Finding an alternative to the anxious pursuit of happiness parading as American Christianity

In My Bright Abyss, poet and Yale professor Christian Wiman wrote, “There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us.”

I’m a psychotherapist who used to be a Baptist pastor in the Southeast. For much of my life I have believed that anxiety is not only an unfortunate byproduct of pursuing excellence in my life and work (sort of like off-gassing for the human soul) but a deeply integral component of that which secures my success. Somehow I picked up along the way that my anxiety was a reliable way of measuring how hard I was working and how seriously I was taking the next assignment, job, prayer, paper, relationship or client.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone. Of the 25 to 30 students, adults, married couples and whole families I see each week, almost nothing is more difficult to overcome than our collective commitment to the anxious pursuit of happiness at all costs. In a 2018 survey of 1,000 Americans by the American Psychiatric Association, 39 percent reported an increase in anxiety compared to the previous year; another 39 percent reported they were “equally anxious,” while only 19 percent reported a decrease in anxiety compared to the previous year.

“What if our radical okay-ness – the belief that we are wholly loved and known by the creator and sustainer of the universe independent of what we do and who we are – actually impacted our lived practice in the world as people of faith?”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in American young people, ages 10 to 24, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that one in five American children between the ages of 3 and 17 have a diagnosable mental health disorder. The average high school kid today has roughly the same levels of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s. About 8 million Americans over age 65 experience mental illness, substance abuse or both.

During what many refer to as “the best times” of our lives (adolescence and retirement), Americans are experiencing crippling shifts in anxiety, depression, suicidality and substance abuse. At a time when the economy is growing and unemployment is historically low, our best, brightest and youngest predict “the economy will be weaker in the future, health care will be less affordable, the condition of the environment will be worse and older Americans will have a harder time making ends meet than they do now.” Some 10 million Americans put in more than 60 hours a week at work, while all Americans of prime working age work more than 7.8 hours more per week than Americans four decades ago. One D.C. policy think tank recently proposed that increased income inequality and financial insecurity may be leading employees to work longer hours and remain increasingly connected to their work while at home.

In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek connects the work of Peter Whybrow to our growing uneasiness as a country. He notes it isn’t high-fat diets or a wholesale lack of exercise that is solely to blame for America’s predilection for heart disease, insomnia and anxiety, but rather “all those promises of more, more, more are actually overloading the reward circuits of our brain. The short-term gains that drive business in America today are actually destroying our health.”

If you are unswayed by this warning from one of the Internet’s favorite TED talkers, allow me to go one step further and lay the blame of our societal un-wellness on a plane higher than targeted marketing – namely, religion. What other word should one ascribe to the ritual sacrifice of our children on the altar of production, performance and ACT test-prep? When television stars and hedge fund managers risk jail time to ensure that their children enter the rarefied air of Cambridge or Palo Alto, no other word bubbles up for me other than “religion.” I’m not sure there is another word that gives adequate weight to the kind of devotion required of American parents and their progeny these days.

Writing for The Atlantic 20 years ago, retired Harvard professor Harvey Cox added appropriately theological language to our reverential adherence to the deity of economically motivated anxiety:

There is, however, one contradiction between the religion of The Market and the traditional religions that seems to be insurmountable. All of the traditional religions teach that human beings are finite creatures and that there are limits to any earthly enterprise. A Japanese Zen master once said to his disciples as he was dying, “I have learned only one thing in life: how much is enough.” He would find no niche in the chapel of The Market, for whom the First Commandment is “There is never enough.” Like the proverbial shark that stops moving, The Market that stops expanding dies. That could happen. If it does, then Nietzsche will have been right after all. He will just have had the wrong God in mind.

Which is why – much to my chagrin five years after quitting professional Christianity – I have come to believe the answer to what ails our society isn’t just the end of religion (which is impossible), but rather the resurrection of religion after our first religion has died. Only a religion rooted in radical, prophetic, cellular, collective okay-ness about one’s place in the world – instead of a religion steeped in an unceasing angst about the afterlife and our failing institutions – is strong enough to overwhelm the pull of Cox’s “Market God” demanding more blood, more soil and more anxiety. The kind of religious okay-ness I’m advocating for feels almost impossible, in large measure because I grew up Southern Baptist in the 1990s, and thanks to that I am intimately familiar with the unique fear accompanying people of faith whenever they are asked to stop being afraid of God.

What if the slow death of our churches was good news for the world, even if it’s bad news for those of us who benefit directly from their perpetuation?”

For those of us steeped in a religion predicated on the existence of a wrathful deity who gets incredibly even at the end of things, it’s rather terrifying to consider what it might be like to live in a world where there are no clear, painful and eternal consequences for your sins and shortcomings. On the other hand, I find I have little interest in the rise of what folks keep calling “the Religious Left,” as if the only answer to intractable partisanship and a fractured national conversation is more binary, partisan and angry thinking about things none of us know for sure (i.e., God).

Instead, whether it’s our anxiety about our constant lack of “wokeness” and “inclusivity,” or the unique pit-of-my-stomach-shame that would accompany me in my Southern Baptist youth anytime I found myself not spending enough time “in the Word,” I’ve found that all of us are anxious, believe we aren’t enough and worry about the future. Indeed, these might be among the few things we have in common any more.

In light of this common fear about what happens next, I wonder if there might be a third way amidst both conservative and liberal approaches to the anxious pursuit of happiness at all costs parading as American Christianity.

What if our radical okay-ness – the belief that we are wholly loved and known by the creator and sustainer of the universe independent of what we do and who we are – actually impacted our lived practice in the world as people of faith?

I’m wondering if American Christianity could become a religion that has no interest in growing its brand, or spreading its influence, or surviving the next 50 years, but is okay dying for the flourishing of human life even if it doesn’t get to be in charge of what shape that takes? I’m wondering if an entire religion could be sacrificed for the salvation of the whole world, and if that religion would be okay not getting any of the credit?

What if our radical okay-ness meant selling our empty sanctuaries in order to pay off payday lending debts, build parks, fund scholarships and buy insulin for whole towns?

What if American Christianity’s death meant the resurrection of radical acts of human kindness motivated less by fear and more by solidarity because it finally removed the veneer of passive religious observance and institutional fidelity as a metric for morality?

What if our church buildings housed, clothed and fed people, not just during natural disasters or for a weekend once a month, but every day in a world where affordable housing is increasingly unavailable for our most vulnerable?

“The end of Church as we know it sure would free up a lot of creative bandwidth about whatever the next right thing might be.”

What if our pastors were freed from anxiously keeping aging buildings and ministries afloat or from reading John C Maxwell books and megachurch memoirs about success long enough to empathically care for the actual neighborhoods, whole blocks, crumbling schools and the people filling them just outside their book-lined offices?

We might find that Church keeps happening right along anyway.

Finally, what if the slow death of our churches was good news for the world, even if it’s bad news for those of us who benefit directly from their perpetuation?

What if releasing control over what happens to the thing that saved, fed, served and gave us a purpose was actually the most faithful and Christian thing we could do for it?

I know for me the end of Church as we know it sure would free up a lot of creative bandwidth about whatever the next right thing might be for my weekend, my tithe, my energy and my anxious conversations on the Internet with people I don’t really know. If I were guessing, the end of Church would probably feel a lot like what those early Jesus followers experienced when they saw their hopes and dreams nailed to a Roman cross on the outskirts of town.

I dare say we might feel similarly if, a few days after our churches have been laid in their tombs, we found those tombs empty as well – not because we anxiously kept them afloat long after their usefulness had ebbed, but because we refused to hold on to them when there was more for both them and us to do in a new world with new problems and new possibilities that weren’t possible before the end had come.

Either way, since it’s almost Pentecost, I’ll meet you in Jerusalem to see what’s next.

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