instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, January 02, 2015

The triumph of the merely therapeutic

The Gospel is sometimes pitched for its therapeutic value. Jesus is good for what ails you, spiritually, emotionally, physically.

There's some truth to that pitch. All else being equal, if ye seek first the kingdom of God, you'll be less troubled by life. Even if physical healing isn't granted (though sometimes it is), the redemptive nature faith in Christ gives to physical suffering is a change for the very much better.

But there's a problem with the gospel of therapy. I don't mean the problem that it's not the Gospel Jesus has commissioned His Church to preach, that Jesus didn't become man and die on a cross just so you could feel better about your life.

Even if you argue from an economy of truth perspective, for pitching the Gospel as therapy in order to be heard in the world, then more fully explain the Faith once you've got their attention, you're still faced with a big problem:

Subjectively speaking, there are better therapies than the Gospel.

Feeling better may be a consequence of faith in Jesus, but faith in Jesus wasn't developed to be a means to the end of feeling better. Nothing prevents something else from being better at making people feel better, particularly if that something else was designed with precisely that end in mind.

I suppose the simplest example of this is the Gospel itself, with whatever a person finds off-putting excised. For some people, the result may be the "Gospel of Nice," according to which Jesus commands you to be generally pleasant and friendly toward others, and if you fail then try again tomorrow, and everyone will wind up in heaven anyway, except maybe Hitler, but it's not nice to think about that.

If someone is sold the Faith with the guarantee that it will make them feel better, and they later encounter something about the Faith that doesn't make them feel better, it may look to them like a bait and switch. And why would they switch, if they're happy with the bait they already possess?

Little wonder syncretism is flourishing in this Age of Therapy, either. Not only do Christians looking to feel good get rid of the rougher parts of the Gospel, they freely adopt bits and pieces of non-Christian practices as part of their religion. The only discernment required is whether it makes you feel good, and the only authority on how you feel is you.

The counter-argument -- that there's a way things are that isn't fully determined by how you feel about them -- can be made, I think, but sooner or later there will be discomfort, because sooner or later there will be need for repentance. But the counter-argument will always be competing with the voices that say there is no need for repentance or for a turning away from self toward God. Particularly compelling is the voice that says turning even more toward self is turning toward God, since the Divine is within.

To present the Gospel as a course of therapy is to compete directly against the sort of spiritual junk food that combines the sweetness of self-love with the saltiness of self-praise and the unctuousness of self-rule. Sometimes, you just have to eat your vegetables, and it's a false gospel that pretends you don't.