The origins of my recent concern with spiritual incest lie in my youth when I was raised in a very cloistered denominational environment. I would like to elaborate as it would help shed light on my observations.
My first year out of high school I spent in a very conservative seminary. This seminary taught formally and rigorously themes which I had already imbibed in my church upbringing. For example, there was pronounced emphasis on the Pauline admonishment to, “Come ye out from among them and be ye separate.” This meant to be morally upright so that the community would clearly know that you were different because of your faith, that your Christian testimony was unsullied by the temptations of the world. But this same teaching was applied to ecclesiastical teachings as we were taught that our churches also should be “set apart” by our doctrinal purity and by our hard-line stance on moral issues of the day. Furthermore, we were taught that this moral and doctrinal purity had set us apart throughout history, even back to the time of Christ, as we had been the only church which had been “stead fast in the faith” even as other churches routinely departed from the “faith once delivered unto the saints.” And another dimension of this teaching was that we were the only true church, the only church with historical continuity back to the original church that Jesus had started when he noted, “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
We did allow that there were people in other denominations who were saved…somewhat… provided that in some shape form or fashion they had “accepted the Lord Jesus as their Savior”; but by virtue of not belonging to the “true church” they would not be part of the “bride of Christ” when they got to heaven. This “bride of Christ” was an exalted status that would be given to the true church that had steadfastly held to the foundations of the faith throughout history. However, there were many who were not saved and who would spend eternity in hell, among them being Catholics, Jews, and Mormons and that is not even counting the hordes in other cultures who had not even heard of Christ.
Now, one example of the “historical scholarship” alluded to already needs to be further explained. Great emphasis was placed on tracing church lineage back to the time of Christ as the only true church had to be able to prove historical continuity back to the time of Christ. This was done by painstakingly researching church history and ascertaining which religious groups and movements adhered to cardinal teachings of the faith, one of which was “believer’s baptism”, meaning rejection of pedo-baptism (sprinkling of infants).
I could go on and on with an endless litany of beliefs and practices which set us apart as special people. And, indeed it was often noted that the Bible taught that God would create a “peculiar” people (and, oh my Lord, were we ever “peculiar”!!!!), a people “set apart”, a “chosen people” who had the task of representing the Kingdom on earth. Furthermore, we had the task of “standing in the gap” and acting as a deterrent from the onslaught of the evil forces that always beset this “wicked world.”
Now, so much of this dogma has a place if taken with moderation and with humility. For example, I think that persons of faith will stand out and be conspicuous by simply representing quality and by seeking value in their life. But they will not have to flaunt it! And they certainly will not have to announce it with pride and arrogance! They will not have to be ostentatious with it. It will not have to be a response to an impoverished identity; it will not have to be a fig leaf that hides them from their existential nakedness.
And this “incest” label is admittedly heavy-handed and is not exclusive to sectarian religion. All religions, and indeed all groups, tend to be self-serving and tend to set their boundaries too rigid. All groups tend to err towards “group-think” in which their primary purpose becomes the perpetuation of their own dogma and the exclusion of those who are threatening. I recently quoted W. H. Auden on this note, where he described the individual who would deign to question conventional wisdom, diving into
…the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie.