Why's the church so sniffy about personal development?

This piece was originally published in the Church Times.

Researching a radio programme on the Sunday Assembly, the remarkably successful “atheist church” that in 3 years has grown to more than 70 congregations, highlighted a trick that the Church of England is missing, and can actually be averse to. Personal development. Alongside Sunday Assembly’s gatherings and a serious commitment to social concern, it offers self-help support and mentoring groups. The founders heard a request for personal development, and responded.

The demand is entirely unsurprising. Personal development is commonplace in the modern world. Self-help books, various types of therapy, mindfulness trainings, professional coaching, projects like The Idler Academy and The School of Life (that run various adult courses and with which I’m involved). Even the BBC website has a substantial personal development section.

Of course, the quality of what’s on offer varies enormously. At one end, there are best-sellers like The Secret by Rhonda Byrne that, frankly, I find creepy: the “secret” is that you can attract to yourself anything you want, from more happiness to a new Porsche. At the other, are guides like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, which could have been titled, A Practical Introduction to Aristotelian Ethics – only, of course, that wouldn’t have sold.

The Church of England might be a leader in personal development too. There are numerous sayings of Jesus that promise followers a transformation so profound that they will become nothing less than friends of God. How else might that happen without putting in the legwork to be changed? It’s a path monastics have long understood. From its earliest days, monasticism utilized a self-help book of the ancient world: Epictetus the Stoic’s Enchiridion, or Handbook. It laid out a kind of basic training for novices. Or there are central doctrines of Christianity that invite personal development, such as coming to know, not just be told, that you are made in the image of God.

And yet, mention personal development in the church, and you often receive a sniffy response. There’s a culture about that would dismiss a retreat of forty days and nights as self-indulgent and excessive. I was once told to stop narcissistically fixating on myself and turn to the light of Christ. (In therapy, that’d be called splitting.) Someone else decried all the naval-gazing, before scurrying off to the next church meeting. (In therapy, that’d be called a manic defense.)

The irony of that last response is that the phrase, navel-gazing, was first coined to mock meditating desert fathers and mothers. How is that going to save souls? they were asked. How is that going to help others? It might do so because the most compelling presentation of the gospel is when you sense its transformative potential in someone else; when you detect someone is living out of Christ rather than the shallow waters of themselves.

I’m sure this is what Paul meant when he spoke of having died. But there’s only one way to that new life: through the heart of your own darkness. That’s not narcissistic, it’s the truth of Good Friday.

Coupled to the concern about narcissism, there’s a related source of aversion to personal development. It has to do with a particular interpretation of the gospel. Taking up your cross has become a burdensome moral command rather than a liberating transformative invitation.

I feel I’ve heard countless sermons when the gospel message, you can change, is subtly shifted to, you should do this, that or the other. The upshot is that Christianity is often, in this country, viewed as a guilt-inducing and probably suspect ethical framework. I felt this again when visiting the Sunday Assembly. One of things it gets right is projecting a powerful sense that you are welcome as you are; indeed you are wanted as you are. That’s very different from how church can feel, particularly if your only exposure to it is via news and headlines, as is the case for most now. It feels a bit like a workplace that, when you arrive at the office door, implicitly requires you to leave your personal life outside.

It’s not that moral behaviour is not important. Rather, though, what we do should arise from how we’ve changed, at root. The Good Samaritan was not dutiful. He was free: he helped because he was without fear. As William James put it, good works are fruits not roots, and if you try to force the fruits with no deep roots you burnout and die.

There’s another issue that, to my mind, opens up the most important area of modern personal development, namely psychotherapy. It’s the sense that psychotherapy is an intervention needed when something has gone wrong, not a source of know-how that can routinely aid spiritual development. But twentieth century psychotherapists like Melanie Klein and Wilfrid Bion were not only interested in clinical cases. They explored the dynamics of everyday human envy and hate; of the struggle to be grateful and to love.

They were, in a way, rediscovering what Christians know as sin – though in a way that treats sin as personal qualities that anyone will discover within themselves, if they paid enough attention. Psychotherapy in effect says, your sins are forgiven, there’s no judgment here. But now: let’s try to think about and understand them.

Evagrius Ponticus was one of the first contemplatives systematically to explore and describe gluttony, anger, despair, pride in a way that is comparable to modern psychotherapy. He believed they were worth getting to know in yourself because the kingdom of God is the tranquility of soul that is found on the other side of them. Through practice and grace, we can thereby come to have first hand, felt knowledge of true things; of God. That’s the goal of Christian personal development. He describes this inner journey in his Praktikos, from which we get the word practice: it outlines the life of the ascetic, from the Greek askesis, originally meaning stepping out of your limited self, or personal development. That ascetic has become an anxiety-laden word, again, speaks volumes.

An individual, or organisation, can only truly assist the spiritual development of others by being engaged in a process of askesis too. Like sunshine on plants, spiritual growth is fostered by direct exposure to the practical intelligence that shines out when it is embodied in the life of teachers or guides. Philosophers like Plato called it wisdom. Buddhists talk of skillful means. It’s why psychotherapists must have their own therapy.

For me, this is the most profound meaning of Jesus’ call to follow. He’s walked the path already, and so knows. As a clergyperson recently put it to me, what the church needs is not more managers but some gurus. I think that’s right.

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