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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.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.