It is highly unlikely, unless I suffer some mental break or Sarah Palin is President with her own theocratic army, I will ever return to fundamentalism. However, others do. I do not fully explore this my essay in my co-edited book Fear to Faith; however, I do note that many in The Church of Jesus Christ make a habit of coming and going, often times spending years “in the world” before they are “back in church.” Never once do they question the religious construct creating this false separation of “world” and “church.” Many feel it is better to commit a host of sins of all kids rather than to question if in fact the belief system may be wrong.
The reason I will not return is because I was able to break from the structure, and like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave, I understood the shadow on the walls. It may be that I was so overcome with my sense of right and wrong that the event causing the break created that feedback. Or, it may be that because of my own brain and psychological make up I was not fully stunted by fundamentalism and thus could, when the time finally came, make a break, albeit one that is bloody and still lingers today. I did not do this without a great deal of help. Indeed, I attended several years of professional counseling (from a Christian perspective) and had a very patient wife. I had you, my friends and readers, helping me along the way.
My counselor and I explored this break through the lens of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Do not get me wrong; I was not diagnosed with it; however, he utilized some of the treatment (non-medical) techniques. Fortunately, my break occurred in my early 30s and not in, say, my teens or early twenties. I contribute the time and context of my break and recovery from fundamentalism to the fact it happened later in my adulthood. Otherwise, I may be like those who have since returned to the former cult or perhaps, like the one who resides just outside of the church doors. There is the state of perpetual anger, fear, and stress.
Trauma of the mental type does stunt normative psychological development. According to Dr. Bruce Perry, “All experience changes the brain – good experiences like piano lessons and bad experiences like living through a tornado as it destroys your home. This is so because the brain is designed to change in response to patterned, repetitive stimulation. And the stimulation associated with fear and trauma changes the brain.” Thus, if you experience the repeated trauma associated with fundamentalism, you will, even after leaving (rather, “backsliding”) still experience the same anger, fear, and stress associated with fundamentalism. There is one huge difference, however.
While you will still have the same fear, anger, and stress of fundamentalism you will not have the same reasons given for what you feel nor the same “help.” The best way to explain this is an analogy. Simply, if you beat a child and tell them it is because they deserve it, but if they are good then you will relent, you will instill into that child anger, fear, and stress. Because their brain becomes adapted to that, when they leave your care they will still feel the same conditions. However, they will not have you punching them, only the memory, threats, and scars. This feeling produces chaos. To feel that order once more, as strange as it sounds, the child will seek to return to the abuse. The person who is only abused understands love as abuse, sadness as happiness. This is why battered women return to their abusers and so on. It is a structure.
We cannot judge the abused as incompetent as we all live in structure, we just don’t recognize our own. Some are healthy structures and others are not. Not all unhealthy structures are abuse; do not mistake my intention here. The structure is what guides our responses, needs, and wants. The abused and traumatized need a structure alleviating the stress caused by not being abused. It is up to the community discover ways to break the structures by creating a better repetition, replacing the cycle of abuse with a cycle of healing.
Unfortunately, I know someone who has yet to break out of the structure binding them for so long. Rather than understanding that the abuse given from one person is not asystematic of the cult but a part of the whole, and a part that is needed to make the whole, my friend believes that the abuser is the variable and the structure innocent. Thus, this person seeks to undue 25 years of pain by resetting everything in their life to the point of the trauma inflicted, even to the point of resetting life to the exact geographic locale. The problem, among many, is that instead of the abuser, my friend is resetting their life to include the one person he/she believes could have saved him/her from the pain.
A cult is a community of abusers and abused. You can be both. I was. The person my friend believes would have saved him/her from the abuse inflicted by the abusive community was part of the original problem because the original problem is rooted in the fundamentalistic cult. The entire structure is established on abuse. The pastor abuses the laity creating a cycle whereby one lay member abuses another, husband abuses wife and wife abuses children. The entire structure of fundamentalism is in of itself abuse. However, if one does not internalize the fact that it is the structure and not the abuser themselves as the main cause, then the person is likely to return to the structure time and time again and abuse will always occur.
As I look back, I know no one, nor any singular argument, would have awaken me from my trance. Rather, to see fundamentalism for what it is, one must come to that realization on his or her own. For those who must experience it, I pity them, but I maintain it is one they need. They must come to understand that it is not simply this one or that one that is the problem with their system, but the entire system built on the forms of abuse so often present in fundamentalism. Likewise, it is an experience many will not have because of the repetition of fear, anger and stress prevalent in these circles. This repetition, especially if occurring at an early age, will stunt the development of the person making it less likely the needed-break will ever actually take place.
I was fortunate to find a church community that ended the cycle of theological bullying and pastoral abuse. I was equally fortunate to have had the break in such a way as to have my eyes flung open rather than allowed to me stay asleep, clinging to a cancerous structure. The former cycles of solitary confinement, hate, and stress were replaced with seasons of community, love, and giving. Now I sit here and weep about the prospect that my friend has yet to realize just how bad the structure he/she insists on remaining in. If I come off disgruntled at fundamentalism or even angry at the prospect of one returning to the horrible theological rot that is fundamentalism, it is because I understand the abuse latent in the structure. My emotional maturity of accepting fundamentalism as a valid expression of Christianity is stunted by the truth of the danger it poses and imposes.
- The Neuroscience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (psychologytoday.com)
- Let’s talk ABUSE, Shall We? (esewalter.wordpress.com)
- The Worst Advice This Abuse Survivor Ever Received (cryingoutforjustice.wordpress.com)
- I must be stupid for not leaving (firenmisoul.wordpress.com)