I Heart Therapeutic Religion

I Heart Therapeutic Religion March 15, 2013

A couple of days ago, I came across an article on the Church & Postmodern Culture site by Chad Lakies. His basic argument is that “therapeutic religion” has become the norm not just within evangelicalism, but within religion in general. After I read it, I really didn’t get it, so I posed the following question to the author:

I’m confused as to what the problem is with “therapeutic religion”?

Not long after that, Tony Jones reposted the article on his blog. Many people seemed to share my confusion in the comments section on Tony’s blog.

Sofia said:

If religion isn’t therapeutic, I don’t see the point in it. A healthier person creates a healthier community.

Mike Horn concurred:

Transformed people transform communities

Dan Hauge asked:

how do we expect to actually sustain and do all these important justice-y things if we neglect our own emotional and spiritual well-being?

And, my friend Matt Moorman added:

It has been my experience that a good therapist will “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” (Where have we heard that before?) The point, of course, is neither comfort nor distress, but HEALTH and WHOLENESS.

There were a few other really helpful comments (go check em out!).

Recently, I’ve been writing a series on Sustainable Christianity, and, in response to a lot of this, I wrote the following:

I’m sorry if your version of Christianity requires you to throw individuals under the bus, “for the greater good.” More and more of us are saying, “Umm, no thanks.” The great thing is, no one has a monopoly on Christianity.

In a followup post, I tried to clarify:

It’s just not good news. To me. Or to a lot of other people.

I’d still like to know what Tony thinks about all of this. But, on my way home from work yesterday, I listened to Doug Pagitt’s interview with David Hayward (which is definitely worth a listen!) in which they touched on this topic as well. In clarifying what David means by “help yourself,” at his online community The Lasting Supper,  he said: “I believe in spiritual independence – even though we’re interdependent – that is, responsible for ourselves, for our own spirituality… I think the healthiest, best relationships are when each partner is healthy independently. That makes for the best community, when each person is healthy independently.”

I can’t remember where, but I remember Diana Butler Bass talking about how she sees the rise of spirituality being a positive thing, because it means that people are taking ownership of their own spiritual development. I’ve seen the positive benefits of independence balanced with interdependence in my own marriage of 14 years, and in many other relationships. But, sadly, in most of my experiences with churches, I’ve seen the opposite (which I think goes back to the kind of “gospel” or “message” that is being advocated).

So, here are some more questions this has raised for me:

Why is this idea of “therapeutic religion” so scary to so many people? Why is “spiritual independence” so often equated with narcissism, selfishness, individualism, etc.? Is an allergy to spiritual independence actually a symptom of a much deeper problem with the individual or group who opposes it? Is this balance one of the defining marks of a more enduring approach to Christian spirituality, or religion in general?

What do you think?

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  • Quite simply, therapeutic spirituality can quickly become self-centered/self-important Christianity. And it can become an obstacle to community and the realization that faith is a belief in and a search for something greater than ourselves. Christianity, at its heart, challenges us to consider the “other” as = or > ourselves.

    I’ve encountered plenty of self-centered Christianity in life. “You have to make a PERSONAL decision to follow Jesus.” “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, it’s all between you and God.” Perhaps I’ve seen an over-emphasis on the personal and not enough emphasis on the importance of open community. I don’t think that personal spirituality is bad, in and of itself; but I do think there are risks when the personal becomes more important than the communal aspects of faith.

    • Gerald Young

      How is it even possible for “self-centered/self-important Christianity” to be “therapeutic”? It seems to me that to the degree spirituality becomes narcissistic it stops being therapeutic. Is there a danger for this transition to occur? Certainly. But it is not the inherent danger of therapeutic spirituality but the disintegration of that spirituality into something that is no longer therapeutic.

  • Christine Chakoian

    Indeed, religion/spirituality should be therapeutic. The Great Physician was intent on healing bodies, minds and souls … liberating people from the faux gods to which they were attached. Yet it is also the case that “moral therapeutic deism” can become self-absorbed, arbitrary and rudderless. Robert Bellah nailed it years ago in Habits of the Heart, citing an interviewee who named her religion after herself. “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”
    In a more recent post, Bellah goes on to say:
    “But the case of Sheila is not confined to people who haven’t been to church in a long time. On the basis of our interviews, and a great deal of other data, I think we can say that many people sitting in the pews of Protestant and even Catholic churches are Sheilaists who feel that religion is essentially a private matter and that there is no particular constraint on them placed by the historic church, or even by the Bible and the tradition. We quote in Habits of the Heart a recent Gallup poll, which indicated that 80 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.” Now, again, that isn’t the way it really happens. But just the notion that religious belief ought to be a purely internal thing, and then you go to the church or synagogue of your choice, shows how deeply ingrained a kind of religious privatism is, which turns the church into something like the Kiwanis Club or some other kind of voluntary association that you go to or not if you feel comfortable with it-but which has no organic claim upon you.” (http://www.robertbellah.com/lectures_5.htm)
    It’s fine for people to believe whatever they want; it’s a free country. But followers of Jesus have a leader who takes us a particular Way; and we have companions on the Way, many of whom we wouldn’t choose if it were up to us; and we have aspirations on the Way, like learning to be as the One who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2).

  • This is simply a reflection of the false dichotomy of the ideal vs. the pragmatic. When a prevailing ideal loses utility due to the changing nature of culture, its not long before a pragmatic disruption circumvents the ideal’s market share. At that point, the idealists typically cry foul and attempt to regain market share by attacking the “wrongness” of pragmatists, rather than recognizing that people will always choose a more elegant, simple, and convenient truth over a more blunt, complex, and cumbersome one.

    Or, something like that.

    • I think I’ve seen this twice in my life. First when there was a movement of youth during the 1960’s, seeing problems with the ideals of the previous generation, then when that movement lost momentum as individuals realized they needed to do some self-reflection and consider the mistakes they had made. Since then, it seems like “crying foul” and attacking the “wrongness” of others is all we do. A little community based therapy seems like a good thing to me.

  • Wholeness and health for the individual should be one purpose of any gift and calling from God. On the other hand, we Westerners are so individualistic in our orientation that we seldom even think in community first terms (except occasionally family community first). As soon as we begin to think in those very biblical terms that move much more often from community to individual than from individual to community, we realize that actions that are meant to bring more wholeness to the community may not, at least in the short run, seem very healthy for me individually. Surely, this is a part of the central message of Jesus being willing to be hurt in order to bring more wholeness to the human race. At least for a while, it didn’t feel too therapeutic or healthy to him individually. This is also the reason why such an astounding number of the “you” translations in the New Testament that we tend to read as singular are actually plural. They were first meant to be heard as a member of the community and then extrapolated to our individual lives; not the other way around.

  • Susanne Johnson

    In my seminary classes, I teach that holistic Christian faith and spirituality falls along two axes, an existential axis which has to do with the healing of personal wounds (emotional, spiritual, etc. thereby incorporating the “therapeutic” emphasis), and an emancipatory axis which has to do with the healing and transformation of systems (emphasizing social analysis, public faith, politics, institutions, collective power) (i.e. the personal is the political). These axes are irreducibly dialectical and mutually constitutive. The problem with MTD faith is that it eclipses the emancipatory axis. Though Jesus healed individual persons, he wasn’t simply a Divine chaplain; he was more of a “community organizer” who organized peasant communities, and encouraged resistance against Empire. Often his individual healings broke social codes (thereby inscribing socio-political critique) and threatened the religious and political elites and status quo. If MTD faith had been the sum and substance of the message, ministry, and mission of Jesus Christ, he never would have been arrested and crucified as a political insurgent. In truth of fact, Empire loves MTD type faith because it results in “tension reduction system maintenance.” Therapy reduces and heals individual pain, wounds, and stress (much of which is inflicted by systemic realities); it’s not designed to change systems (qua systems) that inflict the pain of exploitation, abuse, inequality. To say that “transformed people transform communities” is too simplistic. Systemic change and transformation doesn’t come about simply through the therapeutic healing of individuals qua individuals, one person at a time; much more is involved (I teach a course on faith-based community organizing). The undertone of Patheos article (and the comments) is a false dichotomy between spirituality and justice, as well as a linear view (first comes individual healing, then comes a transformed system). I just spent a week in El Salvador, visiting ministries among the peasant people, and sites of military massacres (1,000 people slaughtered at Mozote because of the church’s outspokenness against the government). The faith and spirituality practiced by the Salvadoran peasants transcends false dichotomies (personal/political; private/public; spirituality/justice, etc.), and exposes MTD faith as shallow, lop-sided, and theologically thin.