Monday, May 15, 2017

Identity Foreclosure, Questions, Doubts and Postmodernism

To be God’s people is to be those who wrestle with God. It is to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling. It is to be people of faith, of hope, of trust, of doubt, and of suspicion. It is to have answers. It is to have questions. Of all the places to wrestle with one’s faith, the church would ideally be that place – often it is not.

A big part of maturing from adolescence into adulthood is the questioning of beliefs, assumptions, and perspectives held by one’s elders. Moving into adulthood, young adults don’t tend to simply follow the prescribed paths of their parents, teachers or pastors, rather, they explore other possibilities, different perspectives, and alternative values. The final result of this period of searching may well be a decision to retain much of what they have received from an early age, though some things may be deleted, updated, or reframed. What is essential in this process is that the choice to accept or adapt that which has been inherited, or to adopt other perspectives, comes about through their own weighing of perspectives and wrestling with life’s complexities. This is an exhilarating part of being roughly 17 – 27 years of age - when this process unfolds. Done well, it is also a process that helps the church to continually re-contextualize the gospel in line with the questions, issues, and concerns of the day.

Ironically though, churches are not always a context where young adults feel able to navigate this process. Too often church culture is orientated around believe, behave and belong - especially for young adults who’ve grown up in the church. Christian kids tend to come of age surrounded by authority figures who champion very clear ideals around what one must believe and how one must behave. Often their self-esteem is dependent on the approval of these figures and they experience an unusual pressure to conform to the expectations of others. They are often denied the “moratorium” or leeway in adolescence to delay adult commitments, they prematurely embrace a set of values that was forged for them rather than by them.

Psychoanalyst Erick Erikson suggests that when individuals skip this critical stage of identity formation (or only partly engage) the result is a form of identity foreclosure. Individuals who have undergone identity foreclosure can be highly successful in many areas of life. However, they do tend to exhibit a number of potentially destructive psychological traits. They are less self-reflective than others. They are often mentally rigid, tending to see the world in terms of simplifying narratives that are beyond question. They are incapable of incorporating new values or perspectives into their worldview. They have difficulty cultivating warm and intimate relations even among some of their closest friends and loved ones. They have little patience with ambiguity and little intellectual curiosity in unfamiliar ways of thinking. They seek refuge in overarching meaning structures that are uncompromising and total, various forms of religious propaganda essentially. They are often deeply concerned with maintaining authority structures and upholding traditional religious values. People with foreclosed identities are thus naturally drawn toward fundamentalist communities. And, in an insidious feedback loop, fundamentalist communities produce people with identity foreclosure. This is obviously not helpful.

With this in mind, our postmodern context and its predisposition toward questioning, doubt, suspicion, and deconstructionism offers both challenges and opportunities.

In terms of challenges…

Today’s adolescences and young adults transiting into adulthood have more suspicions, more doubts, more questions than ever, and, given their connectivity and access to technology and information – are asking harder, deeper and more challenging questions of the church and of faith than ever before. On top of that, they’ve been exposed to a such a plurality of ideas in regard to any particular topic that sifting through the information is incredibly challenging. They’ve knowledge and information but need help in terms of wisdom.

At the same time though, the church, often feeling threatened by deconstructionism, is doubling-down in its cries for faith, belief, and trust – and actually working to squash down the questioning of young adults. Partly because the church (understandably) doesn’t want young people to “lose” their faith, but also partly because many pastors and leaders are themselves products of fundamentalist communities who’ve their own challenges in regard to identity foreclosure and, plain and simple, don’t know how to address the complexity of some of the issues millennials are bringing to the table. They know they love Jesus though and that Jesus is the hope of the world, the way, the truth and the life. Surely this should be enough for millennials (and it is), but it isn’t – not served up like that. And thus, in attempting to squash the questioning in order to help young people preserve their faith, they actually end up driving young people away. Perhaps not from their faith in Jesus, but at least from the church.

The church needs to become the place where young adults can come to wrestle with their faith, to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, to doubt, to question and to be suspicious. Not the place they have to avoid as thy seek to wrestle with their faith and work out their salvation.

In terms of opportunities though…

What is exciting in our postmodern world is that “older” folk are bravely attempting to ask questions and re-evaluate the parts of their faith that earlier in their life they may have had questions about but instead learned to tow the party line. Of course, rather than being exhilarating, as it often is in one's twenties, it can be daunting and overwhelming. At least at first. To question “fundamental” beliefs can be a disorientating and difficult process, and often one where participants feel a mixture of guilt and incredible instability. Guilt for asking or doubting, and instability as one is questioning things that they have perhaps felt like they’ve built their life on. Take encouragement from the psalms though - they are a mixture of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. We should expect this cycle to be embedded within our lives as disciples. Unfortunately though, fundamentalist upbringings tend not to make space for this and the process can be scary at first.

When we can make our church communities contexts in which doubt and suspicion doesn't disqualify but rather is expected, and where big questions are wrestled with over time, they have the potential to be incredibly life giving. Places where on the other side of big questions young and old begin to experience a sense of being born-again-again, as faith in Jesus, the good news of the gospel and the great hope we have as Christ-followers comes alive in in the midst of lives toughest questions and challenges.

It’s discipleship as a lifelong journey rather than a 3 step program, with 5 main points, 7 quick keys, and 9 irrefutable laws, outworked over 40 days of who-knows-what.

My reflections interwoven with ideas from...

Ronald E. Osborn – “Death Before the Fall”
Erik Erikson – “Identity and the Life Cycle”
John Van Wicklin, Ronald, J. Burwell and Richard E. Butman – “Squandered Years: Identity Foreclosed Students and the Liberal Education They Avoid”

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