Fundamentalist Christianity exhibits certain psychological dynamics that in other arenas of life are considered dysfunctional or even pathological. Successful evangelism entails convincing someone that a) there is something innately and inescapably wrong with them and b) that there is a single way to make right this essential wrongness. It’s a matter of creating the problem and the solution at one go. What’s worse, one is not only essentially wrong but will be punished eternally if the sole cure is not accepted on faith.
Shame can be defined as the feeling and/or belief that something is bad or wrong about one’s essence or being (as opposed to guilt arising from merely wrong behavior). Successful evangelism involves shaming people insofar as it teaches the doctrine of ‘original sin’, a condition of intrinsic wrongness humans are born into. When the evangelized are convinced of their desperate wrongness and of impending damnation for it, they will naturally be eager for a way out of this double bind. This is when ‘Jesus Christ’ is offered as a ‘savior’, a divine man/human god whose life and death bridge the gap between our wicked natures and the infinitely perfect nature of God.
Such belief can lead to spiritual narcissism and/or spiritual codependency. Narcissism is the condition of having a split personality: a true self that has been shamed or abused into hiding and a false self that acts as a mask or shield to protect the true self. This false self or persona is co-created by the individual and the group and is successful so long as it remains validated by the group. In a cohesive group, all members agree on what the mask should look like collectively and individually. In some Christian groups, the mask is a modicum of ‘biblical character’ and ‘Christlikeness’ derived from careful study and application of the Bible. This situation turns narcissistic when members fall in love with their individual and collective false selves (the psycho-social masks). Viewing oneself, one’s comrade, and the group as a whole as epitomes of the group’s hero (in this case, Jesus Christ) creates spiritual pride and feelings of superiority. It’s a fragile pride, though, because it’s built on a dis-integrated soul and a severely limited self-understanding.
If narcissism is being in love with one’s fake self, then codependency is being in love compensatorily with someone else’s fake self. The narcissist loves his fake self because it protects him from further injuries to his wounded true self, while the codependent loves another’s fake self because it buoys him from his own deep sense of self-inadequacy. In both cases, the wounded true self is judged, hurt, suppressed, denied, and to some degree replaced by the false self (though the true self never actually goes away; it continues to have widespread underground effects on the individual).
In Christian fundamentalism, the parts of the psyche that have been judged as wrong (“sinful”) are splintered off (“covered by the blood of Jesus”). These comprise the “old man” and “sinful nature” of biblical religion. The “new man” or “redeemed nature” is a newly minted pseudo-self that must eventually conform to the standards held by the group into which one is converted. The euphoria of ‘getting saved” stems from the naturally blissful feeling of a) the resolution of deep shame and cognitive dissonance, b) the deliverance from mortal existential danger, and c) the total acceptance into a group. This is all well and good so long as one stays in the group the co-shaped one’s identity.
Why am I writing this? Because I am trying to make sense of my own distorted reality. I believe I was a dyed-in-the-wool spiritual narcissist. When I was still in my home community, I received frequent affirmation, admiration, and attention for the false self that I had crafted over the years to hide and protect my wounded soul. When I left that safe community for the wider world, this flow of psychic energy – narcissistic supply – started to taper off sharply. People out there weren’t impressed with my lovely mask. And because the ‘love’ I had known had always been narcissistic love only of the socially validated aspects of my being, when I stopped receiving this ‘love’, my mask started to fall apart leaving my repressed soul naked and exposed.
I didn’t understand any of this back then; you can see my confusion throughout these early blog posts. In the following three journal entries, I relate the experience of attending a Calvary Chapel church in Uganda and being thrown right back into the vicious cycle I described above: shame leading to fear, fear leading to the pursuit of rescue. Note toward the end how I mention the necessity of humility and surrender. This is key: naturally, when one’s essential being is attacked and condemned, there is an instinct to fight back, resist, defend oneself. This is the biblical ‘hard heart’. The hard heart must be broken and softened to fully absorb the ‘good news’ that despite our being innately worthless, despicable, incurably broken creatures, we can be saved. It is insidious: we are not just sinful for being human, we are sinful for even wanting to defend the innate dignity of our humanity! We are to grovel in humility to accept our own condemnation and surrender our sovereignty to the condemner himself!
Does this not sound a lot like abuse?
It’s a total mind-job.
August 31, 2009:
We took a taxi to Kampala for church. The sermon, from Matthew 12, was about Jesus’ warnings to unrepentant people and his invitation for people to come get rest.
The part where I really started feeling convicted was when Brian [the preacher] reminded us that we’ll all be held responsible for what we know.
How much do I know? Who much did I know that I forgot?
I remember knowing how wonderful it felt to have the burden of sin taken from me, but I haven’t felt that in 2-3 years. It’s impossible to be a sincere evangelist for an experience you never have [or the impact of which you cannot recall].
Afterward, Brian gave an invitation for first-time commitments [to Christ]. Even I didn’t exactly fit the category, I felt compelled to go. But I didn’t.
It was my pride keeping me back. I didn’t want to admit that I needed something I don’t understand. So, as I delayed, standing there, I felt the weight of condemnation settle on me. As I resisted the strong urge to go forward – what we Christians call the Holy Spirit – I felt the energy withdraw, leaving me more deflated than before.
I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.
I know that I want JOY, PEACE, HOPE, and LOVE. And I know that my need to know has made it hard for me to surrender to the Unknown.
Even now I don’t want to surrender. I don’t want to submit.
And I feel condemned, abandoned, punished. Serves me right.
I don’t yet have it in me to pray to Jesus, so let me try to write a prayer, so I can force my hand to move along the lines mechanically:
“JESUS, I need you. I say that in faith, not in understanding. I miss knowing you and walking with you. It’s been a long time. I felt abandoned and deserted by you. I still do. I’ve given up hope in things being the way they used to be. Pastor Brian hit us with the ‘scare factor’ yesterday. I don’t know what it all means. Please forgive me of my sins. I’m sure they are many, even if I don’t know them all. I’m sorry for grieving your Spirit by not accepting the invitation yesterday. I really am. I felt just rotten and miserable. I still do. I want to come find rest with you but I don’t know how. Please help me. I need help!”
September 2, 2009:
I wanted to try to pray to Jesus again. So I got on my mountain bike, rode around Entebbe airport, and perched myself atop an anthill, facing west.
I prayed…to Jesus.
You’d be amazed at how many times I had to remind myself out loud that I didn’t understand. It must’ve been dozens of times. That critical reflex was so strong after a couple of years of habit-forming, letting my rational mind lead in all evaluations.
Finally I managed to switch modes somehow. I told Jesus that I wanted so badly to understand but that I needed him as well, which entailed taking a plunge of unknowing, of faith. I told him I didn’t want to unlearn or stop learning but also need to revitalize my spiritual life…because man is spiritual.
It was strange but good. I had some brief hints, some millisecond flashbacks (or flash-forwards) of the joy-filled life I once had. I have to say it again:
I can’t understand what this is all about, but maybe that’s the point?
September 4, 2009:
After over a year, I am talking to God again. It took eight months of not reading to get to the point where I had the courage to surrender my mind to the great Unknown. It was Jesus’ invitation through Pastor Brian to come and find rest. I guess I was waiting for an invitation. I wanted to accept last Sunday but didn’t actually until Wednesday evening on a bike-ride. I was tired, tired of trying bear the weight of the world with my intellect alone. I’ve learned again that humility is required for someone to know God.