Saturday, February 27, 2010

Love in Fundamentalism I: Love Equals Submission

 [author] I was identifying with [walkaways from extreme fundamentalism]—that their quest for spiritual communion with God would lead them to participate in these stifling, degrading, anti-gracious communities and then breaking free of the legalism.  The more I read about Christian fundamentalism, the more appalled I became.  The extreme practices Christians have taken up seemed so absurd yet so oddly familiar. 
I realized that most of these ideas [of extreme fundamentalism]…had floated through most of the churches we attended and probably were much stronger an influence than I noticed as a child. 
[commenter] Wow, that's a powerful statement. I never thought of equating the churches we grew up in with the kind of super-fundy stuff you read about from cults, but I can see some of the parallels you are drawing. It makes me so sad that people who claim to have received the love of Jesus show so much disdain for others who are supposed to be their brothers and sisters in Christ (not to mention the rest of the world for whom Christ died.) Power and control seem to always trump grace. 
[commenter] People have one heck of a time loving others, and I think it is because they see this love as a duty rather than as an opportunity to allow the indwelling Christ to live out through them. 

This may actually be the crux of the whole matter.  So much of fundamentalism (in any religious or social setting) is about following rules to win approval from the powerful. Whoever can demonstrate having followed the most rules, the most closely, scores the most points... except the powerful who determine the rules can change them whenever it seems someone else might actually be winning.

In Christianity (at least the evangelical and fundamentalist versions I grew up with), the biggest and most important rule is that Love is best demonstrated by Submitting.  Usually in some kind of service or obedience to those in authority over you, or alternately by demanding that those beneath you on the hierarchy are taught to submit appropriately.  So if Love=submission and the ones on the bottom of the heap are the ones who HAVE to submit the most… Well, who the hell would really want to love anybody else?

I stayed up late recently listening to podcasts about the ballyhoo in the Southern Baptist Convention about this new theology of the Trinity that's come out (been around for at least 30 yrs and underlies the dominionist movement but has recently been shown to be articulated by some Big Whigs of SBC and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) wherein God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have three separate wills and are covenanted to work together to manifest God's will.  God is the Top Dog, Jesus submits to God (and actually has no power to answer prayer, can only take them to God) and reigns over the Holy Spirit.  Therefore Father/Husband has all authority in domestic and civil venues, Woman/Wife/Daughter must follow the Father in everything and cannot have her own calling/work/agenda except as it supports the Father and Wife/Mother/Older Daughter rules over the (younger) children to make them obedient to the Father.

I got to thinking that the whole thing is just so silly.  If churches and Christian literature spent half as much time preaching biblical leadership—being a true public servant working for the betterment of the whole group—as they do demanding that everyone submit, submit, submit, we might actually never have to care about who's submitting to whom and how well.

Why is Christianity about judgment and only ever so rarely about actual grace (not the "oh I'm such a worm and God is gracious that he hasn't just stomped on me" kind)?  Why did I spend twenty-one years among the self-proclaimed God's People and never have a clue about grace until I read a non-Christian source?

Why did I at age 12 have to ask the pastor how to "love God and love your neighbor as yourself" if I didn't love myself?  Basically the answer I got was that not loving myself was a demonstration of proper humility and an appropriate understanding of my essential worthlessness so I actually should love my neighbor better than myself.  What kind of bullshit answer is that to give a kid?  Hmm, the Bible doesn't support the way we've taught this child to believe so instead of changing our teaching when she calls us on it, let's just REWRITE scripture.

And now huge movements within the SBC, the largest denomination in the US, are doing this exact thing.  Really, this shouldn't surprise me, I'm sure it has been going on for millenia.  The powerful always get to rewrite the history (and all our scripture is historical right? More hmmm…).

So I don't think I've really missed anything by staying out of the church scene for nearly two decades.  Same song, second verse, a little bit louder, a little bit worse.

Friday, February 26, 2010

What I Learned as a Heathen

In leaving the church to avoid the legalism and hypocrisy, I feel in some ways as though I threw out the baby with the bathwater.  Or at least, I am aware that I and my family have lost something potentially valuable by not participating in a community larger than ourselves, and in not being familiar with the Bible at least as it informed the last two thousand years of Western history, art, music, law, and economics.  I have made some effort, though clearly not successful, to keep my children from being infected with my anti-organized religion bias--I've tried to teach overtly and by example that everyone is in her own place on the journey of enlightenment and if their religious community feeds them, more power to them.  I've tried to make religious tolerance the name of the day.  The eye-rolling and caustic comments from my girls about church-attendance or other families' church-habits make it clear that I've not been as successful at ecumenical respect as I'd hoped.  Or maybe they have just as sensitive a bullshit meter as I have but fewer inhibitions about calling it as they see it.

Also, in leaving the church, I put absolutely everything I'd been taught into the bin.  Is any of it Truth?  Biblical inerrancy? Divinity of Jesus? The Trinity? Original Sin? Justification by faith? Sanctification by works? Free will vs. the Elect? Worldly reward for spiritual holiness?  Does any of it matter if the practice of religion ignored all of it in preference for power structures and legislation by guilt?
I examined the theologies of several different religious traditions over the years (mostly Buddhism, Wicca and Paganism, Zen, and Sufi but some toe-dipping into other systems) as well as lots of variants of the neo hippie cultures: Waldorf education, Simple Living, Back to Earth.  Amazingly, I found the same legalism, self-righteousness, holiness based on adherence to a particular set of rules, and discipline-by-ostracism in every single one.  So, Truth must be that people have such a strong need to belong that the power-mongering among us can use absolutely anything to set up that abusive dynamic.
I found other Truths, though, that ran through everything I looked at--stewardship of the earth, the body being the temple of the divine, humanity is the image of the divine, measure of holiness by Fruit of the Spirit, and a reverence That Which Is Greater Than Ourselves.  I decided these are Truths because, as far as I could tell, they are constant through all times and all places.
But knowing these things to be True (by whatever name people call them), how do I live and worship in community with others who recognize these Truths without setting up a system with potential for legalism?  Is it possible? Are legalism and power-tripping the price we pay for community?  Is that the real dynamic tension of the universe--unity with Divinity in community versus corruption and separation from Divinity?
And how do I avoid that tension within myself? How do I live in such a manner that promotes the unity without allowing the corruption?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Finding My Fundamentalism

(responding to the Epilogue of her book Quivering Daughters)

Dear Hillary,

Thank God for you. Your ability to translate the depth of my (your) pain into words is a thing of terrible beauty. I would probably not have identified myself as a casualty of spiritual abuse without your words. And, therefore, never begun the healing of these old and deep wounds in my soul.

My family of origin lived on the liberal edge of fundamentalist Christianity in the 70's and 80's. My father was a pastor/music director/various positions of authority in a variety of Baptist, Church of God, and Plymouth Brethren assemblies and always somehow "in ministry". Our family's own practices were rarely so extreme as what I've been reading on your blog and the blogs of other survivors of radically right Christianity but the ideas, and ideals on which those ideas are based, were a large part of our theology. Your description of the spiritually abusive family fit my childhood to a T. I can now admit that the quality of abuse in my family is in no way less because the quantity of abuse was less than some.

I left organized religion at the death of my mother from cancer (at 49) nearly twenty years ago, thinking that I was leaving behind all the self-righteous hypocrisy and with it the pain and self-hatred engendered by church and family. I came to see however that hypocrites and Pharisees exist in every social group. Legalism is alive and well in the Simple Living Movement, Waldorf Education, neo hippie Back-to-the-Landers, and alternative medicine circles.

What I didn't notice until more recently was that the depression, anxiety, and perfectionism that plague my adult life resulted from the same deep self-loathing I thought I had left in the church. Having recognized it finally, a couple years ago, I didn't know how to change it. I had no capacity to extend myself the grace and forgiveness I have long extended my family (all of whom remain in church). I knew intuitively that my soul held long unhealed scars, festering abscesses that needed lancing, but I have kept my pain so deeply buried that I didn't know where to find it anymore.

My body and mind have paid the price of my denial and I developed hypoadrenia that left me unable to function or even to think in complete sentences for the better part of two years. Fortunately, I am over a year into recovery from that and am at least a contributing member of my family again. Part of the recovery process, however, is to search out the beliefs, behaviors, and situations that caused me to abuse my very Being to the extent that my body and mind were nearly lost. I knew I needed to reach those soul scars. If only I knew what they were!

A couple weeks ago, I was net-surfing about my daughters’ fascination with the Duggars and started finding references to Quiverfull and associated ideas. And I became addicted to reading about extreme Christians and those who've left the extremism. I started to get an inkling that maybe this was It ... the source of my festering. But even your Quivering Daughters blog with its evocative writing, while extremely helpful in identifying and describing spiritual abuse such as my childhood, simply couldn't pierce through my intellect to the emotional pain.

Today I read your new blog [edit: this blog is no longer public] and the post about mothering the child you were. For the first time, I cried. Only a little, not nearly enough. But I know it's a start. The rawness, the achingly fragile quality of the strength that kept you alive touched me in a different place than your other writing. The very personal pain that you strive to keep separate from your other blog (and probably rightly so) was the key that unlocked my own pain.

Thank you for being able to put that staggeringly choking clawing gripping reality on display for me. As I ache for the Luna in you, I am finally able to ache for the soul-hungry, whimpering, terrified, furious child in me.

Many blessings to you.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Beginning the Quest

 Last summer, I was walking through my favorite used bookstore and a book fell off a table onto my foot.  I picked up The 19th Wife, a fictionalized account of the history of polygamy in Mormonism and Mormon fundamentalism.  In horrified fascination, I googled for several days about these FLDS communities and the whole topic of religious fundamentalism.  I couldn't get these women's stories out of my head.  I realized that at some level, I was identifying with them—that their quest for spiritual communion with God would lead them to participate in these stifling, degrading, anti-gracious communities and then breaking free of the legalism.  The more I read about Christian fundamentalism, the more appalled I became.  The extreme practices these Christians have taken up seemed so absurd yet so oddly familiar.

Quiverfull, militant fecundity, Joel's Army, dominionism, Bill Gothard, Integrated Family Church, Patriarchy and complementarians, the purity movement, and the stories of women and children who have escaped from these families and churches. Essentially, in the words of one former quiverfull, IFC, extreme mother, “each family becomes it's own cult centered around the father and families of sheeple following Vision Forum and other quasi-educational, cultic, Christian homeschooling groups or churches”.

It grossed me out, actually, but after my initial revulsion, I realized that most of these ideas (women under authority of men before God, faith+works to prove salvation, head coverings, breaking the will of the child, rebuilding America on God's ideals, no interracial or same sex unions, and more) floated through most of the churches we attended and probably were much stronger an influence than I noticed as a child in the 1970s.  It is just that since my childhood in these churches, these ideas have become institutionalized and given names and have movements with followers.  I mean, there are hordes of families who believe that their children, in particular daughters, shouldn't attend Bob Jones University because of the liberal humanist ideas they will be exposed to.  REALLY? BJU is too LIBERAL for the True Christian?

But I digress... despite having left all organized religion well more than a decade ago and Evangelical Christianity even longer ago, I find that I still harbor those little voices in my heart of hearts.  The ones that say if I know a better way (to save money, to eat healthy, to teach kids) but don't do it, I'm unworthy.  That everyone else's needs not only come before mine but that I don't deserve to have my needs met (servant leadership, death to self, who can trust a heart that is desperately wicked), etc.  I've just picked a different subset of "rules" to be unable to live up to than the fundies.

I used to tell people that I grew up in a dysfunctional household but instead of alcohol, it was religion that my parents were addicted to.  I thought I had left all that behind after I quit church and turned my back on all that “women submit, raise perfect children, do everything exactly right or God will turn his back on you” stuff.  But apparently, I have just as much of the addiction gene as all my forebears.

So I'm still a recovering Christian?  I've now added to my googling the rebuilding one's self and spirit after spiritual abuse.  Not that what I experienced was even remotely extreme compared to the stories I've been reading but the underlying philosophies were the same.  And our family and churches fit all 7 of the checkpoints for spiritual abuse listed by Jeff VanVonderan of Intervention television fame (and apparently well regarded by several of the fundy survivors I've been reading).

I guess the point of this post is to declare publicly that I'm powerless over the effects left in me by my spiritual upbringing.  That I have not shown myself the grace and mercy that I believe is the soul of God.  And that I'm a little unclear about where to go from here. Having recognized the signs of religious abuse and more than a little gun-shy of religious communities, yet no longer satisfied with the mishmash of spiritual traditions I’ve collected since leaving Christianity, what is the next step in recovery? In finding a spiritual tradition in which I feel at home?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Season of Renewal and Resurrection

Ash Wednesday.  The beginning of Lent.  The end of excess and the start of focused restraint and renewal.  A time culminating with the rebirth of a soul. A very loose interpretation of the meaning and purpose of Lent but the interpretation that gives it meaning to me. 

I laughingly posted to Facebook about my stack of books I wanted to read, wondering if I perhaps had a problem with an excess of research.  Am I addicted to Google? To books? To finding answers to every varied question that passes through my head?  Or do I simply have an inquiring mind in search of a venue for my accumulated knowledge?

My kids suggested that I should give up Google and email for Lent but I asked who would be served by such sacrifice:  my kids, who are old enough to have little need of me beyond driving and dinner?  I, who greatly delight in every new idea to debate, discuss, and develop new questions? My husband, who admits to finding himself applying to all the people he meets in his travels the knowledge I so freely share? Would God be pleased with such pointless sacrifice, made simply for the tradition of Lent?

Or would God find more appropriate an act of service?  I certainly would be better pleased to continue reading and expect that I’ll find greater healing and spiritual growth by writing.  The excess of research may continue but I hope to reap more benefit by distilling some of the morass of ideas into a few new thoughts.  Or at least new questions.  For the next forty days, I hope to write here frequently—daily is my plan, although I doubt I’ll actually post that often.  Forty days of turning the glut of information in my brain into some kind of synthesis. 

By the end of the season, I intend to have regained the confidence in my own voice, the facility of word I used to take for granted.  I pray to be reborn as a person whose authority I respect without needing to footnote my own opinions.