“It’s About Life”
An Interview with Kyle Roberts
Kyle Roberts (Ph.D.) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently completing (with Jeannine Brown) a theological commentary on the gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans).
What is the demographic of the students you teach in terms of age and background?
It’s a fascinating mix. United is a small seminary, and a stand-alone seminary in that it’s not connected to a university and it was begun with intentionally loose denominational ties so it would have an ecumenical flavor. But as a historic mainline protestant school, of course it attracts students from the mainline denominations like the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and we have a vibrant Unitarian Universalist presence as well. But we’re also seeing growth in students from non-denominational and progressive evangelical backgrounds, as well as Catholic students, non-Christian students, and a number of students who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition (i.e. the “nones”).
As far as age, the students at United tend to be a little older than is typical for seminary (the average age of a United student is around 45). Students come from all walks of life; some have been in active ministry positions and are just getting around to formal seminary training. I would say the majority of students that I’ve encountered at United however, have significant life experience post-college before they start their seminary career intensively. That life experience adds a wealth of insight to the classroom dynamic.
Can you tell us about your recent course, “Death, Evil and Alienation”?
I taught a course regularly in my previous seminary, Evil and Suffering, but it was a more traditional theological approach to the topic (theodicy questions like, “Why would God allow evil and suffering in the world?” and “What is the relation between divine providence and human agency?” for example). When I came to United, and as my interest in Becker increased, I decided to teach an elective on “Death, Evil, and Alienation” as a kind of next step in my own development regarding the questions around evil and suffering. The course moved from focusing on traditional theological approaches to the more integrative approach that Becker takes.
Peering deep into the reality on the ground, so to speak, is what I’ve found really exciting about teaching the course with Becker at the center. I decided to make the course revolve around The Denial of Death and The Worm at the Core and started with the film, Flight From Death, to give students the same introduction that I had to Becker years ago. It was certainly one of the best, if not the best, course experiences that I’ve had in years of teaching. The configuration of the students we had and the level of interest that they continued to express opens up a really powerful way of looking at the world. Some people chuckle when they hear the title of the class because it’s hard to think of three harsher, darker, words/concepts to mash together than “Death, Evil, and Alienation.” But it’s really not about death, primarily. It’s about life. It’s about hope and it’s about conflict and about how we understand ourselves better in such a way to move towards a more hopeful, a more peaceful way of living with each other. It’s about striving to overcome what is so difficult to overcome in the human condition.
What were the reactions to Becker?
What really hit the mark in this particular class is the way that Becker as an integrative thinker brings existential philosophy and theology to a point of practical application; namely, the existential import of these ideas as they play out in our collective, social, and political context and in the way our individual psychologies come together in very dynamic and sometimes very troubling ways.
I also think the practical and pastoral implications are really what hit home for students. In fact, I had some chaplaincy students that went to the dean and said that this course needs to be a required course for the chaplaincy program because there are just so many implications in terms of dealing with people who are dying. How do they face death? What are they thinking about as they’re going to those ominous medical appointments and just generally dealing with the finitude and precariousness of life? Students saw exploring these questions as very pastorally relevant.
Some people chuckle when they hear the title of the class because it’s hard to think of three harsher, darker, words/concepts to mash together than “Death, Evil, and Alienation.” But it’s really not about death, primarily. It’s about life.
Did you have any key moments, passages or points that you think would be important to share with others who might be teaching similar courses?
The film was kind of a signature moment. That was early on in the semester so it primed them well. The reaction in in general was one of fascination and intrigue. The film made them want to really explore these ideas more.
Each week, I assigned two students to bring in a “death image”; that is, to find and present a cultural artifact, an example of something in art, film, news, media, anything related to what we were discussing in class. Of course with all that was going on last fall, a lot of it did revolve around terrorism, war, and the geopolitical conflict we find ourselves in. It shows the extent to which Becker and TMT do shine so much light on these conflicts that seem to perpetuate themselves again and again.
Pedagogically, the class presentations by the students was probably the most powerful assignment. It gets them thinking throughout the week. They’re attentive to what’s going on and how these theories connect with real stuff happening in real time. They become culturally attuned to the realities of death anxiety.
Another experience that worked well happened on the last day of class. We have an art room where students can go work on creative projects and professors can use it as a teaching and learning resource. I took my students down and had them go through random magazines in order to create a collage that represented for them the intersection of death and evil, or death and alienation. It might seem like a less than academic way to end a course on high minded theories, but in actuality, the experience was effective because it gets you out of thinking in a pure cognition way to be able to say, “wow, this image really symbolizes or illustrates exactly what Becker was talking about or exactly the problem that we are confronted with in society, or within ourselves” Whether it’s about materialism or idealist conceptions of youth and beauty, or celebrity culture, or medical technologies or advertising or politics, It easy to find examples of death denial at work right in front of us. It’s something I’d definitely recommend.
Do you have any advice that you would share with other Becker educators?
I think it actually worked well to have the class be centered on Becker, but not exclusively be a course on Becker, or even exclusively on Becker and Terror Management Theory (TMT). We spent six weeks – three on the Becker and three on TMT- and that was enough to get the key point across. It was enough to grasp the fundamental theories, to see the integrative connections, even to dovetail back into Kierkegaard and theological existentialism. Afterwards, we moved on to a more traditional theological discussion of evil and then into the philosophy of alienation.
The one thing I might have added to the syllabus, in retrospect, was Richard Beck’s book, The Slavery of Death. It’s an exposition of Becker. He’s an empirical psychologist but is very integrative with theology, too. I think adding his interpretation of Paul and exploration of the relationship between sin and death in the New Testament would have been beneficial for a theology class focusing on Becker.
Otherwise, as anyone who’s read Becker knows, there’s so many ways you can go with it, and so many different slants you can take. It just depends on the discipline and the particular slant of the course and what you want to do with it.
They become culturally attuned to the realities of death anxiety.
The extent to which religion can be a force for good or a force for evil, either constructive or destructive, that was a very profound point that kept coming up in our conversations. The power of religion to go either way, either direction—and it can shift on a dime. It can be incorporated into a message of peace and of project of love, or it can motivate the spread of conflict and violence and other destructive behavior. I would put a point on it to say, if you teach Becker in a seminary or religious context, that ambiguity and instrumentality of religion is something you really wrestle with. And that’s where theology in its critical mode becomes so important.
The topic in general is such a unique challenge because the whole idea is that death isn’t something that people like to talk about, or want to engage with. We tend to pull back from those terms or withdraw from those conversations. When you have a major thinker whose whole focus is about that problem, I think there is an inherent tension in getting the word out, getting the message out. But of course, the truth is that message isn’t just about death, it’s about life. It’s about living well, even if in the shadow of death.