In Defense of the Therapeutic | Hans Boersma
Talking about the gospel as therapeutic is dangerous. Not wrong, just dangerous.
I used to think it was wrong, since Philip Rieff famously inveighed against the psychologizing of the self in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, his prophetic 1966 book. His critique fueled my suspicion of all things therapeutic.
Noted theologians have taken up Rieff’s mantle. Gregory Jones warns in Embodying Forgiveness (1995) that in our therapeutic culture, we are in danger of manipulating forgiveness by turning it into a self-help process: We are told to forgive others not for their sake but for ours, since it gives us psychological relief. The result, Jones rightly insists, is that we no longer “discern whether there are tragic misunderstandings or culpable wrongdoing and brokenness that need to be dealt with through practices of forgiveness and repentance.” Rather than work through the mess to make things right, we turn forgiveness into a tool for restoring our own inner peace.
More recently, Carl Trueman has turned to Rieff to trace the genealogy of contemporary culture. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020) follows Rieff’s claim that our therapeutic culture has two baleful effects. First, it treats the community as oppressive and therapy as a means to counter this. This leads to the second effect: It subverts the proper relationship between individual and society. Whereas the individual once learned to take his proper place within the broader community, the community now serves the psychological wellbeing of the individual.
Rieff, Jones, and Trueman all warn against a therapeutic culture’s dangers. In their august company, one might think twice before putting up a defense of a therapeutic culture.
Let me nonetheless give it a try. It’s not that I disagree with the famous troika. Their critique of contemporary culture is truthful, incisive, and indispensable. Still, a caveat is equally indispensable, for the gospel’s very aim is therapeutic.
The Greek verb therapeuein means “to heal” or “to cure.” The purpose of the gospel is arguably that we be healed. Metropolitan Hierotheos discusses theology as a therapeutic science and speaks in detail about how to heal the soul. His book Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers argues that priests are in the therapy business: They “not only celebrate the Sacraments but they cure people. They have a sound knowledge of the path of healing from passions and they make it known to their spiritual children.”
Hierotheos’s proposed remedy is not restricted to the church fathers or to Orthodox theology—though there is much to be gained there. Therapeutic Christianity comes naturally to all who read the Scriptures as a remedy. The traditional practice of lectio divina (spiritual reading), practiced and advocated by spiritual masters throughout the Christian tradition, East and West, aims at the healing of the soul.
The 12th-century Cistercian abbot William of Saint Thierry compares the monks’ cell to an infirmary. Insisting on the need for stability, William writes in his Golden Epistle:
Your infirmary, you who are sick and ailing, is your cell; the treatment which has begun to bring your healing is obedience, true obedience. You must know that frequent changing from one course of treatment to another is harmful; it upsets nature and weakens the sick man…. Stay put then and do not change your course of treatment but apply the remedy of medicinal obedience until you arrive at the goal of perfect health. Do not be ungrateful either and cast it off when you are restored to health.
For William, the monastery serves as a hospital, while stability and obedience are key parts of the treatment.
Why stability and obedience? In part, I think, because they create the ideal setting for ruminative reading. Only if he obediently sticks to his cell can the monk chew his cud—which is to say, meditate upon and pray over the same biblical passages, time and again. “Some part of your daily reading,” writes William, “should also each day be committed to memory, taken in as it were into the stomach, to be more carefully digested and brought up again for frequent rumination.” Chewing the cud requires stability of place. As William puts it, enjoyment of God requires that you turn your cell (cella) into heaven (celum) itself.
The process of lectio divina—reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), prayer (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio)—is therapeutic. It heals us from the distractions of our passions and turns us to the enjoyment of God himself.
Do we indwell a therapeutic culture? In one sense, unfortunately, yes: Rieff, Jones, and Trueman rightly lament the self-centered psychologizing of our society. In another sense, sadly, no: Nearly every aspect of our culture militates against true therapy. The pervasive noise of distractions hinders the gospel’s healing touch.
The last thing we would want is for lectio divina to be reshaped by our therapeutic culture (in the first sense of the term). The purpose of the Scriptures is hardly to give us the warm fuzzies. We dare not avoid the messiness of our lives, confronted by the gospel. To speak of the gospel as therapeutic is dangerous because our cultural proclivities tempt us to reinterpret healing to suit the contemporary psychological self. No matter how dangerous, we dare not avoid the therapeutic gospel, for we need the Spirit to heal the passions of our souls.
Talk of the gospel as therapeutic, therefore, is not wrong; it’s risky, perhaps even dangerous—for it’s easy for the therapeutic gospel to be misunderstood in a therapeutic culture. Nonetheless, the triumph of the gospel is the triumph of the therapeutic.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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