Christianity and psychotherapy

My contribution to the blogs at think tank, Theos, looking at mental health.

Jesus was a master of the inner life. He taught in parables so as to initiate transformations of perspective (Mark 4:11; Matthew 13:13). He reformed the notion of the Kingdom of God, turning an expected social eruption into a discovery “within you” (Luke 17:20-21). The fullest realisation of his promises was a felt sense of participating in divine life: “On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me and I am in you.” (John 14: 20).

He invited people to pray privately (Matthew 6:6); to be renewed in quiet places (Mark 6:31); to cultivate a new direction of mind (Mark 1:15); and that the intention of a penitent person matters more than their outward actions (Luke 18:9ff).

An interior dynamic is present throughout Paul’s letters, as well. The freedom he preached was unlike the freedom that would have been most familiar at the time, the civic freedom of the Roman citizen. Instead, he focused on a freedom of the will; to conform your mind to Christ (Romans 12:2). “I no longer live but Christ lives me,” Paul confessed (Galatians 2:20).

Moreover, Jesus and Paul’s attention to inner life contrasts with the prophets and writers of the Hebrew Bible. A study of the words of the Bible has shown that the New Testament is markedly more concerned with introspection than the Old Testament.

I labour the point because this all suggests that Christianity should be a rich source of wisdom on inner life, and therefore mental wellbeing. And indeed, the first few centuries of the church produced experts in what would now be called “depth psychology”. Take the desert father, Evagrius Ponticus. He developed practical guides to inner life, showing how to navigate a way through the hate and envy, lust and gluttony – as well as faith and love – that are inevitably found there. He described and explored “eight terrible thoughts”, which were later reviewed and misleadingly re-described as the Seven Deadly Sins.

The monastic and mystical traditions of the medieval church sustained and developed these insights. And then came the Reformation.

Much changed, for good and ill. But it introduced Christian Europe to Martin Luther’s wariness of introspection, born of his spiritual struggles, and subsequently aided the closure of monasteries and convents across the continent. In England, the dissolution of religious houses was particularly intense, more or less destroying the wisdom tradition of Christian inwardness in about a decade. The church historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch, tracks the revolution in Silence: A Christian History. He notes how the centrality of silence in Christian practice that was initiated by Jesus, and strengthened by the contemplative adepts of subsequent centuries, dissolved. “This was [now] to be an era of words, relentlessly clarifying the Word of God,” MacCulloch writes.

Psychotherapy can be regarded as a response to this crisis for inner life. It differs from psychiatry, which focuses on the biochemical aspects of mental health, and psychology, which focuses on the behavioural aspects, focusing instead on the dynamics of the mind. One of the founding figures of the movement, Carl Jung, regarded its significance in this way.

His father was a minister and he noticed how the churches had become ill-equipped to cope with the interior struggles of modern people. “The wave of interest in psychology which at present is sweeping over the Protestant countries of Europe is far from receding. It is coincident with a general exodus from the Church,” he observed in a 1932 lecture entitled, “Psychotherapists or the Clergy”. He felt that the clergy were “insufficiently equipped to cope with the urgent psychic needs of our age” and that it was “high time for the clergyman and the psychotherapist to join forces to meet this great spiritual task.” What he said then could be repeated now, over 80 years later.

The two traditions have not joined forces for a number of reasons. One is that the Reformation legacy lives on. For instance, church life today is frequently characterized by wordy liturgies and noisy services. To my mind, this explains why Buddhists are making the running when it comes to teaching meditation and mindfulness. Similarly, the culture of church professionals tends towards the workaholic, so much so that the Church of England, for one, is struggling to implement “minimum standards” for clergy wellbeing. This is serious: a fundamental rule of spiritual growth and psychological health is that they must be nurtured in those who would encourage others to foster them too.

Another reason for the distance between church and couch is to do with suspicion. Sigmund Freud was openly hostile to belief in God, tending to pathologize such convictions. He was one of the “masters of suspicion”, alongside Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, with the upshot that psychotherapy is commonly thought to be inherently secular, if not atheistic. It is necessary repeatedly to aver that it is not. For one thing, most psychotherapists today won’t read much Freud. They are much more likely to be guided by the work of those who came next, seminal figures such as Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby and Wilfred Bion.

Alongside such culture wars there are also turf wars. Anecdotally, I’d say that Christians are often inclined to feel that psychotherapy challenges what should be their prerogative. There is a sense that prayer should be enough to secure mental health, for example, and that churches should only have to turn to psychotherapists in cases of breakdown or emergency.
Insofar as these suspicions obtain, they must change. Mental ill-health is too widespread for them to be indulged. Broadly speaking, I think they can change in two ways.

First, psychotherapy has a crucial part to play in mental health ministry. It is not that Christians should feel they must become therapists. Rather, psychotherapeutic insights offer ways of developing a feel for the inner life of people who are suffering psychologically that is invaluable when attempting to support them. In short, it can help care for the carers.

Second, psychotherapeutic insights are not only valuable when people feel unwell. They are valuable in the general transformation of life. Psychotherapy is, in effect, the inheritor of the introspective nous that has been valued by Christians all the way back to Jesus.

For example, where he talked about not seeing the plank in your own eye because of a preoccupation with the speck in a brother’s (Matthew 7:5), psychotherapy has mapped the subtle mechanisms of life-limiting and destructive projections. Where he spoke of the happiness of the pure in heart (Matthew 5:8), psychotherapy has explored the distractions that can cloud an individual’s heart and mind. Psychotherapy can also assist with discerning the significance of dreams, and becoming aware of the developmental forces that shape us from our earliest years. This, in turn, is about being freed to deepen connections with others, the world and, also, with God. That’s why psychotherapy needs religious and spiritual traditions in return.

A further use is its illumination of the ways in which religion can be applied defensively and, at times, abusively. One person may attempt to by-pass their pain by pursuing a vocation or disciplining themselves, all the while concealing a brokenness inside. Another person may become attached to manipulative religious leaders because of a past that compels them unhealthily to depend on others.

Put it like this: when life is less shaped by the multitudinous, anxious concerns of the ego, it becomes more open to the wider horizons of God. But first, you’ve got to become aware of those anxious concerns. That’s true of all of us, regardless of the status of our mental health. Only then can life become more aligned to the Spirit, and the divine reality in whom we live and move and have our being can become intimately trusted and known.

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