Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Extremes in Postmodern Religious Addiction and the Childhood Roots of Victimization

{The following article is another which was written by Cindy Kunsman and originally published on her blog, Under Much Grace. It's being republished here with her permission. It takes a deeper look into some of the recent issues addressed here - balance/imbalance, religious addiction - and looks at what, in many cases, may be the root of the problem. Great article. Many thanks to Cindy.}

In January, I wrote a synopsis of the core emotional issues of childhood in a series of posts that lead to dysfunctional living. If we come through childhood and our very nature as children is not honored by our our parents (likely because of their own interrupted emotional growth), or if we suffer a great deal of trauma which may have nothing to do with our families, we tend to have problems in adulthood which surround these core emotional dilemmas. Children are valuablevulnerableimperfectneedy, and immature., and we carry all of these traits with of into adulthood to some extent, revisiting them from time to time. This is a normal occurrence in a healthy adult, but healthy adults don't remain in these states of recalling the sense of being childlike for very long.

For adults who grew up in circumstances which punished or failed to provide for these traits, the unfinished business resulting from these traits gets carried into adulthood and affects their adult lives. Everyone has a little back tracking to do, but those who have large deficits in their emotional development develop predictable patterns of living. Because this results in a great deal of pain, this population of people who have so much pain because of too many gaps in their emotional development ends up trying to numb the pain in their adult lives, and they often become addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Not everyone gets addicted to a substance. Anything that competes for our focus and attention in life can become something that we use to numb our pain. Workaholism is a commonly known and socially acceptable way of avoiding personal pain that is often encouraged in our society, but the underlying dynamics of dysfunction that drive the workaholic differ little from those in the lives of the people who find their way into addiction and recovery clinics. Another alternative, one of extremes, can be religious addiction. People can be zealous about their faith, especially if they have recently found a new religious idea that brings them a great deal of benefit. I love to be around new converts to Christianity because of this joy and their excitement, as it reminds me of the things that I love about my faith, reminding me of my own gratitude which give me a fresh inspiration to love and glorify God for all that He has done in my own life. This is not what I'm talking about here, however.

When a person who has a great deal of unfinished emotional growth that didn't take place in childhood wrestles with their dysfunction in adulthood (as it is dysfunctional for an adult to act like a child), they seek out distractions and cures and that missing key that will heal them. Religion offers all people a way of and a framework for understanding and transcending the pain we all experience in life, especially Christianity. For those who get stuck in the patterns of dysfunction that they learned in childhood or never had the opportunity to unlearn as they became adults, religion can not only give them a framework for transcending pain, it can offer them a new way of distracting themselves from the pain of their own internal struggle. They can redefine their own personal “junk” as an external struggle of a religious nature, giving them distance from their own pain. They redirect their emotions into the cause of their faith.

I've received a tremendous amount of interest in one particular aspect of the core, unresolved emotional issues of childhood which I wrote about in this post dealing with immaturity of children as it appears when it is carried over into adulthood. (For those who strongly identify with this, I highly recommend that you read the whole series, particularly the other four remaining core traits, because they do tend to occur together.) In that post, I described balance and imbalance through the analogy of a pendulum to describe extremes, but today, I'd like to give you a different way of looking at the trait.

In order to understand the self and to put behavior in perspective, a person can graph their emotions over time. You can graph a day or a lifetime, noting degrees of emotional experience between extremes of happiness and despair over time. When pleasant and exciting events take place, the mood elevates, and a person can graph how they felt, based on their respond to the event.

Here is an example of a fictitious man from birth to death, demonstrating how to use the graph. Pleasant events cause an elevation of emotion, and trauma and loss cause depressed emotion. By noting life events and recalling emotion, you can develop a graph and plot your own life to date.

While in a bookstore a few years ago, just after it was published, the title of Kurt Vonnegut's last book before his death caught my attention, as I said the very same thing about myself when I left the Word of Faith movement. I felt like someone “without a country.” In the book, Vonnegut offers a couple of amusing life graphs as he ponders and seeks his own transcendence as he copes with cancer. He shows the very positive climb of Cinderella and contrasts this iconic example against that of Franz Kafka, master of the absurd and fellow ponderer of the loss of mankind's transcendence (the sense that we have all fallen from a state of mastery and bliss which the Christian understands as a result of the Fall of Man in Eden). I've noted my memory's best synopsis of the amusing graphs from his book to help illustrate this concept of an emotional life graph as a tool of understanding oneself.

Just as I tried to demonstrate through the analogy of the swing of a pendulum, a person can use the life graph as a way to understand their own responses, but I find it especially helpful for understanding this characteristic of imbalance as it applies to trends in Evangelical Christianity and religious extremism. If a person developed emotional health in childhood and has the tools that they need to help them cope with the difficulties of life, when you graph out their experiences, the major part of their life will be spent within a zone that dynamically vacillates within a zone that falls in the middle of the graph. It represents a balance between happiness and sadness, striking a happy and adaptive medium between the two extremes. This balance is a sign of emotional health and flexibility. We all experience problems in life and moments of extremes of pain and pleasure, but most of daily life falls into the range of balance, as we see in our example of the graph of the life of our hypothetical man above.

In my earlier post on this subject, I explained that in dysfunctional households, family members learn that extremes are normal, and when they start to live in balance, it feels wrong. They associate their lives and have learned to experience life through extremes of despair and ecstatic joy, so the balance of everyday living doesn't feel much like living. They have to chase a high, and this makes sense if they've spent a lot of time coping with tragedy and events that left them in despair. They learn to hate that place of balance, the zone where balance places most events in life as the dynamically weave around the midline between extremes.

In extreme religious groups which tends to attract people who subconsciously wish to avoid their pain, not knowing that it even exists in many cases, that zone of balance and emotional health gets redefined. Just as dysfunctional adults redefine balance in relationships as deadness and extremes of continual extreme passion and disdain as intimacy (actually the enemies of true intimacy), religious groups tend to redefine balance in religious life as conformity and lack of commitment to God. 

They learn to experience the world through a framework that prefers extremes and controversy, or rather through conspiracies and extreme themes of apocalypse and triumph. People mistake balanced Christian living as lack of devotion and lack of intimacy with God. Some use gender motivated “culture wars” to play out their unresolved and displaced emotions. Some use the the chase of religious highs or the attainment of perfect piety as another way of displacing their internal struggle.

Everyone is vulnerable to manipulation and control in the form of thought reform which extreme religious groups use to recruit, manipulate, and retain followers. For those with a great deal of emotional dis-ease left over from childhood, thought reform programs and cultic religion offers a most inviting way and an illusion by which a person can play out their internal struggles without having to actually work on them directly. That's why individual, personal growth and development provides the most efficient way of resisting manipulation of any type. When you are secure and don't have to be busy backtracking emotionally, feeling that drain and providing footholds for manipulators, you become less vulnerable. The best offense is a good defense when it comes to personal maturity.

Either to keep people engaged or to market themselves, Christian evangelical religious groups that are always looking for a new spin on things and novelty tend to loose sight of the foundation of the person and character of Jesus Christ. People don't need new and novel applications such as “The Resolution” featured in the film, Courageous. These new theological innovations (Mark Noll's coined term) tend to replace the foundational principles of Christianity. For example, if one focuses on what Jesus described as the two greatest commandments from which we Christians derive the Golden Rule, one does not generally need a resolution or a gimmick. The gimmick becomes an “enhanced” version of the real thing and the place of balance which the Golden Rule provides. What results is a “form over substance” view of reality, because if things appear extreme, they're believed to be better. They are new, improved, and enhanced. Baudrillard summed up this type of postmodern Christianity well in Simulacra and Simulation when he noted that the media itself becomes the message. In the process, the foundation of Christ and his core message falls away.

This isn't Christianity, but rather postmodernism. This is but one trapping of the quality of extremism which arises in many evangelical groups, but the roots of the behavior are quite often found in the unhealed wounds of childhood suffered by the leaders of the group. The sad thing is that these leaders create such systems to cope with their own pain, but they end up using others just like an addict uses a substance in an attempt to numb their own pain. And the collateral damage is phenomenal.

(If the influences and problem of postmodernism in Christianity as it relates to spiritual abuse is of interest, this article explains more of it in greater detail. This series of posts which discusses what postmodernism is from a Christian perspective may also be of interest.)


  1. This.is.awesome.

    And incredibly on the money. Thank you. I am a regular reader here (and on Under Much Grace), and appreciate the insight and clarity you (and Cindy) bring to these things.

  2. Wow. Amazing. And yes, right on the money. Thanks for posting, Lewis.

  3. Wow, how informative and enlightening. I really enjoyed reading this. I know Dr. Dobson is not viewed well here (LOL) but I used to listen to him on the radio occasionally (like over a decade ago!). Once he talked about the 'emotional sine curve', and how a healthy person lives in the balance, not going up and down to the extremes. I remember thinking that was very smart and it stuck with me all these years.

    Anyways, this was very well written and right on.

  4. The part about extremes of emotion, and people from dysfunctional families feeling like something is wrong if there's no big terrible drama, reminds me a lot of what I've heard about people who have serial dysfunctional romances. They're attracted to someone who will take them through the highs and lows of drama--even abuse--because those are the emotions they associate with love. They don't know anything else.

    It makes me wonder, once you are addicted to those extremes of emotion, how you really get out.

    1. Cindy may have a response to some of these questions coming very soon, Paula. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Paula and Lewis,

    How do you get out of the addiction to extremes? Yesterday, I wrote a bit more about balance, and today I wrote the long answer to the question and put it on my blog:

    The short answer involves unloading shame and then going about the work of living a healthy, balanced life, which for many people, involves learning and work and help through feedback from others.

    I'm going to write a bit more about keeping a journal which I talk about all the time but have never talked about how I keep a journal or what I do with them, etc. I think a journal can be a huge source of healing when you're working to get out of the patterns of living in extremes. Hopefully, I'll have something prepared in the next day or two on that topic that I think is so important.

    1. Wow. Thank you, Cindy, I just read your article and it was fascinating.

      The thing about graphing your emotions/interactions kind of blew me away. It hadn't occurred to me a person could do such detailed work on understanding herself. I assume you've read Scott Peck? In one place he tells a story about a women he counseled, who described to him how she had applied what she was learning with him at a family gathering, resulting in much better interactions than usual. He said, "That's wonderful. All you need to do now is continue doing that."

      She said "All the time?"


      "But that would be exhausting! I'd have to pay attention *all the time*!"

      That is what this sounds like: very hard work! And very much worth it.

      It also sounds like something that is at the core of your analysis is that being healthy *genuinely feels better*. That's a very encouraging thought.

      This may be a side thing, but I want to say, I liked how you pointed out that Jesus always asked people if they wanted to be healed. I see that as part of his absolute respect for people's freedom, which is beautiful.

  6. Now this is from left field...I do know of fundamentalists who are addicted to irrational emotional/extremes...but then too, there is another camp that almost acts as if to feel any passion for anything is somehow sinful. I am talking about the almost robotic demeanor of some legalistic conservative types. I remember one Sunday school women's class where a church leader wondered out loud if it might be a sin to laugh...and one woman telling me it was a sin to enjoy food (that family eventually exploded in a sexual scandal, I believe...)

    Maybe the key is just avoiding mind control doctrines that take away our humanity and our common sense, whether they be dour or giddy?

    1. The stoicism can be just another extreme, and you're keen to observe it. We are both rational and emotional, and the two aspects of our lives should inform one another. Generally, I've found that when people claim to be or strive to be unemotional, they're really just trying to avoid emotions by hiding behind intellect, but guess what comes through? Mostly negative emotion, intolerance and anger. Suppressing all emotion is just another type of extremism, one I addressed in the original post about intolerance of a child's immaturity. If a parent fails to honor a child's immaturity, the child can grow up to be an adult who is tightly controlled and very rigid. It's just a different kind of extreme, because it is normal to have emotional responses and a certain degree of spontaneity is very healthy. Too much control is an extreme.

      I'd recommend avoiding all mind control doctrines!

    2. "... but guess what comes through? Mostly negative emotion, intolerance and anger."

      Yes! This is something that happens with men in patriarchy, even "patriarchy lite" I think: the idea is that men are rational, not emotional. The reality is that the men who think they are supposed to be like this show no emotion but anger, and it's somehow part of the narrative that anger is not an emotion. (A show of authority instead maybe?)

  7. @Cindy this.is.awesome!!!

    "adults who have emotional dis-ease left over from childhood cultic groups and programs offers a most inviting way and an illusion for ppl t work out their struggles without having to actually work on them directly. That it's thru personal growth and development that provides the most efficient way of resisting manipulation of any type. When you are secure and don't have to be busy backtracking emotionally, feeling that drain and providing footholds for manipulators, you become less vulnerable."

    thank you Lewis for sharing Cindy's post on balance/imbalance, religious addiction & it's root. Lewis, your past few posts have been greatness and has given my heart comfort strength and peace.

    my recovery journey with religious addiction and unbalance began about 5-6ish yrs ago. it is awesome how one thing led to another. but it has also been very difficult with lots of blood sweat and tears (hard work). but worth it!!

    there has been many components to my healing on this crazy journey of recovery. i have/had counselors, who are skilled in cults and thought reform, support groups online and support groups in my city, family, friends, lots and lots of books, online blogs & most importantly getting back to a simple foundation in God. which for me means "that i've been reconciled to God thru Christ". Jesus plus nothing. All of this has led to my healing, to my being secure, & to my being whole & healthy.

  8. I finally put together a post on good ideas to help get you started in a daily journal which includes good ideas of how to use it as a tool for positive growth.


  9. Thank you all for your kind comments. I'm just hope and endeavor to pass on the stuff I've learned in my own recovery, like taking a dish rag, squeezing all the good out of it that I possibly can. It's rewarding to hear that it's helpful info.