Monday, September 16, 2013

Does Psychology Create a Need for Church Style? @maguyton

How much does our psychology influence the faith approach we follow, appreciate, and even need? There is regularly a lot of dialogue in the blogosphere about the holiness and horror of both the sin/wrath-focused church and the therapeutic church. Morgan Guyton recently published a couple of excellent posts on fundamentalism and his thoughts on the drive to the (highly disturbing) Christian domestic discipline movement (AKA wife spanking--yes, seriously). These posts spurred me to write about some thoughts I've had about the dichotomy between the sin and therapeutic churches.

One of the things I often hear from major proponents of sin-focused approaches is that we all need to be reminded of our problems, our weaknesses, and that God is in charge. In accordance, the argument for and against the therapeutic churches is that they make us feel too good about ourselves and make us forget about our failings.

This also reminds me of some of the applications of the 12 step approach (not all implementations are the same). Interestingly, there is a decent amount of narcissistic traits in people with substance misuse problems (this is a broad generalization, of course). I think the people who do best in 12 step programs often have this tendency, which is why it makes sense that they need to be reminded of their limitations. Can the same be said for the sin-focused churches? I think so. Some of the loudest voices of this approach (cough, Mark Driscoll, cough) ooze narcissism, so I can see how they benefit from being reminded of their finitude. And just like a good narcissist, they assume everyone is like them and needs the same approach.

Except I've met very few people who aren't aware of their limitations. Those who seem to be needing reminders fall into the undermentioned category. Almost every person I've worked with in my clinical work is acutely aware of his/her problems. Especially when we start getting into levels of higher anxiety, the last thing people need is to be reminded of what's wrong with them. Believe me, as someone with a strong level of perfectionism, I condemn myself plenty.

Continuing this message in the spiritual life does nothing to bring us closer to God. Rather, it reinforces psychological pathology, reinforcing a process of psychic self-flagellation. The therapeutic church approach, reminding people of the unconditional love and grace of God, compensates for the self-condemnation pattern many people experience regularly.

So perhaps both approaches are needed based on particular individuals and psychological processes. After all, God does meet us where we're at, right?

Does that mean I could actually recommend Driscoll and crew to the narcissists? I would have a hard time doing so because of his self-righteous condemnation of others rather than just himself (actually, I don't think I've ever heard him criticize himself, just like a good narcissist). Unfortunately, this becomes a pattern of many sin churches--the people condemn themselves, then become self-congratulatory for doing so and turns the condemnation on others, reinforcing the narcissistic tendencies.

Interestingly, a healthy therapeutic church (yes, there definitely are extreme, unhealthy ones who disregard any semblance of growth and change) could be very good medicine for narcissistic traits. In psychology, a popular explanation of the etiology of narcissism is called the narcissistic injury, which argues that these individuals in fact have an incredibly low self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy. Building up authentic self-regard is actually the "cure" for narcissism in this case. Internalizing God's unconditional love and grace is a core goal of therapeutic churches. And it's a beautiful spiritual and psychological cure to many ills...

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