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Identity Foreclosure and Adventist Education

For the past several years, as part of my ongoing doctoral studies in political science, I have been the teaching assistant to a professor whose areas of expertise are terrorism, Middle Eastern politics, and world political leadership. Among the theories he often discusses in his lectures on the pathologies of totalitarian dictators and violent religious actors are the ideas of Danish-German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, perhaps best known for his biographies of Gandhi and Luther. I have been thinking recently about how Erikson’s work, as well as the work of several others, might help to shed light on some highly rigid expressions of Adventist identity.

Identity Foreclosure

According to Erikson, psychologically healthy individuals must successfully navigate eight developmental stages between birth and death. One of the most critical periods in this process occurs between adolescence and young adulthood. We must develop a clear sense of personal identity, Erikson suggests, not simply by following the prescribed paths laid out by our elders but by exploring other possibilities, challenging perspectives, and alternative values. The final result of this period of searching may be a decision to retain much of what we have received from an early age. But it is essential, Erikson concluded, that this choice be based upon one’s weighing of multiple perspectives and wrestling with life’s complexities for oneself.

Some individuals, however, never pass through this critical stage of identity formation (or else do so only very partially). Erikson’s term for this lack was identity foreclosure. Identity foreclosure can happen for a number of reasons, including an existential crisis or trauma such as an experience of social marginalization or the death of a loved one. Typically, though, individuals with foreclosed identities are persons whose sense of self-esteem has been highly dependent from an early age on the approval of strong authority figures, especially their parents and most often their fathers. They are men and women who experience unusual pressures in childhood to conform to the values and expectations of others. Having been denied the “moratorium” or leeway in adolescence to delay adult commitments, they prematurely embrace a set of values that was forged for them.

Individuals who have undergone identity foreclosure might be highly successful in many ways. But their personalities are also marked by certain destructive psychological traits. They are less self-reflective than others. They are often mentally rigid, tending to see the world in terms of simplifying narratives that are beyond question. They are incapable of incorporating new values or perspectives into their ideological framework. They have difficulty cultivating warm and intimate relations even among some of their closest friends and loved ones. They have little patience with ambiguity and little intellectual curiosity regarding unfamiliar ways of thinking. They seek refuge in overarching meaning structures that are uncompromising and total. They are often deeply concerned with maintaining authority structures and upholding traditional religious values.

Premature Integrity

Identity foreclosure can be linked in the political realm to a form of total commitment that Erikson said was the hallmark of all ideological leaders and that he described as “premature integrity” (in his book Young Man Luther, with reference to the extreme case of Hitler). The individual’s psyche comes to be dominated by an obsessive desire for “dictatorial Allness,” an acute sense of being responsible for everything, and an overweening will, Erikson wrote, to impose upon others “his medium of salvation.”

Premature integrity of another kind can be detected among religious converts who are attracted to “strong” belief systems that offer simplifying and totalizing worldviews. Prior to their conversions, these individuals often feel deeply alienated from society. They reject moderate political as well as religious paths from a conviction that moderation or “liberalism” is both ineffectual and morally corrupting. In many cases this occurs as a flight on the part of the individual from aspects of their own personality they have come to abhor. There is a recurring pattern, for example, among many converts to radical forms of Islam and Christianity: these individuals are often young men who have gone through a period of licentiousness and hedonism that leaves them plagued with a sense of guilt and sinfulness. Their premature integrity lies in their total identification with a narrow path that restores order and discipline to their lives in a world where the center no longer holds and their psyches seem to be on the verge of unraveling.

In his prescient 1995 book, Islam in Revolution, Richard Dekmejian identified 11 defining psychological traits of the ideal-type convert to radical or “fundamentalist” Islamism. These psychological traits are easily transferable to other forms of religious extremism or “fundamentalism.” Among them, Dekmejian writes, we find:

1) Inferiority/Superiority: “The feelings of inferiority among fundamentalists are a direct consequence of their alienation and inability to find a niche in society. These inferiority feelings are transformed into manifestations of aggressive superiority as soon as the neophyte becomes co-opted [into a fundamentalist organization].”

2) Intolerance: The intolerance of the fundamentalist “stems from the dogmatic content of their creed and their total identification with its strict precepts. Closely related is their unforgiving attitude toward all ‘deviationists.’”

3) Fear of the Other: The fundamentalist “is apt to see ‘evil forces’ at work in a hostile environment. He displays a deep distrust of people and governmental institutions to which he ascribes malevolent intentions.  He is inclined to divide the world into rigid categories according to clear-cut stereotypes.”

4) Moral Austerity/Perfectionism: “In keeping with their strict interpretation of [what it means to be a true believer], the fundamentalists reject the easy path in their social, sexual, and political activities.  They manifest rigid discipline, an austere lifestyle and readiness to struggle and sacrifice.”

5) Conformity/Authoritarianism: “The fundamentalist pledges absolute obedience to [God], the Prophet, and to the charismatic leader of the movement…His behavior is conditioned by strict conformity to group norms as promulgated by the leader.”

“New Religious Movements”

The psychological attraction among many “true believers” to authoritarianism and conformism (albeit a conformism stridently posing as heroic rebellion) includes a desire for rigidly prescribed codes of thought as well as behavior. These can in fact be simultaneously healthy and dysfunctional in highly ambiguous ways. 

For example, a 2007 study (“Feeling Good, but Lacking Autonomy”) describes New Religious Movements as typically small and marginal groups that provide “simple, clear, quick, and easy answers to religious and existential questions people have about the important issues of life.” They tend to emphasize a high interdependence between “beliefs, ideas, practices, norms and everyday rules.” They “underline the absolute character of their truth, and the non-negotiable character of their ideas, beliefs, and practices.”  Their worldview is also “heavily dualistic in that they classify everything (groups, persons, ideas, practices) into good and evil”.  Members of the in-group are “perceived as good whereas the ‘external’ world is perceived as bad.”

The study found that entering into one of these movements, whether Catholic or Protestant, had many positive psychological and social outcomes. It promoted health, lowered stress, led to declines in drug use, improved interpersonal relations, and increased support networks. At the same time, joining a New Religious Movement had highly negative psychological effects that we might conclude outweigh these benefits.

The kinds of people who are attracted to New Religious Movements to begin with “are rigid on religious and socio-moral issues, submissive and conformist.” This creates an insidious feedback loop: the organizations draw in people with especially rigid psychologies and emotional insecurities, and once in the group these individuals then strive to make sure that the organization remains highly rigid and authoritarian in all of its beliefs and practices.

Adventist Education

These established psychological studies have important implications for Adventist belief and practice in many areas. I will simply highlight their importance as I see it for one: Adventist education.

We can imagine two divergent possibilities for Adventist colleges and universities. The first would be a system of education aimed at ensuring that Adventist adolescents make final decisions about matters of ultimate significance as early as possible—a sure recipe for producing believers with all of the negative psychological traits of identity foreclosure. This approach—in which the emphasis is on imparting only “correct” beliefs and inoculating students from corrupting outside influences—is no doubt strongly favored by many individuals who themselves are the products of precisely this kind of education and upbringing. And it is clear that Adventist education is already severely hampered by the influence these individuals exercise within the community, including their ability to intimidate church leaders and dictate the academic agenda.

As Old Testament scholar and past president of the Adventist Theological Society Roy Gane recently lamented on the seminary blog “Memory, Meaning & Faith,” open discussion with serious scholars who hold non-traditional views about Genesis and creation has been sharply curtailed at Andrews University due to the power exerted by “members of the church who would pounce on the Seminary leadership, as they have in the recent past, if we host a speaker whose ideas are controversial in our environment.” There are undoubtedly some who “think our Seminary should be like a glorified SDA catechism class,” Gane observed.  He continued:

Is it possible that many young people are leaving the church because we have never taught them how to think for themselves? Have those who want to deny us the opportunity for productive scholarly discussion with outside speakers thought about that? Should we go on bowing to their pressure?

A very different approach to Adventist education would be aimed at creating spaces in which young adults are granted the “moratorium,” as Erikson called it, to explore very different ways of thinking with the support of Christian educators who have wrestled with difficult questions and who understand that there are not always simple answers to pressing dilemmas in the life of faith. While it would no doubt be possible to find ample quotes from Ellen White in defense of both approaches, I will simply say that one of my own favorite statements by White is her declaration that the goal of education is to make students thinkers and not merely reflectors of other people’s thoughts—that is, I would paraphrase, to make them thinkers and not individuals with premature integrity or foreclosed identities.

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