever is good “theology” will win in the end. I don’t need to force it or control it. I wonder if others too have left faith because they haven’t found freedom from fear in it. For those who’ve not yet found the greatest freedom they hope to find, keep searching. And don’t follow anyhow who doesn’t live in deep, generous freedom found in surrender and service to others. Back when I was a Christian, I had a substitutionary Jesus. Now, I no longer believe in stuff like Jesus’ resurrection, but I do choose to life a cruciform life like never before. It feels good to be honest. It feels great to be free. Often I feel lonely. But I am thankful for where I am today. To me, the opposite of fear isn’t necessarily control or even courage. It’s freedom. And joy.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/ Kimberly

    Thank you for this post. I really needed to be reminded of this after the attack on my latest post. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimberlyknight/2013/11/stop-saying-homosexual-lifestyle-2/

    “anger, belligerence, win-at-all-costs, and control-of-other” describe precisely a few of the comments that have made my blood pressure spike.

    Remembering the fear factor helps me to reclaim my own compassion.

    Thank you,

    • peteenns

      Healthy criticism is great, but nastiness, etc., tell us more about the commenter than anything else. Ignore them and take on their issues.

      • Brian P.

        Yes. Let’s discuss the depth of the issues, and with civility and kindness to others.

      • peteenns

        Of course, I mean’t *don’t* take on their issues. Freudian slip :-)

  • mark

    In my first post I briefly referred to the work of Mircea Eliade. Particularly in The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History and Myth and Reality Eliade deals with the role of “archaic” forms of expression–typically, myth–in relation to man’s efforts to deal with existential anxiety. He also relates “archaic” forms of expression to modern forms, showing the continuity involved throughout history:

    The author believes that understanding the structure and function of myths in these traditional societies serves to clarify a stage in the history of human thought: “myths reveal that the World, man, and life have a supernatural origin and history, and that this history is significant, precious, and exemplary.”

    He also raises the issue of Christian faith’s relation to “archaic” thought.

    G. K. Chesterton deals (in his own rather unique way) especially with that second category of issues in his classic The Everlasting Man, especially in the chapter “Man and Mythologies.”

  • Gary in FL

    I really liked this post. As far as calling it “anxiety” vs. “fear,” either works, but the sharp edge of fear is realizing/underscoring how people cloak fear with anger, and therefore out of fear are capable of doing terrible things to their neighbor.

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