WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
In your strength the king rejoices, O Lord, and in your help how greatly he exults! You have given him his heart’s desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips. For you meet him with rich blessings; you set a crown of fine gold on his head. He asked you for life; you gave it to him – length of days forever and ever. His glory is great through your help; splendor and majesty you bestow on him. You bestow on him blessings forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence. For the king trusts in the Lord, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved. Your hand will find our all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you. You will make them like a fiery furnace when you appear. The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them. You will destroy their offspring from the earth, and their children from among humankind. If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed. For you will put them to flight; you will aim at their faces with your bows. Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength! We will sing and praise your power. – Psalm 21
As I reflect on this theme of spirituality, I think back on my “spiritual experience.” This includes remembering the early years of my experience in the church following my conversion when I was 17. I don’t exactly feel bitter about that experience, but I also don’t look back upon it very fondly.
Mostly I feel lucky that the way I was taught at that point in my life, the worldview, the ideas of God and life and the world, did not genuinely take hold. The best I can say now about that time is that it did not do too much damage to me. As late as when I was a junior in college I talked with a friend about dropping out of school. Jesus was going to be returning so soon, so why prepare for a worldly future?
I saw some people from that church several years later, after my views had changed a great deal. One of them was saying just how terrible everything in the world was getting, wars and rumors of wars, great famines, impending economic collapse. Her views were even more pessimistic than the harshest critic of capitalism. However, she was saying it all with a smile. These catastrophes, present and soon to occur, were good news. They were signs that the Lord was coming back very soon to rescue us from this world of sorrows. I didn’t really respond, but by this time I reacted to the threat of such catastrophes and human suffering with fear and sorrow. I felt pretty horrified with her attitude.
As I reflect on my entire experience as a new Christian from the perspective I have now, I face a huge question. How is it that people can so sincerely worship God and combine that worship with what I now see as soul-destroying beliefs and practices? I am thinking of ways that that tradition sought to shape my thinking as a young person just on the brink of adulthood. I was not taught to think, how I can go out into the world? How might I learn more of how God is in the world and of who I truly am as a human being? What might I learn from other people and traditions and the infinite variety of beauty and creativity in people, places, and things? Instead, I was encouraged to think of dropping out, watching the world go up in smoke, and being rescued by Jesus through the Rapture.
I am increasingly aware of many other forms of soul-destruction in the name of God. You can find it in all traditions – from liberal Protestantism to Catholicism to Mormonism to Judaism. Any of these can make reality more focused on ideology or goals or principles than on human relationships. That is, even in the name of God people can be influenced to relate to the rest of the world as It rather than Thou. Such a mold, I believe more all the time, is soul-destroying. The healthy soul is the one that sees all people, all of creation, as products of a loving God. All creatures are meant in their turn to be loved and respected. All of creation is potential Thou.
Still, the form of soul-destruction in the name of God I know most about happens in churches like those of which I used to be part. I do have a theory of how people in those churches could so sincerely worship God and yet be part of soul-destroying religious institutions. The answer has to do with how people in these churches understand the God that they worship.
The roots to this perspective on God go way back. In the biblical tradition, we see an implicit debate within the Bible itself as to how we should understand God. A central issue back then, and still today, is the connection between God’s authority and the authority of powerful people, especially kings and priests. The origins of Israel as a people go back to a revolution in Egypt. That was when the Hebrews gathered around the prophet Moses. Moses portrayed the God Yahweh as separate from and in conflict with the god-king of Egypt, Pharaoh. Yahweh’s power was different. The people gained liberation from the yoke of slavery. They escaped Pharaoh, not through generals, horses and chariots, and the might of warriors. They escaped through a miracle in nature (the parting of the sea) under the leadership of an unarmed prophet.
In time, though, the lure of the way of Pharaoh became too strong. Israel chose a king and again faced the burdens of closely associating God with absolute political control. In Psalm 21, we find a prime example of how closely the two, king and God, could be connected. First, the king is spoken of as having received his heart’s desire from God. His crown of gold, even, comes directly from God. God “bestows on him blessings forever,” (v. 6), that is, the king’s power will go on and on. Most hierarchical political power likes to think of itself as approaching everlasting control. Then we come to the crux. “Your hand, God, will find out all your enemies. . . . You will destroy their offspring from the earth” (vv. 8, 10). Of course, in reality, these are the king’s enemies. Their offspring are destroyed by the king’s armies. The king attributes his power and the victories of his armies to God’s blessing. No wonder the king’s religious spokesperson can conclude, “We will sing and praise your power, [God]” (v. 13).
We will sing and praise your power, God, because we use appeals to it to buttress our power over others. One of the major problems of this kind of refrain throughout history has been the destruction that such power-over wreaks. Significantly, kings destroy in the name of God.
In many religious contexts, this notion of a hierarchical God pervades all of life. This is a God of the status quo. This God actually is an It, far removed from real life with its ambiguities, brokennesses, and paradoxes. To trust in this kind of God actually is to find oneself alienated from present day actual life.
Historian Douglas Frank, in his book Less Than Conquerors, describes his youthful piety in his evangelical church in words I can relate to. “My entire daily existence contrived to reinforce and illustrate the truth of the religious beliefs I was being taught at home and in church. If a fellow Christian recovered from a serious illness, we praised the Lord; if he or she died, we thanked God – since his will had been done. If friends experienced financial success, the Lord had graciously and faithfully taken care of their needs or rewarded them for diligence and good stewardship; if poverty struck, the Lord was teaching his people to trust him more or was putting them to the test for their own good. If church attendance boomed so that a new wing had to be built to hold the growing Sunday School program, the Lord was increasing the harvest in these last days; if attendance dropped, it was confirmation that perilous times are to be expected in the last days, and apostasy would be seen on every hand.
“As my contact with the wider world increased, the legitimations followed. Why are our boys fighting and dying in Korea? To stop an unrighteous power from bringing its neighbors under the yoke of communist dictatorship. God would bless our efforts – and it appeared to us that he did. Why must we build nuclear weapons with the capacity to destroy the world? Because if we don’t, we will not be in a position to stop tyrants from ruling the earth.”
Frank found this system crumbling, especially by the time he went to college. He learned to know non-evangelical Christians, even non-Christians. They were also nice, moral, even pious. So maybe God was a bit bigger, a bit more difficult to pin down. His training hadn’t prepared him for this. The result was confusion and doubt. “My plausibility structure was shaking, and this introduced my first hesitant doubt about the reliability of the Christian truth claims of which I had been convinced in childhood.”
However, such doubts create crises. The real world seems one way, one’s received notions of God (deeply ingrained and couched in terms of fearful power and control) seem another way. One experiences contradictions, a gap between belief and reality. To question deep-seated beliefs produces shame. One response to feeling shame over doubting is to try harder to repress the doubts and fears. This might work for a time. The fear of the sanctions of the almighty God or at least fearing the sanctions of God’s agents, one’s parents or church, can help quell the doubts. Over time, though, such repression of doubt is soul damaging. If spirituality has to do with relating to life how it actually is, then to deny reality is stifling spirituality. We can not find genuine hope amidst our actual pains and doubts and fears if we are repressing those pains and doubts and fears.
In such a system, people are likely to have fear about the real world being different from how we want it to be. Fear that God is not actually in control. Out of such fear comes the need for denial. God has to be in control, right, so we must ignore our feelings of fear, anger, even hatred at the pain we experience in real life.
However, such denied fear, anger, and hatred have to find an out. We may repress it, but it does not go away. According to therapist Alice Miller, one of the few acceptable ways Christians have found to vent their stuffed anger and hatred is toward their own children. It helps that such venting, in the name of discipline, has “divine” sanction. One prime expression of this divine sanction is the command – Thou shalt honor thy mother and father. The command says nothing about honoring children. No, children are to obey, to bow down to the divine authority that comes to them through God’s chain of command – God via the parents. Another expression of divine sanction of child discipline is the famous proverb, Spare the rod and spoil the child. This is certainly the approach preached in the churches of which I was part.
In her book For Your Own Good, Miller quotes from a child-rearing manual that gives a rationale for strict child discipline. A “major matter to which one must dedicate oneself beginning with the second and third year is a strict obedience to parents and superiors and a trusting acceptance of all they do. These qualities…are so essential because they impart to the mind orderliness per se and a spirit of submission to the laws. A child who is used to obeying his parents will also willingly submit to the laws and rules of reason once he is on his own and his own master, since he is actually accustomed not to act in accordance with his own will. Obedience is so important that all education is actually nothing other than learning how to obey. . . .
“After one has driven out willfulness as a result of one’s first labors with children, the chief goal of one’s further labors must be obedience. It is not very easy, however, to implant obedience in children. It is quite natural for a child’s soul to want to have a will of its own, and things that are not done correctly in the first two years will be difficult to rectify thereafter. One of the advantages of these early years is that then force and compulsion can be used. Over the years, children forget everything that happened to them in early childhood. If their wills can be broken at this time, they will never remember afterwards that they had a will, and for this very reason the severity that is required will not have any serious consequences.”
Miller argues vehemently to the contrary; such discipline, such “breaking the child’s will” does have enormously serious consequences. It, in effect, murders the child’s soul. The child should be accepted and encouraged to grow in creativity and mutual loving give and take with the world. Having its will broken leaves the child numbed to its own emotions, fearful, angry deep inside, lacking in empathy and potential for critical thought and free, independent emotions.
In the church, people with broken wills are people easily manipulated and controlled by church hierarchies in the name of their hierarchical God. They will likely be unable really to love mutually, to experience God and the rest of the world as “Thou.” Creativity and imagination are minimized – obedience and submission maximized.
One of the main dynamics in Miller’s scenario is that children are not aware of what is being done to them. The manual she quotes says the advantage to coercing the young child is that the child forgets what happened. The child is not aware. “Primary emphasis is placed upon raising children so that they are not aware of what is being done to them or what is being taken away from them, or what they are losing in the process. [They are not aware] of who they otherwise would have been and who they actually are. [What results then is that] as adults, regardless of their intelligence, they will later look upon the will of another person as if it were their own. How can they know that their own will was broken since they were never allowed to express it? Yet something one is not aware of can still make one ill.”
The illness is repressed anger that comes up in unpredictable or arbitrary ways – especially later on with one’s own children. The illness expresses itself in lack of creativity, lack of empathy, lack of spiritual vitality. Again, the notion of a hierarchical God dovetails nicely here. God is someone simply to be obeyed – never mind that what we are really obeying is human ideology in our various religious institutions. We can not question the Bible, for instance. I was taught a great phrase – “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”
So we do not question a Psalm 21, when it so closely connects the king and God. We do not question our own nation when it goes to war. We do not question the status quo and powers that be. We do not question the assumption that God commands people to kill other people. We do not question the words attributed to Paul that women are to submit to men. Spare the rod and spoil the child – the Bible says it, doesn’t it. We do not ask whether such an application of the rod might actually destroy the soul of the child along with breaking its will.
Alice Miller asserts that such soul-destruction is at the root of social violence. One aspect of this dynamic is scapegoating. Miller writes about anti-Jewish attitudes in Europe. “There is probably no more reliable common tie among the peoples of Europe than their shared hatred of the Jews…. Where does anti-Semitism’s perpetual ability to renew itself come from?…
“Jews are hated because people harbor a forbidden hatred and are eager to legitimate it. [They are forbidden to hate their parents who violated their souls.] The Jewish people are particularly well-suited objects of this need. Because they have been persecuted for two thousand years by the highest authorities of church and state, no one ever needs to feel ashamed for hating the Jews. [One will not feel ashamed] even if one has been raised according to the strictest moral principles and is made to feel ashamed of the most natural emotions of the soul in other regards. A child who has been required to don the armor of ‘virtue’ at too early an age will seize upon the only permissible discharge; he will seize upon anti-Semitism (i.e., his right to hate), retaining it for the rest of his life.”
This type of scapegoating is easily justified in the name of a hierarchical God. This is the same kind of God who the Psalm tells us will burn his enemies “like a fiery furnace” (21:9). This is part of what happens with the hostility toward gay and lesbian people so prominent in churches these days. Good Christian people have repressed anger. Only if they can find enemies of God can they feel justified in directing that anger at people. Without God’s justice to vindicate, scapegoating is difficult to justify. However, when need to vent our hostility, even if it is repressed deeply enough that we do not recognize it for what it is, we will find scapegoats.
Of course, this is the dynamic at work in nationalism, where other nations are scapegoated. The literature fanning the flames of patriotism during wartime makes it clear how important a hierarchical God is to the entire scheme. Only this kind of God can provide the basis for the divine support nations find necessary for their warring madness.
However such warring madness is the opposite of healing spirituality. This is true on all levels. Certainly true on the big scale of warfare, but also on a more local scale with homophobia or violence toward children or imposing shame-based rules for piety and religiosity.
Maybe, for some of us, we need to take drastic measures free ourselves from the internalized sources of hierarchicalism. Daniel Liechty, in his book Reflecting on Faith in a Post-Christian Time, asserts that we need to declare atheism over against such a hierarchical God. Many people who do call themselves atheists surely are reacting against precisely this kind of God. This is pretty strong language, and perhaps not helpful for many of us. I think mysef that we are best off when we learn, gradually, to see God in different ways. Still, at some point, I did come to a place of saying that I don’t recognize that hierarchical God as God any more. To me, God is different altogether.
The view I am presenting sees God mostly as one who loves, who we find as a healing presence amidst our various brokennesses and sufferings. This God gently leads toward an acceptance of our actual world. We can grow in a realization that love and healing and growth toward wholeness are possible here and now, even if imperfectly.
The Bible portrays this God most profoundly during times of chaos and shattering. This God liberates during the chaos of slavery in Egypt. This God comforts during the shattering of the destruction of ancient Israel’s temple and kingship. This God gives new life during the chaos and shattering of Jesus’ cross.
This God is hard for us to define, certainly hard for us to reduce to our wants and desires. Yet this is also a God who we discover only as we also discover ourselves. We do not find this God through carefully ordered ideologies coming down from above. This God is creativity and freedom. Our connecting with such a God comes best as we cultivate our creativity and freedom. Such cultivation is where the path toward a spirituality for who we are leads us.
Douglas W. Frank, Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 56.
Frank, Less Than Conquerors, 56.
Miller, For Your Own Good, 13.
Miller, For Your Own Good, 14.
Miller, For Your Own Good, 166.
Daniel Liechty, Reflecting on Faith in a Post-Christian Time (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House: 2003), 65.