Athanasius and Terror Management Theory

Being married to a psychologist, sale I always get excited when I find areas where theology and psychology intersect. One of Chuck’s areas of expertise is Terror Management Theory, pharmacy established in 1989 in an article by Abram Rosenblatt, here Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski, and Deborah Lyon published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Terror Management Theory (TMT) is a theory of motivation with strong existential roots. TMT describes humans as unique in our ability to think about the future, which gives us the tremendous advantage of being able to plan and anticipate. But this advanced cognitive ability has a downside. Thinking about the future makes us aware of our mortality, which causes intense anxiety. We buffer ourselves against this anxiety (“managing” our “terror”) by holding to a shared cultural worldview that provides us with an explanation for why our brief lives have meaning, what life is all about, how we should live it; and ultimately provides a promise of some form of immortality. The promised immortality can be literal (heaven, resurrection) or symbolic (creating long-lasting works of art, having a positive impact on society, raising children who outlive you, etc). By pursuing a meaningful life, we are pursuing immortality, and our existential anxiety is overcome.

It’s interesting to see where TMT appears in theology, especially when it’s old theology that dates well before the psychologists put a name to it. (Ecclesiastes comes to mind, in which the author rejects symbolic forms of immortality in favour of the literal immortality associated with one’s relation to God). In On the Incarnation, Athanasius has an extended discussion of the effects of the Resurrection on the lives of Christian believers. Based largely on an examination of 1Corinthians 15, Athanasius argues that before Christ came, died and was resurrected, even the holiest of men feared death. But because of Christ’s resurrection, death has been defeated, and Christians are promised resurrection like Christ. As such Christians no longer fear death, but instead embrace it.

Athanasius points to the martyrs as examples of this. They are the ones who “prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ.” He argues that before these martyrs knew Christ they did fear death, and having encountered the risen Saviour, do so no longer. In fact, now men, women and even children mock death. Athanasius even uses the martyrs’ willingness to die as evidence for the reality of the Resurrection of Christ. Everyone is afraid of death, but not these Christians. The change is because of the power of the Resurrection.

He writes,

If you see with your own eyes men and women and children, even, thus welcoming death for the sake of Christ’s religion, how can you be so utterly silly and incredulous and maimed in your mind as not to realise that Christ, to Whom these all bear witness, Himself gives victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold His faith and bear the sign of the cross? No one in his senses doubts that a snake is dead when he sees it trampled underfoot, especially when he knows how savage it used to be; nor, if he sees boys making fun of a lion, does he doubt that the brute is either dead or completely bereft of strength. These things can be seen with our own eyes, and it is the same with the conquest of death. Doubt no longer, then, when you see death mocked and scorned by those who believe in Christ, that by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to end. (pg. 59-60)

Of course, we might wonder if the accounts and testimonies of the martyrs of the early Church are exaggerated so that confidence is highlighted and any fears, doubts or even public recantations are minimized, but the modern psychology of TMT does suggest that religion is indeed a powerful buffer that minimizes death anxiety.

That being said, TMT is powerless to support Athanasius’ argument that the ability to face death proves the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection. One of the best books on TMT is In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, in which the September 11th attacks are analyzed using TMT research and principles. The ability of the terrorists to willingly sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks points to the power of religious worldviews to overcome death anxiety. Similar willingness to die can be seen in the practice of self-immolation, which is becoming increasingly-common in Asia. In 2001-2002, for example, over 3,000 Indians burned themselves to death, many in protest of government policies perceived to be anti-Hindu. Self-immolation is also a common form of protest among Tibettan Buddhists. Willingness to die does not prove that Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism is true, only that, as TMT predicts, these religious worldviews have the power to overcome the fear of death. The ability to buffer against death is not unique to the Christian worldview; rather, if TMT is correct, it is a function of all worldviews.


Do you fear death? Has the proclamation of the Resurrection changed how you see death? Have you found that your Christian worldview buffers against death anxiety?

Sunday Meditation

“But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, viagra and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, troche so far as human nature can, capsule the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life…Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will recieve that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.”
Athanasius, On The Incarnation, pg. 96.

The Pastoral Balm of Reading the Patristics

Sometimes it takes some time to process what I’ve learned in class, remedy especially when classes are structured as week-long intensives. So this week, diagnosis while on vacation, I spent quite a bit of time thinking through the things that I learned in Patristics.

I think the most useful thing I learned through the Patristics class was not names and dates and theological controversies (though these are all important). Instead, what I learned was that I have found a group of Christians who, though long dead, are able to provide a valuable pastoral ministry to the 21st century Church, a ministry of nourishment and encouragement.

Specifically, The Church Fathers encourage us to think deep and hard, and to recognize that intellectual pursuit is indeed a form of worship. The Church Fathers practiced a faith that was not solely driven by emotion or pragmatics, but a faith that is smart, intellectual, complex and deep. As Robert Louis Wilken notes, “their intellectual work was always in service of praise and adoration of the one God” and, “The intellectual task was a spiritual undertaking.” Or, perhaps even more pointed, is his observation, “There could be no believing without thinking about what was believed.”

Somehow in our North American, seeker-sensitive model, we’ve defined pastoral ministry as reaching the lowest common denominator. And anyone who wishes to think deeply and wrestle with philosophical and theological issues are told that perhaps their calling isn’t to pastoral ministry but is instead to academia. There is a divorcing of intellect and faith occurring in the Church, and the message seems to be “if you want to think deep go somewhere else.” I’ve lived it, I’ve seen it and I’ve had several people suggest that “thinking” disqualifies me from pastoral ministry because it is not compassionate enough.

And so I sat under the Patristics for a week (more like a month if you include all the pre-course reading and preparation) and through them I was fed. It’s not only okay to be a thinking Christian, but thinking Christians who saw their theological education as an act of worship in fact gave us the Church we have today. They wrestled through the hard issues of the natures of Christ, the relationship of the Trinity, and the purpose of Christian worship, and they left us the legacy that we have built our churches on. We seem to forget that, as if the Church just sprang into being fully formed, and we forget that the Holy Spirit was at work through the theological issues, and the political issues, and the ecclesiological issues.

The 21st century Church needs thinkers. It needs thinkers in its pulpits and in pastoral ministry. And every time we shunt them off to academia and tell them that their work is only for the benefit of the “ivory tower” we forsake the valuable giftings that the Holy Spirit has given the Church.

A Patristic Exhortation to the Evangelical Church

Me: Does it make me a bad theology student if I find reading Augustine really really really boring?
Prof: Nope. It just makes you a bad person.

I don`t like reading Augustine. There`s something about him where my eyes glaze over and I all see is “blah, check blah, purchase blah.” That being said, I have been reflecting for three days on a sermon he preached at Easter Vigil. Here, he calls the Church the threshing floor, and Christians grains of wheat. He says that on this threshing floor there is both wheat and chaff; good Christians and bad Christians. One day the grain on the threshing floor will be winnowed by Jesus (Luke 3:17), with the wheat separated from the chaff. Augustine goes on to offer this exhortation to the Church:

You older faithful, you listen too to what I’m saying. Any of you who are grain, rejoice with trembling, and stay where you are, and don’t leave the threshing-floor. Don’t attempt, on your own judgment, to shake yourselves free, as it were, from the chaff; because if you want to separate yourself now from the chaff, you won’t be able to stay on the threshing-floor. And when that one comes who distinguishes infallibly between grain and chaff, he won’t carry up to the granary anything he doesn’t find on the threshing-floor. So it will be no good at that time for grains to boast about the ears of wheat they come from, if they have left the threshing-floor. That granary will be filled and closed. Anything left outside will be gutted by fire.

So then, dearly beloved, if you are good must put up with the bad; if you are bad, you must imitate the good. The fact is, on this threshing-floor grains can degenerate into chaff, and again grains can be resurrected from chaff. This sort of thing happens every day, my dear brothers and sisters; this life is full of both painful and pleasant surprises.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a word in here for evangelicals. No, I’m not saying that we all have to cross the Tiber and join the RC Church. But, I wonder if there is a word here for disenfranchised evangelicals who have chosen to be Christian without being a part of a corporate worship structure.

Well, Amanda, I gather with a few friends at Starbucks and we talk about spiritual things, and Jesus said where two or three are gathered there I am, so church is organic and spontaneous and fluid. Someone might say in response. Or, the invisible church is so much bigger than four walls and a structured church life of programs and prayer meetings. I see church when I fellowship through the blogosphere.

I wonder if this denies the physicality and incarnational aspect of going to church, of intentionally and purposefully entering a specific worship space and joining not only with people we like and would meet at Starbucks, but also with people we don’t like, those who challenge us, those who disagree with us, and those who annoy us to no end.

It’s so easy for us today to say that we know better, that we’re smarted than the older Christians in our midst.
They are old-fashioned.
They’re from a different time.
Their issues aren’t our issues and they just don’t understand us.
And because our culture values and chases after youth and youthfulness, we think we have power, we think we have a special knowledge and gifting of the Spirit that makes us better.

But we don’t. And what we have to realize is that in twenty years, we will be the “old fashioned old fogies” and the next generation will think that they’re smarter, wiser and better Christians than we are.

At the same time, I see a call for those who feel like their churches are forsaking the gospel and walking away from doctrinal truth. Should the “grains” walk away and leave the chaff?

I read Augustine’s sermon as a call to not walk away, to not think that we can do it better on our own. It is a call to embrace the incarnation of church life with all its messiness, with all its mistakes, will all its missteps.
Augustine final advice to the faithful in the Church is this, the chaff needs the grain to be a good example for them:

Listen to me, grains; listen to me, those of you who are what I desire you to be. Don’t let the mixture of husks (chaff) depress you; they won’t be with you forever…So listen to me, you husks (chaff); thought if you do listen, you won’t be husks anymore. So listen. Let God’s patience stand you in good stead. Let your association with the grains, and their advice and admonitions, make you too into grains. You are not denied the showers of God’s word; don’t let God’s field in you be barren. So, grow green again, grow grain again, grow ripe again. The one who sowed you, after all, wishes to find full ears of corn, not empty husks.

(Augustine, Sermon 223 ‘At the Easter Vigil’ c. 412 in Essential Sermons, p. 277-279)

Amend Your Life

“If the candidate proves to be without fault in these matters the bishop writes down his name; but if someone is accused of anything, nurse he is asked to leave and told: ‘Amend your life and when that is done approach the baptismal font.’” Egeria. (quoted in Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God pg 38)

One of the interesting things in reading the Patristic Fathers is seeing how people were accepted into the Early Church. Of note is the idea that the person, having made a confession of faith (having been saved), has to amend their life prior to be being baptized, and baptism is the gateway into full membership into the Church. It is only the baptized who can partake of the Eucharist, for example. And this idea of righting your life is vital.

So not only in the Didache, but also in the writing of Hippolytus (another early source for liturgy of the Church from the first half of the third century), there appears to be a definite process one undergoes before they are baptized. And this time of preparation or catechesis is not mere teaching. It is not merely learning “what” to believe, but also an examination of their life to see if they are living rightly, that is, living the life of a Christian.

And when those who are to receive baptism are chosen, let their life be examined: have they lived good lives when they were catechumans?…From the time that they were set apart, let hands be laid on them daily while they are exorcized…And if anyone is not good or not pure, let him be put aside, because he has not heard the word with faith, for it is impossible that the Alien should hide himself for ever. (Article 20)

This isn’t grounded in legalism, but out of a strong desire to demonstrate that God has indeed transformed sinners, that He has so powerfully worked in their lives; and that the Church is a body of saints, a people who think and act and love so differently from the rest of the world. And so those who desire to join the Church and be baptized are to examine their lives, walk the right path (or as the Didache says, choose the Way of Life), be exorcised from all evil, and fast in preparation for baptism.

The evangelical church gets a bad rap for doing this. “Sinners” can come and visit the church, but they can’t truly become part of the church until they get their stuff together. And when this happens, the church is accused of being judgmental, unloving and unwelcoming. And so, to counter this, the evangelical church adopts “seeker sensitive” models, and open communion because hospitality and a narrow understanding of love (largely defined by a modern notion of tolerance) is now what should define the church.

Ultimately, I think this all leads back to the central question, what is the purpose of Sunday morning worship? Is it merely a gathering, or is it a time for the body of Christ to be joined to Him, to worship Him and to be refreshed and equipped to go out and do the work of grace and love in the world?

…the random reflections on the Patristics continue…

Being Defined by the “Don’ts”

“Christians, rx don’t have any fun. Just look at all the things they ‘don’t’ do.”

It’s a comment I have encountered over the years. And some Christians think that to fix this, pharmacy that it’s time to be defined solely by what we “do” and not by what we “don’t” do.

There’s a difference between “we don’t do these things so as to be saved” and “we don’t do these things because we are saved.” The first is legalism; the second is an act of worship.

Being defined by what we don’t do is not new. It is not a new product of 20th century fundamentalism, or of Wesleyan-holiness traditions. Christians being defined by what we don’t do, and being see as weird for the things we don’t do, stretches back even to the early church.

This is where I find the Didache so interesting. It is filled with ‘don’ts’ and ‘should nots’. Even when it states what early Christians should do, it also does not shy away from stating unequivocally what they should not be doing.

Not only does it include the 10 commandment “thou shalt and thou shalt nots” it also details other things that Christians shouldn’t do.

A few examples:

You shall not kill a child in the womb nor expose infants. –This was a common practice in the Greco-Roman culture, and Christians were strange for not only not doing this, but also for actively adopting those children who had been abandoned to the elements to die.

You shall not speak evil of others. You shall not hold grudges. –This is built off the commandment to not bear false witness.

Do not let yourself become angry: it may start in anger, but end in murder. –Anger ends in murder! Wow!

Do not lust after sex…[and] You should not be someone of obscene speech nor someone with a roaming eye… -All of these lead to fornication.

Ultimately, what the Didache is teaching is that there are two ways, the Way of Life and the Way of Death. And to follow the Way of Life is to do things differently than those who follow the Way of Death. And in both cases, those who follow the Way of Life and the Way of Death are defined by not only what they do, but also what they don’t do.

Following the Way of Life, living in a way that that is distinct from the pagan/secular/unchristian culture demonstrates that Christians are different and that this way of living is more than merely following rules, or more than just legalism; but it is instead an act of worship that becomes worked out not only through the act of baptism but also through participation in the Eucharist, the meal of giving thanks for Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection.

It is inevitable and unavoidable. Christians have been, and will continue to be, defined not only by what they do, but also by what they don’t do. We should be careful to not privilege one while forsaking the other, especially if we forsake it simply because it makes us look weird.

10 Reasons Christians Shouldn’t Read the Patristic Fathers

10. They’re boring. They don’t talk about anything interesting. Ever. And they are polite and never ever disagree with each other.

9. People were baptized naked. Yup. Naked. Oh my victorian/evangelical sensibilities!

8. What do you mean there were women in leadership in the early church? Church Mothers? Desert Mothers? Everyone knows that the only biblical model for women is to be at home in high heels and have supper in the oven.

7. We may have our view of communion challenged. What do you mean they celebrated communion weekly? Everybody knows you should only celebrate it monthly otherwise it becomes stale and rote.

6. The Reformers read the Church Fathers and look at how bad that turned out for Christianity.

5. They wrote in Greek (which is too hard to learn) and Latin (which is a dead language).

4. If we read the Patristics we may come to find that the heroes weren’t always noble and honourable and the villains (heretics) weren’t always the bad guys.

3. Everyone knows that “communion of saints” only refers to this current generation.

2. Their issues are in no way our issues today. All of our issues theological and ecclesiological are brand new and have never been experienced by any other generation of Christians.

1. Karl Barth was heavily influenced by the Church Fathers and everyone knows that if Barth liked it it must be wrong!

Insults, Invectives and Christian Speech

I did my Reformation Era paper on Invectives against women preachers/teachers/writers in the Reformation, prostate and one of the questions I asked was, order “should we be shocked and appalled by it?” Part of what I wrestled with was whether these invectives were unique, or whether they were a part of the rhetoric of the day. The invectives hurled at the women preachers were just as nasty as the invectives hurled between men. Indeed, all one has to do is look at the insults that Luther threw out left and right to anyone who dared disagree with him. (For fun, check out the Lutheran Insulter, it’s a hoot!)

And now as I am neck-deep in Patristics, I find the same pattern of invectives. Athanasius, the great defender of the faith against Arianism, was not polite in his disagreeing with Arius and his followers.

In his Orations against the Arians (Book 1), he takes several swipes at Arius:

Arius is the “forerunner of the Antichrist.”
Arius is “weak and effeminate”.
Arius has an “unmanly character of his soul.”
His writing has an “effeminate manner and melody.”
Those who follow Arius are “Arian-maniacs!”
Arius’ writing and theological treatises are “jokes”, “fables” and “a laughable document”.

Does Athanasius need to say these things to disagree with Arianism? Does it actually improve his argument to throw out names and insults? Once he settles down and actually engages the ideas of Arianism and weighs them against Scripture, he has a pretty good argument.

Are the insults necessary?

That is the question that I keep coming back to as I read the invectives, insults and rhetoric in the writings of the “heroes of the faith.”

Are the insults necessary?

That is the question that I keep coming back to when I read blogs and debates going on between evangelicals today.

Is there a way to disagree strongly and smartly without having to resort to insults? And if there is, why don’t we do that? Why is it that in 2,000 years of Church history, disagreement and even condemnation of heresy is done not solely through sound exegesis, wrestling with theology or in the spirit of truth and love, but is instead peppered with insults, and name-calling?

Now of course, we could argue that it’s just simply human nature. But as Christians aren’t we called to be different? Our words belie what is in our hearts, and if the Holy Spirit resides in our hearts, how can insults flow so freely from our tongues?

I’m not saying that we can’t disagree or that we can’t specifically defend Truth or that we can’t name heresy and sin for what they are. But, are the insults necessary?