A lot of discussion in the bloggernacle is about faith crisis, and one of the topics that often comes up is why some things are enough to push one person out, but not another. Depending on the individual, a new fact or experience can be a shelf breaker or result in a shrug. In this sense, our reaction to these facts and experiences is really about more than the truth or untruth of facts or the inherent acceptability of things that happen, and more about what is internal. These can reveal one’s character.

Whoa. Now, before I get any further, let’s settle down a bit about the word “character.” We tend to think of “character” as a thing that you either have or lack, that it can be bolstered by hard work, camping in the snow, and eating vegetables, and that lack of it means you aren’t a good person but having it means you are resilient. I’m actually using the term differently, so let me explain.

I’ve been reading a book by Robert Greene called The Laws of Human Nature. He uses the term “character” to simply refer to one’s nature. There is no person who “lacks character.” We all have character, formed by a mix of genetics and early experiences. Revealing and understanding our character is a life’s journey to discover and train oneself. Likewise, understanding the nature or character of others is useful in social situations and group dynamics. We develop patterns of behavior, usually unwittingly, and we don’t observe these patterns in ourselves. Sometimes the people who are closest to us notice these patterns, but good luck trying to convince us we behave this way!

In the book, he talks about 4 layers of character development:

  1. Genetic predispositions. This is wired into our DNA, our tendencies toward or away from depression, anxiety, happiness, introversion or extraversion.
  2. Earliest attachment years. This layer, which I’ll talk about more at length in this post, is about the nature of the relationship we have with our caregiver(s) at our youngest age.
  3. The next layer is the habits we develop and experiences we have as we continue to grow up. These patterns are set in our youth in response to things we encounter.
  4. The fourth layer is developed in late childhood and adolescence as we discover our own character flaws and negative patterns. We devise strategies to hide them from discovery and to shield ourselves from criticism of these flaws. We create a “front” to hide behind.

Let’s revisit #2, the character development during our earliest attachments, our earliest interactions with parents or other caregivers that often occur on a subconscious level and may not even be part of our acknowledged memories of childhood. Anthropologist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby studied patterns of parental attachment and came up with 4 types:

  1. Free / autonomous. These caregivers give their children freedom to discover, but are also protective of them and sensitive to them. These children are usually the most well adjusted feeling secure yet self-confident. They don’t fear relationships nor independence.
  2. Dismissing. These caregivers are somewhere on a continuum between merely distant or emotionally unavailable and outright hostile or rejecting of the child. Children of a dismissing parent will feel they can only rely on themselves and will wall themselves off from emotion because of a distaste for feeling dependent on another person.
  3. Enmeshed / ambivalent. These caregivers are inconsistent in their attention, at times retreating from the child due to their own anxieties or problems, and at times smothering and too involved. Children of these types of parents often take on a caregiving role toward the parent, trying to compensate for the parent’s anxieties. These children often have the same issues with anxiety in relationships, feeling ambivalent toward others, pursuing and then retreating.
  4. Disorganized. These caregivers send conflicting signals to the child, reflecting their own emotional traumas and inner conflict. Because of the chaotic feedback from these parents, a child may believe s/he cannot please the parent, nothing they do is right, and they may develop serious emotional problems as a result.

That’s not to say that one’s earliest caregivers were strictly pigeonholed. Depending on what was happening in life, a caregiver could be somewhere on a continuum for more than one of these types. Additionally, a parent will often react differently to different children, creating a different result. A mother who is dismissing and distant with a less favored child may be over-involved or smothering with a favorite. This may be particularly true in cultures that favor some types of children over others (e.g. oldest sons vs. another daughter). And parental skills can develop and change over time depending on what’s happening in the adult’s life: setbacks or windfalls, moves, losses, divorce, remarriage, etc.

So how might these types and the downstream patterns of self-preservation they engender play out in a person with a faith crisis? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Free/autonomous. A well-adjusted confident child may become an adult who can maintain a balanced perspective, weighing the discovery of unfavorable facts or negative experiences with a wealth of internal resources and confidence. They may stay or leave, but they will probably do so in a steady manner without some of the drama and angst that are the more common experience. They will expect to be supported and have confidence in their ability to make right decisions.
  2. Dismissive. The child of a dismissive parent may seek to be dispassionate and logical in assessing pros and cons of disfavorable information or experiences, but ultimately, this is a mask for fear of rejection and fear of being vulnerable. This person may seem dispassionate about religious doubts and questioning, but is ultimately afraid of being wrong, afraid of being dependent on something they now see as unreliable, afraid of opening up emotionally to spiritual experiences or frail human relationships. If they sense rejection as a result of religious disaffection, they may completely disengage from the source of rejection, be it relationships or the church itself. Or they may remain, but develop emotional distance, putting on an acceptable mask, but feeling distant and removed.
  3. Enmeshed / ambivalent. When confronted with doubts and faith crisis, the third type of child might entrench and try to defend the church to the death against its detractors, until at some point, they feel used or embittered about their efforts, and then they may quickly retreat and leave, switching to the other team as it were. They may even swing back and forth, trying to decide how to sort out their ambivalent feelings toward both the good and bad things they see and encounter in relation to the church.
  4. Disorganized. The fourth type may develop issues with compulsion and perfectionism and even become depressed or self-harming in the face of religious doubt. Eventually this person may lash out and become antagonistic and hostile unless these feelings are resolved.

This is not necessarily a perfect model for understanding one’s own response to disaffection, but is simply one more angle to consider in trying to sort through one’s own responses to doubt.

  • Is this parental attachment model useful to you?
  • Do you see yourself in any of these types?
  • Would understanding these motives help us in helping others with doubts to work through their experiences?
  • Which type do you think would be most likely to stay in the church? Which would be most likely to leave?