Greg Arnold (USA) Brad Strawn on the integration of religion and psychotherapy
A psychologist and Christian theologian, Brad Strawn writes a lot about the integration of psychology and theology; recently, he has completed an edited book ‘Christianity and Psychoanalysis: A New Conversation’. In his interview there, Strawn speaks about a ‘new conversation’ on the integration of religion and psychology and about the need for clinical psychologists to work on their biases and concerns about the introduction of religion to the therapy premises.
Brad Strawn: Indeed, there are numerous debates in the sphere, and one of the book’s distinguishing features is that it tries to be concrete and specific. Thus, we do not talk about clinical psychology in general, but about psychoanalytical psychology or psychotherapy, and we asked each of the contributors to write about their own understanding of Christianity, because there are numerous Christian confessions.
…Our original contribution is the fact that, throughout the history of relations between psychoanalysis and Christianity, beginning with Freud, religion was viewed as a means for protecting oneself against anxiety about fate and things beyond one’s control.
…In our book, we discuss the fact that changes in philosophy, theology and psychology gave us a chance to develop a more relational understanding of these issues. We need no longer pathologies religion; instead, we can acknowledge the fact that religion performs important cultural function and is a means of gaining knowledge that should be taken seriously… Religion can provide a healthy means of interaction with the world.
…Freud’s understanding of religion as something primitive is conditioned by the fact that, in his time, there were many intersecting realities, and he reacted to some of them. …The value of Christianity is that it opens the possibility of conversation that engages a multiplicity of alternative approaches. There are mature and immature forms of religious experience. Erich Fromm was one of Freud’s intellectual disciples, but he went in a completely different direction, accepting the possibility of mature religion. Donald Winnicott is another psychoanalyst who discusses the maturing of religion.
…I think we get to this point when philosophy, theology and psychology begin to realise that there are other ways of getting knowledge. … No longer do we consider certain cultures to be ‘primitive’; instead, we discuss the culture’s peculiarities.
…When I speak to people of no religious affiliation, I ask them to think about religion as a type of culture that offers new ways of seeing the world and understanding its phenomena. It is neither true nor false. It just is. I think it is useful, especially to those people who are outside of religious dialogue.
…Therapy is a moral conversation. I think that, in fact, therapy is a sort of moral conversation between two people. A therapist has a special way of understanding the duties and obligations of the world, and so does the client. We should be sincere about this and we should sometimes introduce it to the room in order to have a sincere and open conversation. … It is important to realise where you come from in terms of your own religious affiliation, irrespectively of your place.
…Of course, religion can be used pathologically, and good therapy will help people to distance themselves from this development. However, it would be impossible if the therapist does not want to speak on the subject or has no basic presumptions about religion. It is at this point that a non-believing or unreligious therapist can contribute to the conversation, particularly by providing efficient psychotherapeutic services and welcoming the client’s religion in the same way as the client’s culture, gender or sexual orientation.
…Some research seems to suggest that clients may not only view their religion in a way that influences their psychology but also modify their image of God in the course of therapy. It is possible that they come with certain ideas about God and religion, and these ideas have worked for a while, but have stopped working. Some people feel that they must abandon their faith and say that God does not exist for them any more – they are unable to develop their notion of God and religion. A good therapist can create a space within which the therapy could work, irrespective of the therapist’s religious affiliation or lack of it.
…Many people possess religious and spiritual inclinations. Thus, feeling guilty about talking of religion seems to be a huge mistake. Religion is an integral part of people’s identity, so we should focus on it.
…I think that, sometimes, whether we are religious people or not, we are unsure of what to do with these ethical principles. We are afraid that we might be imposing our views and depriving the client of autonomy, but we are beginning to learn how to preserve the client’s autonomy even as we help the client think about the range of issues they are dealing with.
…It is true that some religious practitioners believe that these questions should be left out of the church, but I think that certain practitioners are unwilling to raise the question of religion because they view it as a personal challenge. It is a challenge to their own counter-transition. If the client argues against the existence of God or the way in which God manifests Himself in the creation, this creates discomfort in religious practice, and the therapist might try to avoid this area of concern. This issue must be raised during the therapist’s own therapy and supervision.
…I just think there is a lot of room for mutual help from religious and non-religious clinical therapists and researchers. In the long run, we are all trying to help people live a more productive, healthier and fulfilling life. However, we should ask what we think about healthy and flourishing life and where our ideas about it come from. There are many basic belief systems which we do not have. Many therapists say they care about relations, but they do not realise that some of their theories are highly individual. If they could take a better look at these theories, they might begin to introduce certain changes to their approach and way of thinking.