Recently I talked with someone who has been progressing in their spiritual journey but who is struggling to overcome the negative theology of his upbringing. While he has left the church of his childhood, he still has a hard time accepting God’s love and grace. When accused by someone in the church of his youth or unfaithfulness and heresy for leaving, he realizes that while intellectually, he believes that God is love, but in his heart, he is still haunted by a theology of condemnation and judgment.
Father Richard Rohr acknowledges that we need a container, a way to develop our ego as a moral, religious person. It helps us understand our self-worth to know intellectually that God loves us. But if our religion gets stuck in morality codes, in acting out of “Christian duty,” we never move beyond fear of punishment as the motivator for our acts. It’s like when we tell a small child that if they run out into the street one more time, we will punish them. Until the child is old enough to know how to discern when it is okay to walk into the street, we set parameters with punishment as a guide.
But what happens when the child is older, able to cross the street on his own? It is ridiculous to then continue to enforce a standard inappropriate for the child’s level of maturity. Why do we think it is appropriate for our spiritual lives to stagnate at the mentality of a toddler?
A fear-based theology treats individuals as spiritual toddlers. It demands obedience out of threat of punishment rather than motivating people to act rightly out of deep love for God. Most fear-based theology is more subtle than “You’re going to hell if you do/don’t do __fill in the blank__. It still operates from a threat of judgment as it encourages compliance to moral codes by asking, “What will God say about your behavior when you get to heaven?”
If our obedience is extracted from a shame and fear-based system of belief, how can we possibly love God and accept that God loves us? As John, the beloved disciple says in his first epistle: There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18).
As we grow spiritually, we learn that the ego, while necessary early in our religious formation, becomes a barrier to transformation. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection give us the example for our spiritual development—we have to die to self (the death of ego) if we are to experience new life. Thomas Merton spoke of this transformation in terms of shattering the false self so that the True Self is revealed. As Rohr says, the True Self is all about right relationship, not requirements. When we are in right relationship with ourselves, we can then be in right relationship with others. It is why loving self is the only path to loving neighbor.