Friday, May 16, 2008

Athens and Jerusalem, part 1

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I have received several emails regarding my interviews with the host of "Our Life in Christ," on Ancient Faith Radio (you can download the interviews here andThe veneration of the Theotokos as a holy protectress of Vladimir was introduced by Prince Andrew, who dedicated to her many churches and installed in his palace a venerated image, known as Theotokos of Vladimir. here). Below is an edited version of an email I wrote in response to one such email.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Christ is Risen!

Dear T. and S.,

Thank you both for your very thoughtful comments and questions.

In response to T's question: "Is psychology necessary?" I would answer "No." But then, strictly speaking, anything that is other than God is also not necessary. This is not me language playing games. Rather it reflects what I think is the Christian faith that all that is not God is contingent upon Him and created by Him out of love and without compulsion. Creation does not add to God, but it does reflect His love.

Because everything created is, by definition, contingent, it is also unnecessary. But unnecessary does not mean unimportant or without value, though the value created being is always relative. This relative value is two-fold:

  1. relative to God (as a gift and expression of His love) and
  2. relative to its place in creation in general and the human community in particular.

Unlike the historical claims of Christian theology, modern psychology (and really it is more accurate to think in terms of a variety of schools of contemporary psychologies) does not claim to be universally applicable. Under the best of circumstances (as S. suggests) it is a tool. While it can be a helpful tool, its value depends on the skill of the craftsman using it and the needs of the person to whom s/he is responding.

Right up front, let me say that I am not convinced of the relative superiority in psychological matters of an earlier generation of Christians. How is one to evaluate the proposition that spiritual Fathers, directors or doctors of an earlier era were more effective than contemporary psychologists? First, we need to decide on the standard of comparison and then the measurement instrument. Simply put, even assuming we are comparing apples to apples, we have no way of actually making the determination that one group was more competent then the other.

Like it or not, we live in a world in which psychology has a large role to play. It seems to me that if earlier eras struggled with issues of Christology ours age seems to struggle with anthropological questions (and this includes the nature of the Church). While there are great anthropological insights to be found in the Fathers (and this is a central theme in my own writing and praxis as both a psychologist and a priest), these are not well developed or maybe as well developed systematically. Contemporary psychology, unlike the Fathers, is concerned with the systematic study of human behavior.

If this or that Father was a better natural psychologist then say a given contemporary psychologist, well thank God, but (absent written records) so what? While I can easily imagine, for example, St Basil or St John Chrysostom or St Augustine, as extraordinarily gifted confessors and spiritual directors, they did not leave us the kinds of records that help us understand how they heard confessions. It is a bit like asking if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound. Yes, and while we know this theoretically, even if we do not know it experientially. And in the spiritual life, experience counts as much, if not more than, theory.

So yes, Chrysostom may very well have been an extraordinary psychologist (and certainly his sermons suggest this), but the Church today does not much profit from his skill. Contemporary psychology, to the degree that the psychologist (be he a researcher or a therapist) is honest can help the Church fill in the lack of anthropological data rooted in experience. In my work, I find a new depth of understanding of Chrysostom's sermons is possible precisely because--as a psychologist--I have some insight into human behavior that remains only implicit in his sermons.

As I think I alluded to in the interview, I did not come to psychology as an Orthodox Christian, much less a priest. Rather it was the other way around, I came as a psychologist to the Orthodox Church and eventually, and again as a psychologist, to the priesthood. This is to say I came looking for something to make up what I found lacking in my experience as a therapist and theoretician (and these days I am more interested in ideas about psychology and psychological theorists more than I am in actually doing therapy--though God knows I do a fair amount of that every week!). A therapist who is honest and committed to really working with and for clients will say that this work is invariably a confrontation with the fact of human contingency—that nothing in the client's life is necessary or of lasting value.

This is grim I realize—but this awareness is where faith begins.

I must first grasp that I do not possess my own life—that autonomy in the radical sense of the word, is not possible. This is so because I live in midst of a web of relationships that are given to me prior to any decision that I make. And, more painful still, it is precisely this web of relationships that exist prior to my free decision that in fact makes my subsequent freedom possible. I am free only to the degree that I first embrace the manifold limitations that make my life possible.

Tracing out the particular limits of a particular human life is what psychology excels at doing. In this sense then, psychology is the science, or maybe better art, that (like philosophy) is concerned with the pre-evangelism stage of human life. Psychology and especially psychotherapy (can) prepare us to receive the Gospel. How? By returning us to an appreciative consideration of our own limits, our own contingency in its ontological and empirical modes (what medieval philosophy refers to as primary and secondary causalities; I am absolutely dependent on God for my existence and relatively dependent upon my patents). Psychology, the other social and human sciences (sociology, anthropology especially) as well as the natural sciences (especially the biological sciences, but also the physical sciences and physics), are concerned with articulated the structures and dynamics of this secondary causality.

In this regard theology and the Church need modern psychology. Not need in an absolute sense to be sure, but certainly in a relative sense. For this reason I would assert that especially for pastors to ignore contemporary psychology is not only harmful but irresponsible. For all its shortcoming and limitations (and I am intimately familiar with these), modern psychology add insights about the human condition that the Fathers did not, at least not explicitly, have.

Implicit within the question of the use of modern psychology is a certain forgetfulness of the importance of our attending to the particular human person and the concrete community. Answering the questions "What use is contemporary psychology for Christians?" is not possible theoretically, but only personally. I think the examples that S. raises are good ones—I know as a priest that I have often encountered situations in the life of the Church in which my background as a psychologist has been extremely helpful. But, as I often tell my brother priests, being a psychologist doesn't make me more objective or a better priest, but simply a priest who has a different bias and a different set of skills. There are situations where an appeal to the Fathers will simply not move us forward. Granted those situations may very well be in the minority, but well, those are the situations within which God seems to call me to minister.

Finally, what I have found to be the best approach to the questions you raise T. is to seek not integration or hegemony, but reconciliation between the insights of the Fathers and contemporary psychology. As I said above, your questions do not admit to easy theoretical answers—but they can be answered personally.

In all humility I think that the work I do is consonant with the work the Fathers did in their time. These men and women of Christ, committed as they were to Him, the Gospel, and the life of the Church, entered into a conversation with Greek philosophy. At times they embraced pagan philosophy as a manifestation of divine wisdom. At other times they rejected it as demonic. It is as a result of that conversation however, that we have the great theological works of the first centuries.

In a similar fashion, and with the hope that I too will grow in holiness as a result, I have my conversation with contemporary psychology. Some of what I find is life giving and some is death dealing. But what is most important is not how this or that conversation or debate is resolved, but how struggle with the issues raised by the conversation between the two parts of my life transforms me. The questions you raised are important one, but their answer is given vocationally and not theoretically. In this, I would suggest, the questions you raise about contemporary psychology's relationship to the Church are no different the questions raised in an earlier age about the role that pagan philosophy and literature ought to play in the life of the Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory