Do we indwell a therapeutic culture? In one sense, unfortunately, yes: Rieff, Jones, and Trueman rightly lament the self-centered psychologizing of our society. In another sense, sadly, no: Nearly every aspect of our culture militates against true therapy. The pervasive noise of distractions hinders the gospel’s healing touch.
Talking about the gospel as therapeutic is dangerous. Not wrong, just dangerous. I used to think it was wrong, since Philip Rieff famously inveighed against the psychologizing of the self in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, his prophetic 1966 book. His critique fueled my suspicion of all things therapeutic.
Noted theologians have taken up Rieff’s mantle. Gregory Jones warns in Embodying Forgiveness (1995) that in our therapeutic culture, we are in danger of manipulating forgiveness by turning it into a self-help process: We are told to forgive others not for their sake but for ours, since it gives us psychological relief. The result, Jones rightly insists, is that we no longer “discern whether there are tragic misunderstandings or culpable wrongdoing and brokenness that need to be dealt with through practices of forgiveness and repentance.” Rather than work through the mess to make things right, we turn forgiveness into a tool for restoring our own inner peace.
More recently, Carl Trueman has turned to Rieff to trace the genealogy of contemporary culture. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020) follows Rieff’s claim that our therapeutic culture has two baleful effects. First, it treats the community as oppressive and therapy as a means to counter this. This leads to the second effect: It subverts the proper relationship between individual and society. Whereas the individual once learned to take his proper place within the broader community, the community now serves the psychological wellbeing of the individual.
Rieff, Jones, and Trueman all warn against a therapeutic culture’s dangers. In their august company, one might think twice before putting up a defense of a therapeutic culture.
Let me nonetheless give it a try. It’s not that I disagree with the famous troika. Their critique of contemporary culture is truthful, incisive, and indispensable. Still, a caveat is equally indispensable, for the gospel’s very aim is therapeutic.
The Greek verb therapeuein means “to heal” or “to cure.” The purpose of the gospel is arguably that we be healed. Metropolitan Hierotheos discusses theology as a therapeutic science and speaks in detail about how to heal the soul. His book Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers argues that priests are in the therapy business: They “not only celebrate the Sacraments but they cure people. They have a sound knowledge of the path of healing from passions and they make it known to their spiritual children.”