Good Faith in the Age of Osteen: An Anxious Faith (6/7)

In the first section of this project, I discussed how Christians cannot sit idly by as God’s commands pass over them unaddressed. Osteen puts himself in a unique position where God’s command is to sit idly by as God is the one who will redeem our situations, not us. Maybe “idly” is too strong a word. According to Osteen, we do have a responsibility somewhat, and that responsibility is to adopt a positive attitude and have faith. This ties back into Luther’s “faith alone” in that Osteen seems to be saying faith alone is what affords us this positivity, that and our being anchored in hope. The two are inextricably linked to one another, but Osteen never dives into their distinction or relationship. I will come back to that.

Osteen takes an interesting approach to “faith alone” in that he creates a tension between the ontic and ontological. Faith belongs to the ontological, and faith is what gets us through dark places, but the sorts of dark places he addresses are wholly ontic. This may seem like it adheres to the sorts of ontic conditions liberation theology wishes to address, but Osteen’s ontic realm has to do with seasons of inconvenience unlike liberation theology which focuses on more persistent ontic issues such as hunger, injustice, poverty, and inequality. Osteen’s ontic realm is one where the suffering is always temporary whereas the ontic needs liberation theology is concerned with are wrapped up in larger systemic issues which may make escape near impossible for those suffering from those systems’ effects. These are the ontic issues the Christian of good faith is concerned with as they concern the ontic preconditions necessary for the ontological liberation illustrated by Jesus.

As a reminder, the ways in which we respond to all of these sorts of needs depend on the situation as Jesus acknowledges the diversity of identities and sources of oppression involved. Osteen takes a catch-all approach that assumes all suffering is essentially the same in nature in that it can be overcome simply by waiting faithfully. Faith alone takes the form of a passive role in which we have little to no responsibility in regard to our situation because God is the one working out his plans for our lives, a plan that includes dark places, but dark places he will take us out of when the time is right. We do not have to work out our plans because our plans and strength pale in comparison to God’s and will ultimately leave us frustrated and anxious, though that in and of itself may be a dark place God needs us to walk through and will redeem. The relationship between the extent to which we must follow God’s plan and the inevitability of God’s plan regardless of our trying to adhere to it is unclear.

What is clear is that no matter how you look at Osteen’s teaching, we are acting in bad faith if we believe it. We are denying our responsibility and essence. It is important that we are responsible for our actions because otherwise there is no point to living. In Osteen’s mind, we are just living to learn lessons from dark places, but they are lessons that never manifest themselves in meaningful action, so is there really any point to them? If we are defined by our actions, we need to be acting or we are nothing. And if our only obligation to act is to wait, then all we are is waiting, waiting for our situations to be redeemed, waiting for God’s plan for us to work itself out with or without our involvement.

This is a key distinction between Osteen’s Christianity and a Good Faith Christianity: Osteen emphasizes that we must become who God made us to be whereas the Christian of good faith emphasizes that we must authentically choose to create ourselves in the likeness of Jesus. There is no person we are “meant to be.” We are flung into existence devoid of meaning until it is imposed on us or we find means of creating it for ourselves, and this creation happens through our actions. Our actions shape who we are. To the extent that we are free, we act ourselves into the person we become which is only predetermined insofar as the actions we take prior to any given moment necessarily get us to a given moment. We are the sum of the actions we take, authentically or inauthentically, and focusing on finding ways in which we can act authentically places the locus of responsibility on us so that we have a say in who we are. This is unlike Osteen’s model where we do not have a say. God has already decided for us, and to believe this is to act in bad faith because Osteen does not believe we are responsible for our essence.

There is probably a version of this project where I get even more into the weeds regarding the implications of us being merely passive actors in a story already laid out for us. Osteen never addresses how this works in terms of people who either choose to be a part of or are born into religious situations that are not Christian. Osteen seems to think that God’s will will be done regardless of our interference, so it could be the case that it was God’s will for them to not be Christian. Osteen never talks about this because he only focuses on ideas that make people feel good. But especially if one believes in some form of eternal damnation, this line of thinking should be troubling, that God’s plan is for the majority of people who have existed on this Earth to burn in hell, but Osteen is careful to never make any explicit theological declarations such as this that could make his followers anxious.

This is a huge part of Osteen’s appeal: his teachings are keen on dodging any sort of anxiety that could be imparted by Christianity. We live in an anxiety-averse society, and this is a fundamental problem with Osteen’s Christianity. We adopt doctrines that make us feel good instead of doctrines that challenge us to live richer, more authentic lives. But it is difficult to advocate for the sort of Christianity that would allow for that challenge because it seems self-evident that not feeling anxious is better than feeling anxious. Why should somebody want to become a part of a religion that tells them up-front their adopting that religion’s particular way of being in the world is going to be arduous and anxiety-ridden?

On some level, this is a matter of marketing. Our aversion to anxiety explains why Osteen would shy away from a Christian framework that is full of it. It is less attractive to people. Part of what has allowed his ministry to flourish is that the sort of bare-minimum-responsibility, self-serving, “it’s all good” Christianity he espouses appeals to tendencies privileged Americans already have. We like being irresponsible. We like helping ourselves first thanks to years of capitalistic conditioning. We like pretending things are “all good” and putting on our blinders to people different from us who may be suffering from forms of oppression we could not begin to conceive. We ignore it as to not have to feel anxious about our complicity in its existence. Again, the key is to not feel anxious.

But anxiety in productive cases is not a bad thing. Anxiety is what spurs us to action. Anxiety is what made Abraham great according to Kierkegaard. Anxiety is what makes ethics possible, that something is wrong that we feel called to address because we are anxious that things are not how they should be. And, maybe most obvious of all, anxiety is wholly unavoidable. It is a fact of human existence that we will fall into times where we are anxious (I agree with Osteen on this point), and it will not always be a good thing. Here I want to make clear that I in no way intend to romanticize anxiety.[1] I acknowledge all of the destructive anxieties that religion has instilled in believers and non-believers alike. I acknowledge that there are disorders that, for those affected, turn anxiety into a toxic reality that goes beyond the bounds of the sorts of anxieties I am discussing in this paper.

But there is a more general existential anxiety that everyone experiences in their lives regardless of their religious beliefs; there will come a moment where they feel they have to make a decision, regardless of whether or not they believe it will automatically work out according to God’s plan because of their faith, and the weight of that decision will haunt them. Even if one believes in a form of Christianity where all things will work for their favor because God has a story in store for them that will end in redemption, we still experience life as if we are making decisions. In moments of intense contemplation, the anxiety of knowing those decisions have an effect on the rest of our lives will not just disappear.

Either that anxiety will prove to be the very thing that spurs you to make a final choice, or it will crush you so that you make no decision, which is still a decision, and you will have acted in bad faith by attempting to defer your responsibility. Which direction you take largely depends on the way in which you view anxiety. In Osteen’s view, anxiety is a symptom of a problem so that if somebody is in a place of anxiety, it means something is wrong with them, that they are not anchored to hope, that they do not have enough faith, or that they have not fully trusted in God and his ability to restore whatever hardships will come their way. This line of thinking will only serve to make the anxious person more anxious, and not in any way that is existentially productive.

What is helpful about Good Faith Christianity is that our view of anxiety can be positive. It can be a sign that we are taking advantage of our free nature, that we actually have a say in who we become, that we are always becoming, that we are acting in good faith. It allows for the possibility of embracing anxiety so long as it is the result of our ontological condition and not the result of oppression. It is important to discern these varying types of anxieties so that we do not approach somebody who is anxious about finding dinner or somebody with a panic disorder and tell them they should simply embrace their anxiety because at least it means they are free. This would be grossly irresponsible.

But to see anxiety as only negative and deny its productive potential in instances of warranted existential angst is to frame a natural and acceptable condition of human existence as a problem. This is what Osteen does, and he does it primarily through telling us that faith and anxiety are mutually exclusive, that if we have faith, then we will not be anxious, and if we are anxious, that means we are unjustifiably faithless.

Osteen’s teaching also says nothing of any sort of obligation we may have to other people’s lives which is a fundamentally un-Christian omission. Under Osteen’s framework, my life is the one that will be redeemed. It is me who is learning the lesson. Me who is receiving God’s blessing. Me who has only to be patient for God to free me from my dark place. In choosing to create ourselves in the likeness of Jesus, we need to take seriously the fact that Jesus in the most literal sense sacrificed himself for the sake of others. There is a selflessness inherent in his mission that contributes to the anxiety of imitating him in that most of us would unlikely be willing to literally sacrifice ourselves in the same way. This is not to say we cannot make sacrifices in our lives for the sake of adopting selfless projects. The only sacrifice we find in Osteen’s teaching is that of our comfort while in a dark place. We sacrifice our comfort for the sake of learning our lesson and get to move on with our faith still in-tact because everything turns out fine and God is redeeming all our situations all the time anyway.

I hope you realize how naïve this sounds, that all situations will be redeemed if we simply have faith in God. This is not promised to us in scripture in terms of our individual lives as they happen on Earth. An eschatological redemption may come in the form of the kingdom of God, but what we do in the meantime is just as important. If anything, the Good Faith Christian would say that it is our responsibility to bring about this kingdom in the first place, that it is not a condition promised but one we are responsible for willing by looking to Jesus’ example and shaping our lives in such a way that reflects what he says we can be. The “what we do in the meantime” is the coming of the kingdom; it will not just happen. There is no redemption without our actively seeking redemption. There is no forgiveness if we do not learn how to forgive. There is no kingdom of God if we are not willing to act right here and right now in such a way that brings it to fruition, to act as if we are bound to our fellow human beings because we are.

I mentioned earlier that Osteen never makes a distinction between hope and faith. Hope comes from the late Old English hopa which means “confidence in the future.”[2] Faith comes from the mid-thirteenth century faith, fei, or fai (there are multiple forms) which originally meant “loyalty to a person.”[3] From the late fourteenth-century, faith began to more specifically mean “confidence in a person or thing with reference to truthfulness or reliability.”[4]

For Osteen, hope is associated with our assurance that an inevitable redemption will come in the future, and that hope stems from our faith in God since, according to Osteen, we know he is truthful and reliable.

This ties into a key distinction between Osteen and the Good Faith Christian: for a Christian of good faith, hope and faith lie in unknowns. If there is no promise, we do not know what will happen in the future which could lead us to a place of despair where there is no hope. All we have recourse to is what we do in the present to bring about a future. This requires taking a leap of faith that is both daunting and necessary, a leap towards that unknown into which we project ourselves. It is by faith alone that we make this leap, but it is not a faith in something cogitable. It is not even a faith in something that can be spoken or thought — it is faith in our obligation, that unspeakable feeling we explored earlier in this project (we have returned to the anxiety of the differend at the heart of Christianity). It is a faith in both the idea that living a life modeled after Jesus is a life worth living and a faith that our actions in the present moment, made authentically and for the sake of willing freedom, will make a difference.

There is a linguistic parallel in that similar to how Osteen’s hope stems from his faith, our hope does the same (albeit with different meanings, obviously). We take that leap of faith based on the strength of our obligation which in turn informs our hope that something like the Kingdom can be created by us. It is a hope without a future, or with an undetermined future we are in the process of creating. For the Good Faith Christian, the whole point is that we are in the process of redeeming here and now through our actions and the ways in which they reflect our central Christian obligation. God may not redeem our dark places, but we may redeem the dark place we find ourselves in right now.

We began this paper by making a distinction between the emphasis on faith in Luther’s theology and the emphasis on action in contemporary liberation theology. I said that we would side with the liberation theologians, but I have spent a good majority of this paper discussing the centrality of faith. I want to make it clear that faith as I have outlined it is entirely predicated on action. The way that our faith informs our hope for an undetermined future is wholly dependent on us taking the burden of creating that future through meaningful action. This is a massive undertaking, and we are wholly responsible for it, and it is through the anxious acceptance of this responsibility that we act in good faith.

[1] Osteen in his own special way has already romanticized suffering (which I made a conscious decision not to get into; the fetishization of suffering Osteen has instilled in privileged people is abhorrent and was almost the entire topic of my project) in saying it is a gift from God so that we learn lessons which completely minimizes the obvious negative effects that suffering can have. I want to make sure I am not doing the same thing with anxiety.

[2] “Hope (n.),” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/hope#etymonline_v_42079.

[3] “Faith (n.),” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/faith#etymonline_v_1088.

[4] Ibid.

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Tommy Kessler

Chicago-based writer and musician. 1970s drug-fueled private investigator.