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Church, psychology, childhood and Gollum

GollumNorfolk social worker and writer Ben Bell briefly explores some of the psychological issues affecting how people relate to the church and Christianity due to their early childhood experiences.   

I went to church because I wanted to feel emotionally contained, as a child to its parent, and have someone pray for me in my distress.
I left church because I felt it was out of touch with what I was going through, reducing all the complexity of life to scripture and Christ-like ideals; and the preacher’s self-effacing humility only reminded me how utterly foreign our worlds are to each other.
Some adults can have what’s known in transactional analysis (TA) as an ‘Adapted Child’ relationship with the church or with God, which can symbolise a parent figure to them. Equally, one can become a rebellious child to the church’s, and by default God’s, critical parent (or id to the superego, to use the Freudian ego-states from which TA adapts its theory).
However, it is only those who have had insecure attachments to their own parents in early childhood (see attachment theory for more on this) that will experience such problematic relationships to the church, which is often ill-equipped to help them. Unless churches are psychologically aware, then the Christian experience of faith or being born again on its own will not, and cannot, address these issues.
Without this knowledge and how it applies to us, we will remain unaware or avoidant of the extent to which our relationships with the church and God can be conditioned by such parental relationships in childhood. Life Scripts form from these relationships, and we will seek out unconsciously those who play the roles the script requires to sustain it, from relationship to relationship, institution to institution.
And this is what is essentially happening when we form co-dependent relationships with people. We want certain needs to be met in them, but this will not enable either party to grow. Where such attachments form, they can become of such a degree of intensity – that of the child and its attachment to its mother in the first years of its life – that it makes each party co-dependent to the extent that they cannot break away, or are not aware of the need to, as would usually happen as a child with secure attachments to their primary caregiver leaves them and starts their own life as a fully formed adult. 
By way of comparison, for fans of Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, the complex character of Gollum represents such relationships brilliantly. A ‘dodgy church’ takes on the persona of Gollum, sabotaging its congregation for adherence to ‘my precious’ God, or what Freud would term the pleasure principle. As with the concept of the adapted child, power relations are at the heart of these problems, where relationships are not adult-adult, because there is an imbalance of motive behind them.
Where people do have adapted child relationships to the church or God, other psychoanalytic terms such as defence mechanisms and projections come into play. A person’s faith, if institutionalised in this fashion, will work to varying degrees as a defence mechanism, where the ‘non-Christian’ world outside the church becomes a repository for unresolved ‘bad parts’ or traumatic aspects of oneself to be projected onto and viewed negatively – even if the motive is well-intended – as the ‘unsaved.’
At its worst, this dichotomy of evangelist and those to be evangelised clearly severs the human link between them, their mutual ‘falleness’, so there is no room for congruence or genuine understanding.
To try and break this dichotomy, when someone swears, instead of just thinking: “That’s not what Christians do”, it is just as important to think: “They’re just a sinner like me”. Otherwise, our faith will only ever be in Gollum, hiding behind a sabotaged relationship as did the Pharisees, the real truth of the situation glossed over with religious table manners. And we know what Jesus did with tables…
Photo: by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (GollumUploaded by maybeMaybeMaybe) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ben Bell works as a social worker and is a keen writer, covering themes of faith, conflict and personal journey. He is also involved in art groups and projects within Norwich.

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