Monday, March 8, 2010

A Departure Into an Ongoing Debate

I’ve been having this internal debate for a couple of months now that I would like to share. Having been raised in the church, I’ve never really had a period of my life in which I was not under at least some of the auspices of the Christian tradition. It has been an inescapable facet of my life, and a critical pillar of my development, and my identity for as long as I can remember.

As I watch Christianity as it is popularly conceived in the world at large, I am often embarrassed of those who label themselves as Christian. Too often it would seem that the most vocal self identified Christians are typically the most hateful and/or most resistant to anything in the world culture that would seem to in any way challenge or complicate the views that they have espoused.

Now, of course I am not going to waste time writing about how immensely stupid creationists are. Nor am I going to feed the hatred of people like Pat Robertson or the Westboro Baptist Church. I think that any intelligent person, Christian or otherwise, can reasonably see that the most shrill and vocal people that identify themselves to the public as Christians are not representative of the body of Christianity as a whole. Further, I could argue that they aren’t really embracing of a Christian ethic at all, but I won’t beat that old, tired horse in this medium.

What I would like to ruminate on is the role of identity among Christians. Particularly, I would like to share the debate I currently have both with myself and a few people I enjoy talking to.

To summarize our debates, I will try and frame the question succinctly.

To what degree is a self-identified Christian’s disavowal of their own good characteristics and actions actually doing that person psychological harm?

That is a densely packed question. Let me unpack it here now that I have proven to myself that there is just one question.

Let us say for the sake of argument that Henry is a young adult in his late twenties or early thirties. He is gainfully employed, has a reasonable home or apartment, reliable transportation, and enough money for food and reasonable amounts of personal entertainment. He has a couple of friends that he has satisfying interactions with, a good, talking relationship with his extended family, and a significant other with whom he has an enjoyable relationship (both emotionally and physically).

To this point with Henry, we see an individual with the three lowest levels met on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (an interesting little theory pointed out to me by my wife, and her psychology degree). Henry has his needs met on the levels of physiology, safety, and love/belonging.

The next level of the hierarchy involves esteem. At this level, the individual’s needs are to be accepted and valued by one’s self and by others. Of the needs combined in this level, self-esteem is the primary component, as one’s perception of his/her worth and value to others will be colored by whether or not one considers one’s self worthy and deserving of this respect. Thus, people with a low sense of self esteem or worth tend towards inferiority complex, where they strive for the esteem of others, but do not either accept or achieve it due to the underlying problem of their lack of self-worth and self-esteem.

So that’s a psychology 101 approach to the hierarchy. And the reason I have chosen to focus on this fourth level is that I have begun to think about the role of personal religion in this level. Obviously, the role of a personal religious belonging will start at this level, if we are being honest.

Of course, religion is often a part of the third level of love and belonging, as many people are Christian because they were raised in the church by family members, or brought into the church by a significant other or close friend. In fact, I think one would be hard pressed to show a very significant number of people who came to be a self-identified Christian without any influence from a friend or family member, or someone they share a significant relationship with. Even if that person would like to contribute their religious belonging to a ‘conversion experience’ or divine will, I highly doubt that these events took place in a vacuum and wholly apart from any human relationship. So at its core, religious belief stems from social mechanism, as one group of faithful propagates another group.

But that only scratches the surface and relegates religious belief to the status of club or organization. I am not so cynical as to say that the church is simply a country club or the PTA. After all, the vast majority of people who identify themselves as Christians would seem to take away from it something beyond social and familial belonging, even if many are only church members for those reasons. I feel it is a safe assumption that many heartfelt Christians have some of their self-identity and self-worth inextricably linked to their chosen identification as Christian, and whatever that entails to them, insofar as they strive to be a ‘good’ member of the faith.

So here comes by big concern, and the debate I have not been able to resolve in a satisfying way for myself. I have personally known a great number of Christians who, when they do something good, or something beneficial happens to them, or they excel at something, attribute these positive things to God, or Jesus. In Jesus’ name. Not by my will, but by His, etc. Insofar as things happen in their life that they would be proud of, or find self worth or ego inflation in, they attribute those things to God.

As a corollary to these attributions of good things to God (Jesus, the Holy Spirit), these very same people, when confronted with a negative aspect of their personality, or something they have done that is wrong, or selfish, or mean, they will, when taking responsibility at all (people who consistently shift and deny blame are not part of this, and a whole other long discussion), will typically accept that the fault is theirs, that they are ‘only human’. That whatever shortcoming they have, it is their fault and something they should work to improve or correct. Or in the case of certain negative attributes, something they should pray that God help them correct, or that God’s will fix it.

Either way, here is the issue simply put. Positive things the person does are attributed to God. Negative things the person does are from some fault they, as an individual person, have. In only one case does the individual involved actually end up owning or identifying the behavior or characteristic, if I am looking at it correctly. Only when the person of Christian self-identity does ‘bad’ do they actually own the action or behavior. If they do the right thing, or something good, then naturally this activity is attributed to God, to God’s glory, in His name, and so on.

So, with my admittedly limited background in the psychology of personality, it would seem that for a person who has personally adopted an identity as a Christian, that their only way to meet needs in this tier of the hierarchy would be to do things that are only attributable to them as an individual. Which, in this line of reasoning, only leaves them with negative character traits for self-identity or establishing self-worth. After all, anything that would generally be considered a positive activity is not through their own agency, but through God who strengthens them.

To actually ‘own’ any personal agency, and to have any self-identity or self-worth, it would really seem that a devout person at this level of need fulfillment would have to seek out their own negative behavior to establish an identity. After all, they have been taught in the faith that the good they do is to glorify God, that pride is a deadly sin, that arrogance leads to man’s downfall, and so on.

So it would seem to me that those who are devout in the faith, particularly if they come to it in their formative years, when so much of a person’s personality development has yet to be settled, actually have a real stumbling block in terms of self-esteem and self-identity. If the hierarchy is in any way true, then a person is going to have needs for self-esteem and self-worth, and I am legitimately worried that a certain type of person, particularly religiously faithful persons, are robbing themselves of their own positive characteristics by being conditioned to disavow them or attribute them to an external agency (God).

Even more sinister is the idea that no matter what, the human animal seeks out these needs regardless. And if the individual is left without positive recourse in seeking self-esteem, why wouldn’t they seek out negative, or bad, activity. After all, if they sin, then that sin is upon them as an individual. Regardless of the negative or bad judgment, the identification as a sinner, a ‘bad person’, or as a morally weak individual, is at least some sort of personal identifier. Even a bad identity would seem to be preferable to the human ego over no identity at all. Better to be a bad person, than to be nothing at all. To think otherwise would be ridiculous: the self, even in its most base and negative actions, seeks to establish itself as an independent entity.

So, in establishing in the individual the common Christian ethic, by which we see the positive actions and things in our lives as happening through the agency of a loving God, and the negative or sinful things we do as a fault on the part of the human individual, is the religion somehow robbing the self at this level in the hierarchy of human needs? In attributing the good things that a person can think and do away from them to some other agent actually robbing the self of its identity? And does the self, in reaction to this taught and then absorbed denial of self-pride in positive characteristics, seek out the only ways in which it, as a human, can find some self-identity, by embracing only the negative characteristics and actions that ‘make them human’?

When Henry finally explodes and beats up his girlfriend, or starts driving drunk, or stealing from his job, is it because as a self he is looking for an identification he can embrace as a self, even if it is ‘abusive’, ‘dangerous drunk’, or ‘thief’? When a vocal and outspoken evangelical Christian gets caught in a cocaine-fueled tryst with a gay prostitute, of course it is hilarious to the dominant culture that readily embraces the public fall of a polarizing individual. But what about the individual? What in that person’s personality was so missing and neglected that they would seek out such a self-destructive behavior in a way that will ultimately get them judged in public? Is it simply because they need to be identified somehow, as anything good they do serves in no way to enrich them as a person, because they have been trained religiously to disregard it and even to be embarrassed when their good actions and thoughts are praised?

Of course, I am not seeking to give folks who do these sorts of things a way out or a pass. Ultimately I believe that the individual must be able to control their own actions to a great degree, if not completely. But I do wonder at what Christianity as a religion accomplishes if it robs the individual of something that by its very nature it needs to be a complete person.

1 comment:

  1. To sum up what I read a few years ago when I was dealing with my xian issues, a read through a teaching of a guy I can't remember now who it was, but he was talking about why the hell we don't think we can do anything good. His take on Christ message, and teaching to his disciples was that in the mind of Christ, we were all capable of being good and doing great things, ourselves. And that we should give ourselves some credit. Anyways, gotta get back to work.