My colleague and predecessor, Andover Newton Seminary President Nick Carter, used to like to say, “We need to deal with what’s staring us in the face before it hits us in the face.” And then the realities of a sprawling campus, shrinking enrollment, soaring expenses, and skittish donors hit Andover Newton in the face.
Our free-standing seminary closed its campus and reopened as an embedded entity within Yale Divinity School in 2017 so it could continue to pursue its 200+ year history of educating clergy for locally governed faith communities. Today, on the other side of that massive institutional change, I have some insight into the nature of the power of denial.
And Andover Newton wasn’t even in denial, at least not entirely. As a candidate for a faculty position in 2004–2005, more than a decade before the big move, it was made clear to me that the seminary was exploring a lot of different options for its next chapter, mostly involving merging with other institutions or rethinking who used its campus.
Even so, the financial upheavals of 2008, followed by a series of scandals and signs from God that our physical plant wasn’t going to hold up much longer, precipitated the question: what’s our play? We knew that something had to give, although the urgency of that something snuck up on us from behind while we were making long-range plans.
What role did denial play in our institution? We couldn’t face the possiblity — the embodiment of our ultimate fear — that our historic school would die. We stood on the shoulders of generations, and our mission needed to live. The concept that we would explore a dozen options, and none would work, was too awful. We were facing our problems, but there was one direction where our eyes were half-closed: oblivion.
Mid-20th Century theologian Paul Tillich wrote that human beings’ ultimate fear is that of death. De-nihil means, literally, anti-nothingness. That which we fear most is the void. All other fears order themselves on a continuum, with death at its culmination. If we can trust in God’s resurrecting love to the point where death loses its sting, then other fears abate as well, according to Tillich. We come to trust God through ongoing Christian discipleship: worship, study, fellowship, and service. Release from fear is a long-term proposition.
The United States and the United Kingdom have in-common that they are wealthy, developed countries with leading-edge capacities for science and technology who experienced astonishingly high numbers of Covid-19 deaths. They also had in-common populist leaders who, although each of them caught and suffered with Covid-19 themselves, encouraged a culture of denial about its severity. It’s easy for me to say that I never would have made those choices, but given how angry constituents become when hearing news they don’t like, who knows how brave I might or might not have been?
None of us can face our gravest fears without a little bit of strategy. Here are three ways we can make facing our institutions’ existentially threatening problems manageable:
First, as former Andover Newton faculty member Jerry Handspicker used to advise students, “Chunk it down.” We can break a crisis into manageable pieces or chronological steps so as to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Any of us can attend to one project at a time, so breaking up what feels like impending doom into projects helps us continue forward.
Second, seek relief from, rather than eradication of, that which overwhelms us. In her book, The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom writes about how she had to learn, in her search for relief from chronic pain, to set the goal of pain reduction. She came to hope that the arthritis that caused her intense shoulder pain could go from a nine to a four on a 1–10 scale, rather than nine to zero. Christians are often told to pray for a miracle, but God makes the decisions on miracles. We can work toward making our lives, our institutions, and our world better when we embrace that, sometimes, better is enough.
Third, when we have a choice between “overreacting” and “under-reacting,” we should take seriously the natural human tendency toward denial and choose overreaction. Overreaction serves as a corrective for the fears that occlude that which is too existentially awful for us to fathom. We can always dial back overreactions, but dialing up under-reactions costs us dearly.
We have nothing to fear when death has already died, and life has already prevailed. Communities lift up leaders as the designated rememberers of this amazing truth that our minds can’t always grasp. Leaders must help constituents face their fears — through chunking existential threats down, setting reasonable goals for improvement, and reacting strongly to crises — while discipling them toward a capacity to know and trust God’s resurrecting love.