Is Denial Authentic Spirituality?

I have a lot of friends who are part of what I call “The Happy-Happy, Joy-Joy” movement, a movement that transcends spiritual and religious traditions in many ways, although some spiritualities are centered entirely on Happy-Happy Joy-Joy (HHJJ).

I first experienced HHJJ in evangelical Christianity of the Televangelist bent. I still remember watching PTL, Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker’s televised theatre, when I went on vacation with my family as a child.  Back in the olden days, there was only one television channel in or around Rhinelander, WI, and so on rainy days when we couldn’t be swimming or fishing the only thing to watch was PTL. My brother and I found the whole thing rather hysterical, especially Tammy Faye’s tear and mascara streaked face and Jim’s propensity for tearful pseudo-confessions the “there’s some of you out there that hate me, and I know you hate me, and I love you for it!” High camp, high theater, and great – though inadvertent – comedy for children raised even marginally in mainline Protestantism. At the end of every show, Jim would say, “Remember, God loves you, he really does!” The clouds parted, and there is was – HHJJ!

It was a kind of lobotomized Christianity, a vision that said no matter how often the Blue Bird of Happiness took a crap on your forehead, you should just be bubbly and glee-filled because God loves you, he really does! Some of the HHJJ people walked around in a state of perpetual pseudo-bliss, with vacant smiles shining below vacant eyes. Rather than being in touch with reality, they were disconnected from reality in a profound way because they bought into the idea that real Christians were happy all the time, regardless of their circumstances!  A quick reality check of the life of anybody not caught in the bliss trap reveals that everyone has good days and bad days. So do the HHJJ people, of course, they just repress the bad days under a veil of denial so as not to be outed as something less than an adequate Christian.

You may be thinking this phenomenon is a bit of a historical artifact from the 1970s and 1980s, but you would be wrong. Although televangelism as a whole has taken a death-blow due to its lack of  integrity, the success of people like Joel Osteen proves that there are more than enough people lining up to buy denial and HHJJ as an authentic spiritual path. More significantly, the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) movement has spawned its own brand of this nonsense.

There are more spiritual coaches, life coaches, spiritual life coaches, angel coaches, past-life coaches, and all manner of other coaches – many of who have little to no training outside of a correspondence course or seminar to advise anyone on anything of more import than blowing their nose. To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but the problem is that it’s very difficult to objectively evaluate the qualifications or training of most of the plethora of “coaches” out there. One common thread these people preach is that we are not our past. On some level, I can agree, but our past certainly shapes who we are today. Another common thread is that your thoughts affect your reality. Again, I can agree to a certain extent. Then next step in the progression is that we can change our reality if we change our thoughts. Now we are on the precipice of some real trouble, because this is a half truth depending on whether we are talking about past events, current events, or future events. Certainly, cognitively reframing our past and even our present can change its impact on us for the better.

It is one thing to take the stance that our thoughts come and go and are often not based on an accurate perception of the current situation at all, as Buddhism does. For two very important reasons, it’s quite another thing to say that changing what we believe or what we are thinking can actually change reality in the present of future. The first is that it is a direct contradiction to say that, in the case of our past, our thoughts are often mistaken and if we change them we can change our reaction to the past while at the same time claiming that our thoughts not only determine the present and future but can change the outcome of the future in an ultimately real and concrete way – if for no other reason (and this is number two, if you are counting) than seven billion other people are also sending their thoughts out into the cosmos! You don’t have to be a math major to arrive at the following truth:

7,000,000,000 > 1

You see, our thoughts certainly do change our response to or understanding of reality, but they don’t change reality. They change our subjective perception of reality, and if we watch them closely enough we can indeed come to realize that our perceptions are very subjective and constantly changing! Believing that our thoughts are determinative of our reality is a kind of schizophrenic belief that we are all locked in our own dream world* and the presence of others in our lives is just an illusion. Believing that our thoughts determine ultimate reality and impact everyone is little more than psychotic narcissism. In either event, reality at best takes a back seat under the veil of denial.

Authentic spirituality should equip us to better deal with the vicissitudes of life through helping us engage that life as clearly and as fully as possible. Escapist spiritualities that either continually set us up for disappointment by projecting a rosy future just because we wish it to be so aren’t helpful, they are actually harmful. Perhaps even worse is that absurd notion, popularized by Caroline Myss, that our sorry lot in life exists because we chose it to be so pre-incarnately! Someone has been reading fecal matter as if it were tea leaves!

The truth is that shit happens, and every religious and spiritual system has an explanation for why shit happens. What every one of those explanations has in common is that it never stopped shit from happening. I need to say quite clearly that, from both a spiritual and psychological perspective, the most important question isn’t, “how did I land in this pile of dung?” but rather “where do I go from here?” Sitting in the dung and chanting, “It’s not dunnnnnnnnggggg” won’t change a thing! Making a decision about where we go from here requires clear vision, clear discernment, and the ability in assess the facts and options as we understand them. As the old saying goes, if wishes were horses, dreamers would ride. Spiritualities that seek to transport us via denial to a land that works oh-so-differently than the one we inhabit are – dare I say it? – the product of people without a solution who hope to sell you hope at a rather high personal and financial cost.

I’ll take a pass, thanks.


*I am aware that it can be argued that we are indeed all in a dream world, but I am speaking from a more everyday and less philosophical perspective here, independent of the Buddhist notions of relative and ultimate reality.

2 thoughts on “Is Denial Authentic Spirituality?

    1. Years ago, I preached a sermon called, “Happy Happy, Jesus.” The audio isn’t the best, but I may still have it somewhere and it might just be good revisiting it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s