Love Beyond Belief

Finding the Access Point to Spiritual Awareness

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  • Farmington, MN: 
    Polebridge Press
    , September
     268 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Love Beyond Belief: Finding the Access Point to Spiritual Awareness is an odd book, but a fascinating one that repays careful attention. There are several important levels of argument: it’s a theory of religion, a reading of Friedrich Schleiermacher, a history of Christian thought, a constructive critique of liberal Protestantism and Christianity in the US as a whole, a criticism of liberal and conservative politics in the US, and a hopeful proposal for the current religious context.

Thandeka begins with an account of John Cage’s experience in a soundproof chamber. In the composer’s account of what happened to him in the chamber he writes: “suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together; that nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything was gained” (2).

This experience is what William James called “cosmic consciousness,” and what Thandeka calls “love beyond belief.”

Schleiermacher ranks first among Protestant theologians who have seen this experience as the core of religion. Doctrines, or beliefs, are simply attempts to put the experience into the words of a particular historical community at a particular moment in its culture. The experience itself is “beyond belief.” “The function of religious and spiritual communities, from this perspective, is to establish the dominant affective temperament—the ethos—that mediates all emotional states ... a religious community from this perspective, can thus teach its members, affectively, how to hate beyond belief or how to love beyond belief as their dominant ‘pious’ state of consciousness” (27). Thandeka calls Schleiermacher the first neuroscientific theologian, and she largely affirms his account of affect as the root of religion using the work of Jaak Panksepp, the recently deceased neuroscientist who studied the neural mechanisms of emotion.

Thandeka argues that this experience, this focus on affect, was the key insight of three pivotal figures who preceded Schleiermacher: Paul, Augustine of Hippo, and Martin Luther. Each of them attempted to place this experience of “love beyond belief” at the center of their work. For different reasons in each case the attempt fails and their followers collapsed back into some version of seeing Christianity as a set of beliefs, and judgmental beliefs at that.

The book’s final chapter analyzes the state of religion in the US today. Thandeka argues that there is a “Protestant Conscience” (171) at the heart of America, even as the US has defined itself legally, and has become culturally, more secular. What ails the US, and what ails the dying liberal Protestant churches in the US, boils down to this: [c]onservatives continue to use language that triggers affect, but they, like the followers of Paul, Augustine, and Luther, conflate this affect with a judgmental conscience that does not create the experience Cage had that humanity and nature are in this world together. Their language—Thandeka quotes George W. Bush’s 2002 address at West Point that “We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name”—“eliminat[es] the difference between what is felt and thought” (205), and dehumanizes or creates an out-group of those who think differently than “us.”

Liberals are even worse off. Thandeka agrees with Drew Westen that they suffer from “emotion-deficiency disorder” (192). Liberal churches are emptying out given that these churches do not provide an experience of love, do not trigger affect. “Liberal Protestantism became, in effect, talk about social justice issues and concerns rather than talk about man’s relationship to and feelings about Christ and God” (182).

This is a sweeping and important argument. As with all sweeping arguments, there will be disagreements with specialists at each step of the way. Thandeka’s reading of Schleiermacher is astute, which is not surprising given that she has published significant contributions in Schleiermacher research. Schleiermacher argued that religion was as open to scientific analysis as chemistry; he made use of the best contemporary science, and would appreciate Thandeka’s use of neuroscience.

The field of affect and emotion in neuroscience is vast and contentious. Panksepp argued that there were seven primal emotions shared by all humans, and shared to some extent with animals. This fits Thandeka’s argument of a universal experience at the root of religion. The so-called “constructivists,” Lisa Feldman Barrett perhaps most prominent among them, are beginning to dominate the field, offering evidence that emotions are combinations of sensory stimulation and ideational components that make meaning of the affective state. These would obviously not be identical universally. This makes Schleiermacher, who argued that affective states (Gefühl) are never separate from linguistically inflected concepts, look even better.

Thandeka’s discussions of Paul, Augustine, and Luther hang on fairly technical matters of interpretation that I will leave to specialists in those fields. There is a general danger, which she acknowledges, of trying to gain insight into the internal affective states of historical figures. The payoff for taking this risk would be to make a rhetorical appeal to Christian churches that love beyond belief is the core of their tradition. Yet Love Beyond Belief ends, not with advice to liberal churches for upping their emotional game, but with a discussion of political rhetoric in the US, and the note that “twenty-three million spiritual but not religious people” are filling the void left by liberal and conservative churches by focusing on “what they feel (spiritual uplift)” and maintaining “the difference between affective states and conceptual truth claims” (205-06).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Theodore Vial is Professor of Theology at Iliff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
December 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thandeka is Affect Theologian in Residence at Andover Newton Theological School and the author of The Embodied Self: Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Solution to Kant’s Problem of the Empirical Self (1995) and Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America (1999, German edition 2009). Her essays include work in The Oxford University Handbook on Feminist Theology and Globalization (2011), and The Cambridge Companion to Schleiermacher (2005).


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