Spirituality and Therapeutic Religion

Sociologists like Robert Bellah in his 1985 book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, have characterized our civilization as "therapeutic" -- that is, as being dedicated to and largely obsessed with the goal of personal fulfillment and self-contentment, and that one of the places this is most evident is in our choice of religion or church. Americans increasingly seem to be no longer any more committed to a particular faith or belief system than they are to living their whole life in one community or even with one husband or wife. Instead, religious affiliation or its replacement by some variety of home-grown "spirituality", more often than not, is chosen (and frequently changed) merely on the basis of what makes us "feel good inside".

Not that there is anything essentially wrong with therapy or healing as such. The Lord knows there is plenty enough trauma and suffering in life. Healing and consolation are certainly worthy enough benefits of a religious faith. But can "feeling good" about one's self be the principal goal of belief?

Not if we follow the reasoning of Aristotle, the great philosopher of eudaimonic ethics (literally, "good-spirited" rules of behavior) who taught that while pleasure is a sign that we are heading in the right direction -- that is, not acting contrary to our nature -- still, common sense and experience shows us that pleasure alone cannot serve as goal all by itself. Too much pleasure, especially for its own sake, is like too much food or drink. Eat or drink too much and you'll get sick to your stomach or even eventually destroy your health!

So too if we follow the logic of religion when it comes to our spiritual health. Just as worship in its truest sense involves forgetting ourselves or at least acknowledging ourselves as dependent on a "Higher Power" in the universe, so too, the healing and comfort of religion can only come as a by-product or "fringe-benefit" of having committed ourselves to something beyond ourselves. Anything less than this commitment to the Other who is totally "beyond" us ends up in what amounts to idolatry -- the worship of a God who is fashioned primarily in the image of our own needs.

This is not to say that a faith must make us feel miserable in order to be considered genuine. Rather it is a question of emphasis. As Gautama, the Buddha or "Enlightened One", put it, we can only achieve the peace of nirvana through "anatta" -- that is, through first denying one's self. So too, Jesus warned (in six different places in the gospels) that is only when we are willing to "lose our life" that we will "save" it, or, in other words, by forgetting ourselves, find our true self. In this, he was echoing the Old Testament prophets who while they gave "comfort to the afflicted", also saw it as part of their job to "afflict the comfortable".

As the world's most comfortable society, we Americans need a spirituality that demands much more than just making us feel good about ourselves. And this is why, for those who seek spiritual growth and enlightenment, one of the most important rules has been that we must "Always seek first of all the God of consolation -- rather than the consolations of God."

R W Kropf              July 27, 2000                                     Therapy.doc    00-07-27.htm