If you are familiar with the theological blogosphere and Twittersphere, you may have heard about Mark Driscoll’s comments about Calvinism (If you haven’t seen it, you can watch the YouTube video here). To summarize, Driscoll said that he didn’t hold to the five points of Calvinism because “it was garbage.” Now, being Wesleyan, I am not too inclined to defend Calvinism as a theological system, but this is a bit strong of a statement. But where my real concern comes in his rationale for why it is a problem: Driscoll describes the “young, reformed, restless” crowd as “little boys with father wounds.”
This, my fellow Christians, is a potentially abusive type of speech, and we should shun it. I don’t say this because of what Driscoll was known for in the past. I say this with a broader knowledge and experience of how this type of explanation for people’s behaviors, be it religious or otherwise, has a real potential for falsehood and damage to other people.
Let me begin by saying that the single biggest inflicter of psychic wounds are parents. Psychological studies have shown that parents are one of the most significant impacts on people’s lives and damage is done there can have a tremendous impact on the rest of people’s lives. Furthermore, stories of parental abuse are far too common too stomach. But we need to bring a bit of sobriety about this: this isn’t because “parents” are dangerous or that all problems people have can be derived from their parents, but it is because parents more than any other type of figure in a person’s lives have more time with children and more power over them in positions of vulnerability. Statistically speaking, people are put in more vulnerable situations when it comes to their parents than anyone else. This is a basic fact of child-rearing, as the vast majority of children are raised by parents when they are vulnerable and therefore there is the greater chance that the problems of the parent can lead to harm coming to the child.
But, here is where we need to step in and recognize something: parents are not the only possible source of wounds in life. Peers who bully can cause great harm. For instance, social ostracism has the power to induce panic and fear into someone that can become a trauma. Institutions that refuse to be accountable can sow devastation. Need I mention the stories of trauma in religious spaces? Spouses can tear apart the life of another; we know this as domestic abuse. A person who has had good parents can have deep traumas caused by the behaviors of other people. I would know.
Secondly, people’s choices are not solely dictated by their psychological wounds, parental or otherwise. There are reasons, for instance, that someone might adhere to Calvinism, such as its simple, parsimonious way of explaining God and salvation that requires little ambiguity in understanding the role of God’s work. Furthermore, Calvinism can seem like a plausible interpretation of Scripture depending on how one’s faith community defined the terms read in the Bible. This is not due to “daddy wounds” of Driscoll’s condescending explanation.
But when we appeal to Driscoll’s type of language to explain why people do things we don’t like, we are doing something: we are appealing to a common idea within the culture, as we in the West are deeply aware of the damage that parents have inflicted on children growing up, and then treat that as an explanation everywhere we find it expedient for our purposes. After all, if something is due to their “daddy wounds” it means that they are in deep error and that they are the ones who need to change.
This is potentially abusive on multiple levels. Firstly, when wrongly applied, it denies the truth of why people think, feel, and act as they do and instead substitutes it with some explanation that is far from the truth. Secondly, it treats people as simply passive people who have not thoughts and feelings on their own, even when people do have parental issues. There are many people who have such pains in their past and to use it as an explanation for things you don’t like disregards the fact that they may have grown and healed beyond them. Thirdly, it has a way of gaslighting people by making them question themselves unnecessarily because someone doesn’t like what they think, feel, or believe (rather than observation of an actual pattern of behavior).
Finally, however, and this is getting rather personal, in some instances (though not in Driscoll’s case) blaming things on “daddy wounds” can be a form of blaming the victim and inflicting pain on the innocent. Take my brother for instance, who committed suicide. While never formally diagnosed, he fit the patterns of bipolar disorder. That combined with the teasing blurring into bullying he received in high school were likely contributors to his decision to take his own life. My parents, who were not perfect but did a good job to raise up children who were kind, fair, honest, and hardworking, were devasted. But what then added to their pain is that some people had the audacity to blame my brother’s suicide on my parents. They who think they knew so much had no idea how foolish they truly were. They had little knowledge of the situation, but their unthinking words and implications without any sense of involvement inflicted needless pain on a family that was already suffering. To do this was the blame my family, who were victims of losing a loved one due to a primarily genetic disorder that was beyond our control.
I have heard even similar implications directed towards me as I deal with the effects of my college and adulthood trauma (in addition to the losing of a brother) and trying to return back to a sense of normalcy. People who have never talked to me in detail about the reasons I struggle have made statements to me that imply that my upbringing was the source of the problems I experience and not the experiences of losing my own capacities and sense of connectedness from events in college and later one. While I believe such people to be well-intended, even then, it doesn’t take away from the pain when people make judgments about things they haven’t talked to me about directly.
The problem is this: we in Christian circles have treated psychological and therapeutic principles as tools for our own usage in explaining people and their lives, even though we have not had the necessary training to really do such.1 Since the matters of faith, religion, and spirituality are so connected to psychological concerns, we have been tempted to integrate psychology knowledge into our repertoire of tools to address the problems we see.
And often times, this is often with the intention to help. For instance, I think Driscoll is sincere about what he is saying and trying to help people to see the problem with Calvinism. But the problem with ‘helping’ is that, firstly, we can often be tempted to frame the problems in ways that make us look better and not necessarily with a real concern for helping the people we think we are trying to “help.” This means that we are readily tempted to pull out the psychological explanations that make us look the best, and not necessarily reliably explains the situation or effectively helps the persons. Secondly, because in Christians circles we have often treated our intentions to help as a substitute for thinking well and understanding, we are inclined to think we know what people’s problems are. When it is joined with the refusal to listen so as to learn, it leads to people unknowingly acting in ignorance. People substitute the psychological principles for actual understanding because people feel they have good intentions.
But let me be clear: this is not healthy but a potentially damaging pattern, even despite what we might feel to be good intentions. It needs to stop. Driscoll, as a person who has been somewhat of a bully in the past, seems to be trying to become more sensitive to emotional concerns, but at the same time, he still acts in a way that would be potentially toxic if used in a more interpersonal setting rather than the rather generic discussion of a broad group of people (which can still be harmful through creating stereotypes, but doesn’t tend to have the immediate consequences). Ceasing bullying doens’t come by spouting a few words that show emotional sensitivity, but it comes by a sense of patience that doesn’t jump to extreme explanations for something someone merely dislikes (though, to be clear, sometimes there is bad behavior that needs to be spoken to when there is an actual pattern). “Daddy wounds” are not something to throw around to diminish other people, to explain why people do things we don’t like. “Daddy wounds” are serious matters that should be addressed by people in the know, not talked and gossipped about by those who are ultimately unaware of what the facts of a person’s life are