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Theologizing in a Win/Lose Culture

by Carnegie Samuel Calian

Dr. Calian is president and professor of theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This article appeared in the Christian Century  October 10, 1979, p. 976. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Ours is a win/lose culture: the ethos of our society invites, motivates and encourages us -- especially if we are middle-class -- to be winners in life. We live in an age of executive game-players, superstars, Nobel prizewinners, bionic celebrities and successful entrepreneurs who have captured our imagination and attention. We all seem to feel the pressure to win at something, sometime, somewhere. In such a culture, there seems to be no room for anyone who fails -- whether in sports, at the office, in the classroom or at home. A businessman expressed the prevalent mood succinctly: “I win in everything I set out to do. That’s why I’m successful. I hate to lose.” This comment was made during a discussion of the sport of racquetball. “I know I can’t win at racquetball,” he said. “Losing is too depressing for me; that’s why I don’t play.” If this is the prevailing attitude of our culture, some questions need to be raised: (1) Is winning really everything? (2) Is there a positive or redemptive side to failure? (3) What does the cross offer, to a win/lose culture?

What else is there in life but winning? We might not ask such a crass question of one another directly, but the presence and pressure of winning are felt whether we are trying to succeed for ourselves or for our institutions and organizations. We may employ pious clichés to cover up our naked drive to control, influence or persuade, but our intentions cannot be disguised. From “winning souls for Christ” to using self-actualizing techniques, our intention is to win in any situation. Survival in a win/lose culture dictates that we battle for our lives individually and collectively. Our larger self-interest encompasses the concern that our children and grandchildren be winners as well.

The impetus for winning is demonstrated in the numerous self-help books that are best sellers, from Dale Carnegie’s durable How to Win Friends and Influence People (over 7 million copies sold) to Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (5.2 million copies sold) to the current favorites  -- Robert Ringer’s Winning Through Intimidation and Looking Out for Number One and Michael Korda’s Power How to Get It, How to Use It and Success! The vast appeal of these books suggests that Americans are disenchanted with who they are. We strive restlessly to be more than we are; many of us see ourselves as losers to some degree and thus we are motivated to study these self-help books in order to enhance our potential for winning.

I

The hope for success and the fear of failure are perhaps the two greatest burdens middle-class Americans carry on their shoulders. We seem to be looking for some formula that will usher us into the winner’s circle on a permanent basis. Who is really beyond the magnetism of winning? Even monks wish to succeed in their acts of contemplation, charitable organizations in their goodwill efforts, and churches in their growth.

The more successes one achieves, the greater the addiction to success may be. A winning streak can become a diabolical chain that nurtures and contributes to our anxieties, anguish, restlessness and sense of incompleteness. In short, too much success may be dangerous to health and the sense of wholeness.

The person who lacks the courage to admit imperfection is forced to deal in appearances. To maintain a pretense of winning” is a façade, a false front. This mask contributes to the identity crisis of individuals who appear to be winners, but who are actually losers in their search to find authentic selfhood.

The confession of sins in the church’s liturgy is not a pro forma exercise. It is a confession of human failings, helping us to maintain our perspective. God does not expect perfection, nor does he demand winners. When sin is taken seriously, the burden of perfectionism is removed. God knows that we are not perfect; everyone’s life is tainted with failure.

This human propensity toward failure or incompleteness informs the traditional concept of original sin. Incompleteness, imperfection and pride characterize our human situation. Belief in original sin indicates that perfection is beyond reach; the salvatory process yielding wholeness of life is a gift, not an achievement. To seek to achieve something noble on self-merit is to deceive oneself. From God’s vantage point, human history is essentially a track of broken relationships; this is the recurring theme of the biblical narratives.

Original sin informs us that there are no absolute victories. Every win is tainted by failure. Self-respect and self-esteem from a Christian perspective are not based on successes in society. Our worth is measured by the quality of our relationships with God and each other. From the biblical perspective, any victory at the price of a broken relationship is really a loss. To understand this concept is to be liberated from the win/lose structures of our culture. Life is more than an enlarged scoreboard to record wins and losses. Life does not require us to win; it asks us instead to grow. We can do this from our losses as well as from our successes. God invites us to be pilgrims and stewards of our lives, to see life as a gift which grows in meaning with experience. Growth is nurtured through our relationships. Theologically and biblically there are no winners, only redeemed sinners. Unlike our secular culture, which rushes to anoint its winners during their lifetime, the church declares its saints posthumously, many years later. The church is aware that its saints are simply sinners revised and edited.

No one (other than a masochist) likes to lose. Losing isn’t fun, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is. One of the most tragic stories of losing is the biblical struggle between King David and Absalom, his son (II Sam. 13-19). When the announcement finally reaches David that Absalom is dead, having lost the battle to dethrone his father and rule over Israel, one of the most emotionally charged and pathetic scenes in the Bible is described (II Sam. 18:24 -- 19:4). What a tragedy for David to learn that his rebellious son, Absalom, has been killed in battle trying to defeat his father’s army!

Absalom lost his life, David lost a son, and the nation was divided and bloodstained with the lives of many. No wonder “the people stole into the city that day as people steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle.” No one felt like celebrating David’s victory, even though the messengers from battle tried to cheer the king. On that battle-fatigued day everyone felt like a loser, and the king’s grief in particular cast a shadow on them all.

In such struggles it is not possible to distinguish winners from losers. Actually, in many circumstances success and failure are interchangeable. Success can lead to failure, and failure can point to new ventures. While we are at times aware of the complex relationship between success and failure, a delusion persists in dividing the world into heroes and duds.

II

As we learn to accept losing as a necessary part of living, we might acquire some valuable insights. First, we need to recognize the inevitability of losing; none of us is immune to its sting. While we are not eager to fail, the unhappy reality is that we are all vulnerable and subject to experiences and feelings of failure.

Losing can be valuable because it reminds us of our finitude. We often forget that we are creatures with limitations. It almost seems that we must experience failure to be reminded of the futility of our personal striving and the frailty of our existence.

Losing also gives us the opportunity to re-examine our goals and outlooks. Perhaps our dreams have been too self-serving or too unrealistic. Perhaps, like Absalom, we have been expending energy in false battles and are endangering our lives. Perhaps, like David, we have been defending our kingdoms and have tossed aside precious relationships. Losing can be an occasion for reflection and re-evaluation.

Then, too, losing can remind us that our life is in need of redemption. It is an opportunity to renew our relationship with the living God of our faith. As we are reminded of our vulnerability, we learn once again that it is impossible to live alone with our anxieties and failures. In this moment of realization, we are liberated to renew our trust in God’s power and in his purpose for our lives. We need not take fewer risks or be overcome by fears of losing, since we have confidence in God’s power to work through us. Maintaining our trust and obedience in God implies that ultimately there is no losing without the possibility of redemption. God wants to share his kingdom with us. We are his sons and daughters; the Absaloms and Davids of the world can peacefully resolve their conflicts and renew their fellowship in the context of God’s gracious kingdom.

Moreover, we can learn from our failures something of the profundity of Christ’s cross, which has two meanings: crucifixion and resurrection. Crucifixion testifies to failure as perceived by almost all the contemporaries of Jesus, while resurrection points beyond despair and hopelessness. Christian theologizing often moves too quickly to Easter, without pausing sufficiently to contemplate the value of failure symbolized by Good Friday. From the perspective of Easter, we know that Christ’s “losing” experience was not final. Before the resurrection, Good Friday appeared to be the last word on Jesus and his movement. Our present failures (limited to a Good Friday perspective) may also seem to sound that note of finality. This experience of failure and suffering for ourselves and for Jesus is a meaningful bond that has been lost in a success worshiping society.

We need to be aware of the organic relationship between crucifixion and resurrection. We are usually more comfortable with theologies of hope, victory and glory than with theologies of failure, oppression and suffering. We want a triumphant faith. As a consequence we fail to perceive the positive or redemptive side of failure. Recent theologizing on liberation and viewing “theology from below” has sought to be a corrective on this point, but such theologizing has often taken the form of a crusade, interested more in praxis and ideological change than in the restoration of wholeness to Christian thought. This latter emphasis is my concern; any single “theology of . . .” (including a theology of failure) is too limiting to the Christian enterprise. What is needed is a Christian frame of reference that incorporates failure along with forgiveness, liberation and fulfillment.

Finally, losing puts us in touch with our humanity. Through the acceptance and admission of failure we can begin to be freed from its burden. To rationalize all the failures that surround us limits us to a self-imposed prison. On the other hand, to confess our failures enables us to recover our identity and health.

III

Death is the ultimate experience of failure, and it awaits each of us. Death is also the climactic moment in our redemptive process of being united with God: this is why Good Friday, viewed from the vantage point of Easter, is not black Friday.

Our incompleteness, when confessed openly to ourselves and to others, is the beginning of relief and redemption for the individual. Our failing experiences can unite us; we are co-sinners before God. To say otherwise is to struggle in vain and to live in pretense, entrapped by the boundaries of a culture which measures our worth by a scoreboard of successes and failures. Acknowledging our status as failures actually liberates us from playing unrealistic games. Accepting God’s evaluation of us is the beginning of our acceptance of each other; furthering the redemptive process of our own identity frees us from playing games and from the diabolic pressure of wins and losses.

Jesus was crucified with two robbers -- two “losers” (Mark 15: 16-32). The reality of this fact struck me when I taught a course on ethics and human values in a maximum-security state prison. The inmates who elected to take my course were murderers, robbers, dope pushers, rapists, forgers. Discussion of ethics and human values among these 20 inmates was a revelation to me not only of their failings but of mine as well. In reality we are all failures who have cheated in one game or another. Some of our crimes are tolerable to society, and others have yet to be discovered and codified. The inmates in prison are the ones who have been caught and are paying the price demanded of them by society.

Jesus identified with the prisoner’s lot and was crucified with robbers. How often we are tempted to rationalize and theologize ourselves away from this scene! We find ourselves building higher those illusory walls that separate us from prison inmates. Yet there is no escape from our failures.

We can, however, displace the darkness of Good Friday, the sense of abandonment, if we believe that God will accept us despite our failures. This is the message that the crucified Jesus conveyed to the two robbers; the insight was grasped by one, while the other stubbornly refused to acknowledge his own failing. But Christian theology states clearly and supportingly that God affirms us regardless of our lack of achievements.

The good news that announces God’s acceptance and affirmation of us is not based on our achievements and failures; it is a gift communicated through faith. This is the meaning behind the doctrine of justification by faith. To be justified by faith implies a new chance at life. This new chance is not predicated on the emergence of any hidden merits; it is a gift of life from God, a gift first of birth and then of rebirth. What ushers us into this process of rebirth is our willingness to confess our failures and receive God’s forgiveness. Simply put, the Christian life begins with our reception of God’s affirmation of us. We are loved and were created in his image. A confession of our failures -- our incompleteness -- recalls the image of God in each of us,

There is a sense of release and joy when we are emancipated from the win/lose syndrome. We can really begin to live, not just exist. Too often we hear of individuals waiting for early retirement from their jobs so that they can “begin to live.” What an illusion it is to postpone the celebration of life for some later date that may never arrive -- or may fall short of our expectations. We experience true freedom, says Hans Küng, when we are liberated “from dependence on and obligations to the false gods who drive [us] on mercilessly to new achievements: money or career, prestige or power, or whatever is the supreme value for [us]” (On Being a Christian, p. 589). We are freed to celebrate life because we know that we have been affirmed by God; there is no higher source of affirmation for the believer.

IV

The final consequence of our acceptance by God, the fact that we no longer need to prove ourselves, is our release to care genuinely for others. Transcending the struggle for recognition and knowing that we are recognized and loved by One who counts above all others, we are free to try to humanize life around us. Our true fulfillment comes through a sense of gratitude expressed in the rendering of service to others, by which our sense, of being is enhanced.

Theologizing in a win/lose culture is a difficult task; we all feel victimized by the criteria of our society. To say that winning is not everything doesn’t make one a “poor sport” or a masochist. Only as we acknowledge and confess our sense of incompleteness are we able to be freed from the entrapments of a win/lose culture. God accepts us despite our failings. This relationship is not earned; it is a divine gift. Accepted and forgiven, we are ‘liberated to celebrate life. Affirmed and fulfilled by God, we are released to care for others. These affirmations point to the redemptive side of failure, to the God who accepts losers.


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