Christianity: A form of therapy or a radical alternative?

Guest post by Edmund Standing:

Stuart has recently published a thought-provoking post looking at psychotherapy and what role Christianity and the Church might play in its delivery. The following post is not intended as an attack but rather as an alternative contribution to the discussion and as a consideration of the important role the New Testament should play in dealing with the question of ‘therapy’.

In response to the question ‘Should everyone be in therapy?’, I would answer with a resounding ‘no’, for far from most people actually needing therapy and a deeper exploration of selfhood, it is arguably our modern culture’s fixation on the self that has greatly contributed to the social and intellectual malaise that has given rise to the apparent epidemic of depression and nervous disorders which seems to characterise our age. This fixation on selfhood, and the associated pathologisation of anyone who doesn’t feel fully at ease with themselves, lies at the root of the modern ‘therapy culture’ and is arguably rooted in the social atomisation issuing from an increasingly individualistic and materialistic society (or lack of society). 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.

By ‘unhealthy’, I am not merely referring to the usual suspects such as fast food and lack of exercise (although these do play an important role), but rather more to a kind of spiritual sickness. This sickness is the result of the human, a naturally communal and social being, finding himself living in a world of excessive competition, of shallow appearances, of consumerism, of the love of money, and a world in which success is measured not in terms of contentment but rather in terms of social standing and the accumulation of power and possessions. This is the world of ‘me’, a world in which you buy cosmetics ‘because you’re worth it’, a world in which people are running up huge credit card debts as they attempt to feed their craving for ‘products’, and a world in which the idols of the day are rich and famous ‘celebrities’. This is also, it is worth noting, the age of microwave meals for one, 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. It is no great surprise that such a world has led to an increasing desire among its inhabitants to reach out for ‘therapy’, yet there is a very powerful alternative to the culture of the self and of therapy, and this is found in the New Testament.

The New Testament provides us with a picture of Jesus as a man who loved to be amongst people and who loved to eat and drink with people. We see a man who chooses to eat with the social outcasts of his day (Matthew 9:11), who helps his disciples catch fish (Luke 5:1-11), who provides lunch for those who have followed him (Mark 8:1-9), and who ensures that a wedding party doesn’t run dry (John 2:1-2:11), and who did so, it should be noted, (as suggested by the steward in the text) after the guests had already ‘become drunk’. This Jesus is a man who, even as he approached the Crucifixion, gathered his disciples together for a final meal, and is a risen Lord who knocks at the door and promises to those who open the door that ‘I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me’ (Revelation 3:20). Jesus promises that he is among us communally, for ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ (Matthew 18:20). The Book of Acts shows how radically the early Christians followed the example of Jesus:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:44-47).

Christianity, then, from the time of Jesus well into the early period of the Church, showed no regard for the modern concepts of ‘selfhood’ or ‘self-realisation’. To know oneself as a self was only ever to know oneself as a self in relation. While the early radicalism of the Christian community eventually gave way to a more formalised ‘religious’ structure, this notion of the blending of the sacred and the profane, and of the importance of community, not of selfhood, still remained as an underlying concept.

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.

It is no coincidence that ours is an age that has seen a growth in ‘new age’ spiritualities. These ‘spiritualities’ are often focused on the self, on an inner path, on ‘Enlightenment’, and on a lonely project of solo communion with some vague ‘higher power’. This is the spirituality of an age of excessive individualism, an off-the-shelf commodified ‘religious experience’ for those who seek some form of inner release, as opposed to the communal belonging found in Christianity. Christians have in their hands a great and powerful tool for overcoming the isolation of individualism, as well as its associated narcissism, search for self-gratification, vacuous consumerism, and psychological maladies. 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.

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