Proclaiming the Gospel or Therapy?

Something I’ve been mulling over recently is the difference, and perhaps the similarity, between “proclaiming the gospel” and being part of some sort of self help group with a bit of a spiritual bent. The cause of my reflections is the series we have been doing on Faith Development, understood as spiritual growth, using John J Shea’s Finding God Again: Spirituality for Adults. It’s an excellent book – astonishingly dense, and takes a lot of re-reading. Shea’s project is to help people to become adults, and that involves an adult spirituality. He argues that this transformation to adulthood is hard, and that churches often don’t encourage it – to say the least, which certainly marries up with my experience.

So it’s all very interesting and everything, and I will probably do a blog post at some point to spell it out a bit, because I think it deserves the widest possible audience. But it struck a funny note with me with me, which makes it interesting.

One thing I think (or at least hope) that the churches have discovered over the last hundred years or so is how problematic is what C.S. Lewis described as “Christianity and”

The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians, let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing. (C.S. Lewis Screwtape Letters)

It is surprisingly hard to avoid this trap. The issues seem so compelling, and it seems like such a good way to bridge the gap between our tiny little world of church and the great wide world of newspaper editorials… And of course, we really do have to bridge that gap between the “sacred” and “secular.” And there are indeed times when church is wrong and society is right, just as there are times when it is the other way around.
As I understand Barth (which, admittedly, is very little indeed), his prime idea was that you shouldn’t bring human constructs to bear on the gospel, that it should transcend human constructs. Or, to put it another way, “that divine revelation is Christ and Christ alone. Apart from the revelation of God in Christ, mankind has no hope of in any way coming to a knowledge of divine reality.” (ht Dominic Marbaniang.)
I came across this idea back in theology 101 (literally), and it has been powerfully formative for me. The more way out your practices and church expression is, the more important it seems to me to be firmly rooted in what is, I was going to say “fundamental”, but let’s say, central to the faith. To put it another way, the only reason to bother doing church in a pub is if you really believe in Christ’s redeeming work and centrality to the human story. Otherwise, you might as well accept that your alledged “faith” is just a minority taste for religious performances and the company of like minded people. Which is why that doing something like Cafechurch is incredibly hard for believers. It throws you back on your actual faith, not just what you like to say in polite Christian company. It’s hard to describe, and perhaps hard to believe, because it must seem like an easy way of doing faith. But I digress.

So, I’ve been leading these studies, and my concern is whether I am importing an external construct instead of “just” “preaching the gospel.” Certainly we seemed to be spending a lot of time talking about superegos and what it means to be an adult person, which isn’t language you exactly find in the Bible. Certainly not “superego” – and perhaps there’s the rub for me. Is it legitimate to try to explore Christianity with non-biblical concepts?

Certainly the concepts aren’t directly in the Bible – I don’t think that Paul, for instance, brilliant though he was, had a thought out picture of the subconscious. And Freud was no friend to faith: he thought that all religion was basically the superego at work, creating an imaginary daddy in the sky to use to avoid adult responsibility.

However, he had a point of course, and that point is amply made by the “new” atheists, and (indirectly) by a lot of religious people (see Stuff Christian Culture Likes for more excamples than you can poike a pointy stick at.) There are powerful psychic forces at work in people, which can be very destructive of people’s ability “to love and to work” as Freud says.

But that’s not the whole story of course – a truly adult spirituality is a powerful thing, and perhaps this the best way to engage our post-Freudian culture. Given that we tend to understand ourselves in psychodynamic, therapeutic terms, any understanding of how to grow into Christlikeness is only going to be understandable in those terms.

So, on balance, I’m going to continue with the course. People seem to be getting a lot out of it, and it seems to fit in with our desire to try to figure out what the gospel means in our culture. But it will always have to be done thoughtfully: when is it really a way of contextualising the gospel, and when is it “Christianity and”? I suspect that getting to the good stuff is dependent on running the risk.

 

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