You Know, Maybe the Problem Isn’t Always the Other Guy (or Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, and Pete Enns Walk into a Sweat Lodge)

In the spiritual life, there aren’t too many absolutes I can make, but this is certainly one. On the spiritual journey, the message is always to you. The message s always telling you to change.

Now, what most people do is they use religion to try to change other people. It’s always someone else that needs changing. No. Stop it. Once and for all. Whatever happens to you in your life is a message to you

Oh the ego wants to avoid that. So we look for something out there to change–somebody not like me is always the problem.

Fr. Richard Rohr, public lecture, Men and Grief (see also here)

Mythic Membership Consciousness: The unquestioned assimilation of the values and ideas of one’s social group; overidentification with one’s family, ethnic, or religious community from which one draws one’s identity and self-worth, and conformity to the group’s value systems. It is characterized socially by the stratification of society into heirarchical forms. 

Fr. Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation, p. 146

The thoughts expressed in these two quotes have helped me make sense of many of my spiritual experiences, and I think it’s pretty self-evident how they connect. The tendency to see the other as the “real” problem and ourselves as the solution is an expression of “mythic member consciousness” (MMC): I and my group group are right, you and yours are wrong.

One of my bigger ah ha moments in recent years was when God awakened me to see how much of my life I had spent supporting this way of being, and how needlessly exhausting it is to be subject to it by others–ecclesiastically and certainly professionally. It is a joyless and stern existence, and greatly sapping of energy, to be ever on the patrol for how others are wrong, never doing the harder work of turning those searching eyes inward.

I am working at taking to heart this wisdom. I am becoming more aware of my own lapses, and hopefully moving towards greater peace by correcting them. I am also deeply thankful to God that I no longer participate in groups where overidentification with that group is required, where the problem is always someone on the outside.

Remember that MMC is about OVERidentification, not simple identification, or even strongly committed identification. With that in mind, here are two thoughts to ponder.

MMC is a characteristic of tribal cultures. The ancient Israelites were part of the larger tribal culture of the time. Might, then, MMC describe some of what we see in the Old Testament, such as maintaining land boundaries, not being influenced by outsiders, ethnic purity, etc.?

Do Jesus and the New Testament writers move us away from MMC?

I think one can make a good case to answer both of these questions with a “yes.” I also think one can make a very good case that too many Christian groups–colleges, seminaries, denominations, churches–exhibit MMC: self worth of its members drawn from zealous conformity to group rules and a strong hierarchical structure, where questioning leadership is squelched.

If you’re reading this and your blood is boiling, you might ask yourself if you are part of an MMC group yourself.

  • Jeremy Cushman

    My MMC is better than your MMC…

    Sorry, had to.

  • Lise

    When I was in graduate school for psychology, my class constituted a very small cohort. We were a lively, opinionated and somewhat egotistical bunch to the point where one of our professors got sick of the constant one upping and not really listening to one another. Here we were training to be empathic and to listen yet in the intellectual arena were failing miserably at the task. So he brought in a bell and would periodically ring it when things were getting too raucous. When the bell chimed we had to stop, be silent for a minute and then move on to the next moment. We were not allowed to go back to whatever was so urgent when the bell rang. Everything was just dropped to practice non-attachement to ego. This practice was invaluable.

    But since you’re referring to religion, perhaps you could address something for me. I’ve been taking systematic theology and while I realize the importance of defining doctrine, I have had a rather strong aversion to the subject material (I hope I’m not outing myself as the freak theology student). I’m a big picture thinker so I have really struggled with the breaking down of doctrine and tradition into very precise pieces. Not to mention all the friction between the early church fathers and people deemed heretics…. Studying the narrative of OT and NT was much more palpable and appealing…

    • mike h

      I’m with you on this. I used to accept Systematic Theology as a neat way to understand God and humanity’s relation with God. It seemed all nice and neat and compartmentalized…Western. It was while studying for my M. Div. that I finally had to jettison that idea. There are other ways to ‘do’ theology. Your suggestion of narrative is good one. One that I have been embracing more and more. Godspeed on your journey!

  • Craig Wright

    I am 66 years old, and about 5 or 6 years ago, it hit me that this group way of thinking within Christianity was not appropriate. “My group is right and the rest of you are going to hell.” That way of thinking caused me to look at other people as projects and not give them the due respect for their dignity as being created in the image of God. This also led me to rethink my view of God and salvation. God is love and it is possible that he will continue to reach out to save people, even after this earthly experience. I should add that this has led to a lot of reading and research, in which I have developed my positions with thorough biblical support. I now teach them to adults in church.

    • Peter W.


  • Bryan

    This is very interesting. Can you recommend any sources for further information on MMC?

  • rvs

    Maybe making statements of faith “statements of confession” would be a good idea vis-a-vis evangelical Christian universities. I think we can all agree on that…. On a semi-related note, I love teaching C.S. Lewis’s “The Inner Ring,” which takes up this issue of groupthink, insider/outsider banter, etc., in edifying ways. The gist of Lewis’s argument is straightforward: serve the good, pursue excellence, become a planet, and, if you are going to eat dinner with the Devil, then bring a long spoon.