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Monday, September 6, 2010

Are you in a spiritual closet?

The spiritual closet refers to the ways we can split off our spirituality from our lives, and our families and friends.

The image of what it means to be a good solid American encourages the spiritual closet, especially if you don’t fit that image (and nobody fits it totally.) To be an ideal American is to be a generic Protestant with a belief in God, and who attends church semi-regularly. The good American does not get too passionate about his or her faith. Even in our churches, talking about our personal beliefs or experiences with the divinity is not encouraged, especially if they seem to contradict what is taught in church. A good American also doesn’t follow their faith to the letter, but also never seriously questions their faith. Good Americans are mildly Christian (though Roman Catholics are suspect)….maybe Jewish…but anything else isn’t seen as quite American. As the US population adds more Roman Catholics and Muslims to its ranks this is changing, slowly, however the idealized, slightly secularized, American protestant is a persistent idealized image in the American psyche. Take for example, the office of president, religion MUST come up in every election. Did that ideal play any part in John McCain not choosing Jewish Joe Lieberman as his running mate? Do you think that a presidential candidate who was Hindu or an atheist would have a chance in an election today’s America? Remember, in the US we have had exactly one non-protestant president, JFK. Just think of how the false belief that President Obama is a Muslim has spread fear and hate of the president throughout the US.

Here are a few examples of the spiritual closet, but there are many, and I daresay, dear reader, you likely find others from your own life.

  • A college professor who follows the teachings of ‘Amma’, the hugging guru of India, but hides that fact for fear of being mocked by his colleagues and fear it will lessen his creditability as an academic. Following a spiritual practice that is new or far form the traditional religions might mean her coworker sees her as “flakey” and “ungrounded.” Those perceptions can have very real concrete consequences with regard to things like promotions, committee appointments, tenure debates, etc.
  • A gay man who attends church regularly never mentions to his faith to his other gay friends, effectively creating another closet. Among large segments of the LGBT Americans, seeing that opposition to equal rights for LGBT people is VERY often religiously motivated, has not only turned away from religion, but views it as oppressive and dangerous. These people might view a LGBT religious person as a kind of spiritual Uncle Tom. 
Church of the Poison Mind

  • A Roman Catholic couple decides to use the pill because they don’t want to have anymore children. They don’t feel guilty about it; in fact their marriage feels stronger, their family closer and more loving since they started. They see this reality, not as something to be explored or put in dialogue with Catholic teachings, but it is their own falling short, therefore something to be ignored and hidden away.

  • An orthodox Jewish woman gets married and has children with an orthodox Jewish man who she no feelings for, even though she is in love with a reform Jewish man. She has been taught that good orthodox girls can only marry good orthodox men no matter how they feel. She can’t accept that her feelings or believe that her genuine love can possibly be in dialogue with her faith. She is never herself with her family, and the family is never as close as it could be. Sshe is often depressed, hopeless, and feels disconnected from others.

As I see it, there are two sides to the spiritual closet, the "in-door" and the "out-door."

The “in-door” is the closet where we keep our spirituality hidden from others. It is the story of the first two examples above.

In the so called “intellectual” northeast being a person of faith can be viewed negatively. People will hide their spiritual beliefs from others so they will not be viewed as ignorant, superstitious or old fashioned. Those who are followers of traditional religions can be viewed as old fashioned and too traditional. They can be seen as dull and not creative. People who follow eastern or more new age spirituality can be viewed as ungrounded and superficial. If you take a yoga practice too seriously, you’re a hippie, if you don’t eat meat on Friday during lent, you are old fashioned. Someone might also choose to be closet if their religion/spiritual practice is very different from others around them. There might be some huge disadvantage being “out” such as in the case of being the only Muslim in southern bible belt town or the only Baptist in a small, almost completely Mormon, Utah town.

What I call the “out-door” closet describes hiding the experiences and insights you have gathered in your life from being in active dialogue with your spirituality. Many people believe that the tradition, ritual, rules, etc, of their spirituality are the “real” truths and their lived experience must always take a back seat to the tradition. In the scenario above, the last two examples are of the “out-door.” Even though their experience of using birth control is actually a very good one in the context of their marriage, they would not dream of putting that truth up against the Vatican teaching on birth control. This line of thinking says that church must be right and the lived experience must be wrong.

I will never forget something someone once said in a class I was taking “most people would rather believe in a good religion where they fall short than believe they might be right and their religion might be wrong.” We somehow feel more in control blaming ourselves rather than an unjust teaching or bad doctrine.

It is the spiritual equivalent of what happens to battered children, namely surviving trauma. From birth through childhood children are dependant on those who parent them for everything from love to food. The child’s nature means that s/he will do everything s/he can to survive and thrive. Children need their parents to love and care for them, no matter how abusive those parents may be. Children who are abused have to love their abusers to survive. The problem comes when they grow up and they can’t out grow loving the abuser. Often times they then find themselves in abusive relationships because those kinds of relationships they feel loving to them. It is the same reason I think parents who stay in an unhappy marriage “for the sake of the children” aren’t doing the kids any favors…but that is for another blog entry…

I think many of our religious traditions have abused us. As adults we know better, yet we do nothing, because the religion can’t be wrong, only our experience can be wrong. Even when our experience tells us that a piece of doctrine is wrong, we doggedly bury that knowledge, so that we may continue to be “loved” by that faith.

During the course of my seminary education I was quite amused by the hubris implicit in the conclusions of theological debates in the early Christian church. During those times, different Christian groups debated things like the trinity and the exact nature of humanity and divinity of Jesus. What amused me was that somehow, these questions were “settled” by the councils of the church, never to be questioned again. Somehow, at sometime, somewhere, somebody looked at all the different views of trinity and Jesus’ nature and decided which were right and which were wrong; end of story.

Now perhaps you can do that in science to a degree, you can have a hypothesis, test it and come up with a scientific law or theory, but in theology? To me, the task of every spiritual person is revisit all the questions of their faith as if they were exploring them for the first time. I don’t believe that we should ignore history and tradition, but nor should be assume the conclusions of the past must be our conclusions and must be the higher truth.

Take for example slavery. It is quite clear that the bible, at the very best, says nothing negative about slavery as an institution. At worse, the bible appears to support the institution. While slavery in America was a different institution than the one that existed in biblical times, many preachers who supported slavery before and during the civil war in the US used the bible to support their case. Quite honestly, it is very easy to build a strong case for the institution of slavery using the bible. In order to hold on to the bible as a spiritual tool and do what is right and just, you have bring our own sense of right and wrong to the reading of the bible…That is coming OUT of the spiritual closet, that is saying this holy book and the sacredness of human wisdom and experience MUST talk to one another.

One often heard saying is that one should never talk about politics or religion. One of the reasons is to avoid uncomfortable conversions and conflict, but I believe we also avoid these discussions because we are uncomfortable discussing the spiritual. I think that many people are much more uncomfortable talking about their personal experience of the divine than they are about sex. Part of this is because we have not learned to respect and learn from the spiritual differences among people. We don’t know how to be both passionate and committed to our beliefs without somehow degrading someone else who believes completely differently. Some people think that it is impossible, that if you are really committed to your faith you can’t believe someone else could also be right.

I have to say, I couldn’t disagree more.

I think that one can be committed to a spiritual path, all the while acknowledging that in the realm of spiritual exploration there is ALWAYS more to learn and that learning is a spiritual task. The only way to deeply explore your faith is to know it could be wrong and be willing to let it go. Working a seminary, I have seen this process happen again and again. As seminary students begin to study the work of different theologians and learn different ways to study the bible, they find the way they think of their faith is radically shaken. While I have seen this cause people to change faiths or give up on religious faith altogether, more often than not I see people retain their faith, but with new eyes. They mature and “come out.”

We can live a life of a faith without being rigid; we can learn a healthy spiritual humility that is both more open and flexible. We have the option, the ability, to bring all of who we are to our spiritual explorations. We also have the option of seeing our faith, our spirituality less as membership in club and more as tool we have at our disposal to explore and uncover the truths that live in our experiences on this earth.

My favorite way to revision faith is music... thank you Bobby McFerrin

23rd Psalm- written for his mother


  1. Chris,

    Your comment about the 'in' and 'out' doors to the closet as spiritual, emotional, and social levers is quite resonate. Sadly, not everyone feels called to the vocation of being fully human. The courage required to be self-aware and to challenge others by pushing them into being confused or disturbed - is beyond what many are capable of doing. My hope is that by challenging us all to imagine first - than hearts and minds can get away from the need to act and categorize instantaneously.

  2. In my own humble opinion, and through my own experience and challenges I faced, to overcome these kind of difficulties and miserable circumstances, I suggest to pray hard. as saying goes, seek and you will find, knock and the doors will be opened, Repent and be humble at all times, for God sacrifices his Son to die on the cross so that our sins will be forgiven. Do good deeds.
    Spiritual insights