Good religion promotes healthy self-reflection. An examined life provides opportunity for growth, understanding and an increase in our ability to bring our fullness of self to some usefulness in the world.
But that’s not the religion most of us are part of. Slowly, self-reflection has become self-obsession and our religion has turned bad while we’ve been looking in the mirror.
In early 2016, the reports started to filter into mainstream journalism stating what some youth workers have suspected for a longer time – Western Millennials are suffering from anxiety at a higher rate than any previous generation.
Plenty of psychological causes have been identified – the rate of information flow thanks to a connected world, global influence of political and economic turmoil, housing crises and the inevitable finger-pointing at social media influenced status anxiety. Instability in family and social structures that reflect change at a higher rate than ever before. And I would argue these influences apply to Generation X and Baby-boomers but the contextual medication and solutions to this anxiety has changed.
My parents come from a suck-it-up and carry-on generation – the Baby-boomers. War and severe economic crisis are still a tangible memory. Things are not as bad as they have been in the world. But our definition of bad has climbed up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
And why? When we have more problem-solving power than ever before, why is hope so hard to find and why are our church communities full of people suffering so? Religion should be a place of redemptive hope and positive counsel to these cycles that lead to depression, substance abuse and long-term psychological therapies. Right?
Turned into something else
But the Church has taken healthy self-reflection and turned into self-obsession. We’ve become believers that we are all obliged to be heroes in the Christian meta-narrative. The evangelical Church has propagated the belief we all have a unique calling. Our worship songs are all about self. Our quiet times are about finding personal contentment, personal fulfilment, personal calling, personal purpose.
I’d suggest that our churches are full of faith practice that is obsessed with the individual instead of the collective. We need to spend less time looking in the mirror and more time looking out the window. We need to more obsessed with good outcomes for our neighbours than ourselves.
What’s the first thing I encourage my young people or my friends to do when they start to feel anxious about a situation in their life? To talk to someone, to partner with someone and to do something outside of themselves.
I encourage those who long for children to invest in the children of others. For the lonely to invest their time with the lonely. To view your anxiety or your fear of what you may not become or may not have or may not feel assurance of as your capacity to give to someone else.
Am I saying there’s no place for depression and anxiety in the Church? Actually no. Firstly, depression and anxiety are natural parts of the human experience. Read the Psalms. Feel the relief of recognizing this is a centuries old human condition. But where our religion has turned rotten is defining the Gospel in individual terms.
Not that one is saved but that all may have salvation. Have you seen a more anxious and fearful group of Christians than the far-right evangelicals of the United States?
Those who would gladly turn away the poorest and most needy of our neighbours because their fear about personal security has stomped over the heart of the Gospel. Where is the widow who gave her last pennies? Where is the boy who shared his lunch of bread and fish?
Worn away with anxiety
I see Christians worn away with anxiety because they can’t perceive a religion that is more for Others than themselves. That’s bad religion.
I have learned that the work of my hands matters nothing. A sense of personal call or mission is helpful yes, but when it’s missing I don’t go searching for it… I already know what to turn my hands to the minute they are empty. I turn my hands to the timeless mission of God on earth, for the sake of others. So all may be saved.
The best religion I ever found was in the Word, made flesh in a middle eastern man of no fixed abode with a reputation for being a troublemaker in the temple courts.
He would be welcome at my door anytime.
Tash McGill (Auckland NZ) wants to change the world by helping people to think differently. Sometimes described as courageous by her friends, she frequently says aloud what no-one else is brave or stupid enough to say. She also finds writing third-person biographies uncomfortable.
Tash McGill's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/tash-mcgill.html