Ecumental Disorders

chickenjesusSome of the most fulfilling ministry I’ve been a part of in my thirty+ years has been either ecumenical or inter-faith.  Beginning in my own “dark ages” as program director for the religious council at Ball State University, those projects and missional programs drawing from a broad diversity of faith traditions and backgrounds were without doubt the most fun and inspirational.  I was ecumenically involved in my pastoral ministry and have been as globally ecumenical as possible through my work with the general church.  I still am a vocal advocate for ecumenical involvement, but am surprised by the strong resistance I receive to the idea.  Interestingly, the main objections I hear to ecumenical and inter-faith cooperation track very closely with five “popular” mental disorders.  Here they are, with their UM parallels described:

Paranoia — in a nutshell, paranoia is the projection of fears that others are out to get us.  In religious settings where the fundamental understanding of church is a local franchise in competition with every other local franchise, paranoia is bound to occur.  The success of any other church is perceived as a threat to one’s own church.  Mega-churches must be doing something bad or they wouldn’t be growing when we’re not.  Sure, the Baptists are growing, but that’s because they water everything down — literally and figuratively.  Episcopalians are too liberal, Lutheran too conservative, Presbyterians too rigid, etc., and their relative successes must be due to practices unacceptable to faithful United Methodists.  Working ecumenically is like consorting with the enemy.  They might think we accept their beliefs, or something.  And what if our members prefer them to us?  It simply isn’t worth the risk.  I encounter local church leaders who actually hold the opinion that it would be better not to offer a ministry than to partner ecumenically to provide it.  This fear is often heightened when we talk about interfaith activities, not just ecumenical affairs.  The paranoia associated with ecumenical activities is rooted in a theology of separation and division — there is no body of Christ, but factions of Christ competing for truth and power.  I remember seeing a sign for an “ecumenical” supper in New Jersey once that at least indicated a good try:  “Hosted by the Baptists, the Catholics, and the Christians!”

Narcissism — intense self-love and fascination.  In the church, it results in believing that we are smarter, better, hold more of the truth, and are morally superior to everyone else.  We don’t fraternize with “the enemy” because we don’t want to lower ourselves.  If other denominations were worthy of us, they would be us — they would see the wisdom of our faith and the truth of our interpretation of scripture.  They would recognize the exclusive validity of our celebrations of the sacraments and they would adore our music.  They would see us for what we really are — the way, the truth, and the life (no one can come to the Father except that they come through us…).  I visited one of our larger congregations almost a decade ago and asked about their ecumenical involvement?  “Why would we?” the lead pastor replied.  “We’ve got everything we need, and we are doing better ministry than anyone else around.  It would be a waste of our time to try to take other churches and get them on board.”  In another setting I was told, “We tried to do a shared ministry to the homeless together, but they didn’t pray correctly and we couldn’t trust them to teach Bible study.  It’s just easier to do it ourselves, that way we know it’s being done right.”

Schizophrenia – a dissociative disorder often characterized by unsocial or antisocial behaviors, contradictory thoughts and emotions, withdrawal and lack of coping skills, and disorganized speech or behaviors.  In the church we call this “normal.” (Just kidding…)  Much religious debate between denominations reflects such unbalanced and defensive engagement.  We attack that which makes us uncomfortable.  We spit with venom in our voices such words as “love,” “peace,” “mercy,” and “justice.”  We debate who is holier, often inciting violence, anger, and hatred.  We look with contempt on those who dare to disagree with us.  We withdraw from dialogue and deep interaction because if we can’t “win” or have our own way, we would rather not “play.”  We castigate other ways of thinking as ignorant, stupid, or unenlightened.  We pretend to be superior by acting in immature and destructive ways.  We demand that our way of thinking be respected, but we offer no assurance that we will respect the thinking of others.  We pound the table and parade our agendas in front of everyone else, but if anyone disagrees with us we stomp away from the table in disgust and refuse further discussion.  Our arguments are often half-baked, inconsistent, and irrational — but we expect the rest of the world to deal with it.  In time, all the problems in Christianity are the fault of others — blaming means we are absolved of any further need to build bridges or play fair.  This leads to religious leaders deciding that tornadoes and hurricanes are God’s punishment for people who don’t believe exactly like they do.

Attention Deficit Disorder — a condition in the less mature of inattention, listlessness, and passivity.  Okay, what part of this needs explanation?  We aren’t motivated to play nice with others because we just aren’t interested.  We can’t even stay focused on what The United Methodist Church is doing, and we don’t even play nice with other United Methodists.  Why in the world would we go outside the fold?  Who has time for an ecumenical mission project?  There are soccer games and golf games and shopping and lawns to mow — we can’t even make it to our own church on a regular basis.  We’re going to go to someone else’s church?  Okay, it might be interesting once a year, but only if there’s nothing good on TV that night…

Neuroses — excessive anxiety and dis-ease leading to maladjustment and obsessive, compulsive, or avoidance behaviors.  “The Presbyterians are letting the youth group drink coffee,” a woman whispered to me.  “I simply can’t let my kids attend their youth group.  I think they’re trying to get kids hooked on caffeine,” she said sincerely.  Closely linked to paranoia, neuroses pumps up the worry and concern and leads to all kinds of interesting speculation.  I talked with a young couple years ago that explained their decision to home school their kids by telling me that they were just too worried about the influence that the Catholics and Jews might have over their precious angels, and while the Baptists and Lutherans were okay, they didn’t trust the lax morals of the Episcopalians and Presbyterians.  The young mom wrung her hands and said, “We just want to keep their faith pure.”

imagesGood psychological health requires, at the very least, healthy self-differentiation.  In the church, we are certainly a distinct and discrete denomination — United Methodists — but that doesn’t separate or alienate us from the larger body of Christ.  Others are only as great a threat as we allow them to be.  If we are uncertain of our beliefs or we honestly believe that their faith is stronger than ours, then we have something specific to fear.  But if we truly believe what we say we do, then the beliefs of anyone else are no threat.  Indeed, some who believe differently than we do may be “out to get us,” but they are the dysfunctional lunatic fringe of the other groups.  It is not in our best interests to try to emulate them or play by their rules.  Once again, with healthy self-differentiation there is no worry.

But self-differentiation requires that we get our own house in order.  We do need to know what we believe and why.  We do need to trust that God is greater than any of our differences, and that in every encounter it is not as important what others believe as it is how we live our witness.  The best we can do is conduct ourselves by the very highest standards of Christian behavior as a witness to the validity of our belief.  Our words and actions should provide a unified and integral witness.  But connect we should.  We are a people of reconciliation and unity.  We are a people called to do as Christ did — to break down the walls that divide and proclaim our faith with one accord.  We have no Christian future that is not an ecumenical future.  We should look beyond our own narrow and provincial definitions of faith to the larger universal vision presented in scripture.  Denominational factionalization and pointless posturing and debate do nothing to build up the body or to equip the saints for ministry.  We need therapy — help to break the bondage we have created through our sectarianism and bring us together in powerful and transforming ways.  All that makes us different should take a backseat to all that makes us one.

6 replies

  1. I love your social pathology analysis. I’ve done the same for other organizations, non-profits, commercial enterprises, social & hobby clubs, and a very few churches. I’d not encountered the narcissism or paranoia you’ve described – until you pointed it out.

    On the flip side, have you thought about discipleship development in the ecumenical and interfaith contexts? When we see church decline, is it within a single denomination (perceived as resulting from competition), or across people of faith in an area in general?

    • Methodists are so accommodating, they embrace the intolerant. Then they’re not so accommodating anymore. They begin to believe that their self-image is the only true image of God, and that therefore God’s grace extends only to those who conform to that self-image. If a spiritual leader had only one task, it would be to teach them otherwise. If a sexual predator or corrupt banker hung on a cross next to Jesus, would they join Him in heaven?

      • I should add that the behavior is not exclusive to Methodists. All sects and denominations wrestle with it. The question on the denomination and sectarian level is “To what extent is the behavior codified?”

      • And, there isn’t a major world religion that doesn’t have the same problem in some variation: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, even Buddhism (in Tibet, anyway, though the Chinese pushback against the traditional theocracy is extreme, so the reaction is, too).

  2. Thank you for naming our sins, so we can identify and repent of them. I had never thought of our provincial denominational attitudes in those terms.

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