Without realizing it, many faithful servants of Christ are in fact striving to maintain an archaic practice of behavioral submission to corporate expectation rather than experience freedom of expression in direct response to the Creator himself. Fear-based and controlled ideologies replace and distract the conscious mind in the traded effort to address the menial tasks of obtaining reward for basic and primitive survival. The following addresses how corporate religion replaces higher-order freedom through faith in God with the lower-order distractions to accomplish behavioral deeds (seeking reward and avoiding pain) using our basic survival instincts to control what and how we serve.
In an effort to further support the case for separating a faith-driven life from religious ideals, it is beneficial to explore the basic functioning of the human brain. Like our fellow mammals and other various creatures of the earth, our survival depends on the ability of our brain to regulate physiological requirements and navigate impending environmental danger. The brain is certainly impressive considering it ceases to take a break. It can easily be credited for the fact that various heritages and lineages have survived for millennia through often challenging climates, catastrophes, and plagues.
Humans, unlike other creatures that we are aware of, function on a level beyond that of animals. Humans have the capacity to problem solve within abstract capacities, prioritize our efforts, and even override the instinctual functions of survival regardless of the benefit of the outcome. It is this higher-level brain that seems to be the focus of the Holy Spirit.
When we consider the aspects of behavioral psychology, we observe a distinct pattern of physiological responses to various triggers that entice the brain’s interest to survive; sustenance, avoidance of pain, sleep, safety- and even stimuli that tickle the reward center of the brain (the nucleus accumbens- located in the midbrain and can be as easily manipulated by the environment as our need to breathe). The reward center serves in the interest of survival as it provides positive and emotional connections to our existence. For example, the rewards linked to being satiated, maintaining health, and sex; each feed into the need for a species to survive and thrive.
B.F. Skinner, a behavioral theorist, became known for his experiments that included observations tracking simple reactions in response to physiological survival and pain avoidance. By placing rats in an environment that required a learned response to alleviate pain or discomfort, he found that almost any desired behavior is easy to manipulate and choreograph when that behavior benefits the basic needs of the rat. A hungry rat doesn’t take long to learn the necessity of pushing a lever to release a reward of food. The same goes for a rat that must learn to press a lever in order to relieve the pain of electric shock in another environment.
Another theorist, Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, provides us with a pyramid, or hierarchy, of needs organized by levels of necessities absolutely required for survival (at the bottom of the pyramid) to needs that- when realized- provide humans and the higher brain- the opportunity to experience the greatest fulfillment that human beings can achieve (the highest level of the pyramid).
- The first and bottom level includes physiological necessities such as oxygen, warmth, food, water, and basic gratification needs.
- The second level addresses safety concerns such as shelter, health, and overall personal safety.
- The third level identifies the need for love and belonging; community, friendship, intimacy, and social connection.
- The fourth level is where matters of self-esteem exist and include status, recognition, respect, and freedom.
- The fifth level asserts that once reached, a person is finally at a place he or she can give back and teach society the successes obtained and cultivated on the path to self-actualization.
Any need beyond the first and most basic level requires that the needs of the previous level(s) be met (one must acquire rest and nutrients before he/she can focus on higher-order needs). Not all levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are reached by everyone. It has even been noted that many people plateau at the fourth level without ever engaging the 5th level of self-actualization. Also of important note, the first 3 levels address the needs of the primitive (or lower) brain- only the last 2 levels engage the higher order complexities of the human cognitive brain.
Here is where I would like to take the opportunity to overlap the aspects of behavioral and humanistic psychology. Once we realize that the primitive brain maintains survival requirements and is easily manipulated by pain and pleasure, we can then begin to understand that before we can maintain a sense of esteem or charity, we must succumb to the physiological requirements of the lower brain. In short, we must first fasten our own oxygen mask before placing others’ masks on appropriately.
Finally, let’s layer on the lens that defines where religion and faith fall on the biological to cognitive spectrum- the spectrum of psychology. Our biological survival depends on a few basic but imperative rules- not unlike the early religious law. This law had a God-directed purpose that served to ensure the survival of his chosen people. Many laws addressed the importance of health and cleanliness that if dismissed, could yield the demise of a whole people-group. With today’s advantage of understanding how the spread of germs can wipe out a community given the breed of germ and lack of proper antidote, digestion of improperly cured pork or simple contact with a leper could cause some serious irreparable damage.
Other laws were put into in place to address the prevention of social dismissal or emotional distractions. By today’s social standards- many of these laws are deemed not only archaic, but also potentially insulting to our cognitive nature. However, without access to the Holy Spirit (being pre-Christ’s time), laws were a logical and necessary platform for simple survival of both a people and a faith.
Once Christ arrived on the scene, he addressed the law (Matthew 5,6 & 7), fulfilled the preservation of the law (Matthew 5:17), and promised the coming of “the Helper” (Holy Spirit) in exchange for his physical departing from this world (John 16:7). My hunch is that at the point God provided his creation with the Holy Spirit, he aimed to pursue a more intimate level of relationship and trust than what a simple law of pain and pleasure can obtain. He wants us to freely choose Him, not to avoid pain through fear, or pleasure through works- but to seek Him on a fully conscious and self-driven desire to fully know Him and therefore our most perfect selves through higher-order thinking and perceiving (Gen 2:16-17, Revelation 22:11, 14, 17).
Continuing down this path, we may now ask; Where do religious laws, standards, fundamentals, rules, protocol, doctrines, tenants fit within the new freedoms provided by Christ’s death and fostered by the Holy Spirit? They don’t. It’s as simple as that. Although regulated religion may originate from a place of good and even holy directives, they cannot be assigned as an expectation upon a group of people as a profession of faith or an identifiable separation from “pagan” or “worldly” practices. Honestly, if followed concisely, one may avoid sinful behavior for the sake of innocence or avoiding sin- but without direction of the Holy Spirit, it is likely at the expense of diminishing a cognitive (higher-order) personal and intimate relationship with God.
Furthermore, the odds of success become stacked against us when we strive to maintain organizational religious ideals. These ideals become an idol (regardless of how pure our intention) in respect to behavioral performance expectations. Expectations as a form of social standard-keeping can only be maintained through control. Control of social behavior (as displayed by the simple brains of rats) is the result of pain and pleasure stimuli. Therefore, religion (with even the purest form of intent) replaces higher-order fellowship with God with social inclusion at best, and fear-based propaganda and social banishment at worst.
As previously noted, it is impossible to thrive at a higher-order level of living (intimacy, freedom and recognition through and to Christ) when we are constantly being expected to address and maintain lower-order aspects of survival (social belonging, safety, authentic community) in response to religious control. Let alone, thriving at a place of self-actualization- knowing that because of our freedom to act in response to Christ rather than behavioral directives, and obtaining our unique individuality through an intimate relationship with God, we can then experience the ultimate expression of God’s love in mimicking the freedom and generosity he has shared with us.
I don’t deny that a life of faith and the freedom of an identity in Christ is a challenging change when the way we have approached “faith” has always been through the benefit of an identity shared with a religious association. The membership privileges often afford the rewards of social belonging and safety in accordance to quantifiable donations of time, money, and even “appropriate” political backing. If we have preformed well in this arena, we are likely upset and possibly even justifying our faithful behavior. But don’t forget, the sin here is not quantifiable by performance- it is only qualify-able in accordance to who or what you are accountable to. I pray we turn from performing for religious reward (Matthew 6:1-4) and rather find the courage to pursue a life of faith, knowing that He who fearfully and wonderfully crafted our needs and desires (Psalms 139:14) can also be trusted to provide for all of our basic needs (Matthew 6:25-34).