Morality: therapeutic or forensic?

Morality: therapeutic or forensic? November 26, 2012

I just got back from a meeting to discuss my older son’s progress in school. He qualifies for special education because of several developmental issues that he has. There’s a part of me that grumbles about the way that kids growing up today cannot possibly do anything wrong, because their behavior is analyzed through a therapeutic moral lens rather than a forensic one. If they jump out of their seats in the middle of class, it’s ADD. If they have strange inappropriate emotional outbursts, maybe it’s bipolar. In the evangelical Christian world, the therapeutic view of reality is often ridiculed as secular humanist nonsense. The assumption is that kids would be better behaved if they got smacked with a ruler when they got out of their seats instead of sending them to the school psychologist. Part of me sympathizes with that view; part of me is revolted by it. How do we understand sin in the age of therapy? Is it wrong to see it as a pathology that needs to be healed (the therapeutic perspective) rather than a violation that needs to be punished (the forensic perspective)?

I’m ambivalent about the forensic understanding of sin. Part of what undermined it for me was my experience of mental illness. I went through a period of time in which I didn’t have control over my mind. Viewing my behavior through a purely moralistic lens, I was simply being lazy, self-pitying, and unwilling to trust God. I had all of these judgments in my head in a ferocious whirlwind telling me what a worthless, horrible person I was. And then the fact that I couldn’t just a flip a switch and turn off these demoralizing thoughts meant that I was listening to the devil rather than to God. Going through a half-decade of deep depression created a crisis for my sense of morality. It was Henri Nouwen’s account of the God who spends all His energy trying to persuade us that we’re loveable (Life of the Beloved) that I latched onto during those dark times, in other words a God who was very much a therapist.

The other experience I’ve had that has turned me off to the forensic understanding of sin is being a father. What I have experienced is that I get way too much pleasure out of being a disciplinarian and defining my parenting style against my wife’s, which I often caricature in my mind as being overly soft and driven by the “worldly wisdom” of parenting expert gurus. I enjoy telling my sons what to do and getting in their face like a drill sergeant when they screw up. Part of the reason that I enjoy being their boss is because it’s a way of making it clear that even though I can’t fix appliances when they break and I suck at most sports and I don’t really know how to fish, I’m still the man of my house. When I noticed that my youngest son was afraid of me and figured out that my insecurity with my masculinity was a huge part of why I disciplined the way I did, I got pretty disgusted with myself.

So I’ve become more of a therapeutic disciplinarian. I try to consider why my sons do what they do and address the needs behind the problem rather than making sure that they pay for every transgression. Sometimes if they’re acting crazy and doing punishment-worthy things like jumping on the couch which has always been an automatic timeout, I just need to open the back door and send them out to play soccer instead of trying to assess penalties with mathematical exactitude. When my youngest son said, “Spanking is hitting and we don’t hit!” enough times, it kind of froze me in my tracks. If he does something really bad and dangerous like throwing a stuffed animal at me while I’m driving, then I tell him he’s getting a spanking and use it as a negotiating chip like a “suspended sentence” to get him to do something else he wouldn’t otherwise have been willing to do. Part of me feels like a worthless pushover being manipulated by a three year old, and part of me wants to believe that I can somehow win his trust and respect. I still set boundaries and give consequences for bad choices of course, but I’m not the same commanding presence that I needed to see myself as six months ago.

In any case, I’m having trouble grappling with the forensic view of morality in which people who do bad things have to be punished or else the whole society collapses, as opposed to the therapeutic view in which people who do things that show they’re sick need to be healed and put in a place where they can’t harm others until they get well. It’s very hard not to prefer the therapeutic account to the forensic one, which seems like it belongs to the era of guillotines or societies where thieves have their hands chopped off and adulteresses are stoned. Doesn’t Jesus fulfillment of the logic of retribution on the cross make us people who are no longer supposed to look at the world through the lens of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”? When we persist with a need for rule-breakers to get punished for purely retributive reasons as opposed to educated, convicted, healed, etc, does that mean that we have not yet fully accepted Christ’s sacrifice?

I’m not willing to say that morality is supposed to be entirely therapeutic and not at all forensic, though I’m leaning in that direction. I’m going to need to face this question in my book, and I’m pretty sure I need to do so  in a way that is more developed and nuanced than the muddle I feel in my brain right now. So I need somebody who thinks the forensic view is worthwhile to defend it in a way that doesn’t rely on ridiculing those silly arrogant postmodern fools (like me) or proof-texting John Wesley or Augustine or the apostle Paul. I know that Western Christianity has had a primarily forensic view of morality for most of its history (though perhaps the East has always been therapeutic). I need help reconciling scripture and tradition with my reason and experience, to use the terms of the Wesleyan quadrilateral.

"Jesus paid the price for our sins. It is up to each person to accept ..."

What does the blood of Jesus ..."
"Jesus is the blood atonement for our sins. He washed us clean through his blood ..."

What does the blood of Jesus ..."
"No. The Holy Bible and its writers have not caused the blood of people to ..."

What does the blood of Jesus ..."
"Most churches do not preach or teach the blood atonement. Even whole denominations have gotten ..."

What does the blood of Jesus ..."

Browse Our Archives