Knowing What You Know
Far too often the American conservative church has not been very helpful when it comes to teaching people how to be adults. Let me explain.
When you are a child you do not have an internal locus of control. Your primary caretaker, most often your mother, is God, and is in control of your entire universe. Her face reflects what it means to be human. Her touch brings safety and assurance. Eventually she brings self-assurance to you, as you begin to discern you are a separate being. That self-assurance is tenuous without three basic elements in place.
First, your parents must be able to set aside their own needs to focus on yours. Second, they must make sure you feel safe. Third, they must provide you with a sense of self-worth. These are the basic building blocks of a healthy ego. But note that the locus of control remains external. Someone else is in charge of your life.
One of the main jobs of parents is to lead their children to mature adulthood. That means teaching them to accept responsibility for their own actions. It means teaching them the necessity of honesty in interactions with themselves and others. It is helping them learn to delay gratification. And good parenting demands that we help our children differentiate from us and create their own maps with which to navigate through life.
That last job means we must help our children transfer from an external locus of control (mom and dad) to an internal locus of control (the maturing child.) It is the most frightening part of parenting, because it is a process fraught with peril. In fact it is so frightening that many parents abdicate their responsibility and encourage their children to continue with an external locus of control.
In extremely unhealthy families, this means parents who try to remain the primary figure in the lives of their children. (Think the mother in Everybody Love’s Raymond.) But far more frequently it means transferring the locus of control from one external source (mom and dad) to another external source, the tribe. Often that tribe is a religion. Sometimes it is a cult. And sometimes telling the difference is difficult.
The problem is in the transfer from one external locus of control to another. The parental job is not to replace biological parents with tribal parents. It is to replace biological parents with a fully differentiated, individuated person. It is to help the child transfer from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control.
An internal locus of control does not negate the desire for a tribe. We are a tribal species. It is baked into our DNA to want to be a part of something larger than ourselves. But when we begin to violate a healthy conscience by adherence to the strictures of an external locus of control, it is not a sign of health.
Let me use an example that is not uncommon in our current environment. Suppose you have friends or family who are gay, and in your everyday interaction it is fairly clear that these are normal humans, roughly as healthy as you. With a healthy internal locus of control, you are empowered to decide that this is a safe person. You have within yourself the capacity to make these determinations. An internal locus of control means you have learned to trust your instincts, and your internal common sense.
If, on the other hand, you have an external locus of control that tells you homosexuality is an abomination to God, you reject your instincts and internal common sense. Even though you do not find any other reason to reject this person, you nevertheless reject them because you have given away the power to make those determinations. You have maintained an external locus of control, in this case, a religious body.
There was a time when I believed women should not preach, nor should Christians be in gay relationships. Nothing in my personal experience said these were bad things. In fact, to the contrary, I found women preached with a perspective not available to men. And I had gay friends who were extraordinary humans, far more Christ-like than I was. But my adherence to an external locus of control caused me to reject what my heart, mind and soul was telling me.
I have since realized when my understanding of Scripture causes me to reject what my heart, mind and soul are telling me, the problem is not with my heart, mind and soul. It is with my understanding of Scripture. The problem is that I have made my heart, mind and soul subservient to my tribe. When your tribe’s interpretation of Scripture violates your own conscience, the question you should ask yourself is why you have opted for an external locus of control.
For religious people, the answer is often that we have been taught that our bodies are evil and not to be trusted. Our sin causes us to deceive ourselves. Since we cannot trust ourselves, we must submit to an external power. Of course, this is great news for the tribe. It guarantees its ongoing existence. If the tribe can make us afraid of our own conscience and common sense, it can maintain the control necessary to remain in power.
It is interesting that when people talk about our sinful proclivities, they often quote the writings of the Apostle Paul. But when I look at the writings of Paul, particularly in his letter to the church at Rome, I find Paul more concerned about the sin that encompasses us when tribal rule takes over than the sin zipped up inside our own beings.
It seems to me that the greatest evil done in the world is done when we are confidently acting within our tribe. Only then do we throw away personal conscience and common sense. That is how we got the Holocaust, or for that matter, Charlottesville. That is what happens when one maintains an external, instead of an internal, locus of control.
It is frightening to have to trust your own soul. It means you are free, and freedom is terrifying. But here is the thing. We are made in the image of God. We can trust our basic construction. We all need the guidance of a tribe from time to time, but when you are constructed in God’s image, your internal locus of control, if you are willing to trust it, will reliably lead you in the direction of the truth. The question is whether or not you will trust it.