"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, May 18, 2016

The Mind of Christ and a Psychoanalytic Mind (III)

As part of an on-going series on Christianity and psychoanalysis, I turn next to a recent collection edited by Earl Bland and Brad Strawn, Christianity and Psychoanalysis: a New Conversation. After more than a century of psychoanalytic thought and practice, and after endless, and frequently incorrect or at least exaggerated, portrayals of Freudian hostility to "religion" (cf. my comments on reading the Freud-Pfister correspondence), there seems to have developed in the last decade or two a willingness on both sides to offer fresh re-consideration of faith in psychoanalysis and faith in God. That is to be welcomed, and this book purports to continue such re-considerations, especially among evangelical Christians--though, curiously, one article, with the very promising title of "Ecumenical Spirituality, Catholic Theology, and Object Relations Theory" shows no serious engagement with Catholic theology at all, the author being herself a peripatetic Protestant who seems slyly to suggest that her having once attended a Catholic church (in which her parents had her baptized) is sufficient to qualify her to write about these matters. The article is a disappointment.

So, alas, is the rest of the book. It is of course well known to me, as an editor of scholarly collections and scholarly journals, that collections of articles often make for wildly uneven reading. The best parts of the book--that is, those having some substantial engagement of worthy matters, and written in the best style--are the introduction and conclusion by the editors. That, as I well know, is often the way with such collections, for only those parts are under an editor's direct control. Between one's own beginning and ending of a book one must contend with many other writers of uneven skill and reliability. There is only so much editing one can do to bad writers without turning their entire contribution into a "typewriter job" (Midge Decter) which is more yours than theirs. (Editors must, at some point, possess and exercise a degree of askesis in which they mortify their very understandable urge to completely re-write someone else's article to make it what the editor would have written himself.)

This collection is written by and directed towards evangelical Christians. The intellectual impoverishments of evangelical Christianity are many, and have been much commented upon by others, so I will not retail those here. (Flannery O'Connor once memorably wrote that the besetting sin of a Catholic is snobbery, and I confess to having a hard time keeping mine in check when confronted with evangelicalism.) But they do bedevil this book in many ways. Given on-going and ever-deepening evangelical interest in patristics and the wider Christian tradition, the lack of engagement with those traditions by the authors in this book makes the sum of their efforts rather arid. A little more engagement with, inter alia, such Fathers as Evagrius, could make any "new conversation" between Christianity and psychoanalysis much deeper and richer.

The same could be said for renewals in Trinitarian theology and especially theological anthropology. But one cannot review a book that was not written, nor fault writers for not writing the book that reviewers think they should have written. One must, rather, review the book that was written. So let me do that here, briefly showing the better parts.

The editors rightly note in the first chapter that "psychoanalysis, in the right context, can be used as a primary tool for psychological and spiritual formation" (29). That remains, however, a desideratum, surely, for the people and places where this happens are, it seems to me, vanishingly few. Many seminaries in the Catholic world have psychologists either on call or on the faculty, but I know of almost none who are practicing psychoanalysts. One searches in vain on such sites as Catholictherapists.com for full-fledged analysts, which is a pity because, as I noted earlier this year, there is an expanding body of evidence showing the superiority of analysis to other therapeutic methods in some crucial areas.

In their conclusion, the editors seem to set out some future lines of inquiry, all of which have the welcome and happy effect of refusing to hew to the strict "orthodoxies" of some in the (especially American) psychoanalytic community, which has long been recognized as at odds with Freud in some ways, including his openness to lay analysis (that is, to analysts who were not medically trained, as indeed Freud's own daughter Anna was not). More recently, there have been debates about analytic technique, and the editors commendably show themselves flexible and willing to consider that "the external trappings, such as the use of a couch or number of sessions per week" need not unduly define nor too narrowly restrict what constitutes psychoanalysis. Short-term, once-a-week encounters in the consulting room can indeed be psychoanalysis, just as sessions over the phone or Skype are now increasingly being used by psychoanalysts.

Their concluding words are very much worth pondering, and set forth a gracious and open vision of engagement: "Psychoanalytic treatment is a participation in 'God's ongoing work of caring,'...involving love as a fundamental way of knowing" (259). Moreover, "for the Christian in psychoanalytic treatment, something much deeper is occurring. Both therapist and patient are participating eschatologically in the redemptive and reconciling work of Christ" (262). I very much wished for much more robustly developed reflection along these lines in this book, and hope that perhaps the editors, singly or together, might in the future expand these trajectories of thought into a more deeply challenging work, perhaps without the ballast of other contributors weighing down their commendable, necessary, and welcome labors.

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