– Christian Theology and Psychotherapy: a Perspective
By Alan A. Mooney
Within the Christian tradition’s early years what we now call theology was closely linked with the spiritual life. It was essentially a meditation on the bible with a focus on spiritual growth. It was typically monastic and therefore characterised by a spiritual life removed from ‘worldly’ concerns. It offered a narrow path for any Christian wanting to live a life of spiritual perfection.
In dialogue with the thought of its time this theology used Platonic and Neo-Platonic ideas to express itself. Here it found a metaphysics that stressed the existence of a higher world and the transcendence of an Absolute from which everything came and to which everything returned. The present life, by contrast was seen as contingent and was not valued sufficiently.
This began to change in and around the fourteenth century when there occurred a separation between theologians and the masters of the spiritual life. The Imitation of Christ a spiritual book by Thomas a Kempis, is an example of this rift which despite the passing of centuries is with us today and may be seen as part of the ongoing debate about the role of church in people’s lives.
Some would see this role as one of government, conformity and regulation of personal, social and religious behaviour. In other words membership of an institution with certain duties and privileges. This gives rise to a theology that has its focus on dogma and on absolutes. It is characterised by the idea that: “That which was in Christ is transferred into our church”. This kind of absolutism is very powerful and can, on the one hand, be very reassuring to those who need that kind of certainty and safety and, on the other hand, may be experienced as crushingly restrictive to those who are comfortable with a broader outline.
The lowest point in the history of Christian theological development comes after the thirteenth century where a degradation of the Thomistic, (after Thomas Aquinas), concept of theology generates a reductionism where the demands of rational knowledge as the hallmark of theology become a need for systematisation. After the Council of Trent the function of theology became: To define, present and explain revealed truths, to examine doctrine, to denounce and condemn false doctrines and to defend true ones, to teach revealed truths authoritatively.
That position held more or less intact through the years until the current century where world wars and the development of the sciences, especially psychology and technology opened up new ways for people to understand themselves and their place in the Universe.
Seen as a whole the direction of Christian theological thought has been characterised in recent history by a move away from attention on supernatural things per se and toward attention to their relationship with people, with the world and with the problems of existence in a fragile biosphere. The main quest of theology now is a rediscovery of the indissoluble unity of the relationship between humanity and God.
Gaudium et Spes
The Second Vatican Council held in the early to mid 1960’s reaffirmed the nature of the Roman church as one of service and not of power: ‘The church is not motivated by an earthly ambition but is interested in only one thing – to carry out the work of Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for he came into the world to bear witness to the truth, to share and not to judge, to serve and not to be served.’ (Gaudium et Spes <Joy & Hope> Art.3 Documents of the 2nd Vatican Council, ed. A. Flannery). This is exemplified when it lives the ‘joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of people of this age.’ (Gaudium et Spes Art.l).
This shift begins to show that the theological reflection of the church is changing in this way: There is a re-focusing on the actual lived experience of people, how they live, what that is doing to them etc. While the church is interested ‘in only one thing’ the focus on the existential and the phenomenological is becoming more central.
Quoting again from Gaudium et Spes, the Council goes on to say: ‘The modern world shows itself at once powerful and weak, capable of the noblest deeds and the foulest. Before it lies the path to freedom or to slavery, to progress or retreat, to fraternity or hatred. Moreover, people are becoming aware that it is their responsibility to guide aright the forces that have been unleashed and which can enslave or minister to them.’ (Art.9).
While Roman Catholic theology is becoming more aware of the socio/political and the psychological ground on which it must work out its understanding of the relationship between God and Humanity, one of its basic tenets is that we are not and cannot be centres of wholeness entirely by ourselves. We exist in a relationship with the divine.
This is not simply the sense of an inclusive and pervasive spiritual awareness but a very specific, direct, personal relationship with God through God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. The need to re-establish this relationship comes from the concept of Original Sin which may be understood to mean that there has been a breakdown in the relationship between God and Humanity that was initiated by Humanity’s self-importance. (‘Man is the measure of all things’)
Christian theological reflection and Humanistic psychotherapy part company at this point. In its constitution and code of ethics and practice the Irish Association for Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy declares: ‘Humanistic & Integrative psychotherapy emphasises that persons are self-regulating, self-actualising and self-transcending beings, responsible for themselves and whilst recognising the tragic dimensions of Human existence, it emphasises the ability of persons to go beyond themselves and to realise their nature more fully.’
Prerogative of God
This is a worthy aspiration, however, it does not link in its emphasis on the ‘self’ with the theological idea that no matter what we do we are ultimately dependent on the unconditional acceptance and forgiveness of God. No matter how much we do to ‘realise our nature more fully’, in the end we cannot self-transcend, that is the prerogative of God and is understood to be a Gift, a Grace according to Roman Catholic and other Christian theological understanding.
As it stands in its orthodoxy, Christian theology does not make sense without sin, though some theologians have tried, and continue to explore another paradigm, (c.f. Matthew Fox, Original Blessing – A Study of Creation Spirituality).
The essential reason for the Christian belief that God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth is based on the idea that since humanity had ‘fallen’ – had become slaves to sin; God chose to do a very radical thing – to become one of us in order to provide a salvation experience – to establish God’s reign in the world.
It is summed up in the belief that Jesus (God incarnate) died (made the supreme cleansing sacrifice) to free humanity from this slavery to sin and that God freely chose to recognise this by raising him from death to Glory. The powerful hold of sin was so great that no single person nor indeed the whole human race could break the thrall – it required a direct, deliberate and consummate Divine intervention.
If human salvation has been achieved in the Christ and only in the Christ, it is obvious that fundamentally no merely human attempt, through psychotherapy or otherwise, to realise one’s nature at a personal, spiritual or transcendent level, is adequate to this perception of the human/divine dance.
This theological perspective insists that ultimate transcendence is initiated by a personal divine grace and choice and not by virtue of personal self-development that might in this view, be construed as pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps.
The IAHIP code of ethics says, ‘The overall aim of psychotherapy is to provide an opportunity for the client to work toward living in a more satisfying and resourceful way …
The role of psychotherapy is to facilitate the client’s work in ways that respect the client’s values, personal resources and capacities for self-determination. The aim is to empower clients and to encourage them to take control of their lives.’ (Art.2.5)
This is an adequate mission statement that contains within it a fundamental respect for the individual, including religious beliefs and values. It does not seek to impose a spiritual criterion for well-being nor does it seek to impose a particular religious ‘Way’. Each person must find their own expression of this aspect of themselves whether within a particular religious faith or none. At the same time some religious thinking does seek to impose its beliefs and values, certainly upon the members of its church, but also upon others, insofar as it believes its values and experience are universal.
Sense of Worth
In psychotherapy and in the broader field of psychology we talk of having a good self-image or high self-esteem as fundamentally desirable. Psychotherapy includes the process of establishing a renewed sense of worth in clients so that they can live their lives more effectively and experience a more complete sense of well-being.
Both Christian thinking and psychotherapy agree that it is a good that people should think well of themselves. The difference is that Psychotherapy holds that people are essentially good in and of themselves. People behave badly toward themselves or others because of emotional or mental lack or damage. In most cases therapy can help people to see things differently and more humanly so that in coming to accept and like themselves they will not do damage to others or themselves in the future.
God Loves Us
Christian thinking cannot go along with this because it sees people as having worth and value for entirely different reasons. We are valuable because God loves us. “I come that you may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The idea is not that we deserve to feel good about ourselves in and of ourselves but because God has chbsen us and it is God who gives us our worth and value.
Christian teaching cannot accept the doctrine of natural goodness implied in most theories of self-esteem since that ‘original’ natural goodness is tarnished by the ‘Fall’. To say that we can determine our own value or worth is in direct contravention of the Gospel. The New Testament, which is the basic source of Christian teaching does not encourage people to have faith in themselves but rather to have faith in God and in Jesus. Only from that can we love our neighbour as ourselves.
“And he said to him, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and First commandment. The second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets”. (Matthew 22:37-40)
Son of God
Christ is the focus of Christian theology and the study of what this means is called Christology. A contemporary theologian, J.B. Metz in his book Theology of the World (1969, Burns & Oates), indicates that an understanding of the meaning of Christ must be committed so that either by design or constraint Christology is “voiced in a given social setting with all the conflicting interests that pervade it”, (p. 22). Metz goes on to state that “We must not forget that the Son of God is not just any fact within history, it is not simply from the ethical or religious point of view that he is rated higher than any other historical figure and has therefore, become a model for the rest of mankind”, (p. 23)
From a Christian point of view, it is not bad or wrong to have a good self-esteem. It can be conceded that there is a natural level of positive self-regard. It is good to appreciate health or to be happy that things are going well for us or that we feel purposeful in our lives. When we go into what Christian teaching would label pride and arrogance, by thinking we can be responsible for our own dignity, authority or knowledge, without reference to God and the act of salvation completed in Christ, then we once again part in our ways.
One of the complexities of this issue is that the Roman church operates on two levels. On the one hand there is the explicit doctrinal situation where church teaching is binding on the faithful – e.g. in the context of family planning where any act of sexual intercourse must be open to the possibility of procreation or in the recent controversial context of divorce and re-marriage where the second union is considered sinful and automatically excommunicates the people involved. The same is true for a priest who resigns from the ministry and marries. If he chooses not to go through the process of laisisation whereby he admits that he should never have been ordained because of some form of incompetence to take on the role of priest, he is living in a sinful state. These examples of excommunication are deemed to be binding until the individuals repent and receive absolution in confession. This situation is known as the external forum.
On the other hand the church operates a pastoral device called the internal forum solution which presupposes that no one except God can judge the internal state of the individual and so no priest can refuse to allow a person in the above categories or similar ones to partake of the sacramental life of the church since he cannot judge the conscience or motivation of the individual. He would be obliged however, if asked, to indicate that such a person was in breach of the doctrine of the church.
Sometimes these differences at such a fundamental level can become fudged, especially where Humanistic and Integrative psychotherapy is concerned. This is so because most of the basic concepts of the person are essentially the same. It can appear to be a relatively easy task to incorporate Christian principles into the work of therapy or to import psychotherapeutic principles into the work of pastoral concern.
Nature of Humanity
Indeed they do fit so long as one chooses to ignore the fact that psychotherapy does not automatically understand the nature of Humanity as related indissolubly to a concept of God. Christian theology cannot understand the nature of Humanity without the concept of God and therefore fundamentally differs from the psychotherapeutic stance which allows people to find their own locus of meaning for their lives.
Denial of Reality
That locus may or may not include a specific relationship with a God or gods. Christian theological reflection has no option but to conclude that any process of human development that does not include the reality of Jesus Christ must, ‘ab initio’, be in denial of reality. The self cannot have been its own creator. The cornerstone of Christian thinking on the matter may be summed up in the words of St. Paul to the church at Corinth when he says “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”
Christian thinking must inevitably conclude that the overriding problem for psychotherapy is that it is based on nothing solid. It has a range of aspirations that are laudable but where are they validated? In the self? -I am good because I say I am and I work at it? I am the pinnacle of evolution and am capable of self-transcendence?
Because Christian thinking claims to be based in historical reality – God chose to have a personal relationship with a specific people and through them, generated the supreme act of salvation by becoming incarnate and finally by Christ’s death and resurrection redeemed the world – it is impossible for Christian theological reflection to understand and fully accept any form of human growth or healing without reference to Christ and the grace of God mediated through Him in the Church.
The second Vatican Council did however, state that it was possible to have a relationship with God while not being a member of the church but that the fullness of divine revelation subsists in the Roman Catholic Church. That is to say, you can be a member of another Christian denomination or a member of any other theocentric church or none at all and still live a life in relationship with God, however, if you want to share in the fullness of relationship with him the Roman church claims the unbroken line of connection with Jesus through the Apostle Peter and his successors, the popes and bishops.
Humanistic and Integrative psychotherapy claims that there is room for mysticism, for religious and peak experience in psychotherapy and that this does not require membership of a religious Way though it does not exclude it. This area comes under the heading of self-actualization which can include the possibility of some form of self-transcendence. ‘By contrast (with the secondary self or ego) the transpersonal centre, the soul, includes the personal but goes beyond it. It focuses on the whole … it is associated with experiences and consciousness that are deep or transcendent, in which the individual is ‘taken out of the little self into the wonder, awe and unity of the cosmos.’ (Dryden. Ed.1988)
The universe is the primary scripture, the primary locus of divine/human communion. It is inclusive and unique to the individual. Specific religious traditions claim an exclusivity of their particular relationship.
Being religious in the sense of belonging to a particular church is not a barrier to experiencing ‘inclusive spirituality’. (‘All praise be yours, My Lord, through Sister Earth, our Mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits and coloured flowers and herbs’: Francis of Assisi).
There is a continuing development within Christian Theology to move more easily through this kind of inclusiveness without feeling threatened in the fundamental beliefs concerning the relationship between god and humanity. There is also a growing acceptance of the transpersonal dimension in people within the world of psychotherapy.
John Rowan says that: ‘The transpersonal is not about religion, but rather to do with personal experience, which may or may not be expressed in religious terminology, and if it is expressed in some religious way, it is just as likely to be some little known religion such as paganism … as one of the better known and better organised religions. In other words, the transpersonal is a realm of personal discovery, not something which one joins.’ (Inside Out No.13 p6.)
Sin as ‘destructive urge’ is not foreign to psychotherapy, it is in fact one of the significant reasons that people come to the therapy room ( which is often referred to as a sacred space where people take ‘time out of time’ to discover new meaning in their lives). It is also a political and ecological issue in a broader sphere.
It is not unreasonable to think about the hearty recognition of humanity’s power to corrupt and to want to redress that in our personal and socio-political lives. We are, in the end, part of Gaia – Creation, whatever its origin.
So, whether we belong to the church, or through therapy, come to a deeper appreciation of ourselves and the world, we are in a process of discovering the sacred. When this aspect of our humanity is lost or debased something fundamental is also lost: it becomes easy to think of others as objects to be used and it becomes easier to think of damaging or destroying the ecosphere.
Theological reflection that works from human experience and psychotherapy that does the same can be partners in the endeavour to create meaning, both personal and transcendent, only agreeing to differ on the grounds of being inclusive or exclusive – according to one’s perspective. The realm of God is no small thing (Julian of Norwich)
Baum G. 1971 Man Becoming, Herder & Herder NY.
Brown R. 1984, The Churches The Apostles Left Behind, Paulist Press.
Dryden W.(Ed.) 1988, Innovative Therapy in Britain (Ch.11).
Flannery A. Documents of Vatican II.
Fox M. 1979, Compassion, Winston Press. US.
Fox M. 1983, Original Blessing, Bear & Co. US.
Gutierrez C. 1974, A Theology of Liberation, SCM, London.
Johnson R.A. 1993, The Fisher King & The Handless Maiden, Harper San Francisco.
Kelsey M.T. 1983, Christo-Psychology, DLT.
Kilpatrick W.K. 1983 Psychological Seduction, Arthur James, London.
Kung H. 1986, Church & Change, Gill and MacMillan.
Metz J.B. 1969 Theology of the World, Burns & Oates.
Progoff I. 1980, The Practice of Process Meditation, Dialogue Hse. NY.
Rowan J. 1983, The Reality Came, RKP. London.
Segundo J.L 1977, The Liberation of Theology, Gill and MacMillan.
Tyrrell B.J. 1975, Christo-Therapy, Paulist Press.
Tyrrell B.J. 1982, Christo-Therapy II, Paulist Press.