The American Religion of Psychology

Keith G. Meador devotes his contribution to The Secular Revolution to an analysis of the therapeutic takeover of American Protestantism. He focuses on the role of the Christian Century under the editorship of Charles Clayton Morrison, who used the magazine to advance a “scientific” and simplified Christianity supposedly fit for the modern age. Psychology played a major role in this reform.

By the 1920s, partly through the Century‘s influence, “mainline Protestant seminaries began teaching the concept of ‘self-realization,’ which conceived of the self as an entity whose fulfillment and full potentiation were paramount within the spiritual life. As a result, helping people ‘adjust’ and ‘adapt’ in service of the self became the goal of pastoral care and counseling. Through continual adjustment and adaptation, people would grow in their perceptions and come closer to the ultimate goal of self-realisation” (295).

Morrison was quite self-conscious about the procedure. He wrote in 1939 that “there was a genuine satisfaction in the procedure of translating Christianity into terms of psychological experience. It generated an unction of its own. I was relieving people of a burden—the burden of having to believe the historical particularities of Christianity. I was engaged in ‘simplifying’ religion, and surely this was a worthy service.” By 1939, though, he had come to regret it: “That I was really oversimplifying it by leveling down its objective particularities to a psychological common denominator, did not for some time occur to me. But the cumulative effect of this procedure gradually began to register in my consciousness. I found that, having baptized the Christian verity in the waters of psychological experience, something seemed to have been washed away from it—something that belonged to it as a part of my Christian inheritance” (296–7). The baptism image says it all: Psychology doesn’t die and rise into Christianity; rather, Christian faith must die to rise again as psychology. As Meador argues, this transformation within Protestantism is part of the larger story of the triumph of the therapeutic, often gestating within Protestantism. The advocates for psychology were pastors or sons of pastors.

Crucial as the early decades of the 20th century are to this process, Meador argues that American Protestantism was predisposed to be receptive to psychological transformation: “Historically, Protestant theology has viewed the Christian life through two distinct yet complementary lenses: one focused on the life and history of the institutional church, and the other on the individual’s personal experience. . . . American Protestants have long emphasized the latter view much more than their European counterparts and fostered a form of Protestant individualism that pervades American culture.” Even the more ecclesially minded of American Christians had a distinctive brand of Christianity that lent itself to psychological interpretation (271).

Churches of a more liturgical bent, and with more stringent doctrinal standards, had some built-in resistance to the therapeutic, but Morrison’s version of ecumenism had little sympathy for these sorts of churches. Railing against denominationalism, Morrison and the Century “described the religion that they sought to build, following [William] James’s formulation, as an individual and solitary affair, as ‘the expression of the soul’s desire for the infinite life. It rests upon the capacity of man to know God and to achieve character. . . . It is the result of a developing life, aspiring after fuller realization of friendship with God and with man. All religion has the same essential elements’” (297). In this perspective, the church was viewed from a “functional perspective” (297).

Morrison’s view of church authority comes clear in his fulminations against Roman Catholicism: “Roman Catholics were mocked for standing in ‘an unchanging and eternal church,’ rather than a liberal church which ‘admits change and argues in behalf of it as the one principle which guarantees the continued life of religion.’ . . . What irked Morrison about Catholicism was the church’s authority in the lives of its members. ‘There is as complete a non-communion between Protestantism and Catholicism as between Protestantism and Mohammedanism. They stand against each other as religious antitheses. . . . If it were possible Catholicism would establish a complete segregation of her own people from all other classes.” Fortunately for Morrison, Catholicism was on its way out: “A religion of mere ceremony is rapidly becoming a thing of the past; a religion based upon outward authority is fast crumbling away, and in its place coming a religion based upon the inward authority of the spirit” (297–8).

That was written in 1914, and it has not worn well. Roman Catholics are still here, and what’s rapidly becoming a thing of the past is the very therapeutic, hollowed-out Protestantism that Morrison believed was the wave of the future.

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