On Finding a Place in History

One of the major discoveries I have had in my personal analysis has been the importance of history on my religious and psychological development. Growing up in a conservative Evangelical family in the South left me in an historical black hole. Like many Evangelicals, my parents rebelled against their (non)religious upbringings and created a new family culture ex nihilo in the early 1970’s during the Vietnam War. This is not particularly surprising given that both my parents emerged from unhealthy households with parents who were grossly incompetent. Evangelicalism offered them a sense of community, security and identity in a world that was being torn asunder by war, political strife and social upheaval.

Of course, my parents wanted to impress upon their children their fervent religious beliefs and we were deeply immersed in Evangelical culture. This was the foundation of my identity for the first 18 years of my life. There are some positive things I gained from this, including a deep knowledge of the Bible and a sense of community and love. However, like many late adolescents, I had a crisis of identity as I began to question Evangelicalism as a paradigm through which to view the world. It was too myopic, exclusive, politically inert and intellectual understimulating. The next five years of my life included intense study and reading of history (particularly focused on race), philosophy, politics and theology. I was having daily conversations in my head with authors (mostly dead ones) to try to understand something about truth, history and Xianity. Eventually, I was able to maintain my link with my Xian roots (and ultimately my family) through my studies of liberation theology and engagement with social causes that I held dearly. I had found a tradition that accommodated my political beliefs while allowing me to maintain a relationship with the Bible that was central to my Evangelical background. Furthermore, liberation theology provided me a link to American history and an appreciation of race that I desperately needed. Authors such as James Cone and Delores Williams provided me with a Xianity that I could hold onto with integrity while not having to sacrifice my mind.

It was not until recently that I realized the psychoanalytic underpinnings of my religious studies. In my experience Evangelicalism presents itself as an ahistorical, decontextualized faith that represents its particular view of the gospel AS IF this is the way Xianity has always been practiced. The typical move is to link modern church practices to the very origins of the first Xian communities, conveniently bypassing the complicated traditions imbedded in Xianity. Struggling Evangelicals are presented with an insoluble problem: accept or apostatize. Evangelicalism severs its links to history and thus places the believer in an impossible position. History is erased. The tacit philosophical, economic and political commitments are not recognized. For instance, when I wanted to ask “what are the conditions under which we think such-and-such Biblical interpretation is deemed true?” there was little ability to have a conversation. It was as if there was no interpretive lens through which the Bible and Xianity were being filtered because Evangelicalism remains ignorant (perhaps willfully) of its history. Isn’t literalism ultimately a refusal to recognize the Bible as an historical document? It troubled me that I was going to a church that 60 years prior would likely have supported segregation. I worried that the very conditions that would permit such an atrocious historical reality was still implicit in the unconscious ideology of that church.

To bring it back to the personal, I realized that my religious studies (and ultimately my graduate studies as a psychologist and current training as a psychoanalyst) were all attempts to find links to history that would allow me to find a line of ancestors. My parents had severed their own familial roots and had chosen a faith tradition that likewise failed to acknowledge its historical context. For instance, I honestly do not think that Evangelicals understand that their puritanical obsession with sexual morality and their idealization of the nuclear family is a counter-reaction to the feminist and sexual revolutions in the late 60’s and early 70’s. From my perspective I had no access to ancestors. As a developing adolescent, once I began to question Evangelicalism, it was as if the earth would open up and swallow me. There was nothing to hold onto because there was no historical tradition, no ancestors. This dizzying anxiety necessitated that I deeply immerse myself in reading to try to find some anchors that would ground me in history. We cannot know ourselves without an understanding of the people and ideas that have preceded us. This ability to playfully engage with our ancestors offers us an orientation in the universe of ideas that stabilizes and holds us in a world that is immensely complicated. I have had the same playful engagement with the history of psychoanalysis which is beautifully diverse and convoluted. Ultimately, I think academic studies saved my soul and has allowed me to maintain a relationship with my family (because identifying as Xian is a necessary condition for membership in my family). Negotiating one’s identity requires an understanding of history and it was not until I opened my mind to a variety of traditions that I was able to know myself as an historical subject.

2 thoughts on “On Finding a Place in History

  1. I really appreciate this post. I think history is also a big part of my shift from evangelicalism to liberation theology. Growing up black and evangelical is weird thing because there’s a way of holding the blind ahistoricism in tension with a very historical understanding of why one’s position in the world is the way it is. I’m realizing the grasping for language I was doing much of my freshman year of undergraduate was searching for a theological language that could deal with history. In fact, I rearranged whole years of my program (taking Junior cornerstone and Third Year writing classes my sophomore year) so that I could take a rarely offered classes on black literature and a class that’s probably never been offered again that explored “What is Blackness”—mostly so I could get some way of putting words to my experience. While I’m thankful I had a supportive advisor and English department who let me finagle my way into those classes and inject black literature into most of my projects, there’s also a way in which my small Christian liberal arts school made most of the work I had to do happen in isolation—stealing away into untouched corners of the library and making excessive use of ILL in order to get a decent grasp of liberation theology (which was a paragraph we didn’t spend more than 5 minutes on in my Christian Doctrine course) and black feminism and literature.

    All that to say, it seems there’s a way in which this kind of theological ahistoricism can also be built into the academy, so that my institution couldn’t see the links between it being a former home of one of the wealthiest slave-owning women in the south and it’s current predicament as a wearying environment for black students. Christian schools make it especially hard to develop any sense of history. If I hadn’t been so doggedly persistent and had the black student association to grow with, who knows what kind of bourgeoise black evangelical I’d be right now.

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