"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Ministry After Freud

One of Freud's longest and closest friendships was with Oskar Pfister, a Swiss Reformed pastor (discussed briefly here) who immediately saw the pastoral applicability of psychoanalytic techniques. Pfister visited Freud and befriended his entire family in Vienna over many years. It was perhaps with him in mind that Freud spoke of the ideal psychoanalyst as being neither a priest nor a physician, but instead a "secular pastoral worker." (That did not stop numerous Catholic--mainly Jesuit--priests from becoming analysts, as I documented in part here.)

But then Freud published Future of an Illusion, and inadvertently alienated most Jews and Christians--needlessly, as I have argued in a variety of places (including on here) over the years, and will argue at much greater length and detail in a book I'm working on, "Theology After Freud," which will doubtless get finished in fifty years or after my death, whichever comes first. For Freud is in fact the most useful adjunct theology could have for his clear-eyed efforts to diagnose and destroy illusions and idolatry which afflict us all, and often are bound up together in most ideologies, including those afflicting Catholic Christianity today. 

Pfister, as it turns out, was not alone in finding Freud useful for pastoral ministry. Along comes a new edition of a book which documents how Protestant pastors in this country found him helpful: Allison Stokes, Ministry After Freud (Wipf and Stock, 2020), 264pp. 

About this new book (originally published by Abingdon in 1985, apparently) the publisher tells us this:

Ministry After Freud tells the fascinating story of the impact of Freud's depth psychological discoveries on the practice of American Protestant ministry. It focuses on the lives and work of leaders such as Elwood Worcester, Anton Boisen, Flanders Dunhar, Smiley Blanton, Norman Vincent Peale, Seward Hiltner, and Paul Tillich, who were pioneers in the Religion and Health Movement, which brought together religion and psychology in healing ministry, and greatly influenced the practice of pastoral care and counseling. Never before chronicled and described, this Movement paralleled the Social Gospel Movement.

The book also tells the story for the first time of the New York Psychology Group, which met on Manhattan in the early 1940s. Members of this exclusive group—including Paul Tillich, Seward Hiltner, Erich Fromm, Rollo May, David Roberts, Gotthard Booth, Violet De Laszlo—shared ideas about the bearing of psychology on religion, ideas that later deeply influenced American intellectual and religious life through the articles and books these people wrote. The author identifies religion and health as a movement in theological liberalism, which historically seeks to interpret the gospel for each generation.

I have read and benefited from the book, and all who are interested in this history will not want to be without it. It is very cogently written, with a keen eye for telling detail and judicious assessments at every turn. It documents the Emmanuel Movement out of Boston in 1906 and other early movements that led to burgeoning interest in psychology and especially psychoanalysis, leading up to and developing yet further after the 1909 visit of Freud et al to this country.

It is hard to read the book now without at least a touch of wistfulness for a bygone era in which pastors and theologians sought out serious methods of pastoral counselling  and tried to learn as much as they could from Freud and related traditions of aptly named depth psychology. Who has that depth today in an era of monetized "mindfulness" apps on a phone and similar trifles? 

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