What Is Christian Psychotherapy?
Scarcely a person alive will escape a brush with some sort of emotional or mental distress; whether it is being beset by one’s own suffering or whether dealing with the suffering of others. During such times of strain some will attempt to tough it out, others will turn to friends or their family physician, while still others may consult with their pastor. However, when these avenues are exhausted, usually it is a psychotherapist that is called upon. But this was not always the case; up until modern times the mind and the emotions–those processes commonly attributed to the soul–had been the province of the spiritual leader in the community. And where Christianity had been established, the care of the soul was the concern of the Church. Today, we can no longer say this and so we ask, who is caring for our souls?
As we see the psychotherapist taking such a prominent role in the healing of the emotional and mental life, we are confronted with the question "what is psychotherapy’s role in today's culture?" One hundred years ago we would have hardly been able to formulate the question much less the answer. Today we have a myriad of examples that we sift through trying to understand psychotherapy: we have had talking therapies, encounter groups, primal screams, hospital confinement, classical psychoanalysis with therapists hardly speaking during years of treatment, therapists taking people into the wilderness to experience themselves, and much, much more. We may even think of psychotherapy disparagingly, as the profession that deals with people shuffling around on the back ward of a hospital, or even as a scam that attempts to keep people coming week after week paying for a friend to listen to them, someone to whom to tell their problems so that the patient becomes more and more self-centered and the therapist pays off his or her new car. Or we see it as consisting of running to one seminar carrying a treasured stuffed animal in order to experience the "inner child", or to a another seminar to figure out if one is acting more like a Mars or a Venus. However, these are caricatures of psychotherapy. True psychotherapy is a relationship and a process of curing the soul of its very legitimate ailments.
We may ask, is not the care of the soul the realm of religion? Is it not rightly the role of the synagogue and church to carry out this function, a function of reminding society and individuals that there is something grander than themselves, that the soul must be heeded and even healed? The truth is, yes. But the sad fact is that religion has lost much of its standing and influence in society today. The soul has not been properly cared for by the traditional religious structures, and so has had to find its expression by other means. This is not because these structures are of no further use, but rather that they have neglected to honor what was given to them. Therefore, alternative spiritualities arise, archaic forms of experiencing the inner life are explored, and psychotherapy begins to carry the role that the traditional religious forms relinquished.
This is not the first time that the soul has had to find its expression outside our religious structures in such a new way. Two thousand years ago, as established religious structures began to lose their meaning to people, static Greek philosophies became the rage of the day, and people began to lose sight of their souls. In the midst of this rose up the mystery religions of the Near East. Into this cauldron walked Jesus Christ and the Judeo-Christian religion was born that would sweep the western portion of the world.
A little over a thousand years later, the Roman Catholic Church would begin to lose sight of the soul. No longer was the inner life of the soul regarded with the significance it demands, but the concreteness of this world and the body began to take priority in the religious life. The inner life was neglected in favor of a more materialistic and economic focus. Later came the Reformation, but instead of helping the situation, it actually attempted to get rid of the soul altogether. Calvin, Zwingli, and even, to an extent, Luther went so far as to implicitly deny the existence of the human soul. Simultaneously, on the fringe of society arose the almost fanatical interest in alchemy. If one looks at alchemical writings of that time, what is seen is the study of the soul. Alchemy had almost nothing to do with physical chemistry, and almost everything to do with the process of how to live the inner life, for alchemy was more closely related to the dreamlikeness of the soul than it was to science. For a time--when all else attempted to kill off the soul--alchemy became the "science" that paid attention to the inner life.
Today we see much the same happening. We live in a time when the soul is denied in favor of material prosperity and of visible reality. Science has little to do with the invisible world of the soul, and our societies do not treat people as people, but more as economic entities. Decisions are not made morally, or with the value of the soul in mind, but by expediency and for individual and corporate economic gain. In times past it was the role of religion--the role of the Church--to stand up and say, to the king and to the society, "you can go no farther, for you are entering God's land, the land of the soul." Today psychology has been given this role. But like the mystery religions of old, like alchemy of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, psychology can only shoulder this temporarily, and only partially, for it is not suited to the task. As a profession and as a science it is too confused about its own identity. There is only one rightful carrier, and that is the Church; the Church needs to take its responsibility back.
Thomas Oden, former professor of theology at Drew University, once did a survey of the primary figures who teach and write about pastoral care for seminarians, ministers, and priests. He found that amongst these writers, thinkers, and teachers, there was not one reference to any of the classical texts on pastoral care; there were, however, hundreds of references to the major psychological thinkers: Sigmund Freud, Carl Rodgers, C.G. Jung, Eric Fromm, Harry S. Sullivan, and Eric Berne. Who is caring for our souls? Mostly people who ascribe to secular theories of life, and not to how God defines life. This is the alarming thing: that even in our seminaries and thus amongst those we would expect could rediscover God’s way of healing, we find that when it comes to dealing with personal issues of the soul, our religious leaders are trained in the thinking of the secular world and not in the ways of the ancient faith. Church leaders need to rediscover the ground they have relinquished. The thinkers in the Church need to be the ones defining health according to how God defines health, and healing (true Christian psychotherapy) needs to be approached with this concept of health in mind; not a concept of health as defined by an avant garde philosophy or speculative theorist.
Even what we often refer to as Christian counseling has been infected to such an extent that its identity is as murky as that of psychotherapy in general. One person may call themselves a Christian counselor because they have a seminary education. But as just noted, most of this education is highly influenced by secular psychological/philosophical theories of what it means to be human, healthy, and whole. Others may call themselves Christian counselors merely because they are good, church-going Christians who happen to practice psychotherapy; still others merely because they pray during the sessions. However the true measure of whether psychotherapy is Christian is whether it is based on views of what it means to be human and healthy according to God. When looking for a Christian psychotherapist, these should be the questions that define if one is getting a truly biblically-based therapy, or whether it is a therapy based on today’s humanistic goals of life. When a Christian view of life and the world once again dominates the care of the soul, secular-oriented psychology will no longer be the carrier of our inner lives, and the inner life will return to its rightful custodian, the Holy Spirit.