March 1, 2008
Ten Commandments for a Biblical Psychology and PsychotherapyBy Kalman J. Kaplan
Fifty years ago, Dr. Eric Wellisch, medical director of Grayford Child Guidance Clinic in England, called for a Biblical psychology, arguing:
Religious leaders in traditional societies often performed the function of applying the psychological wisdom implicit in the Biblical religious traditions to the particular life problems of members of their flock. Rabbis, priests and pastors used Biblical wisdom to help people with concrete real-life problems. The contemporary situation is very different. The therapist however is largely ignorant of if not antagonistic to religion, often in a manner incongruent with the patient's own orientation.
Several studies for example, have found that over 90% of patients believe in a transcendent God, compared to only about 40% of clinical psychologists. This is a huge disconnect! Most mental health professionals avoid reference to, or recognition of their patients' religious beliefs and the deep influence of these beliefs on patients' lives. Few mental health professionals fully incorporate a patient's religious beliefs into a treatment plan.
There are a number of possible reasons for the resistance toward religion on the part of mental health professionals, and for the resistance of religious leaders to the insights and findings of the mental health field. For one, the fields of religion and mental health have historically been in conflict with each other with psychology/psychiatry allying itself to science and medicine. Second, psychology/psychiatry often has approached issues of spirituality in a superficial manner, treating spiritual development as something foreign to the development of the individual personality. Third, issues regarding life meaning are too often relegated to the theological realm alone. Fourth, much of the biological cause of mental illness has been relegated to psychology and psychiatry. Finally, much of traditional psychotherapy has been based on classical Greek rather than Biblical foundation models. For example, traditional psychoanalysis has focused on Greek foundation stories such as Oedipus, Electra and Narcissus rather than on respective Biblical alternatives such as Isaac, Ruth and Jonah.
In a series of books on religion and mental health, we (Kaplan, Schwartz and Markus-Kaplan, 1984, Kaplan and Schwartz, 1993; Schwartz and Kaplan, 2004: Kaplan and Schwartz, 2006, and Schwartz and Kaplan, 2007) have delineated ten important contrasts with regard to mental health between classical Greek and Biblical thinking:
1) the primacy of God versus nature;
2) the harmonious relationship of body and soul;
3) cyclical versus linear conceptions of time;
4) the relationship between self and other;
5) the relationship between man and woman;
6) the relationship between parent and child; and
7) sibling rivalry and its resolution;
8) the relationship between freedom and suicide;
9) the question of rebelliousness versus obedience; and finally
10) a tragic versus therapeutic outlook on life.
We are presently developing an online program on these issues, approved to provide continuing education in a number of fields, including medicine, psychology, pastoral counseling, chaplainship, social work and nursing. The interested reader is referred to our website.
Let us briefly describe each of these Hellenistic biases in mental health and suggest a biblical alternative.
God and nature
Hesiod's Theogony portrays Earth and Sky mating and giving birth to the gods. In other words nature exists before the gods and creates them. The family pathology commences immediately, as the Sky father shoves the children back into the Earth mother. Such action of course breeds reaction and Earth repays Sky, by helping their son Cronus to castrate his father. The father-son conflict becomes ingrained as a law of nature foretold by Earth and Sky.
The Biblical story of creation sees God as creating heaven and earth. In other words, God exists before nature and creates it. (Gen. 1:1). God then proceeds to create order out of chaos. First, light is divided from darkness (Gen. 1:24). God then divides water from the land (Gen. 1:9). Then, God begins to prepare this world for the entrance of man. First, He has the earth bring forth vegetation (Gen. 1:11). He places living creatures in the sea and fowls in the air (Gen. 1:20). Now God places living creatures on the earth -- cattle, creeping things, and other beasts (Gen. 1:24). The world is now ready for people, and God creates them, His ultimate handiwork, in His own image and gives them dominion over all that He has created. (Gen. 1:27-29). There is no irreconcilable conflict between people and God, between man and woman, or between parent and child.
Body and soul
Plato sees the relationship between body (soma) and soul (psyche) as conflictual and unfortunate. The soul is a helpless prisoner in the body, compelled to view reality only indirectly and unclearly (Phaedo, 82d). Plato, perhaps following Orphic teachings, called the body a prison of the soul, and others with comparable ideas called it a tomb (The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1970, p. 895).
In Biblical thought, the human body and soul are both sacred, both created by God. They can and must function in harmony to fulfill God's purpose in the world. Emotion, intellect and body are all integral components of a human being, and there is no opposition between body and soul or flesh and spirit (Urbach, 1979).
Conceptions of time
The pervasive Greek view of time is cyclical, mirroring the seasons of nature. A man rises up only to be overcome by hubris (pride) and cast down into nemesis (retribution), the nadir of the circle.
The Biblical view of time is linear, freeing itself from the cyclical seasons of nature. History begins in God's creation, continues with His ongoing revelation to man, and ends in God's messianic age. The book of Ecclesiastes distinguishes the cyclical view of time regarding natural events : "The sun riseth , and the sun goeth down."(1:3-7) from the developmental view embedded in human events " To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die," (3: 1-8).
Self and other
Greek thought sees self and other as fundamentally opposed. One wins at the expense of another losing. The legend of Narcissus is prototypical in this regard. The earliest sources of the myth of Narcissus have long since been lost. Our most complete account from antiquity is from Ovid's Metamorphosis (ca. 43 BCE to 17 CE). Although physically beautiful, Narcissus leads a life full of precarious oscillation between self-absorption and infatuation with another, which turns out to be his own reflection. He ends up in his psychotic attempt to integrate self and other, and he suicides (Ovid, Metamorphosis, 3; Conon, Narrations, 24) "Alas! I am myself the boy I see... I am on fire for love of my own self." The Apollonian side of Greek culture relies totally on a walled-off and disengaged intellect. The Dionysiac side of Greek culture portrays an enmeshment which destroys individual boundaries.
Biblical thought sees self and other in harmony. Jonah avoids the polarities of disengagement and enmeshment. When he runs away to Tarshish, (Jonah 1: 1-3). God acts as a protective therapist, saving Jonah from suicide on several occasions: first with a fish (2: 2-11) , and then with a gourd (4: 6). Jonah finally learns the message of divine mercy (4: 9-11) and that he can reach out to another without losing himself. In the words of the Jewish sage, Hillel, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? "
Man and woman
Greek narratives portray men and women in basic conflict. Pandora, the first woman, is sent by Zeus as a punishment to man because Prometheus has attempted to steal fire for man to make him autonomous. Pandora is given many gifts to entice man, but, ultimately, is seen as responsible for man's destruction and as a block to his autonomy. She opens the box she has brought to Epimetheus containing all the evils of the world, leaving only hope left locked inside and unavailable to humanity (Hesiod, Works and Days, 60-96).
Biblical narratives portray men and women as different, but in basic harmony.
Eve is sent as a blessing and partner, a "helpmeet opposite," not as an instrument of punishment. Together she and the man are seduced by the serpent to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and while this leads to their expulsion from Eden, they do not die but build a life together with divine help and hard work. (Genesis 2 and 3).
Parents and children
Fathers and Sons: Laius/Oedipus vs. Abraham/Isaac
The Greek story of Oedipus portrays the father (Laius) and the son (Oedipus) in basic conflict. The father is told by an oracle that his son will kill him and marry his (the son's) mother. Such a conflict is originally portrayed in the Greek theogony discussed above, and describes a pattern where the father feels the son is trying to displace him and the son feels the father is trying to block him. The story begins with Laius trying to kill Oedipus and proceeds with Oedipus killing Laius and marrying his mother, Jocasta. (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex). This conflict is resolved in Freudian thinking through a fear of castration. This is the basis of the introjection of the superego for the son, and thus it is fear-based (Freud,, 1923a, 1923b, 1924).
The Biblical story of Isaac portrays the father Abraham receiving the gift of a son, Isaac, late in his and his wife Sarah's lives. Abraham then receives the command from God to sacrifice this son that he loves to God. However, this is only a test, and Abraham demonstrates his loyalty to God, Who sends an angel to stay Abraham's hand, preventing child-sacrifice which had been so prevalent in surrounding cultures. The blessing of Abraham will continue through Isaac. (Genesis, 22)
Covenantal circumcision can be seen as a non-injurious alternative to castration, transforming the father into a teacher and the son into a disciple. The father wants the son to both succeed and surpass him. The mother is not a seductress but a harmonizer. The basis of morality is thus not fear but a covenantal relationship between God, father and son. The son does not need to rebel against the father because he already has his father's blessing.
Mothers and Daughters: Clytemnestra/Electra vs. Naomi/Ruth
The Greek story of Electra portrays a basic antagonism between mother (Clytemnestra) and daughter (Electra). Clytemnestra accuses Electra of preferring her father, Agamemnon. Electra accuses Clytemnestra of being unfaithful to her father. She and her brother Orestes murder their mother (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Euripides, Electra). This story of Electra has been used by Jung as a term for a "feminine Oedipus Complex" (Jung, 1961, pp. 347-348).
The Biblical Book of Ruth tells of the relationship between the Moabitess Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Even when Ruth's husband dies, she refuses to abandon Naomi. Naomi does not try to block Ruth and, indeed, facilitates her marriage to Naomi's kinsman Boaz, who is impressed by Ruth's kindness to Naomi. Naomi is brought into the household as a nurse to their son Obed who is described as the father of Jesse, who is father of David. There is no hint of the antagonism between mother and daughter implicit in the Electra complex.
Siblings and family
The Hebrew Scripture contains many stories of sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, (Genesis 4), Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis 17- 25), Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25-27) and Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-50) The greater incidence of sibling rivalry in narratives in Genesis than in Greek mythology is misleading. It is a function of the underlying purpose of the biblical family-the sons compete to inherit the covenant of the father. The father's blessing can help resolve this rivalry, as with Jacob's blessings to his sons , each given uniquely given the blessing he needed to suit his own personality and his situation ( Genesis 49).
The Greek family is purposeless. The father is not a source of inheritance but an impediment. Sibling rivalry is initially masked by the threat of the father to the sons, who must band together to protect themselves: Uranus versus his sons (Hesiod, Theogony, , ll. 155-210)., Cronus versus his sons (ll. 453-725), Zeus versus Heracles and Iphicles (Hesiod, Shield of Heracles, ll. 35, 56 and 80)., and Oedipus versus Polynieces and Eteocles (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus; Aeschylus, The Seven Against Thebes.) However, this bonding is shallow and will disappear as the paternal threat recedes. This pattern is expressed tragically in the curse of the weakened and blinded Oedipus to his two sons to slay each other at the gate of Thebes. (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, ll. 1386-1394; Aeschylus, The Seven Against Thebes, ll. 879-924.)
Freedom and suicide
Like many Greeks both historical and mythological, the Stoics clearly approved of suicide. The Roman Stoic Seneca, for example, saw suicide as freedom. "You see that yawning precipice? It leads to liberty. You see that flood, that river, that well? Liberty is housed within them. You see that stunted, parched and sorry tree? From each branch, liberty hangs. Your neck, your throat, your heart are so many ways of escape from slavery... Do you inquire the road to freedom? You shall find it in every vein of your body. (Seneca, De Ira, 3.15.3-4). Indeed, for Plato, philosophy is "preparation for death."
Biblical thought is clearly opposed to suicide as no better and perhaps worse than homicide. "For your lifeblood too, I will require a reckoning" (Genesis. 9. 5). The human being is commanded to choose life: "See, I have put before you today life and death, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life so that you and your seed shall live." (Deuteronomy 30.19) Freedom is seen not in suicide, but in life following God's commandments. "Read not harut (carved) but herut (freedom). One is not free unless he devotes himself to the study of Torah." (Avot, 6.2). Indeed, Hebrew thought sees the Bible as a "guide for living."
Rebelliousness versus Obedience
A great deal has been made of the clash of Islamic and Western (European, American and Judeo-Christian) civilizations. Yet there is a more profound line of demarcation between those cultures that view rebellion and rebelliousness as the highest form of development (e.g., Albert Camus) and those that view obedience to the divine will as the highest goal. The underlying message of the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after the Second World War was to mock the defense "we were just following orders." Thus the mantra of the west came to be a distrust of authority per se (i.e., parents, community and religious leaders, and law and system of morality) rather than of a particular authority. Yet the Bible criticizes the Israelites, newly freed from Egypt, for building a golden calf. (Exodus 32). The question of rebelliousness versus obedience is complicated. In Greek mythology, Zeus cannot be trusted. Prometheus must rebel against him to help human beings. Prometheus steals fire for man, who is then punished by Zeus with the woman Pandora. In Biblical thinking, in contrast, God can be trusted and indeed must be trusted. Thus the serpent is tempting Eve with the siren call of disobedience, but in Biblical teaching, this act is sinful. In short, one must know who one's god is. If it is Zeus, one should rebel: if it is the Biblical God, one should obey. This does not mean we should not question a particular authority. However, this is different than questioning the very ideal of authority.
Tragedy versus therapy
Bruno Snell (1935) has argued that the differences in the respective orderings of God and nature are not just chronological, but logical and psychological as well. The Classical Greek view is deterministic and the essence of the tragic vision of man; the Biblical view is intrinsically open to the possibility of change and transformation and lies beneath the idea of genuine psychotherapy. Before the Biblical God, nothing is impossible: He can cancel the natural order of things, alter it in any number of ways, or, indeed, create something out of nothing, just the way He created nature. A Greek god is confined to acts that may show his power but that cannot truly transcend natural law or defy fate. Lev Shestov (1966) argues very much the same thing, insisting that the Biblical God is not subordinate to Necessity. The Greek view of tragedy and the Biblical view of therapy can be contrasted in two main points. First, bad family background is impossible to overcome in the Greek tragic vision: "But now, I am forsaken of the gods, son of a defiled mother, successor to his bed who gave me my own wretched being." (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, (ll. 1359-1361). However, a bad family background can be overcome in the Biblical therapeutic vision: "Cast me not off, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation. For though my father and mother have forsaken me, the Lord will take me up." (Psalms 27:9-10).
There is a profound difference between the Greek and Biblical vision with regard to the efficacy of prayer and a general sense of hopefulness. For the Greeks, prayer is useless in this determined world: "Pray thou no more; for mortals have no escape from destined woe." (Sophocles, Antigone, l. 1336). The Bible believes in the efficacy of prayer, even in the most hopeless of situations.
Once again, the interested reader is referred to our website.
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Kalman J. Kaplan, Ph.D. is Professor of Clinical Psychology in the Departments of Psychiatry and of Medical Education, and Director, John Templeton Program in Religion, Spirituality and Mental Health University of Illinois College of Medicine