Christian Counseling and Psychotherapy: A response to a Vox News article

Christian Counseling isn't something I do as a private practice psychotherapist in the bay area, however a recently published article by Vox News got me thinking (Read the article here). Apparently Christian counseling is one of the most highly “Googled” terms having to do with psychotherapy and mental illness. As a white male living in the bay area, I'm exposed to predominantly white, atheist culture. Appropriated eastern tradition is the most common “spiritual” thread permeating daily life, therefore it came as a shock to me that psychotherapy and Christianity are commonly represented together, let alone, highly popular.

One main point of the article is that many people turn to their community leaders, many of which are religious figures when experiencing symptoms such as panic attacks, anxiety, depression, or traumas which may or may not bring about a crisis of faith. Often these religious leaders don't have the specific training required to work with such issues that are more acutely located in the domain of psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, counselors etc. However, I found the crux of the article in the tension between two seemingly opposed dogmas. It's the age old debate between science and religion. The article mentions Freud, the father of modern psychology who took a rather scientific approach to studying the psyche, something that arguably cannot be measured or detected. Freud began publishing papers around the time that Charles Darwin died. Not that the two incidents are related but I believe, much of Freud's thinking was influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution which places sex and reproduction front and center. The article states,

“After all, Freud saw the human being as, essentially, an animal, whose neuroses were the result of repressing natural sexual and libidinal desires. That attitude was directly at odds with a Christian worldview that sees human beings as partly spiritual creatures that should transcend the desires of the flesh.”

So here we have it, the father of psychology himself, forging the field of psychology on the heals of Darwin with much of the world relying on religious institutions and faith. For Freud, his ideas were a tough sell, but his thinking eventually caught on and remains to be the trunk of the tree from which all psychotherapies branch from, even CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).

The most stirring aspect of this debate between psychology and religion as mentioned in the article is that both psychology's attitude toward Christianity and Christianity's attitude toward psychology, each miss an essential part of what the other has to offer. If a person “transcends the desires of the flesh” it happens through a developmental process. One does not achieve this state overnight. It happens through years of an ongoing devotion to a practice of bible study and prayer. Sinful desires are grappled with and renounced over time. They are felt, clung to and let go of. This renunciation is a form of loss that is lived and felt. One's capacity to consciously choose a life of sacrifice is seen as a testament of their devotion. However, this developmental process itself is the critical part, a topic that Freud devoted his life to studying, human development.

While I have studied far more Freud than I have Christianity, I can sympathize with the common Christian sentiment surrounding psychology and Freud himself. His dogmatic pragmatism leaves quite a lot to be desired. What about the experience of awe, synchronicity, the inexplicable which places us in a state of bliss and unity? His writing address all of these and I could too, but doing so robs us the pleasure of imagination, fantasy and raw human emotion. The dehumanization of thought.

Freud misses the phenomenology of Christianity while Christianity overlooks a person's capacity for making sophisticated use of it's own teachings. If either is unwilling to accept and be reflective of their own limitations while acknowledging dependence on the other, they fail to live up to their intended purpose.