Anxiety and Grace


John Shuck is a Presbyterian pastor who maintains an fascinating and often provocative blog, and lots of other Presbyterians leave comments there. Because it is a blog community visited by many Presbyterians, the subject of the Calvinist predestination comes up there from time to time.

I was interested to see that one of the suggested benefits of Calvinism is that, because it posits that our eternal fate is predetermined and thus completely out of our hands, we are therefore liberated from the anxiety associated with trying to do whatever is necessary to save our souls. But my experience has been that lots of people--maybe most of us--are rarely liberated from anxiety over high stakes outcomes simply because those outcomes are out of our control. In fact, people often feel anxious over such matters even when the stakes are not so high. Taking the control out of our hands is not a ticket to devil-may-care ease. We care about outcomes because the outcomes matter to us. And what can matter more to us than our eternal fate?

One could argue that various hell-believing versions of Christianity such as Arminianism (and fundamentalism) could inspire religious angst because they leave it up to the believer himself or herself to do whatever steps are necessary to find salvation, thus opening the way to missteps along the way. It may be, as fundamentalists like to say, that the only thing necessary is to "accept Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior" and be baptized. Although they claim that this is an expression of pure or unconditional grace, that isn't really true; there is still a condition, namely that you have the right theological beliefs and commit yourself to them. Frankly, I don't see evidence that a lot of fundamentalists are losing sleep over the fates of their souls. I was once proselytized at my front door by a pair of fundamentalists, whose first question to me after I opened the door was whether I knew whether I was going to heaven. If there were any anxiety behind that question, it was well hidden; but self-doubt is not the hallmark of fundamentalism anyway.

I think the real issue is that all of these various forms of Christianity share a belief in what the stakes are. The stakes are really high--either something wonderful is going to happen to you after you die, or something terrible will happen instead. I would argue that caring about outcomes when there are stakes involved lies at the heart of so much of the human condition. Narrative art forms would not exist, for example, if it were not for this human desire to care about outcomes even when we have no control over them. When the hero of an adventure film gets in trouble, the viewer feels some level of anxiety as he or she watches the story unfold. Even when one expects a happy ending, the uncertainty over the outcome can keep one interested. We are not the script writers of the stories that capture our attention; we are powerless to change the outcome. And yet we watch anyway. We care vicariously about the stakes involving a character who doesn't even exist in real life. This demonstrates just how built-in the human desire to care about outcomes really is.

The gambling industry relies on this very fact. There exists for many gamblers a rush, a thrill, during that time that lies between the placement of the bet and the determination of the final result. This is true at the blackjack table and it is true at horse races. The gambler cannot control the results; yet the gambler feels a very real moment of anxiety as he or she awaits the outcome.

The point I am making here is that Calvinist doctrine of predestination is hardly comforting in any real sense. In fact, the very sense of powerlessness that is built into it can actually be anxiety-producing rather than anxiety-relieving. Having no control over one's destiny can, for some anyway, be worse than at least having the ability to make a difference. And none of this even begins to address the fact that many people object on principle to the kind of God portrayed by the Calvinist idea of the selectivity of Divine favor, or the perception of humanity as being characterized by "total depravity".

The real problem that I see is that religious doctrines that suggest that human souls are in jeopardy unless--regardless of what that "unless" happens to be--all suffer from the same basic problem. I don't care whether the doctrine in question is Calvinist, Arminian, or something else. I think that the real way to take away the anxiety is to stop glomming onto the doctrine of hell altogether. When you believe in a God of universal, unconditional, and fully self-emptying love for each and every one of us, then the problem of anxiety goes away. We no longer have to worry about our fate after we die because we trust that God loves each one of us fully and equally, that God does not bestow favors or punishments to some over others, and that all of us are equally God's children.

This is not just a Christian issue, by the way. Buddhism traditionally has suffered from this problem of anxiety over one's fate after death. Buddhism commonly has dealt with this by concerning itself with people having the right state of mind and right thoughts when they died; the fear was that, regardless of what kind of life they led, if the last thoughts that the person had were wrong, this would negatively impact their karma. You can imagine how much anxiety results from that belief.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (also known as Shin Buddhism), however, rejects this notion. Alfred Bloom writes his book The Promise of Boundless Compassion about how Shinran, the founder of this form of the Buddhist faith, revolutionized the faith with his doctrine of radical grace:

Shinran was deeply convinced that the foundation of the unconditional and non-discriminating salvation of each and every person lies in the work of Amida Buddha, not in the accumulation of our good karma or our mental discipline throughout the process of death. He strongly urged his followers who had faith not to be concerned with the last moment before death...

Since Amida's infinite work provided the basis for the infinite result of salvation, all anxiety was dispelled about the state of one's final moment of life and the apprehension that one might die now having pronounced the nembutsu with his last breath.
Here we have an example of how a true doctrine of universal grace can liberate the religious believer from anxiety. Bloom summarizes the liberating aspects of this form of faith in the following way:
Whenever religion places great emphasis on future realization and gain, the meaning of the present is reduced. Since no one can know the future, we are particularly vulnerable to spiritual oppression. Our anxiety manifests itself in a perennial interest in divination, seeking spirits, or astrology, and , in our modern life, this anxiety is also manifested through insurance salesmen trading on our anxiety about the unknown future.

Shinran's rejection of the last moment theory, and his establishment of the certainty of the assured state, invests the present moment with its own meaning independent of traditional social or institutional religious acceptance. It is this which makes Shin Buddhism a religion of true freedom, freeing the individual to develop his or her own inner potential in harmony with the compassion which freed him. Meaning comes not through the anxious pursuit of salvation or subjection to religious institution, but through responding to compassion which is experienced in all of life and embodying it through mutual community. It is this spiritual freedom that is the still radical and life-revolutionizing message of Shinran's thought for today's anxious and alienated men and women.
The question for Christians is, I believe, this: how can they make Christianity a religion of true freedom? I believe this can never happen as long as the religion places high stakes on the outcomes of our eternal souls. Just as the the radical grace of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism liberated Buddhism, a doctrine of universal, unconditional grace can also liberate Christianity.


Heather W. Reichgott said...

I really like this post.

Religion as "cosmic fire insurance" has always seemed false to me. If someone's faith is driven by a fear of hell, doesn't that make his faith more about hell than about God? And then, once you've got faith in the good and loving God, why bother with all the hell stuff anyway? shouldn't it be irrelevant?

A teeny bit of history--Calvin did indeed explain the doctrine of double predestination as a comfort to allay people's anxieties about their own salvation. However, his frame of reference wasn't fundamentalists or Arminians (Arminius was a generation later)--it was the medieval Catholic system of penance. Which was, at that time (not now), basically a never-ending series of hoops that people had to jump in order to hold on to their salvation, or so they were taught. Never-ending hoop-jumping would be a source of anxiety for most, I would think.

Mystical Seeker said...

Heather, thanks for that clarification.

Mike L. said...

Nice post!

The issue that produces the most anxiety is being out of control. So I agree that the calvanist aproach creates MORE anxiety.

The next problem that peole have is fearing that they might be "left out" or "abnormal". Of course another anxiety producing issue is change. Buddhist would call this impermanence, which means that we have an attachment to our current state of being, possessions, relationships, health, etc. That attachment is unreasonable since everything is always changing and the result of the attachment to something that can't last is the source of all suffering.

I'm perfectly content with no after-life. Playing on peoples fear of the unkown and playing on their fear of being left out is the technique that has helped fundamentalists spread their doctrine over the years.