Saturday, March 24, 2012

Residual Christianity and Your Self

Who are you?  On the surface, that's an easy question to answer, but the truth is far more complex once you start to examine yourself.  In fact, the more you examine yourself, the more likely you are to figure out that you do not have a true, singular "self" in the traditional sense of the word.

(If this is somewhat of a new concept to you, Sabio Lantz made an excellent post regarding our many selves which will be a good primer.  Also, note that I'm not a psychologist.  So believe me at your own peril, and chastise me at your will.  Thanks!)

It's not that you have multiple selves either; at least not discrete selves which can be easily segregated from one another.  They often bump, overlap, and conjoin each other.

You may object, because if these selves can't be segregated, then can't we say that there is a singular self?  Such an objection has some validity, but only if we broaden the definition of self to be on the fringes of an incoherent, dissonant mess of an identity.  Ironically, thinking in terms of having many selves is an intuitively useful tool of understanding your own full identity.  At least, part of me thinks that.  ;-)

Just ask yourself (metaphorically speaking) if you've ever had a difficult time trying to make a major decision in your life.  The pros and cons you came up with may very well have represented competing desires sourced from different selves (or if I could coin a term; self-concepts).  A classic example from our times is trying to decide between career versus family interests.

Even in superficial matters, multiple self-concepts is so intuitive that Kellog's ran a commercial in 1988 for Frosted Mini-Wheats where various adults spoke about the wholesome goodness of the mini-wheats, which then cut to children in the same adult clothing expressing that "the kid in me" liked the delicious frosting.

With this complex interrelation of self-concepts, when there is a major change in one of those self-concepts, it can have ripple effects across your other self-concepts, and your other self-concepts can strive to frustrate those changes.

How about an example for clarification?  Divorce.  If you are divorced, or know someone who became divorced while you knew them, you may know exactly what this means.  Being a husband or a wife is far from being a single-dimensional role.  It permeates so many different factors in your life; everything from where you'll choose to live, to where you'll travel, to what risks you are willing to take, to what food you'll eat, etc.

Then comes the threat of divorce.  Your adventurer self-concept may revel in the opportunity which will be afforded after you get free from the "ball and chain" of your spouse.  Yet your nest-building, home-making self-concept may panic at the thought of losing both the support and stability provided by your spouse and the future you had planned together, so you consider trying to mend the divide between you, despite whatever serious issues may be driving you apart.  And so on.  And so on.

More importantly to our topic here, however, is that these types of deep self-concept changes can have residual effects, both pleasant and unpleasant.  Continuing with the example, a year after the divorce is final, perhaps you may find yourself standing on a mountaintop, and the thought hits you, "if I was still married, I wouldn't be here today, having climbed to this glorious peak."  Later, you may find yourself dining at a restaurant, drinking a glass of wine alone, where, seated at a table across from you, is a darling elderly couple, still delighting in each other's company after all these years, and you think "That could have been us.  That should have been us."  Your one "self," appreciating what is, yet grieving for what was; tying both perspectives back to the former state of marriage.  Despite the change which has occurred, there is a residual self-concept of a married person within you, and many of your other self-concepts are influenced by and compared against that residual concept.

As we've seen, being married encompasses much more than simply saying "I do," and, ahem, consummation.  It intermingles with your beliefs, your plans, and your several aspects of your identity.  Similarly, but on a much larger scale, being a Christian involves much more than simply believing that Jesus died for your sins.  It is a world view which exerts influence over many of your competing and coexisting self-concepts.

Some examples of crossover influences are:  Your career-minded self-concept may come to understand the transient nature of all human achievement, and in turn you may discard or re-prioritize that self-concept, or even change its focus to seeking achievement for God.  Your parenting self-concept may also change priorities and delights, from trying to raise a robustly healthy child, to focusing on introducing your child to the love of Christ and delight in sharing the glory of God.  (This is not to imply that it must be either-or relationship, just to establish priorities, understanding that those priorities affect the choices we make.) And so on.  And so on.  In this way, we can see that when you are a Christian, your Christian self-concept touches on many other self-concepts. 

Deconversion from Christianity is not an instantaneous matter.  It may be an instant of emotional epiphany or the fruition of careful study which changes your belief of whether or not Jesus died for your sins, but discarding that surface belief and the associated label is far easier than actually discarding your Christianity.  Similar to the situation of divorce noted above, a residual Christian self-concept lingers behind.  Some parts of that self-concept can change almost automatically, like no longer thinking that Jesus may be showing up at any moment, and no longer treating a minister with more respect than you would anyone else.  However, much of it will remain unchanged, such as the way that you may still identify that there is a transient nature to all human achievement, and the way that the beautiful essence of a favorite Christmas carol may still pull at your heart-strings.  Your residual Christian self-concept will still long for the wondrous fantasies the myth provides, such as the hope of reuniting with your lost loved ones in the hereafter.

For some who lose their faith, aspects of that residual Christian self-concept can be enticing enough to lure them back to the faith after the initial chaos of the loss of faith settles down, in much the same way that sometimes divorced couples decide to get back together.

For others who lose their Christian faith, they will never go back, but their residual Christian self-concept endures regardless.  So the question becomes how do you deal with that?  The right answer for you probably depends a lot on your individual experience and temperament.  Here are some of those answers:

  1. One way that some people deal with it is through a "rebound faith," just like a rebound relationship after a breakup or divorce.  They'll renounce Christianity only to trade it for a different faith, like Islam or Buddhism.  To some extent, this can drown out the cries from the residual Christian self-concept, but, like a rebound relationship, it only goes so far.  Plus, you may be creating another persistent self-concept to lug around with you the rest of your days!
  2. Others make take up another faith in earnest.  Valuing the spiritual experiences felt in Christianity, they may focus their spiritual journey on another faith in a different sense than being a mere rebound.  I would guess that some subset of these people take the path of Universalism.  This approach can help modify the Christian self-concept into something more loving, open, and generalized, such that I suspect those who take this path have no issue with their residual Christian.  (Ironically, there are a few relatively modern Christian denominations which have taken on a Univeralist slant, claiming that Jesus is not the only way to Salvation.)  Another subset may delve more into the notion of Gnosticism.
  3. Still others trade causes, swapping evangelizing for politics, or for equality rights, or for their careers, etc.  Similar to the faith trades mentioned above, this can be a simple attempt at substitution and suppression, or this can be an earnest pursuit which is afforded now with the time freed from worship and/or the release of Christian social mores.  In either case, this does little to address the residual Christian self-concept other than to distract you from it for some time.
  4. Others may do nothing at all regarding their residual Christian self-concept.  This can be is a very difficult path to take.  With the Christian self-concept permeating so many other self-concepts, the echos of that former life will persist seemingly ad infinitum.  Only time and the diversion of thought from this self-concept serve to gradually lessen its affects.
  5. Finally, and what I believe may be the best approach, others choose to tackle their Christian self-concept through a process of demystification.  It involves introspection, flipping from a concentration on what you believed to a study on why you believed it.  I'm not talking about the banal mechanics of how you came to be a Christian, such as your parents bringing you up to be a Christian.  I'm referring to examining why you wanted to believe in Christianity; the social aspects, the hope for justice, your emotional connection to Jesus' story, etc.  The process also involves extrospection, observing and learning from others how they are affected by similar themes, and why they believe in their religions.

    The fruit of such contemplation is a deeper understanding of yourself and your fellow humans.  You can appreciate the beauty of faith and simultaneously see its darker paths.  You can ascertain the attraction of the myths, and appropriately put them in their place as such.  With such understanding, the residual Christian self-concept can be elegantly relegated to being a phase in your life's journey, like that of your childhood or your first love.

    The Christian self-concept will remain, bubbling up occasional remembrances, but you can behold them in a similar fashion to the gripping storyline of a good book or movie, yet with a richness of personal experience of having played a role in that story.
Realize that these paths may be combined, each handling some aspects of the residual Christian self-concept.  Most importantly, realize that these paths really represent processes, not instant answers.  It takes time to sort through your own complexities.  So get comfortable, and enjoy the trip of self(-concept) discovery.


  1. I love the topic of self concept. I appreciate the way you bring to light the complexity of it. I like your term "residual Christian." It made me smile.

    As a psychologist, I have no need to chastise you for your discussion of multiple selves. IN fact, one approach to therapy I use is "internal family systems" where I ask people to identify different parts of themselves and interact with them to help work through certain issues.

    I suppose I'm dealing with my semi-deconversion with a mixture of 2 and 5. I have a personality that is quite drawn to the spiritual and transcendent (whatever that means), so I found myself meditating and listening to lectures on mindfulness as my prayer life and church attendance dropped. I'm also introspective by nature, so that comes with the territory. I will forever be fascinated with religion and why we believe what we do and how we express our need to connect with something beyond ourselves.

  2. @ TWF

    (1) Thanx:
    Thanks for the mention.

    (2) Persistent Beliefs
    Erroneous Beliefs persists even when shown clearly wrong.
    But more than that, even when we (read: part of our many selves) admits that they no longer believe something, the neuron connections don't die, they just lose some strength and can surprise us at any moment.

    (3) Options
    I enjoyed your list of options. A model that helps me understand why people take different routes, can be seen in my drawing here: "Your Modular God"
    It depends (as you alluded) how your religion served you, as to which modules will be simply turned toward different objects and which are weakened and which may be strengthened. It is all very complex -- as always, no simple solution.

  3. @DoOrDoNot
    Thanks! Your approach regarding "internal family systems" sounds like a really elegant and practical way of helping people process their lives.

    I suppose I was a little biased in my recommendation of 5, as I have had a woeful lack of spirituality in my life. But I've known enough people who have had that spiritual perception, so I can see how paths 2 and 5 would blend quite harmoniously. And I think I'll share that same fascination with you, and (who knows?) may yet awaken my spiritual side.

    (1) - You are quite welcome!

    (2) - I had heard about the persistence of beliefs, and, heck, even experienced it first-hand a time or two. :-) But I had not yet read about or considered the actual, physical neuron connections. Excellent point!

    (3) - Thanks. There are probably options I missed, and I have a nagging feeling like option 2 needs to be fleshed out a little better, but I think it's a good start, anyway.

    I had made it to your Modular God post before, and really enjoyed it.

  4. Loosing your faith is traumatic, like suddenly being naked in the world. The principals, rationality and meaning that you still desire are bound up in that Christian self image, and at some point you realize that throwing that to the side requires excising some part of the core of your humanity. I could not give that up, I didn't like what was left because I had been that before (unlike you I was not raised in it). So you live half in/half out.
    There is another path which is less like re-marriage than growing up. Just as your relationship with you parents change as you mature your relationship with your heavenly father changes too. The piece parts of the "modular God" change from a childish self-focus to the integrated God of of the universe. Still viewed imperfectly but with less of yourself in the way.
    This path has its dangers too, because now that you are thinking for yourself you need to be more careful about keeping on the path. Mommy and Daddy are not holding your hand anymore. Eventually you find that the old ways work for a reason, there really is wisdom in the book.

    Mary Doria Russell has an exchange between two characters at the end of her book "Children Of God". One recounts to another the story of Exodus 33 where God hides Moses in the rock and passes by. She takes the narrative from the physical to the time domain - " time goes on ... we'll understand. We'll see where He was". This too is a common Christian testimony.

    David Holland

  5. @David Holland
    Thanks for sharing your experience, David. I didn't know, or didn't remember, that you had your own crisis of faith. I appreciate hearing another side of the story, and a different perspective.

    I think you make an excellent observation regarding the "childish self-focus" that many immature Christians have. Unfortunately, I don't think that they all grow up. :-( It's a shame, too, because I usually find mature Christians, as you've described them, to be the most amicable kind.

    Regarding your closing comment, it seems to me that such analysis is perhaps one of the easiest ways to fool yourself. Like in my recent post regarding Harold Camping, he claimed that despite him being wrong about the apocalypse, God had still used them to spread His word and get people reading the Bible. On the other hand, examining history is often the best way to determine what was really going on in the chaos of the previous time. Just be careful about false positives. ;-)

    1. In the About page - Death and Resurrection, another story old as time :-)

      WRT Mr. Camping I think Romans 6:1 about covers that.

      I am still having trouble with my creds here so it's anonymous again.

  6. Something that I experience, which drives me nuts, is feeling like the two different (very loosely held) faiths I have are often the rebound for the other.

    Paganism is my rebound from Christianity and Christianity is my rebound from paganism, because neither structure fits me well.

    At this point I find myself blending the two, but not in any way that I've found anywhere else. Alas - I walk a lonely path. ;-)

    I'm definitely in the process of your number 5 approach above.

  7. @Kay
    Hi Kay! Your experience is really interesting. Thanks for sharing! I can only imagine what it's like to have that kind of internal dialog.

    But, I don't think you're walking as lonely a path as you may think. You may have a unique "brand," but I think I've bumped into several people now on the same kind of path. And I too am exploring the aspect of an interconnectedness, even if I am fiercely skeptical of it at the same time. :-)

    So don't think of your self as walking a lonely path. Rather, think of yourself as trailblazing. ;-)

  8. I wondered what this machete was for. :-D

  9. The many selves idea is useful in that it helps us deal with our desire for explanations, but I've been wondering lately if it is incomplete. Our thoughts / beliefs / behaviours are terribly inconsistent but we desire a consistent self. Failing that, we make ourselves a little more complex and explain how we can change, be many, and yet remain 'ourselves'. Still though, where one self ends and another begins can be arbitrary, a line drawn to make up an explanation but not necessarily from a 'real' boundary.

    I've been playing with the idea of stochastics lately in relation to our 'self'. Taking measures over time (reflecting upon our 'selves') produces both signal and noise (consistent and inconsistent behaviours). It also allows for randomness and in-determinable moments.

    Personally, I feel like I have residual christianity still in me, but because my family's christianity was itself (apparently) a kind of outlier, I grew up with things being very fuzzy to begin with. I've yet to find much that cleans my signal of the messy noise within my selves (or compels me to be less messy :-).

    I like your use of the words introspection and extrospection. Nice.

  10. @Andrew
    Thanks man!

    I would completely agree that multiple selves is an imperfect model, but I am not so sure that it is necessary to worry too much about where the line is drawn regarding which self is which self on trivial matters. Rather the tool helps us understand the warring or cooperating factions in our minds which are complicating and biasing our decisions.

    That would be an awesome self-tracking experiment. I have tried to start a very simplistic version, just tracking my moods, several times. However, I can never seem to commit to getting more than a few days' worth of data. Doh!

    About your messiness, maybe you do not need to worry about it. Sometimes great opportunity arises from chaos. :-)

  11. Well written.

    I am finding that number 3 is helping me with number 5. As I am more free to learn which causes I care about, I am more free to examine my priorities and why I care about certain things more than others. Part of my connection with Christianity was that I saw it as a noble cause and path for creating a utopian society.

    I agree, as Sabio points out, knowledge does not always change those brain patterns.

  12. Thank you prarienymph!

    Your path here is an excellent point which I neglected to mention, or at least failed to really flesh out. Christianity can be a noble cause, and that aspect is certainly one which appealed to me, too. Although, knowing the little bit of your history that I do, you far surpassed me in that Utopian pursuit! :-) But I think I can understand where you are coming from with your comment. Thanks for sharing that!