* * *
Having been spoon-fed by my former pastor a form of extremism, or rigid, legalistic, black/white rules and practices, I have pressed myself to re-evaluate those rules and ideas and measure them with scripture using my own eyes and discernment. What freedom!
The following article is by Brenda, a regular here, who found SSB from a Google search looking up the topic of pedophiles. Brenda blogs at, A Solitary Journey (also listed in the blog roll in the sidebar).
Brenda begins her “About Me” page:
Hi, I’m Brenda and I am a survivor of over three decades of marriage to a man who had a secret identity–that of a pedophile. His “cover” was blown in a very public, devastating and traumatic way and I promptly divorced him. Of course, there are many more layers to the story but this is the short “elevator” version.
I love that some of the topics here have challenged our thinking (I’m including myself in this). Brenda calls to question the idea of extremism in her article. I connect with so much of what she has to say and I suspect others might, too.
by Brenda, of A Solitary Journey
- The covenant of marriage is eternal
- Divorce should never occur
- A woman’s duty is to submit to her husband, no matter what.
- Women should not be in church leadership positions.
- Women should not teach men; they should be silent in the church.
- Abuse is not a valid reason for divorce.
But last Sunday I heard Dr. Brene Brown, a well-known shame researcher say that:
Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals extremism.
Her definition resonated so deeply with me. It seems to me that far too many churches are guilty of extremism and far too many people in organized religion have become religious terrorists. No wonder we are hurting, no wonder so many are exiting the church and no wonder so much abuse is occurring in homes governed by these extreme teachings.. Extremists of all stripes and colors leave devastation in their wake. So, let’s break this definition down–let’s deconstruct it:
The Apostle Paul described faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
“Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” (Dr. Brene Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p. 90)
The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty, according to Anne Lamont. ( Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, pp. 256-57) But faith in “extreme” churches has been redefined as certainty. Certainty in theology, certainty in interpretations, certainty in the rules and policies of the church. We have traded faith as mystery to a “faith” defined by certainty and Law–an oxymoron in reality. And one fallout, among many, is that fear becomes the currency and culture of the church. We fear the “world,” we fear outsiders, we fear evil so we isolate, hunker down and live by the philosophy of “us four and no more.”
Vulnerability involves uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. According to Dr. Brown, it is the birthplace of everything we are hungry for. It is showing up and allowing ourselves to be seen; it is discarding the 20-ton shield of perfectionism. It is about sharing our feelings and our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them.
“Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness.” (Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 33)
But in an environment that sees vulnerability as sin or lack of faith or insubordination or being “too emotional,” it is impossible and risky to be vulnerable. We long to be seen for who and what we are and to be accepted and loved as real people with warts and flaws that make us members of the human race. But in a “church,” where image and conformity to a standard that is really impossible to achieve is demanded, vulnerability is scarce and those who dare embrace it find themselves on the wrong end of a bad sermon illustration. We quickly learn that we do not dare share our real stories and that we must don a mask and pretend that all is right in our world, even though it may be falling apart.
According to the dictionary, mystery is “something that is difficult or impossible to explain” (New Oxford American Dictionary).
- Mystery is paradox.
- Mystery is uncertainty.
- Mystery is holding the tension between light and dark.
Mystery is acknowledging that God is bigger than we can imagine and realizing that all that we know of Him is but a drop in the ocean of who he truly is. Mystery focuses on looking at the moon (God), “Not at the fingers pointing to the moon, but the moon itself–and now including the dark side of the moon too.” (Rohr, Falling Upward, p. 87) Mystery is comfortable with the paradox of God and with not knowing all that there is to know about Him. Mystery is relaxing in the Stream that is God, knowing that the flow will take her where she needs to go.
Mystery does not exist in extreme churches. Mystics are frowned upon or barely tolerated. The emphasis is on knowing cognitively rather than knowing experientially. Instead of looking at the dark and light side of God, our eyes are re-focused on the fingers pointing to who God is–i.e. the pastor and church leadership. Our view of God is limited then to that view painted for us by those with a vested interest in keeping us from truly experiencing God as he is. Because when we truly embrace the mystery of God, including the paradoxes and uncertainty, and become comfortable with not knowing all there is to know, we deep dive into Love itself. No longer are we exclusionary, intolerant or unsympathetic to the needs of the world. No longer are we slaves to bad theology or confined to the “safety” of the four walls of our prison, uh church. It is easy to recognize a mystic–they are characterized by extreme love rather than extreme religion.
According to Dr. Brown, as Americans living in a post-911 world, we each have a thin film of terror wrapped around us. As a nation we have moved beyond the red, yellow and green alerts in airports but we live in constant fear. And fear drives wedges between nations and neighbors, it causes us to stockpile food and weapons and look with wariness at those who dress or believe differently than we do. But I contend that this same fear has been the staple of extreme religions far longer than September 11, 2001. Extremism, whether in politics or religion, thrives on fear. It is the glue that holds extreme systems together.
But John wrote that “There is no room in Love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear.” (I John 4:18, The Message) I sense a counter-revolution going on and it is led by those who are waking up to the vices and abuses of extreme religion. Maybe they have been wounded–and there are so many of us–or maybe they are just growing deeper in their faith and realize that the old way of doing “church” with rules, regulations and certainty, just doesn’t work. Extremism does not provide the anchor that our soul longs for and it certainly does not provide tools for true spiritual transformation. But Love does and according to Rob Bell, Love wins. We win when we truly experience God’s transformative love and we definitely win when we express that love to another. So LOVE is the formula that destroys extremism. May we become people who love.
33 thoughts on “Can our Faith and Love Co-Exist with Extremism?”
“Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals extremism.” Wow. I love this quote.
Three readings have not been sufficient for me to digest all of this. “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Check. “Mystery is acknowledging that God is bigger than we can imagine and realizing that all that we know of Him is but a drop in the ocean of who he truly is.” Yes, O.K. The paramount place of Love I had seen already, thanks largely, or at least initially, to Rob Bell.
But I’m stuck on what Brenda writes about vulnerability. It’s not that I disagree. It’s just that I do not identify. Likely my inability to identify is because my faith has been lived primarily in the real of the mind, in what I can now acknowledge as having been the realm of certainty–certainty of theology and interpretations, though not certainty in the rules and policies of the “church.” I have always had issues with the absurd claims of “church” to authority, loyalty and demanded submission.
No, probably as close as I have come to vulnerability, at least as a way of life, has been to risk speaking truth, to risk speaking my “truth,” held with certainty, in opposition to institutional “truth,” held with the full force of imposed dogma. I have paid the price for speaking my “truth,” and have reveled in the retaliation, a retaliation I (no doubt pridefully) took to be the certain proof of the rightness of my own positions.
But to vulnerably expose the very depths of one’s own being? To risk being found out as a fraud? To risk being thought a fraud in what is real and true and good? To risk exposing the true self, both bad and good, to ridicule or worse? I can only almost see how such self-exposure could be a good thing. That it must have something to do with authentic burden bearing is as close as I can get.
I’ve changed churches recently to a much younger church, one that doesn’t treat divorced people as second class citizens.
One lovely vibrant woman recently shared that she grew up in a divorced family — and both of her parents loved and cared for her. She was perfectly happy. But when she started hanging out with Christians, they treated her like damaged goods. They expressed sympathy that she was a divorced kid and that her prospects for marital happiness were so poor. She was offended.
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her childhood was wonderful. She knew that growing up in a divorced home wasn’t the kiss-of-death in the marriage department. She was shocked that Christians wanted to see her as “less than.”
Pastors have no idea the damage they are doing when they preach on divorce. They are pushing innocent divorcees out of the church, and making church a shaming place for their children. No wonder we’ve seen women’s attendance at church decline 11%. (See first bulleted point in the article below.)
Thank you for reminding me to follow Brene Brown.
Gary, isn’t the vulnerability concept absolutely fascinating? I’ve only been recently heard of Brene Brown after seeing a TED video. What she said was quite remarkable.
I was thinking about this vulnerability with regard to therapy some 20+ years ago. I remember thinking to myself: I will share this, but I will not share that.
Interestingly, the times that I risked to share the stuff that I didn’t really want to share, the deepest thoughts/concerns/fears, was when my therapist was able to mirror back to me what she saw so clearly and THAT is when I made a breakthrough in troubling areas of my life.
I think it was this – the vulnerability in the counseling office, and seeing the results – which has helped shape me into who I am today and what you see here on this blog. I wish I could find Tricia today to tell her how much she taught me.
This is kind of fascinating, and I think many of you have caught on that I “use” you 🙂 No, really, I think I do a lot of my emotional and spiritual processing right here on my blog, completely naked before all. But I’ve noticed that as I’ve processed some pretty deep stuff (the one that comes to mind is how the post on Calvinism and my abusive childhood), people have responded in a deeper level, too. My sharing those deep thoughts did not push people away, I felt people drawing closer, encouraging, trying to relate with their own experiences, really thinking about those issues that were brought up. Isn’t that crazy? You share your icky stuff and people are drawn to it?
All I know is that putting it “out there” gives an opportunity to wrestle with the issues head on. And then you and I can find peace.
Anonymous – Your comment and link is exactly what I was looking for in putting together a post. Excellent and so true. Thanks, much!
Lisa, if you are a Twitterer, Brene can be found here: https://twitter.com/BreneBrown
Faith and love vs. Extremism.
Here’s an interesting exercise.
1. Draw a simple family tree from your grandparents to your generation (including all of your aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides of the family).
2. Put a faith rating next to each person.
. 0=atheist, agnostic, or no interest in Christianity
. 1=Identifies as Christian but not active in a church
. 2=Active Christian
3. What percentage of the grandchildren in your maternal grandparents line are Christian? And the other side?
In my family, the fundamentalist side (the out-spoken, Bible pounding, tee-totaling, dispensationalist side) of my family, fell apart. Only 20% of the grandchildren on that side of the family are active Christians today.
On the non-fundamentalist side of my family, almost 80% of the grandchildren are active Christians.
Is my experience unusual? What does your family tree show?
“It is about sharing our feelings and our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them.”
This is key to me ~ so many times I’ve shared things with people that I thought were safe but turned out not to be. How do we discern who to trust? Who to be real and vulnerable with?
We attended a church for a number of years that was big on homeschooling. In fact, any family that came eventually tried or did homeschool. This church also encouraged the whole family to worship together ~ early on there was no daycare (but that eventually changed). Anyway, the looks I would get when my kids would act up! Boy, I did not feel welcome and I came away always feelings like a lousy mom with some out of control kids. Looking back on this, I realize the kids weren’t all that “bad” ~ they were just toddlers and kids! It was the expectations that were extreme.
I guess I have to say I totally disagree with how mystery is presented in this piece.
“Mystery does not exist in extreme churches. Mystics are frowned upon or barely tolerated. The emphasis is on knowing cognitively rather than knowing experientially.”
Mystery is the one piece that is constantly used as a control wedge. “You don’t understand it so I (the guru) has to tell you what to think and believe because it is a mystery and as God’s messenger I have been sent to guide you”. You cannot understand the bible by yourself but God has given me the ability to teach you what it means.
Mystery/paradox is always front and center without them even admitting it.. In fact, they are MORE “mystical” than those who are touting contemplative spirituality from the emergent wing if there are still any left.
What is more mystical than God giving one or a few men in your church specific instructions and you are to believe that you must believe and obey them?
Think of the HBC elder video being passed around. If that is my mystery or paradox, I don’t know what it. They want people to believe that they have more Holy Spirit and by dent of their title, they speak for God. Why does God work that way? He just does and it is in the Bible, that btw, only WE can intrepret for you.
In fact, the bible becomes a big mystery book that only they can understand for us.
Mystery is all around is. Gospel contemplation. Gospel navel gazing. Keys to the kingdom given to a few men, etc, etc.
One reason we do not see this as mystical is because we do not question it enough. We literally believe “pastor” is an office. The bible is a manual that they understand better than we can….and so forth. The only quibbling left is to what degree.
“This is key to me ~ so many times I’ve shared things with people that I thought were safe but turned out not to be. How do we discern who to trust? Who to be real and vulnerable with?”
Exactly. I know folks who it turned out there vulnerability was used against them after MANY years of being very close.
Frankly, I think that is why Jesus is our best friend, too.
“Gary, isn’t the vulnerability concept absolutely fascinating?”
No, I would sooner say terrorizing than fascinating, depending on who you’re wanting me to be vulnerable to. With my wife, sure. With my therapist? Yes, but I don’t have one (though I’m not saying it wouldn’t do some good). With the typical “pastor?” Anybody suggesting that can take a flying leap into the super-heated fires raging in the basement beneath the deepest circle of Dante’s Inferno, also called Hell by the modern “church.”
You have a very good point, Gary – especially with regard to the pastor part. I mean, look at how my stalking pastor will twist my words for his blog fodder. And spirituality is such a deep issue, yet when abusers use it as a weapon – – no doubt being vulnerable is a frightening aspect.
If I am understanding you correctly, you are objecting to the use of “mystery” as sort of escape hatch employed for the purpose of jamming “certainty” down the throats of the benighted. This, however, is a corrupt and cynical use of mystery to manipulate and control.
What I am getting from Brenda’s article is that true mystery is the very reality that demands we reject out of hand the certainty with which the Reformed types would impose their views, and their authority, on others.
I accept God’s Love as certain. I find credible those ideas which appear to flow from the fact of God as Love. I would now laugh in the face of anybody arguing for any idea that flows from God’s supposed concern/passion for His own Glory.
Maybe the way I would put it is that anybody who would admit to uncertainty or mystery earns my respect. On the other hand, I find myself being increasingly unable even to hear anybody who would claim certainty in the face of the unexplainable, or mystery, or whatever they wish to call it. Brenda’s article helps me to see that they are simply without Faith.
Gary, Yes, I think you are right. I was thinking along the lines that “mystery” is used every day in church to promote conformity and good followers. (Some have special understanding others cannot) I also think the reformed use mystery when it comes to teaching their concept of “God’s Glory and him wanting Glory for Himself”.
I most likely would not call what Brenda is talking about “mystery”. I have come to the understanding that God is not that big of a mystery at all. And that is because I look to Jesus as God in the Flesh. It took me a long time to get there, believe it or not. But I spent too much time buying into the “mystery” of God and some of that came from reading the bible woodenly, listening to charlatans, and not seeking the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. And some of it came from finally coming to the conclusion God created creatures that defied Him (because they were created with free will) and has sought a reconciled love relationship with us ever since. So I have learned to look to MY responsibility in all of this thing called life. That changes everything. And it is harder, too!
I believe “uncertainty” is a better description. I also do not think “doubt” is a sin but an honest position that urges us to dig deeper and rely on the Holy Spirit more for wisdom and guidance.
I don’t know if that is more confusing or not! It is just a different way of looking at things. Perhaps the word mystery is a turn off becasue of how it has been used to excuse a ton of evil in the Name of God?
NOT (as is so common today) “the denial of observable physical reality.”
“When you point at something with your finger, the dog sniffs your finger. To a dog, a finger is a finger and that is that..” — C.S.Lewis
What you are saying makes sense to me. What I do not have is enough insight to say whether Brenda would see something different than what she is saying. Maybe she will chime in.
From what you have described at various times, the people you are talking to are appealing to mystery by way of a dishonest ploy to derail further discussion/debate, and also to hide the insufficiency of their position. One response would be to observe that, unless and until they can resolve the mystery, their positions are uncertain to the point of being unsupportable. I would go so far as to say that, until the “mystery” of God’s apparent narcissism/psychopathy is satisfactorily explained, their god looks just like Satan, and not at all like Jesus, who is the perfect representation of the Father–meek and humble and lowly of heart. Not to mention respecter of women.
“Not to mention respecter of women.”
Yes. Praise HIs Precious Name.
No one hates women more than the Deceiver who was told by God that Messiah would come through a woman. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why so many Christians help the deceiver when it comes to His daughters of Abraham.
Brenda, Congratulations on being one who is in hot pursuit of cracking the code for ‘extremism’ in religion. Through your own devastating life journey you have come out the other side into wonder and grace that feeds the soul and can enlighten others.
What you have read from others and have pondered has created a marvelous tapestry of thought that heals and liberates.
I pondered what was being said about mystery. Seems that ‘mystery’ can be seen in two significant ways, depending on the church context: 1. A tight-fisted, hold-on-or-else faith because their God instills fear and dread if he is crossed; even a twisted OT concept. This kind of ‘mystery’ is used to control the masses. OR
2. An open-handed faith rooted in love and wonder regarding all that might be safe with a Loving God–because God became flesh and lived among us and revealed what Deity was really like.
As you (Brenda) have discovered, there can be no place for vulnerability in a dwarfed and pinched kind of Christianity. Exactly: People “find themselves on the wrong end of a bad sermon illustration.” Sad, but true!
Gary – I’m pretty sure Brenda will be checking in later to respond. 🙂
Yes, Lydia, right on! The ‘woman thing’ in the church is beyond belief! The Kingdom of God has released both men and women and has created a way of liberty from the incessant bondage to twisted interpretations of Scriptures that are flawed with a male-biased superiority and supports female inferiority. It takes each one of us to continually and strategically fight against this nonsense!
“I have come to the understanding that God is not that big of a mystery at all.”
Agreed! I am having to get to know God all over again. But, at the same time, yes: I came to a certain conclusion about the general character of God. If that makes me an extremist, then consider me Extremist Extraordinaire! I cannot live any other way.
Fascinating conversation here that I’m sorry I’ve missed out on today. But I’m grateful for a job that keeps me busy.
I can understand how there would be some confusion over “mystery.” I must remind everyone that this formula is not mine but rather I am quoting Dr. Brene Brown. If I understand her writing and research, I think she would go with the mystery definition that Barb O has provided:
“An open-handed faith rooted in love and wonder regarding all that might be safe with a Loving God–because God became flesh and lived among us and revealed what Deity was really like.”
And yes, vulnerability is terrifying but the qualifier that Dr. Brown provides is that we share our stories with someone who has earned our trust.
I’ve been musing over these questions for years. I was raised in a church setting that was very conservative, but in several important ways NOT fundamentalist. There was an openness, a graciousness, that I don’t always find in conservative settings.
(I’m beginning to realize how fortunate I’ve been.)
It seems to me that the following factors CAN (but do not inevitably) lead to abusive perversions of Christianity:
– desperate need for certainty (over faith)
– rejection of mystery
– insistence on conformity, little tolerance for ANY differences of opinion in values, politics, doctrine
– charismatic, “star-system” leadership, particularly on the CEO model
– conservative Calvinism & the acrobatic theodicy that accompanies it
– inability to face (admit to oneself) the ongoing need for grace
– emphasis on gender hierarchy, female submission
Greetings PL. Nice to meet you here. I liked your short but comprehensive list. You covered many comparable factors in this.
Welcome to the blog PLStepp. You have a good list of factors that could lead to some of the abusive and/or high-controlling churches we discuss here.
Can you explain what you mean by acrobatic theodicy? I have an idea of what you mean, but not positive.
All I could picture while digesting this post was a SG/Harvest/CON/etc pastor would be abosulutely beside themselves, freaking out and shouting “heresy!”. Anne Lamont, Brene Brown, Rob Bell… worse than dropping the F bomb in the neoCalvinist circles!
And my second thought was, praise the LORD that I’m no longer in an extremist church. That I’m no longer afraid to read and listen to thinkers considered on the fringe. That I am no longer afraid of resting in the MYSTERY of God while still holding to the absolutes in the Bible. Oh, and that women are allowed to have thoughts of our own. Amazing!!!
I love your list PLStepp and welcome!
And I agree completely, Recovering Pharisee. I still get heart murmurs when I’m about to quote Anne or Brene or Rob or heaven forbid a Catholic priest. But I have found such liberty, spiritual transformation and growth by reading their works. And I am learning to live loved.
HA, Recovering Pharisee – You are so right! And I’ve been hiding my feelings on that, but you called it. I foresee a new blog post at the Impostor Blog. “Julie Anne” has gone EMERGENT – She paints Rob Bell and other emergents in a POSITIVE light. She’s a HERETIC!”
It won’t matter if this was Brenda’s article or not, the fact that I allowed it on my blog is fodder for the BGBC stalkers to use for future blog posts. I’m waiting . . . .
You see, because Rob Bill cannot have any truth coming from him. Nope – because he has erred doctrinally, everything else is rubbish. Whatever – I’m with you, RP, the freedom is so nice, but I have to admit that I thought the same thing when Is saw the Rob Bell name. I do not make a habit of frequenting the Impostor Site, so if anyone sees a new post on this topic, please let me know.
BTW, RP – were you aware that he quoted your words and attributed them to me on a fairly recent article? He lifted your word “corrupt” and quoted ME (about the Voodoo donuts)!! Yea, he will likely do something similar here. He will likely completely miss that Brenda wrote the article and then attribute it all to me. Yea, he works like that.
So true, Brenda! A few of my post-wackadoodle era faves are Henri Nouwen and Brennan Manning. Since you mentioned the taboo Catholic thinkers/ preachers.
JA, i am intrigued that our voodoo remarks were deemed quotable. Funny! You know what’s funny? I dont care! I no longer feel paranoid about sharing my SG experiences . Thanks for the platform to heolp roegain my vooice!
Whoever ” he” is who used the quote, i hope you know that whether or not you want to believe it, God actually loves you! A lot! It isnt heretical to believe this.
Oops – I guess I’m expecting you to be in my head or something, RP – sorry. That “he” would be CON. He has 2 articles about me. It’s like he’s accusing me of being a distributor of porn to teens based on my one or two comments about the funny exchange between the students and me as I was taking their orders. He thinks I’m so deviant, yet he posted UNCREDITED photos of full frontal porn donuts and didn’t not even issue a warning. Can you imagine, a pastor showing donut porn on his own website? The students never saw any donuts like that!
Thanks for this post and comments.
“Vulnerability” was a tough one for me – still do NOT understand – And along with “Being Transparent” thought it sounded good – And thought I should start “Sharing” all my feelings, hurts, and pains.
But – I didn’t have this info at the time…
“It is about sharing our feelings and our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them.”
And – Had to learn this the hard way.
Most have NOT “earned the right to hear them.”
Any many will use that information against you. Oy Vey!!!
Seems you – Can’t “Trust” everyone. – And…
Can’t “Trust” everyone to play by the same rules you do.
Had to learn to hear from Jesus…
When to share – What to share – And – Who to share with.
And – NOT to have any “Expectations” of what to receive back from folks.
Had to learn to “Trust” Jesus – And NOT lean on my own understanding.
Trust in the LORD with all thine heart;
and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
Be not wise in thine own eyes…
Found out – I did NOT have to “Share” everything with everyone. 😉
Really “loved” this line @ SEPTEMBER 24, 2013 @ 5:32 AM…
“I am learning to live loved.”
Wow – what a concept – Jesus Loves Me…
Just the way I am…
A. Amos Love,
Absolutely, being vulnerable does not mean letting it all hang out with everyone. But it does mean that with those who have earned the right to hear our stores, we dare greatly and share our truth and struggles with another. I have found that most churches are not safe places. For me 12-step recovery groups have been my safe place.
“Living loved” is not my phrase, I think it may have originated with Paul Young. But it describes what I am striving for–to live each day as a dearly loved and cherished daughter of the most High God, And you are right, it all boils down to “Jesus loves me, this I know” (and this is how I live.)