Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters

College chaplain Catherine Knott reflects on the role Robert Augustus Masters' book has played in her ministry.

Robert Augustus Masters
North Atlantic Books | Published July 27, 2010

A therapist colleague who works specifically with persons processing religious trauma once recommended this book to his followers on social media, and though I do not identify with this experience, I serve as a chaplain at a small liberal arts college where it resonates with many of our students. My interest in this publication came out of a desire to serve more faithfully in my vocation. Oh how I benefited from this book, but not merely in my capacity as a college chaplain. Masters makes clear that all of us, regardless of our ideology or theological orientation, participate to some extent in this coping mechanism. Suddenly I remembered the occasionally exasperated humor of Pam Holliman, a pastoral theologian serving in my doctoral program, teasing that rather than the depth of exploration, one should simply “just pray about it.”

This is not to say that prayer or spiritual practice are flippant rituals signifying nothing, but in the language of the Reformed faith, they can still serve as idols that distract us from genuine encounters with God, each other and ourselves.

In looking at the book as a whole, the real idol Masters wishes to confront is the idol of toxic positivity, a “near enemy” of hope that would have us “think the best” at the expense of taking in the larger reality of the world’s injustices, pain and our own suffering. He warns that our lack of intimacy with our “anger, fear, shame, doubt, terror … keeps our experience superficial … and addicted to whatever helps numb us to our negativity.” As I reflect on the propensity to arrive in sacred spaces looking well and cheerful, evading bigger questions, I wonder what it would take for us to lament as needed: can we openly confess that we are angry with God because we miss our deceased spouse, or that we have been diagnosed with a life-threatening health condition? Would we dare share this anger with one another? Ourselves?

I had my first bout of COVID-19 over a birthday and found myself attempting to downplay my frustration being stuck in bed with a fever in isolation in the basement. “Don’t worry, I can still taste the ice cream I made last week!” I was grateful for this, yes, but I also managed to avoid the thing for 2.5 years only to get it on my birthday. I would classify that as a terrible experience. To avoid a bypass, I would have to hold on simultaneously to “yes, I love a homemade butter pecan” and “it’s the pits feeling like I’m sleeping on a pile of broken beer bottles.”

Masters shares that it is “intimacy rather than transcendence which is our spiritual path.” To claim that a mark of spiritual maturity is an oblivion or repression of human experience and emotion is to deny the heart of the Christian Gospel: do we not worship a God who is fully flesh and bone, offering good wine at parties and screaming at money changers in a fury at the temple? If this is the essence of what it means to be fully human, then we do not need to insist that Lazarus “has gone to his eternal home” without wailing, or pretending we were not overcome with terror when we would rather not drink from that particular cup being offered. We are still given agency to discern carefully what actions to take upon the experience of a full emotional life, but this agency is terribly limited if not all experiences and emotions are welcomed freely.

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