Thursday, November 21, 2013

(PART 2.2) Authority, Modernity and the Death of God: Has the 'Success' of American Evangelicalism Sown the Seeds of Its Own Destruction?

Consumerism as a Cultural Characteristic

Thus far, our focus has been upon the decentralization of the traditional authorities of Western culture and the subsequent centralization of the self-conscience individual. In simplest terms this is modernity. What began with perhaps a well-intentioned, albeit misguided, desire for certainty in knowledge in the Cartesian agenda, has gradually resulted in the irrelevance of knowledge for knowledge sake. Francis Bacon’s agitation with the uselessness of traditional knowledge in the sixteenth century has become a cultural characteristic in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. As was pointed out above, the church in America, ironically, has been an all too willing participant in this shift.

The natural result of course, has been the rise of what has been termed the therapeutic culture, an ethos that looks to knowledge (including Scripture) as a source of psychological well-being, rather than a source of truth and morality. One of the glaring legacies of the Enlightenment, especially as it has been played out in America, is the need for knowledge to be legitimated upon utilitarian grounds-upon the basis of its usefulness to meet the perceived needs of the individual—especially in regard to the betterment of living itself. This constitutes a reduction to irrelevance anything outside of an individual’s immediate desires and aspirations. “The external world,” writes Wells, “in which meaning and morality were once rooted has collapsed. Only the inner world of need and experience remains. Meaning has become a matter of psychological connectedness to various communities.”[1]

When knowledge is thought of in this way, the individual and his perceived needs become authoritative and traditional sources of authority—especially divine revelation—become a means by which needs are met, rather than sources of morally binding authority. In such an environment narcissism is institutionalized, rationalized and becomes itself a component of an entire society’s cultural make-up. Consequently, religious propositions are increasingly thought of in terms of their usefulness and marketability. Once the individual’s ‘felt needs’ are elevated to determining which religious propositions will be used and how they will be communicated, the religious community assumes the role of producer and the would-be convert a consumer not substantially different than the ‘closed system’ of supply and demand.

The Social Dimensions of Consumerism

Consumerism as it will be used here, must be distinguished from the normal consumption of goods and services. All societies, whether rural or urban, agrarian or mercantile, are made up of consumers. One must consume to live. The subject here is not consumers, but rather consumerism. It is a phenomenon in which society does not consume to live, but lives to consume. Richard Neuhaus provides a felicitous definition of consumerism in Doing Well and Doing Good, his commentary on Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus:

Consumerism is, quite precisely, the consuming of life by the things consumed. It is living in a manner that is measured by having rather than being. As Pope John Paul II makes clear, consumerism is hardly the sin of the rich. The poor, driven by discontent and envy, may be as consumed by what they do not have as the rich are consumed by what they do have.[2]

In such a society Rene Descartes’ dictum, “I think therefore, I am,” becomes “I consume, therefore, I am.” In other words, a consumer culture actually legitimates its existence and draws meaning through consumption.

The tragic result of consumerism as a cultural characteristic is the tendency to evaluate relationships, communities, and cultural institutions on the basis of their abilities to bring about a greater fulfillment to the individual. Within a context of consumerism the individual no longer sees himself as serving the greater good of a community, but rather looks to the community to serve his greater good.

Consumerism, however, should not be thought of as what Craig Gay calls, “abnormal or aberrant behavior within a modern society,” but rather it “discloses modernity’s highest ideals.”[3] Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the modern democratic mindset of Americans of relying only on oneself might actually produce a mentality that judges everything by its ability to fulfill “immediate material pleasures.”[4] He also indicates, “that the love of money is either the chief or a secondary motive at the bottom of everything the Americans do.” This he notes, “gives a family likeness to all their passions and soon makes them wearisome to contemplate.”[5] The modern project, it seems, was in inaugurated with the deliberate intent to forswear philosophical and theological judgment for the sake of comfort and convenience, and this made possible by scientific and technological development.[6]

When one seeks to analyze consumerism it becomes quite evident that causes and influences are not easily deduced. Yet for the present purpose it would not be inaccurate to maintain that consumerism is generally a product of two key developments of the modern era. The first, discussed above, involves the centering of the Self and the absolute sovereignty of personal fulfillment. The second involves increased production due to industrialization, technology and urbanization. But as to specifics, one immediately finds that consumerism is far from a “field of study” and is more like a “spaghetti junction of intersecting disciplines, methodologies, politics.”[7] Modernity then can be thought of as the starting point or ‘first cause’ of consumerism, the context in which it rises. But to understand what consumerism is, it must be understood as an essentially social phenomenon. This understanding does not preclude the philosophical and theological critiques, but merely understands that philosophical and theological shifts are played out within a social context.

According to the book of Genesis, for instance, when the first humans desired the personal fulfillment offered by the Tempter, a philosophical and theological shift took place—the decentralization of divine authority and the crowning of personal autonomy. But this shift had an impact on and was played out along social lines, as the long history of human autonomy reveals.

Thus, it is imperative that comprehensive critiques of consumerism take into account the “top down” Marxist interpretation of institutions of power—fed by free market capitalism—that oppress the masses with their constant flood of otherwise unneeded goods and services, by means of manipulative advertising. The weakness of the Marxist critique, however, is its general assumption of the innocence of the masses and its failure to factor in the natural inclination toward self-centeredness inherent in human nature, as espoused by traditional Judeo-Christian interpretations. Consequently, it seems that a ‘both and’ rather than an ‘either or’ critique be followed. Institutions of power can be and often are oppressive and exploitative, but the genius of consumer-oriented capitalism is it’s understanding of the darker forces of human nature: The all-consuming drive for self-aggrandizement.

If such a conclusion is assumed, then it explains quite adequately the roots of modern American consumerism. As corporations increase production of a given product, the tools of marketing generally and advertising specifically, are employed in a manipulative way to create need on the part of the consumer and crush all alternative sources. It is not important whether such a need is in itself legitimate, only that it is perceived as legitimate. The billion dollar a year market of drugs such as Ritalin and Prozac, for instance, is evidence of the degree to which a society can  be manipulated by powerful pharmaceutical companies into believing that they need these drugs. Parents are told that they need sedated children and for 50 to 100 dollars a month they can receive a quick fix that will give it to them, while at the same time blocking or maligning information about viable alternatives.

Yet it is not only in the realm of marketed drugs that the spirit of consumerism is seen. Every facet of American society is driven, shaped and conditioned by the market. You need respect and prestige, and this or that product will give it to you. You need a better sex life, and this book or that plan will help you obtain it. You need an escape from the humdrum of daily life and Disney World will provide it in any historical or technological context you prefer. The modern market, especially in America, specializes in turning every marketable desire and pleasure into full-blown needs, without which life cannot be lived.

The hallmarks of a consumer culture, therefore, are an insatiable appetite for fulfillment on the part of those who consume and an equally insatiable appetite for control on the part of those who produce.[8] Such emulates Max Weber’s “iron cage: with stunning accuracy, a society if dehumanized automatons mindlessly reacting to corporate controlled stimuli. Rationality, creativity, and freedom, all crucial elements of healthy cultural development, are increasingly suppressed under the offer of the instant satisfaction of the modern market.

In Andy and Larry Wachowski’s blockbuster film The Matrix, the entire human race, reduced to copper-tops incased in Plexiglas pods, provide energy for a massive intelligent supercomputer. The supercomputer in turn feeds sense impressions directly into the brains of the immobile humans, controlling every aspect of their virtual environments and subsequently their realities.  Whatever the intent of the writers, the film provides an effective parable of the nature of consumerism: An entire society willfully exploited for the purpose of augmenting the power of a corporate elite.

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter, Centesimus Annus, echoes the dehumanizing exploitative nature of consumerism by suggesting that Marxism and consumerism are essentially the same in that they fall to the same fatal weakness. “It [consumerism] seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than communism, while equally excluding spiritual values.” He goes on to indicate that while Marxism has failed to contribute to a humane and better society, consumerism agrees with Marxism in that “it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.”[9] While John Paul’s critique is essentially a new subtle form of Catholic liberation theology, it provides a helpful analysis of the oppressive and dehumanizing nature of modern consumerism.

In the final analysis, it is probably inaccurate to refer to a “consumer culture” in that consumerism actually represents a debasement of true culture. As was seen above, in a culture driven by the consumption of material goods and services, corporate elites actually create culture. Culture is transformed from a bottom up enterprise in which rational beings interact historically, linguistically and religiously with their environment, to a top down manipulative one in which individuals are told what to need and what will give them the sense of fulfillment and identification they are told they need. As a result, traditional institutions such as family, nationality, ethnicity, language and religion—customarily components of cultural development—become displaced by a common identity shaped by advertising and marketed goods and services. Rodney Clapp recounted a conversation that he had with Lendol Calder, a historian in New Hampshire who devoted his doctoral dissertation to consumerism. Clapp asked when he first noticed the depth and breadth of consumerism in American culture.

He recalled a Christian camp for college students of several nationalities. A get-acquainted exercise divided campers by nationality, charging them to choose a song representing their culture, once that all could approve and sing to the rest of the assembly. Most nationalities reached consensus, practiced, and were ready in 10 to 20 minutes; nearly all the groups chose folk songs from their native lands. Not the Americans. They debated over 20 minutesm then an hour. Some wanted a rock song; others suggested a series of country songs. At last they settled on the Coca-Cola jingle “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” The tune ringing in his ears, Lendol realized that commercial culture was what really bound these Americans—these American Christians—together.[10]

American culture over the past one hundred years has become thoroughly commercialized in which unrestricted material consumption becomes the chief and highest end, the ultimate goal of all human energies. Additionally, any worldviews that Americans—and American Evangelicals for that matter—might have had has been replaced with an incoherent fragmented collection of corporate generated realities and an unprincipled desire to consume for consumption’s sake. 

It would not be inaccurate to conclude, therefore, that the vast majority of Americans in the twenty-first century actually possess no real worldview at all, being what Carl Bernstein has brazenly called “the idiot culture.”[11] Jean Baudrillard said it best when he referred to America as the “land of the non-event,” a people who live in a perpetual present, a “Utopia Achieved” with no past and an irrational optimism about the future.[12] All that is left is a culture in which tradition, truth and idealism, in all its forms, has died the death of a thousand disqualifications and has been replaced by the mindless pursuit of immediate self-aggrandizement. Where American culture goes from here is anyone’s guess, but unless the course is changed very soon America’s “Utopia” will crumble. And if it is true that American culture is defined by consumption, what will happen when Americans lose the ability to consume?

To be continued:
The Church goes Corporate or "Walmart Christianity"

[1] Wells, God in the Wasteland, 220.

[2] Richard Neuhaus, Doing Well and Doing Good (DoubleDay: New York, 1992), 62. 

[3] Craig M. Gay, “Sensualists without Heart: Contemporary Consumerism in Light of the Modern Project” in The Consuming Passion: Christianity and the Consumer Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 19.

[4] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 645. Tocqueville also expressed his fears that the unbridled pursuit of material gain might extinguish the spirit of Americans when he said, “The prospect really does frighten me that they may finally become so engrossed in a cowardly love of immediate pleasures that their interest in their own future and in their descendants may vanish, and that they will prefer tamely to follow the course of their own destiny rather than make a sudden energetic effort to set things right.”

[5] Ibid., 614-15. He went on to observe that as a result, “they [Americans] have little faith in anything extraordinary and an almost invincible distaste for the supernatural.”

[6] Gay, “Sensualists without Heart,” 19.

[7] Don Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), 2. 

[8] Wells, God in the Wasteland, 61.

[9] John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, may 1, 1991. n. 19

[10] Rodney Clapp, “Why the Devil Takes Visa,” Christianity Today (October, 7, 1996).

[11] Carl Bernstein, “The Idiot Culture,” The New Republic (June 8, 1992), 28, 25.

[12] Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 1988), 75-105.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

(PART 2.1) Authority, Modernity and the Death of God: Has the 'Success' of American Evangelicalism Sown the Seeds of Its Own Destruction?

Therapy and Commodity

In this chapter the logical and psychological consequences of the decentralization and privatization of authority are considered. The focus of the first section, The Rise of the Therapeutic Culture,[1] will be upon the cultural and theological shift from thinking about divine authority in terms of morally binding categories, to thinking about it as a source of psychological well-being with no regard to questions about truth or authority. This shift corresponded historically and intellectually with the rise of romanticism and its by-product, psychoanalysis. This would further erode the relevance of truth and authority and would encourage cultural narcissism.

The second section, Consumerism as a Cultural Characteristic, attention will be paid to the reality of consumerism as the ‘world-view’ of Americans generally and an important methodological component in much of modern American Evangelicalism. The colossal flood of information from the behavioral sciences about the human condition and consumer-oriented marketing strategies, have tempted many evangelical leaders uncritically to accept and implement that information without clear biblical or theological justification for doing so. A significant degree of attention will be placed upon the origins of ‘need’ and the agenda of corporate and cultural elites to create needs—correspondingly a market-that may not be otherwise legitimate.

This section (as well as chapter three) will seek to connect consumer-oriented economic theory in the business community with that which is utilized in much of the methodology of American Evangelicalism and is antithetical to traditional understandings of divine authority.

The Rise of the Therapeutic Culture

This rise of the Therapeutic Culture should not be understood as a distinctively American phenomenon any more than the Enlightenment is. A therapeutic culture is really the natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment agenda and the effects it has on notions of truth, authority and the Self, regardless of where it is implemented. There are a number of ways to define Enlightenment (not withstanding Kant’s rather polemical one), depending upon the context in which it is discussed. For our purposes, Crane Brinton’s definition is a suitable one: “the belief that all human beings can attain here on earth a state of perfection hitherto in the West thought to be possible only for Christians in a state of grace, and for them only after death.”[2] The Enlightenment generation believed above all things that the objective rational mind, properly educated, could attain harmony and happiness independent of the dictates of religious or cultural authority. The next generation of Romantic thinkers, on the other hand, tended to stress intuition and feeling rather than reason as the ultimate pathway to truth, goodness and happiness. As Toulmin suggests, “romanticism never broke with rationalism: rather, it was rationalism’s mirror-image. Descartes exalted a capacity for formal rationality and logical calculation as the supremely ‘mental’ thing in human nature, at the expense of emotional experience.”[3] Yet both had one very important detail in common: a manifold distrust of and, in fact, hostility toward authority and tradition. Authority and tradition, in Romanticism, was devoid of any external referent and, therefore, understood as useless in bringing about the perfection of mankind. The Romantics sought a new source for truth, values and meaning, finding it in the autonomous Self. In the Romantic project, truth is not a search carried out for its own sake, but rather made for the betterment of the individual. Consequently, the intellectual dimensions of truth and the moral understandings of the good are thought of in explicitly therapeutic terms, producing a culture that seeks the betterment of the individual as an end in itself.

Romanticism as an intellectual movement was not so much a reaction to the stiff rationalism of the Enlightenment as it was a development of the Enlightenment. The Self was still seen as autonomous and reason sufficient to discover truth about reality and arrive as self-evident moral judgments. Yet the important development that took place challenged the mind’s ability to apprehend reality directly, the thing-in-itself directly. The first challenge came from Scotsman David Hume in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1751), in which both English empiricism and Continental rationalism received the first of their most devastating critiques. Hume would mount a crippling assault on the notion that causality is readily demonstrated by nature. This was indeed significant because up to this point the existence of God was a question not of faith in a specially mediated revelation, but rather rational certainty based on the principle of causality. According to Hume, if the principle of causality is not mediated through our impressions of reality—objects observed-then how can we rationally justify it?[4] Furthermore, if the existence of God is established according to causality, as Aquinas and Descartes assert, then what rational justification is there to believe in God? Commenting generally on Hume, Bertrand Russell observes that “Hume’s philosophy, whether true or false, represents the bankruptcy of eighteenth century reasonableness.”[5] Yet the Prussian Immanuel Kant would mount the most devastating critique of eighteenth century rationalism.

Kant would take Hume as his launching pad, critiquing the rationalism of the day to a degree unprecedented even by Hume. His critique would be so effective that it initiated what most believe to be an ‘epistemological revolution.’ Kant had formally believed that knowledge began with reason, but was “awakened from his dogmatic slumbers”[6] by the writings of David Hume, ultimately affirming the origin of knowledge in experience. However, Kant was not an Empiricist in the same sense as was Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Kant added a new dimension that would radically alter the course of Western thought, forever changing the way the modern world thought about knowledge. “Though all our knowledge begins with experience,” writes Kant, “it does not follow that it all arises out of experience.”[7] Kant went on to explain that impressions of experience only provide the occasion for what our own faculty of knowledge supplies from itself. When the mind perceives the outside world (what Kant calls the synthetic element), it is then processed by the mind (the a priori element). In the perception of the raw material of experience, the mind employs the forms of intuition of time and space, making use of the categories of Quality, Quantity, Relation and Modality.[8] The raw data of experience is arranged and formed according to these categories. Consequently, the mind does not perceive things as they are in themselves, or as Kant put it, “while much could be said a priori as regards the form of appearances, nothing whatsoever can be asserted of the thing in itself, which may underlie these appearances.”[9] 

According to Kant, all ‘knowledge’ is to some extent illusory, being shaped by our own ‘habits of the mind.’ As some have said, Hume handed Kant the problem of knowledge and Kant handed it back as if it were the solution. For Kant, the objects of time and space (phenomena) are known only as the mind perceives them, but anything that transcends time and space (noumena) is beyond the capacity of the mind. Accordingly, questions about God through the implementation of reason cannot be answered. Kant would go on in his critique to show the implausibility of casual arguments for the existence of God, and in the process would drive the final nail into the coffin of a rationally justified God.[10]

Though Kant would humble the claims of seventeenth century rationalism, he would discover the amazing powers of imagination, in which the Self imposed its forms on the random facts of experience. The creative Self, espoused by Kant was not Descartes’ self-conscious ‘I’ that perceived reality as it is, but rather the ‘transcendental ego’ that gives meaning and order to the facts of experience, and in some sense creates reality. The concept of Self, according to Kant, was placed at the center in an unprecedented way. The individual’s perception of reality was as important—and often more important—than what corresponds with reality itself. Thus, the intellectual foundations of Romanticism and its attendant therapeutic understanding of knowledge and religion as laid.

Romantic Christianity

In his book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), Philip Rieff defines the therapeutic culture as a “cultural revolution fought for no other purpose than greater amplitude and richness of living itself.”[11] Roger Lundin defines the therapeutic culture as a culture

in which questions of ultimate concern—about the nature of the good, the meaning of truth, and the existence of God—are taken to be unanswerable and hence in some fundamental sense insignificant. A therapeutic culture focuses upon the management of experience and environment in the interest of that manipulatable sense of well-being.[12]

The therapeutic culture, therefore, is one in which all notions of truth, goodness, and beauty are matters derived not from external authorities or traditions, but rather are derived by Self for the Self. The Self and its sense of well-being and fulfillment is the beginning and the end of all intellectual, moral and aesthetic considerations.

It should not be understood, however, that the Romantics were intolerant to all religion. “The Romantic enterprise,” writes Meyer Abrams, “was an attempt to sustain the inherited cultural order against what to many writers seemed the imminence of chaos; and the resolve to give up what one was convinced one had to give up of the dogmatic understructure of Christianity, yet to save what one could save of its experiential relevance and values.”[13] The Romantics, consequently, were not hostile to religion per se, but simply to a particular type of religion, that which asserts itself as the source of authority by which individuals are intellectually and morally bound. A tolerated religion is one that lends its symbols to the aggrandizement of the Self. This new understanding of the role of religion is poignantly seen in William Butler Yeats’ A Prayer for My Daughter,

I have walked and prayed for this young child . . .
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrightening,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will

Religion, with its attendant symbols, becomes, in the therapeutic model, not the source of authority in matters of truth and morality, but rather a tool by which the individual may attain a state of perfection as it is defined by that individual. God’s will, traditionally thought of as morally binding on all and immutable, is now simply the expression of the desires of the Self. The poet Matthew Arnold emulated this in his The Strayed Reveller, “. . . such a price the gods exact for song: to become what we sing.” And so to the Romantics, with their therapeutic concerns, theology becomes a mere subset of anthropology, being explicated not according to authoritative texts, but by inward emotions and dispositions.

In the field of hermeneutics, following the Kantian paradigm, the effects of Romanticism were no less damaging. A ‘reader-response’ theory of hermeneutics was already beginning to take hold, in which the reader “brings meaning to the text,” a meaning that serves the therapeutic interests of the reader.[14] Therefore, whatever authority the text had was, in the Romantic tradition, privatized. This, coupled with the advent of the historical-critical school of biblical exegesis, would lead to associating hermeneutics with the search to make discredited texts relevant to contemporary skeptical readers, rather than with the task of explaining authoritative commands.[15]

In this new intellectual and religious climate, theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher would seek new ways to reach what he called the ‘cultural despisers,’ or what is called in our day the ‘unchurched.’ These were people who had little inclination to seek religious answers to the questions raised by our earthly existence. In Schleiermacher’s speech to them he says, “Suavity and sociability, art and science have so fully taken possession of your minds that no room remains for the eternal holy Being that lies beyond the world.”[16] To these ‘cultured despisers’ religion was at best irrelevant and at worse erroneous. Schleiermacher, therefore, would engage in a method that would make the Christian message more relevant and palatable to them, fashioning the message in ever more appealing forms, calling on his audience to look inward to the “interior of a pious soul and seek to understand its inspiration . . . to turn from everything usually reckoned religion, and fix your regard on the inward emotions and dispositions, as all utterances and acts of inspired men direct.”[17] Whether or not Schleiermacher was deliberate in undermining the authority if the Scriptures is unknown, but the result is clearly a diluted role of authority in the life of the church, if it retained a role at all. Lundin aptly observes,

In Christian proclamation under the influence of Romanticism, the new understanding of hermeneutics led to a preoccupation with the status of the audience to be addressed with the gospel. Pressured to demonstrate the relevance of Christain faith to its ‘cultured despisers’ (Schleiermacher’s memorable phrase), many Christian interpreters in the Enlightenment and romanticism pared the biblical narrative into an appealing shape in their attempts to appeal to an educated and often cynical audience. Whether they were promoting a rational or a romantic God, these early modern interpreters were often willing to spend the capital of Christian belief in exchange for earning high interest in the marketplace of intellectual currency.[18]

The Christian message, therefore, was increasingly shaped and modified according to the present needs of the audience addressed, giving rise to what would characterize liberal Christianity for over a hundred years: the sovereignty of felt need as defined by the authoritative Self. Having broken the older outward forms of external authority and objective truth, the theologians of the early nineteenth century would increasingly be replaced by their logical historical successors, the psychologists. “By this time,” writes Rieff, “men may have gone too far, beyond the old deception of good and evil, to specialize at last, wittingly, in techniques that are to be called ‘therapeutic,’ with nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being.” This, says Rieff, “is the unreligion of the age, and its master science.”[19]

Enter the Psychologists

If Rieff is correct that a healthy society is a complex of controls; morally binding imperatives, and releases; methods to enable the individual to cope with those moral imperatives held in tension, the church, in its historical function, fulfilled both roles.[20] The controls being mediated through the special revelation of God, and the releases being performed by the community of faith through encouragement and support. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, specializes in releases void of morally binding controls. This is due to the fact that psychoanalysis assumes the amoral role of science, a discipline concerned with facts not values or morality. Science is analytical not revelatory, its practitioners analyzing moralizing symbols not asserting them.

However, the psychologizers would consciously attempt to usurp traditional controlling institutions, like the church, through the implementation of what Rieff calls ‘god-talk.’ Sigmund Freud would speak of the ‘unconscious’ as that ‘First Cause,’ the existence of which is unproved, but must, nonetheless, be believed in as both fundamental to and inaccessible to experience.[21] C.G. Jung would be the prophet of the ‘subterranean’ god; that suppressed aspect of divinity laying in the unconsciousness of all men.[22] ‘Life’ itself would be the god of Wilhelm Reich, seen in the cosmic energy Orgone and opposes all spiritual principles.[23] According to these psychoanalysts, ‘God’ is no longer metaphysical or even meta-religious, but is, an internal force inherent in every individual.  Under this rubic, psychoanalysis assumes the role of both release and control, seeking to release individuals from traditional controls while at the same time covertly invoking new ones. It is precisely at this level that psychoanalysis becomes the logical and historical successor of the romantic Christianity of Schleiermacher and his call inward. One must remember, however, that Nietzsche and Marx were as much to blame as Schleiermacher, but it was he who redefined the religious task, and thus prepared the church for the new dogma of the psychologizers.

While much of these new trends were taking place on the European continent, they were profoundly influencing the character and methodology of American Christianity. American pragmatism, always preoccupied with the usefulness of language, was at the same time skeptical about its ability to reveal truth or serve as an instrument of moral obligation. Such an environment would serve as fertile ground for the new dogma of psychoanalysis. So successful was psychoanalysis in America, that Rieff dubbed it the “psychological society.” Freed from the oppressive political and religious authorities of England, the American Self would soar to new heights of subjectivity, the new dogma of psychoanalysis providing it with the conceptual categories for a full-blown therapeutic theology.

American liberalism of the early twentieth century would increasingly downplay the role of religious language as a vehicle of truth and morality and would emphasize explicitly therapeutic, psychological understandings. Reinhold Niebuhr, a stellar figure of American liberal Christianity, would exhibit this new role of religious language and press it to degrees that would have no doubt even made Freud blush. Throughout his writings he places great emphasis on the symbolic power of the resurrection to assure us that God redeems and fulfills the course of human history. Yet he refuses to acknowledge it is a fact or an event that took place in reality. Rather he speaks of it as a symbol, a hope or an idea.[24] In fact, in a letter he wrote to Norman Kemp Smith in 1940, he stated, “I have not the slightest interest in the empty tomb or physical resurrection.”[25] For Niebuhr the word ‘resurrection’ had and needed no correspondence to reality, but as a symbol the resurrection has great explanatory power in illustrating our faith in the meaningfulness of life.

Niebuhr’s theology has clear parallels with the broader cultural tradition of romanticism. A contemporary British novelist, Iris Murdoch, indicated,

It is equally interesting that after a period of irreligion or relative atheism there have been signs of a kind of perceptible religious renewal in certain changes in theology. In England one is experiencing a demythologization of theology which recognizes that many things normally or originally taken as dogmas must now be considered myths. In this there is something which might have a profound impact on the future which, for the ordinary person, might return religion to the realm of the believable.[26]

The bargain offered by Murdoch to the church is not essentially different than that offered by Schleiermacher: If the church gives up its claims to authority and truthfulness by discarding antiquated dogmas, then the people, the “ordinary persons,” will remunerate the church with their approval. Such a bargain, not to mention the assumptions on which it is based, is highly objectionable. It is indeed a sad state of affairs, when the church feels compelled to jettison its dogma for the sake of modern perceptions of it. Yet jettison it they did. Twentieth century liberal Christianity is a long history of accommodation to the reigning paradigms of science and epistemology, for the sake of the application of biblical ‘truths’ to the angst of modern society, without maintaining a theological commitment to the authority of the Bible in any intellectually or morally binding sense. Admittedly, biblical teaching must be applied to the lives of those who sit under it living in the present, but it must not be reduced to application alone. In this line of thinking, Christian dogma may comfort the soul and help to organize our categories of thought, but it ultimately loses its power to reveal and to speak in a binding fashion. As Lundin aptly predicts, “When all knowledge becomes application, eventually there may be nothing left to apply.”

In a therapeutic culture, language, and more particularly for our purposes, religious language, is seen only as an extension of human need and when one way of speaking no longer seems useful—for instance, grace, forgiveness, redemption, or God—then one must drop that vocabulary and take up one which is more effective in the pursuit of human contentment and fulfillment. In the last quarter of the twentieth century and the first decade the twenty-first century such is certainly the case in many church growth strategies.  One need only look at the stark contrast between the language, theological content and application of Christian preaching 200 years ago and today to see the influence that therapeutic culture has had on Christian proclamation.

If Rieff is correct when he says that a “therapeutic culture focuses upon the management of experience and environment in the interest of that manipulatable sense of well-being,” then it becomes quite clear that modern American Evangelicalism has made a market out of a therapeutic understanding of Christianity. This becomes increasingly more evident as preaching focuses on how a particular sermon or ministry will enhance or improve your sense of well-being, self-esteem, happiness, etc. While it must be admitted that the gospel, historically understood will improve one’s sense of well-being, how is this pursuit rooted in truth or morally binding propositions? Furthermore, who defines what ‘well-being’ looks like? Is it a universal authoritative text or the new dogma of the behavioral sciences? In light of the pervasive biblical illiteracy that permeates American culture and the deep inroads made by modern psychoanalysis and the marketing of pop-psychology, the answer is self-evident.

This is not to say that an authoritative text (i.e. the Bible) is not used, it is; but that is essentially the problem—it is used. American Evangelicals who have sought to augment their evangelistic strategies, preaching and counseling with the new tools provided by the behavioral sciences, have allowed those sciences to define the causes of human discontent, unhappiness and depression, etc., and then have turned to the Bible for the answers. While this may seem harmless on the surface, it fails to take into account that the Bible, the divine and authoritative text, provides not only the answers to those problems, but it also defines the causes as well. The cause of such problems, for instance, is vastly different than that advanced by the Bible.[27] This uncritical acceptance of psychotherapy and the behavioral sciences can be seen when James Dobson states,

In a real sense, the health of an entire society depends on the ease with which the individual members gain personal acceptance. Thus, whenever the keys of self-esteem are seemingly out of reach for a large percentage of the people, as in twentieth century America, then widespread “mental illness,” neuroticism, hatred, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and social disorder will certainly occur.[28]

What’s instructive about this quote is how Dobson roots the problems of society in concepts found not in the Bible, but from modern psychotherapy and the behavioral sciences. This is an extremely dangerous trend and deeply undermines the Bible as an authoritative revelation. When the behavioral sciences are allowed to define the questions raised by human experience, the Bible is reduced to a fishing pond in which therapeutic preachers fish for pithy simplistic antidotes shaped to instill a vague sense of well-being. And the ‘converts’ of these preachers are taught to evaluate the Bible on the basis of the psychological usefulness of its propositions rather than its truth revealing, morally binding characteristics.

David Wells has observed, “The psychologizing of life cuts the nerve of evangelical identity because the common assumption beneath the Self movement is the perfectibility of human nature and this assumption is anathema to the Christian gospel.”[29] Alasdair McIntyre laments this trend because it undermines the desire and capacity to think. Where questions of the moment were once settled according to their correspondence with truth [which requires thinking], now they are settled by how people feel about them. “The prospects of settling questions by reasoned deliberation and debate have greatly dimmed, because, in the end, the collapse of belief in truth and the habit of listening to the Self have united to destroy what academic life once demanded.”[30]

It is indeed ironic that while the psychotherapists took on a ‘language of faith’ in their therapeutic endeavors, American evangelicals took on the language, methods and dogma of the psychologizers in theirs. While it is perhaps an overstatement to say that ‘therapeutic evangelicals’ are not concerned with truth and morality, the language they use and the methods they employ suggest that these concerns no longer occupy the place of priority that they once did.

[1] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (New York: Harper & Row, 196).
[2] Crane Brinton, The Shaping of the Modern Mind (New York: New American Library, 1959), 113.

[3] Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990), 148.

[4] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 126-131. When we speak of cause and effect, we mean that A causes B. But to Hume experience only furnishes contiguity, A and B are always close together; priority of time, A, the “cause,” always precedes B, the “effect”; and constant conjunction, we always see A followed by B. Though these impressions are valid there is nothing in them that suggest a “necessary” connection between A and B. Thus causality is not a quality in the objects we observe but is rather a “habit of association in the mind produced by the repetition of instances of A and B.” See Stumpf, Philosophy, 293.
[5] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946), 698.

[6] Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics (1783).

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason. Trans, Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), 41.

[8] Ibid., 113.

[9] Ibid., 87. In a Kantian understanding of epistemology, we see the world “through rose-colored glasses,” perceiving things not as they truly are, but as our minds tell us they are.
[10] It is important to note that Kant did not completely slam the door on God. Kant was no atheist; he simply desired to place the existence of God on a more sure footing, that being from the standpoint of his “moral imperative.”

[11] Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 241.

[12] Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation, 5-6.
[13] Meyer Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), 68.

[14] This tendency had a pronounced emphasis in literature and the arts, which in the words of Matthew Arnold, “will nourish us in growth towards perfection.” By the mid twentieth century this understanding would expand seeing the poet’s task as “not to describe nature, but to show you a world completely absorbed and possessed by the human mind.” Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), 32-33.

[15] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 7. Roger Lundin writes, “In many ways, romanticism in literature and theology was a dramatic effort to snatch the ethical, aesthetic, and emotional relics of the Christian faith from its metaphysical house, which was being consumed by the flames of skepticism” (see Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation, 39).

[16] Friedrich Schleiermacher, “On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers,” in Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology, ed. Keith W. Clements (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 67.

[17] Ibid., 74.
[18] Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation, 39-40.

[19] Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 13.

[20] This theory of culture is at best a generalization of modern sociology, but for our purposes it is instructive in understanding the role that psychoanalysis would play in seeking to replace Christianity as a “therapeutic community” that evoked controlling morality.
[21] Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (London: Victor Gollancz LTD, 1959).

[22] Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 110.

[23] Wilhelm Reich, Selected Writings: An Introduction to Orgonomy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), 469.
[24] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2: Human Destiny (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943), 311-312.

[25] Quoted in Richard Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 215.

[26] Quoted in Peter S. Hawkins, The Language of Grace (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1983), 134-135.

[28] James Dobson, Hide or Seek (Revell, 1974), 12-13. James Davidson Hunter provides the following critique: “The ambivalence of faith communities toward moral education could not be more clear. Many faith communities are determined to ground moral education in biblical literature and theological tradition; at the same time, they embrace the language and assumptions of contemporary psychology. Because Evangelicals are among the most self-conscious about the preservation of their orthodoxy, it is a bit ironic that they are among the least self-conscious about their embrace of therapeutic categories and ideals. Whatever else may be lost in this bargain, such syncretism does provide a contemporary diction that is both relevant to the young and easy for them to grasp. However, the fact that Evangelical Protestantism, despite its public posturing to the contrary, is comfortable with a therapeutic understanding of morality and moral development suggests that its resistance to the dominant culture may, in fact, be little resistance at all.” (James Davidson Hunter, When Psychotherapy Replaces Religion

[29] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 178.

[30] Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue: A Study of Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, 1981). Cited in Wells, No Place for Truth, 181.