Doing Theology with Integrity

Doing Theology with Integrity May 7, 2022

The old city walls of Havana, Cuba. Photo by Scott Greer at

Last week, in a blog about faith, I wrote the following:

If we decouple self-awareness about faith from anxiety about the Last Judgment—a crucial decoupling, if theology is to have integrity—then honest conversation about the persuasiveness of the faith can be a beautiful thing.

Two of you asked me to expand on that line. I’ll do my best.

Theology from the Brainstem

Integrity there is the key word. Or at least one of them. Imagine, for instance, a case of environmental law. A judge hears a case in which locals are suing a firm that wants to install a solar farm. Now suppose that judge has substantial personal investments in coal. This raises a question of integrity, literally the integratedness of her person as she acts as judge. Will she rule based on the evidence, or based on personal preservation? 

This is what I mean about the overlap of faith, judgment, and theological integrity. If I am overcome by a need for eternal security, I will likely not be very self-aware when it comes to my own confession of faith. I may want to say “I believe, help my unbelief!” Actually, though, I will be saying “I’m terrified, so I’ll say whatever I need to say to survive!” To say one thing and mean another is to speak without integrity.

Along with the questions about the integrity of my confession, there’s also a problem with my theological reasoning. Overwhelmed by fear, I will not be sorting out theological questions based on the evidence before me. My interpretation of scripture and my contemplation of, for instance, the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, will be tinged by this angst. In order to feel secure, I need Paul to be saying… I need Jesus to be . . .

In this scenario, I will be doing theology from my amygdala, a generally inadvisable practice. Working from the brainstem is helpful when it’s time to fight a bear or run from marauding hordes. Otherwise, getting back into the cortex is always the better way. 

Why be Faithful?

If eternal judgment is often the elephant in the room when we talk about sin, salvation, and a life of holy pursuits, what happens when we shift the perspective? What happens when we let that elephant out of the room, through an elephant-sized door? 

You may find, in fact, that this changes everything.

For starters, the “why” changes. It’s a fairly persistent question that students press me on. The Christian life is difficult. If our motivation for continuing in the way is not an eternal reward or an escape from an eternal punishment, what is the motivation?

What, more to the point, is the point? 

It’s a good question, but it’s also sort of a silly question, isn’t it? Not that my students are silly; at least, no sillier than I am when I ask it. It’s like asking what the point of falling in love is, if I don’t win a prize for it. The point, surely, is falling in love.

I don’t know whether in the end God will recognize in me the good and holy creature God created. I certainly hope God will. But regardless, I’d like to pray to become more loving and loyal with my friends and family, and more generous with students, colleagues and strangers. I’d like to become that, simply because that’s a rich, abundant, and godly way to live, regardless of what it earns me in the end. 

Faith’s Internal Goods

I’m reminded here of an illustration from philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre about teaching the game of chess. When we want to teach children to play this rather complex strategy game, we might need to bribe them. Here’s a dollar: practice for 30 minutes and it’s yours. There is a certain lack of integrity there, but it’s an appropriate lack of integrity for the developmental stage. Chess is hard, and the internal rewards are hard to imagine at the beginning. 

Eventually, though, the teacher hopes the child discovers the joy of playing the game well. This is the way that one excels: by becoming a person who loves to play chess. The external good of gaining a dollar is directed toward the internal goods of joy, relational connection, and all the other gifts that excelling at chess can bring. 

The Christian life is a practice filled with plenty of internal goods. “Life abundant,” Jesus called it. But it’s also difficult. Generosity, forgiveness, peace-making, poverty of spirit: those are significant challenges. Our enjoyment of them can feel far off. For beginners, eternal reward and punishment might be just the motivation we need to start practicing. Once we’ve begun, though, we likely will find that fear of hell is no longer a meaningful thing to contemplate.

Fearing with Integrity

Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian of the previous century, noticed the way that fear of one sort can keep us from fear of a deeper, better sort. “We are afraid God will accuse us like an oversized giant prosecutor, and that he will judge us like some sky-scraping chief justice. … he might send us forever to hell at the end of our days.”

But then as we enter a life of discipleship, we discover a different kind of fear altogether. “When the right fear of the Lord takes possession of our hearts, we are both lost in amazement and struck by awe, even terror. For we discover that God, since the beginning of time, has not hated or threatened you and me, but has loved and chosen us.”

Now, I’m aware of the question cooking in your minds. Is it all only about love and chosenness? What about judgment? Isn’t there a place to talk about reward and punishment? There is, and I’ll save that for next time. We’ll reopen that elephant-sized door and see what walks back through. 

For now, though, I hope you’ll agree that some things have shifted, once we’ve decoupled fear of judgment from our faith and theology. Once free from Barth’s first kind of fear, I get to be astonished into worshipful silence by the second. I get to fear God non-anxiously, and with a newly purchased integrity.

I’m grateful to my students for conversations on this subject, especially Mary Freiberger, whose thesis on the fear of the Lord brought that Barth sermon to my attention. I’ve learned plenty, also, about theology and anxiety from my colleague Gena St. David. Read her book. It’ll blow your mind and faith wide open. 

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