One of the most wonderful things about watching children growing up is to see the way that they gradually assert their independence from their parents. When a baby is first born it seems that the personalities of mother and child are effectively fused together. But, as time goes by the individual personality of the baby becomes identifiable. As the child progresses through his young life, it is customary for us to celebrate the different moments that mark this gradual growth towards independence. As examples of this we have the appearance at a nativity play, the first day of school and the loss of baby teeth. Later on, the time of adolescence can be a stormy time for many young people but essentially the same processes are at work, the exploration of the boundaries of distinct separate personalities. Whatever the problems we recognise that some kind of rebellion is probably to be expected so that the development of an adult identity can actually happen.
This evolving and changing relationship between a child and her parents is not dissimilar to other relationships that exist in people’s lives. Psychologists have particular words to describe the way we relate to people above us or whom we admire. These targets of admiration, pop stars, Olympic heroes or political leaders are normally not known to us personally but we bond with them in our minds in an act of projection or identification. These two words hint at the way that that a celebrity-fan relationship is an attempt to create a kind of fusion, the kind seen originally as existing between the small child and his mother. This desire to fuse with another person, one whom we believe can give us some of their strength, wisdom or glamour, goes on to some extent throughout life. It is a kind of continuation of the way that we looked up to our parents to give us some of their strength and wisdom where we were small infants. In this way children are pulled in two directions. On the one hand they are desperate to become independent and gain control over their lives while at the same they are aware of their need for the strength that other people can give them. Dependence and independence thus coexist in every growing child. This need to be dependent on others who are stronger than she is does not disappear suddenly when a particular age is reached. It is not surprising that young adults will seek out parent substitutes, perhaps a guru figure, in the long transition between childhood and full maturity. He or she will thus want to admire teachers, youth leaders and even clergy, who will act in the place of their birth parents. With their help the task of growing up toward independence and maturity becomes slightly easier. However, at some point the young adult finally has to let go of all these props and negotiate adult life and its responsibilities alone.
Jesus himself seems to have been aware of the way that his disciples wanted to use him as a parent figure or as a guru. St John’s Gospel in particular picks up what we might describe as an adolescent dependency by the disciples on Jesus’s teaching and his words. This dependency caused them to have constant misunderstandings about his mission and purpose. Eventually Jesus utters those classic words ‘it is good for you that I go away’. Perhaps we can understand these words as the action of a parent/guru who wants to shock his followers out of an immature dependent relationship on him. Why is it good for the disciples if Jesus goes away? The answer I am suggesting here (I am aware of many other ways of interpreting these words) is that it would have been terribly easy for the followers of Jesus to remain in a permanent state of over-dependency on him. He needed to break up the old relationship in order to rebuild and renew it.
In our churches we often see a kind of passive dependency on others by those in the pews. In most cases the dependency is not directed at Christ but it is focused on those who stand up and speak for him in church pulpits. Such a dependent passive relationship is often encouraged by these same Christian leaders. They teach obedience, not to Christ but to themselves as anointed representatives of Christ. In insisting on obedience they are missing out another important area of Christian living – the ability to stand on two feet and discover what real Christian maturity in fact is all about.
Two reasons for some Christian leaders failing to teach independence and maturity occur to me. One is the fact that ministers recognise that many individuals in their congregations would indeed have some difficulty in accepting individual responsibility for their lives. They prefer to be told what to do and what to think. We can thus describe the care of a minister in this situation as an attempt to exercise care and kindness. Nevertheless, even if we want to interpret the minister’s behaviour in charitable ways, we can still see that the congregation is being let down in some way. Perpetual mothering of the immature is hardly in their best interests. Another dishonourable, indeed sinister, reason for keeping congregants in this state of dependency is in order to provide narcissistic supply for the leader. In other words, like a fond parent who does not let children grow up because he enjoys the experience of parenthood so much, a narcissistic leader holds on to his flock possessively, inappropriately and against their best interests. I have repeated over and over again the common pattern of cultic groups, and indeed many Christian congregations, of a collusive and ultimately destructive relationship between the leader and those who are led. Writing about it does not make it disappear, but at least the reader of this blog can be sensitised to it as a common pattern in religious and other groups.
Jesus said that ‘it is good that I go away’, because, I believe, he recognised that an immature and grasping dependency on him was not in the best interest of his disciples. They needed, as we do, to rise above always wanting other people to do our thinking for us. Nor should we always expect others to make our decisions for us following the precept that ‘minister knows best’. Of course we need to belong in some sense but this belonging should never involve surrendering our individuality, our intelligence or our ability to make decisions. There is not space here in this present blog to spell out in detail the nature of what I consider to be Christian maturity. I can just reiterate that Christian maturity will always involve an ability to undertake adult responsibility and make decisions for oneself. While we will have received much from the teaching and encouragement of Christians who have gone before us, we must never allow ourselves to become clones of those we admire.
Jesus left his disciples for a period to return to them in a different kind of relationship. While he was with them in the flesh they had been ready to hand over all their responsibility for thinking and understanding to him. The post-resurrection experience seems to have allowed them to mature and become their own people. New qualities of courage, insight and vision seem to flow out of this new more complete relationship with Christ. We could ascribe these new qualities as belonging to their new status of being apostles. Before they had been apprentices or disciples.
Immaturity, dependency and the wrong kind of obedience still today presents a challenge to the integrity of all branches of the Christian church. Far too many leaders and ministers seem to want to hold their people in a state of permanent dependency which does not allow them to become mature Christians. Equally a tendency to worship Christian celebrity leaders, a cultural phenomenon of our day, seems to infect many branches of the Christian church. The path of responsible maturity may indeed be quite hard to find. My instinct tells me that this is a place that God would want us to be. Because that place has not yet been clearly defined those who search for it may find themselves best by many problems and misunderstandings. But I believe that the place of maturity is a place of joy, transformation and true freedom.