Saturday, August 25, 2012

Extremes in Postmodern Religious Addiction and the Childhood Roots of Victimization

Revisiting Imbalance.

Originally posted  27Feb12.


Lewis at Commandments of Men has written a post that's inspired me to write a bit more about imbalance found within spiritually abusive evangelical Christianity.

In January, I wrote a synopsis of the core emotional issues of childhood in a series of posts that lead to dysfunctional living. If we come through childhood and our very nature as children is not honored by our our parents (likely because of their own interrupted emotional growth), or if we suffer a great deal of trauma which may have nothing to do with our families, we tend to have problems in adulthood which surround these core emotional dilemmas. Children are valuable, vulnerable, imperfect, needy, and immature., and we carry all of these traits with of into adulthood to some extent, revisiting them from time to time. This is a normal occurrence in a healthy adult, but healthy adults don't remain in these states of recalling the sense of being childlike for very long.


For adults who grew up in circumstances which punished or failed to provide for these traits, the unfinished business resulting from these traits gets carried into adulthood and affects their adult lives. Everyone has a little back tracking to do, but those who have large deficits in their emotional development develop predictable patterns of living. Because this results in a great deal of pain, this population of people who have so much pain because of too many gaps in their emotional development ends up trying to numb the pain in their adult lives, and they often become addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Not everyone gets addicted to a substance. Anything that competes for our focus and attention in life can become something that we use to numb our pain. Workaholism is a commonly known and socially acceptable way of avoiding personal pain that is often encouraged in our society, but the underlying dynamics of dysfunction that drive the workaholic differ little from those in the lives of the people who find their way into addiction and recovery clinics. Another alternative, one of extremes, can be religious addiction. People can be zealous about their faith, especially if they have recently found a new religious idea that brings them a great deal of benefit. I love to be around new converts to Christianity because of this joy and their excitement, as it reminds me of the things that I love about my faith, reminding me of my own gratitude which give me a fresh inspiration to love and glorify God for all that He has done in my own life. This is not what I'm talking about here, however.

When a person who has a great deal of unfinished emotional growth that didn't take place in childhood wrestles with their dysfunction in adulthood (as it is dysfunctional for an adult to act like a child), they seek out distractions and cures and that missing key that will heal them. Religion offers all people a way of and a framework for understanding and transcending the pain we all experience in life, especially Christianity. For those who get stuck in the patterns of dysfunction that they learned in childhood or never had the opportunity to unlearn as they became adults, religion can not only give them a framework for transcending pain, it can offer them a new way of distracting themselves from the pain of their own internal struggle. They can redefine their own personal “junk” as an external struggle of a religious nature, giving them distance from their own pain. They redirect their emotions into the cause of their faith.

I've received a tremendous amount of interest in one particular aspect of the core, unresolved emotional issues of childhood which I wrote about in this post dealing with immaturity of children as it appears when it is carried over into adulthood. (For those who strongly identify with this, I highly recommend that you read the whole series, particularly the other four remaining core traits, because they do tend to occur together.) In that post, I described balance and imbalance through the analogy of a pendulum to describe extremes, but today, I'd like to give you a different way of looking at the trait.


In order to understand the self and to put behavior in perspective, a person can graph their emotions over time. You can graph a day or a lifetime, noting degrees of emotional experience between extremes of happiness and despair over time. When pleasant and exciting events take place, the mood elevates, and a person can graph how they felt, based on their respond to the event.



Here is an example of a fictitious man from birth to death, demonstrating how to use the graph. Pleasant events cause an elevation of emotion, and trauma and loss cause depressed emotion. By noting life events and recalling emotion, you can develop a graph and plot your own life to date.


While in a bookstore a few years ago, just after it was published, the title of Kurt Vonnegut's last book before his death caught my attention, as I said the very same thing about myself when I left the Word of Faith movement. I felt like someone “without a country.” In the book, Vonnegut offers a couple of amusing life graphs as he ponders and seeks his own transcendence as he copes with cancer. He shows the very positive climb of Cinderella and contrasts this iconic example against that of Franz Kafka, master of the absurd and fellow ponderer of the loss of mankind's transcendence (the sense that we have all fallen from a state of mastery and bliss which the Christian understands as a result of the Fall of Man in Eden). I've noted my memory's best synopsis of the amusing graphs from his book to help illustrate this concept of an emotional life graph as a tool of understanding oneself.

Just as I tried to demonstrate through the analogy of the swing of a pendulum, a person can use the life graph as a way to understand their own responses, but I find it especially helpful for understanding this characteristic of imbalance as it applies to trends in Evangelical Christianity and religious extremism. If a person developed emotional health in childhood and has the tools that they need to help them cope with the difficulties of life, when you graph out their experiences, the major part of their life will be spent within a zone that dynamically vacillates within a zone that falls in the middle of the graph. It represents a balance between happiness and sadness, striking a happy and adaptive medium between the two extremes. This balance is a sign of emotional health and flexibility. We all experience problems in life and moments of extremes of pain and pleasure, but most of daily life falls into the range of balance, as we see in our example of the graph of the life of our hypothetical man above.

In my earlier post on this subject, I explained that in dysfunctional households, family members learn that extremes are normal, and when they start to live in balance, it feels wrong. They associate their lives and have learned to experience life through extremes of despair and ecstatic joy, so the balance of everyday living doesn't feel much like living. They have to chase a high, and this makes sense if they've spent a lot of time coping with tragedy and events that left them in despair. They learn to hate that place of balance, the zone where balance places most events in life as the dynamically weave around the midline between extremes.


In extreme religious groups which tends to attract people who subconsciously wish to avoid their pain, not knowing that it even exists in many cases, that zone of balance and emotional health gets redefined. Just as dysfunctional adults redefine balance in relationships as deadness and extremes of continual extreme passion and disdain as intimacy (actually the enemies of true intimacy), religious groups tend to redefine balance in religious life as conformity and lack of commitment to God. 

They learn to experience the world through a framework that prefers extremes and controversy, or rather through conspiracies and extreme themes of apocalypse and triumph. People mistake balanced Christian living as lack of devotion and lack of intimacy with God. Some use gender motivated “culture wars” to play out their unresolved and displaced emotions. Some use the the chase of religious highs or the attainment of perfect piety as another way of displacing their internal struggle.

Everyone is vulnerable to manipulation and control in the form of thought reform which extreme religious groups use to recruit, manipulate, and retain followers. For those with a great deal of emotional dis-ease left over from childhood, thought reform programs and cultic religion offers a most inviting way and an illusion by which a person can play out their internal struggles without having to actually work on them directly. That's why individual, personal growth and development provides the most efficient way of resisting manipulation of any type. When you are secure and don't have to be busy backtracking emotionally, feeling that drain and providing footholds for manipulators, you become less vulnerable. The best offense is a good defense when it comes to personal maturity.

Either to keep people engaged or to market themselves, Christian evangelical religious groups that are always looking for a new spin on things and novelty tend to loose sight of the foundation of the person and character of Jesus Christ. People don't need new and novel applications such as “The Resolution” featured in the film, Courageous. These new theological innovations (Mark Noll's coined term) tend to replace the foundational principles of Christianity. For example, if one focuses on what Jesus described as the two greatest commandments from which we Christians derive the Golden Rule, one does not generally need a resolution or a gimmick. The gimmick becomes an “enhanced” version of the real thing and the place of balance which the Golden Rule provides. What results is a “form over substance” view of reality, because if things appear extreme, they're believed to be better. They are new, improved, and enhanced. Baudrillard summed up this type of postmodern Christianity well in Simulacra and Simulation when he noted that the media itself becomes the message. In the process, the foundation of Christ and his core message falls away.

This isn't Christianity, but rather postmodernism. This is but one trapping of the quality of extremism which arises in many evangelical groups, but the roots of the behavior are quite often found in the unhealed wounds of childhood suffered by the leaders of the group. The sad thing is that these leaders create such systems to cope with their own pain, but they end up using others just like an addict uses a substance in an attempt to numb their own pain. And the collateral damage is phenomenal.



(If the influences and problem of postmodernism in Christianity as it relates to spiritual abuse is of interest, this article explains more of it in greater detail. This series of posts which discusses what postmodernism is from a Christian perspective may also be of interest.)