‘Biblical and Theological Visions of Resilience’: Book Review

Lena Maria Lorenz reviews Nathan H. White & Christopher C.H. Cook’s Biblical and Theological Visions of Resilience: Pastoral and clinical insights (Routledge: 2020).

The editors of this innovative volume of fifteen essays justly belief that it provides ‘a much-needed perspective on resilience’ (2) as they compiled scholarly resources grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition to counter the prevalence of ‘naturalistic materialist assumptions’ in the current discourse on resilience. White and Cook, both well-versed in theological, pastoral, and clinical contexts and the integration of faith and science, understand how to phrase their viewpoint to make it a valuable contribution to the interdisciplinary dialogue. And likewise do the contributors to this book who are also established researchers with a Christian faith background. All contributions reflect thorough scholarly engagement with the respective material which is presented in a way that is most accessible to readers from outside theological or biblical studies. Yet, it seems that the breadth of themes and approaches offered as examples of theological and biblical perspectives have not allowed for in-depth discussion of partial or potential incompatibilities between Christian theological and secular psychological concepts of resilience. Consequently, the suggestions for clinical integration of the ideas presented are not always compelling. I suggest that at the root of the divergence between academic disciplines are fundamentally unlike worldviews, which I shall return to at the end.

The book is divided into three sections: biblical, theological, and practical visions of resilience. The biblical visions consist of seven analyses of texts from the Old and the New Testament. The first four chapters look at the adversity experienced by the people of Israel, how they coped with it and the role of their relationship with their God. Noel Forlini Burt’s essay is a convincing theological reading of Deuteronomy 8 based on the linguistic analysis of selected Hebrew words. For a definition of resilience she draws on previous scholarship on the intersection between the Bible and resilience which pointed to the three resilience-enabling activities of thinking, remembering, and believing, and argues that Israel grew in resilience through the wilderness experience by applying those three movements. This resilience is dependent on God and characterised by a relationship with him, the integration of experience into a larger narrative and the sharing of the same. This idea is also at the heart of Jonathan D. Bentall’s treatise on the book of Jeremiah. Resilience here comes from repentance and covenant faithfulness, but ‘genuine resilience and restoration of well-being must ultimately be grounded in a relationship of trust and dependence upon YHWH’ (45). That is, resilience comes from divine, not human, agency and a feature of this resilience is that the experience of suffering is not replaced but the prophet Jeremiah ‘continues to bear the marks of the wounds even in his resilient adaptation and persistence’ (53). Explicit accounts of distress by biblical figures are provided in the Psalter and the book of Lamentations. Rebecca W. Poe Hays highlights how in Psalm 69, resilience is built through ʻupwardʼ (to God) and ʻoutwardʼ (to the faith community) relationships and storytelling. David Janzen depicts a ‘failure of narrative’ (66) in the narrator’s endeavour to make sense of Israel’s collective trauma as a consequence of the inability ‘to reconcile competing and incompatible explanations’ (63) for their suffering. Beyond the theological truth, this essay is particularly valuable for its portrayal of human reality, the experience that the survival of trauma refuses a coherent explanation of suffering.

The key role of a relationship with, and the power of, God continues in the New Testament perspectives on resilience, along with the eschatological hope of renewed life in eternity. Andrew J. Byers examines the Johannine literature which provides a picture of resilience against the adversity of hatred, persecution, social expulsion, and execution. Adversity is not avoided but necessitates resilience which, again, consists in faithfulness to God (‘abiding’, 80) and the believers’ ‘new identity as God’s children’ (73). Thus, ‘resilience is not self-generated […] but ultimately a divine gift’ (80). The same theme of remaining steadfast in the Christian faith against surrounding adversity (‘resilient existence’, 92) is present in Steven J. Kraftchick’s discussion of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Resilience does not come from ‘some inner will, some innate strength, or moral competency [but is] a function of trust in the God who redeems […]. It is a cultivated habit of faith, not a capacity to be called upon by force of will’ (87). Hope and relationship to God are also the markers of resilience in the first letter of Peter as explored by Katherine M. Hockey. For the Christian community faced with hostility resilience is not demonstrated by well-being and riches in this life, but the focus is on ‘the ultimate goal: faithfulness to God leading to salvation’ (102).

In section 2, understandings of resilience are sought from theological sources from the beginning of Christianity through to the 20th century. Starting with the early Church, Carol Harrisons uses two resources to write about resilience built by singing of the Psalms. The theoretical answer to how music effects resilience is given in a letter by Athanasius, ‘a soul made calm and undisturbed by its devotion to God’ (117), and a practical response can be found in Augustine’s Confessions where he describes his experience with praying Psalm 4. Remaining within a theoretical discourse, Craig Steven Titus uses Aquinas’ framework of virtues to distinguish between natural resilience and transcendent kinds of resilience. Both kinds involve coping resilience, integrity resilience and flourishing growth resilience. The examples that Titus gives suggest a highly interpretative reading of Aquinas where resilience is not clearly distinguished from terms like hope. In a similar way, Adam J. Powell extracts a concept of resilience from Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. Resilience here is seen as coming from relationality and the hope of renewal.

The topic of hope is picked up by the editors themselves in the concluding chapter with the contention that the ‘Christian theological perspective on resilience transforms our understanding of the nature of adversity, the nature of resilient coping, and the outcomes which we might expect of the faithful person. It offers the hope, but does not avoid struggling with the mystery that promises that “all will be well”’ (236). Not only because my own research talks about the transformative power of hope, but also two chapters within this volume were not clear on a distinction between the two concepts, I would like to make the suggestion to look into the understanding of and relation between hope and resilience. The editors say that resilience offers hope. I would argue that it is hope that makes a person resilient because hope offers a ‘will to life’. The participants in my research talk about darkness as the place of overwhelming pain and despair in which they just exist and survive, and hope as the spark of not wanting to be in the darkness, the determination to move forward and doing something meaningful with their life. It is a hope that refuses to give in to ‘non-life’ and enables a life (and even flourishing) amidst suffering, which is to say, living (well) despite adversity, or being resilient.

Returning to the remaining essays on theological visions of resilience, Carl L. Beckwith portrays Martin Luther’s focus on the Gospel in his lectures on the letter to the Galatians and the book of Genesis in which it is said that believers of the Christian faith ‘find resilience amidst the difficulties of life by trusting the certain promises of God given to them in Word and sacrament’ (151). Eternal salvation as the outcome of resilience is also at the forefront in Peter Tyler’s illustration of Edith Stein’s ‘science of the cross’ (152). For Stein, facing the Cross of Jesus Christ is an act of resilience as the Cross bridges the ‘two realities of existential despair and eschatological fulfilment’ (161). The eternal perspective is likewise required for the ‘resilience unto death’ which Jennifer Moberly looks at in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That kind of resilience is ‘not well-being or longevity as an end in itself, but theological and spiritual resilience which would have the capacity to remain faithful, even to the point of death. […] Overcoming adversity and achieving a positive outcome may only be realised, recognised, or vindicated at the eschaton, when there is a new heaven and a new earth” (174f.).

“Resilience 4” by dMaculate is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The third section offers two essays on the application of resilience from a Christian perspective. Joanna Collicut outlines resilience in the New Testament as resistance through endurance and perseverance, reconfiguration through transformation, and recovery through restoration. From this, she provides a case study from her clinical experience and draws applications for negotiating adversity, ‘first that suffering should generally be avoided; secondly, that if it can’t be avoided it can be engaged with in ways that lead to growth; and thirdly, that at times it is to be chosen in the interests of a greater good’ (208). Addressing the postmodern zeitgeist, Page Brooks argues that various factors in postmodernity lead to less resilience in contemporary society. He then discusses shalom as the submission to God leading to human wholeness or completeness, and suggests that, ‘Resilience can enable individuals to return to a state of shalom on a spiritual and emotional level, even if physical circumstances are quite difficult’ (219). A further step is the state of flourishing of believers by the ‘in-breaking’ of the Kingdom of God because the ‘metanarrative that God provides places individuals in relationship as his covenant children’ (220). Practically, resilience can be nurtured in community, by preaching, and through liturgy.

While this volume indeed adds a valuable perspective on resilience, it is important to highlight that it is precisely a Christian faith perspective that is presented here. Unfortunately, none of the authors critically engage with the fact that theology thinks within a framework that is fundamentally distinct from that of psychology. Resilience in psychology addresses primarily the psyche and well-being in this life, whereas the biblical and theological literatures tend to focus on the soul and are ultimately concerned withsalvation in the life to come. Yet, it is a psychological definition of resilience (adversity, coping resources, positive outcome) which is used throughout this volume and the attempt to integrate theological thought feels a little clumsy and inconsistent at times. I would have preferred if the analyses and reflections in each essay had been concluded with a theological definition of resilience which, as suggested by Tyler in his chapter, needs to include reference to the transcendent. In the essays in this book, resilience comes from and is directed towards God. The relationship between the person and God is essential. For me, the consequence is that a theological resilience is retained for the Christian believer and the question is then, what biblical and theological visions on resilience have to offer in a secular, interdisciplinary discourse. It is nonetheless the book’s merit to have taken a first step to reach out, set an example of incorporative thinking and make the conversation about the multidimensional concept of resilience an inherently interdisciplinary one.

Lena Maria Lorenz is a PhD student in the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University. Her interdisciplinary doctoral research on hope and pain integrates data from an empirical study with fibromyalgia patients with discussions from theology.

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