Bearing a Velveteen Cross

Self-Esteem in Robert Schuller’s Language of Religion

Gregory Johnson • Saint Louis University • Fall 1999

 

 

 

            On Sunday, September 7, 1980, Reverend Robert Schuller led the congregation of Garden Grove Community Church in procession out the doors of their old sanctuary and through the doors of a new, twenty million dollar Crystal Cathedral.  Schuller, whose uncle had been a missionary in China, carried the massive, black pulpit bible, other church leaders carrying the baptismal font, communion cups­—all the elements of worship for the new building.  Designed by leading postmodern architect Philip Johnson, the new star-shaped sanctuary boasted 10,661 windows, each one mirrored in silver, each dedicated by a supporter for a five hundred dollar gift.

Overhead, ten thousand stars hung from the glass ceiling ten stories above.  The organ roared half of its 12,688 pipes, the other half still waiting for their installation which itself would require another year and a half of continuing labor.  Sixteen thousand steel pillars supported the structure, each likewise dedicated for a generous gift.  Every other one of the 2,866 seats had its own personal speaker, piping elevating music and encouraging messages directly to the worshipper.  The seats themselves were engraved with the names of the donors who gave fifteen hundred dollars a piece to sit in them during an opening concert.  Huge expanses of carved Italian marble and terrazzo floors complemented the glass and steel, with a forest of ferns and ficus trees nestled behind the pulpit.  To one side, a majestic gold-leafed cross rose into the air.  Eleven television cameras captured the procession, a twelfth recording the event from the Goodyear blimp stationed above.  No expense had been spared on the building.

            A week later, the national and international press gathered for the Crystal Cathedral’s dedication as pools and fountains sprayed forth in the gardens surrounding the church.  Personal accounts say that participants that Sunday morning gave much more attention to the opulence and comfort of the surroundings than to the content of the sermon.  Boy Scouts carried the flags of nations where Schuller’s Hour of Power—the most watched religious television program ever—was aired, marching the flags in procession through the sanctuary.  Despite its super-human scale, the building made the worshippers feel at the same time both relaxed and tranquil, everything having been orchestrated to leave the worshipper bathed in an endless expanse of visual, acoustic and psychological comfort.[1]

Here the observer sees two forces at work.  On the one hand, one sees a bible-toting pastor with a worldwide television outreach, packed church, cross and worship service—classical symbols of evangelical Christianity.  On the other hand, one cannot help but notice a strong—perhaps overpowering—concern for personal comfort and tranquility.  Two years after dedicating his Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller set forth his theological vision in a manifesto calling for a radical new interpretation of biblical Christianity, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation.[2]

In this work one again finds these two forces at work, the one classically evangelical, the other comfortably middle-class.  As with his Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller goes to great lengths to reassure his evangelical audience of his orthodoxy, speaking the classic language of the Protestant gospel.  But Schuller self-consciously redefines this established discourse of evangelical religion, redefining the gospel message in relation to individual self-esteem.  Personal significance and psychological well-being are central to Schuller’s vision.  The cross of Schuller’s religion is therapeutic in nature, a velveteen cross whose softness provides reassurance when the world outside—or inside, one should say—threatens.  This redefinition of evangelical Christianity in terms of personal psychological comfort reveals a narcissistic turn in American evangelicalism centering on a synthesis of evangelical Christianity and contemporary need psychology.

 

I.  Schuller’s language of Evangelical Religion

            Robert Schuller goes to great pains to position himself and his message as genuinely evangelical and Christian.  Schuller’s books are published by evangelical as well as larger secular publishers, and his numerous volumes sell well in evangelical Christian bookstores as they do elsewhere.  Schuller’s recent “autobiography” includes recommendations from recognized evangelical authors such as Fuller Seminary’s C. Peter Wagner, Founder of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship John Wimber, independent charismatic leader Jack Hayford of The Church on the Way, Trinity Broadcasting Network’s prosperity-preaching Paul Crouch, and David Yonggi Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church in Seoul, Korea and a longtime personal friend of Schuller’s.[3]  After almost three decades of Christian television ministry, Robert Schuller is without doubt an evangelical insider.

            And Schuller tries to place this evangelical identity upfront in his theology.  In a letter to Jesse Jackson, Schuller proposed his own four-point creed.  Before continuing on with points such as “I believe in positive thinking,” Schuller emphasized in his first point:  “I am a believer in Jesus Christ, and have accepted him as my personal Lord and Savior.  In that sense, I am of the Evangelical theological tradition.”[4]  With classic evangelical emphasis, Schuller insists that a theology must be biblical in order to have integrity.[5]  At one point, he even states that humanity’s deepest need is salvation from sin and hell.[6]

            Indeed, Schuller’s television producer and authorized biographer Michael Nason defends Schuller’s evangelical orthodoxy.  He writes:

 

Of course Bob believes in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ and he believes in the deity of Christ as total God and total man.  He believes that Christ died a vicarious death on the cross for the sins of mankind in order to restore us to a right relationship with God.  He believes that in the resurrection of Christ all believers have eternal life.  He believes in a literal heaven and hell and in a literal devil.  He believes in the second coming of Christ.  He believes in a final judgment of humanity by Christ based upon each person’s relationship to Him.  He believes in the doctrine of the Trinity, and in the work of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life.  He believes in the necessity of a single, life-changing conversion experience—a new birth into God’s family through Christ.  He believes in a life of holiness and purity that reflects the moral perfection of God.  He believes and accepts all of the historic doctrines of Christianity, the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed; and yet I doubt he would ever choose the words I have used to describe his beliefs.[7]

 

But, Nason continues, “[Schuller] speaks a different language entirely, which probably accounts for his popularity with the unchurched and the confusion he sometimes brings to Christian circles.”[8]

            Schuller accounts for the differences between his presentation of Christianity and that of traditional Christians by appeal to his missionary purpose—itself an appeal characteristic of evangelicalism.  In Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, Schuller defends his anthropocentric interpretation of Christianity by arguing that it will make evangelism more fruitful.  People who aren’t interesting in God, Schuller explains, can still become interested in Christianity through a dialogue centering on human need.  With a tone of apologetic zeal, Schuller states emphatically, “The non-churched who have no vital belief in a relationship with God will spurn, reject, or simply ignore the theologian, church spokesperson, preacher, or missionary who approaches with Bible in hand, theology on the brain and the lips, and expects the non-religious persons to suspend their doubts and swallow the theocentric assertions as fact.”[9]

Schuller further asserts that the decline of Christianity in the West has been due to an over-emphasis on God in the churches’ ministries.  Calling for a Christianity centered on human needs first, Schuller explains, “I believe that this decline is the result of our placing theocentric communications above the meeting of the deeper emotional and spiritual needs of humanity.”[10]  That is to say, Schuller sees his program of making Christians into a mission first, and only secondly a church.

            When Martin Marty questioned the tangential place of God in Schuller’s theology, Schuller appealed to his missionary purpose.  Marty, upon reading Schuller’s manuscript, asked, “Is this not a philosophy which makes room for God more than a theology that incorporates psychology?”  To this query Schuller responds:

 

Perhaps.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  My ministry has, for over thirty years, been a mission to unbelievers.  If I were a churchman talking to church leaders, I would agree that the theocentric approach is the right approach.  However, I have seen my calling as one that communicates spiritual reality to the unchurched who may not be ready to believe in God.  I have been trying to carry on a dialogue with persons who are not prepared to listen to ‘someone with God-talk.’  As a missionary, I find the hope of respectful contact is based on a ‘human-need’ approach rather than a theological attack.[11]

 

Thus Schuller presents a missions-based rationale for his theological project.  Even where Schuller veers from the traditional evangelical course, he does so with evangelical aims.  Schuller goes out of his way to present himself and his views as being evangelical and Christian.

 

II.  Schuller’s Redefinition of Evangelical Lingo

            Still, Martin Marty’s observation deserves further notice.  Schuller has not merely brought psychological insights into the Christian faith; he has redefined the Christian faith within popular psychological categories.  While Schuller speaks an evangelical language, he redefines traditional religious language at every point, infusing into an established evangelical discourse new meanings centered on individual self-esteem rather than on God.[12]  Self-Esteem: The New Reformation presents an expansive vision, a vision of a genuine “re-formation” of the evangelical message.

            On its surface, the manifesto is an appeal for a holistic systematic theology.  Schuller repeatedly voices concern over what he perceives a truncated evangelical message, a gospel that addresses only the individual’s need for eternal salvation to the neglect of other areas of need.  Schuller believes that only a worldview centering on a theology of self-esteem can provide a universal point of reference by which all Christian theology can be unified into a systematic whole.

            Schuller laments that since the Reformation, as he sees things, “Christian thinkers have not formulated a well-rounded, full-orbed, honestly interrelated theological system.”[13]  While his historical theology may be questioned on this point, Schuller argues that Reformed theologians have traditionally viewed the soul’s eternal salvation from hellfire as the central doctrine of the Christian faith.[14]  Such thinkers have therefore been unable to adequately address other areas of individual and social concern, unable to see how racism and poverty, for example, interrelate to the soul’s eternal salvation from hellfire.

Christian theology, Schuller asserts, desperately needs integration about a central and overarching theology, a theology from which all other theologies arise.  Yet to Reformation thinkers who voice their “Amen” and expect a criticism of anthropocentric theology to follow, with a corollary call for theology proper or divine revelation to rise to the place of primacy within evangelical theology, disappointment is bound to follow.  To be sure, Schuller states, “It is precisely at this point that classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be ‘God-centered,’ not man-centered.”[15]  The single source of all other Christian truth, Schuller contends, is the human need for self-esteem.  Every Christian doctrine must flow from human need for self-esteem.  Only then can a truly holistic systematic theology develop.  Only “a theology of self-esteem” can “move the mountainous social, economic, political, and religious problems” of the modern era.[16]

            Yet at a deeper level, Self-Esteem is more than simply an appeal for a holistic systematic theology.  The book is a discursive power move in which the propositional content of the evangelical message is changed through a redefinition of terms.  While Schuller makes classically evangelical statements about man’s greatest need being salvation from sin and hell through faith in the cross of Christ,[17] none of these terms means for Schuller what evangelicals have traditionally meant by them.  While such “God-talk” is still present, it is called into the service of a psychological mission—what Schuller calls “the positive gospel.”[18]  Schuller’s language of religion has shifted meaning.  Sin, hell, God, faith, salvation, the person and work of Christ, evangelism—all have new self-esteem-based meanings in The New Reformation.

 

            1.  Sin—Schuller writes that by sin he means any action that takes away the self-esteem of oneself or of another person.  Discussing the nature of sin and its manner of destroying human dignity and thus dishonoring God, Schuller comes to a definition, “Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem.”[19]  Gone is the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s theocentric answer, “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”[20]  Rather, sin finds its reference point, not in the eternal character or revealed will of God, but in an action’s results upon the psyche of another human.

            Sinful actions and all actions generally, Schuller argues, are ultimately responses to unfulfilled self-esteem.  Drawing heavily from the need-psychology perspectives of Abraham Maslow and Viktor Frankel, Schuller explains, “I contend that unfulfilled need for self-esteem underlies every human act, both negative and positive.”[21]  Low self-esteem causes insecurity, which leads to fear, which manifests itself in anger and hatred which, because they in turn hurt self-esteem, are sinful.

 

            2.  Hell—And Schuller’s program of redefinition continues to his understanding of hell.  Schuller asks, “And what is ‘hell’?”  He answers, “It is the loss of pride that naturally follows separation from God—the ultimate and unfailing source of our soul’s sense of self-respect.”[22]  Schuller does not therefore visualize hell as a place of retributive justice or divine wrath.  One will find no eternal fires in Schuller’s Hades.  God’s agency in judgment is absent; indeed, the very notion of judgment is absent.  Hell is lost pride.  And this pride “naturally” results from one’s separation from the God who gives self-respect.  And in a further this-worldly turn, Schuller adds, “A person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem.”[23]

In All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism, Marsha G. Witten observes this tendency in Protestant preaching (more generally) to downplay or completely remove the transcendent qualities of God. [24]  She could almost be speaking of Schuller’s hell when she writes, “The connection between God’s function as judge and a sinner’s punishment in hell is made only by implication.  The language here suggests that God’s judgment is responsible for the reward of heaven, but human beings alone decide on their course to hell.”[25]

 

            3.  God—Indeed, at this point it must be noted that Schuller never defines God in his program for a new systematic theology.  He mentions throughout the book that God is the author of self-esteem, and that, since “God is my Father and I belong to his family, then I AM SOMEBODY.”[26]  In a diagram in Self Esteem, however, Schuller demonstrates how all of the various Christian doctrines and issues flow forth from a theology of self-esteem.  But the doctrine of God (theology proper) is curiously absent—and not only from the diagram, but from the discussion as well (see Diagram, page 7).[27]  Considering the great emphasis Schuller places on self-esteem as the integrating point for his new reformation, one wonders what doctrine of God might flow spontaneously from a theology of self-esteem.  Here perhaps one can only note Schuller’s silence and not presume further.

Still, Marsha Witten’s observations of Protestant preaching more broadly raise the issue pointedly.  Speaking of the manner in which God is imaged in Protestant preaching, Witten writes, “God is portrayed exclusively or predominantly in terms of the positive functions he serves for men and women.”  She continues, “Chief among these functions is one that can be labeled ‘therapeutic.’  God relieves negative feelings, especially anxiety and doubt.”[28]  Would it be wrong to read between Schuller’s lines and find in his silence about God a powerful statement?  If God is discussed only in terms of his function of boosting self-esteem, does Marty’s initial question not come up again?  Is this a theology at all?

 

4.  Faith—And even faith, that agent through which Protestants believe themselves justified, is redefined within Schuller’s scheme.  Faith is equated with possibility thinking; faith equals a positive, optimistic attitude, a pride in being a human being.  “My witness is this: Positive thinking and Possibility Thinking are what the Bible calls faith.”[29]  While being careful to distinguish his good pride from destructive pride, Schuller describes faith essentially as having high self-esteem, a self-esteem Schuller discerns behind Paul’s exclamation, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  Where earlier Schuller had acknowledged that humanity’s greatest need is “salvation from sin and hell,” five pages later—after redefining the language of evangelical religion—Schuller concludes, “Self-esteem then, or ‘pride in being a human being,’ is the single greatest need facing then human race today.”[30]  Schuller’s biographer similarly equates faith and possibility thinking, calling the two “synonymous.”[31]

Unbelief or “lack of faith,” by contrast, is “really a profoundly deep sense of unworthiness.”  Thus in a reversal that might set old man Luther spinning, one is justified—not by believing oneself unworthy and casting oneself upon Christ for mercy—but by believing oneself worthy!  God never wills a dark night of the soul.  Indeed, a sense of unworthiness is now equated with unbelief, a lack of trust flowing from a deep inner insecurity.  Unbelief flows from the individual’s inability to consider himself “worthy of divine grace.”[32]

 

5.  Salvation—“What does it mean to be saved?” Schuller asks in catechetical fashion.  He responds, “It means to be permanently lifted from sin (psychological self-abuse with all of its consequences as seen above) and shame to self-esteem and its God-glorifying human need-meeting, constructive and creative consequences.”  He adds, “I now dare to believe that I am somebody.”[33]  This salvation is the product of grace, which Schuller defines as “God’s love in action for people who don’t deserve it.”  Still, while Schuller explains that humans don’t deserve grace, he immediately qualifies his statement by insisting that, “I may not deserve it, but I am worth it, so don’t say I am unworthy.”[34]

 

6.  The Person of Jesus Christ—And when Schuller does discuss Jesus specifically, Jesus is portrayed as a fountain of self-esteem.  Schuller references Jesus’ statement to this effect in John 15, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”  The passage, as Schuller interprets it, is about having ones self-esteem “stimulated and sustained” by Christ.[35]

In true evangelical style, Schuller sprinkles Self-Esteem with the testimonies of souls who have been transformed by realizing their self-esteem in Jesus.  Story after story recounts a similar narrative of a person going to church and hearing that they were sinners.  Self-hatred kicks in after the accusation of sin is made.  After spiraling through years of depression (suicide attempts, bulimia, bitterness, etc.), the individual truly encounters Christ.  Suddenly, self-actualized and flowing with the Spirit, the convert arises a changed person.[36]  Jesus Christ is functionally understood as one who brings positive self-esteem.  Christ is the Ideal One whose acceptance of us releases us from a negative self-image so that we can forgive others and ourselves.[37]  His incarnation was less the humiliation of Christ, Schuller asserts, than the “glorification of the human being.”  As we bestow a great honor upon someone by visiting his home, so Christ bestowed an honor upon humanity by visiting the earth. [38]  Christ is the one who not only “wants” us, but who “needs” us.[39]

 

7.  The Work of Jesus Christ—The crucifixion of Jesus has a three-fold significance for Schuller.  First, the cross was Christ’s revitalizing of the individual’s human dignity by redeeming his or her self-worth.  Indeed, Schuller says, the cross tells us how valuable we are by showing us the price paid for us.  Secondly, the cross also tells us that we live in a world in which “collectivized social evil” can occur, lending “integrity” to the positive gospel.  And thirdly, the crucifixion was Christ’s experiencing of a total loss of self-esteem (“hell”) in humanity’s place.[40]  And the resurrection of Christ is significant because it gives us the highest honor possible—that of doing God’s work of self-esteem boosting in the world.  Christ “has taken ‘early retirement’ and given us his joyous work of sharing self-esteem love with every person we meet.”[41]

 

8.  Evangelism—And Schuller additionally redefines the classical evangelical notion of evangelism, the work of presenting Christ’s cross and calling for repentance and faith.  Sharing self-esteem love is the Christian’s evangelical mission, a mission modeled by Robert Schuller himself every week as his velveteen cross is broadcast to every inhabited continent.  According to Schuller, the content and method of evangelization must serve to boost, not lower, the recipients’ views of themselves.  Schuller criticizes those Christian ministers whose “call to conversion is a blatant appeal to a person’s ‘depraved, unworthy, totally sinful nature.’”[42]  Such evangelism, Schuller believes, develops “uptight, defensive, angry, fearful, neurotic meanies” whose spirituality is saturated in self-shame with a tarnished self-image.[43]

In Schuller’s words, the unconverted are not evil or depraved, but simply lost, fearful, suspicious, and therefore non-trusting.  Schuller insists that Christians should view others in light of their vast value and untapped possibilities.  “God longs to release every person’s human potential from the imprisoning, self-destructive fear and guilt that inhibits positive believing.”[44]  Humanity’s natural inability to positively respond to the gospel is due to humanity’s low self-esteem.  They therefore need “a great deal” of positive affirmation before their self-esteem will become high enough to listen and believe the Christian message.  While affirming that humanity is sinful, Schuller contends, “Jesus never called a person a ‘sinner’.”[45]  Jesus saw humanity’s sin, but never told them about it, because he sought to boost their self-esteem so they could believe.  It is this point of becoming able to believe because of high self-esteem that calls for a discussion of Schuller’s debt to need psychology.

 

III.  Evangelicalism’s Narcissistic Turn: An Emerging Synthesis

Given Schuller’s evangelical commitments, he is careful not to deny any of the doctrines or practices evangelicals hold central to their faith.  Schuller does not understand his program to be one of abandoning the evangelical Christian tradition.  Rather, he understands himself to be repackaging the evangelical tradition, understanding it at a deeper level than had been done in the past.  But however one interprets it, Schuller’s proposal is a radical reorienting of the elements of evangelical religion in light of a principle—self-esteem—which becomes the central integrating core of the Christian faith.  Schuller’s Self-Esteem: The New Reformation represents a synthesis of two forces, a classically evangelical concern for the promotion of Christianity and a comfortably middle class concern for personal peace and psychological well-being.

Popular need psychology thus arises as the primary interpretive grid through which Schuller develops his evangelical Christianity.  At this point Schuller acknowledges his debt to figures such as Abraham Maslow, whose hierarchy of needs and notion of self-actualization is strongly evident in Schuller’s thought.  Schuller’s favorite author in the field of psychology, however, is Viktor Frankel, who identified the hunger for meaning as humanity’s highest and most ultimate need.  But even deeper than Frankel’s hunger for meaning, Schuller asserts, is the need for positive self-esteem. [46]  As self-esteem needs are met, the individual becomes self-actualized and, filled with a new self-realization, he are able to boost the self-esteem of others.

Schuller’s Christian-therapeutic synthesis has been observed at a broader level within American religion.  In A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization, E. Brooks Holifield identifies a shift within pastoral care in America, a shift in emphasis from saving souls to self-actualization.[47]  Holifield singles out Paul Tillich as a chief mediator between the worlds of social psychology and pastoral theology.  Particularly central within this union of psychology and theology was Tillich’s assertion that self-realization is the precondition of humanity’s ability to love.  In Tillich, Holifield writes, “The revolt against moralism and the quest for self-realization belonged together.” [48]  While Holifield’s analysis centers of the development of pastoral care within mainline Protestant circles, and particularly its interaction with liberal theology, his insights apply equally to Schuller’s conviction that self-esteem needs must be met before faith is possible.  To be sure, Schuller (who identifies God in Tillichian fashion as “The Ideal One”[49]) mentions in Self-Esteem that even Tillich—by his own account—lacked a theological base for a theology of social ethics.[50]

And if self-realization came to dominate the world of pastoral theology through Tillich, the craze for self-awareness and self-fulfillment by Schuller’s day had become a dominant quality—on an even broader scale—of an affluent middle-class American culture.  Three years before Schuller published his New Reformation, Christopher Lasch had criticized the culture of self-affirmation in The Culture of Narcissism.  Referencing still others, Lasch wrote, “Self-absorption, according to Marin, insulates affluent Americans against the horrors around them—poverty, racism, injustice—and ‘eases their troubled conscience.’  Schurr attacks the ‘awareness craze’ on the grounds that it addresses problems peculiar to the well-to-do.”[51]  Self-esteem needs are not central to the faith of those who are hungry, homeless or oppressed.  Schuller’s redefinition of the kingdom of God around psychological need reflects a larger, inward-looking, narcissistic turn in middle-class American culture generally, a preoccupation with the self that would be striking were it absent from any institution in America, the church not withstanding.

But such a broad, impersonal cultural force cannot by itself account for Schuller’s velveteen cross.  An emphasis on the “positive” gospel runs deep in Schuller’s denominational setting.  Schuller reminisces about how jealous his fellow seminarians at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, were of Norman Vincent Peale, the great positive popularizer of New Thought.  Peale was pastor of New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, the largest congregation within Schuller’s small Reformed Church in America.[52]  Schuller was an avid student of Peale’s books, works he credits with laying the foundation for his twist on Peale’s positive thinking, his own possibility thinking.  Schuller explains how it was Peale’s example that first showed him how positive thinking could provide the bridge between Christianity and the unchurched.  To be sure, Schuller even orchestrated a speaking engagement for Peale at a drive-in theater in Orange County, California in 1957—the two men’s first personal meeting.  Peale would again speak at the dedication of Garden Grove Community Church’s sanctuary and at the groundbreaking for Schuller’s soaring Tower of Hope.[53]  Peale’s biographer, Carol V.R. George, labels Schuller a “Peale-protegé.”[54]

Nevertheless, theological critics of Schuller question whether his message is genuinely evangelical.  Schuller’s “positive” synthesis of popular need psychology and evangelicalism implicitly raises the question of whether he is presenting the evangelical message in popularly accessible psychological lingo, or rather presenting a popular psychological message under the guise of religious lingo.  His tendency to expunge the harsher elements of evangelical religion reminds one of Richard Niebuhr’s classic criticism of liberal theology, in which “a God without wrath ushers men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  James Davison Hunter observes how modern American evangelicals have embraced an “ethic of civility” that leads them not only to be tolerant of other’s views, but also to be tolerable to others.[55]  Schuller’s message of high self-esteem is certainly not one to emphasize the scandal of the cross or the offense of evangelicalism’s exclusive religious claims.  To use Hunter’s language, the whole of Schuller’s theology seems thoroughly tolerable.  And this is precisely the accusation Schuller’s evangelical critics have made.

Referencing the apostle Paul’s charge of idolatry in the first chapter of Romans, for example, Michael Scott Horton writes, “In his worthy zeal to make the Christian hope practical and relevant, Schuller has sadly ‘exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the creator—who is forever praised.”[56]  Horton observes Schuller’s reversal of classical biblical language of sin, heaven, hell, and salvation.  Humanity’s quest for glory, Horton counters, is not a God-given and healthy desire, but an idol which, when manifest in our first parents, resulted in a divine judgment upon all humanity.  God’s ultimate purpose is not to make us into self-confident persons, Horton argues, since Paul expressed “no confidence in the flesh.”[57]  When all of the content of the Christian faith is marshaled to the singular goal of making humanity more self-confident, Schuller’s evangelical critics argue, God becomes a means to an end and religion, whatever its language, becomes an idol.[58]

 

            When I was a student in college and first began to study different religions, I remember being taught a series of basic questions religions answer.  Who or What is God?  (Or, What is Ultimate?)  What is humanity’s problem?  What is the solution?  How does one get there?  While the method may have been simplistic, it seemed helpful at the time for a college freshman like myself.  Christianity, I understood, answered that God was the creator and sustainer of the universe, a Trinity who made humanity for his glory.  Humanity’s problem, however, was sin, or rebellion against God, a rebellion that promised divine judgment—hell—in the age to come.  The solution, as I understood Christianity, was the atonement of Jesus Christ, whereby Christ took the believer’s punishment in his place, so that the believer could have peace with God.  This salvation was entered into by trusting oneself to Christ forever, committing oneself as a part of the Church to follow Christ as he revealed his will in the bible.

            How does Schuller’s recasting of the evangel fare in this light?  Who is God?  God is the one who gives us self-esteem; little more is known.  What is humanity’s problem?  Humanity’s problem is low self-esteem.  The solution?  High self-esteem.  The way we enter into that solution is by thinking more highly of ourselves and having a positive attitude, since Jesus had low self-esteem in our place.  This characterization of Schuller’s religious language admittedly seems somewhat unfair, simply because Schuller does talk about the cross of Christ and faith and sin and hell and salvation—but always redefined as expressed above.  Stripped of its veneer of evangelical God-talk, it is not always clear how Schuller’s core message is distinct from that of Maslow, except that the name of Jesus in invoked in bringing about the soul’s self-actualization.

            Like the image of a bible-toting nephew of a missionary preaching to a congregation surrounded by fountains, indoor forests, and personal pew speakers, Robert Schuller’s language of religion betrays a dual concern.  On the one hand, one clearly sees a desire to maintain the language and style of evangelicalism, with a missionary zeal that seeks personal application of the gospel message to those outside the Church’s normal sphere of influence.  But alongside this classic evangelical interest is another powerful concern, a narcissistic obsession with the psychological self-fulfillment of Schuller’s middle class audience.  Self-Esteem: The New Reformation is Schuller’s attempt to synthesize these two forces.  This latter therapeutic force, however, redefines the language of evangelical religion such that its propositional content changes.  Betraying a broader narcissistic turn in American culture, Schuller’s cross is a velveteen cross, easy to bear—a soft, psychological solace for those needing confidence within.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

George, Carol V.R. God’s Salesman: Norman Vincent Peale & the Power of Positive Thinking. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

 

Holifield, E. Brooks. A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983.

 

Horton, Michael Scott. Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991.

 

Hunter, James Davison. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

 

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism.  New York: Warner, 1979.

 

Nason, Michael & Donna. Robert Schuller: The Inside Story.  Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983.

 

Schuller, Robert. Prayer: My Soul’s Adventure with God, A Spiritual Autobiography.  Image Books, 1996.

 

_______. Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982.

 

Witten, Marsha G. All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

 

 



[1] See Michael & Donna Nason, Robert Schuller: The Inside Story.  Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983, especially page 250, 252.

[2] Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982.

[3] Robert Schuller, Prayer: My Soul’s Adventure with God, A Spiritual Autobiography.  Image Books, 1996.

[4] The text of the creed is available in Nason, 152.

[5] Nason, 153.

[6] Schuller, Self-Esteem, 14.

[7] Nason, 155-56.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Schuller, Self-Esteem, 12.

[10] Ibid, 12.

[11] Ibid, 11-12.

[12] Schuller defines self-esteem in vaguely Augustinian terms on page 15 of his book.  “Self-esteem is the human hunger for the divine dignity that God intended as our emotional birthright as children created in his image.”

[13] Ibid, 145.

[14] In John Calvin’s 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion, the knowledge of God serves as a the chief integrating principle, broken down further into the knowledge of God as Creator and knowledge of God as Redeemer.  On the American scene, Charles Hodge made divine revelation the chief integrating point, continuing on to classify what God had revealed about himself first, humanity second, and humanity’s relationship with God third.  Schuller’s critique of Reformed theology seems poorly placed.  Lutheran thinkers were perhaps more likely to place the doctrine of justification by faith at the center of their theological system.  Still, Schuller is not building a straw man, simply mislabeling his opponent.  Evangelical churches—including Reformed ones—have a history of avoiding contentious social issues (slavery or racism in America, apartheid in South Africa) in the name of an exclusive concern for evangelization, and Schuller’s characterization of “Reformed theology” seems to this author a fair characterization of many evangelical and dispensationalist churches whose only concern is with the eternal destiny of souls.  “Don’t polish the brass while the ship is sinking,” reads a popular dispensationalist motto.

[15] Schuller, Self-Esteem, 64.

[16] Ibid, 149.

[17] Ibid, 14.

[18] See Ibid, 22, for example.

[19] Ibid, 14.

[20] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 14.

[21] Schuller, Self-Esteem, 15.

[22] Ibid, 14.

[23] Ibid, 15.

[24] Marsha G. Witten, All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.  All of the sermons in Witten’s selection are taken from the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 from pulpits in two large denominations—the Presbyterian Church USA as a mainline source and the Southern Baptist Convention as an evangelical one.

[25] Ibid, 49.

[26] Capitalization original. Schuller, Self-Esteem, 91.

[27] Ibid, 150.

[28] Ibid, 35.

[29] Schuller, Prayer, 17.

[30] Schuller, Self-Esteem, 19-20.

[31] Nason, 151.

[32] Schuller, Self-Esteem, 16.

[33] Ibid, 99.

[34] Ibid, 100.

[35] Ibid, 20.

[36] See Ibid, 20 or 55-57, for example.

[37] Ibid, 100.

[38] Ibid, 100.

[39] Ibid, 151.

[40] Ibid, 101.

[41] Ibid, 102.

[42] Ibid, 152.

[43] Ibid, 152.

[44] Ibid, 156.

[45] Ibid, 157.

[46] Nason, 153.

[47] E. Brooks Holifield, A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983.

[48] Ibid, 288.

[49] Schuller, Self-Esteem, 151.

[50] Ibid, 148.

[51] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism.  New York: Warner, 1979, 62.

[52] Schuller, Prayer, 13.

[53] Nason, 61-64.

[54] Carol V.R. George, God’s Salesman: Norman Vincent Peale & the Power of Positive Thinking. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 214.

[55] James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987, 183.

[56] Michael Scott Horton, Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991, 81.

[57] Ibid.

[58] One question has not been addressed in this paper.  Is Schuller’s approach simply Augustinianism by another name?  I was surprised to find no one making this argument.  I would argue that what Schuller proposes is fundamentally different from Augustine’s notion of self-love.  Augustine saw God as the end for which the soul was made, such that the human only found satisfaction when rightly related to God.  But this coming to God involves a giving up of the soul to God, a radical commitment of the self for the greater end of God’s glory.  Schuller, by contrast, would appear to make God the means and human satisfaction the end.  God is almost a tangent within Schuller’s work.