When Surface-Level Religion Meets a Psychology of Depth, or Why Camp (or Something Like It) Could Replace Church

Tomorrow morning, thousands of families will pack into their cars – some wearing their Sunday best, others in jeans and a t-shirt – and head once again to a church service like the one they went to last week. For some, there’ll be a choir decked in robes, lighting of the advent candle, a scripture, a message, a few hymns. For others, there’ll be a praise band, hands raised in the air, a worship leader, a projector-and-screen displaying stock images of a pretty waterfall behind the scripture message. A pastor will speak. Some of them will deliver a message that’s tough to hear, challenging perhaps, but quickly forgotten. Others will preach a message of nurturing love, of taking care of your own, a message patting the congregation on the back, and everybody will momentarily feel a tiny bit better about themselves as they walk out the door to go back into the “real world.”

In most cases, church as it works like this really does help people maintain their status quo. Had a bad week? The pastor might legitimately say something that speaks to you. There’s a good chance that a song you hear or a scripture that’s been read could bring you out of your funk or at least provide a different perspective you hadn’t considered. And this has been well-documented in the field of psychology. People who attend church, by-and-large, are healthier psychologically than those who live fully secular lives in the same culture. After all, “optimists are healthier” and religion and ritual promote reasons to lower stress, not to mention the power of a social support group that religion often provides.

But in maintaining the status quo, if that’s the unseen goal of “church,” there’s a lack of concern for any continual, real depth – that is, any confrontation that brings about self-awareness. A good movie can challenge you or bring you out of a funk, especially if you see the movie with a group of consistent, caring friends. But it won’t necessarily demand that you look within yourself to answer the question, “Who am I?” or “What about myself should I change?” And, similarly, modern American religion doesn’t either. It’s too often a system of staged complacency. After all, if church today functioned to bring people to true repentance and forgiveness (of themselves and others), to self-actualization, there would never have been a need for the field of psychology to develop in the first place.

But think about it: It seems more and more that modern psychology can and does succeed where religion has failed on an epic scale. The honesty required of, say, an AA meeting or of any form of therapy does what church never could quite get right – but only for those with the courage to admit they needed or wanted the help to begin with, only for those who were ready to ask the tough questions. Otherwise, therapy is just as useless an endeavor as religion. No one overcomes an addiction, as an example, without surrendering their will and truly wanting the help to overcome it, but those who do surrender and overcome their addiction are able to do so because they were able to confront the worst of themselves. They find the courage to confront their own suffering and self-destruction.

All of us, at the core of our depths, will find – if we go looking – similar suffering and attempts at self-destruction. We need not be addicts to know there are things about ourselves we do not want known, things we do not talk about, usually. But isn’t it kind of absurd that exploring those ugly depths is precisely, in the field of psychology, what brings people to healing, but it’s as if we are conditioned to fear that exploration instead. And church has not historically been a place that fosters or encourages us to delve into the worst of ourselves with any sense of honesty, largely because of our fear of shame and judgment. Instead, we just sing a song or read a paragraph from a Gospel and expect that to do it justice. Theologian Paul Tillich writes about this when he says,

We are always moving forward, although usually in a circle, which finally brings us back to the place from which we first moved. We are in constant motion and never stop to plunge into the depth. We talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. Like hit-and-run drivers, we injure our souls by the speed with which we move on the surface; and then we rush away, leaving our bleeding souls alone. We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life. And it is only when the picture that we have of ourselves breaks down completely, only when we find ourselves acting against all the expectations we had derived from that picture, and only when an earthquake shakes and disrupts the surface of our self-knowledge, that we are willing to look into a deeper level of our being.”

Tillich calls this deeper level, depth itself, “the Ground of Being,” or God. And I’m moved to agree, but the glimpses I’ve gotten of that depth have not been easily, nor painlessly, uncovered. And perhaps more importantly, I can’t claim to have a solution for the way we miss this in religion, for the way the modern church is overcome with fear of this self-honesty. I don’t think it works exactly for pastors to become shrinks, or merely to send their parishioners to them (though I think the latter should happen more often). I don’t think that it’s helpful for us to simply and suddenly expect people to start being honest with themselves or with others, or to demand as much like an intervention. But the status quo will be what does religion off, if religion is to die… the way it appears to be slowly dying.

So what must change? If I had to guess, too often in the church, the reason people seem to fear plunging into that depth (and, Tillich would say, finding God there) is because they don’t know each other. In therapy, the relationship between the therapist and the patient is built on trust. In church, especially larger ones, small groups, Bible studies, Sunday schools, etc. help build that trust, but the nature of why people attend creates large gaps in it. When you see someone once a week, not always consistently, and you don’t know why they’re there, the likelihood that you’re going to feel comfortable opening up – and finding resolution for – your deepest, darkest issues is pretty nil. That’s not to say it never happens. I think summer camps and retreats work to build more authentic relationship. I’ve seen firsthand a group of kids who didn’t know each other at all on a Monday really love one another openly and honestly and learn to love themselves by Saturday. It’s simple, really. Put people under the same roof for any length of time and, after they’ve endured the trials of that experience, you’ll eventually create trust – that is, an authenticity that will allow people the safe space to delve deeper into who they are. In other words, if religion is to learn to do what psychology is already besting it at, it’s going to have to start to look a whole lot more like camp. I don’t mean in saying that to suggest that things will just get better, that people will delve into their inner core, if a church just starts building a fire outside and singing “Kumbaya” on a Sunday morning. But I do think that if religion is to survive well into the 21st century, church has to learn how to aspire to more authenticity, to create a culture where one of the first goals is to get people to know each other, to trust each other, and finally, to listen with that knowledge and trust. If we can’t do that, we’ll just keep packing into our cars, schlepping ourselves off to another mundane, if not staged, experience every Sunday, an experience that helps keep us going but without ever asking us to wonder who we are or to seek our real depth in the Ground of Being.

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