The Protestant Neurosis

Today we heard in church that “our significance is based not on what do or are, but on the fact that God loves us.”  That we have “a forgiveness-based relationship with God, not a performance based relationship”.  

This is the decision  that created Protestantism.   And our churches spend enormous amounts of energy reminding ourselves of it, Sunday after Sunday, decade after decade.   We must have a formidable impulse to forget it, which is ineradicable and nearly stronger than any other part of our psyche.  Is this impulse to want to be something, do something, have God like us because we did something good — is this impulse the very definition of evil, from God’s point of view, or is this our humanity acting ineradicable like the God who put it in us?  

It’s all got the smell of a neurosis about it.   The empirical reality is that most evangelical souls find a significance based only on God’s love wholly inadequate, and don’t actually live that way, anyway.   You don’t constantly re-affirm and remind yourself of something that you actually believe.  And when the concept which you have tagged with the name of “grace” requires constant effort to not deny, you have a symptom of some deep-seated illusion.   Basically sane people can’t choose to be neurotic without much effort. And Protestant piety is literally suffused with inner work, in the service of a neurosis whose purpose is, in turn, to avoid outer work.

Like in most systems created in reaction to something else, we threw out the baby of nature with the bathwater of works.   The second adam, who kills the first and supplants him (thankfully), is not less substantive than the first, but more  – does not do less than the first, but more.  

What we construct in our religious imagination we reject in the daylight world. Do we really want God to relate to us like the drug addict wants all those around him to relate to him? Just forgive him over and over for decades, never expecting him to change, and just be there when he needs something.  Do you really want someone you love to remain broken, but forgiven?  In real life, this pattern gets old quick and is discarded in favor of intervention. You may never abandon your addict friend (in that sense, love is unconditional) but you will not find a healthy place for the two of you to stand until you start imposing conditions on your help. Health always follows conditions. The removal of all conditions is the very definition of pathology in every other known relation between persons (listen to it: “deconditioned”). You’d never want to practice this kind of hollow, docetic love in real life: in real life your love is indistinguishable from your passion for the object of your love to get better.  

Now obviously this passion to see the beloved get better is fraught with the possibility of neuroses and abuses all its own. That literature fills libraries. “Better” is a loaded term, etc. But the abuse does not discredit the reality.

Love is unconditioned. But the more real it is, the more it demands, and so produces, better conditions.

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