Posted on January 24, 2010
[Paul C. Vitz is Professor of Psychology/Senior Scholar at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and Professor of Psychology Emeritus at New York University. He is our guest blogger for the month of January, and this is his fourth post].
The Issue of applying psychology to Jesus
Like the Virgin Mary we can also attribute basic human emotions to Jesus. The scriptures present Jesus showing love and friendship, fear and anger (for instance in the temple with the money changers). If he did not have normal human emotions he would not represent an adequate model and sacrifice for humanity. So for Jesus when facing the Cross for him to be afraid of death, pain and disfigurement is hardly surprising: he showed what can be interpreted as signs of his fear through his anguish. Jesus was, of course, sinless so his emotions were not contaminated by sin.
However, there is the traditional Catholic theological dogma that Jesus is two natures but only one person thus there can be serious doubt as to whether the psychology of Jesus can be understood by analogy to human psychology. But, even if we rightly accept that the psychology of Jesus is intrinsically mysterious we can assume that Jesus did fully understand human psychology and sinfulness and that his words and actions spoke directly to them.
There is good reason to believe that the greatest fear that most women have is the loss of a person or persons they deeply love, especially the loss of a child through death. In some respects even their own death is less feared by women than the death of a child or another deeply loved one. In part, the ferocious defense that mothers put up for their children testifies to this. In psychology the attachment literature identifies the strength of this connection. In the scriptures Mary\’s painful loss of Jesus is commonly understood to be predicted by Simeon: \”And your self a sword will pierce\”. (Lk 2:35) Certainly anything as painful as a sword piercing you is an excruciating notion and one capable of setting up great fear. At the Crucifixion Mary had to go through that fear just as she had gone through the earlier fear of stoning by accepting it as part of God\’s will in spite of the obvious and unredeemable loss her son\’s death apparently would mean. Mary has represented for countless women not only courage but the necessity for women to let go of their deepest loves in order to accept God\’s will. Michelangelo\’s Pieta is a world renowned symbol of this sorrow and fear. It is as though the Crucifixion means that all women must give up their strongest attachments in the form of their children in order for their own resurrection to take place. In ways this is what nuns and other consecrated women do from the start. This particular fear of losing someone you love dearly is not normally considered as a psychodynamic issue. Thus, Mary\’s response here is not part of any psychoanalytic conceptual framework.
Certainly it is not just women who have this great fear of losing people they love but many men also. Nevertheless this fear seems to be more fundamental or basic in the case of women.
At the Crucifixion Jesus is representing all humanity, but in some respects he also specifically represents the human male. Probably the greatest male fear is the fear of total public humiliation, in its most extreme form a kind of public castration. Freud\’s \”castration anxiety\” is a familiar example of the psychodynamic interpretation of this primal male fear. The castration theme is very much in the atmosphere of the Crucifixion. We forget that Jesus on the cross was very likely naked and that the loin cloth that he wears in his many portrayals is a respectful convention. The Romans \”definitely stripped their victims of all garments\” (Fernandez, 1959 p. 729). One of the very distinctive characteristics of the Jews was circumcision and the fact that Jesus was circumcised would have been noted. Almost certainly mocking comments were made about his circumcision by Roman soldiers and other non-Jewish bystanders. At the time Crucifixion was in a sense a kind of entertainment or spectacle commonly held near or even on a public thoroughfare. Recall also that the public trials of Jesus before Annas, Caiphas, Herod and Pilot twice, further underline his extensive public humiliating disgrace.
Jesus is quoted as reciting the start of Psalm 22 on the cross, a psalm well known by devout Jews. Jesus likely uttered the whole extraordinarily appropriate Psalm. At the least its humiliating words were fully in his mind. The following verses are relevant here: \”I am a worm, hardly human, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me.\” (vs 7-8) Symbolically, and almost literally, Jesus embodied the human male\’s need to overcome castration fear by in fact giving up his body and his maleness to God, by being willing to let all that die. For example pride, arrogance and contempt are commonly found in humans and especially in men, often with respect to their maleness as a form of power and superiority. This kind of sinful castration anxiety was certainly not part of the psychology of Jesus. But, He no doubt was familiar with the \”oedipal\” characteristics found in human males and although not at all part of his nature the Crucifixion can be interpreted as aimed at this expression of male sinfulness. (Freud himself referred to oedipal motivation as \”original sin\”.)
Therefore although His own psychology was not of this type, Jesus can be understood as addressing his actions in the Gospels and, in particular, in the Crucifixion to all human fears, and among those would be, for men, castration anxiety. So, His Crucifixion was a message that men would have to bring their masculinity to the foot of the Cross. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is in many respects especially disturbing to men. Jesus warns his disciples in advance that they will be scandalized by the coming terrible events. (Mk.14:27)
At the Crucifixion, one sign of this symbolic meaning for men is that in the Scriptures it is only other men, not women, who are identified as judging, condemning, jeering and brutalizing Jesus. It is as though his courageous passiveness increased the men\’s anger by touching this distinctive sinfulness of males.
The passiveness of Jesus is nevertheless a tough and hard passiveness that required great self control and attention to God\’s will. Jesus was carrying out his commander\’s orders in spite of painful distractions and temptations to the contrary. The natural way for men to sacrifice their lives is to die in battle for their people. In the days preceding his death Jesus speaks often of battle and destruction. He throws the money changers out of the Temple (Lk 19:45), there is one whole chapter in Matthew (Mt 23) consisting almost entirely of fierce denunciations of the Jewish authorities, and he predicts the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Mt 24:2) He also informs the Sanhedrin \”I tell you, you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven\” (Mt 26:64). With his words and actions Jesus has clearly drawn the battle lines.
Much of the imagery surrounding the Crucifixion has a military connotation and all of this can speak to male psychology in a positive and direct way; it shows the major transformation of war that Jesus is demonstrating. At the Last Supper he declares his intention of shedding his blood; in his trial he is taken inside the Praetorium where he is dressed in a scarlet \”military cloak\” (Mt 27:23) and surrounded by a cohort of Roman soldiers, which commonly numbered at six hundred. (Mt 27:27) Jesus explicitly states in the Garden of Gethsemane \”Do you think that I can not call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels?\” (Mt 26:53) Twelve legions at this time would have been equivalent to about half or more of the total Roman military force in the empire.
Ultimately, the death of Jesus is a warrior\’s sacrifice as represented by the final spear thrust of the Roman soldier (Jn 19:34) and the centurion (a Roman officer) who made the respectful and admiring comment \”Truly this was the Son of God\” (Mt 28:54). Curiously, Jesus after his death even had an armed military guard stationed at his tomb (Mt 28:66). For Jesus, his death was to be for all humanity, all humans were his people, and so obviously he could not die killing others, including his enemies for whom he commanded us to pray. He had to renounce the usual method of killing others in war but he did die a brave soldier\’s death. Therefore, Jesus does not renounce manhood which is after all a gift from God but as a soldier obeying His Father\’s orders Jesus displays manhood at its best.
The preceding psychological interpretation nevertheless argues that men must bring their manhood to the foot of the Cross, just as women bring their womanhood there in the acceptance of the loss of those they love. Both of these very natural fears – one for men and one for women – can be seen as part of the Adam and Eve in humanity and these common basic attachments have to be given to God. If these gifts have been made, resurrection then means a new nature for both men and women.
Women also can be afraid of a public humiliation and physical destruction but again this fear seems in its most fundamental sense to be more characteristic of men.
Behind all of the above particular male and female fears lies the fear of death, of nothingness itself where all being, all power and all love are lost. No doubt, this is the single greatest human fear to which much literature and history attest. This fear, Jesus directly confronts and by accepting it on the Cross, as God\’s will he passes through death and transcends it or triumphs over it by his resurrection. By facing this common and truly primal fear of all men and women Jesus confronts even a greater fear than the Virgin faced at the Crucifixion.
References(For Part 1 and 2)
Fernandez, A. (P. Barrett, Trans.1959) Life of Christ. Westminster, MD: Newman Press.
Jeremias, J. (1969) Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press. (First published in German, Jerusalem zur Zeit Jesu, 1962)
New American Bible, The. (1991). Trans. Catholic Bible Association of America. Iowa: World Bible Publishers.
Trilling, W., (1969). The Gospel According to St Matthew, Vol. 1. In New Testament for Spiritual Reading. Ed. J. McKenzie S.J. New York: Herder & Herder.
 The sign nailed at the top of the Cross which announced Jesus was King of the Jews was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. It implies a certain mocking of the Jewish ness of Jesus. And no doubt there was plenty of anti-Jewish feeling among Romans and other groups at the time. After all in forty years Rome was going to completely destroy Jerusalem.
 Psalm 22 begins with \”My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?\” (See Mat 27:46)
Posted on January 4, 2010
[Paul C. Vitz is Professor of Psychology/Senior Scholar at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and Professor of Psychology Emeritus at New York University. He is our guest blogger for the month of January, and this is his first post].
After Sigmund Freud certainly the most influential psychological theorist has been the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. The two major concepts in his writings about personality are archetypes and the psychotherapeutic goal of individuation or self realization. Self realization proposed as the goal of Jungian therapy and indeed of life in general is certainly not for Christians where the goal instead is Christ realization. After all, the Gospels focus on \”not my will but God\’s be done.\” Instead, the original temptation found in Genesis is for each of us to \”become as God\”. Thus, to propose self realization as the goal of life or psychotherapy is a foundational error for any Christian. Jung\’s proposal is a modern form of salvation through special esoteric psychological knowledge and hence a Gnostic answer to the purpose of life. This critical understanding of Jung from different perspectives has been made by various authors. Some of the most interesting for Christians are \”The Aryan Christ: The Secret life of Carl Jung\” (1997) by the psychologist and historian of science Richard Noll; \”The Empty Self: C.G. Jung & the Gnostic Transformation of Modern Identity\” (1996) by Jeffrey Satinover a psychiatrist and former president of the American C.G. Jung Foundation; \”The Healing Presence\”, especially chapter 14, (1995) by a leader in Christian healing Leanne Payne. In my own writing I have also identified the serious conflict between Christianity and major assumptions of Jung in Vitz, 1994.
The essential dilemma in Jungian psychology is to use the self to realize or individuate the self. This circular logic leaves the person trapped in subjectivity and narcissism and incapable of responding to the nature of external reality, to an objective moral system and much less to a transcendent God outside of the self. The Jungian purpose of life, self realization, in any case is not part of science but is an ideological, philosophical and even theological addition to his presumably more objectively based psychology.
Basic Jungian Archetypes
As noted, besides self realization the other major concept of Jungian psychology is the \”archetype\”. Archetypes are proposed as actual psychological realities capable of being known and a great deal of the popularity of Jung\’s work derives from the many people who accept the reality of archetypes. Briefly, an archetype is an inherited mental structure with a latent content which is brought to a specific content by the person\’s actual experience in his or her family and culture. Most of the archetypes are characters such as the \”hero\”, the \”earth mother\”, the \”wise old man\”, etc. The primary four Jungian archetypes, however, are more abstract but even they are typically experienced as characters. For example, the persona archetype which represents the public mask or face of a person may be symbolized in a man\’s dream as a shallow salesman. The archetype of the self might be symbolized in a woman\’s dream as a car driving recklessly out of control. A person\’s shadow, the archetype of one\’s unknown and in part dark or evil nature might be symbolized by dreaming about a waitng spider or raging bear attacking others; the archetype of a person\’s animus or anima likewise would commonly be represented as a character. The animus archetype represents a woman\’s unconscious male personality and symbolic representations of men and likewise the anima is a man\’s unconscious female personality. Jungians often simply assume that each sex should get in touch with their animus/anima and integrate it into their personality. This proposal involves the assumption that such an inward looking often narcissistic preoccupation is a positive thing. For a man to get in touch with his female archetype is to encourage androgyny at a time when men are commonly interpreted as not masculine enough. It seems far more reasonable that a man should start relating to a real woman outside of himself in order to appreciate women and femininity rather than cultivate some internal \”female\”. After all, just because men have nipples does not mean that they should take breast enhancement medicines.
Jung did not provide a clear definition of an archetype so that one could reliably identify a new proposed archetype nor did he provide a standard list of archetypes, however, the concept has in a general way been accepted by many as valid. In proposing archetypes Jung was saying that in an important sense humans are born with specific predispositions toward a limited set of human ideas normally symbolized and experienced as characters in dreams, myths, art and in stories found in all the worlds cultures.
Although, the existence of Jung\’s archetypes has been questioned, it will be assumed for present purposes that archetypes do have some validity in that they exist as important innate properties of the mind and that the major archetypes identified by Jung and his followers can be given credence. There are, of course, dangers associated with this assumption some of which will be discussed later. Keep in mind that should archetypes be rejected by subsequent research and reflection then the proposed Christian interpretation of archetypes would become irrelevant. That is, Christianity itself is in no way affected by the truth or falseness of the archetypes.
Four Archetypes and Male Psychology
Certain contemporary Jungians, active in what some call the \”Men\’s movement\” such as Robert Bly (1990), and especially Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette (1990), and Patrick Arnold (1992) have proposed four primary archetypes as underlying male psychology. These are referred to as the archetype of the King, the Warrior, the Lover, and the Wiseman/ Magician. These archetypes are proposed as psychological representations of male personality that need to be experienced and reinforced in a contemporary culture that no longer adequately recognizes and supports male psychological needs. Men have become confused about male identity in our androgynous or unisex society and need to get back in touch with these four innate masculine psychological structures.
The first is the King archetype. By this Moore and Gillette mean a basic energy in men, focused on ordering-on the content of creating Right Order through wise ruling. The King archetype is also concerned with providing fertility and blessing. The King must have children and he must bless his Kingdom\’s children. The King symbolizes the life force and balance; he is also a mentor.
The Warrior archetype stands for male energy and aggressiveness, clear thinking in the presence of death, plus training to develop aggressiveness in a disciplined way. The Warrior shows loyalty to a transpersonal ideal -his God, or leader, or nation or another cause.
The Magician archetype is the knower and master of technology. He is usually an initiate-that is, part of a secret religious world. He is an archetype of awareness, insight, thoughtfulness and introspective reflection.
The Lover archetype stands for passion and love. The Lover is very aware of the physical world, of sensations, sensuality and feeling. The Lover\’s energies are close to those of the mystics. Artists and psychics represent common professions of the Lover.
As described, any of these four archetypes can be distorted in a macho manner, or in a weak, wimp-like fashion. Moore and Gillette very clearly acknowledge that each of these basic male archetypes can be used for evil. They explicitly note that the King can be a tyrant or a weakling (macho or wimpo, if you will). They also admit that the Warrior can be corrupted into a sadist or masochist; the Magician can be a prideful manipulator or an envious weakling; the Lover can degenerate into an addicted, promiscuous Don Juan; or he can be impotent, depressed and uncommitted.
The problem with this Jungian understanding of male archetypes is that however much these theorists decry the serious, harmful distortions of these male archetypes, they offer no convincing method or model for avoiding the ways in which men have distorted these male tendencies to exploit or harm others-often women. These writers do attempt to give rationales in which the moral failures of men realizing their archetypes can be controlled but these moral positions do not naturally flow from Jungian theory and as noted above they are not convincing. A writer quite sympathetic to Jung, Morton Kelsey (1983) identifies the basic problem as follows \”The archetype must be honored for what it is, an image outside of the self that calls us to growth, change and awareness. In its negative form it can equally call us to evil and destruction\” (p. 8).
What is important and relevant here is that Jesus, who is our model of God the Father, is the perfect integration of these four archetypes within a framework of servant leadership. This model also provides a clear answer to the moral issues raised by men expressing their archetypes. The moral framework is demonstrated in both his many actions and in his words about loving God and others, even one\’s enemies.
Specifically with respect to the archetypes themselves, that Jesus was a King is acknowledged in the liturgy at the last feast of the Christian year: Christ the King. At his birth, the Magi, and at his crucifixion he was identified as King. Jesus also is commonly referred to as our Lord. As a Warrior Jesus said that he had come to bring the sword; recall his attack on the money-changers in the Temple, his fierce criticisms of the Pharisees-all Warrior behaviors. Of course the primary battle that Jesus led was a spiritual battle. St. Paul frequently refers to our life as one of spiritual warfare, and so do many of the saints. That Jesus represents the archetype of Lover is essentially a \”no brainer\” as the expression goes. For Jesus the core of his message is one of love. In the Gospels that \”God is love\” is given prominence. He showed kindness and concern for the suffering of others so strong that it is no wonder that one of the great spiritual classics is titled \”This Tremendous Lover\” and a famous Protestant hymn is \”Jesus Lover of My Soul.\” He showed explicit love toward children-implicitly all children.
As for the archetype of Wiseman or Magician, Jesus was known as a rabbi or teacher who brought new teachings and who spoke with authority and great wisdom. He was also a frequent and great miracle worker.
In short, Jesus represents, summarizes and integrates all these basic archetypes, most especially when he says \”I and the Father are one.\” That is, the summarizing archetype for all men is that of \”Father\”. For a father is called to bring all four male archetypes together and live out all of them. He is the lover of his wife and children, a warrior for God and his family, a servant king within the household and at work, and a source of knowledge and wisdom about the world. So we see in these archetypes the model of Jesus as servant leader speaking to the needs and highest aspirations of male psychology. We also emphasize that Christian fatherhood is a genuine model for disciplining and controlling the strong tendency of men either to abuse others or to betray their masculine gifts through weakness and cowardice. Thus, the archetype of Father which combines the other four male archetypes and integrates them is the overarching male archetype to which all men are called. And, of course, in being called to the father archetype all men are not restricted to natural fatherhood with biological children. Instead, they are called to the role or archetype of fatherhood with its focus on strong, mentoring love expressed through the King, the Warrior, the Wiseman and the Lover. For example, Pope (which means papa) John Paul II was a father for millions but he had no natural children.
Jesus and other male archetypes
There are three other archetypes that are commonly mentioned in connection with male psychology: the Hero, Initiation Rites and the Wildman. The Hero sets out upon a quest going through three stages – separation, ordeal and return – all aimed at making a great contribution to society or his people through an extraordinary deed. Jesus clearly fits this model well. He begins his ministry with a forty day separation in the desert and then comes his ministry climaxing in the ordeal of the Crucifixion, followed by his resurrection and return in the Last Judgment. And the enormous benefit for the whole world being Salvation. In short as a man he lives out the archetype of Hero to a kind of perfection. Finally, any serious Christian setting out on the journey toward sanctity or sainthood is also following the model of the Hero archetype.
The archetype of Initiation is obviously found in the life of Jesus. (For this archetype see R. Rohr, 2004.) His first initiation was presumably at the age of twelve when his parents took him to the temple and later he was recognized as a rabbi or teacher by the Jewish community. His status as a rabbi was never challenged by the Jewish leaders. However, his specific Initiation Rite with respect to his ministry was his baptism by John the Baptist combined with his forty days of fasting in the desert. Representatives of these archetypical events also are present in the life of the ordinary Christian, for example baptism, confirmation, fasting and retreats.
The last male archetype given some emphasis by the theorists noted earlier is that of the Wildman. This archetype represents a man\’s basic animal energy and contact with the forces of his own body and of nature without feminizing restrictions. For example, in a fairy tale, a boy might discover a hairy, terrifying wild man who lives in the forest. The Wildman\’s raw energy and closeness to animals and the natural world then entices the boy to leave his mother for exciting adventures in the wilderness.
For all men the Wildman archetype may have appeal and it may be a good starting point but the other male archetypes and personality development require that the man learn how to control and move beyond the Wildman although the Wildman\’s basic energy and freedom should always be maintained. After all, the King, the Wiseman, Lover and even the Warrior all demand freely chosen discipline and restraint.
There is one clear way in which Jesus expressed the Wildman. Jesus was at home in the natural world. He was in a sense a homeless man without a place to call his own and thus he was wilder than the foxes and the birds who had fixed places to go \”home\” to. He traveled by walking great distances, climbing to mountain tops, praying in deserted places, fasting in the desert. In short, much of his last three years was lived outdoors. Also in freely choosing God\’s will he expressed an enormous amount of power but almost always in quiet and constructive ways, such as miracles. In his words and actions he demonstrated a kind of power and freedom that created more revolutionary changes than any human Wildman ever did. For example, consider what he did to the money changers in the temple. However, the primitive often pre-human animal aspects of this archetype Jesus did not express. Hence Jesus is not a solid example of the Wildman.
(For female archetypes and the Christian faith see my next blog posting.)
Arnold, P. (1991) Wildmen, Warriors, and Kings: Masculine Spirituality and the Bible. NY: Crossroad
Bailie, G. (199x)
Bly, R. (1990). Iron John: A Book about Men. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley
Kelsey, M. (1983). Companions on the inner way: The art of spiritual guidance. NY: Crossroad
Moore, R and Gillette, D
Paris, G. (1992) (Trans.J. Mott). The Sacrament of Abortion. Dallas,TX: Spring.(Original French edition 1990).
Payne, L. The Healing Presence.
Rohr, R. (2004) Adam\’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation.
Satinover, J. (1996) The Empty Self: C.G. Jung and the Gnostic Transformation of Modern Identity. Westport CT: Hamewith Books
White, V. (1960). Soul and Psyche. London: Collins & Harvill.
Posted on December 20, 2009
[Eric Johnson is our guest blogger for December. Eric is the Director of the Society for Christian Psychology and professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is his third post].
Thanks to wonderful teaching I received early on in my Christian life (at Toronto Baptist Seminary, Calvin College, and Bethlehem Baptist Church with John Piper), I have been drawn to think often about how God\’s glory is related to psychology and counseling. In an early article, \”Self-Esteem in the Presence of God\” (1989), I argued that God alone is of infinite worth and that whatever value humans possess has to be vastly secondary and completely derived from God\’s worth, since he is the source of whatever worth there is in his creatures. Christian thinking on the psychology of self-esteem needed to factor such a perspective into its theories and counseling. Needless to say, I hadn\’t come up with this on my own. I had simply read Jonathan Edward\’s classic essay, \”The End for Which God Created the World,\” which may the best concise discussion of God\’s glory ever written (though it is not easy!)[i].
Sometime during the past decade I came across the massive 7-volume work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1982-1989) on God\’s glory (Balthasar is arguably one of the greatest Catholic theologians since Aquinas), called \”The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics.\” Though daunting in size and erudition, I have learned more about glory in this work. Balthasar there makes makes an important distinction (which he learned from Aquinas) that glory is composed of two dimensions: form and splendor. I would like to spend the rest of this blog explaining this distinction, and next week apply it to psychology and counseling.
Balthasar equates glory with beauty, and he wrote that the form of something is a certain arrangement of its elements, which altogether have a certain complexity, harmony, and proportionality, which constitutes its beauty (consider the form of a strong, healthy horse or Michelangelo\’s David) (Edwards, 1989, defined beauty similarly in \”The Nature of True Virtue\”). The form of the triune God is the most beautiful of all forms, because God is infinitely the greatest being there is, particularly since God consists of the most awesome and amazing arrangement of characteristics and moral virtues that can be. The form of a creature can be no more than a miniscule replica (or image or representation or sign) of the beauty of its infinite Creator, and the ultimate standard of comparison for the replica must always be the original form upon which it is based.
However, an object\’s splendor, according to Balthasar, is the depth dimension of its form and refers to the form\’s inner radiance and luminescence, we might say, the form\’s genuine value that lies, as it were, within it and that shines forth from it. It is what we might call the density of its full beauty. And again, the triune God possesses the greatest degree of splendor imaginable, because God has infinite depth and density of glory, and all creaturely splendor must be measured most truly by the degree of its depth resemblance to the beauty of God.
Form, we might say then, is the beauty evident on the surface of something, whereas splendor is the beauty that lies within. Therefore only the omniscient God fully knows the splendor of something. Splendor is always something of a mystery to humans; we can recognize it generally, but not fathom its depths. Also, while intelligence understands form, it takes wisdom to perceive splendor. Grasping something\’s form seems to be mostly a mental or cognitive enterprise, while grasping something\’s splendor is more a heart activity, which engages our emotions and entails an appraisal of its worth (in the case of God, love and worship!). But both form and splendor are involved and interrelated in an object\’s full beauty.
To illustrate the difference between form and splendor, think of a statue of a living human being. It may be a statue that has great form, identical to the person it represents, but the internal glory or beauty of the human being far exceeds the statue. The human has obvious depth that the statue lacks: the former is alive and has far greater value! For another illustration, consider two siblings who are taking care of their dying mother, one, in order to guarantee a large inheritance, and the other, out of loving devotion. Their actions may have the same form, but their moral splendor is considerably different. Balthasar said that form and splendor are inseparable, and a thing\’s splendor is dependent on its form.
I\’m sure readers are already sensing the potential here for Christian psychology and counseling. Please respond with your insights this week, and next week I\’ll offer a few of my own.[ii]
Balthasar, H. U. (1982-1989). The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. San Francisco: Ignatius.
Edwards, J. (1989). Ethical Writings (Vol. 8). (P. Ramsey, Ed.) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Johnson, E. L. (2007). Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
Johnson, E. L. (1989). Self-Esteem in the Presence of God. Journal of Psychology and Theology , 226- 235.
Piper, J. (1998). God\’s Passion for His Glory. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
[i] John Piper (1998) republished Edward\’s essay with a great introduction and some helpful footnotes. It is also available in volume 8 of the Yale edition of Edward\’s works (1989)
[ii] Most of this discussion is derived from Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Johnson, 2007, pp. 312-313)
Posted on December 13, 2009
[Eric Johnson is our guest blogger for December. Eric is the Director of the Society for Christian Psychology and professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is his second post].
I know it\’s Christmas time, but I\’ve been thinking a lot recently about the therapeutic benefits of the cross (for a chapter of a book I\’m working on with Phil Monroe), so for this week\’s blog I\’d like to consider how the cross glorifies God and how appreciating that benefits our souls. (I might add that Christ\’s work on the cross began with his incarnation, and Christmas, that is, the gift of Christ, ended in the crucifixion). The first thing to notice is that God gets glory by taking away in the cross that which robs him of glory, that is, the shame and guilt of people\’s sin. Sin is essentially \”anti‑glory,\” like a black hole to glory, and its capacity to negate glory was destroyed in the cross. Consequently Christ\’s death allows God\’s glory to be manifested in ways it would not have otherwise, turning bad people (lives, minds, hearts, and relationships) into good vehicles of glory. We now really can act in ways that glorify God-knowing this makes our lives meaningful and brings healing to our souls.
But more importantly, the cross itself profoundly demonstrated God\’s glory, more so than anything God ever did with reference to this creation. Christians know the story, but let\’s consider it here as a revelation of glory. The infinitely pure triune God, who could justly condemn his image‑bearers (those made to be like him, who have revolted hatefully against him), himself overcame our resistance to his glory. In love God the Father sent his Son to die for us; in love God the Son obeyed and left heaven, laying aside his infinite perfections and glorified existence to become a human being. Christ became subject to all that human creatures experience (e.g. pain [physical and mental], sorrow, rejection, and misunderstanding), but also to much, much worse: his very own creatures, even his specially chosen people, rejected him and mocked him and put him to death. Those to whom he was giving life took his own life. All this in order to give sinners forgiveness and holiness and love, for pieces of dust (in comparison with him), for rebels who have lived secretly despising him. He pursued us to give us the infinite gift of himself!
Think for a moment about some of the most popular movies in recent decades (e.g. the Titanic, the Matrix, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Schindler\’s List). All of them have some element of self‑sacrifice as a main feature of their plot. We humans are touched deeply when someone transcends his or her own self‑interest for the sake of another. It is a beautiful thing, and we were built to see such beauty and admire it. And nowhere in all the creation is there any example of self‑sacrifice that can even come close to matching the supreme, infinitely beautiful gift of Jesus, the Son of God (and his sacrifice is matched by the sacrifice of his loving Father\’s surrender of him for our benefit). God\’s beauty is supremely on display at the cross.
It is good for our souls to admire the beauty of God revealed in the cross. To regularly step back and meditate on Christ\’s tremendous deed of love is good for our souls. \”One thing I have asked from the Lord…: to behold the beauty of the Lord.\” (Ps. 27:4a,c) It is good to think about good; it ennobles our character when we reflect on the nobility of others. But this is extraordinary nobility. Christ\’s death is supremely beautiful; because of the combination of his infinite greatness and the corresponding immensity of his humility and self-giving, the beauty of the cross is truly inexhaustible. And our souls, when anointed by the Holy Spirit, benefit from such admiration. Many people spend weeks of vacation driving thousands of miles to see beautiful mountains and canyons and animals. We enjoy it; and it feels good! But the beauty of the God of the gospel is beyond compare. For our best recreation, for the re‑creation of our souls, we need regularly to take \”meditation vacations\” to the cross, in order to forget for a while about our busy life and our problems and our sins, and get lost-get caught up-in the glory of our beautiful friend who laid down his life for us (Jo. 15:13). In heaven we will admire and worship forever the lamb that was slain (Rev 5:6,12), and there we will be filled with overflowing joy and gratitude-so now there is no purer blessing to our souls down here than to soak up some of that bittersweet bread of life, which heals and strengthens us and enables us to be more like Christ with others.
Posted on December 7, 2009
[Eric Johnson is our guest blogger for December. Eric is the Director of the Society for Christian Psychology and professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is his first post].
In this week\’s blog I want to call attention to an outstanding document that was recently released called the Manhattan Declaration (http://www.manhattandeclaration.org/). It is a very well-crafted statement on issues of contemporary cultural importance to those committed to historic Christianity, and it is signed by an impressive cross-section of evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox leaders. As such, it provides inspiration to us in the Society for Christian Psychology to pursue some of our aims. Let\’s briefly consider the three main themes of the declaration.
The Declaration begins with a section affirming human life and actions that support the sanctity and care of all human life, including unborn or abused children, racial minorities, victims of war, and the disabled and elderly. Psychologists and counselors might add to this list those with mental illness, particularly those who are homeless. The authors also criticize governmental policies that advance a culture of death, by increasing the number of abortions or deaths by euthanasia or promoting the destruction of embryos. Christian psychologists can support these goals by working with disadvantaged people and in pro-life clinics and doing research on such topics as war trauma, child abuse, abortion effects, and minority experience.
Marriage is defined as a union of one man and one woman, and it is argued that marriage is an objective reality that ought not to be redefined according to personal preferences. The statement insightfully addresses the role of the body in human life. Humans are not mere centers of subjectivity, it is suggested, but embodied beings, and bodies constitute an important part of human reality. Consequently, the one-flesh union of man and woman seals, completes, and actualizes the covenantal union of human marriage. There cannot therefore be \”a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage.\” The value and dignity of those disposed to same-sex attraction is made clear, and the Declaration rightly acknowledges the church\’s sins of judgmentalism as well as complicity in the weakening of marriage through sexual immortality and increased rates of illegitimate divorce among Christians.
The authors of the Declaration decry the contemporary promotion of intolerance under the guise of tolerance, and express concern that religious freedom is being increasingly threatened as Christian organizations and individuals are being forced either to violate their own convictions regarding issues of life and marriage in their vocations or ministries or to vacate the public square.
The Declaration concludes with a statement of support for governmental authorities, but also an acknowledgment that Christians must be prepared to obey God rather than comply with injustice.
There are other issues of importance in our day that were not addressed by this Declaration. However, these are among the most momentous. The Society similarly brings together Christians of different faith traditions, but in order to promote distinctly Christian psychological theory, research, and practice. Psychology in our day is a cultural institution and set of practices, as well as a body of literature, shaped by the dominant worldviews of its participants. Mainstream psychology today is a leader in the cultural revolution that the Manhattan Declaration is seeking to address and resist (e.g., see the APA\’s resolution this past summer critical of sexual orientation change efforts; http://www.apa.org/releases/therapeutic.html). As a result, the Declaration serves the Society well as a model of the kind of reasoned, principled, and gracious discourse we too need to engage in regarding relevant psychological matters in the public square. There is already tremendous cultural pressure on Christians in psychology and counseling in America to conform to the dominant values in the field. (Someone has quipped that Christians in the field have been heading into the closet, while others have been coming out.) We cannot be silent about these matters, or we may soon find Christian academics, therapists, and counselors being forbidden to express their convictions which are unpopular or risk exclusion from public university faculties, grant awards, public mental health facilities, and licensure. Those in psychology and counseling who are committed to historic Christianity have a voice, and they must use it wisely, but courageously, for they too should have the right to be participants in the field of psychology, regardless of their worldview beliefs and minority status. The Society is committed to such participation.
I added my name to the over 250,000 people who have signed the Manhattan Declaration.
Posted on November 29, 2009
[by Peter Hampson, Head of Department of Psychology, University of the West of England, Bristol. Professor Hampson is our blogger for the month of November, and this is his final post]
Travel, they say, broadens the mind, and a mind-expanding, recent trip to the US allowed me to share ideas with leading figures in Christianity\’s engagement with psychology, through meeting representatives of both Christian psychological and integrationist perspectives. It seems opportune, therefore, to use this, the last of my current blogs, partly as a public thank-you to my hosts, and to reflect on the continuum of approaches to secular psychology by Christian psychologists and therapists working in the US part of the vineyard and beyond.
The welcomes I received in the US were warm, accepting, and exemplary. All were models of Christian hospitality, and provided opportunities for future collaborative bridge building. I cannot thank my hosts enough for this. They will know who they are. What they may not know is that since returning home I have been thinking about hospitality as an important mode for our engagement both with the world of secular psychology and, of course, with each other. Why is this?
It\’s because I\’ve feared at times that unless we consciously and consistently act hospitably in our debates, we may ride roughshod over the valid and important achievements of our secular colleagues in our own justifiable enthusiasm to progress psychology\’s Christianisation. Moreover, exclusive, or rather excluding allegiance to one or other of what is collectively, after all, a partially overlapping set of activities, albeit distinctive ones, namely integrationism, psychology-theology dialogue, Christian psychology and Biblical Counseling, could too easily fuel unhelpful inter-nicene disputes, and distract us from what we otherwise usefully hold in common. The tragedy then would be were we to be hampered and diverted precisely when we might make a significant and critical collective impact on psychological theory and practice, as well as being hindered in our building of distinctively Christian psychologies and related approaches.
Luke Bretherton\’s excellent monograph Hospitality as holiness: Christian witness amid moral diversity has greatly enriched and deepened my theological and psychological understanding here. While appreciating important work done by MacIntyre, Hauerwas and others on the rationality and commensurability of rival traditions, Bretherton is concerned that overenthusiastic use of the notion of rivalry could too easily provoke all too familiar \’in-group\’ dynamics. This is turn could precipitate a combative, and, so, implicitly un-Christian reaction. This might seriously affect for the worse the way we deal with our secular colleagues, and, by extension I now suggest, each other.
But Christianity is not an ontology of violence, and our behaviour should reflect this. Good hospitality creates the room and peaceful conditions for feasting, sharing and debating even with those with whom we sometimes vehemently disagree. Nor need hospitable dialogue involve abandonment of the truth, capitulation, or the otherwise inappropriate ceding of concessions to secularity. Bretherton suggests we could even consider replacing tolerance as the highest value of pluralism with hospitality for instance, since separation-with-grudging-tolerance frequently leads to indifference and stand off, whereas dialogue-with-welcoming-hospitality affords space for trusting interaction and robust challenge.
He explains further why this is so, thereby self evidently showing why this approach is so useful for us as Christians in psychology:
It is through the cosmogenic recapitulation of Jesus Christ that we are born again out of our existent chaos and disorder: however, this very chaos, that is our degenerate patterns of sociality, is the very stuff of our new life. It is thus a departure-in-the-midst-of and not a departure-from-the-midst-of a culture. In other words, being good, pure, holy and moral cannot be secured either by withdrawal from our culture, or assimilation to it. To withdraw from its cultural context is to deny what the church is reconstituted from, while to be assimilated by its cultural context is to deny what the church is becoming. Hence, we must neither deny our cultural inheritance nor over-freight it with significance [....] In sum, the thought and action of the church and its members [....] is neither totally alien to any culture (it is not inevitably incommensurable with other traditions) nor is it simply another version of what they know (it is not self evident), (Bretherton, 2006, p.112).
The different lessons this approach offers to Christian strategies of engagement with psychology, and for their communities interacting with each other, should be self evident: excessive tendencies toward separation and integration may both need to be wisely tempered and carefully balanced, even while each enthusiastically pursues their legitimately different goals, and perhaps all this is best done in a hospitable family context.
I began these blogs asking rhetorically whether I am a Christian psychologist. I hope it\’s clear by now that I am, and that I\’m happy to take my appropriate place in the family of Christian approaches to critiquing and enriching secular psychology.
Bretherton, L. Hospitality as holiness: Christian witness amid moral diversity.
London: Ashgate, 2006.
Posted on November 15, 2009
[by Peter Hampson, Head of Department of Psychology, University of the West of England, Bristol. Professor Hampson is our blogger for the month of November, and this is his third post]
In what ways might philosophy and philosophical theology inform and assist Christian Psychology? Last time, I briefly mentioned my debt to Alasdair MacIntyre\’s intellectual journey. MacIntyre\’s work has helped me understand that rational discourse between intellectual traditions is possible in a way that allows escape from the limitations of both a \’one-size-fits-all\’ modernist rationality, and an equally unsatisfactory to my mind, postmodern, narrative relativism.
A second major influence on my thinking has been discussions of the faith-reason relationship. To some extent, such discussions have been at the heart of Christianity\’s self understanding for last the last two thousand years, but certainly since the church fathers, and are part of our more general thinking about the relationship between Christianity and culture. More recently, however, the debate has been developed by the late Pope John Paul II in his thoughtful and influential encyclical, Fides et Ratio (FR), where the dual dynamic of faith-seeking-understanding and understanding seeking completion and perfection through faith is sensitively explored. FR charts a careful course between a restricted view of reason as closed from belief or \’ratiocinative\’ on the one hand, and faith understood as divorced from reason (or fideism) on the other. Interested readers might like to follow the link to read more:
A further related powerful influence has been the Radical Orthodoxy project associated with Cambridge and Nottingham based theologians, John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, Simon Oliver and others. RO is a complex theological movement, emerging from a High Anglican context. In tune with postmodernity, at its heart lies the recovery of theological concepts that have been obscured and distorted over the years especially since the Enlightenment. To this extent it bears some resemblance with the nouvelle theologie movement which helped inform the second Vatican Council. One such concept is the patristic (neo-Platonic) understanding of \’participation\’. In contrast to the idea that God is yet another entity, albeit a super one, or a \’being amongst other beings\’, and asserting the radical dependence of creation on God, participation invites us to think of our life \’in God\’ as the one in whom \’we live and move and have our being\’ (Acts 17:28) and completely and utterly depend. Developing this idea is beyond the scope of a brief blog, but suffice it to say that it sits well with a rejection of a \’pure autonomous nature\’ open to explanation through reductive \’naturalism\’, and implies that ultimately all our (fallen) human understanding can only be part of the divine understanding but that now, of course, we \’see through a glass darkly\’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).
If, ex hypothesi, reason, is not closed (as the secular, positivist scientism of a Richard Dawkins might suggest), and nature, while radically different from God is not radically distant from and in that sense separate from the Trinitarian God, as to be completely autonomous and solely explicable in secular terms, what is the relevance of this sort of understanding for the CP project? In a nutshell, I suggest that it allows space for a secular understanding of the world, with which dialogue is possible, while at the same time clearly showing the limits of such secular understanding. More particularly it implies that psychology as a scientific discipline will always be \’incomplete\’ if it lacks a broader philosophical and theological perspective. Even psychology\’s best accounts will be necessary but not sufficient, while its weakest will frequently be found to be conceptually distorted and impoverished.
As for faith, well, however else we construe it, the Christian tradition has been clear that faith is at least theological virtue, or what Thomas calls a \’habitus\’, and I will explore the latter concept next time.
Posted on November 8, 2009
[by Peter Hampson, Head of Department of Psychology, University of the West of England, Bristol. Professor Hampson is our blogger for the month of November, and this is his second post]
In my last posting I began to suggest that there are two levels of engagement within the CP project. At the strategic level, the Christian narrative positions psychology hermeneutically, by providing an overarching, meaningful, God-given and Christ-centered framework; within this, at the tactical level, there is space for useful truth-seeking, dialectical engagement between theology, philosophy and psychology. Both levels of engagement are presumably guided by the Spirit. In line with this, in different though potentially related ways, thinkers seemingly as distinct as St Thomas Aquinas and Friedrich Schleiermacher see the truths of Christianity, (as captured in, say, \’sacra doctrina\’ or dogmatic and historical theology), as being in creative and positive interaction with philosophy and human knowledge (\’scientia\’ or \’philosophical theology\’). This suggests that there should be room within the CP project as a whole for both the direct application of Christianity to theory and practice, and for more detailed conceptual engagement of psychology with other disciplines, especially theology, to allow us to train properly the next generation of therapists, counselors and practitioners, and to assure that their education is both faith based and intellectually sound. We should be seeking to produce, I suggest, theologically and philosophically reflective, Christian psychologist practitioners.
I wonder, too, do such broad differences in levels of approach reflect in part differences between evangelical and apologetic strategies in Christian mission, with the direct, faith-based application of Christianity evincing the former, and the more dialectical theological engagement the latter? Interestingly, when addressing non-Christians in the Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas artificially separates philosophical understanding of God from Christian truths in a way that he does not in the Summa Theologiae. For apologetic purposes, Thomas sometimes found it convenient to use the language of reason separated from faith to communicate successfully with unbelievers. There may be times when we need to do this and to indicate to our secular psychology colleagues simply and directly where we see psychology as limited within its own framework, at other times we may need to assert and apply the truths of Christianity more robustly, at yet other times we may need to engage in debates by deploying a more nuanced understanding of reason\’s relation to faith.
Is it also the case that the practicalities and real time choices of counseling and psychotherapy, and their meaning seeking and meaning making activities make more insistent the need for the CP architectonic, whereas the requirement to seek truth in the long term characterizes the theology-psychology project? Do CP and theology-psychology approaches reflect different hidden background assumptions about the relative importance of theology? Finally, I suspect there is work to be done in teasing out how these approaches are positioned relative to long standing Christ and culture debates.
I\’ll leave these questions hanging for now, and begin to articulate how I see the relation between theology and psychology, the \’tactical level\’, being played out.
Much of my thinking has been profoundly affected by the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre particularly as developed from After Virtue (AV), through Whose Justice Which Rationality (WJWR), to Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (TRV). As is well known, MacIntyre has not only helped re-establish the importance of virtue ethics but has shown how rationality is tradition dependent (AV), but that this need not trap us in postmodern relativism since \’translatability\’ or dialogue between \’rival\’ traditions is possible (WJWR). A given tradition can in principle establish its superiority over another at points where one tradition experiences \’epistemic crises\’, which the challenging tradition can not only diagnose but also \’solve\’ to the afflicted traditions satisfaction, i.e. in its own terms (TRV). It is this threefold understanding that allows me to claim, with my colleague Gavin D\’Costa, that I am postmodern in outlook in accepting that rationality is tradition dependent, modern in accepting that rational dialogue between different rationalities is possible, and premodern in accepting the ultimate truth of the Christian tradition, and the power and validity of a broadly catholic, Thomist understanding of the relation between faith and reason. This may sound like having one\’s cake and eating it, but I suggest it is a useful way to avoid becoming trapped into either context free or totally context bound rationalities while also holding fast to what we know to be true, rooted as it is in Christ, who is Truth incarnate.
I will develop this further in my next posting.
MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 2000, first ed., 1981).
MacIntyre, Alasdair, Whose Justice, Which Rationality (London: Duckworth, 1988).
MacIntyre, Alasdair, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia,
Genealogy and Tradition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press,
Posted on October 11, 2009
[by Leslie Vernick, DCSW, LCSW. Leslie is in private practice, Director of Christ-Centered Counseling www.leslievernick.com, and is our blogger for the month of October. This is her second blog]
One of the essential elements to good mental health is having loving connections with others. Research in positive psychology shows a strong relationship between having a good social support system and the ability to withstand life\’s stressors. (See Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness, chapters 5 and 6; and Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom chapters 6 and 7) An old Jewish proverb wisely reminds us, \”Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. Sticks alone can be broken by a child.\” The consequence of disconnection and broken relationships is often depression.
Listening to depressed people over a number of years and their own explanations as to why they thought they were depressed, led me to look at depression through the lens of relationships. I\’ve often discovered that beneath a person\’s depression was a past relationship wound that was affecting present functioning and/ or a present relationship difficulty that was denied, unresolved, or not being addressed in a godly way. I also found that people often struggled with depression because they and/or their loved ones lacked the skills to make or keep authentic, supportive relationships.
Psychologist Richard O\’Connor confirms this idea in his book Undoing Depression. He writes, \”Depression is both caused by and a cause of poorly functioning relationships.\” The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) indicates that the highest rates for depression for both men and women are among those who are separated and divorced. The condition of a marital relationship is a significant factor in predicting depression, especially in women. The NIMH reports, \”Lack of an intimate, confiding relationship, as well as overt marital disputes, have been shown to be related to depression in women. In fact, rates of depression were shown to be highest among unhappily married women.\” (www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depwomenknows.cfm).
The bible confirms the importance of fellowship and relationship (Romans 12:10). In addition to making us physical and spiritual beings, God made us relational beings. The two greatest commandments God gives us have to do with loving connection (Mark 12:29-31). We are to love him first and to love others deeply from the heart (1 Thessalonians 4:9, 10; 1 Peter 1:22). God tells us that we will find meaning, purpose, and identity through our connection with him and with others. (See for example Paul\’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; 6:11-13; 8:5-7.)
Working with depressed individuals on their relationship distress and helping them build stronger interpersonal connection is certainly part of good treatment. But I\’m wondering as biblical counselors, if we are not uniquely equipped (and called) to also help a person recognize and repent of his or her disordered loves.
Let me give you a couple of cases where I\’ve chosen to focus on the latter rather than the former as a strategy in my counseling. I\’d welcome dialogue from readers as to how and when you do this as well.
Tom was separated from his wife, Joyce. Their marriage was short lived and tumultuous from the start. Both are professing believers, this is Tom\’s third marriage, Joyce\’s second. They met in a singles ministry and his goal in counseling was to \”feel better\” and \”to learn how he can win his wife back.\” We\’ve worked on some things he can do to tackle his anxiety and depressed mood as well as to communicate more effectively with his wife but Tom reports, \”It\’s not working, and I fear she\’s seeing another man.\” His next question was, \”Can I start seeing someone else, just as a friend?\” Although he already knew my answer, he added, \”It\’s easier to deal with the hurt and rejection if I know I have someone else to be with.\”
In another case, Donna has lived with chronic depression most of her marriage. She has been in personal as well as marriage counseling for years to cope with her unhappy marital relationship. She is bitter and feels hopeless that her marriage will ever change. Her main complaint is that she feels gypped that her husband isn\’t romantic and doesn\’t engage her in intimate or meaningful conversations. I\’ve met Donna\’s husband. He is kind and has many strengths, but she\’s right. He is emotionally unavailable and isn\’t likely to change into the man her heart longs for.
As biblical counselors, how do we encourage Tom to put his hope in God instead of a female friend while experiencing the pain of rejection? How do we speak to Donna\’s despair and longings in a way that brings hope to her heart – not the hope of a good marriage, but hope in the goodness and love of God in spite of a mediocre marriage?
Both Donna and Tom\’s love for God was real but secondary to their other loves. They made the love of a human being rather than God\’s love primary to their emotional well being. We all know that God commands us to love him first and most, not because he needs our love but because he knows it is in our absolute best interest for us to put him first and order our other relationships around that center. Without a secure foundation in God\’s love, all of us search for human love to fill us up and make us feel valuable and worthwhile. This strategy always fails because human love was never designed to totally fulfill us and make us happy. No one will ever understand us and care for us as much as we want. Only God\’s love is that good and his understanding that complete. Even the best human love is laced with finite limitations and sin.
How a person handles the inevitable disappointment of human relationship limitations will either drive them to seek new relationships in unhealthy ways, engage an addiction for relief, lament in despair and depression, or it will drive them toward God. C.S. Lewis wrote, \”God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.\” Relational disappointment can lead us out of illusion and into truth and reality. Sorrow teaches us to let go of our attachments to false or lesser things and to seek after God.
Posted on September 27, 2009
[by June L. Phelps, Ph.D. Dr. Phelps is a psychologist in community mental health at Trillium Family Solutions in Canton, Ohio. This is her second post for September as guest blogger.]
Two universal and prime paths of transformation have always been available to every human being God has created: great love and great suffering. Only love and suffering are strong enough to break down our usual ego defenses, crush our dual thinking, and open us up to Mystery. In my experience they like nothing else, exude the mysterious chemistry that can transmute us from a fear-based life into a love-based life. No surprise that the Christian icon of redemption is a man offering love from a crucified position.
Richard Rohr, 2009
I remember what I felt like as a graduate student, a clinician-in-training, as I stepped into the therapy room for the first time. I feared that I would not be able to relieve my clients\’ sufferings. Perhaps what I feared the most were the feelings of helplessness that might arise if I journeyed too deeply with my clients into their suffering. Even though I had good intentions and wanted to help, my instinct was to withdraw from too much pain, to keep suffering at a manageable distance. I am sure that my fears created subtle barriers between myself and my clients which influenced their willingness to share the unbearable. I became a Christian my third year in graduate school and as my Christianity became more and more central to how I lived my life I began to experience tension with respect to my work; I wanted Christianity to undergird all aspects of how I related to clients. Did Christian faith have bearing on my willingness and ability to be present with suffering clients? Could a Christian conception of human suffering help me to not turn aside from client pain in an unconscious effort to protect myself? Not until a few years ago did I seriously begin to explore these questions, utilizing the abundant Christian resources available (theology that focused on human suffering, Christian models who engaged those who suffered and wrote about their experiences, great Christian literature, and most importantly the biblical witness) to discover a \”theology of care\” – a set of core beliefs about human suffering and the Christian\’s role as a caregiver in the midst of affliction. As I began to grapple with questions of human suffering and how to be with those who suffer from a Christocentric point of view I began to develop a strong desire to know Christ more deeply and to more faithfully enact Christian disciplines. The exploration and development of Christian core beliefs about human suffering and the accompanying desire to know and love God more faithfully has helped me to be more receptive to the loving presence of God in the therapy room, in myself, and in my suffering clients. God\’s abundant love has settled many of my fears. I am so grateful for the times when I can see God at work in the therapy room, inviting me to be a conduit of his love in the midst of clients\’ sorrows.
What is it that allows a therapist to enter into another\’s suffering and provide a healing presence? I believe that in order to not distance oneself from the outpourings of client pain but rather to compassionately take on a client\’s suffering, to bear in one\’s person the image of a client\’s isolation, vulnerability and loss, a therapist needs to have internalized a sense of hope (see Diane Langberg, 2006 for more on image bearing and the therapist). Where does this hope come from? How does the therapist embody this hope, which is often not expressed in words but communicated nonetheless in attentive presence? I believe that there are two roads to becoming the type of therapist who has internalized hope and is able to travel into the deepest, darkest parts of the human soul with someone in anguish. The two roads are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they often overlap. The first road is one of experienced suffering, the way of the \”wounded healer.\” The wounded healer has developed hope even in the midst of searing pain because she has traveled the road of suffering in her own life yet has come through with a renewed sense of meaning and a capacity for joy. Perhaps it is her own suffering that has led her into the work of helping others in pain. Every human being experiences suffering. The wounded healer is the one who recognizes and engages her own suffering, wrestles with it, and ultimately finds hope.
Kierkegaard in The Sickness unto Death suggests that it is only those who are \”transparently grounded in God,\” who are conscious of their true identity \”before God as spirit,\” who will be able to see through human despair and realize hope. The second road to internalizing hope and being able to embody it in the therapy room is through Christian faith that rests on core beliefs about God\’s trustfulness, goodness, love. Jesus Christ is our best representation of God\’s nature. Through seeking an understanding of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Christian therapist becomes a person who is better able to know and receive God\’s love and to internalize hope. The degree to which she gives herself up to this pursuit in study, reflection, prayer, worship, and other spiritual disciplines is the degree to which she can embody hope in her person in the midst of suffering. For through her absorption of Christ, the ultimate personification of God\’s love, the therapist is overcome by God\’s unreserved, endless compassion for humanity. She experiences mutual empathy; she perceives God\’s divine empathy for humans, for herself, for her clients, in how Jesus lived his life and perhaps most profoundly in the cross. In the welcoming, nurturing embrace of the Trinitarian God, the creator of the universe, the sustainer of all life, she is schooled in true compassion. Human suffering is understood by the one who suffered; the one who entered the world to be with us, healed the outcasts, and took on the weight of all suffering but was not overcome. She begins to encounter the one she loves, the suffering Christ, in her suffering clients. She comes to know, through serving God in her clients, that God is with them and with her. However, she leans not only on the cross for hope. The resurrected Jesus Christ is the sign of God\’s power in weakness, a broken body raised to life. The resurrection, the vindication and the conquering of despair, radiates Christian hope in seemingly hopeless situations. The Christian therapist who internalizes hope is able to hold three transposed images of Jesus in her heart and mind: the lowly Jesus born into poverty, who lived among the afflicted and returned them to the kingdom of God; the man of sorrows who suffered on the cross; and the glorified Christ who sits at the right hand of the father – the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead, wipe away every tear, and dwell among us. This three-in-one image of Jesus Christ lives in the hopeful therapist and is to be seen, heard, and loved in the suffering client
In order to begin to cultivate a Christocentric view of human suffering a therapist might start by engaging three questions. When dialoguing with these questions the therapist should be willing to embrace mystery and paradox.
The theodicy question: \”How can a good and all-powerful God allow for human suffering, particularly the suffering of innocent children? \” At the bottom of the theodicy question is another question – is God trustworthy… just? A good place to begin to directly grapple with the theodicy question is the Book of Job. See also Revelation 21 and 22.
\”Where is God when people suffer?\” Some theologians have suggested that through the cross God suffers in solidarity with the hurting people of the world (See the works of Dorothee Soelle and Gustavo Gutierrez). This understanding of God as co-sufferer has for some theologians, placed the conception of the \”impassable\” Father God in question. The theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, suggests that God the father, as a father, suffers alongside Jesus on the cross. The Trinity itself is nailed to the cross in their suffering, sacrifice, and unified love. Mother Theresa, in her work with the poor and outcast, perceived Jesus as immanent in the people who were the recipients of her loving ministry. She believed that the image of God, in His holiness and suffering, was inscribed in their suffering bodies and faces. She felt closest to God when in the company of the rejected. The novel \”Silence,\” by theologian Shusaku Endo provocatively addresses the question of God\’s presence.
\”Does suffering have meaning?\” A Catholic belief is that humans who suffer can join their afflictions with Christ\’s suffering on the cross. By offering up their pain to Christ, people participate in his redemptive work on the cross. In this sense redemption was accomplished once and for all by Christ yet is also ongoing. For Catholics, the mystical body of Christ thus can co-participate in the Kingdom of God through the offering up of their pain to God for sake of the body. Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris, addresses the meaning of suffering in ways that are relevant for both Catholic and Protestant Christians. The question o f meaning can also be approached by reading the autobiographies of Christians who experience mental illness. Kathryn Green-McCreight, an Episcopal assistant priest who has Bipolar Disorder, describes her journey of healing within the context of faith in her book, Darkness is My Only Companion. In addition, I have found it useful to explore the theology of Christian mystics (in particular the works of Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Therese of Lisieux, and Ignatius of Loyola) when engaging the question of meaning.
Below are a few selected resources that I have found helpful as I have sought to develop and embody a Christian understanding of human suffering centered in Christ.
Callahan, Sidney. Created for Joy: A Christian View of Suffering. New York: The Cross Roads Publishing Company, 2007.
Endo, Shusaku. Silence. Marlboro, N.J.: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1980.
John Paul II. Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris: On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. February 11, 1984.
Langberg, D. (2006). The spiritual life of the therapist: We become what we habitually reflect. Journal of Psychology and Christianity. 25, 258-266.
McCreight-Greene, Kathryn. Darkness is My Only Companion. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2006.
Mother Theresa. No Greater Love. Novato, CA.: New World Library, 1997.
Richard, Lucien, O.M.I. What Are They Saying about the Theology of Suffering? Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1992. (A good introduction to theologians Gutierrez, Moltmann, and Soelle.)
Shantz, K.A. (2003). The kyrios Christos as ultimate hope: A response to pain and suffering. Journal of Religious Gerontology. 15, 55-67.