Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Theology of Spiritual Abuse in Christianity Today

Spiritual abuse is an area of sensitivity for me.  I've been abused and know what it's like.  I can also smell it coming a long way off and cross paths with many who have been abused on the verge of giving up on Jesus in the name of giving up on unhealthy "church" leadership or toxic Christian sub-cultures.

A major quality of spiritual abuse is using God's name and God's Word to degrade humans out of reach of God's love.  A telltale trademark is insisting humans are worthless creatures, how God had no reason to redeem us, how only Jesus on a cross gives us value (if we repent a certain kind of way and adapt to the sub-culture's rules).  The line of reasoning follows that unless you follow the perceived "anointed" pastor or leader of your group and unless you "submit" regularly, even against your reason and emotions (both of which you are are told not to trust), then you are worthless to God.

And so abused grow more dependent on the abusers to be right with God and to be loved.

Most of the time this abuse is subtle.  And unless you have your wits about you and have loving outside influence, you can be easily absorbed into the abuse.

When speaking on the road, this topic invariably comes up.  Some of it emerges from the self-proclaimed "fundamentalists" as well as from neo-Reformed circles, using narrow and wooden definitions of the "gospel" and "holiness" and ready to pounce, call names, and excommunicate in the name of God those who disagree.  This view that justifies degrading the value of humans is what I call "worm theology."

Worm theology is a twisting of the reformation doctrine of depravity.  Depravity says we born corrupt, are capable of the most heinous evil, and cannot merit God's salvation by works of the law.  Worm theology takes depravity another step and says that, not only are we not good, but we are also not valuable.  Symptoms of worm theology turn concepts like confession and guilt into a need for groveling.  In addition, human value is found in "Christ" alone and in no other way.  In other words, only Christians have value.  (They often like using "Christ" as a word, rather than Jesus or Messiah, for it evokes a more mysterious, less connected God, who is so other-worldly, it only distances God further from our ugliness so he doesn't have to look at it or touch it--for that would make him unclean.  This comes out in interpretations of verses like "God cannot look on sin."  Sin, on this view, is kryptonite to God.  And when we sin, we do not just grow more evil, but we also grow less valuable.)

A few days ago, a prime-time example came to my inbox published by Christianity Today.  It is supposed to be a piece on soul formation.  It is supposed to show how great God's love is.  It is supposed to show the good news of the gospel.  However, this article rather lays the theological foundation of spiritual abuse.

Read the article first and then read below.  Love Needs No Reason by Mark Galli.

I would be less bothered by this article if he came from a freelance writer.  But Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today and carries his views of grace, love and human dignity into CT's pages regularly.  I often disagree with Galli's articles, usually because he operates from the theological perspective shown here.  For one writing on soul-formation in CT, this is deeply problematic in application.

From the start, Galli makes the reader suspicious of psychology with his opening line.  Growing up conservative in a spiritually abusive environment, I was always taught that psychology was evil and that self-esteem today replaced the "Christ-esteem" of the past. But I've outgrown those views and find them papery thin defenses against facing reality at all costs.  And I've never understood what "Christ-esteem" was supposed to be.  I think this article gives us an idea.  There is no intrinsic value in the self alone.  Only "Christ" can give us value.

I understand therapeutic culture and psychology.  Therapeutic culture is often nothing more than a salve to help us feel better by explaining away our ailment, not an intense look at our issues and how we can grow.  Psychology, on the other hand, explores what human growth is about and helps us get honest with who we are, our past, and our relationships.  After all, if there's one giant economy God is concerned about in Scripture it is how we relate to him and each other.  A good example of modern-psychology giving us the tools to no longer put salve on our wounds but heal from them through love is Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled.  There is nothing negatively therapeutic about this book.  This kind of psychology penetrates the human soul much deeper than most of the works by those that denounce it.

I often suspect the Enemy has blinded many Jesus-followers into avoiding psychology because a good therapist will help deliver them to love and humility rather than doctrinal posturing.  It is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.

Galli writes:
But in his desire to proclaim the magnificent love of God, he inadvertently fell into language that actually proclaims bad news—all this talk of the intrinsic value in the object of love.
The writer is saying that modern-psychology, not God, claims intrinsic value for every human.   This is contrary to a major historical tenant of Christian theology: that humans are intrinsically valuable.

I wonder if Galli is borrowing from the theological tradition of Duns Scotus who thought God's laws did not comply with nature but were arbitrary (a form of Divine Command theory).  This was in contrast to Thomas Aquinas who said God made laws according to the nature of the universe he made.  Duns has no problem with God doing things unreasonably.  Thomas did.  And this is why Thomas, not Duns, is considered the greatest intellectual in Christian history.

Here is the way Galli's argument goes:
For if we have some measure of intrinsic value to God, a number of things follow: First, it is our value, and not God's love, that forces God's hand. He looks at us and sees something of value, and being a reasonable fellow—one who knows and appreciates things of value—he pretty much has to redeem us. The love of God is not given freely in mercy to the undeserving, but instead to the deserving—because, after all, we are of infinite worth! God would be a poor judge of character if he did not choose to die for us.
Galli wants to pit our value against the love of God.  His view of love is one that is motivated by nothing more than simply wanting something to be.  God can choose to love whatever he wants and he needs no reasons to do so.  Loving for a a reason, according to Galli, is no love at all.  So if I love my son more than other children, I cannot call it "love" if I love him because I procreated him.  I also cannot love my wife more than any other women because I find her a better fit for me.  And when I appreciate her, show affection for her, give her flowers, the truest form of love is one that disregards her as a person and loves from some deep resources of sheer blind will-power within me.  Loving her because she is she and I am I, as argued above, is not love.  Love must be a sterile, ethereal, an abstract thing.  This goes against the familial and relational terms God assigns to Israel, long before the time of Jesus.  Maybe God meant Israel was his wife in a strictly platonic sense.

Starting to have a lesser view of God?

Galli also overstates the case about humans.  Why does he think that only an  infinite human can be a worthwhile human?   If we were of infinite worth, we'd be of the same worth as God himself and that is incorrect.  But we can be very worthwhile, even if not infinitely worthwhile, right?
Second, if we had intrinsic worth, then it is hard to imagine why Christ would have had to die for us. We are already people of "infinite worth"—what's there to die for? Instead, you'd think Christ would come to earth to pay us homage. You would think his mission might have been to tell us about our infinite worth, and to makes sure we not only get that point but also live it. The mission of Christ would be educational and moral, but it would hardly need to be salvific.
I'm unsure of Galli's reasoning here.  Why does our having intrinsic worth automatically exempt us from penalty?  This is a common confusion among many conservative who think that by saying someone is valuable, we're also condoning their sin.  I hear many say they don't want to love people in a "condoning" way.  But what's condoning about love?  Love is to extend yourself for the growth of another.  You cannot help someone grow if you excuse the thing that prevents the growth.  So many bottle their love for others and expect people to repent before we can find them lovely.

But this is the very opposite of Jesus' example.  He tells us to love our enemies, despite their repentance.  Why would he say this?  If they lack value without Jesus, then why love them?  Could it be that Jesus bought into modern "therapeutic psychology" and believed even his enemies had intrinsic worth?  As one friend remarked about this article, "This author would have us think it's no tragedy at all if a sinner dies without Christ, nothing of value will be lost." And Jesus argument cannot be that his death makes them worthwhile because Jesus has not yet died.  Apparently we are to love the lost abstractly, simply because God loves them, though God, on Galli's view, has no reason to love them.  We are to share the gospel with them, not because the gospel is the only idea on the planet worthy of the human soul, but by sheer, cold obedience.

Starting to feel dehumanized by this view?
Third, it would be hard to know what it means when the Bible talks about—and it talks about this stuff a lot—our being God's enemies, in rebellion against him, deserving of death. The ideas that swirl around our supposed infinite worth, of course, emphasize that we're mostly victims, trapped in a nexus of sin and death. God sees people of great value chained by circumstances beyond their control and comes to the rescue. God becomes a big brother helping the innocent but infinitely valuable lost, and not a merciful savior of the very people who are his enemies.
This is where Galli begins to equivocate his concepts.  I'm surprised no editor caught this.  It is not a contradiction to say an enemy, a rebellious person, who is deserving of death is also a valuable creature.  There is no logical contradiction here.  Most certainly a valuable creature can be tarnished and flawed, even by his own doing.  To be valuable doesn't mean God becomes a big brother nor that we are inculpable victims.  You can be valuable and be an enemy.  You can be valuable and be damned.  Value does not absolve you of any crime and dismisses no punishment.  A valuable man can accrue debts to be paid (a common motif in New Testament language "wages of sin is death").  I want Galli to explain why he thinks if a creature has value it is also a creature that us automatically moral.  Valuable things can be broken.  Wedding bands get tarnished.  Children steal cookies.  Ferraris need tune-ups.  Even capital punishment should not be cruel nor unusual for the simple reason that even the most evil among us has dignity, even if the perpetrator himself doesn't believe it.

The real truth of the matter is that we are no longer worthy. We are not mere victims but rebels. We're not the innocent lost but God's enemies. We're not people hard on our luck, deserving of another chance, but people who deserve death. People who deserve death are not people of infinite worth.
Here Galli makes the turn of phrase more clear.  He confuses having "worth" with being "worthy."  Worth is ontological.  It means that something has value by the sheer fact that it exists.  To be "worthy" is a relational term of meriting a favor or to have a character for a position.   Anyone can have worth and be unworthy.  Our judicial system shows us this distinction in everyday life all the time.  God does too.  Israel was often unfaithful (just like the "church" today) but their sin did not erase their worth.  God's mercy saved them from their own devices.  God's mercy did not make them more valuable.

And here's the fatal flaw in Galli's assumptions:
But Christ did not die for us because we are valuable; we are valuable because Christ died for us. It is not for us to say to one another, "Worthy are you!"—which is the mantra of a great deal of modern psychology. Instead, we turn to God and say, "Worthy are you, O Lord our God!" (Rev. 4:11).
Based on the discussion above, do you see how he equates having value with having merit?  "We are valuable because Christ died for us."  In this article, Galli's theological history goes back only to the the end of the gospels at crucifixion of Jesus.  But if he could look further back, he'd see a different assumption running through Scripture.   We are valuable in Genesis 1.

God made humans in his image.  Humans did not give themselves value.  God gave humans value in the very act of creating them.  The work of grace on the part of God is from beginning to end.  He created us, loves us, sustains us.  He made us valuable, though we soiled ourselves.

Galli's theology ignores us as image bearers of God, denounces our value, and claims that only through redemption, not creation, are we given true worth.  In his quest to make God's love abstract and unreasonable, he demeans God as creator and his act of creating humans.  God's redeeming love DOES have reasons.  God only redeems things valuable enough to redeem.  To do otherwise is arbitrary and arbitrariness is shallow and unworthy of worship.  As I wrote in my comment on Galli's article, why did God, then choose humans to redeem?  Why not hippos or squirrels?  And if the answer is God chose us because he makes the best beauty from the darkest ashes, then I would say, that is a REASON. And there are creatures more fallen than we that he chose not to redeem.

In fact, God will redeem all of creation, including hippos and squirrels because all of creation is his.

In short, God redeems humans in a special way because he made them valuable in his image.  God created the reason for redeeming us the very day he made us.  We did not move God's hand to redeem us because we are valuable.  He moved his own hand by making us valuable to begin with.  This is the link Galli is missing by drawing his theology merely through a certain kind of redemption lens and not through a much larger lens that includes creation and consummation.

Galli continues his abstract view of unreasonable love by applying it to others:
...anyone who has lived and worked with people for more than a few seconds knows that people are stinkers. It's not a matter of finding something valuable in them—some treasure, some gift, something worthy and deserving of our love. Many days, we just won't be able to see anything worthy at all! But that's no reason to stop loving. No, the people we live and work with are just as undeserving of love as are we—which is the only reason we love them. We love just as God first loved us.
I scratch my head at this and wonder if Galli has only served people for a few seconds.  Hasn't he sat in the meaning of human suffering?  Hasn't he weept by seeing the image of God in decay?   Again he's equivocating between value and merit.  And I pity the person this author tries to help on the street who is destitute, if the author brings this view above to the soup-kitchen.

Notice the suble way Galli cashes out what makes someone valuable: "something valuable in them--some treasure, some gift, something worthy and deserving of our love."  Stop.  Read it again.  He says something "in them."  Intrinsic value doesn't come from something IN someone, but intrinsic value IS someone.  Galli adds that if we're to find someone valuable, they must posses a gift.  This is functional language, saying that if someone has something to offer, like a gift, then they are useful and, if useful, then valuable.  This is classic spiritual abusive language (and wickedly subtle).  Jesus' demonstration of reaching out was that the benefactors of his grace were intinsically valuable people.  It had nothing to do with what they could do for him.

We love people, not because of what they have, but because of who they are: immortal souls that bear God's image. If we have not yet matured into seeing them as valuable, we may have to practice the discipline of helping people that we see as lacking value with hopes we learn to see them a fellow humans who bear God's image.  Anything short of that insults what God has made, diminishing him as creator.

What then are we to make of the dignity of humans held as slaves or making laws to protect the minority?  On what grounds do we save the unborn and offer help to those mothers?  Why rebuild governments after dictators thrash a nation?  Why help the lost who suffer genocide?  Do we help them because Christ died for them?  A strict Calvist would say no for Christ only died for Christians.  Or do we help them because of something in them that God breathed on that sixth day of creation?  What are the arguments of the great religious and social reformers in history?  We help people because they are souls who bear God's image.  This was a battle cry of the reformation: to be made in God's image means we show dignity to one another, even when we disagree, even to those who spit on Jesus.  All are equal before God because of this image, whether clergy or laity.  .

Never does the Bible say that God loves us because we were created in his image, because he believes we have intrinsic worth. Indeed, a few verses speak of our value to God (like Matthew 6:26), but the dominant message is not that our value prompts God's love, but that God's love establishes our value.
Here Galli tries to make up some lost ground by preempting his critics.  I am guessing he believes that the Scripture must be overt, chapter and verse, stating that God is motivated to redeem us because of our value.  The necessity to cite chapters and verses is a common requirement of fundamentalist and the neo-reformed followers But theology doesn't work like that.  The Scripture is filled with assumptions we have to unpack that float freely around chapters and whole books.  And I think Galli would be served well with some work in philosophical theology (by the way, fundamentalists and neo-reformers often shy away from philosophy too... this is another concern I have, like the man complaining he's hungry but won't eat the bread you gave him because it came from the wrong market).

Galli has told us that "Christ" makes us valuable in redemption.  He failed to say that God makes us valuable prior to redemption, in creation.  I repeat, God made us valuable in creation.  We didn't make ourselves valuable.  God created in us the motivation to redeem us when we go bad.

What we discover in God is that love is not love in the deepest sense if it is motivated by anything intrinsic in the beloved—another's worth, value, gifts, or potential. If our actions are motivated by such things, it is not love. We are merely giving people their due, obligated by some value in them to honor and respect them. Love is not love unless freely given, given for no reason at all but merely out of that "great love."
At the end of the day, we have to raise our hand and wonder where Galli is getting his definition of love.  It's an abstract peculiar one.  On is definition, no child truly loved a parent.  And humans cannot love God, truly, because God deserves the love.  Jesus command then becomes unreachable, for real love means loving things that have no worth.  So either Galli's view of love is wrong, or Galli believes God has no worth. Galli returns to a previous idea here at the end of the article saying that if someone is valuable than loving them is not loving.  And he continues to believe that value means merit.

As an apologist, I see Galli's answer that God loves for no reason may as a helpful hint as to why God created, but not why God redeemed.  In eternity past, before creation existed at all, what came into God's mind that he would make such a world?  What motivated him?  It must have been the pleasure of his will coupled with what a world would look like that he loved enough to make intrinsically valuable.

Once God creates, everything he creates has intrinsic worth.

Be on the lookout for this kind of worm theology.  It has led many to spiritual abuses and has left many leaving the church disillusioned by a God that creates worthless things.  This insults not only God's creation and God's gospel, but God himself.

And if you struggle with knowing God's love and why he would love you, seek out someone who knows God's love who has solid therapy training and credentials (that wasn't developed by fundamentalists and neo-reformed folks).  As my previous therapist, who is not a Christian, told me: "If the church was doing it's job 100 years ago, psychotherapy would never have arisen."   I quite agree with her. And this article solidifies the point.
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