Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Memories of My Own Cognitive Dissonance: Gothard's Doctrine of Grace as an Example

In so many words (!), I’ve already shared what cognitive dissonance felt like after some exit counseling and realizing that not everything I’d believed had been true.

I’d like to discuss a bit more about the process that facilitated my acceptance of Gothard’s take on grace (and other ideas introduced at the Institute of Basic Life Principles conference I attended). I only briefly mentioned it in this post. Cognitive dissonance was easy to ignore for me when I first accepted his views, but when I revised my understanding after I left the spiritually abusive system; I had no other option but to let the process work in me. I loved and wanted the truth more than my own comfort, so I honored the process. Because I’m not a masochist, I did not really want to submit myself to the pain of realizing that I’d been duped, but I saw no other way around it. In the process, I started to learn how to accept life as it is, and not as I would have it. Life is what it is, and it takes maturity to accept life’s reality when it is unpleasant. I am learning how to accept this and cope with life’s unfairness, right along with everyone else.
Here is the saga of my dissonance regarding IBLP.

I attended the IBLP conference with new friends at a church that was in our area (it was not held at our own church.) The setting (a nice church where I was surrounded by respected friends) told me that I was in a safe place listening to safe and legitimate information that was trustworthy if not essential. Eventually, we get to the first section wherein Gothard presents his novel, aberrant views about grace. This large church, a social setting with strong, established rules of social conduct, holds a certain degree of power over me because of the very setting itself which makes my ability to resist influence more difficult. I’m sitting in the lower level of a very, very large church sanctuary, and I must look up to view the very large screen which causes my gaze to sit just above 30 degrees over midline which puts me into an alpha state physiologically. (Alpha states of alert relaxation, the ideal state of consciousness for hypnosis, make it much more difficult for us to think critically about information.) I was also physically fatigued and my regular routine had been altered which put me at another disadvantage. (We’d been required to attend every weeknight, then all day on a Friday and Saturday for the IBLP basic course.) I'd driven there with another couple, and I was not at liberty to gracefully leave if I decidede that I wanted to do so. If I am going to think critically and resist ideas that I find interesting but not convincing, “the cards are not stacked in my favor.” (Please refer to this series on "Surviving a Conference" for more information.)

If you watch the first session of the online video, notice that the first thing Gothard suggests is that your own perspective (your own “gut” and common sense) is faulty and God’s perspective is true. Naturally, Gothard purports to present God’s perfect perspective to you in this video conference, so reasonable self-doubt and your own good judgment is cast as something sinister and something to deny as you participate. He states directly that reason (all reason?) is something to distrust, but he fails to acknowledge and honor those whose reasoning is already well-informed by a conservative and strong knowledge of the Bible which would absolutely qualify as wisdom in Biblical terms. (He’s subtly cast everything in simplistic terms of black and white, so that if you are not in complete agreement with his white and pure perspective, you are entirely black. It doesn’t encourage scrutiny and it does not give “grace” per his definition of it to those who feel their own conviction that what Gothard is saying might not be pure and white, reflecting God’s perfect wisdom.) No good Christian is going to reject God’s perfect wisdom intentionally, and this is what Cialdini defines as an appeal to human consistency and commitment. Gothard does an excellent job of capitalizing on this human trait in this conference.

When I first heard the novel ideas, my trust was engaged, and I was not in a situation that favored my critical judgment, to say the least. Then, the ideas are thrown at me. Though my mind was engaged, suddenly I felt some emotional engagement. I had I very good command of Scripture at that point, so I had a sense of “surprise” when I heard these new ideas. Everyone’s response to this kind of thing will be a little different, but given my personality and experience, I felt self-conscious because I’d never discerned this before. Here’s where I made my mistake because of the setting and other factors: I assumed that the people teaching this information in a manner that implied that they had an authoritative perspective on the subject, so I acquiesced. I assumed that I must be wrong about what I understood in the past in light of this new information. It is the path of least resistance. Because of how the course is set up – overwhelming really – the new information could be reinforced quite quickly before I left the setting and went back to the real world.

There was also the ride home with the elder and his wife (we’d traveled about an hour one way to get to the church where they held the course) wherein they would also reinforce the information through the discussions while we were all confined in the car together. It started out feeling odd, but in an ethereal and pleasant sort of way. This was cognitive dissonance. In the light of the other reinforcements, the “changing of my mind” became quite enjoyable. I also received quite a lot of positive reinforcement for having attended the conference from and through the leadership at the church. Add to these influences the subtle air of superiority of having a new slice of truth that puts me ahead of others who only thought they understood grace. Gothard has a reputation for promoting this in his conferences, and Doug Phillips has published similar ideas on his website concerning those who follow his system. There is an appeal to believing that you have “a corner on truth,” whether that is just a self-satisfaction or whether it is something that you use to “level the field” to make yourself feel and seem superior.

Living a few hours away from my parents who were not people to sit down and discuss doctrine, and after a recent relocation from another state, there was nothing in my environment to really challenge the new views that Gothard’s IBLP course introduced. I didn’t find myself on the phone with one of my mentors, and if I had, the discussion of Gothard’s doctrines may not have come up. I’d made the assumption that instead of this new and novel information possibly being wrong, I fell for the logical fallacy of the “appeal to authority” *(see here also) and my own feelings of shame which facilitated my acceptance of these ideas. I had no reason to doubt the information at that point, other than the fact that it was new, novel and subtle. The other environmental factors showed me only “green lights.” There were only lots and lots of benefits that encouraged me to change my mind, so I ignored the not so painful "splinter in my mind" that cognitive dissonance posed. (I didn't know any of this information about manipulation at this point, either.)

Before I move on, I would like to offer an example of a situation wherein I would have refused the interpretation that Gothard wrapped around his concept of grace. Even in my own new church, if these kinds of ideas had been presented in a Sunday sermon, I would have contacted the pastor within the next couple of days to ask questions about what he was really saying. I would find myself saying, “I must have misunderstood something because he couldn’t have meant that.” As a good Berean, when we first started attending that church, I showed up on the church doorstep about two weekdays per month, asking questions about things that were said from the pulpit on Sunday.

The pastor was very pleasant and enjoyed talking with me, and I with him. What I would later understand was that though I had intended to get an explanation of problematic teachings and statements when I showed up there, they really turned into indoctrination sessions that the pastor would use to assuage my concerns through techniques like the “double bind” (pointless "thought-stopping" discussions full of cliches along the lines of “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make any noise?”) or Cialdini’s “Weapons of Influence” such as “Liking” in particular. HOWEVER, I wish to stress the point of comparison here that the pressures upon me in our regular church setting were light compared to the week-long Gothard IBLP indoctrination session.
As something introduced to us after only about three months or so into our experience at this church with subtle and aberrant doctrines, the Gothard session became a part of the overall “program of indoctrination” at our church. I never heard Gothard mentioned from the pulpit, and the IBLP course was not discussed openly. The elder who directed our midweek home group came to us and invited us to go along with him to the course privately, and this was not even an invitation that was directed to the whole group. (This also added to the sense and emotional appeal that we were “special,” though I did not see it as an obvious factor of appeal at the time, and I am ashamed now to admit that this was a factor of manipulation, too. We were new in the area, had no social contacts to speak of outside of this church, and we liked the company of this elder and his wife which added to our vulnerability.) We were being groomed to accept these doctrines and many more in a way that was quite innocent, and it was not overt. The process was pleasant and stroked our egos.

I did eventually stop resisting these doctrines our local church taught for a season. I am encouraged to recall that I did question these ideas until I was lulled to sleep by the pleasant aspects of the experience. When you are overwhelmed by many factors that create cognitive dissonance on many levels, you cannot remain a rational, critical thinker who is a good Berean. No one can. I would just tell myself that I didn’t have enough information to make a judgment call about the problematic statements. They were subtle, and I was just being “too critical” and that “I must have misunderstood something.” (The problems had to rest with me and my thinking and not with what my gut told me about the situation that seemed problematic.)
These visits to the pastor’s office early in the week put me in good spirits, though I would often feel disoriented and dizzy when I finally plopped myself down in my car when I went to leave. It was so pretty in the spring there, and the trip to and from the church office with the car windows open bathed me in the scent of honeysuckle that grew thickly along the lovely country road, just off the highway. It was like a beautiful oasis there that reminded me of my home in Pennsylvania, surrounded in a lovely wood that was so pretty compared to the winter terrain of Oklahoma that I’d recently left when I’d moved. All of this was part of the process of changing my mind. Why was I resisting such a pleasant experience? What was I REALLY protesting? People that seemed wiser and kinder to me with each passing day? People who had my best interests at heart and thought the world of my husband and me? That’s all how the fantasy seemed at that time during the honeymoon. But honeymoons end.

Three years later, I would find myself in a very different situation. I saw the bitter fruit of the doctrines of Gothard applied many times over by this time, and they produced garbage in the lives of many of my friends at the church. They were used with me in nearly every discussion I had with church leadership. As I advocated for these women who were being mistreated and against other abuses of power and social proof, I suddenly noticed that the pastors did not reach for the Bible for wisdom. They reached first for their big red book from IBLP for wisdom. I did not understand until this happened just how much of an influence the ideas of Gothard’s doctrine affected church leadership. I didn’t appreciate how they’d affected me, either. These hard experiences and how the leaders consistently relied upon Gothard’s perspective to talk their way out of complex problems of real people using these idealistic and oversimplified examples in the “Big Red Book” (given to you when you enroll in IBLP) taught me the real, unspoken and unwritten doctrines of this church. I felt very trapped and confused.

Did we believe the in the Bible or in Gothard’s authority? Clearly, “we” believed in Gothard and trusted his views above our own experiences and circumstances, and an honest consideration of Scripture was secondary to Gothard’s simplified paradigm. I would later learn that this was “Doctrine Over Person” in play, something necessary to maintain order within the group and to consolidate and verify the sacred science of the ideology. People who resisted this sacred science and the milieu control used to defend their system of beliefs were greeted with punishment and varying degrees of a loss of personhood within the group. “Existence was Dispensed” to those who were model citizens and denied for those who did not participate because of their “sinful willfulness, pride, and independent spirits.” If spiritual blackmail with monikers of shame and rebellion from Scripture did not work, one found that they were no longer a part of the group. You became instantly invisible within the life of the church which continued to happen around you.

At this point, I knew something was very wrong, but I was too enmeshed in the system at the time to assess what was happening to me. Acceptance of these doctrines and thinking them through was not a dispassionate process anymore. It had never been dispassionate based on the veracity of the ideas alone because I’d accepted them and doubted my better judgment because the system and the wide experience of the whole grand process allowed the ideas to slip in past my scrutiny. But something was very wrong, just the same. I found that a particular passage from the first Matrix film describes this feeling very well, something I blogged about HERE. I cannot imbed the video, but you can link HERE to the scene on YouTube where Lawrence Fishburne’s character talks about the “splinter in your mind, driving you mad.” (Insert the name of your church’s system of belief, the name of your church or your religious group in place of “The Matrix.”)

When I first spoke to an exit counselor for the very first time, she told me very much the same thing that “Morpheus” tells “Neo” (the Keanu Reeves character). There is something wrong, but you just can’t figure out what it is that is wrong. This is the very first feeling that you will have when your mind starts to process the inconsistencies involved in the cultic group or the aberrant teachings. They don’t add up. Either what is being said does not match what is being done, or the beliefs to not match with the emotional ways the beliefs are applied.
I discussed this in previous blog posts when I talked about how I understand Hassan’s “BITE Model” in the context of my own experience with in the Land of Gothard. That is cognitive dissonance at work, and when you wake up to the fact that you bought into someone else’s fantasy, the feeling is not light and ethereal. It is deeply painful and intimidating. It is like taking "the red pill," and in my own experience, I felt like I woke up into a nightmare much like Neo did, all with no possibility of turning back into the bliss of ignorance. This is what it felt like for me, and cognitive dissonance is as much of a process of feeling as it is one of cognition.

I mentioned the discomfort I felt (in this previous post) when I tried to sit and read longer passages of the Bible as I had in the past, something the Christian understands as essential for growth and good stewardship, the way one best learns about the Savior they love so much. The first time that I saw this section of the film reminded me in a very dramatic way of how I felt when I first looked and re-examined Gothard’s favored verses about grace. Again, I felt much emotion of surprise that I had believed Gothard’s version of grace. In a much better position to think about and evaluate what he was really saying, and under punishment as opposed to the reward I felt when I accepted these new and novel interpretations, I felt not only surprise, I was angry and felt very ashamed.

At the same time, I was also angry at and deeply disappointed in myself for not seeing the doctrine that I would have otherwise rejected. If I had been home and in the comforting presence of people who had confidence in me when this information was first introduced to me, I would have identified it as something that sounded more Roman Catholic. (If you happen to be Catholic, I am very agreeable to agree to disagree on this point of doctrine in the RCC without it being something personal. It is just not what I believe, and as a Protestant, Gothard shouldn't believe it either.) In my living room, I would have been able to counter this interpretation, offering an answer of defense of my own doctrine in my own mind about why I believed differently. But I was not strong enough to evaluate the doctrine because of the surreptitiously manipulative conditions affecting me when it was all first presented to me.
I knew something was different and wrong about it, but I felt so insecure about myself (only about 25 years old at the time), and the setting capitalized on the power of the human tendency to agree with and submit to authority. (See the Milgram Study history and Cialdini for more information.) And then there was the whole religious idea that because I’d listened to another gospel, I was essentially “spiritually intimate” with ideas that were not God’s ideas. Unlike the claims about Jezebel from the Gothardized cultic church, I essentially engaged in spiritual adultery *as I understood things at that time* (like Jezebel actually did) for displacing God with the ideas and authority and relationships with this system, serving the system instead of serving God. This was truly a horrible feeling, and examining these doctrines that I accepted, in addition to the intense self-doubt that results from realizing spiritual abuse, all intensified every time I picked up the Bible in these early days after I left this church. It was like a flood of painful truth, and the waters covered me.

I am here to tell you today that if you are experiencing anything like this, rejoice, for this will not last forever. It did not last forever for me, though it took some time for me to work through the process. Looking back on it, this process of realization taught me invaluable lessons that have carried over into many other areas of my life, if not all of them. Do not resist what your heart of hearts or your gut tells you. Be aware of the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and honor it. Honor the feelings in your body when you process your own spiritual abuse experience. (One sensation I felt and learned to pay attention to was an awareness of the soles of my feet, and I interpret this now as my desire to get up and run away from the painful process of admitting that I’d been duped and that I was going to have to grieve, repent, and relearn many things again.)

Everything that I once understood, given the light of understanding that I had at the time and my own spirit of naïveté, proved itself to be quite pleasant. It takes much determination, confidence, optimism, and faith in the truth to stand up to the unpleasant feeling that comes with realizing that you've been manipulated and deceived. Because our most deeply held beliefs become personal, this process of “changing your mind” (repenting) about the false doctrine will be painful, even if not to the extent that it was for me. Everyone will feel differently about this, and I am a right-brained person who identifies with more of the artistic ways of explaining things. Your feelings will be different because we all have different personalities, but the process of working through these aberrant beliefs will involve feelings, just the same.

If you can stick with the process of examining your beliefs, putting them to the test of scrutiny, and you can persevere through the process of dissonance that you feel as you direct your own understanding, I promise you that it will be to your ultimate benefit. (The “rabbit hole” does open up into a bright place if you follow it all the way out. The tumbling stops, the feeling of darkness does come to an end in time.) I hope that you will embrace cognitive dissonance as one of your new teachers in this process of change, making peace with the process as one that will help restore you now and protect you in the future if you learn to use it.

Encourage yourself for your courage and valor. This is not a process for the faint hearted, and it will certainly help you work towards a cure for a faint heart.

The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, And saves such as have a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, But the LORD delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; Not one of them is broken.
Psalm 34:18-20 (NKJV)

From the film, “The Matrix”
written by Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski

Morpheus: I imagine that right now you're feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he's expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Neo: No.
Morpheus: Why not?
Neo: 'Cause I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life.
Morpheus: I know exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know, you can't explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there. Like a splinter in your mind -- driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Neo: The Matrix?
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
(Neo nods his head.)
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, or when go to church or when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. (long pause, sighs) Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
(In his left hand, Morpheus shows a blue pill.)
Morpheus: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. (a red pill is shown in his other hand) You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. (Long pause; Neo begins to reach for the red pill) Remember -- all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.
(Neo takes the red pill and swallows it with a glass of water)

("The Wizard of Oz" and "The Matrix" copyrighted by Warner Brothers.)