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Xenos-Dwell and Openness to New Experience

In a previous post we explored Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory as applied to the ideological gulf separating Dwell Community Church, formerly Xenos Christian Fellowship, from the wider community particularly with respect to accusations of abuse and emotional trauma resulting from well meaning beliefs within the church. We saw how Xenos-Dwell is based in a moral intuition and narrative which highly values ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. This stands in contrast to the wider community which is generally suspicious of these foundations of morality, giving greater latitude to care for the individual and respect for fairness. In a similar vein, today we will explore an attribute that is now recognized as a major component of personality and its relationship to the ideology of Xenos-Dwell: openness to new experience.

Where does the fear of openness with respect to religious practice come from in the Xenos-Dwell community?

Though I am sure adherents of Xenos-Dwell will tell you that they are radically open to a huge variety of experience (I would have claimed the same circa 2005), they show significant restraint precisely when it comes to the experience of their own faith and where and how it can be realized and practiced. In my own case, I was taught to believe early in my high school years that God would call me explicitly to remain in Xenos-Dwell during my college years, rather than attend school literally anywhere else. In fact, it was implicit that I would likely spend my entire life in Columbus, Ohio, unless God called me to plant a new church in a nearby midwestern city, but this would naturally happen within the context of other Xenos-Dwell adherents, and my home base would always be with the same organization.

Again, in listening to the Xenos-Dwell podcast, hosted by Paul Alexander, a similar theme crops up in a discussion with two young church Elders, John Ross and Josh Benadum. The discussion hinges around the long friendship between Ross and Benadum within Xenos-Dwell, as well as the leaders within the church who influenced each of them. The conversation naturally pivots to the experience of fatherhood, as Ross and Benadum have young daughters of about the same age. It's enlightening to hear both of these young men express the comfort and expectation they each have that their daughters will live their lives within Xenos-Dwell, growing up in the church as well as continuing into adulthood within the group. This last part tugged on my own moral intuitions as a woman coming of age in the twenty-first century.

Though growing up with a religious or spiritual identity may form the bedrock of the American experience, why this utter fixation on remaining within the same group - even within the same city for one's entire life? Is God not everywhere two or three gather in his name? I found myself feeling deeply uncomfortable and saddened to hear Benadum and Ross plan out their daughters' lives within the confines of this singular organization in one precise corner of the Midwest. There is something here that goes deeply against the grain of modern culture which promotes diversity of thought and experience. Even more so - it is one thing to voluntarily restrict your own adult sphere of life to a specific group, identity, or ideology - but it is entirely another to willfully form your children to follow lock-step after your own choices. Let alone, the idea that you might form other's children in this manner - as is the clearly stated goal of Xenos-Dwell in its "burden" for youth ministry.

The radically closed nature of Xenos-Dwell as a community and institution foments the structures leading to many of its most destructive practices and outcomes, all done under the guise of living a life for God. I think we must be careful, particularly when it comes to the ability of individuals to willingly consent to such a system. I came of age within the structures of Xenos-Dwell, as did many of my close friends, and naturally modeled my life and values after the example that was set within the closed structure of the church. There was little exposure or ability to value anything other than the prescribed path of spirituality, including a life-long commitment to a specific college, city, and set of beliefs. Deviating from the prescribed path involved full abandonment of the community and a rupture of one's entire value system.

It wasn't until I left Xenos-Dwell - a decision which resulted in significant emotional trauma - that I was able to see the much broader vision of human thought and experience that existed around me, in religion and otherwise. It took years to wash away the learned black-and-whiteness of the mindset with which I had been branded by the church, and I still feel the outlines of that scar today. I envy Ross and Benadum in their complete confidence in what's best for their children, even though I fear that confidence is radically misplaced. I have not had children precisely because of this deep fear that came out of my time in Xenos-Dwell - a fear of forcing certainty where in fact there is uncertainty. If I did have a daughter, my only wish and hope for her life would be that she would experience and learn as much as possible, always questioning the world around her, but developing an accustomed ease with the uncertainty of the human condition. An ease which I feel is always just out of grasp as a result of the early traumas I suffered within Xenos-Dwell.

Why is Xenos-Dwell so concerned with keeping members within the church for life?

Who or what religious groups does Xenos-Dwell model itself after? Do members consider this the best possible church that they could be a part of in the country? In the world? Are there any other churches that members would be happy or proud to join?

Is this fixation on the closed nature of the group a fear of new experience? Is it a form of censorship or an expression that members only wish to be a part of this single group?

Is there danger, particularly to young people, of growing up within a closed system of values and role models? How could this be avoided in the group?

Do members have role models who exhibit their highest values outside of Xenos-Dwell? Outside of evangelical Christianity? Outside of Christianity?

What is the risk of leaving Xenos-Dwell to go to college in another state? What about moving and joining a new church in adulthood? Are these choices acceptable or encouraged within the group?

How do we raise children to instill important values while also allowing for individuality and freedom of expression?


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