Emotional and Spiritual Abuse in the Church: the Systemization of God (Part 2)

The systemization of God leads to harm being done to people in the areas of sexual ethics, emotional dependency, and communal justice.

In the previous installmentof my two-part series on emotional and spiritual abuse in the church, I discussed a foundational thought-pattern in many religious communities related to divine authority. I called it the Divine Authority Syndrome, partly tongue-in-cheek because I’m not a mental healthcare professional but a theologian. So I am not qualified to identify something as a syndrome.

Yet, from a theological vantage point it is clear that religious authority is connected with so many harmful ideas and practices that it probably makes sense to use the term. I suggest the issue of divine authority is a syndrome because it is marked by a complex set of phenomena that are all related to the central issue of divine authority.

It is these phenomena that I would like to address in this article. I’ve singled these phenomena out because they are most prominent not because they are the only patterns of abuse that stem from a wrong notion of divine authority. I will look at absolutized sexual ethics, emotional dependency, and immoral justice.

Absolute sexual ethics

My view is that human beings construct their own reality. This means that what they identify as meaningful, aesthetically beautiful, or morally required is not discovered, communicated by a supernatural source or transmitted through tradition. Sure, tradition transmits it, but was initially grafted as human beings discovered their relatedness to an outside world and tried to understand what that meant. They interacted with their environment and the members of their community and attached meaning to those experiences. Living in a community required rules (law) in order to make communal life possible. In this I’m not a moral relativist. I simply believe that ethics is part of the unfolding of the givenness of life in the world. Meaning-making and ethics are constructive responses to this givenness.

Sexuality is part of this interpretive, meaning-making, and regulative process. Community discovers that some forms of relationship are good for bringing up offspring. Community determines that not every form of sexual desire is beneficial. In fact certain expressions of sexuality can be quite harmful for members of a community. So a sexual ethics is formed on the basis of a constructive, explorative, and interpretive communal living.

Over time sexual morality gets stratified within a community and is seen as providing the only viable framework for expressing one’s sexuality. Any act that breaks up the rules is considered a breach of the community. A taboo that has been operational for as long people could remember has been transgressed. A law that cannot be broken has been broken.

In the Christian Faith, sexuality has traditionally been anchored in revelation. As a religion, Christianity is hardly alone in that. The books that make up the Bible have become to be interpreted over the years as a divine guidebook of sexual behavior. If the Bible is the Word of God then that Word stipulates what goes and what doesn’t. Deviation from the sexual norm becomes deviation from the will of God. One becomes defiled and unholy, i.e. one cannot remain member of the community.

In some circles sexuality has taken centerstage in the focus of ethical formation. The faith community that I grew up in worried a lot about masturbation, premarital sex, cohabitation, not to mention homosexuality. It was thought that there is a gradation in sins. You have normal sins like lying, being impolite, or violating a traffic rule and you have grave sins which are sexual in nature. The latter category gets you in hell. Simple as that.

That faith community has a literal approach to the Bible, that is to say, they take purportedly divine statements in the Bible as actual words from God. And since in the Bible a lot of talk is clothed in religious language and anchored in Godspeak–which is a typical feature of literature in Biblical times–people assumed that God really hates “fags,” would prefer us to stone an adulterer, or assign the masturbator to a fiery future incineration because of God’s fury over our sexual acts.

The main point here is this: the Divine Authority Syndrome (the disease that thinks it can have absolute acces to God’s absolute will) begets a systemized God who in turn inflicts punishment on the sexually deviant. If your sexuality doesn’t conform to the will of God, you’re screwed; with or without having sex.

Divine Dependency

Another phenomenon of the Divine Authority Syndrome is what I would call, in my customary idiosyncrasy I admit, divine dependency. At heart of the quest to obtain divine certainty and have it as a commodity available for us mortals is deep anxiety. Here we are, living in a world knowing neither the limits of the universe nor its origins, neither from whence we came or where we are going to. We find ourselves thrown into the world and have to make the best of it.

It is a very common human response to want to reduce the existential anxiety of living in a world bounded by unintelligible horizons and the certainty of death. In humanity’s development one common response has been religion, though it would be fair to say that most of the world religions are not for the faint of heart either. So they are more than the product of the human response to anxiety of being alive and the fear of death. But they can certainly, in part be understood as quests for a certain grounding. They are part of the common response of meaning-making and self-interpretation.

Certain forms of faith, however, have, in response to Enlightenment rationalism and postmodern deconstruction doubled down on the notion of the availability, absoluteness, and certainty of the voice and will of God. They assert that God is available in God’s Word, the Bible. The statements we find therein are for us to be assembled in syllogisms and deductive constellations of knowledge that yield infallible and absolute claims about how the world is, who God is, and what God thinks.

This absoluteness is them connected with Biblical statements about God’s providence, God’s meticulous involvement in the world’s affairs as well as God’s detailed guidance in the lives of all people. Though the drawback (potentially) is that free will and human initiative go down the drain the positive takeaway is that God cares, guides, solves, leads, provides, etc.

If there was ever a plug to permanently close and seal the gap caused by existential anxiety, this is it. If God is in control, there is nothing to fear. Or, insofar there’s something things to fear, God is still in control. The only thing to fear is God’s will but beyond that there’s very little uncertainty.

Free will is not the only victim here. Human integrity and maturity too go down the drain. Instead of bravely facing life and taking up responsibility for one’s actions people are taught that their actions do not matter too much because ultimately everything is guided by a divine will that can’t be evaded. Granted, the notion that one is not simply left to one’s devices in a cruel meaningless world is comforting. It may indeed help a believer to face the world trusting that somehow they’re not alone.

Yet, it comes at a high price. God, the omniscient and omnipotent provider is made subject to an interpretation of the world in which everything that happens is ultimately a divine choice. Everything that happens, especially the bad things, are traceable to an invisible divine hand. Since on the face of it, things do not turn out well for most people, since there’s a lot of suffering in the world, since people’s hopes and dreams never materialize, God stands guilty. But because God is sinless and pure, we are called upon to get God off the hook: it’s for a reason; God knows best; it’ll all work out, etc. This further leads to the systemization of God. And, where we have no other choice, we blame people for their own ruin and destruction since a good God could not have done this to them and thus they must be responsible themselves. (See the contradiction here?)

We are left with a God who claims to be loving and caring in the face of a brutal world orchestrated by that same God. And we remain immature in our circular reasoning and in not taking responsibility for our own lives.

The Idea of Justice

What is justice? Justice is a rich concept that comes to development as a culture is birthed and shaped by factors, events, and people from without and within. To think there is an absolute universal idea of justice is to be misled. A good example is Martin Luther who read the Christian Scriptures within the context of medieval Catholicism only to conclude that the revelation of God’s justice in the person of Christ meant you better watch out because God is coming for you to hold up your life against the immeasurable standard of divine holiness. One day, Luther read the words written down by St. Paul anew: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, (which) is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3). And suddenly it dawned on him: the concept of righteousness (justice) that Paul talks about is radically different from his medieval church. It means almost literally the opposite. Divine justice is conditioned by the word grace. Faith in Christ is how you partake in that justice. There is actually forgiveness for wrongs done and restoration of broken relationships.

In conservative circles today a similarly absolutized concept of justice perverts a truly liberating understanding of divine righteousness. In conservative circles that are beholden to the Reformation (yes, precisely Luther’s insight of divine righteousness that is revealed as benign forgiving grace) this radical and revolutionary understanding of justice has been subjected to what I call a verticalization of righteousness. Righteousness (or divine justice) has become a technical term that describes how you get right with God in a transactional way. That’s it. This is the absolutization and wrongful prioritization of the vertical dimension of faith. As if faith, life, church, spiritual life are exclusively about getting right with God.

One good reason why many people turn their back on the church is because of how salvation and justice have been conflated to a vertical pillar that points heavenward. The resulting divorce of salvation and communal justice reveals one big gaping wound of hypocrisy. Good theology should make clear that vertical and horizontal dimensions of salvation and divine justice cannot be divorced; not in terms of process and also not conceptually.

The reader might wonder what this has to do with the systemization of God. The Divine Authority Syndrome has its foundation in alleged inerrant Scriptures that provides the reader with absolute access to the absolute will of God. Such a way of reading a text will invariably make one blind for the assumptions one reads in to the text. It also makes for sloppy theology that presents itself with diligence in reading but laziness in doing the actual work of thinking through the ideas of God, life, and reality.

And so conservative protestants are not aware that their reading of Scripture, regardless of how it purports to be faithful to the tradition of protestantism, regardless of how it prides itself in being rooted in the teaching of Luther (and Calvin), regardless of how it considers its concept to be deeply biblical, is flawed, skewed, harmful. In fact, African American theologians, just to name one branch of liberation theology, are able to show how the verticalized concept of justice is a handy feature of a theology that is practically designed to focus on the otherworldly realm, leaving the believer blissfully unaware of their own complicity in the destruction of the planet, the oppression of the marginalized, and the exploitation of the masses in the third world.

The Systemization of God

We have had three byproducts of the Divine Authority Syndrome under consideration: sexual ethics, divine dependency, and justice. Of these three sexual ethics and divine dependency are focused more on the effects on the individual and justice more on the effects on the community or even entire nations. But let there be no mistake, absolutized sexual ethics affect entire communities, just as divine dependency can be a feature of religious communities as a whole making them unhealthy environments. To boot, a skewed understanding of justice that as a religious mechanism affects communities also affects individuals causing them to suffer emotionally. Indeed, it is wrong and impossible to divorce the individual from the communal dimension of life.

What is important to understand, and what is indeed the point I’m trying to make in this blogpost, is that emotional and spiritual abuse are typically (I dare not say exclusively) due to the systemization of God. In my previous post I made clear that the Divine Authority Syndrome is a way for people to feign access to absolute knowledge of the divine by way of a certain theological method. I pointed to three ways in which this happens: apostolic succession, biblical authority, and hyper spirituality (Pentecostalism).

Such alleged access to the perfect will of God invariably becomes a tool that religious leaders wield with great effectivity. Not only is the method of access a false one, no matter how it is devised, what is done with the surrogate knowledge thus obtained is absolutely destructive and leads to the opposite effect of what it was promised to be used for. That is to say: people wield an inerrant Bible with the attempt to establish a perfect community. But what really happens is that the God that is talked about is subjected and integrated into a human system. The pastor, bishop, worship leader, or prophet becomes a ventriloquist and God becomes the puppet who slanders, damages, and hurts people of faith.

I think it is crucial for mental healthcare professionals to gain insight into these structures of religious thought. Not all religion is harmful. Most religion is, though, because religion is a human product, sometimes designed and often used to exert power over other people. But since we can’t stop talking about God, we might as well talk about God as that which is so other to us that we won’t recognize it when it walks into the door in the form of a humble and simple African American woman who demands justice for her people.

Indeed Christianity can be a religious force for positive change. But it will have to let go of God. That is to say, leave God out of its system. In fact that is what its founder did, in his subversive teachings and praxis. Of course, religion had to kill him, as he is killed every Sunday over again when in his name people are harmed and abused.

If Christianity has the guts to throw God out of its system it could become a power to subvert harmful human systems of thought. If could become a movement of radical grace and inclusive love. If could become a movement that opposes spiritual abuse. If only.

Photocredits: Photo by Alexander S. on Unsplash.

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

4 Responses

  1. “… he is killed every Sunday over again when in his name people are harmed and abused.”

    When I was 19, I was excommunicated from a conservative Pentecostal fellowship in South Africa, for an alleged (and I say alleged, for it was a false accusation) adulterous affair with a 29 year old married woman. When she died in a car crash not even a year after our names were publicly read out from the pulpit (on a Sunday), it was insinuated her death was the punishment of God.There were unkind rumours of suicide, of her abandoning her two young boys – so she would be doubly damned: suicides go to hell, naturally. Nearly 40 years later, this dismal chapter remains a stumbling block in my relationship with both “God” and “his people”. A strange wound opened up in my heart, a dull sort of dread of this murderous God and wariness of his potentially cruel people. At first it led to an almost obsequious submission in which I even sought to “out-Pharisee” the Pharisees. Perhaps if I was like them, better at phariseism than them even, in a kind religious Stockholm syndrome, I could avoid further pain. I could hide in their midst. Hide from my own wretchedness. After all: God was clearly dangerous, with standards so exacting that even the suspicion of sexual misconduct must be ruthlessly dealt with. This couldn’t last of course; it gave way to anger and rebellion. A perverse logic may be born out of injury: if one is falsely accused, humiliated and punished, one might as well eat the rotten fruit produced by the sickly tree; if you can’t beat them sinners why not join them. Not all of us have the capacity to embrace our wounds as breezily as a first century Christian martyr.

    Perhaps devils are created by those who think themselves angels.

    This was all long ago now. I grew up a little, I got on with things; the gash in my side healed to some degree. The scar tissue suggests a wound made less by a sword than a thorn. I married, had a child. I carry on, as they say.

    There were theological consequences to all this. I lived torn between my awareness of an “ineffable ungrund” – attested to by the beauty of landscapes and nature and music and the physical form of people and living things (I am an artist) – and a paradoxical sense that any God in this world is a capricious and malicious Yaldabaoth. I live now on the untidy borderlands of faith, refusing to let go of broken beliefs because as an agonistic misotheist I want to hold God accountable (not for my pain, but for the pain of the world of which this little cruelty is but one tiny symbol).

    I came to a peculiar view that man nails masks onto the face of God, masks which are parodies of our own grimaces, snarls and looks of disgust. I have become rather adept at identifying these masks, unpicking them, prying them off, examining the thread which keeps them in place, the nails, wire, rivets and staples which obscure all beauty. I even have a metaphorical box of masks: each evangelist caught in bed with a hooker or Word of Faith pastor preaching health and wealth in a world of famine and poverty is a patina on the charismatic mask. I keep them all. Each new case brought against a prelate for child abuse makes more brittle the already crumbling Catholic mask in the box. I catch a glimpse now and then of “that which is not the mask”, that which cannot be named: in the eyes of a frightened animal the mask is pierced and I briefly see the crucifixion. Occasionally, when I see creatures in pain or read in the papers about our suffering world (under the indifferent and complicit eye of Yaldabaoth), I sense the wounded God of the theopaschites. But it’s just a sense; tentative, unprovable, fleeting.

    Why does God wear masks? Like a criminal, ir ib some tawdry bulesque show? Does it hide a diseased face, or beauty?

    I weary of my grotesque game of “unmasking-God-hide-and-seek”.

    The disturbing image illustrating your essay brought my masked God to mind.

    Your essay should be shouted from the church rooftops

    Thank you..

    1. Thank you, Scott, for these very beautiful words. I too aim to expose the masks. I venture to think that the masks are indicative of the weakness of God. God, if God is, is very different from us and our god-constructs. Have you ever explored Radical Theology? Some great deconstructive thinkers in that camp.

  2. This article is an answer to my cries for justice. My entire environment has encouraged me to gaslight myself to the point of cognitive disassociation and social isolation. I was taken to psychiatrists who insist that I must have had some sort of traumatic experience, but cannot seem to conceive of the religious constructs lying behind my chained mind. A therapist has recently been helping me deconstruct my beliefs, but I haven’t had the mental clarity to fully communicate the nature of the oppressive ideological framework. This article brings an ounce of light to my pain.

    I beg you to please do more work to help therapists and psychologists understand the theological frameworks behind religious trauma. Please, you are going to help so many people. This article alone gave me a sound mind to sleep on yesterday.

    (Determinism and Sovereignty can be one helluva bitch to untangle and deconstruct. Especially when the “sin” of self-determination is the only thing keeping you from being suicidal.)

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