The Depleted Self – how narcissism is linked to bureaucracy

I am currently continuing my reading on the writings of former Professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary Donald Capps.  I hope to write a more detailed review of the book ‘The Depleted Self – sin in a narcissistic age’, but want to write something here that struck me about his one of his comments on psychotherapeutic literature relating to narcissism.  

71evB0k1zILFirstly, narcissism is far more than mere obsessional “self-love”, following Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection, leading to his own suicide.  Capps very helpfully takes the reader through a maze of discovery drawing on contemporary theories, and critiques the Church for failing to distinguish between the old cultural value of guilt and the contemporary ones of shame, a cause itself of anxiety.  Theologians and Churches have rather denounced “narcissistic behaviour” and being locked into a “guilt” framework have thus focused on moralistic remedies that address superficial behaviours, and not underlying ontological causes and conditions.

Capps then differentiates between the “rugged individualist” and the “new individualist”.  While both are described as “isolates”, their isolations are polar opposites; the former are external-focused and so their own project, what they are concerned with, is too important to be concerned with wasting time on conviviality, small-talk, and leisure pursuits.  The latter are isolates because they cannot maintain interpersonal relationships, however desperately they try.  Unlike the “rugged individualist” who has a cause, the “new individualist” is his or her cause.

In any case, and bearing this in mind, Capps then draws on the work of Christopher Lasch who wrote The Culture of Narcissism:  American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979), and his subsequent book The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (1984).  Arguing that “consideration of clinically inspired theories on narcissism enables one to identify the unique form that narcissism has taken in our own age” (emphasis mine), he quotes Lasch,

“Theoretical precision about narcissism is important not only because the idea is so readily susceptible to moralistic inflation but because the practice of equating narcissism with everything disagreeable and selfish mitigates against historic specificity.  People have always been selfish, groups have always been ethnocentric; nothing is gained by giving these qualities a psychiatric label.  The emergence of character disorders as the most prominent form of psychiatric pathology, however, together with the change in personality structure this development reflects, derives from quite specific changes in our society and culture – from bureaucracy (emphasis mine), the proliferation of images, therapeutic ideologies, the rationalisation of the inner life, the cult of consumption, and . . . from changes in family life and . . . changing patterns of socialisation.  All of this disappears if narcissism becomes simply “the metaphor of the human condition . . . “” (p.73-74)

Capps observes the link between narcissism and bureaucracy, the type of social institutions and structures that dominate our day.  Quoting Lasch again,

“For all his inner suffering, the narcissist has many traits that make for success in bureaucratic institutions, which put a premium on the manipulation of interpersonal relations, discourage the formation of deep personal attachments, and at the same time provide the narcissist with the approval he needs in order to validate his self-esteem.  Although he may resort to therapies that promise to give meaning to life and overcome his sense of emptiness, in his professional career the narcissist often enjoys considerable success. (p.91)

Capps then makes this telling observation,

“Since our churches have taken on many characteristics of bureaucracies, it is not surprising that clergy are sometimes rewarded, not punished, for their narcissistic behaviour.” (p.9)

This works both ways however.  Capps is right on for calling out clergy, the priests and pastors who function in non-relational ways to validate a poor self-esteem.  I get that.  Everyone has issues.  Clergy are not CEO’s, and they should never behave as if they are!

So he’s right there, but it is true the other way round, when the flock want their shepherd to adhere to bureaucratic systems and structures that literally have nothing to do with the ministry and vocation of tending the flock and feeding the sheep.  One pastor/priest and a hundred sheep/parishioners – that’s a lot of people to resist especially if they’re hard-wired into these abstract systems and likely don’t even know it.  This creates a toxic environment whereby power-play becomes the ‘air one breathes.’  Churches are extremely prone to this danger, hence Anthony Thiselton in ‘On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise’ writes,

“The power of bureaucrats to define ‘norms’ and ‘acceptable’ procedures, together with the escalating of power which they gain through ‘surveillance’ and the possession of files and databanks makes it impossible for them to fail to exercise power-play.”

In an illuminating online article entitled Narcissism, Ignorance and Bureaucracy: A vicious combinationR. Scott Clark makes a similar case relating to schools and what drives how they function (Clark writes in an American context, but I suspect this is not dissimilar to a UK one too, since it is part of a Western phenomena),

“Bureaucrats measure things. They deal in quantifiable data. Increasingly schools have become dependent upon federal dollars and thus they must play by federal rules. They must quantify. Thus, the testing regime has gravitated toward models that can be measured on the basis of quantifiable “outcomes.””

I suspect that many clergy hide behind the cloak of bureaucracy because they are within a social and cultural context that prizes multiple layers of complex bureaucratic processes, processes which never have an end, and only self-serve and self feed, like a vampire that wants more and more blood.  Clergy are more susceptible than many (most? all?) to falling for this since ministry itself will not yield or capitulate to “quantifiable date” as an ultimate controlling factor.  The Spirit blows where it will.  Can we control God or reduce the Gospel down to meaningless data and processes?  G. K. Chesterton once observed, “I do believe in Christianity, and my impression is that a system must be divine which has survived so much insane mismanagement.”  Quite!

Being aware of this and working on it, as individuals and church, will lead towards the building of authentic community, and that is Good News.

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