Churchy Exceptionalism Part 2: Or, Hearing the Critiques from Spiritual Trauma

Churchy Exceptionalism Part 2: Or, Hearing the Critiques from Spiritual Trauma

So I posted a meme on the AS Facebook page, in concert with an article introducing the concept of churchy exceptionalism, stating the ways some people find the term “blessed” distasteful as used in some contexts. In light of the article, I found the virulence of some of the defensive responses extremely ironic and illustrative. Someone even suggested that the the project was “deny[ing] God” by posting the meme. <insert horrified face emoji here> So yeah, this kind of moment, folks, is a great illustration of how spiritual trauma gets continually perpetuated through churchy exceptionalism.

Thanks for hanging with me as I explain.

How the Spiritual Trauma Cycle Happens

Okay, so I couldn’t have asked for a better illustration of how all of this churchy exceptionalism business I’ve been talking about works. See, the person in question who made that comment presumed that his (it was indeed a he, though others of other gender identities were defensive as well) interpretation of the word “blessed” was right.

And like that, a page called Assertive Spirituality, that I consciously founded with the idea of making space for those who are uncomfortable in houses of worship–including and especially those experiencing spiritual trauma from more churchy spaces–gets accused of being “against God.” All by posting a meme that doesn’t even mention God.

Why Such a Strong Reaction?

I’m not going to go too deep into the complex theologies behind the word “blessed.” But because I grew up around this kind of thinking, I can probably explicate what he was thinking fairly well, so I’ll give his commenter’s thinking a quick guess.

See, the meme suggested that it might be good to decrease our usage of the word “blessed” when what we mean is that “we’re privileged.”

Guessing What He Might Have Been Thinking

In certain schools of churchy culture, it’s seen as a marker not of pride or privilege, but of humility, to use the word “blessed.”

The argument goes that we aren’t to claim anything for ourselves or for chance but to “give God the glory” for all things by using words like “blessed.”

Where the Conflict Lies

The problem, of course, is that ironically when the word is used this way, not everyone reads it as a sign of humility, or giving it over to God.

Sometimes it’s used instead as a sign of arrogance, or churchy exceptionalism–of claiming to be more in God’s favor because of what you have, either materially or in terms of family and friends, etc.

Of, ironically, claiming to be closer to God than those who may use other more seemingly “secular” language.

And let’s be clear: both things can absolutely be true at once. And sometimes one is more predominant than the other. Either way, those in the church would do well to be on guard for the latter usages, at the very least.

So yeah, since the commenter who believed the meme was “against God” had his spiritual identity all wrapped up in his read of what the term meant to him. And was naturally finding the idea that it could mean the opposite thing to others as anathema.

Learning to Recognize the Patterns Is Half the Battle

Note that I’m in no way suggesting that the only way to use this word is the latter way. And I’m not suggesting that person who made the critique is some sort of horrible person. Believe me, I’ve been there, as I discussed last week.

But yeah, I’m just saying this is exactly what I was talking about last week when I was defining the kinds of churchy exceptionalism that can create and reinforce spiritual trauma. When churchy things and our association with them seems to make us “closer to God,” it’s easy to get defensive when those who have spiritual trauma from the same concepts point out their abuses.

Only a “Hospital” for Those Unwounded by Spiritual Trauma?

Church leaders have long liked to claim the saying that the church isn’t a place for the perfect, but a hospital for the wounded.

Unfortunately, that kind of defensiveness I just described about sacred concepts can leave the church as this environment where only those who have been wounded by things outside the church can feel comfortable. This, unfortunately, is how spiritual bullying gets perpetuated, as well as complicity with broader societal forces that are unhealthy, especially when they work their way into the church and its theologies.

If someone’s been deeply hurt in incidents using this language, it causes more harm to insist it’s ONLY a good and holy and sacred word, etc. (And, well, that’s not a very humble or holy thing to do, let’s be honest–it’s claiming your own sense of goodness as more important than caring for someone who’s been wounded.).

Breaking It Down in God Terms/Devil Terms

So yeah, in god term/devil term language, that means that clearly the “churchy” person’s interpretation is taken by them to be “godly” and unfortunately defended at all costs over and against the person who is presenting an alternate view, who is seen to be “against God.” (I previously spoke about how right-wing rhetoric abuses this “against God” concept here.)

How Sacred Language and Concepts Become Wrapped Up with Identities

And as a scholar of communication focusing on stress, trauma, and conflict communication who grew up as a pastor’s kid, I know just how d*mned easy it is to internalize things that we associate with spirituality as identity markers.

See, too often we see sacredness as expressed in the “right theology” or the “right set of spiritual practices” or the “right use of sacred language” as the thing that gains us access to that close relationship with God (for those who believe in theistic spirituality, that is).

Hm…Not What WWJD

Ironically, Jesus preached against this kind of thing a lot. I mean, he talked all the time about how people like Samaritans (who at the time were seen as despised heretics by the religious sorts of Jesus’ day) were actually more righteous than the religious types of that day.

So my childhood was filled with sermons against this kind of thing.

And yet we still practiced it. It’s pretty hard not to let it seep in, this idea that if you’re more engaged with the church and its practices and use more of its language that you’re better than those who are less so.

Hmmm, But Language Is Always Ambiguous

The problem from a communication scholarship standpoint, of course, is that definitions of words are always ambiguous, and meaning tends to shift between people and contexts. Because that’s how language descriptively works.

We’ll be covering this at the beginning of my classes in a few weeks–some get more freaked out about that idea than others.

But yeah, if you have trouble grasping this, just think across cultures. If you are learning a new language, for instance, it’s really hard to think of the swears in that language as “bad words” because you haven’t grown up in that community and seen the negative reactions to them. (Note that I’ve written against “swear-policing” here and here.)

Gah! Communicators Can’t Always Control the Meaning

Because of this, there are no silver bullets in communication. Because language is always interpreted in community, a communicator doesn’t have full control on how people take them, because meaning is co-created between communicators and their audiences as well as shaped by their interpretive contexts.

So yeah, those who comfortably reside in a church and unwounded by churches may find a word or theology just fine, while others, whether in the church or outside, may have been hurt by the same word.

And when churchy exceptionalism intervenes, those who are inside the church tend to presume their views of these words are somehow more valid than those who are uncomfortable with them. Which, well, becomes a form of gaslighting of rightful concerns about spiritual abuse of various kinds. Which unfortunately in turn either creates or reinforces spiritual trauma.

How Churchy Exceptionalism Too Often Pours Salt in Wounds

Interestingly from a scholarly perspective, this kind of assumption often becomes paired with the idea that those inside the church have more knowledge and expertise about said “sacred language” or theology than the person who may disagree with it.

And often, let’s be clear–that’s simply wrong, especially in recent years.

Stop the Splaining to the Spiritually Traumatized!

Catholics and Protestants alike who are leaving the church because they feel unsafe there after sexual abuse scandals don’t somehow lose all of their knowledge about the church and theology because they left.

In the same way, all the people who left right-wing churches in recent years because of Christian nationalism don’t suddenly know less about what the Bible says than those who stayed in any kind of church.

And yeah, there’s nothing worse than having someone “churchy splain” concepts to you when you’re experiencing spiritual trauma from spiritual concepts you understand perfectly well. Need I even say how ironic this is from a perspective of someone who sees Jesus as pushing the envelope on the questions of “sacred vs. secular” all the time?

The truth is, that from a communication scholarship perspective, we will only have healthy communication climates in churches when we knock down this kind of strong stress response against disagreeing communication about sacred things. It’s a problem.

What a Lot of Churches Are Doing Right

I see a lot of churches acknowledging this churchy exceptionalism problem on some level. But too often it only goes skin deep, unfortunately.

A lot of churches are concerned about specific “clobber verses” and how they get abused by fundamentalist churches. Many are deeply concerned about Christian nationalism.

Let me be clear: These are incredibly worthy concerns. We absolutely need to continue these critiques, and be louder about them, to make change.

And I’m also arguing here that we must go deeper than that to really heal the problems we’re facing.

Further Up and Further In (With Thanks to CS Lewis)

Going deeper is so important. And here’s the thing–too often, the church gets so used to their own socialized interpretations of sacred language that they get really churchy exceptionalist when people suggest that some of the ways these theologies may be intentionally or unintentionally used to exploit people or put people down.

And let’s be clear: a lot of these “sacred cows” aren’t inherent in the text, but absorbed from human cultural viewpoints, some of which are used to prop up unhealthy systems at times.

For instance, even progressive churches too often take as gospel the idea that pride is a terrible thing, and that’s made it more difficult for churches to fully embrace LGBTQ+ folx who define the term differently (I talked about this here).

And yeah, the Bible talks about sin and forgiveness a lot. AND churchy interpretations of these concepts too often have been used to keep powerful abusers in places of power while further squashing those who have been marginalized and abused by them. (I talked about this here.)

And as the great Dr. King and others have pointed out, too often spiritualities that see conflict as a devil term have been used to keep unhealthy systemic issues like racism and sexism and homophobia and so on and so forth in the status quo (I talked about this in a long series including this piece).

Why It’s Easy to Get Defensive About These Theologies

I thoroughly understand how these kinds of theologies can get fused with churchy exceptionalism. After all, things like forgiveness have become so innate to the idea of Christianity that it can be easy to feel like “my faith is being critiqued” if someone is telling me that someone else is abusing them and I have to adjust or nuance my practices as a result.

Unfortunately, too much insistence on what something like “forgiveness,” or “pride,” or “sin,” etc. “really means” may end up blocking churchy Christians from listening well to those who have already been traumatized by such concepts. In doing so, you may be adding to the trauma of those who are already hurt.

Which, well, isn’t exactly ideal. As I said, it could also lead to complicity with other people or systems that may have caused the wounds.

I’m Not Saying the Church or Its Theology Are Itself a Devil Term

None of this is to say that we should sit around beating up on the church. Or that those inside the church should sit around beating up on themselves for having blind spots or areas of ignorance in these areas.

On the contrary, I’m suggesting that all churches and their leaders and members who have the ears to hear should be careful of this problem. And when they know better, they should do better.

How Churches Can Do Better

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that churches all abandon any language that could be triggering to some.

What I am suggesting is that they be aware that the spiritually traumatized may not be able to come to church, and yet that they may not necessarily be “lost” or less than as a result. In fact, listening to what they have to say can help build stronger churches that are less complicit with unhealthy cultures and dynamics.

If churches carefully check their language and attitudes fusing church attendance and engagement with spiritual excellence, that would help a lot, for a start.

How Churches Can Be More Humble and Open

What I’m suggesting, further, is that all churches should carefully look at their theologies, and be open to critiques of them by marginalized populations including those who have experienced spiritual trauma, but also other marginalized populations, and other religions, and other philosophies, etc. etc. etc. in order to understand how they too may have let their theologies be warped in ways they may not yet have come to terms with.

And, last but not least, healing this problem will involve strongly confronting and assertively fixing the problems in our midst wherever we find it, whether inside our own churches or in the church at large. And looking for churchy exceptionalism is an important start.

Let’s be clear: there’s no way the church can fix all spiritual trauma. But working on these steps will help stop the cycle.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against unhealthy dynamics wherever we find them, including inside ourselves and our most sacred beliefs, toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

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4 thoughts on “Churchy Exceptionalism Part 2: Or, Hearing the Critiques from Spiritual Trauma

  1. Great piece, I especially have come to prickle when churchy folks use the term ‘blessed’ and I’m grateful to now understand better the ‘why’ of that.

  2. I love your site and your thinking. I am a Unitarian Universalist minister and I want to ask you to marry me. So much in line with my thoughts and my ministry. thank you thank you. To your detractors they just don’t get it. You can’t explain dry land to a fish. The overly religious get so touchy for God’s sake. I think if there is a God, she would be able to take care of herself, have a sense of humor and understand my doubt.

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Churchy Exceptionali…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 10 min