Dr. Mary Gaebler: Sabbatical Plans & Questions: “How are Identity and Faith Related?”

Posted on June 23rd, 2021 by

Dr. Mary Gaebler, Associate Professor in the Department of Religion, teaches in the area of theological ethics. Her work emerges from a preliminary interest in Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and Lutheran theology.

Dr. Gaebler will be on sabbatical this coming academic year, 2021-2. The following is her description of the ideas and questions she’ll be pursuing during her time away from the classroom. 

Hooray!  After this long and challenging Covid year, I’ve got a sabbatical in front of me—time to regroup, recharge, and to write something interesting.  The recharging will come, I hope, by attending my usual meetings, along with some I’ve not been to previously, and by taking time to read through academic journals on a regular basis, thus jumping back into old conversations and discovering new ones. 

But what about the writing project?  Over the past year I’ve been compiling a list of books to read that will take me in new directions.  I’m particularly interested in exploring developmental psychology as this applies to our experience of being a “self.” 

As many of you know, I have been working for some time on the question of how identity and faith are related, particularly in those situations where one is confronted with difference. How do people engage new and conflicting ideas without losing themselves in the process?  After all, we all hold self-constituting convictions about the way things are—beliefs about reality that we take to be true, morally and ontologically.  What happens when these convictions are challenged by the discovery that others see things very differently?  How do we maintain beliefs about the world that are central to our sense of who we are—to our very identity—when we get to know people whose beliefs about reality conflict dramatically with our own?  One thing we do often (and unfortunately) is to openly reject those views that we find dangerous and uncomfortable because they seem to cancel out our understanding of reality and correlatively, our very selves.  Just consider how different beliefs about Covid have polarized us over this past year.   

My interest in this question in the past has been strictly theological.  How does interfaith dialogue occur in a way that allows people from a variety of religious traditions to empathically open themselves to new (and apparently contradictory) ideas without simultaneously putting themselves at risk?  This situation is a little like discovering that your roommate holds a dramatically different view on abortion than you do.  What do you do?  How are you to have a civil and enlightening conversation about this?

There are at least two common approaches that we take to this kind of situation (beyond the one mentioned above.)  The first approach is to take a self-protective step back.  You say to your roommate, “We’ll just agree to disagree and stop talking about this—OK?”  But this kind of response, which so energetically avoids the danger of contradiction, also closes a person off from discovery.  The opposite approach, no less problematic, embraces difference without reserve, abandoning those self-constituting convictions, which make you, you.  Rather than protecting the self by going into hiding, convictions are abandoned, left behind, in a rush to embrace the other, perhaps for all kinds of reasons that have little to do with truth.  This has been referred to by some as “the smorgasbord approach,” a little of this a little of that—and it is self-defeating in its eagerness to compassionately join with the other.  How then can we authentically invite difference in without sacrificing ourselves in the process?  

Not surprisingly many people have been thinking about this, especially since “diversity” has become such an important social reality.  From those who specialize in interfaith dialogue comes the very useful notion that understanding does not equal affirmation—no doubt a liberating distinction to bear in mind.  But, while this distinction is indisputably helpful in keeping the conversation going, it fails to address the deeper question of truth. 

Theologians (who are very interested in the question of truth) have come up with various ways to address this conceptually. Lutherans affirm a theology promising that “we are saved by grace and not by works,”[1] which can provide a satisfying answer to this problem if you happen to be Lutheran.  Luther’s idea is that our ultimate identity is completely, totally, a gift that comes from God.  This identity is the result of the baptismal promise, which a person receives when they hear that they have been “sealed with the cross of Christ forever,”—joined with Christ (and Christ’s righteousness) in a way that is irrevocably secure.  Since we have no hand in making that promise real, we can have no hand in undermining its reality either.  For Luther then, faith comes down to reminding oneself that “God is not a liar.” The promise stands, even if a person takes on a variety of different beliefs, trying on many different identities.  One’s ultimate identity then resides in safety, distinct from one’s social identity.  Trusting that this is true allows a person to engage contradiction freely, standing on the conviction that God’s promises are reliable.  

Another theologian, Paul Tillich, offers an alternative approach to this situation.[2]  “God,” Tillich argues, is a word—a ‘symbol’ that points to and participates in an ultimate reality distinct from the word “God” itself.  So, says Tillich, we can use other words (or phrases) to describe this reality, (“the ground of being,” for example.)  Different religious traditions bring their people into the presence of the one and only “God” by way of different words, symbol sets, and practices.  In Tillich’s theology all roads, no matter how different they may look, eventually wind up in the same place—in the presence of “God.”[3]

While these theological approaches are helpful—to theologians at least—they often fail to take account of the psychological dimensions that may undermine their usefulness in the face of real conflict, so eager perhaps to deal with the question of truth that effectiveness is sometimes overlooked.  Once people have grasped these concepts we think, they just should experience the freedom to engage in those situations where self-constituting convictions clash.  The problem is that while concepts alone seem to work for some, they do not work for all.  My new sabbatical questions then focus on the psycho-social development of human beings.  What kind of psychological development is required for these conceptual/theological approaches to function successfully on the ground?  

The psychological perspective on this matter has become more interesting to me as over the years I have observed a diminishing ability among students to risk assuming perspectives or beliefs that conflict with their own.  My hope is that, with some new knowledge about human psychology under my belt, I will be better able to respond effectively to those who are finding it difficult to forge a path along this third way.  Rather than the dichotomy of self- protective retreat on the one hand, or self-abnegating fusion on the other, I hope to learn how the connection between conceptual solutions and psychological development are related.   And I hope that by the time I return I’ll be better able to help you have that conversation with your roommate about abortion, or about Covid, or even about God; for they are these kinds of conversations—conversations that challenge our presuppositions, which encourage personal growth and an enlarged understanding of the world we all share. 



[1] I have avoided the word “faith” here because so often faith is understood as a kind of ‘work’ done by an individual to earn salvation. People (including Lutherans who should know better) force themselves to believe things that defy reason, convinced that this will win them points with God. 

[2] Tillich, who identified as a Lutheran, offers a solution that is certainly related to Luther’s, though the overarching scheme is quite different.

[3] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology: Volume I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 147.



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