Fundamentalism, Kohut’s Narcissism, And A Prescription For Church Leaders

Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and others, believe that religion is the single most influential cause of aggression and violence in the world. While I do believe religion, in the form of archaic and destructive doctrines and practices, can promote violence, I believe the phenomenon of fundamentalism could be partly to blame, especially as it relates to a deep-seated narcissism in some of it’s adherents. In this pondering, I want to look at the social phenomenon of fundamentalism, particularly Christian fundamentalism in the West, through the lens of Heinz Kohut’s (1913-1981) theory of self psychology, which includes his unique understanding of narcissism. Despite Kohut’s work being slightly outdated, I believe his ideas can offer some interesting food for thought. I also want to end with a few prescriptive ideas that can help pastors and leaders, and, well all Christians for that matter, thwart the yeast of fundamentalism from expanding in one’s soul and congregations. If you are not into theory (or don’t have time), then jump right into the prescription.


Kohut’s Model in a Nutshell


Selfobject is an important concept in Kohutian thought. Robert Randall, the author of Pastor and Parish (2008), writes, “a self survives and is maintained in a milieu of real, remembered, anticipated, or fantasized selfobject support, whether human, divine, or inanimate” (p.153). Selfobjects can be people, ideas, symbols, things, buildings, groups, cultures, etc., that nourish, support, and maintain our sense of selves in the world. Note the word, selves. Our “self,” is not a solitary and unitary self, but a relational self; a self that exists in various self-states, with each one emerging in different contexts.


Although there have been additions since Kohut’s initial theory, Kohut originally stated that we have three primary needs from self-objects. Kohut’s original selfobject needs are defined as: 1. Mirroring– Mirroring is a need to be admired and seen as “the apple of someone’s eye.” 2. Idealization– Idealization is a selfobject need to form and merge with an idealized and omnipotent type of other. The above can be demonstrated by a child who admires and seeks to merge with his or her idealized parents. The child identifies with the idealized parent (all powerful, all wise, all loving), precisely because those are qualities the child lacks, thus bringing experiences of calm, safety and inspiration. 3. Twinship– Twinship is a need to be in a relationship with those who are similar to oneself. Twinship needs are focused on belonging to groups of likemindedness. 


Selfobject needs are important throughout the lifespan. Robert Randall writes, “Every individual needs the mirroring, idealizing, and alteregoing responses of selfobject others. We never outgrow these needs. They are as psychologically essential as air for our body.  Without them we not only emotionally perish, we may even physically perish—personally, as well as a cultural group” (Randall, 1988, p. 52). Although self-object needs are important throughout our lives, they are paramount when we are young children.


It is vital for children to be looked upon with joy, adoration and approval by their parents who are our primary selfobjects. A child needs to be seen as the “gleam in his mother’s eye” (Lessem, 2002, p. 39). Adequate selfobjects help children form a cohesive and functioning self, helping them to organize their feeling states and achieve agency in the world. A lack of selfobjects fulfilling the needs of mirroring, idealizing, and twinship, stunt the child’s emotional growth. Kohut writes, “Defects in the self occur mainly as the result of empathy failures from the side of the selfobjects” (1977, p. 87). The lack potentially sends them into a psychological abyss and as they grow older, causes them to unconsciously clamor for selfobjects  hoping to fill them and provide repair to the original deficits .


When children’s needs from selfobjects are not met, then narcissistic woundings can trigger feelings of frustration, anger, rage, and aggressive behaviors such as, name calling, screaming, or hitting (much like what happens with fundamentalists). As the child grows up with selfobject needs not being met, their development is arrested. The child grows into an adult with the original selfobject needs remaining intact, yet they are pushed outside of conscious awareness. They become adults with narcissistic deficits, which cause them to be one injury away from fragmentation and aggression.


Rather than Freud’s, or Christianity’s, “guilty man,” Kohut sees the human plight as “tragic man.” Pathology is not about unconscious destructive drives gone haywire or original sin, rather, it stems from a lack of love, or more precisely, a lack of selfobject mirroring, idealizing and twinship needs.


Defining Fundamentalism


The term fundamentalism was first coined in 1920, within the framework of American Protestantism. The term was used as a reference to strict conservatives in the Northern Baptist Convention. The Baptist’s were responding vehemently to “higher criticism, Darwinism”, “liberalizing influences”, which they believed assaulted “the truth”, which they believed, should never be compromised (Dowd & Nielsen, 2006, p. 145).


In many ways trying to define fundamentalism is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. Today the term can mean different things depending on who is using the term. As Partridge points out (2001), “fundamentalism is not precisely definable, and any article on the subject needs to be aware of its many contexts and meanings” (p.20). Fundamentalism is not just restricted to religious groups but can also apply to groups with “strongly held ideological positions” such as can be found in the world of science and politics (I have seen a few Trump supporters who might fit the bill)(Hood, Hill & Williamson, 2005, p.6).


Although fundamentalism is hard to define, I will propose that fundamentalism, in the religious sense, is: 1. A reaction against change, 2. Tends to depersonalize and dehumanize other people, and 3. Possesses mirror-hungry leaders and ideal-hungry followers.  The above list is by far exhaustive, but it is a good start (after all, this isn’t a book, it is a blog, well, admittedly an essay of sorts). I will now go through each one of the above and show how it relates to Heinz Kohut’s self psychology.


Reaction Against Change


Fundamentalism was conceived as a reaction against modernism. Using a broad-brush, modernism could be thought of as a radical shift in society in the late 19th and early 20th century. Modernism emphasized rational thought, science, individuality, creativity, and technology, as a means to increase the betterment of society. Modernism is in contrast to the pre-modern period where superstition, faith, submission to religious officials, and keeping tradition at all costs, was highly prized.


There is a symbiotic relationship between fundamentalism and the modern secular world. Fundamentalism was, and remains, a reaction against radical change. Fundamentalism and the communities they abhor are inextricably linked to one another. Peter Herriot, the author of, Religious Fundamentalism and Social Identity, aptly writes, “They would fail to exist at all if there were no secular world to fight against, since the struggle is their raison d’etre” (p.14). Without realizing it, the fundamentalist identity is tied to the very society, and people within that society, that they judge and despise. For example, who would Westboro Baptist Church become without the “evil sinners” they continue to rail against? Who would Isis be without “the infidels”?


Where do the fundamentalist’s reactions come from? Why do fundamentalists hold onto to their religious texts ever more tightly in the midst of change, as children hold tenaciously to their security blankets in times of distress? What are fundamentalists afraid of?  Why are aggressive acts, such as bombs, bullets, or barrages of militant rhetoric, used against the “evil ones” (aka. those who act and believe differently then they do)? Heinz Kohut’s theory of self psychology can offer some insights. Before we continue, let it be known to the reader that I hesitate to label someone “a fundamentalist,” mostly because I hate labeling in general. People are much more than labels. For simplicity sake, I will use the term “fundamentalist” as one who holds to the tenets of fundamentalism.


Through the lens of Kohut’s theory, we can view some of the reactions of fundamentalists as reactions due to the triggering of “narcissistic injuries”. The injuries are originally due to the lack of empathic responses from early caregivers, and now in the present, are inflicted, or rather triggered, by the culture as selfobject.


When the disparity is low between the ideals and values of one’s culture, and of one’s ideological or religious beliefs, then there is no need for fundamentalists to react. One’s sense of self is protected, or at least, what fragmented self they do have is kept intact. When the culture is mirroring the fundamentalist, they also maintain feelings of safety and security. When the disparity starts to widen, then the fragmented self is threatened. As the culture distances itself from the fundamentalist’s beliefs and practices, it feels to them like an appendage is being ripped off from their body. When the appendage is fully torn off, the narcissistically wounded individual, or group, feels betrayed and desires to annihilate it.


When their ideals, values and norms are not mirrored back to them, their narcissitic injuries give rise to the powder keg of narcissistic rage. Narcissistic rage is “the response of the person’s sense of self that is threatened with fragmentation due to a failure of insufficiency in experienced selfobject relatedness” (Lessem, 2005, p. 202). For example, have you ever been in conversation with someone who had a different viewpoint, and as time went on, they became aggressive, lashing out verbally or physically? Aggression and narcissistic injuries are linked. Aronson (2011) points out, “Pain and discomfort are major precursors of aggression. If an organism experiences pain, and cannot flee the scene, it will invariably attack” (p.266). Many times the fundamentalist is getting angry not just because you think differently than they do but because unconsciously their fragmented self and illusory identity are in jeopardy. Their narcissistic wounding is being triggered, which triggers their flight and fight part of the brain, and in turn, they protect themselves by acting out aggressively.


According to Kohut, all humans have mirroring, alter-ego (twinship), and idealizing needs throughout the lifespan. Due to the fundamentalist’s immature, and narcissistically wounded self, they have chronic and exaggerated narcissistic needs that when left unmet can be easily triggered and induce anger and rage. “It is the threat to the self which explains the simplicity of the existential beliefs, and their unwillingness to read anything which might challenge them” (Hood, Hill & Williamson, 2005, p.55). Instead of valuing different opinions and viewpoints they see difference as a threat to their fractured selves.


Fundamentalists do not allow for diversity and change because their narcissistic desires for twinship (or alterego) and mirroring needs demand that people become carbon copies or extensions of themselves. Of course, for all adults, it is important to find people that we can feel an affiliation and sense of belonging. The difference between mature narcissistic needs and unhealthy ones are, “In mature adulthood, we can enjoy these twinship experiences while at the same time respecting and valuing others and ourselves for our differences” (Lessem, 2005, p. 52).


To the degree that one has a cohesive self (or selves which are integrated and can dance with each other in harmony), is to the degree that they can maintain flexibility in the midst of incongruent selfobject mirroring, idealizing, and twinship needs. A person who possesses a cohesive self, or what I would call a good enough self (as opposed to one who is perfect and has it all together), can hold strongly to their own values and beliefs while respecting others.  


Depersonalization and Polarization


There is a tendency for fundamentalists to experience people who believe differently than they do as labels, concepts, and abstractions, rather than, authentic human beings, created in the Imago Dei, deserving of empathy and respect. Depersonalization refers to the, tendency to pay attention to those characteristics of the person which represent his or her social identity, and to ignore those which represent his or her personal identity. Members are, as it were, interchangeable” (Herriot, 2007, p. 32). In addition to depersonalization, a hallmark of charismatic, and often times, narcissistically wounded leaders, is “absolutist polarizing rhetoric, drawing their followers together against the outside enemy” (Post, 2004, p. 287). The above dualism refers to the tendency for fundamentalists to view reality in terms of binary opposites, which can provide for them a cohesive meaning system, which ultimately provides for a more an illusive cohesive self (Lessem, 2005, p.17). An enemy gives the fundamentalist a reason to live for and by splitting the enemy as all bad, infuses their self with total goodness and specialness. 


People are more than categories and labels. People are more than “saved or unsaved”, “good or evil”, “conservative or liberal” etc. Despite the occasional psychopath, most people, regardless of their labels, feel pain, fear, sadness, and joy. They have hopes, dreams, and families. They have a backstory to how they have become the person they have become.


Narcissistic fundamentalists are devoid of real empathy. Therefore, it is impossible for them to enter into someone else’s shoes, especially if they consider them a mere categorical abstraction. To the degree that a person is unable to enter into someone else’s world, and connect with them as a fellow human being, is the degree, to which they possess an immature, narcissistic structure. Heinz Kohut (1985) poignantly writes:


They seem to combine an absolute certainty concerning the power of their selves and an absolute conviction concerning the validity of their ideals with an equally absolute lack of empathic understanding for large segments of feelings, needs, and rights of other human beings and for the values cherished by them.  They understand the environment in which they live only as an extension of their own narcissistic universe (p.204).


Mirror-Hungry Leaders and Ideal-Hungry Followers  


Mirror-hungry leaders are those who need constant attention, admiration and affirmation from those around them so that they can nourish their fractured, empty and mirror-starved selves. In order for the mirror-hungry leaders to receive the craved attention they must put on a good show and be able to communicate “grandeur, omnipotence, and strength” (Post, 2004, p.191). Unfortunately, many fundamentalist leaders are like the Wizard, in the Wizard of Oz.


The Wizard is the unseen ruler of a land called Oz. He is known to be wise, powerful, and capable of solving everyone’s problems. Dorothy, the troubled main character, goes to see the Wizard, believing that he can solve her problem and help her get back home. Unfortunately, he was no Wizard; he was a conman from Omaha, Nebraska. Many leaders are like the Wizard of Oz, putting on a show. Behind the great oratorical skills, Bible knowledge, PowerPoint, and hip clothes, is a little boy or girl, yearning to get the mirroring he or she was deprived of as a child. They are emperors with no clothes.


Peter Lessem describes a young, omnipotent type of leader named Steven, whose vertical split took the form of a grandiose self on one side, and an extremely insecure, sensitive and fragile part on the other (the part that he did not let anyone see, including himself). Lessem (2005) writes,


“Steve’s vertical split took the form of sequestering a grandiose sense of himself, which we call his ‘superman self.’  When this sense of self came to the fore, he believed that he was more capable than anyone else, that he had superior abilities and powers. Not surprisingly, given his treatment at home, Steve suffered with painfully poor self-esteem and states of depletion in which he felt worthless and empty” (p.46).


Ideal-hungry followers are those who long to merge with omnipotent figures to feel a sense of wholeness. Post (2004) notes the distinction between the “psychologically healthy follower rendered temporarily needy by societal stress from the ideal-hungry follower who only feels whole when merged with the idealized other” (p.187). Ideal-hungry followers are wrapped up in the fundamentalist group and the omnipotent, mirror-hungry leader to feel a sense of identity cohesion. They are actually in a symbiotic relationship together. Both the ideal-hungry follower and mirror-hungry leader need each other to keep from fragmenting and falling apart.


John, a fairly new Christian, who was passionate about church and known for his somewhat aggressive evangelism efforts in his community, is an example of an ideal-hungry follower. John raved about his pastor, took detailed notes of all his life-changing sermons, and even on occasion washed and detailed the pastor’s car for free. That all changed after John’s pastor fell into sin. After John’s omnipotent leader, who could do no wrong, fell, he harshly judged the pastor, furiously left the church, and after a few months left his faith entirely. The ideal-hungry follower elevated the pastor as a god, and in some ways allowed the mirror-hungry pastor to believe for him. Once the faith-filled pastor fell, then so did John.  


A Prescription for Church Leadership: A Road Less Traveled

Emotionally Healthy Leadership


So what can pastor’s do to help stifle unhealthy narcissistic fundamentalist traits within themselves and within their congregations? I would suggest that one thing pastors can do is prioritize spiritual/emotional health. This right-brain paradigm shift that views emotional health and spiritual health as interconnected, as opposed to the unfortunate compartamentalising that is all too common, is paramount in contemporary leadership. To the degree that leaders experience emotional/spiritual wholeness (not perfection), is to the degree that they can foster the same healthy holistic traits in those they minister to. Robert Randall (1988) writes,


The development and the fostering of a pastor’s self, therefore, is not only a personal issue but a vocational one as well.  Being a cohesive person (having a cohesive self-structure) and being a cohesive, empathic minister are inextricably related. Although, thankfully, God’s work through us is not limited by the quality of the human vessel, the self of the person does shape how the Word is heard and received (p.203).


Pastors and leaders need to listen to the wisdom of Jesus, who said, “take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). This above truth is vitally important if Pastor’s wish to take seriously the emotional/spiritual health of themselves and their congregations. Pastors must first deal with their own planks of immature narcissism, misogyny, misandry, bitterness, lust, greed, etc. before they erroneously attempt to take those same planks out of the eyes of those they minister to, and worse, out of the eyes of those who have not signed up to the Christian faith. Pastors reproduce after their own kind. The healthier they are, the healthier their congregations will be, and the greater impact they will have in their communities.


Peter Scazzero, the author of, The Emotionally Healthy Church, writes, “emotional health and spiritual health are inseparable—(and) will amount to a Copernican revolution for many in the Christian community. It is not possible for a Christian to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature” (Scazzero , 2003, p.50). There truly needs to be a revolution when it comes to the overall leadership development of pastors and church leaders. Without emotional/spiritual healing, pastors will remain narcissistically selfobject-starved and do what they do primarily out of inner emotional deficits, rather, then out of the love of God and their identity as the beloved.


Pastors, leaders, and Christians in general, need to stop using the sacred text as a weapon to dehumanize others as well as angrily judging, demonizing and depersonalizing them and take time to reflect on where the angst and anger is really coming from. For example, how many times have pastors who have angrily railed against what they perceive as the heinous sins of homosexuality and other sexual sins, only to be outed that they were in affairs and sexual addictions of their own?


Pastors and church leaders need to face their demons. They need to venture into the place they have been neglecting to go their entire lives: the innermost parts of their soul. Pastors are encouraged to take stock of their deprivations, losses, and woundings, throughout their lifespan, and have the courage to invite the love of both God, and a few trusted others, into those tender places. There is a reason emotional health is a road less traveled, and that is because it is painful and scary to see the demoniac within their own dungeon. Yet, the rewards to do so exponentially outweigh the cost to remain the same.


Seminaries, or pastor factories, are the perfect place for this type of soul searching, healing, and spiritual formation to take place. Unfortunately, cemeteries, oops, I mean seminaries, have not always provided a place for this to occur.


For too long, seminaries, which inextricably form and shape pastors and church leaders, have been encapsulated in a modernistic framework. Though there are examples of seminaries such as Alliance Theological Seminary in New York, that have vowed to take emotional/spiritual health seriously, many continue to emphasize propositions over persons and dead languages over living tongues. Instead of spiritual/emotional formation and fostering healthy personal relationships with God, self and others they have focused on making sure their students possess perfect doctrines, master the three-point sermon, and grasp ancient languages. While it is good to forge the mind in the furnace of academic rigor, it should not be done to the neglect of other aspects of their spiritual lives, such as their emotional, relational and social development.


Churches and seminaries emphasis on mental development over every other aspect of the pastor’s self has had serious consequences. It is sad to admit the amount of pastors who have devastated, and in some cases destroyed, the lives of others, because of unresolved emotional pain from the past. As the adage goes, “Hurt people, hurt people,” and “Wounded people, wound people”. What does it matter if a pastor can pray three hours a day, fast twice a week, and deliver a fantastic sermon on Sunday when he or she verbally abuses their spouses at home, is addicted to pornography, fends off incessant suicidal ideations, is extremely insecure, and is desperate for the accolades of others. May there be a day when we are not wowed by a pastor’s great knowledge-base and superb oratorical skills, but instead by their character, by their emotional/spiritual health, and by their robust relationships with God and others.


Epistemological Humility


The fundamentalist’s desire to be soothed and feel safe and secure is so strong that their tendency to engage in absolute thinking becomes inevitable. Additionally, the fundamentalist’s whole self is wrapped up in the sacred text, or mirror hungry leader, so much so, that even if information could prove that both the text and the omnipotent figure were proven to be in error, the person would continue to believe as a way to reduce cognitive dissonance and ultimately avoid the threat to the wounded self (Herriot, 2007,  p.55). When a person is not open to growing in faith and knowledge, then it points to a defense mechanism rather than a relational and open journey with a God whose depths are infinite.


Those infected with the spirit of fundamentalism and subsequent unhealthy and immature narcissism do not permit themselves to be flexible in their belief system or to value diversity. The only colors that remain in their spectrum wheel are black and white. The fundamentalist believes they are fighting for God’s truth yet little do they realize they are actually fighting to keep their anxiety at bay due to what they experience as living in a chaotic, raucous, and rainbow-colored and frightening world.


Desiring a personal meaning system is healthy and natural, but for fundamentalists, they crave a metanarrative so all-encompassing because it must fill every crack of their fractured selves. Unfortunately, when we attempt to squeeze out of a metanarrative, which only can provide God (ultimate comfort, safety, security, specialness), then we engage in idolatry. I suggest that one critical prescription that leaders can adopt to keep from the idolatry of fundamentalism, is epistemological humility.


Embracing epistemological humility, and opening up oneself to mystery and paradox, will allow pastors and leaders to fight against the narcissistic tendency to think in absolutes, which will reduce the likelihood of dualistic and dehumanizing tendencies. Epistemological humility concedes that all of us see through a glass darkly. It is an acknowledgment that our particular language communities, childhood experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds, the country we grew up in, etc, shape our beliefs, therefore, no one has a definitively God’s-eye-view on truth. If God’s truth were so black-and-white, there would not be over 30,000 different Christian denominations and sects who believe they are all taking the Bible seriously. Epistemological humility understands that if God wanted us to be like Chia Pets, then God would have created us that way.


Epistemological humility suggests that we do not have all the answers, and the answers that we do have are to be held with paradoxical tension: both firmly and lightly. Epistemological humility realizes that none of us have the epistemic upper hand and that we all could be wrong, or at least open to admitting that we are partially right, in our beliefs about God, ourselves, and the world we live. I am reminded of Keanu Reaves, who played an orthodontist in the movie Thumbsucker (2005). There was a scene where he was talking to Justin, his patient, about the human tendency to have a need to figure it all out. He said to him:


…we all wanna be problemless. To fix ourselves. We look for some magic solution to make us all better, but none of us really know what we’re doing. And why is that so bad? That’s all we humans can do. Guess. Try. Hope. But, Justin, just pray you don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got the answer. Because that’s bull&%#*. The trick is living without an answer. I think.”


I am not advocating that all is relative, there are no answers, and let’s forget about the pursuit of truth. I am not suggesting to nihilistically eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we might die in an eternal abyss of nothingness. I believe that we can be firm in our faith, but at the same time develop a flexible faith. A flexible faith is open to being wrong, especially with biblically unclear doctrines. It is an acknowledgment that what we possess is partial and looks forward to expand on that knowledge as time goes on. It is a call to become “a/theists”, in that we “ought to affirm our view of God, while at the same time realizing that the view is inadequate” (Rollins, 2006, p. 25). It calls us to pray on occasion the prayer that Meister Eckhart prayed, “God, rid me of God.” It is an openness to learn from other traditions and affirm truth wherever we find it because all truth comes from God. Epistemological humility is also able to affirm confidently and passionately what we do believe. Epistemological humility does not mean one cannot boldly say, “Jesus is Lord,” or “God loves you and wants you to be saved”. It just means that when one does, they share it with love and humility, as opposed to a better-than, prideful, and arrogant manner.


My old theology professor said that theology (Theos- God, Ology- talk, reason) should be defined as, “human talk about human talk about God”. God extends way beyond our limited, yet, creatively constructed symbols, called words (there are about 6,500 different languages being spoken in the world today). Here is an important point to consider: The words we use to describe God are not God. It seems like such a simple statement, yet we are prone to cognitive fusion; fusing the words we use to describe God, as God. The images that we have in our minds are not actually God, they are just images and constructs of God. When a finger points at the moon, you wouldn’t say the finger is the moon. Our words and images point to God but can never be equated with God. Once again, that is not to say we don’t have truth; it is merely an acknowledgment that the divinely inspired truth that we do have is humanly constructed and thus, we should be open to ever closer approximations.


Epistemological humility puts us all to some degree in the same category of “lost” (no need to think in binaries; being “lost” does not preclude us from being able to boldly declare that we are “saved”). Being in the same lost category as everyone else can foster an empathic posture towards all of humanity, and in turn, reduce the tendency to marginalize, oppress, and harshly judge others. Even as Bible believing, Jesus loving Christians, can’t we acknowledge that, along with the rest of humanity, we are all on journey? Can’t we admit that we are all in process? And that we are all becoming? 


Pastors unknowingly provide a foundation for narcissistic fundamentalism when they propose a faith based solely on propositional truth. Pastors trained by left-brained seminaries that focused on human reason, systematic theologies, and apologetics missed out on the soul-deepening components of story, myth, metaphor, and images, all of which promote community, sacred history and interconnectedness. A fundamentalist can grow exponentially in the soil of modernism, like mold growing in a damp basement. But narcissism has a harder time flourishing in the soil of story, myth, metaphor and images.


Leonard Sweet (2000) spends a lot of time writing about church within the postmodern context. He writes,


“Postmodern theorists are charting the course to a new “scientific method.” The modes of knowledge in this new “scientific method” are more relational (less propositional), more experiential (less experimental), more image-based (less word-centered) and more celebratory and communal (less cerebral and individual)” (p.144).


As pastors adopt an attitude of epistemological humility, they cease to be an omnipotent figure, in which he or she has all the answers. Instead of preaching in thunderously dogmatic ways, especially when it comes to complex doctrines that are not specifically spelled out in the sacred text, it might be better when preaching to say, “Let me suggest to you” as opposed to, “This is the way it is.” I believe that the former way of preaching provides a better soil for mature narcissism to develop and for fundamentalist tendencies to be thwarted.


Some members of the congregation might experience what Kohut calls “optimal frustration”, or even narcissistic rage, because they are scared that their illusory omnipotent selfobject does not have all the answers. Perhaps the congregant’s optimal frustration is a good thing. It allows members of the congregation to think critically for themselves and not engage in idolatry, elevating their pastor as an all-knowing deity. Perhaps it can be an opportune time to point people towards the only real omniscient figure who possesses absolute truth, who is God (Truth is a person, right?).

Empathic Agents of Diversity


Narcissists can’t empathize with others because others are merely extensions of themselves. Empathic Agents of Diversity are those who seek to place their ego aside and compassionately enter into another’s experience. They are incarnational leaders who enter the world of the other and then attune to their needs, becoming who they need them to be in the moment, so as to promote healing and a more cohesive self. Jesus was an empathic agent of diversity.


Jesus was many things to different people. Jesus was a Lion, Lamb, Lover, the Bright and Morning Star, the Blessed and only Sovereign, the King of the Ages, the Horn of Salvation, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Lord our Righteousness, the Apostle and High Priest of our Confession, the Great High Priest, the Root and the Offspring of David, Judge, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Sunrise from on High, the Shepherd and Guardian of your Souls, the Messenger of the Covenant, Bridegroom, God, the Author and Perfecter of our Faith, the Author of Eternal Salvation etc. Jesus was the “I am, who I am”, or as some translate, “I am who you need me to be”.


The apostle Paul writes,


“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law…To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some”
(1 Corinthians 9:20-22).


As Agents of Diversity, pastors and leaders become others-focused and not view people as a means to a selfish end. They become the necessary and particular selfobjects people need in their moments of distress. They become “all things to all people” so that they will be able to “save” some (“save” in the Greek means “to heal, rescue and deliver”). Empathic agents of diversity are intuitive leaders who discern whether or not those they minister to need mirroring and affirmation, an omnipotent like leader/mentor, or a close friend/twin. They discern whether or not to be a lion and firm, a lover and gentle, a listener and friend, an omnipotent type figure and King, a Jester and Joker, etc. Instead of relying on their own strength and personality, which is easier to do, Empathic Agents of Diversity rely on the strength and power of the ONE who has called them to be leaders in the first place.


Jesus & The Pharisees


Jesus warned individuals of the “yeast” of the Pharisees (Mark 8:15). Jesus was alluding to the danger of the Pharisaic and narcissistic spirit that could contaminate and spread to those it touches. The yeast infected those it touched and caused people to elevate rites and rituals over relationships and arouse the manipulative desire to force people to be extensions of themselves. The Pharisees meant well; they wanted people to be right with God. Unfortunately, their fundamentalist flair was more bondage producing than liberating.


Like today’s fundamentalists, the Pharisees believed their religion and way of understanding God were the right and only way. They were also reacting against the heathen and contemporary system of their time. They had a tendency to want people, in word and deed, to be carbon copies of themselves. The Pharisees had a tendency to use dualistic language and depersonalize and dehumanize individuals (“The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector” [Luke 18:11]). They treasured the sacred text of Moses and there is no doubt they had their mirror-hungry leaders (Matthew, 6:5), and ideal-hungry followers.


Jesus was very harsh with the fundamentalists of his day. Although he felt compassion for them and desired to gather them together “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matthew 23:37), he boldly confronted their narcissistic fundamentalism.


Jesus’ response to the Pharisees was very stern, harsh and condemning. For example in the 23rd chapter of the book of Matthew, Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites six times. He calls them sons of hell (v.15), “blind guides” (v.16), and “blind fools” (v.17). Jesus tells them that they are “full of greed and self-indulgence” (v.25), and are “full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (v.28). Perhaps, Jesus approach to the Pharisees, was the most loving stance he could have with them? Perhaps, it was the only style of communication they could hear that would cause them to reflect and turn from their ways, and turn back to a loving God?


Jesus despised the fundamentalist yeast (not the people whom the yeast infected) and so should we. Perhaps there are times when Pastors and leaders must ask WWJD and confront someone whose narcissism is causing others harm? Although Kohut believed the narcissist could heal through relentless empathy, perhaps there are times when the narcissist must be forcefully confronted and rebuked, especially as they are not inside a therapy office, but in the public domain and communities of faith?


Some occasions might require others to adequately mirror and empathize with the narcissistic fundamentalist so that rapport can be established and the narcissist can explore his true self within the context of an empathic relationship. Fundamentalists do need to be loved as they too are created in the Imago Dei. Other occasions might require a strong loving rebuke because of the present suffering caused to others by their (or our own) narcissism. Although rebuking others should be a rare occurrence, if it is needed to be done, it requires prayerful wisdom and humility.




As human beings, we all seem to have innate needs to make sense of the world in which we live. We need to be a part of something transcendent that gives us purpose. We need our milieu of various selfobjects to feel alive, soothed, safe and comforted in knowing we are not alone and feeling affirmed. There is nothing wrong with having needs. “Narcissistic needs are a normal part of us. We do not outgrow them, although they unfold into higher forms, and we mature in how we need to have them met” (Randall, 1988, p. 26).


What becomes unhealthy and destructive is when we try to suck everyone else into our religious and ideological vortexes. What becomes unhealthy is when we try to rape people of their culture, heritage, personality and meaning systems and force upon them our own, so that the cracks of our narcissistic woundings can be held together. What becomes unhealthy (or sad because there is much beauty that is missed), is when people become colorblind and see the world as black and white and not encompassing the full spectrum of the rainbow. What becomes detrimental is obsessing about having the right doctrines and miss fulfilling the greatest commandment of all, which is to love God, self, and others (I would also include creatures and creation under “others”).


There is nothing wrong with any of us having a sacred text as our epistemological reference point and guidebook and wanting to share what we hold dear to others. What becomes narcissistically unhealthy is when the sharing is in the form of forcing down another individual’s throat, which is not for the benefit of the other, but more so that we can experience a more cohesive self in a world full of ambiguity, multiplicity and mystery.


Narcissistic fundamentalist pastors and leaders breed narcissistic fundamentalist congregants. That does not have to be the case. Pastors and leaders can pave the way to healthier congregations and thwart the yeast of the Pharisees from spreading because of the power and position in which they hold. They can provide the soil for healthy congregations to flourish, but they must be required to do the hard work of emotional/relational reflection and healing, otherwise known as spiritual formation. A healthier church makes for a healthier wit(h)ness and ultimately a healthier world, where the kin(g)dom of God’s love reigns



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