Thursday, January 20, 2011

Redirecting poor mental health

Every few years mainline Christian denomination membership numbers are reported. Each time there is loud gnashing of teeth because the data shows steady declines since the 1950s. Usually accompanying those numbers is some crowing from the Fundie denominations. They say people prefer their (true, as they claim it) religion because the numbers show a smaller percentage in their declines (though there is still a decline). Since I think of their theology is a corruption of what Jesus taught I have wondered what could explain their slower decline.

What follows are my own thoughts and ramblings on the situation. I have no data to back up what I say. I would welcome a debate from anyone with insight.

I spoke last summer to a small group of Christians (including at least two pastors) about what I have concluded is the essence of what Jesus taught. It all comes down to just a few ideas:

* God is with us, he isn't some far-off deity. He offers personal power and guidance through the Holy Spirit.

* The teachings of Jesus, practiced correctly, build mental health.

* The same teachings build and restore community -- we're all in this together and we do best when we help each other and grow into one large family.

So what might a Fundie church provide? What does it have that allows it to keep old members and attract new ones (at least better than other mainline denominations)?

It appears Fundie congregations are pretty good at building community. Their theology is so annoying to me I haven't tested this idea in person. Once you are a properly vetted member, you have a strong sense of belonging. On the flip side, if your credibility with the community is tarnished you can be exiled. I've heard of gays that strive to remain closeted simply because revealing their orientation would result in banishment from the only community they know.

Such a community may be attractive to an outsider and our society is currently quite bad at building community. I've heard the rise in patriotism in recent years is because so many people are desperate for a community, a sense of belonging, of any kind. Being a member if the community of patriots is more than they had before. And admission is cheap, only the price of flags and flag decals.

Alas, this community has stringent entrance requirements. They are a community to each other but work to make sure their community is not open to undesirables. Like me.

Another offer of the Fundie denominations is the promise of something constant in an era of rapid change. They claim the Ten Commandments were set in stone 3000 years ago and still apply. They claim the definition of marriage is unchanged for 2000 (or maybe 5000) years (in spite of evidence to the contrary). They claim that God is unchanging and that if it isn't in the Bible (the form of which was finalized about 1700 years ago) it can't be true.

I came across commentary by Amanda Marcotte of the blog Pandagon that many Tea Party members want a return to the Gold Standard. Some think this is a way for restricting government spending, but she proposes another reason:

It satisfies their need to believe in a higher, absolute authority. Just like the obsession with believing the Constitution and Bible are non-ambiguous documents that just so happen to agree with everything wingnuts do, and cannot be crossed by mere people, they like to believe that gold is a currency that has intrinsic value that puts it outside the scary world of social constructs and arbitrariness. You get the same obsession, by the way, with English-only thinking. The hope is that there is something solid and unchanging that has value and meaning outside of what humans imbue in it, a sort of final authority they can put their faith in. But just as the category “English” is actually not as rock solid as they think---language is ever-changing---and the Bible and Constitution are up for interpretation, so is it true that there’s no intrinsic value to gold. It only has value for the same reason paper money as value, because we say so.

But this belief in an unchangeable authority does not promote mental health. It does not help a person deal with a world that does change.

That leads me to the third way in which I believe the Fundie religion appeals to many.

Achieving mental health is hard. It is one thing to have an absence of mental illness. Most of us can manage that. It is quite another to have a mental state so healthy that one can be persecuted and still look out for the welfare of others, including those doing the persecuting, which Jesus was able to do. All of us have quirks and foibles that keep us from our full potential and keep us from building an ideal community. We are quite content to let those quirks be, preferring them to the work required to eliminate them. Some of us even treasure these quirks, building our personality around them.

When my nephew became a Catholic priest last May I attended a service of thanksgiving over which he presided in the town where my parents live and where my nephew grew up. One part of the Catholic Mass that struck me as strange was the congregation repenting of sins, then speaking to Jesus, "Just say the word and I will be healed." This implies that mental health is instantly granted, not something that one must strive to build. It seems to deny the work one must do to be reconciled to the community after conflict has occurred.

It appears that Fundie denominations do not build mental health. Instead, they redirect the mental quirks for their own ends. You're a bigot? Fine. As long as you direct your bigotry in the manner approved by God.

The big quote above includes this idea. Fundies (and Tea Party members) claim loyalty to an unchanging document but then use it in a manner that reinforces their own biases. I see it a lot in Fundie uses of the Bible, complete with their claims it is infallible, dictated by the Holy Spirit, and cannot be changed (except for the parts they desperately want to ignore).

I came across an example of this last April from a blogger who calls herself Seething Mom. She has documented her spiritual journey over the last seven years since learning one of her sons is gay. That revelation prompted her to examine and reject her Catholic faith as she found she could not take part in a religion that demonized her son for no good reason. She can now speak eloquently and forcefully against the latest rantings from the Pope and anyone else who suggests her son isn't a first-class citizen.

One of Seething Mom's brothers had been an alcoholic, one of those guys for whom the problems of life were never his fault. Lots of room for growth in mental health. But he didn't go through AA. Instead, he joined a Fundie church, got religion, and simply quit drinking. He has become insufferable and intolerant, able to claim that he is going to heaven and his gay nephew, an genuinely sweet man, is going to hell. That story affected me and prompted me to comment about that brother being a "dry drunk" -- one who has stopped drinking but refuses to make amends for the harm he caused while drunk.

This Fundie faith has not improved the mental health of that brother. Instead, it has excused -- perhaps even blessed -- his poor mental health. I can see that for some people a religion that does that would be an attraction.

One might then ask why other mainline denominations are declining even faster. I have some thoughts on that too, though based on my own congregation. What goes on in my own church probably goes on in other congregations around the world.

My congregation is decent at building community, though won't extend the definition of community to anything that seriously challenges the status-quo. The music in the morning service is definitely geared towards to the 50-and-older crowd (translation: no guitars or drums unless we already like you). We make an attempt to meet the needs beyond our doors, but not really in a way that attracts others to our community.

Another way to look at community. If I'm asked, I'll do something for someone in the congregation (a shut-in needs a wheelchair access ramp built up to the front door). I'll also help out, and sometimes lead, service projects sponsored by the church. I'll help the morning service be more meaningful. But, alas, there are perhaps a dozen people I would truly consider a friend and seriously care about.

There is some talk in the morning message about improving mental health as Jesus teaches, but this comes off as a suggestion. There is no effort to really work at it.

Every so often there is a suggestion by one pastor or another that we invite our friends to a service. I rarely see that happen. I suspect members enjoy each other's company and enjoy the worship experience, but don't see it being so wonderful they want to tell anyone about it. We're not all that much different than a community that has come together over any other common interest. Sigh.

There is a passage in Revelations, the last book of the Bible, that is something like this. Jesus tells a congregation he has no use for them. If they were hot, their faith passionate, they would be hard at work spreading his message. If they were cold, Jesus could confront them and turn them to being hot. But this church is only warm and Jesus can't do anything with believers who aren't inspired enough to act on their beliefs.

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