[This is the 2nd post from Dr. Eric Johnson (Southern Seminary; Director of this Society) for January 2009. This month he is blogging about soul care and spirituality in counseling.]
Over the past two decades, spirituality has become increasingly recognized in contemporary psychotherapy and counseling to be a valuable resource for some persons in their journey toward wholeness. Given the historical hostility towards religion during the previous 80 years in these fields, this change in perspective is nothing short of revolutionary. Since this change began, the American Psychological Association and many other mainstream psychology publishers have published dozens of books on the role of spirituality in therapy.
Christian psychologists rejoice in these developments. They have created an opening in training and counseling contexts for Christians to advocate and use spiritual techniques and make reference to spiritual teachings in therapy. All this is central to a Christian psychology approach to therapy. However, from our standpoint, there is a serious limitation to the contemporary advocacy of spirituality: it permits the advocacy of a generic type of spirituality, but not one that promotes a particular faith perspective. Counselors currently may ask questions about “religion” and “spirituality” in general, encourage counselees to explore their own faith tradition, and perhaps even promote the use of spiritual practices, but they are not allowed to advocate for a particular faith.
But such restrictions perpetuate a modernist kind of unreality regarding these topics, since most people do not believe in generic religion or spirituality—most believe in a specific religion and spirituality that has certain tenets that distinguish it from others.
Moreover, just as it is unethical to force counselees to accept the beliefs of their counselors, it is also unethical to force counselors to be inauthentic regarding their own soul-healing beliefs. Christians believe that an honest, sincere faith in Christ is the best way for one to grow in psychological wellbeing. Secularists and adherents of a generic-faith spirituality have their own views on such matters, but they (and notably, Buddhists) should not be the only ones who are permitted to counsel within their worldview understanding of psychological wellbeing. Modernism has been remarkably successful in persuading its adherents that the sharing of all other worldview beliefs are off-limits in therapy and that only its worldview beliefs are legitimate and only its assumptions should control how therapy is done—and this continues to affect contemporary thinking about spirituality. But justice requires that Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, as well as Christian therapists be given the same freedoms that modern, “generic-faith” therapists have to discern what is best to share to promote their clients’ wellbeing. Of course, there is the genuine concern that some “evangelists” would manipulate vulnerable counselees. Training in sensitive, appropriate sharing must begin in graduate school, and Christians will have to be very clear about their respect for the rights of their clients to choose for themselves what they need. But the mature, well-trained Christian counselors I know have no desire to promote superficial “conversions” anyway, since they believe their counselees are made in the image of God so they genuinely need to freely determine for themselves their ultimate beliefs—this is the only kind of Christianity worth promoting. Besides, therapists who are resistant to this Christian understanding will lose clients.
But when working with Christian counselees, there can be no objection to counselors advocating for the use of the Christian spiritual disciplines (prayer, Bible reading, the reading of spiritual books, meditation, fasting, healthy church involvement, and so on), and they should be able to talk freely about the tremendous psychospiritual resources of the Christian faith, including God’s beauty; Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; identity in Christ; the blessings of salvation; heaven; and so on; to explore their rich therapeutic potential with their counselees.
So, while Christian psychologists are delighted about the new openness to spirituality in our day, I think we ought to avoid its generic versions, and promote instead a distinctively Christian spirituality, the features of which we will discuss next week.
 But even that cuts both ways. Tapes I’ve seen of Carl Rogers show a very sophisticated and subtle form of humanistic evangelism, and surely he’s not alone.