Arrested Development: Christian Edition

    Just so you know, this post has nothing to do with the TV show. Much like the verb “trump” is forever ruined--or at least ruined for the foreseeable future--by the huffing embarrassment of the wanna-be “winner” (and actual loser) that is Donald Trump, the sonically satisfying and uniquely applicable phrase “arrested development” is too heavy with pop culture connotation to be used casually anymore. Even so, there are times when a baggage-bound term still means exactly what one wants to say, and since achieving exact meaning is why we have highly specified vocabularies in the first place, the term must be dragged down from the attic and put to good use despite the trivial connections it is more than likely to trigger. Thus, I find myself with you here: to talk about Christianity and arrested development, of the non-televised kind.

    When one is going through the process of divesting oneself from religion, it is important that one spends a good amount of time considering all the ways in which that religion (in my case, Evangelical Christianity) shaped one’s personality and perspective--all of the ways in which it created a version of oneself that might be eligible for an upgrade. Just as our families of origin foster and form a rendition of ourselves that is based on maintaining the household equilibrium (see Family Systems Theory) and that we may later find is not necessarily our ‘true’ self, being raised in a church community introduces the mind to a distinct form--a social and a cosmic orientation--that is seen as natural because it is pervasive within the group. For those raised in more liberal, free-thinking denominations, such as certain Episcopal congregations or the Unitarian-Universalist church, the religious molding might not be such a bad thing. In those cases, you might have been taught that everyone is unconditionally welcome in the love of God, that all belief systems are worthy of respect, that decolonization is mandatory practice, to have a community service mindset, and the basic lesson of self-reliance. These are examples of habits and traditions one might want to continue practicing, regardless of personal faith or continued church involvement. For us former Evangelicals, however--or at least for this former Evangelical--leaving the church doesn’t just mean not going anymore; it means breaking free of many unwanted habits, some of which are so deeply ingrained that they seem almost as permanent as the tattoos on my arms. It means re-becoming, as a person, almost entirely.

    With this re-becoming often come regret and hard feelings--regret over what a person missed out on, over time wasted on things now seen as silly magical thinking. And hard feelings toward both the institution of the church and the individuals who represented it in one’s life, because perhaps things would have turned out differently, perhaps real life could have got started earlier, if it and they had not convinced you of the myth before you were old enough to make an authentic choice about it. If they hadn’t handed you the morbidly proverbial kool-aid, as it were. For me, the thing that most tempts me toward a grudge as I excavate the ruins of my Evangelical upbringing in the hopes of better understanding myself is the way in which church culture perpetuated my adolescence--or put more broadly, the modern Christian practice of arresting believers’ development. I first realized that this was a fundamental, if not consciously intentional, practice of the Evangelical church when it dawned on me that I myself did not really start growing up until I began the process of renouncing my faith. And that process did not get going until I was at least twenty-six, which feels like a few too many years spent idling in a juvenile mind (not that there’s not much I can do about it now).

    The realization came in the midst of crisis. I had just moved to a city I didn’t like, been broken up with by a guy I very much did, and jumped head first into a graduate program that I shouldn’t have been trying to afford. I spent that first year of school unable to remember what happiness felt like, enduring a low hum of existential panic that was with me every minute of every day. Somehow I managed to pass my classes, to show up (mostly) for my part-time job, and to drag myself to the occasional party if I thought I could manage not to cry for a night, but I was a wreck. Eventually, miraculously, in that dark and grueling season--perhaps when I was finally ready to accept that supernatural help was not and never had been on the way--a small, inviting light of awareness began to shine in my mind. What it illuminated was this: that I didn’t know how to take care of myself, and I didn’t know how to deal with unrequited prayers. Sure, I could cook and clean and write checks for my bills and all that, but my interior life was not something I knew how to take responsibility for. I had been taught (1) to put my faith in God regarding everything--finances, relationships, and so on--and (2) that the way to deal with stress and pain was to pray for their causes to be gone. I was not supposed to change my thinking; God was supposed to change my circumstances. I had been taught to listen for God’s voice, to keep an eye out for the signs, and to take a leap accordingly, practicality be damned. But what I had not been taught was what to do when the signs were wrong, or when those on whom I was depending decided to take a different path, regardless of the direction in which I felt God was guiding me. I had also not been taught what to do when God did not respond to my pleas for help, when circumstances weren’t changing despite my fidelity to Him. I imagine that most pastors would simply say ”Keep waiting”, but, at least in this particular scenario, I was truly suffering. What I needed was to be soothed.

    Except, I was twenty-six years old. What I really needed was to learn how to self-sooth. And this, this fundamental life lesson, is what Evangelicalism does not offer--or did not offer to me. I was taught to rely on God for everything, that God would take care of everything, that any situation that caused me grief was something I could get fixed through prayer. I was not taught how to deal with my own emotions in a mature and thoughtful way when difficult times did come, how to move on from disappointment, or how to believe that I was capable of handling an unwanted lot. On the contrary, I was taught, quite explicitly, not to trust myself at all--my mind or my heart. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” This verse from the book of Jeremiah is one I have long been able to recite from memory. Imagine what taking in such words does to a person’s natural developmental process. Imagine a person being taught, all through childhood and all through adolescence and into adulthood, that they cannot safely rely on their own reasoning or intuition--that they should only look to a particular outside source (which, by the way, has no physical characteristics) when seeking help or wisdom. What does that person become? They become dependent. Utterly, paralyzingly dependent. Not only that, they become dependent on a being for which there is no evidence of existence, which is an important point because the desperate need for succor will perpetually go unfulfilled in any tangible way in this case. Thus was I. Essentially, a child, despite having spent nearly three decades on the Earth. I’d had my share of successes--and certainly privilege--but still I had no self-confidence; I had no pride. I was Buster Bluth (oh look at that, I did manage to bring it in after all) and Buster Bluth is not the character you want to be on that show.

    It was not until I left the church that I felt allowed to take pride in myself. In fact, wanting to adore and celebrate myself was part of what ultimately drew me over and away from church when it came time for the breach. And guess what? It feels wonderful to do so. I cannot put into words how much better self-empowerment, self-reliance, and regular use of my own brain feels than waiting on the Great Sky Genie to tell me what to do or where to go. Finally I can embrace without shame the fact that I am not lowly, I am not foolish, I am not in need of a god to be good--and, neither are you. Of course, I must point out that when I say “self-reliant” I don’t mean that one doesn’t depend on others for support, be it social or material. None of us should be doing this strange existence alone. But there is a standing on our own two feet that is a normal and necessary part to becoming fully actualized as a person, and a recognition of our own inherent strength and courage that makes us, in my experience, better citizens of the world, not worse.

    It makes sense that the Christian church, or at least the Evangelical-type branches of it, does not teach people how to grow up--not just because it’s a natural consequence of their interpretation of scripture, but because those are the kind of people (emotionally and intellectually young people) the system needs to perpetuate its own existence. When you think about it, Evangelicalism is very juvenile. It needs everyone to believe what it believes; it loves to argue; it resists honest critical thinking because critical thinking can bring its foundational ideas down in a major way; and, it resists healthily individuated identities because it can’t handle people leaving to do their own thing. Though leaders and other adults in Christianity might not have conscious designs on keeping the upcoming generations in a state of arrested development, it’s certainly smart for the church in an evolutionary sort of way.

    It also makes sense why people--such as myself--sink into the trap. It’s Peter Pan Syndrome at its core (without the heteronormative implications about masculinity that that term usually brings along). Being taken care of feels good. Being dependent feels good. Not needing to take responsibility for your own contentedness is a kind of freedom, albeit not a helpful one in the end. Having someone--even an invisible someone--who will put up with all your worries and tantrums without leaving or snapping back and is supposed to give you what you ask for as long as you believe that someone exists: there’s no better deal in town. As the kids these days say, adulting is hard. Finding the energy to be regulated and mature is exhausting. Maintaining your health--emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical--is labor. If there’s an institution that proposes to do it for you, or has always been doing it for you so you don’t know any different, why not take it up on the offer? I can only say: because at a certain point, hopefully, one gets old enough to actually want to be an adult. At a certain point one wants to trust one’s own intellect, and one’s inclinations, and one wants to feel like a meaningful agent in the world. There is meaning given to the individual life in Christianity, but it is often based solely on one’s allegiance to the club. And within that club, make no mistake, there is not much room for empowered, outspoken earthlings.

    Good thing we’re too old for clubs, right?