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Christian psychotherapy

9 June 2019

Someone posted this cartoon on Facebook recently.

Have a look at it, and before reading any further, see what you think it is saying.

You might find it interesting to write your thoughts down.

I forget who posted it. The artist is on Facebook here.

When I first saw it, I struggled to interpret it, and three or four thoughts passed through my head within about a minute.

My thoughts were the following, in roughly this order.

  1. The church is speaking. It had tried to use the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus wedded to modern secular psychotherapy, but was now finding them incompatible.
  2. The church is speaking, seeking the guidance of the psychotherapist, because the church has departed from the teaching of Jesus, and there is now a. rift between them. The psychotherapist is being called upon to mediate between Christ and the Church.
  3. The church trusts the judgement of modern secular psychotherapy far more than it trusts the judgement of Jesus, so that Jesus has been dethroned, and secular psychotherapy rules over all.

One example of the unholy alliance between Christian theology and secular Western psychotherapy can be found in the way a Swedish Lutheran missionary in Zululand, Bengt Sundkler, evaluated the theology of some African Independent Churches. He judged them not by the Holy Scriptures, not by the Church Fathers, but by the writings of Sigmund Freud — see here Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism.

A more positive view of the link between Christianity and secular psychotherapy is Dear Church, Let’s Talk About Mental Health:

Let me start by saying that I am still a pastor, I still believe in the absolute power of Jesus to heal the heart and I’m still a huge supporter of church counseling and ministry. But I feel compelled to raise my voice and say:

  • Therapy is not demonic.
  • Taking antidepressants is not a sin.
  • Seeing a psychiatrist is not anti-christian.
  • And those who suffer from mental health problems are not a failure.

One secular psychotherapist who seems to have been discussed quite a lot in Christian (including Orthodox Christian) circles recently is a Canadian, Jordan Peterson.

I first heard of him about a year ago in a discussion at a monthly gathering where we talk about Christianity and literature. Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life was mentioned there, and I was rather put off by it, since it sounded as though he was saying that the first rule was to aim to be the top lobster in the pack. That didn’t sound very Christian to me. In fact it sounded diametrically opposed to Orthodox spirituality. It also appeared that he and Jonathan Haidt, another secular psychologist guru, had overlapping fan groups.

As I noted in my earlier post, however, have grave doubts about both of them, I have ambivalent feelings about Jordan Peterson, however, strengthened (on the positive side) by a blog post by Jé-nae Freel, in which she makes comparisons between the dragon-slaying protagonist in my book The Year of the Dragon and Jordan Peterson Dragons:

What makes a dragon? Steve Hayes challenges his readers with this question as his novel, The Year of the Dragon, unravels, and its characters are forced to face the beast in numerous ways. It stalks them down the story-line with hunger in its eyes, but it also prompts the rising up of Saint George and courage in its prey.

Once a dragon is born, it will only grow if not acknowledged. Jordan Peterson deals with this in his lecture on Slaying The Dragon Within Us, which points out the trait inside each of us to raise up the beast while pretending that it isn’t there. Peterson uses the children’s book, There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon, to draw a picture of what these creatures can become if not acknowledged, as well as the perceived naivety of those who see the dragon for what it is.

So Jé-nae persuades me to re-evaluate Jordan Peterson. What she says about the dragons, it seems to me, is compatible in many ways with what the Church Fathers say in The Philokalia, for example. In my story the dragon is mostly external to the characters, the principalities and powers, the rulers and authorities of an authoritarian state, but it is also within, in the form of the human passions that align us to the dragon. And in that context, quite a lot of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life makes sense.

The first rule, however, remains a stumbling block, as it seems to link to the modern self-esteem cult.

Self-esteem, as a psychological construct, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has no entry in my Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, 1962 edition. It, like many other psychological constructs, is an innovation. Many of the terms that were used when I studied psychology at university are no longer in use today, and that makes me distrust secular psychology — it seems to be too much subject to the changing whims of fashion.

Jordan Peterson doesn’t actually use the term “self-esteem” a lot, not even in his advice to emulate the top lobster, but his description of the top lobster certainly fits with the traditional understanding of self-esteem in Orthodox spirituality:

There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings. It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society—on a scale of one to ten, for the sake of argument. If you’re a number one, the highest level of status, you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and the highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention (Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life)..

In Orthodox spirituality, however, such self-esteem is seen to be demonic:

Our seventh struggle is against the demon of self-esteem, a multiform and subtle passion which is not readily perceived even by the person whom it tempts. The provocations of the other passions are more apparent and it is therefore somewhat easier to do battle with them, for the soul recognizes its enemy and can repulse him at once by rebutting him and by prayer. The vice of self-esteem, however, is difficult to fight against, because it has any forms and appears in all our activities – in our way of speaking, in what we say and in our silences, at work, in vigils and fasts, in prayer and reading, in stillness and long-suffering. Through all these it seeks to strike down the soldier of Christ. When it cannot seduce a man with extravagant clothes, it tries to tempt him by means of shabby ones. When it cannot flatter him with honor, it inflates him by causing him to endure what seems to be dishonor. When it cannot persuade him to feel proud of his display of eloquence, it entices him through silence into thinking he has achieved stillness. When it cannot puff him up with the thought of his luxurious table, it lures him into fasting for
the sake of praise (St John Cassian, On the Eight Vices: On Self-Esteem, from The Philokalia).

That fits with what Jé-nae Freel cites Jordan Peterson as saying — that these demons or dragons that we battle are mostly internal. And that is the point at which Orthodox spirituality differs from much modern Western spirituality. This became apparent to me when about 12 years ago a group of Christian bloggers had a synchronised blog on “spiritual warfare”. You can see my contribution here. It seemed that many Western Protestant Christians did not see spiritual warfare as spiritual at all, but the saw it as physical.

It’s not purely an East/West thing, but it can be seen on contrasting novels about spiritual powers abroad in the world, those written by Frank Peretti on the one hand, and those written by Charles Williams on the other. Peretti’s novels show “spiritual” warfare as very material and physical, external to the characters, while Williams shows that the struggle takes place primarily within the characters themselves. Yes, there is external evil, but it is the internal response to it that is important. It seems that for many Western Protestant Christians, “spiritual warfare” means the struggle against human enemies — Satanists and practitioners of “the occult”, members of non-Christian religions, atheists and the like — the very “blood and flesh” that St Paul warned us that the struggle is not against. So please don’t get the idea that here I am saying that our struggle is against Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt. But some of the ideas that they propound do not seem to me to be compatible with Christians spirituality, and especially Orthodox spirituality.

So I’m not saying that we should write off all secular psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy as works of the devil. But look at the cartoon at the beginning again, and ask what is going on there, who is in charge here? Who is calling the shots? Who is the ultimate arbiter of what we ought to think about it?

A book that might be worth reading in this connection is Orthodox Psychotherapy by Hierotheos Vlachos, the Bishop of Nafpaktos.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 June 2019 4:53 am

    All I looked at were the cartoon and the 3 choices, and my answer is number two, except that Jesus is the one who consulted the psychotherapist.

  2. 11 June 2019 1:04 am

    Steve, some info for you on the American context.

    Peterson is getting a lot of attention as a kind of “father figure” who can tell young men, sternly but also with seemingly sincere compassion, what they need to do to grow up and take responsibility. For various reasons, a lot of young men in the US don’t have that kind of person in their lives, and some are hungry for this kind of guidance. I don’t know his work, only read some quotes and listened to a couple of interviews. He is not a professing Christian, but much of what he talks about overlaps with Christian understanding of maturity and morality. He and Orthodox icon carver Jonathan Pageau (Canadian) had a conversation on traditional religious symbolism; if you do a search on YouTube you should be able to find it. It’s on my mental “to watch” list. (You might like Pageau’s musings on symbolism with regard to fantasy/scifi films.)

    Haidt is a serious sociologist (agnostic) whose work focuses on how people make moral decisions. Most people who are attracted to “pop psychology” don’t like him, because he disturbs the stories we tell ourselves about our motives and why what we think we do is right. He identifies with Liberal (US) politics, but is respectful of Conservatives and willing to listen to them, and many of those on the Left don’t like him because of that. I have read his best known book, “The Righteous Mind”, and found in it a lot of good things for consideration.

    Naked Pastor is the pen name of David Hayward, who was a pastor for 30 years in various types of Protestant churches, from Anglican to Pentecostal. A lot of his cartoons point out the hypocrisy of church attenders and groups. I think this cartoon is not as much about psychology per se as it is about Christians who don’t “look like Jesus” – particularly Christ depicted with the crown of thorns as someone who is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief – who would identify with the marginalized, victims of abuse, etc. So more of the revealing of the hypocrisy kind of thing.


  3. Jane Szepesi permalink
    11 June 2019 7:46 pm

    My first thought was, “He won’t listen to me!” (the Church speaking)

  4. 11 June 2019 10:37 pm

    Hi Steve, I tried to leave this comment yesterday but WordPress ate it…

    Some (North) American context for you.

    Peterson has become popular with young men in their late teens and 20s, because he is not shy about urging these young men to seek maturity and take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Often these young men, for various reasons, don’t have a father or father figure to help them with this, and some of them see Peterson as filling this role. P. seems to actually care about them, as a group and as individuals when he meets them. He is a university professor, but he also has a clinical practice. I’ve not read his books but have read quotes from them and heard a couple of short interviews. P. is not a professing Christian, but he does “believe in God” and does dialogue with religious people. His interview on YouTube with fellow Canadian Jonathan Pageau, an Orthodox icon carver, discussing the Symbolic in art, is on my mental “to watch” list. (You might be interested in Pageau’s ideas about symbolism in fantasy/sci-fi films. I’m sure you can find him on YouTube and elsewhere with your preferred search engine.) Peterson is not liked by North American political progressives because of his traditional understanding of gender.

    Haidt is a sociologist, not a psychologist, so his work depends on what people report about themselves. I have read his book on how we make moral choices. He may share some views with P., but I would not guess very many. H. is an agnostic, and on the Left politically. He is not liked by some of his fellow Progressives because he advocates actually listening to people with whom one does not agree.

    Naked Pastor is the pen name of David Hayward, who was a pastor for 30 years in Protestant churches of various types, from Anglican to Pentecostal. He is followed on line mostly by people who have quit church (sometimes because of manipulative spiritual abuse). A lot of his cartooning is pointing out the hypocrisy of some Christians. I don’t think this particular cartoon is “about” psychotherapy, Christian or otherwise. Rather, it’s another way Hayward is indicating how church people can act in ways that don’t reflect the One whose Name they name. With Christ portrayed simply with the crown of thorns, I think Hayward is drawing attention to Christ as the Man of Sorrows who would be in solidarity with the poor and marginalized particularly.


    • 12 June 2019 8:10 am

      Sorry, I had to fish it out of the spam queue. Akismet is usually very good at avoiding false positives, but seems to have tripped up this time.

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