Christianity: A form of therapy or a radical alternative? – A response

I wanted to briefly respond to Edmund Standing’s excellent post: Christianity: A form of therapy or a radical alternative?

Let me begin with this quote:

Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.

R. D. Lang

This quotation, for me, hits at the heart of the premise underlying Edmund’s post. Our society’s focus on individualism, consumerism and self, is so alien to our deep needs of community, it is no wonder that maladies of the mind and spirit prevail giving rise to a ‘therapy’ culture.

Edmund makes this interesting point:

Despite what the therapy industry might tell us, true mental illness is still a relatively rare phenomenon, but what we have seen grow exponentially is the widespread sense of being deeply uneasy, hollow, and anxious. Such a feeling in a medical-centred culture is generally nowadays classified as being a manifestation of one or other nervous disorder or depression, and a dubious combination of medication and psychobabble are seen to be its ‘cure’, but perhaps we need to look at such disorders and ‘depression’ (often a very slippery and ill-defined concept) as evidence that the human spirit is crying out under the pressures of living in what is an increasingly unhealthy and unnatural environment.

I agree there is a tendency to over pathologise in our Western culture and a prime example of this can be seen in the war being fought over the new DSM-5 diagnostic manual, within which the removal of the ‘bereavement exclusion’ from the diagnosis of depression will mean that someone could be diagnosed as depressed even if they’ve just lost a loved one.

This to me is an example of pathologising a normal reactive psychological response.

I also adhere to the unpopular stance that “true mental illness is still a relatively rare phenomenon” despite the “one in four” meme.

To me, much of what is spoken of as mental illness nowadays is an entirely rational response to a crappy world.

This is not to denigrate severe and chronic mental illness which debilitates so many and the enormous benefits of therapy to this community.

The irony of the ‘therapy’ culture is that it is entirely understandable. Therapy may be the only environment within which a person can talk, knowing everything said will be held in the strictest confidence. Also, therapy tends to be non-judgmental. There can be a feeling of being ‘connected’ with ‘another’.

Of course, the therapeutic environment is entirely contrived and paid for, but in an increasingly individualistic and lonely society, who can blame folk for turning to therapy.

It also strikes me that another consequence of the loss of community and increasing individualism is the issue of identity; or more specifically, the loss of identity. We used to frame ourselves in terms of our community, but what happens when we lose our community?

Where else can folk in our modern society turn for these provisions?

Which brings me back to Edmund’s post:

One of the greatest losses of modernity has been the decline of community spirit and the sense of being united around common practices. Where once the church and the pub provided the two key venues in which communities could come together, many churches across the land are gradually emptying and pub closures now take place on a weekly basis, as cheap supermarket alcohol leads people out of the old communal space and into drinking at home, often alone. Biblical Christianity offers a way to combine all of this – the experience of community, shared worship, and shared eating and drinking. This Christianity points us to a God of relationships, not a God of the isolated self.

The answer lies not in a culture of therapy, but rather in the rediscovery of the radically relational and communal lifestyle of Jesus and his early followers.

This is by no means a ‘quick fix’ solution and is not something that can happen overnight. It constitutes a significant challenge to the Church to once again return to its roots, to strip away the institutionalisation that has sapped the life out of Christianity’s early core, and perhaps calls for a renewed consideration of what it actually means to be a part of the Church. Most importantly, it constitutes a call to re-think the ‘personal salvation’ theology promoted by much of modern Christianity and to consider the possibility that the call of Jesus is not a call simply to the individual, but rather a call to a wholeness that can only come through community.

I have to agree with this.

I believe the rise of sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses thrive off the sense of community they create. They have tapped into something that has been sadly lost in the mainstream denominations. That feeling of ‘belonging’ and ‘community’ and ‘brotherhood’ are heavily emphasised within these organisations. Their ‘identity’ is wrapped up in their affiliation with the group and they do look out for one another.

I’m not one who wishes to live in a another’s pocket; however, there is much to be learned from such groups.

Church can be too often that thing we do on Sunday, complete with our best masks, and we are in danger of standing aloof from one another.

We as Christians need to relearn communal living as this is the real attraction of Christianity.

Edmund made this comment:

…..and an age in which the concept of ‘friendship’ increasingly means nothing more than having a list of people connected to you on a social networking website.

I suspect more and more of us are seeking and receiving our ‘community’ online; I know this is very true for the mentally ill community and perhaps so for Christians also.

Is this a good thing or bad? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

I often read that we should seek our identity in Christ, but more and more, I realise the impossibility of this without the community of his people.

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