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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Evangelical Therapy–A Lot Cheaper Than The Couch

T.M. Luhrmann, writing in the New York Times (4.14.13), has described the intimate patient-therapist relationship between evangelicals and God – one very positive aspect of the fundamentalist Protestant belief in a very personal religion.  God is listening, say evangelical preachers, and if you talk to Him, you will hear advice that will release you from your earthly travails; and if you know that He will always be by your side, no journey will be painful.

In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.

No wonder why evangelism is so popular! Who wants to hear Old Testament thunder and lightning, fire and brimstone, death, punishment, and the retribution of a terrible God? Or hear about sin, purgatory, penance, and seeing God only after a long and arduous climb from baseness and venality?  Who wants to labor up through the ranks of the caste system, toiling as a pariah, cleaning the waste of others, disposing of carcasses, shit, and, detritus until, through seemingly endless cycles of rebirth, there is spiritual enlightenment?

The Catholic Church has always thought of evangelism and the many sects that it has spawned as threatening, not simply because more and more people are turning to missionary religion in South America and Africa, but because such a simple religion rejects the rigorous, logical exegesis of Augustine and Aquinas.  As hocus-pocus as the Mass may seem, it is the outward expression, say Vatican scholars, of a complex cosmology.  “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost” is repeated ad infinitum, and blessing oneself is the outward symbol of faith and devotion; but the Holy Trinity is mysterious, philosophically challenging, and accessible only through pious reading of sacred texts and reflective pondering of the essential Christian conundrum – If God is One, All, and Universal, then how can he be three? Or more to the point, why?

In other words, it takes work to become a faithful Catholic, for the religion does not only rely on the Bible but on ‘Tradition’, the great works of the great thinkers since Jesus Christ Himself. So, it is easy to imagine the conniption fits of the Vatican old guard when they see the spread of evangelism, store front churches, and orgiastic services.  There are so many fundamentalist sects that you can pick one like rummaging through a rack of a five-dollar dresses at Dirt Cheap. There is no discipline, no canon, no rigorous seminary study, no apprenticeship, no scholarship. 

Evangelism is very American and very modern. Most of us reject the severe autocracy of established religions. Many Catholics are turning away from a Church which seems to have dug in its heels and become even more conservative as the shouts for reform increase. There are few Orthodox Jews left outside of Israel, and Conservatives are seeing their number dwindle, especially since a large proportion of Jews intermarry. Ever since the watershed days of the Sixties, when ‘Do your own thing’ was the standard, few of us want the imprisonment of a dictatorial religion.  In the halcyon days of cultural relativism, many formerly faithful defied establishment religions which claimed to be ‘true’ religions.  Once one begins to question that legitimacy, it is a steep and slippery slope to personal religion or no religion at all.

Evangelism, then, fills the need of these disaffected.  It offers a personal relationship with God.  “Talk to God”, preachers urge from the pulpit. “He is listening.  He loves you”.  What could be more appealing or more consoling?  The evangelical God is not a wrathful, vengeful or judgmental, remote deity.  He is all-forgiving, loving, and accepting.  There are very few rules of the game, no sin chart, no Hindu steps to climb; just a happy, tearful reunion with your Maker.

The churches I studied resisted turning to God for an explanation of tragedy. They asked only that people turn to God for help in dealing with the pain. “God doesn’t want to be analyzed,” one woman explained to me. “He wants your love.”

No Thomistic logic, no Biblical exegesis, no poring over Talmud and Torah to unlock the mysteries of deity and the eternal is required.  All God wants is your love, your simple, uncomplicated, spontaneous love.  What could be easier than that?

Perhaps most important of all is that there are no prescriptions for love in the evangelical world.  Love is what you make it and especially how you give it.  God has no checklist.  There is no template through which love must pass to get to Him.  No filters, no priests, no piety police.  Love is a matter between you and God. There are no conditionalites, no legalisms or contractual loopholes.  Love Me unequivocally, totally, and without reservation, and I will give all My love in return.  Now that is a great bargain.

It is only a short step to evangelical therapy. Everyone prays to get things or for bad things to go away – “Please, God, let me get a raise”; or “Please, God, don’t let it be cancer” -  but few have realized that conversations with God can be about the resolution of internal conflict. God the Therapist will never walk you through the dark Freudian corridors of incestuous ambitions, guilt, and penis envy; but will simply calm you down and say, “It isn’t as bad as you think”.  He gives you a divine Prozac which does not resolve your issues or remove them from your psyche.  It simply makes them go away.

Luhrmann tells how she met a grieving couple who had lost a child in a late miscarriage:

Clearly numbed, they told me they did not understand why God had allowed the child to die. But they never gave a theological explanation for what happened. They blamed neither their own wickedness nor demons. Instead, they talked about how important it was to know that God had stood by their side. The husband quoted from memory a passage in the Gospel of John, where many followers abandon Jesus because his teachings don’t make sense to them. Jesus says sadly to his disciples, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

In other words, do not try to plumb the mysteries of life or even approach the age-old puzzle – How can a good God allow bad things to happen. Never mind theodicy, Hume, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein.  All you need to know is that God is by your side.  Forget metaphysics, ontology, or epistemology. Just acknowledge His presence, and if you have a moment, a nice card might be in order.

This may seem theologically simple-minded — indeed, even some evangelical Christians find it so. But there are lots of ways to explain things in this sophisticated, scientifically aware society. What churches like these offer is a way of dealing with unhappiness. Tragedy, and prayers that apparently go unanswered, can actually strengthen believers’ sense of a bond with God. That’s when they feel that they most need Him.

“This may seem theologically simple-minded” is the understatement of the year; but we live in a ‘whatever’ society,  If it feels good, do it.  If it works, don’t ask why.  Religion has famously been called the opiate of the people; and Marx was right, but today’s religious pharmacology does not work in the sense he meant.  No ruling class puts religion in the communal water supply to assure a docile and complaisant population; but religion is still a balm, a psycho-active medication that can act very much like opium and calm the beasts within. 

I suppose when all is said and done, it is no better to have rationally understood the nature of God, the co-existence of good and evil, the mystery of the Trinity, or reincarnation than to have dumbly fallen in love with Him.  The most compelling argument for religion is that it helps us through the transition from life to death; and if you believe that you have a divine companion along the way, it is probably a happier journey than if you are still fumbling for metaphysical answers.

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