A First-Rate Soup

Emma Pavey

one journey into practical, open theology

By Emma Pavey[1]

November 2020

There are arguments over whether deconstruction is a good tool for Christian theology to use. Sometimes, however, deconstruction is a process that just seems to happen of its own accord. There may be some who sit down and say, ‘Right, I shall now deconstruct my faith’. More commonly, I suspect, life events and new questions whip the theological rug out from under one’s feet and it’s not clear what, if anything, is underneath. To shift analogies, once crisp theology cracks apart, oozing love starts to matter more than truth, the game changes, life changes, faith changes, and one’s feet get sticky. In this paper I describe something of my own journey of deconstruction and towards a newborn, creative faith, a journey that could be described as a move towards open, relational theology. In that move, observations from psychologist Abraham Maslow provide a descriptive correlation for the kind of faith that emerges, and towards which I continue to toddle.

Though best known for his hierarchy of needs, psychologist Abraham Maslow writes in his later book ‘Towards a Psychology of Being’ about what characterizes ‘creativeness’ in his clients.[2] Maslow’s discussion of creativeness resonates with my journey into an authentic, poetic, healthy faith centred in love and it works as a metaphor for that process when viewed through a theological lens and in conjunction with the psychological development of creativity. This is surely no coincidence. It is perhaps ironic then that Maslow takes pains in the preface to describe his work as following a scientific method towards truth: he argues that while, “poets, prophets, priests, dramatists, artists or diplomats…may have wonderful insights, ask the questions that need to be asked…may even be correct and true much of the time…Science is the only way we have of shoving truth down the reluctant throat”.[3] In a therefore intriguing collaboration with this approach, his findings nonetheless provide a fascinating correlation with a return to faith, to a practical theology that is grounded in a relationship with a God of relational love.

While I have always had (and am grateful for) what I was told was a ‘spirit of questioning’, the theological rug got finally pulled out from under my lifelong evangelical feet when I was presented with the fact that there is more than one Christian theology of hell, thanks to work I was asked to do as background for a documentary on the subject.[4] I started pulling at that thread that was already loose, and now I am surrounded by a big, beautiful pile of multi-coloured threads. I say it’s beautiful now but at the start it was a disturbing, massive mess that, I quickly understood, could never be re-woven the way it was before.

The next realization was that I believed in a God of relational love through experience but I believed in hell just in case it was true: if you believe in hell and it turns out not to be real, you’ll be okay, but if you don’t believe in hell and it turns out to be real, you certainly won’t. That is the wager: it’s a trap.[5] And what came to matter – the way out of that trap – was not whether it was doctrinally accurate but the fact that that is no way to live: it stopped feeling like a practical, livable theology. A God of love doesn’t threaten hell in order for us to believe. A God of relational love will not, cannot, send people who have never heard of Christianity and never prayed the right prayer to be consciously tortured for all eternity. Maslow describes how what he terms a ‘self-actualizing’, creative character development can lead to a, “special kind of perceptiveness that is exemplified by the child in the fable who saw that the king had no clothes on”.[6] This resonates with the feeling that a switch was flipped and eternal hell went quite quickly from being a cornerstone of my theology to a ridiculous idea. ‘But the Bible says’, voices cried. I have learned that the Bible says a heck of a lot of things as its writers grappled with ways to understand and write about this very journey.

The ongoing shift, then, was from a faith with ‘Truth’ (and fear) at its centre to a faith with uncontrollable, reliable, abundant, creative, vulnerable, relational Love at the centre. While safe in its constancy and nature, unconditional love is still a fearful, awe-ful, overwhelming thing that we will never fully grasp. But a God of love is relational, not legalistic. Once Love is at the heart of faith and theology, it cannot exist alongside a belief in a supreme being who condemns people to an eternity of pain. Apart from the limitation that places on God, it just makes no sense; it had no resonance. God cannot allow torture throughout all eternity and be loving (or powerful). It made no sense for eternity and, crucially, it wasn’t practical theology for this life – if everything is predetermined then there was no real point to prayer, no answer to evil, and I had no real free will. In his study on creativeness, Maslow writes that he soon realized that he had to look beyond traditional art practices and products to find true creativity, to locate, “that more widespread kind of creativeness which is the universal heritage of every human being that is born”.[7] He observed that that “some of the greatest talents of mankind were certainly not psychologically healthy people, Wagner, for example, or Van Gogh or Byron. Some were and some weren’t, it was clear”.[8] He instead found creativity in social activists, administrators, athletes and homemakers:

“one woman, uneducated, poor, a full-time housewife and mother…was a marvelous cook…She was…original, novel, ingenious, unexpected, inventive. I just had to call her creative. I learned from her and others like her that a first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting.”[9]

In a similar vein, while cracks appeared and things fell apart, what emerged of my theology and spirituality began to be sourced more widely, more creatively, in a more embodied way that tapped into innate, original goodness – indeed it’s no coincidence I began to play at painting during this time – I still wanted a faith, but one that tasted like first-rate soup. I was blessed to be in a faith community with flex at this time; I was facilitated in my wandering rather than warned back into the doctrinal fold. I was even encouraged to air my meandering theology and my artwork in half-baked sermons.

Maslow describes “neurotic people” who “wall off from fear, much that lies within themselves. They control, they inhibit, they repress, and they suppress. They disapprove of their deeper selves and expect that others do, too”.[10] If we have a theology based on the disapproval, even anger of God, it seems likely that this kind of unhealthy profile will be the result. With a faith centred in approving, relational love, rather than externalizing our angels and demons, we are theologically and psychologically equipped to accept these parts of ourselves and not only face but befriend them, becoming less afraid of ourselves – we come to understand that we can make a hell of heaven but also a heaven of hell, to paraphrase Milton.[11] This is another place where spiritual and theological development meets the psychological. Maslow observes the importance of his clients’, “lack of fear of their own insides, of their own impulses, emotions, thoughts”.[12] He continues:

“They were more self-accepting…This approval and acceptance of their deeper selves then made it possible to perceive bravely the real nature of the world and also made their behavior more spontaneous (less controlled, less inhibited, less planned, less ‘willed’ and designed). They were less afraid of their own thoughts even when they were ‘nutty’ or silly, or crazy. They were less afraid of being laughed at or being disapproved of. They could let themselves be flooded by emotion…They waste less of their time and energy protecting themselves against themselves.”[13]

A faith based in relational love rather than fear will thus work for corporate healing in every sense, a salve on the wounds that fear and shame cause us both individually and together. Holistic, integrated healing may be physical, mental, spiritual, social, and/or ecological. We see through Maslow how a practical theology grounded in creative love has psychological parallels and ramifications. He notes that his self-actualizing creative clients demonstrated a relative absence of fear and this freed them to be “spontaneous and expressive”, something I saw reflected in my own life.[14] They were “more ‘natural’ and less controlled and inhibited in their behavior, which seemed to flow out more easily and freely and with less blocking and self-criticism. [They possessed the] ability to express ideas and impulses without strangulation and without fear of ridicule”.[15]

There are two ‘safe’ places: one is to be fearful and shameful and not free. The other is to be fearless and without shame and free. The challenge of faith is to navigate the move from the first (which may be ‘safe’ but is not ‘saved’), to the second where life is lived in full colour, embodied and psychologically healthy, a life that Jesus modeled. As Maslow describes, this journey is as much about trust in oneself as trust in God, and of course the two are connected:

“The normal adjustment of the average, common sense, well-adjusted man [sic] implies a continued successful rejection of much of the depths of human nature, both conative and cognitive. To adjust well to the world of reality means a splitting of the person. It means that the person turns his back on much in himself because it is dangerous. But it is now clear that by so doing, he loses a great deal too, for these depths are also the source of all his joys, his ability to play, to love, to laugh, and, most important for us, to be creative. By protecting himself against the hell within himself, he also cuts himself off from the heaven within. In the extreme instance, we have the obsessional person, flat, tight, rigid, frozen, controlled, cautious, who can’t laugh or play or love, or be silly or trusting or childish. His imagination, his intuitions, his softness, his emotionality tend to be strangulated or distorted.”[16]

The work of a practical theology embedded in a faith community is to support each other in this saving, healing journey. Such a theology, such a community, will not manipulate, control, or direct, any more than God does these things. In a safe-to-risk space, each will lead and serve the other by offering grace, showing mercy, demonstrating forgiveness towards oneself and others, and teaching responsibility. We will be free to serve because we will no longer have to be so defensive; we don’t need to all be the same, and indeed shouldn’t be because we have unique relationships with God. Discipline and duty will follow naturally from gratitude and a desire to serve, again reflected in Maslow’s observations:

“Duty became pleasure, and pleasure merged with duty. The distinction between work and play became shadowy…But this is precisely what the great artist does. [She] is able to bring together clashing colors, forms that fight each other, dissonances of all kinds, into a unity.”[17]

This resonates with the idea of Emmanuel, God with us, us with God. In an open, relational theology, God works and plays with our cooperation in the world; we are a team. As William James suggests, we can believe that this life is worth living, and our belief will indeed help create the fact.[18] God is so much more than us but respects us and gives us this gift of vocation to live out the loving image of God; our lives have meaning, purpose, and we act from a place of being held by Love, rather than being threatened with a stick or enticed with a carrot. Jesus says, ‘No, really, you take the wheel, I’ll navigate. Let’s pick a destination. I am with you to the end of the age’.

If God is the interconnected power of Love involved in creation, then it makes sense that theology of this kind can have decent, life-giving conversations with artists and with quantum physicists alike, with psychologists and with activists, even with atheists. Each works to understand and work with the interrelated nature of the universe, helping us to perceive and live out our interconnectedness so that we flourish together. We will all have different lenses, different metaphors, but where this Venn diagram overlaps is this underlying interconnected web. We all seek to understand our purpose as conscious human beings, and to work on ways to transmute suffering, weaving it into this web.

The measure of faith and theology then becomes primarily and precisely whether it is practical: in other words, whether it works, whether it is useful in nurturing love, as Jesus did. In other words, the assessment is whether it is true in its subjective integrity and objective usefulness: I want a first-rate, tasty soup, not a second-rate, doctrinal painting. My conversation with you is no longer to establish whether you are In (sound) or Out (unsound, backsliding heretic, fun though that label might be) or to establish whether your theology is internally consistent from the perspective of an ivory tower, but rather to hear your story and look both for the places where our stories are different and also where they overlap, anticipating relational love at the centre since that is your deepest essence, your divine spark. The ways you are different from me are gifts, not threats. We can collaborate with each other and with God in order to participate meaningfully in the unfolding of God’s will.

The practical measure of faith and theology is not about words but about actions, actions we are moved to make from a place of unearned grace. Belief in a God of Love at the centre is not about a legal transaction that God is obligated to meet provided we say the right prayer but about enjoying a relationship with God and having that shine from us in our actions as a human fully alive. The God of love is not inherently angry with us from our birth, just for being us, but I am sure God gets all kinds of angry, frustrated, and agonizingly sad when humans don’t take up the ethical slack and live lovingly with one another and in cooperation with the planet. In this life there is unexplainable suffering. There is no one, good theology of suffering, especially when such a theology focuses on explanation. There are only ways of transmuting that pain, and only the person who suffers can co-create and live that theology along with God. On the other hand, I can imagine God being full of joy when we do live from a place of love, living out God’s will.

A key attribute of a practical faith and theology is in its creativity. A theopoetic, open faith is future-orientated, not in (or not exclusively in) an afterlife sense, but in the sense of allowing for the emergence of the new. Many faith journeys involve a ‘second naïveté’, a mid-faith-life crisis that can sometimes result in a darker, richer faith; it is a process that can feel as if it is unearthing something that was there all along but which had been buried. Maslow uses this term second naïveté (which he attributes to George Santayana) to describe his clients’ rediscovery of an innate yet self-aware creativity: they either “retained or regained…a potentiality given to all or most human beings at birth, which most often is lost or buried or inhibited as the person gets enculturated”.[19] Maslow observes the difficulty of creative “improvisation”,[20] in a world accustomed to enculturation, a difficulty which applies equally to theological improvisation in a religiously-enculturated world:

“succeeding upon the spontaneous is the deliberate; succeeding upon total acceptance comes criticism; succeeding upon intuition comes rigorous thought; succeeding upon fantasy and imagination comes reality testing. Now come the questions, ‘Is it true?’ ‘Will it be understood by the other?’ ‘Is its structure sound?’ ‘Does it stand the test of logic?’ ‘How will it do in the world?’ ‘Can I prove it?’ Now come the comparisons, the judgments, the evaluations, the cold, calculating morning-after thoughts, the selections and the rejections.”[21]

A practical theology allows and indeed enables someone to explore how their innate spirituality and sense of interconnectedness with the God of love might have been “buried or inhibited” by religious enculturation, and to nurture its growth.[22]

The measure of faith and theology is in its dynamic creativity rather than fixed, unbending certainty. A vital faith embraces doubt because it also carries with it a felt sense of potential and possibility that in turn lead to hopeful, dare I say exciting theology. Such a theology is thus practical in terms of its ethical impetus and also for its correlation with psychological development. In parallel, Maslow describes at length how self-actualizing creative people manage the unknown by positively embracing it. They are,

“relatively unfrightened by the unknown, the mysterious, the puzzling, and often are positively attracted by it…They do not neglect the unknown, deny it, or run away from it, or try to make believe it is really known, nor do they organize, dichotomize, or rubricize it prematurely. They do not cling to the familiar, nor is their quest for the truth a catastrophic need for certainty, safety, definiteness, and order…They can be, when the total objective situation calls for it, comfortably disorderly, sloppy, anarchic, chaotic, vague, doubtful, uncertain, indefinite, approximate, inexact, or inaccurate (all at certain moments in science, art, or life in general, quite desirable).”

“Thus it comes about that doubt, tentativeness, uncertainty, with the consequent necessity for abeyance of decision, which is for most a torture, can be for some a pleasant stimulating challenge, a high spot in life rather than a low.”[23]

His description here could equally apply to a theopoetic, open, relational stance on theology which expects and welcomes the unknown as an authentic part of the faith journey.

One critique of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is that it is individualistic, neglecting the social context. In the later work we are referencing here, social interconnectedness is more visible and he explicitly notes the ability of creative people to “integrate and…play back and forth between integration within the person, and [their] ability to integrate whatever it is [they are] doing in the world”.[24] This provides an ethical impetus that open, relational theology and theopoetics share.

A practical, useful theology that I seek will be embodied. As I learn, feel, listen, create my way to a greater experience and understanding of divine Love, I trust it will, like Maslow’s creativeness, radiate, while no doubt also being misunderstood by ‘ungrowable things’. It will hopefully (in every sense) be,

“‘emitted,’ like radioactivity, and hits all of life, regardless of problems, just as a cheerful person ‘emits’ cheerfulness without purpose or design or even consciousness. It is emitted like sunshine; it spreads all over the place; it makes things grow (which are growable) and is wasted on rocks and other ungrowable things.”[25]

It will liberate a creative, innate faith that is “spontaneous, effortless, innocent, easy, a kind of freedom from stereotypes and clichés…made up largely of ‘innocent’ freedom of perception, and ‘innocent’, uninhibited spontaneity and expressiveness”.[26]

I am still asked whether I ‘still believe’ in this or that, as if that will give any indication as to my spiritual wellbeing. Those are not the questions to ask. Ask me for my recipe for first-rate soup.

Image by Emma Pavey © 2020

[1] Contact the author at [email protected] and https://artbetwixt.weebly.com/.

[2] Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (Mansfield Centre, Martino, 2010[1962]).

[3] ibid, p. v.

[4] Hellbound? Feature-length documentary produced and directed by Kevin Miller. Available here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/hellbound

[5] A good place for an Admiral Ackbar gif https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4F4qzPbcFiA

[6] Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 129.

[7] ibid, p. 127.

[8] ibid, p. 127.

[9] ibid, p. 128.

[10] ibid, p. 132.

[11] John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, Lines 234-235.

[12] Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 132.

[13] ibid, p. 132-133.

[14] ibid, p. 129.

[15] ibid, p. 129.

[16] ibid, p. 133-134, emphasis added.

[17] ibid, p. 131.

[18] William James, The Will to Believe (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014 (orig. Longmans Green, New York, 1897)) p. 62.

[19] Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 130.

[20] ibid, p. 135.

[21] ibid, p. 135.

[22] ibid, p. 130.

[23] ibid, p. 130-131.

[24] ibid, p. 132.

[25] ibid, p. 136.

[26] ibid, p. 129-130.