Friday, April 3, 2015

As is now all over the wires, Robert Schuller died yesterday. I worked at the Crystal Cathedral on and off from 1996 to 2004.  For much of that time, I worked in Schuller's office as part go-fer, part chauffeur for Schuller and the weekly guests who appeared on the Hour of Power.  It was ridiculously demanding in terms of hours (I often sympathized with on-call doctors and police officers) but also a very exciting time in which I got to meet many celebrities and interesting authors who would come to the Hour of Power to plug their books or movies.  One particularly memorable day was when I rode shotgun as we drove Schuller to Bob Hope's funeral; it was like a very special episode of Hollywood squares.  As we waited in queue of limos exiting the parking lot, we were deliberately cut off; as we braked suddenly, the back window rolled down and Jackie Mason yelled from his limo, "Hey Bob, it was good to see ya!"


As many news reports are noting, the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt as donations completely bottomed out when Schuller retired and several of his children engaged in a power struggle for control of the ministry. Although I imagine they wouldn't see it that way, it was clear even back when I worked there, that some of the family members and their spouses were getting compensation that exceeded what seemed appropriate for work in a ministry.  


Adding to the financial woes, Schuller, who was given an honorary patron's membership by the AIA, built a visitor center that left them with a huge debt.  In the wake of the bankruptcy, the Catholic Diocese of Orange purchased the forty acre campus and its buildings, four of which are designed by the great architects Richard Neutra, Philip Johnson and Richard Meiers.  In fact, it is the only property that has buildings by three AIA Gold Medal winners.  Of course, the Crystal Cathedral is the most significant building, even though I personally prefer Neutra's Arboretum and Tower of Hope (my wife and I were married in the chapel at the top).  While I feel bad about how badly things ended for the ministry, I am extremely glad that the buildings will continue to be used for religious services and did not become an auditorium or some private use.
 


Neutra introduced Schuller to his philosophy of “bio-realism,” which was developed in his book, Survival Through Design.  His philosophy was that architecture should be “shaped by the biology of the creature who will live in the structure.”   Schuller embraced this perspective and has demanded it from all subsequent architects with whom he has worked.  He notes that there is an inherent spirituality in the art of architecture. 
"It can create an emotional impact into the human personality. I have learned as much [about the nature of reality] from my association with architects and architecture as from my theological education. Architecture helped make me the  person I am."  (Schuller, 2001, 250)
Yesterday, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about my time working for the Cathedral during which I got to spend a great deal of time with Schuller himself, although most of it was while I was driving and he was reading the paper.  But since I was in graduate school at the time, we would occasionally discuss theology or church history.  In fact, he agreed to allow me to interview him a bit more formally so that I could do an independent study focusing on 20th century 'therapeutic' gospel movement of which preachers like him and Norman Vincent Peale were such an important part.  I looked over the paper I wrote for that class, and thought I would share some of what I wrote there.  


There is no need to go over biographical details here, as that has been covered.  But, Schuller's theology and approach have received a great deal of criticism over the years, and I think they are worth covering, primarily because I think he has understandably but inaccurately been lumped in with prosperity gospel preachers such as Joel Olsteen or Creflo Dollar.

While the tapes from my interviews with Schuller are gone, I remember quite clearly Schuller's frustration with his critics who consider him to be a prosperity preacher.  He was baffled by how his critics could not understand that he did not view success in monetary terms.  He said that, although it might be the case that success brings wealth, success should be measured in terms of wether one's work is Kingdom-building.  He also asserted that failure (its meaninglessness) was just as important of an element of his teaching. Since one's self-esteem is founded on one's relationship to Christ, one is free to attempt huge dreams because failure would not be devastating, as it is for one whose value and self-esteem is based on their acheivements.  I think part of the problem was that Schuller knew what he believed, but for such a great communicator, he clearly presented his message in a way that could be seen as prosperity preaching.  

When Schuller began preachiing in Southern California, he realized that his preaching style was overly theological and uninspiring.  Schuller was given the Dale Carnegie classic How to Win Friends and Influence People and decided a more positive approach was needed.  He also reread The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.  He determined that he would “adopt the spirit, style, strategy, and substance of a ‘therapist’ in the pulpit.”   (Schuller, 2001, 172)  After two years of preaching from a snack bar at a drive-in, Peale delivered a guest sermon which drew an estimated 4,000 people.  After this sermon in 1957, Schuller began to style his body language to be more like Peale’s dramatic gestures and exaggerated steps.  

Schuller was well-known locally, and the decade of the 1970’s would make him a national figure. Working with Billy Graham's production team, he began broadcasting his sermons.  Schuller also held the first of his annual conferences called the “Robert Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership” in the fall of 1969. This conference, over the years, has influenced megachurch preachers such as Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Kirbyjon Caldwell.  


Fifteen years after Peale released The Power of Positive Thinking, he wrote the forward to Schuller’s first publication, Move Ahead with Possibility Thinking.  Soon after the completion of the 3,000 seat Cathedral, Schuller made an attempt, in 1982, to systematize his theology in order to express the motivation for his ministry of Possibility Thinking.  Self-Esteem, The New Reformation, like most of Schuller’s work was both praised and criticized.  Clement Stone, the insurance magnate, purchased 250,000 copies and distributed them to theological faculty nationwide.  Meanwhile, the Christian Century was “not convinced by the author’s wandering approach, sloppy theology, and sermonic cuteness.” (Lewis, 75)

To understand Schuller’s ministry, one needs to place him in context of the religionists who have appealed to the public by the use of therapeutic ideals.  He is most certainly a preacher in the lineage of Harry Emerson Fosdick and, most notably, Norman Vincent Peale.  These preachers, although of disparate traditions, all stressed the importance of “self-help through some form of mind-conditioning.”  (Voskuil, 115) These were ministers who were deeply affected by, and saw the need to respond to, the emergence of the therapeutic ethos.  In the Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch describes the twentieth century:
The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious.  People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security. (Lasch, 22)
Fosdick and Peale represent two of the most prominent voices in the first half of the twentieth century.  They are very good examples of what Charles Lippy calls the heart of popular American religion:


There is a reservoir of supernatural power…available to assist all persons in gaining control over their lives and in defeating whatever evil forces they combat, ranging from physical illness to psychological fear. (Lippy, 202)
Often, when reading about Fosdick and Peale, the similarities with Schuller are striking.  Schuller is clearly in this line of therapeutic religion.   He responds to humanity’s loss of identity and control by encouraging Possibility Thinking, which will empower the individual to be successful.  Schuller uses a metaphor to express what he sees as a “general dissatisfaction” or malaise in mankind.  The feeling is like a man who is awoken by hunger, gets up and looks in the refrigerator.  But he doesn’t see anything he wants, because he doesn’t know what he wants.  So the man just goes back to bed unsatisfied.   It is this dissatisfaction and restlessness that Schuller believes can be overcome by Possibility Thinking built upon a theology of self-esteem.

Schuller writes about why we have this unsatisfied hunger for glory, which results in low self-esteem.  The center of original sin is that we, unlike Adam, are born without trust.  We are, by our nature, insecure.  This inferiority complex is the energy behind the defense mechanisms we use to protect ourselves from exposure and embarrassment.  
So one layer of negative behavior is laid upon another until we emerge as rebellious sinners.  But our rebellion is a reaction, not our nature.  By nature we are fearful, not bad.  Original sin is not a mean streak; it is a nontrusting inclination. (Schuller, 1982, 66-67)

Schuller wants to lead people to throw off these defense mechanisms and build positive self-esteem.  This will allow us to be truly successful. Once we see salvation framed in terms of self-esteem, then the main evangelistic approach is to build self-esteem in others.  He writes:

When a human being’s self-esteem is stimulated and sustained (like a branch in the trunk of a tree) in a redemptive relationship with Christ, we are truly saved from sin and hell. (Schuller, 1982, 20)

But is difficult to trust God to supply one’s needs.  Schuller refers to the research by Erik Erikson, which concludes that in the first months of a child’s life, the only thing it learns is trust.   Therefore, Schuller concludes, non-trusting individuals are infantile.  Fully developed capacities to trust, distinguished from gullibility, are a sign of maturity.  Guilt prevents people from being possibility thinkers.  But the removal of guilt is only half the process of forgiveness.  For not only does God remove the guilt, he infuses the person with inspiring dreams.  These dreams, however, are not pain-free.  God removes the punishment of the sin but we must accept a new burden:

God’s forgiving grace is incomplete until he gives me- and I accept- a new kingdom-building dream and opportunity.  And I’ll know I am fully forgiven when I’m handed my personal cross, with all of its crucifying challenges. (Schuller, 1982, 105)


He sets this in contrast to classical theology which has always emphasized the negative interpretation of “Oh God, keep me from committing conspicuous immoral sins.”   But this is non-constructive.


We all know people who do not lie, kill, steal, commit adultery, yet they live a life of ease, comfort, and noninvolvement.  They appear to be kind and gentle, and we are tempted to judge them to be loving people.  But real love is sacrificial commitment.  Until these “good people” set God glorifying goals, they are making no potentially creative and constructive commitments.  If they take no daring risk in mission, they’re good- but good for what?   (Schuller, 1982, 112)

The conclusion above was that the condition of modern humanity was problematic because one has lost both one’s identity and the control of one’s own destiny.  In keeping with popular religion, Schuller has synthesized therapy with Christianity, as did Fosdick and Peale. He has incorporated the therapeutic ideals of shedding guilt, resentment, anxiety, discouragement and inferiority with core religious values in order to restore identity and control.

The first significant published criticism was John M. Mulder’s 1974 article “The Possibility Preacher,” printed in Theology Today as a review of Schuller’s newest book You Can Become the Person You Want to Be.   Mulder starts by discussing Peale’s attempt to validate “the gospel of success” and to qualm the fears of a public concerned by the Red Menace and its own place in a world of an uneasy peace.  In “claim[ing] Peale’s mantle,” Schuller adopted his marketing techniques and spun the ministry “into a personal ecclesiastical empire,” which presents success in material terms.  In a scathing Biblical allusion, Mulder notes that through his television exposure, Schuller has surpassed Peale just as “Saul slayed his thousands, but this David…”  He characterizes this newest publication as “pop psychology and mythical physiology [wrapped] in infantile formulas for successful living” which is essentially the suppression of legitimate negative emotions.  He considers it to be “a disturbing book” that “cannot be read today without a chilling appreciation of where this thinking has brought us.”  In what seems like a comment just to add to the mounting attack, Mulder claims that Possibility Thinking contributes  “to the repression of dissent, enemy lists, and the injunctions of a President who wants Watergate put behind him and a reaffirmation of what’s right with America.”  In a more common criticism, he notes that Schuller “treads the same path as Andrew Carnegie, Russell Conwell, and others who affirmed that every man had a ‘duty’ to get rich.”

What Schuller has referred to as the “most damning article ever written about our ministry, before or since,”  was penned in his own denomination’s magazine, The Church Herald.  Wendell Karsen, a missionary to Taiwan, wrote a parable in which the poor of the world came to the Crystal Cathedral for assistance.  When they approached the mirrored building, they were appalled by the sight of their pitiable state and threw rocks at their reflected image.  The cathedral was reduced to ruins and pillaged by the starving refugees. (Schuller, 2001, 406-7)  

David Singer astutely notes that much of the criticism which becomes directed at the Cathedral is really displaced frustration concerning Schuller’s theology. What “some evangelicals might wish for is foundational theological certainty—especially regarding man’s sinfulness—articulated by Schuller himself.”  They are afraid “that some of the multitudes might be either misled or spiritually tranquilized, rather than being confronted to repent.”  (Singer, 29) 

The majority of books published about Schuller are those by family members  or ministry insiders.  These books are generally personal or hagiographical.  In 1983 Dennis Voskuil wrote a fair consideration of Schuller and his ministry entitled Mountains into Goldmines. Voskuil concluded an historical look at Schuller’s ministry and influences with the assessment that, 



...too often Schuller’s critics have taken cheap shots at him while failing to articulate and acknowledge the salutary features of his ministry and the genuine contributions he has made to the American church.  On the other hand…[there] are troubling questions about some of the ideological assumptions underlying his ministry.  There are potential dangers along the path on which the gospel of success would lead the church.  (Voskuil, 134)

While defending Schuller from attacks of preaching without a theological foundation, Voskuil does admit that Schuller is “something of a ‘johnny-one-noter’ who seldom varies his positive approach to the gospel.”  As a result of his singular ministry, Schuller has helped to encourage many, but he fails to recognize the full range of emotions and qualities of the gospel that encompasses the entirety of humanity, not just the successes in life.  Additionally, Voskuil claims, Schuller’s attempt to synthesize the tensions in religion and psychology, sacred and secular, glosses over the paradoxical nature of the gospel,  and can develop into narcissistic religion. 

While I think that the critics often judge too harshly, it is undeniable that Schuller's message was feel-good religion, and this was his intention.  He was very pragmatic, and he saw the Crystal Cathedral as a home for a certain type of person, but certainly not all;  his focus and preaching style was directed more to the television audience, and he saw the show as a gateway for people who would tune out or turn off a heavy handed message.  He was thrilled if people quit watching the Hour of Power to go to church somewhere.  

Isaac Alderman




Robert Schuller, My Journey (San Francisco: Harper, 2001).

Robert H. Schuller, Self-Esteem; the New Reformation (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1982).


Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism;  American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. (New York: Norton, 1979).


Roy Lewis, “Self-Esteem, the New Reformation,” Journal of Pastoral Care 37.1 (1983).


Charles H Lippy, Being Religious American Style; A History of Popular Religiosity in the United States. (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1994).

David Singer, “The Crystal Cathedral: reflections of Schuller’s theology,” Christianity Today 24 (1980).
Dennis Voskuil, Mountains into Goldmines (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983).