The common space in which all religions appear to meet consists of two parts. First, there is an uneasiness that, reduced to its simplest terms, constitutes a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand. Second, there is a solution that says we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connections with higher powers.1
The human experience of religion and accompanying invisible, spiritual powers is a universal phenomenon.2 When working with our clients, we invariably see the nebulous concepts of “spirituality” and “God” emerge. This article addresses an inclusive approach that I have found helpful for clients to clarify their perceptions and values and their relationship with their spiritual power(s).
In initiating this topic with clients, I inform the group that this experience will occur in a spirit of tolerance and acceptance of everyone's views and values. First, clients receive a handout similar to the spectrum below—a model enabling them to identify their orientations (see figure).
The terms are explained. Atheists do not believe that any supreme deity exists. Agnostics tend to be skeptics and are convinced that there is no evidence. “Spiritualists” believe supernatural entities exist (i.e., there is a spiritual world). Theists believe in a supreme deity. Finally, there are clients who identify and believe in the God of a particular religion. Clients are encouraged to explain where they fit in. It is essential for the facilitator to reinforce support, as well as to validate the positions of everyone in the group. We discourage cross-talk and emphasize “I” messages for this topic.
The next phase addresses clients' perceptions of God. (The facilitator can opt to use the Step Three phrase “God as we understood him.”) The focus here is that everyone has an understanding and perception of God. We elaborate on the expression, “We make God in our own image.” This means that many of us project our self-image onto the God of our understanding. If our self-image is distorted, blurred, or cracked, we assume this is also true of God.
Recall going to a carnival or a traveling fair and gazing into a fun house mirror. Our image appears ridiculously tall, fat, or warped. Is the God of our understanding a “fun house mirror God”? We ask how accurate our beliefs, ideas, and images are about God.
The caregivers who raised us had a major impact on our view. They were the “gods” ruling over us, and they had the power to comfort or terrify. If there was abandonment and neglect, our image/ understanding of God may be that he/she/it is gone, absent, somewhere else, uncaring, or in some other universe. Such is the god of deism. If we received abuse, God may be critical, angry, unpredictable, judging, angry, unfair, and punishing. If our caregivers were loving and caring, our God may be loving, attached, supporting, forgiving, accepting, and wanting us to succeed.
The issue is made more complex when different parent figures displayed different traits, or if a primary figure exhibited multiple traits. Who does the child believe is the “real” parent—and God?
Our religious worship and clergy experiences also played a role. Regardless of one's faith background, did those experiences promote God as being loving, caring, and available? Experiences that emphasized hellfire, sin, and demons tend to create fear, guilt, anxiety, and shame. They seemed to imply that the powers of darkness are as great as the powers of light. More importantly, did members of the clergy practice what they preached? Children have a knack for detecting hypocrisy.
Mixed in with these influences were our caregivers' profession and practice of their religious beliefs. Did they also practice what they preached, or were they the “do as I say, not as I do” type? Did the Sunday Christian awaken with a Monday hangover? If the parent figure professed certain beliefs but engaged in behaviors that were blatantly contrary, this might have resulted in God's integrity being questioned.
Other potential influences include those from peer relationships, portrayals in the secular media, and the experience of traumatic life events. In terms of peers, many adolescents are mainly interested in material pursuits, and relationships with God are rarely discussed outside faith communities. Popular media usually portray God as indifferent or capricious, and clergy are often displayed as inept or “fallen.” Finally, traumatic life events such as accidents and diseases disfigure our image of God. Clients often need time to process when tragic events in life seem to contradict God's care.
Moreover, clients (and we) might have combinations of these experiences. It is little wonder why some have problems with “God as we understood him,” and why mention of God can inflame many clients. How do we break the impasse and move beyond the fun house mirror God—the images we project on the screen of our and others' imagination?
Questions benefit group
The next phase of this discussion entails clients' processing of the following material, in dyads, subgroups, or the large group. They receive written questions such as:
What is the nature of God? How do you understand him? What are God's traits, characteristics, and qualities? (They underline and discuss a number of options here, including “father,” “mother,” “judgmental,” “critical,” “wrathful,” “protector,” “power,” “distant,” “involved,” “uninvolved,” “above,” “within,” “punishing,” “caring,” “indifferent,” and “merciful.”)
Is God involved in your life? How? How do you know this?