Inwardness or Inwardism?

I have quite enjoyed following Jeremy Ridenour’s blog.  I find his contributions reflect a clarity and charity (sorry those were the two best words I could think of) that is seldom found in this nook of the blogosphere.  In his final comment on a recent engagement with Adam Kotsko’s The Politic’s of Redemption a thought has continued to linger in my mind.

He concludes his post,

Comments: On a personal note, yesterday I taught Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity in Sunday school at my mainline church. The class seemed to take quite nicely to his critique of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s idea of a suffering God. However, most were quite uncomfortable with the idea of abandoning piety and a personal relationship with God. I think Bonhoeffer’s critique is Lutheran in character because he worries that this turn inward is a false start. Luther continued to emphasize that Christ is found on the cross not inside the heart of the individual believer. If Bonoheffer’s ultimate aim is to promote a Christianity that is solely focused on living in this world, then we have to come to terms with the fact that inwardness is an obstacle to being in communion with one another. It breeds narcissism and self-righteousness. Encountering God on the cross requires that the body of Christ tear down the crosses society has erected to serve the disenfranchised. God can only be found in the midst of suffering because God in Christ has let Godself be pushed out of the world onto the cross.

For some time now I have been struggling with the implications of ‘death of god’ thinking especially with respect to human agency and the ‘the poor’ (those denied access to structural/cultural powers).  I cannot shake the belief an individual is somehow ‘backed’ by something larger when he or she enters into the biblical way of love (as articulated broadly within liberation theology/thinking).  This backing is no functional guarantee of immediate ends or goals.  This backing is more what I understand some marginalized group referring to as ‘soul power’.  The backing is a strength (and a joy) that confirms that the cause, acts and orientations are just despite ‘the wicked prospering’.  This backing does not create an obstacle but provides the strength and discernment to engage the powers in a manner that the powers ultimately cannot overcome.  The reason I have concerns over how Jeremy articulated his comments is because I see this denial of inwardness being an appeal and possibility only to those who already have a strengthened inwardness (intellectual confidence, social stability/capital, cultural status, etc.).  I don’t see this sort of thinking reflected in marginalized communities themselves.  Now perhaps these communities need to eventually be ‘corrected’ in their false appeal to inwardness but from what I see there is an element of inwardness that is necessary if one is to have the sustenance to survive going against the powers of this world.

I take as my examples here Public Enemy’s last album How you sell soul to a souless people who sold their soul.  The entire album is a meditation on the need for action and call to the black hip hop community to renounce claims to external power that are backed by larger economic forces.  Public Enemy themselves are advocates of alternative forms of production and distribution in this matter.  In what is arguably the worst (best?) first line to one of the tracks Chuck D says,

I may not got no flow
but I ain’t pimped by no negro
Backed by some
cracka wit
his ass by the door
I can never be poor
cause my mind , body, and soul
cannot be sold

Perhaps it is just sentimental nonsense but in the fight for external shifts many groups outside traditional means of power have found it necessary to understand a particular inwardness that does not need to be fed by powers that are inherently corrupt and corrupting.

The second example is reading Gutierrez’s We Drink From Our Own Wells.  I have been surprised at the extent to which Gutierrez appeals to writers such as Augustine, St. John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola as resources in the material struggle for freedom.  In a characteristic passage he quotes Ignatius as saying,

What helps most on our part towards this end must be, more than any exterior constitution, the interior law of charity and love which the Holy Spirit writes and engraves upon hearts. (87)

Gutierrez goes on (speaking about material and spiritual matters),

The historical and personal dimensions intertwine and enrich each other within a process that follows the same basic pattern in both cases.

There is no aspect of human life that is unrelated to the following of Jesus.  The road passes through every dimension of our existence. . . . A spirituality is not restricted to the so-called religious aspects of life: prayer and worship.  It is not limited to one sector but is all-embracing, because the whole of human life, personal and communal, is involved in the journey.  A spirituality is a manner of life that gives profound unity to our prayer, thought, and action. (88)

Spirituality is the fundamental organizing ‘synthesis’ that provides orientation for the fundamental expression of Christian life in a given context.  Later he goes on to say,

Unless we understand the meaning of gratuitousness , there will be no contemplative dimension in our life.  Contemplation is not a state of paralysis but of radical self-giving. . . . In the final analysis, to believe in God means to live our life as a gift from God and to look upon everything that happens in it as a manifestation of this gift. . . . [T]he attitude of finding God in all things can be acquired only if we activate a contemplative dimension in our lives. . . . A commitment that takes shape in effective action is therefore required by the gratuitous love of the Lord, but let us not forget that an inverse moment is also needed: the contemplation that historical action calls for. (110-111, 113)

I understand the critique of a certain type of inwardness but Jeremy’s quote stuck with me because of the way inwardness was characterized as an obstacle itself.  Is the concern against inwardism or is this approach actually trying to root out reflective space with regards to faithful adherence to Christ and the cross?  Perhaps I am reading too much into that comment but I suppose it distilled my own need to address  concerns over what appears to be a temptation towards a gospel of the strong that I can see emerging from certain strands of ‘death of god’ thought.  Again, I do not want to pin my larger concerns on this single comment only allow it to be a vehicle for further reflection . . . and perhaps an opportunity for Jeremy to weigh in.


9 thoughts on “Inwardness or Inwardism?

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful reflections. Later on in the comment section I say this:

    For Bonhoeffer, pious inwardness is simply not the place where we encounter God in this world.

    That is my major point. I don’t think God is found in the heart of the individual believer. Of course I’m a training psychoanalytic psychologist so I believe intensely in introspection, self-analysis, etc.

    I see this denial of inwardness being an appeal and possibility only to those who already have a strengthened inwardness (intellectual confidence, social stability/capital, cultural status, etc.). I don’t see this sort of thinking reflected in marginalized communities themselves.

    This is a fair point. Feminist theologians often argue that the major sin for women is a lack of self-confidence and humility. My whole idea is that those types of virtues and emotional and intellectual strengths are best cultivated within communities.


  2. Thanks for some clarification I assumed as much but there was a certain starkness in your comments that I wanted to leave open especially with the contrast to your formation in psychoanalysis. What I have yet to unpack is the extent to which a ‘death of god’ approach would eventually demand the overthrow of expressions organic to some of these marginal movements because they would ultimately ‘hinder’ their growth/development/etc. This is where I was not sure where you might come down given how you seemed to be directing people in your church class. Does inwardness need to eventually overcome the inner Spirit of God? I don’t know. My thoughts get a little fuzzy at that point and this is definitely where I start parting ways with the whole project as I see it developed.


  3. I think you’re reacting to perhaps an overstatement in my post. I think inwardness is often a hindrance an encourages navel-gazing. I’m not under the illusion that ALL inswardness is bad, but rather it is not the place where we encounter God in the world. As Luther would say, hold onto the cross of Christ. Ultimately, I just don’t give a damn if somebody is praying and has inward piety. If they do that’s great. I’m skeptical of most of those expressions. If piety leads one to open one’s self to the world then of course I’m behind it, but inwardness is by no means to telos.

    I come from a psychoanalytic perspective and am very uncomfortable with spirtuality. I’m not trying to sit in judgment of others who feel that they have an inner religious life. I just know how easy it for the internal structures of our minds to greatly distort our representation of God. The other day my professor said transference-love is real love. But of course all love is transference, and I think a relationship with God has more to do with our object relations (i.e. our representations of others) than with the God on who is revealed on the cross of Christ.


  4. That’s helpful. Although I still see you prone to some ‘overstating’ here.
    – I don’t give a damn
    – if they do that’s great
    – I’m skeptical
    – of course I’m behind it
    – very uncomfortable
    – easy . . . to greatly distort

    Perhaps that is the reality of what we are talking about. Is it fair to say you basically view it from a ‘strengths-based’ perspective? I guess I find the wide swings in your comments a little confusing. I also suspect context is extremely important to clarify in terms of how you might treat a clinical setting, a church setting and theological dialogue. I guess I tend to start sniffing a little groundless condescension in this sort of conversation. This is a larger issue of mine that I am not looking to pin you as I don’t see your expression as trying to make any unnecessary power moves as it focuses on worldly cross-demolishing.


  5. I don’t understand what you find confusing. I personally don’t care if somebody is pious. I tend to be skeptical of it (given my psychoanalytic background and experience living among evangelical Christians), but I don’t doubt that it could be a source of strength in helping someone throw themselves into the world. My experience leads me to believe that it is often a hindrance. All I’m saying is that a focus on this world and encountering God in the neighbor is the heart of the gospel for me. My psychoanalytic point was merely to offer a theological critique that when we allow the inner working of our mind to conceive of God,we inevitably generate transferential idols.


  6. To make this a bit clearer let me use an example. You’re a pastor and i suspect have some sort of inner piety or spiritual drive. That is something that does not concern me. I believe Christ exists as the ‘man for others’ (Bonhoeffer) and only in the service of the other do we encounter the crucified Christ. I would want to encourage you to recognize that your inner piety is of secondary importance to Christian service, which also should guide our talk about God. Is this clear?

    The condescension you detect is probably a byproduct of my mistrust of Christianity and my psychoanalytic leanings.


  7. That is helpful. I appreciate the nuance you are putting on this. I think we will simply part on ways on the need for there to be ‘primary and secondary’ importance as I would simply not parse things that way. And to clarify the confusion was more a matter of tone that didn’t seem to fit what you were communicating.
    While I may try to eventually tease out a response to the following quote I found it quite well put.
    ‘My psychoanalytic point was merely to offer a theological critique that when we allow the inner working of our mind to conceive of God, we inevitably generate transferential idols.’


  8. My comment on primary importance is simply based on my following Bonhoeffer’s critique of individualism and personal salvation. But you’re right, this is probably an impasse in the dialogue.


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