Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Bowling for Jesus: Mature Faith and Mental Health

A picture of one of the Jesus Camp kids, courtesy of Rottentomatoes.com


I just got back from a really wonderful Alumni/ae Day at my dear old Harvard Divinity School where I was fortunate enough to study theology, pastoral care and religious education. One of the cool things that happened was a screening of the documentary film Jesus Camp that profiles an evangelical youth minister in Missouri and some of the children who she is seeking to transform into spiritual warriors for Christ. I highly recommend that every one, particularly every Baha'i who reads this post, should go out and rent this film and get some friends together and watch it. I don't want to spoil it so will just provide a really brief summary to wet your appetite. The film is bookended by the political struggle over the appointment of Judge Samuel Alieto to the Supreme Court and its implications for the future of abortion. Within this context we are introduced to a variety of key figures in the drama that unfolds, the charismatic female youth minister who runs the "camp", a radio host who thunders about the dangers represented by the "religious right" and a boy and a girl who both embody what the camp is intended to create, children who are devoted and righteous disciples of Christ who will hopefully win their generation for the Lord. There are several really interesting moments where these two children offer personal testimony of their faith and how it shapes their view of the world. You get to see these children at home, in social settings (the girl at one point asks Jesus to help her with her bowling) and of course at the camp. The camp is an intense example of children's education and has almost a boot camp feel to it. You get to see children preaching, which if you haven't seen is pretty powerful and involved in ecstatic, highly emotional prayer. It is riveting to watch if a bit disturbing at some moments.

Watching this film made me reflect on some of the previous writing I've done on what constitutes mature religious faith. You can read some of that here and here. It also got me thinking about how that may relate mental health, which is my other passion in life. As I've said before, mature religious faith involves a balance between integrity and flexibility, the maintenance of which is actually written into the very constitution of the Universal House of Justice. It occurred to me that what I refer to as integrity and flexibility in a spiritual sense is what some psychologists refer to as ego strength and adaptability. Ego strength as I understand it involves the capacity of the ego to maintain its "shape" if you will in the face of internal and external stressors, as well as its ability to perform functions essential to a healthy mind. One of these functions is adaptability, namely the capacity to make changes according to the diverse needs the dynamic reality of between self, others, and the world. Both mature faith and mental health demand balance and it is the absence of such balance which is manifest as both spiritual and psychological pathology. Certain forms of religious fundamentalism could be understood as a psychological defense against the perceived threat of disintegration of the ego by hostile internal and external stressors. As such it is an attempt at adaptation, that is spiritually immature and should evoke compassion rather than contempt. It would not surprise me if both the children and adults featured in this film would exhibit signs of mental health difficulties if I met them in person. Understand that I am making a psychospiritual assessment and not a moral judgment as to them being "good" or "bad" people because of their beliefs, attitudes or behavior. As someone about to work on his doctorate, I will hopefully have a chance to explore these ideas further, but I'll stop for now.

So all you people interested in religion and/or psychology, what do you think?