Monday, May 29, 2006

Toxic Spirituality and Naive Spirituality

Here is central Pennsylvania, things are just a little conservative. It's the only part of the state, for example, where Senator Rick Santorum is still leading in the polls. (Don't get your hopes up. Santorum will probably lose, but Bob Casey is barely a Democrat.)

In a conservative area like this, fundamentalist spirituality is pervasive, and frequently, it can be toxic. Toxic spirituality encourages people to think of themselves in black and white terms. I am either good or bad. Usually, since we can't be perfect, we're bad. Bad things that happen to us are our fault. If we had been better people, nothing bad would happen to us.

I encounter it frequently, because toxic spirituality encourages guilt, and guilt is a path to depression. For my clients, it's not a hard thing to deal with. You start off by pointing out that people do good things and bad things. Then you ask, if you did 1,000 good things and 1 bad thing, would you be a good person or a bad person. Most of the time, people respond that they'd be a good person. Then I ask if they did 1,000 good things and 2 bad things, would they be a good person or a bad person?

By this time, they start to get the point. But then, my clients aren't the hard core fundamentalists, so they're not as locked into that kind of thinking. More of my clients manifest a more subtle problem, which I call naive spirituality.

People with naive spirituality embrace beliefs that are brittle and unrealistic. Frequently, their beliefs revolve around the idea that God intervenes in this world to protect them or to make things work out for them.

Then, of course, something awful happens and they feel abandoned by God. This leads them right into thinking, "I must be a terrible person, because God is punishing me." So, naive spirituality is the precursor of toxic spirituality.

Yet, it's often difficult to break into naive spirituality. People don't see the need to change it until it becomes toxic. After all, it's very comforting to believe that God will protect us. It's just not true. Check the paper. Check the history books. How many soldiers would die in wars if God was protecting us?

Evil happens because the world isn't perfect. A healthy spirituality recognizes that bad things will happen to innocent people. A healthy spirituality will also inspire people to correct the things that have hurt people.

Often, when I encounter naive spirituality, I encourage people to read two of Harold Kushner's books, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and How Good Do We Have to Be? It's hard to get people to face these issues directly, so I often suggest that they read Kushner just to get a different perspective. Often, that's a good start.

The critical thing is this: You cannot challenge someone's spirituality without supplying an alternative. Similarly, when you provide the alternative, don't be surprised if the person walks away with something different from what you provide. Just work to make sure that what ideas they get help them develop a healthier spirituality.

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