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Initial Notes on Ministry in a Therapeutic Age

March 4th, 2024 | 11 min read

By Jake Meador

These are my notes from a recent presentation I gave at a church regarding issues of Christian ministry and discipleship in a therapeutic age, or at least a therapeutic cultural moment.

I want to start by sharing a short poem with you by the Kentucky author and farmer Wendell Berry. The poem comes from his Sabbath poem collections and I believe is only numbered in the original volume it was published in, but it is now easily found under the title, “The Objective”:

I want to start here because before we can adequately address the challenges now facing those engaged in Christian ministry, or even simply those seeking to love their neighbors as Christians, we need to understand the reason for the triumph of the therapeutic in our time. And I think this poem speaks to that quite powerfully.

In a speech he gave while serving as a member of the Dutch parliament, Herman Bavinck spoke against colonization efforts because he feared what would happen if European society came to sub-Saharan Africa, uprooted everything about the traditional ways of life there, and then replaced all that was destroyed with nothing more than markets. Here is how James Eglinton describes it in his biography of Bavinck:

In 1911 Bavinck held a public lecture in Amsterdam, “The Meaning of Mission in our Time,” in which he tried toe disentangle foreign missions from colonial expansion. Describing the geopolitics of the day, he observed that the increase of European cultural influence in the non-Western world was inevitable. For the most part, though, he believed that this influence promoted a rationalistic, antisupernatural, consumerist worldview quite alien to the non-Western world: Colonialism’s evangel was that of capitalism and the Enlightenment, rather than the cross and the empty tomb, and its motivation was sheer economic dominance. Because of this, he argued, its influence unraveled a rich and ancient tapestry of native non-Western beliefs about this world and the next—and offered nothing more to take its place than the already threadbare chintz of secular consumerism. For that reason, “European culture can be a blessing to the peoples of the world, but it can also be a curse. If, as is actually the case, it undermines the heathen’s indigenous religion and gives them no other and better faith in its place, it impoverishes them internally more than it enriches them.”

The process Bavinck describes here did, of course, play out in much of sub-Saharan Africa, unleashing enormous amounts of human suffering in the process. Indeed, places like Sudan, Congo, and parts of western Africa are still living with the consequences of colonialism’s uprooting nature.

But something less sinister though devastating in its own way has played out in the west as what Berry calls “the objective” has supplanted all unchosen social bonds and has even made our chosen bonds, such as marriage, negotiable and relative. The triumph of “the objective” over all else has robbed us of a felt sense of security and identity, as well as meaning. It has, as Berry himself says, left us homeless.

It calls to mind an argument made by David Brooks at the retirement of Supreme Court associate justice Anthony Kennedy, who is perhaps the political voice that explicates “the objective” most completely. As he wrote in his Casey ruling, central to the idea of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of meaning, of existence, of the universe. And if your family’s conception of the same or your church’s or your town’s runs against your own, well sod them. You do you. The trouble is this, as Brooks rightly understood.

Professor Kennedy gives us a homework assignment that almost none of us can actually fulfill. Each of us has to define our own “concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Wow! That requires a lot of background reading. If your name is Aristotle or Nietzsche, maybe you can do it, but for the rest of us it’s going to be tough. We’re busy! You wind up with a society in which the schools, the public culture, even the parents say: It’s not our job to instill a shared morality and worldview from scratch. That’s something you have to do on your own. 

The practical result, given this impossible task, is that most people wind up without a moral vocabulary, with only scattered shards of values, with no firm foundations for when times get tough. Moreover, we’re much more problematic creatures than Justice Kennedy’s sentence seems to acknowledge. The old philosophers realized that the first threat to liberty is actually the tyranny of our own desires. People get enchained to alcohol, to drugs, to empty calories. They get enchained by their own selfishness, vanity and greed. Most of us require communal patterns and shared cultural norms and certain enforced guardrails to help us restrain our desires and keep us free.

This is the point I want us to begin with because if we do not it will be too easy to be scornful toward those who have adopted a therapeutic conception of the world, or perhaps bitter toward them or hastily dismissive. But the rise of the therapeutic is not a random or reasonless thing.

Even if you just reach back to 2008 when The Reason for God came out, Tim Keller’s position as he wrote that book is somewhat different from where we are today. There was a time—and Tim would even say that by 2008 that time was already ending—where enough of American Christendom still lingered that if you were talking with someone about “Christianity” there was some vague and semi-accurate idea of what was being discussed. A person had some accurate ideas about “Christianity” in their head and then they might also have some objections in their head to what Christianity teaches. So if you’re Keller in the 2000s, your next move is to help them reframe those objections so that they see it differently and, therefore, think that maybe they should give Christianity another look.

We don’t live in that sort of environment any longer. Most people don’t have a clear idea of what Christianity is. Just last week I was speaking with a friend who had been briefly attending a fairly large evangelical church in Lincoln. He was meeting with a young man from the church who had attended for seven years. The young man took to my friend as a kind of mentor and started asking him various questions. Amongst those questions was “How big a deal is Jesus in Christianity? Like, can I just pray to God directly or do I need to believe certain things about Jesus too?” That’s the level of Christian knowledge with someone who has been going regularly to a church for seven years. We are in a space now where people don’t know what Christianity is, they aren’t living in a world tacitly shaped by Christianity, and so they are having to find other stories and belief systems to structure their life. The therapeutic is one of those systems and it is not irrational or at all strange that it has become such.

The retreat to the therapeutic is a natural thing that follows from life in an uprooted world in which every person thinks they must create their own identity and sense of purpose from nothing save their own internal resources. To live in a world with such a heavy responsibility and so few resources is exhausting and painful. We should not be surprised that people find themselves drawn toward habits of thought, linguistic tools, and moral analysis that promises relief.

This outcome, if anything, becomes more likely as Kennedy’s thought takes greater hold. People tend to wound others in the way they themselves have been hurt. And so the pains that follow from deep loneliness and anxiety and a felt inability to do the thing you’re told you’re supposed to do is going to compound over time, as one generation of failed individualists raises the next—with the next generation coming up in a world with even fewer given forms of membership and common life than their parents. If we live in a world dominated by the therapeutic, I fear it is because we live in a world full of the spiritually homeless.

In an episode of Rebuilders, Mark Sayers shared something he developed for analyzing culture which he called a “sin chart.” The sin chart effectively identifies distinct approaches people take to life through the use of a few diagnostic questions. Here are those questions and how they are answered by a therapeutic approach to life:

  • What is the purpose of life? To feel peace.
  • What is sin? The causing of mental or emotional discomfort or pain.
  • What is the world? A dangerous place filled with pain, trauma, and discomfort. You’re seeking a smaller world where you don’t feel those things.
  • What is the attitude toward faith? It can be acceptable when used as a tool for personal peace. Faith is a utilitarian tool, no more.
  • What is the solution to the moral ills of the world? Harm minimalization. Create a place that is safe where harm can not be done.

Now, obviously there are some sharp differences between this way of approaching reality and that of orthodox Christianity. But to simply make this observation with the expectation that it will prompt people to say, “ah, OK, I must not be therapeutic,” is naive at best. So instead of approaching the question from this angle, I want to take a different approach.

At the heart of the therapeutic sensibility is a feeling that the world is not safe, that many things in it are out to cause you deep trauma, perhaps even irreparable harm. Because that is the base belief about the world, it creates in people a deep aversion to risk.

But there are two problems here and, as it happens, I think Christianity is well-positioned to address both.

First, human beings are made to exist in relationship with one another. And this is not merely a sentimental point: We quite literally cannot live in the world apart from relationship of some kind: We are all wearing clothes that we did not weave, did not gather the raw materials to make, and did not aid in shipping from where they were produced to where we acquired them. We eat food every day that we ourselves did not raise. Relationality, then, is not simply a point about how humans thrive, though it is that. It is more basically a point about how humans exist at all. It is inextricable from our existence as embodied creatures. Berry writes well of it in his poem, “For the Hog Killing”:

Berry’s poem draws out an important point here: We cannot escape relationality, contingency, and dependence. But we can relate to those things in violent and reckless ways, ways that will, as Berry says, make beasts of us all. Therefore, when we choose to withdraw from relationality, we do not actually withdraw, but merely change the terms of our relationship to the world and to its creatures. We make that relationship remote and impersonal, inhumane. To relate to the realities of our creatureliness from a posture of fear is to embark on something like the path of the great cat at the end of Lewis’s The Last Battle, who upon encountering ultimate reality, Aslan himself, is somehow unmade—Lewis describes the look on the cat’s face as it loses the ability to speak and becomes an ordinary beast.

If our relations to the world and its creatures will be grounded in a sense of fear and dis-ease, then they cannot be governed by love and we ourselves will be changed for the worse. Here we would do well to recall these words of Lewis’s which Keller returned to so often:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

If we are to avoid this fate, then we must live within the bonds of love. And to do that we must be willing to take the risk of love failing, of making ourselves vulnerable and then being broken. But how can we have the courage to do that, to break out of the immanent frame of the therapeutic?

Here, again, I think Christianity has a good word for us. We have said that to love is to make ourselves vulnerable to the betrayal of others. Yet we must meet ourselves on the way back: It is also to take the risk that we ourselves might be the betrayer, the one who breaks the heart of another. The fear of this, layered on top of the fear of being victimized, is surely enough to drive anyone back toward the superficial safety of the therapeutic. Yet Christ speaks a better word and that word is “mercy.”

In his Loci Communes the great Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon treats this virtue, specifically highlighting the relationship between one’s capacity for risk and one’s trust in the mercy of the other. Here is Melanchthon:

Because Cain despaired of mercy, he never dared anything afterward. For there is no one who would not very eagerly align himself with the law of God if he trusted that God would have mercy on him. But because we are factious, we fight even with our own selves, and we think that the fulness of divine wrath and mercy is something more limited than is actually the case. Therefore, in contempt both of the wrath and the mercy of God, we turn to our own desires, and we poor godless, blind, raging creatures with our love for glory, property, and pleasures dare absolutely nothing.

Melanchthon is obviously commenting on the Genesis 4 passage in which Cain kills his brother Abel. He is commenting on the fearfulness of Cain upon receiving his judgment from God. His fear makes him timid, Melanchthon says. But take the time to keep reading him: Living under God’s law is good, Melanchthon says. But what keeps many of us from it, according to him, is not necessarily a willful, high-handed love of sin. Rather, what keeps us from it is fear. We choose not to live according to the law of love because we know that we ourselves can’t keep such a law. So instead we shrink back, like the servant who buried his talent rather than risk losing it. This is why Melanchthon says the fearful person has contempt for both the wrath and the mercy of God. They have contempt for his wrath, obviously enough, because they live as if God’s judgment will not fall. Yet they also live in contempt of his mercy, believing that divine mercy “is more limited than is actually the case.” Where does this lead? “We poor godless, blind, raging creatures with our love for glory, property, and pleasures dare absolutely nothing.”

To live in fear for Melanchthon is to live under a kind of thwarted greatness. You are a human being made by God and beloved by God and given immense talents and gifts and blessings by God. He desires that you would use them, that you would be noble and generous and benevolent and good. But when we are fearful, as we are almost by definition under a therapeutic schema, we frustrate those designs. We mess about with mud pies, as Lewis once wrote, because we do not know what is meant by an offer of a holiday at sea. The life under mercy and governed by love is that offer. But many of our neighbors are fearful of taking it because they have not had the experience of healthy, if fallible and sometimes failing, sustaining love. They have lived lives surrounded by those poor godless blind raging creatures with their love of glory, property, and pleasures and they have lost any sense that something grander might be available to them.

The opportunity before the church in such a context is to show them what that something is. It will be a slow process for many, I think, for the greatness God calls us to is not the greatness of self-creating individuals. Christian greatness is marked by a virtuous community of giving and receiving gifts, of living within the bonds of love amidst our weaknesses and our frailties. Indeed, the weak seem to have a special greatness in God’s kingdom, for they remind us all of the fact that whatever we have is a gift and so we should be humble, not vain.

This, then, is something of a preliminary attempt to engage the therapeutic as a kind of lifesystem, which of course is quite a different thing from simple therapy or counseling. The point here is that we are surrounded by many friends and neighbors who desire personal peace, have deep fear of betrayal or of being swept up into a chaos they do not understand and cannot control, and so they have turned to the world of the therapeutic as their rescuer. But Christianity speaks a better word than the world, and so the church should speak that world for our own day.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).