The Rise and Fall of The Therapeutic Society (Part 2: The End of Therapy)

The Rise and Fall of The Therapeutic Society (Part 2: The End of Therapy) May 31, 2023

In the last post, I gave a brief account of the rise and dominance of the psychological interpretation of man and the therapeutic society. I noted three areas where psychology has become the dominate force, in Helmut Schelsky’s words, in “shaping the world of human instincts.” Those three areas are: 1) the force that provides the symbols and rituals that organize and give meaning to a society, 2) the force that allows us to distance ourselves from society and classify and categorize aspects of it and 3) the force that sets standards and norms for society.

Prior to the rise of psychology, these three areas of human culture were determined by the joint forces of religion and traditional metaphysics. Now, however, human beings look to psychology for those answers. As such, psychology has become the primary interpretive lens for most 21st-century Americans in viewing themselves and the world in which they live. This has given rise to what Phillip Rieff termed “the therapeutic society.”

However, no matter how powerful the role of psychological hermeneutics may be in society right now, there is no guarantee that the therapeutic society will last. In fact, there is evidence that it is unravelling before our eyes. This raises the question of what will follow the psychological “self-interpretation” of man and the therapy-driven culture in which we live? Before I speculate on that, however, let’s look at few ways in which the psychological framework has affected the Church and its theology. There are two “points of impact” I will highlight specifically where psychology has laid waste to prior understandings of human life and relationship.

Abortion and the Image of God in Man

The first, and most damaging, point of impact struck by the psychological view of man is in the very identity of man’s essence. In prior generations, when human beings were still interpreted through a theological lens, one spoke of human persons as “image bearers of God;” — a status both religious and metaphysical. However, with the rise of psychological man and the therapeutic framework, human persons were now reduced to something like a bundle of psychological states. Perhaps human beings were more than just their material components, as the scientific positivists would have us believe. However, they were not more than their bodies and their inner states.

As such, the relative value of the human person on the psychological view depends entirely on the richness and complexity of the thoughts, desires and feelings of the inner self, as well as the capacity to articulate them. This is often what philosophical anthropologists like Peter Singer will call human “sentience.” Where the individual human person was once treated as an instantiation of an actual human essence, an essence that was universal and transcendent, now the individual is treated as only a particular bundle of non-transcendent stuff, be it mental or material or some admixture of the two.

Perhaps the most destructive consequence of this framework of anthropological interpretation has been the denial of personhood to the unborn. After all, in early stages of biological development the psychological matrix of the human baby is far less sophisticated than that of the sentient adult. Level of development in the therapeutic society therefore becomes the main criteria for whether or not killing human life is acceptable or not. This cuts both ways, both in the womb prior to brith, as well as in later stages of biological decay, i.e., old age and disease. The end result of each, however, is often the same: the destruction of human life.

The reduction of human persons to merely psychological creatures supplies us with a false sense of thinking we grasp the entirety of human existence. In believing this falsehood, we suppress, in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18-32), our perception of the mystery of being human, the transcendent properties human beings possess, and our divinely ordained design. On this view, children (or others more generally) become something like commodities; products that can either enhance our psychological well-being or frustrate it. What decides then whether a child is worthy of existence is not its inherent, metaphysical and spiritual nature. Rather, what decides whether a child lives or dies is to what extent that child might supply a net gain of psychological happiness and contentment.

Christian Marriage and Family “Therapy”

Closely interconnected with this diminishment of the human person to a merely psychological creature is the downgrading of marriage and the human family. The abdication of the Church’s role in defining marriage and family to the secular realm certainly pre-exists the rise of psychologism, at least in part. Marx defined the family as a bourgeois concept, grounded in economic interests alone. But Marx’ reduction of the family to a merely economic institution was quickly replaced by Freud’s conception of the family as a psychological bundle of complex, and rather dark, relationships.

Here the Church has capitulated its spiritual authority to the therapeutic society in even grander fashion than on abortion. Augustine’s famous triad of tenets for any genuine Christian marriage: fides, proles and sacramentum, or “fidelity,” “children,” and “indissoluble bond [between husband and wife]” has been entirely abandoned by pastors and church leaders in favor of a secular approach to sacred matrimony. This desacralization of marriage, less in the Catholic Church than in Protestant churches, has made marriage little more than a contract among otherwise independent persons. Loyalty to one’s spouse, the obligation to have children (if one can), and the mystical nature of the marriage bond itself have all been sacrificed at the altar of personal psychological happiness.

While it still may be the case that very active Evangelicals are less likely to divorce than their more nominal Christian “brothers and sisters,” the overall statistics are still depressing. One reason for the abject failure of Christian marriages is the wedding of psychology with biblical morality. Once personal, psychological happiness becomes the dominant criteria for a successful marriage, and when this is coupled with the high, actually impossible, ethical standard given by Christ in the New Testament (Matt 5-7; Ephesians 5:22-33), then the recipe for divorce is nearly complete. It is a standard that no one, man or woman, can live up to. Add to this the dismissal of any notion of sustaining marriages as a social obligation to one’s community or nation and the recipe for disaster is indeed complete.

It is inevitable in today’s churches that if one is experiencing marital strife, the pastoral staff will outsource the problem to some “therapist.” While some churches may still practice a biblical approach to marriage and family, the sheer laxity and antinomian attitude toward marriage in contemporary American Evangelicalism demonstrates most poignantly the Church’s near total surrender to the therapeutic. It is an attitude that would make Augustine shudder, and confirm his anxiety over a civilization on the brink of collapse. We should make no mistake about this: the end of stable marriages and large families is, as it was in Augustine’s Rome, the end of civilization.

Is Our Therapeutic Society About to Collapse?

What Follows The Therapeutic Society?

There is some speculation, however, about the resiliency of the therapeutic society and the psychological interpretation of man as an existentially sustainable framework. Further, there is evidence that something different, something quite pre-modern, is reemerging in the West. What follows is merely speculative, but I find it plausible to think there are two emerging movements that may wind up becoming the ruling, interpretive paradigm in a not-so-distant future. Neither is terribly encouraging, although one is perhaps more familiar to the Church than the other.

First, there is an emerging, “futurist” movement that some have labelled “trans-humanism.” This is quite a disturbing trend, and one I know only a little about. While there have been “trans humanist” speculations for some time, many consider Nietzsche a type of trans-humanist philosopher, what had always been lacking was the necessary technology to synthesize the human person with humanity’s techne.

However, with the rise of sophisticated Artificial Intelligence and CRISPR-9 genetic editing this possible future is now more likely than ever. What a genuine synthesis of the human person with human-made machines would look like has been, till now, more an exercise of the artistic imagination than anything else. Whether it be The Terminator or Star Trek’s “Commander Data” the melding of man and machine has spawned a multitude of artistic images whose potency has only been mitigated by their rapid commodification. This rise of “futurism” in art, literature (Science Fiction) and movies is a distinctly 20th century phenomenon. However, much of what was once imagined (CPT Kirk’s communicator) is now fact. If that trend continues, much of what is being imagined today will likely be a reality tomorrow. That such “super-technologies” may replace what some materialist philosophers have called “folk psychology” is not an unreasonable prediction. The mental aspect of the therapeutic culture might soon be replaced by the mechanical.

One alternative to the melding of mind and machine may be a return to a much more pre-modern mode of existential interpretation. With the decline of Christianity in the West, followed by the very brief reign of scientific materialism, and the rejection of post-colonial societal structures and norms, the doorway to a pre-Christian worldview in the West seems to have swung wide open. In short, we may soon be seeing a culture given over to the service of and sacrifice to pagan gods.

In one sense, this would not be a new way of looking at human beings, it is a very ancient way. It is the ancient way of seeing humanity and its members. The view of human beings as servants of the gods is, at the deepest ontological root, what the Judeo-Christian worldview systematically overturned over the past two millennia. Now that the rejection of Christianity is explicit in the West, it is not implausible to think that homo religiosus, religious man, will once again emerge on the scene. If that is the case, then it will not be the sciences, be they the natural or social sciences, against which the Church will have to compete. It will be against the old gods. It will be war in the spirit, as the hearts of men turn away not only from Christianity but also from modernity. This may sound far-fetched, but the evidence for a return to the old gods is as good as that for a genuine synthesis of technology and the human soul.

Of course, what makes for an even scarier future is the synthesis of these two: of technology and the new paganism. Still, even in the face of such great opposition, be it a known or unknown enemy, the Church cannot lose its resolve. After all, we know something our opponents, be they scientific or supernatural, do not know. We know that the gates of Hell shall not prevail over God’s Church (Matt 16:18) and that at the name of Jesus every knee under heaven and on the earth will bow before the Lord (Phil 2:5-11). With this knowledge in our heart, neither must we fear the failures of the therapeutic society in which we now reside, nor the terrors that its replacement society may bring. They are not the final paradigm.

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.

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