After listening to a great article of Radio 4’s ‘Beyond Belief‘ and the discussion about the relationship between ‘religion and psychotherapy’ (read: Christianity & psychotherapy), I have transcribed a four minute interview with a Christian Psychotherapist, Tony Yates of Cornerstone, that takes place about half way through the program. The questions are asked by the presenter, Ernie Rea.
Q. What drew [you] to this particular discipline?
I got into Psychotherapy by coming from a troubled background, going into therapy myself, and then deciding that this might be the way in which I could work in the future with other people who had troubled backgrounds of one sort or another, and who doesn’t, really, one way or another?
Q. You’ve had widespread experience of working with all sorts of people, including Evangelical Christians, who I gather come to you in unexpectedly large numbers?
Every one of my clients, without exception, have come from the Conservative Evangelical wing of the church, or perhaps and Irish Roman Catholic background. I’ve never had a client from the Liberal wing of the Church.
Q. Well you clearly think it’s indicative of something. Why do you think Evangelical Christians are in need of such therapy?
Because of the way they’ve been brought up; with the best intentions, they’ve been brought up under a regime of a sense of sin and the consequences of sin, which are shame, it’s like a stain on the soul, it’s like you’ve transgressed the laws and expectations of God.
Q Does that mean that Evangelicals are less aware of the inner subconscious self which is the source of who we are and why we do things?
Much less aware than my secular clients. It’s almost as though the discovery of the unconscious which happens when they come into therapy, is another world they’ve hardly ever suspected. They’ve never heard much about Freud, and the discoveries in the early part of the 20th century, or if they have they’ve been warned against it, in the same way that they might be warned against Dawinian Evolution. So they’ve come trained from childhood, taught from childhood, to look upward rather than inward. And when they come to Psychotherapy they have to switch their direction from looking upward toward God, the Church and the expectations, inward to what they have repressed in their unconscious.
Q. Without breaking any patient confidentiality, can you give me one example of the sort of thing that you would encounter?
If you take sex and anger, of course they’re raised, the Evangelicals, to believe that sex before marriage a bad thing. So they have to grow up in a society that is wall-to-wall promiscuity and pornography, sex is everywhere in the modern world. They have to grow up inhibiting those expressions, while their hormones are raging. It must be a bit like sitting on the lid of a cauldron to stop it from over-flowing, and they marry in their mid-twenties, without any prior sexual experience, and they marry someone with the same background. You can imagine the problems from that.
But much more damaging than repressing sex, I’ve discovered, is repressing the natural appropriate warm expression of anger, so unlike their secular clients, they never have a teenage rebellion, and that’s very damaging. They can’t challenge their parents belief, because their parents are a little bit like the representatives of God on earth, of the Will of God. That’s a formidable array of power above a Christian child to rebel against if he dares, and if he does, the mere threat of shame stops them from ever getting there, they just keep themselves repressed so that they don’t have to feel shame.
Sadly, Evangelical Christianity has suffered and still suffers from the worst kinds of repression, a reason why: i) that all the Christian clients above, are from the same Christian tribe (Evangelicalism), and ii) why so many Evangelical churches suffer from abusive and violent forms of relationships. It is a branch of Christianity that I am affiliated to, and whilst it is not the whole picture, I have seen its rather crass tendency to illicit a kind of superman-Pharisaical Christianity that isn’t Christianity; or a super-spiritual-man gnostic Christianity. Both in fact betray the actual Gospel; a Gospel that is, if true [and it is], welcomes the sort of psychoanalytical progress we’ve seen over the past 120 years or so.
It is why theologian Rob Knowles suggests,
“Church members are trained into coming to church without any expectation of growing into ministries of various kinds”; and this is because we have often facilitated “Church cultures of ‘tot-level Sunday-school for adults’ that alienates any Christians or non-Christians who reject infantilization, and that suppress any preaching that brings the maturity-forming, disciple-making power of the Scriptures alive” (Relating Faith, pg. 122-3).
My pal Joe Haward comments in an as yet unpublished paper,
“In psychoanalysis, a person exists through a lack, a split, a fissure. We may have dreams of being complete, and perhaps at a very early point in our lives we felt no lack, no split, no separation, being just one with whatever surrounded us. But as far as we are creatures of language and desire (and to Lacan language and desire are what separates the human from the animal being), we are split beings: split between ‘things’ and ‘words’, between what we want and what we get, between what we feel like and what we look like, between present and past, between what we think we say or want and what we actually say or want (that is between conscious and unconscious).”
And now, Rene Girard, at the end of his interview with Steven Berry, published in Reading the Bible with Rene Girard, edited by Michael Hardin (review of this excellent little book coming soon), takes issue with psychoanalysis itself. In a brief critique of Freud as the one who targeted the father-figure to the degree that the father became the scapegoat of the culture. Girard argues that this cannot be done in todays more fractured culture, because of the sheer fact of the importance of peers to a child, and so not merely “the father”. This is why Girard calls Freudian analysis “outdated”, he says,
“Psychoanalysis in a way lives on values that are already outdated. I have a friend, a good friend, who’s seeing a psychiatrist but he’s also a psychoanalyst. He said today people use formulas that are unbelievable. Previously in psychoanalytical theory the Oedipus complex was what you had to fight; now psychiatrists talk about injecting more Oedipus into people. They don’t have enough meaning; the don’t have enough backbone. My friend, because we have great discussions, says he thinks it can be a death of mimetic desire, which is the worst thing of all. I mean, not a death through conquering mimetic desire, but just no more mimetic desire. I mean a world where there are so many cheap pleasures and no more taboos” pg. 192
If we were to make a link though, between the interview above and Girard, with Protestant anxiety and activism that ensures they need some kind of therapy, Girard makes this wonderful point immediately prior to his Freud comment above, he says,
“I’m taking about some relaxation of tension (with a hurried Christianity), which is a form of charity at the same time toward your fellow man. I’m talking about an acceptance of good fellowship, joy, and relaxation, which are sometimes a bit missing in modern forms of Christianity, democracy, and so forth, which are never relaxing” pg. 190
Fellowship, joy and relaxation! Who’d have thought?
I don’t know if psychoanalysis is outdated. I’m sure it has a lot more to offer, despite Girard’s comments. Even in his introduction to ‘The Church’s Pastors’ in ‘The Contemporary Christian’, John Stott lists various categories that add to the confusion about what an ordained pastor is. He writes, “Are they priests, prophets, pastors, preachers, administrators, facilitators, social workers or psychotherapists?” ( emphasis and re-ordering of the sentence mine). In my brief experience, being a pastor covers all these and then some. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not, it doesn’t feel like it.
However, in his typically brilliant style, G. K. Chesterton makes a telling obervation in his short article ‘A Criminal Head’ in ‘Alarms and Discursions‘. The first sentence below is only slightly pertinent to this discussion, that “heads” could be “taken to pieces” in more than a surgical manner, thus well worth a look ; the second, pertinent to contemporary debates about the rich and poor, a psychoanalytical treasure trove in its own right:
“In a popular magazine there is one of the usual articles about criminology; about whether wicked men could be made good if their heads were taken to pieces. As by far the wickedest men I know of are much too rich and powerful ever to submit to the process, the speculation leaves me cold.”
Whatever, long may psychoanalysis address what it means to be fully human; long may the Gospel of Jesus Christ speak life and truth to all humanity; and speedily may false versions of a suppressed gospel be exposed for what they are, that the victims of it may be set free to live a life less of guilt and shame, and more of life and joy!
I took this somewhere in Devon
Hi Rich – thank you for the time you took in typing out these questions & answers on Christianity and Psychotherapy. Really interesting and gives an insight into the background of those brought up in Evangelical homes which I’ve found helpful. (As someone who wasn’t.) Your Gralefrit website is brilliant. I found myself following one of the links on the right and reading your thoughts on ‘busyness’ – so relevant and useful for most of us today. It’s a great thing you’re offering here.
(Just a small thought on Pastor’s role – administration . . . . . Are you picking up the smile at this end?)
Thanks Jude. I wasn’t brought up in a Christian (and specifically evangelical home) either, but whilst I wouldn’t want to use a great big brush to tar everyone who was (that would be silly), there is a phenomenon in Western Evangelical circles that, I think, has emerged at this crucial juncture for the future of the church in the West. Another angle on why it can never be ‘business as usual’, a business that typifies human behaviour, is that we like to sweep our problems under the carpet of externalism. I like what Nieguhr said, albeit in a critique of the Klu Klux Klan, “… I hit Protestant bigotry the hardest at this time because it happens to be our sin and there is no use repenting for other people’s sins. Let us repent of our own…. We are admonished in Scripture to judge men by their fruits, not by their roots; and their fruits are their character, their deeds and accomplishments.”
Repenting of “our sin” is the radical element of self-awareness that Jesus refers to in the ‘plank and speck’ sketch! Our churches have ‘a language of plank and speck’ and so we think we know what it means and therefore do it. But we don’t know what it means, and therefore, don’t do it. The church should know better because it is exposed to the Gospel every week. It is this Gospel of Jesus that sets us free!