Although, as mentioned elsewhere, the Paths to Human Maturity course will not now be run this March, I am enormously grateful to Peter Leithart, Uri Brito, Alastair Roberts, and Doug Wilson for their candid, brotherly, clear-minded, pastorally-hearted, and insightful comments on my earlier piece. Because much of the comment clusters around concerns about the dangers of engaging with anti-Christian, non-Christian, and otherly-Christian thought-and-action proposals for how humans come to maturity, I would like to focus my response on these concerns.
Of course, none of the responders would argue that no Christian should ever engage with depth psychology (Freud and subsequent developments), with Zen Buddhism (and popularized meditation and mindfulness practices), or with the Desert Fathers and Mothers (and with associated hesychastic and contemplative disciplines). The concerns were qualified. Perhaps I could summarize them like this:
Engagement with depth psychology, Zen Buddhism, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers should be:
A. undertaken with a certain reluctance, with humility, and with caution. This point includes a sense that the marginal gain may be very slight; the feeling that such engagement may, for most contemporary Christians, be a distraction from higher priorities and may, for many or most Christians (pastors and parishioners alike), carry such high risks as to make it, to all intents and purposes, for such people, an illegitimate endeavour;
B. entirely subordinated to the authority of Scripture, which includes full and practical confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture, and it should carry with it a healthy awareness of “the antithesis”;
C. understood to carry inherent spiritual risks and therefore undertaken within a context of clear confessional commitment, robust theological accountability, and prayerfulness. Careful thought should be given as to whether such engagement (or even the suggestion of it its possible legitimacy) should itself be conducted out of the public domain (in this case, off of the internet);
D. conducted according to Scripturally grounded, explicit, and concrete criteria for evaluation. As Doug says, in those words which warm our Van Tilian hearts, we need to know, when confronted with any belief-practice proposal, by what standard we will assess it;
E. clear about ways in which its conclusions relate to the current beliefs and practices of the church and, in particular, whether they amount to the suggestion that there is/are expertise, practices, or whole disciplines of human life which are necessary for (or even transformationally helpful towards) human maturation but which lie outside of the domain of the church’s normal life.
My response to all of the above, is . . . I agree!
Nevertheless, there are some relevant clarifications and comments which might be offered in response to the remarks made in the “Conversation” so far.
1. The context provided by the Theopolis Statement of Faith and conduct of Theopolis Intensives. It’s worth pausing carefully to consider that this conversation is and course was to be conducted / hosted by the Theopolis Institute. This is important because it means that it can be assumed (or challenged, if doubted) that any instructor on a Theopolis Intensive will be operating from a position of sympathy or agreement with and respect or support for the Statement of Faith which is online for all to see. Please do read it! https://theopolisinstitute.com/about/statement-of-faith/
This also means that when it comes to Theopolis courses themselves, our deliberations are in the context of our worshipping together. As can be seen elsewhere on this site, the typical daily schedule for an Intensive course runs as follows:
– 8:30 AM: Matins
– 9:00-noon: Lectures
– 12:00-12:30 PM: Sext
– 12:30-2:00 PM: Lunch
– 2:00-4:00 PM: Seminars for Certificate students
– 4:00-5:00 PM: Final Lecture
– 5:00-5:30 PM: Vespers
– 6:00-7:30: Dinner
– 8:00-10:00: Informal discussion
Thus, for a Theopolis course to give consideration to depth psychology, Zen Buddhism, and the Desert Fathers, would be to do so from a position of explicit confessional commitment and within a context of full-hearted collective devotions.
2. The “Egyptian gold trope”, as Doug calls it, suggests itself. Doug points out that our “plundering” may fill our hands with worthless refuse or that, even if our hands are filled with gold, we may find that the next thing, if we’re unfaithful, is the construction of a golden calf.
Given the context of the course (see above), and the intent of my piece, I’m inclined to tweak the use of the trope. As I intended it, the piece I wrote to kick off this Theopolis conversation amounted to this: “Some of us have spotted that some Egyptians have left what looks like gold on the side with a note for us. Perhaps we should go and take a look.”
If someone were to say, “Oooh, how exciting! Gold, gold and lots of it!” then the rest of us will reply in no uncertain terms: “We do not know that it’s gold. It may be poisonous; it may be booby-trapped; it may be radioactive. This could end in our death, not our enrichment. Careful, careful.”
If a child or an incurably clumsy person said, “Can I come?”, we’d probably reply, “No, it’s too risky but don’t worry, if there’s real gold there and we can retrieve it, you will certainly be the richer for it.”
If someone were to say, “Well, I think the chances of it being gold are microscopic and I don’t think you should be giving time and energy to looking”, we’d probably reply, “You may well be right, but it’s not many of us so we’ll give it a week and see what happens.”
3. The sufficiency of Scripture and the antithesis. As Alastair and Uri pointed out, the antithesis is, perhaps counter-intuitively, part of the very reason that we should approach these investigations in a confident spirit. All human endeavours to understand the world (even if, from one perspective, prosecuted with a God-denying motive, an over-reaching claim, and a self-blinding method) are conducted by creatures breathing God’s air, standing on God’s ground, and living in God’s inescapable and personal presence. Error is parasitical upon truth; pure error is impossible; and therefore, approached with care and prayer, charity and precision, openness and Scripture-submission, there is not a belief-practice proposal in all of history in all the world which will not yield some return on our deliberative investment. (This is not to deny that the proportion, intensity, or volatility of the corruption in some beliefs and some activities is so high and/or that deliberation about them requires a such a sort or degree of contact with them, entrance into them, or participation in them that they are, to all intents and purposes, forbidden territory.) If – as I suggest is the case with these proposals – there are some clear connections with or echoes of Scripture themes (breath; silence; self-renunciation; the depths of the human spirit), then the anticipated return may be higher than elsewhere.
The antithesis also makes clear the way in which the sufficiency of Scripture remains uncompromised even as we “plunder the Egyptians.” The point is not just that it is possible for the Hebrews to acquire Egyptian gold without worshipping Egyptian gods, remaining on Egyptian soil, or continuing as Egyptian slaves, but that it is only as and when God liberates and instructs them that they can do so. Put differently, it is because we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture that we are able confidently to benefit from the thought and practices of those who deny God and disregard the Scriptures rather than inevitably be compromised or harmed by such engagement.
4. Biblical warrant, biblical data, and “by what standard?” My piece being what it was, (“Hey, might that be gold on the side? Should we at least go and look?”), it was not the place to articulate the evaluative criteria (though I hope that they were deducible enough from various asides), far less to lay out the relevant biblical data.
But, the “standard,” in a word, is . . . Scripture! Scripture then gives us multiple criteria to use in assessing belief-practice proposals: Is it commanded? Is it forbidden? Are there analogies? Are there examples? Does it yield fruit? And so on. There are different, Scripturally-provided, ways of testing the spirits, the prophets, the gold, the foundations, and the type of tree.
And the need therefore, for biblical warrant / data was something I cheerfully acknowledged. It’s what the course itself, when delivered, is there for.
To give a single example, I wrote:
Resistance to treating therapy (or counselling or Christian friendship) conversations like this as a project of radical self-examination is often combined with the claim that Biblical writers do not invite us to ‘go digging around in our unconscious.’ This claim (which must be addressed) sometimes combines with approaches to discipleship or counselling which are mono-dimensional and/or superficial as though the task of healing and growth, of Christ being formed in us and us being patterned after Christ is some simple matter of ‘getting our thinking straight and doing what God commands.’
and those words, “This claim (which must be addressed)” were entirely serious. Imagine, then, that the question were, “what biblical grounds are there for this level of self-examination, for digging around in the unconscious?” then the essay plan might read like this: “Radical self-examination / deep introspection / digging around in the unconscious are implied by, analogous to, prerequisite to, or part of …
and many more besides.”
And it’s not that these biblical data “prove” anything (that discussion was intended for the course), it’s rather to say that there is plenty of biblical material with which we need to engage as we address the belief-practice proposal (in this example) of the “deeper down and further back” self-examination of psychoanalysis.
5. What gold might be there? Again, this was really a question for the course, but I hope that my previous piece at least suggested what I believe would be the most fruitful lines of enquiry.
6. The spirit of our engagement. Along with recommended reading, registered course members would have received a private 100,000-word selection of quotes and extracts from authors who have written about the “paths to human maturity” under consideration. One of the preliminary comments in the introduction to that selection runs as follows:
Open-minded, open-hearted, critically alert reading. Please read quotes 8, 43, 44, and 106 below. … Some of the quotes and extracts in this selection are beautiful, precise, Christ-honouring expressions of central biblical truths. Some of them are clear or unclear statements of plain and gross error. (Inclusion does not mean approval!) Some are very probably expressions of error but more subtle and therefore, if read wrongly and accepted, of spiritual danger. ALL of them – if read carefully, charitably, creatively, openly, critically, and prayerfully – may be the occasion for better thinking, feeling, and living on our part.
I hope that you are wondering what quotes 8, 43, 44, and 106 are and so, in a characteristically generous Theopolis giveaway, here they are:
An incident in the life of Macarius (one of the Desert Fathers) reminds us, further, that the antithesis does not produce antipathy:
They said of Abba Macarius the Egyptian that one day he went up from Scetis to the mountain of Nitria. As he approached the place he told his disciple to go on ahead. When the latter had gone on ahead, he met a priest of the pagans. The brother shouted after him saying, ‘Oh, oh, devil, where are you off to?’ The priest turned back and beat him and left him half dead. Then picking up his stick, he fled. When he had gone a little further, Abba Macarius met him running and said to him, ‘Greetings! Greetings, you weary man!’ Quite astonished, the other came up to him and said, ‘What good do you see in me, that you greet me in this way?’ The old man said to him, ‘I have seen you wearing yourself out without knowing that you are wearing yourself out in vain.’ The other said to him, ‘I have been touched by your greeting and I realize that you are on God’s side. But another wicked monk who met me insulted me and I have given him blows enough for him to die of them.’ The old man realized that he was referring to his disciple. Then the priest fell at his feet and said, ‘I will not let you go till you have made me a monk.’ When they came to the place where the brother was, they put him onto their shoulders and carried him to the church in the mountain. When the people saw the priest with Macarius they were astonished and they made him a monk. Through him many pagans became Christians. So Abba Macarius said, ‘One evil word makes even the good evil, while one good word makes even the evil good.’
The spirit of an engagement of this sort must be open-hearted, open-minded, submissive to Scripture, quick to listen, slow to speak, confessionally bounded, prayerful, in a context of collective devotions, charitable and generous-spirited, serious about the spiritual dangers and about the antithesis, pastorally-hearted, praxis-oriented, and conducted moment-by-moment with an awareness of being in the presence of God.
7. “Our deep and unsatisfied desire to be like Christ”. The rationale for the course and for suggesting that an investigation of depth psychology, Zen, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers could generate some important and fresh questions for us to bring to Scripture was very simple: we have a “deep and unsatisfied desire to be like Christ”. Every reflective Christian is a mystery and a frustration to themselves. Every pastor, parent, counsellor, friend wishes to be more faithful and more effective in ordering liturgical, family, parish life so as to see those in their care come to maturity. Year succeeds to year and generation to generation and with each we have a hundred more theological controversies, a thousand more books, a million more sermons, and arguably little progress in seeing the “average” Christian (or ourselves!) coming closer to Christ in his total self-relinquishment, unconcern about comfort, acceptance or reputation, unending compassion, boundless self-giving, uninterrupted consciousness of his Father, passionate and holy emotional life, and constant awakeness.
There are innumerable questions of method which could forever forestall the investigation proposed (so much reconnaissance that the gold pick-up never happens; so much risk-modelling that the experiment is never conducted). There are substantive trinitarian questions, exegetical questions, and pastoral questions calling for attention. And yet the call to Christlikeness is pressing. So I’ll finish with a couple more extracts from that quotes-selection for course members, this time from de Caussade:
There is not a moment in which God is not present with us under the cover of some pain to be endured, some obligation or some duty to be performed, or some consolation to be enjoyed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us involves and conceals his divine hand.
God’s hand is really and truly there, but it is invisibly present, so that we are always surprised and do not recognize his operation until it has ceased. If we could lift the veil, and if we were attentive and watchful, God would continually reveal himself to us, and we would see his hand in everything that happens to us, and rejoice in it. At every event we would exclaim, “It is the Lord!” and we would accept every fresh circumstance as a gift from God. We would consider physical causes as very feeble instruments in the hands of an all-powerful Workman, and we would easily find that we lack nothing, and that God’s watchful care disposes him to supply whatever we need at every moment. If only we had faith we would be grateful to all the external means he uses. We would cherish them, and be thankful for them in our hearts, because in the hand of God they have been so useful to us, so favorable to the work of our perfection.
There’s a virtuous circle here. “If only we had faith we would be grateful to all the external means he uses” and we would receive and deploy those means (including unhurried, far-reaching self-examination; embodied stillness and increasingly awake presence; liberating self-renunciation and relinquishment) thankfully. The means themselves would be used by God to increase our faith. Our increased faith would make even more things servants of our Christ-forming, Christ-exalting mission and those ‘even more things’ would increase our faith. And all of this would mean that we decrease and Christ increases; it would mean that for us, as for Paul, it is “no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” and “for me to live IS Christ”. Again to turn Doug’s words to another purpose, “I don’t believe this kind of thing should be discussed as though we were unruffled academics pursuing a nuance.” Amen and amen. Christlikeness is too vital a pursuit, too precious a prize, for that.
David Field has lectured in seminaries in Nigeria and England, served as minister of a local church south of London, and worked in business as an executive search consultant for leading international universities. He studied at Oxford, completed his PhD on Puritan theology at Cambridge, and has published books on the Puritan John Howe and on Obadiah. David lives in Oxford with his wife Sue, and has three grown-up daughters and two grandsons.
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