Psychotherapy and Christianity
This day will look at the relationship between psychotherapy and Christianity. It’s an important area of interest for clinical, theoretical and cultural reasons. We will focus mostly on Christianity, partly as it is still relatively widespread in Europe but also because it can be helpful to focus on a specific religious tradition before generalising to others.
The theist’s God
We will explore how psychotherapy does and doesn’t understand the Christian’s relationship to God, examining how psychotherapy has tried to understand the God of monotheism – for Freud, as a set of projections; for Winnicott, as a transitional object; for Jung, as a psychological reality. We will ask how these and other theories do and don’t work so far as believers in God are concerned, and how this has left a legacy of suspicion between the two traditions.
This will lead onto the question of how psychotherapy relates to spiritual development. For example, it may be that psychotherapy can help people with their concerns in order to reach a point where their anxieties aren’t so preoccupying and other dynamics in life, including those of the divine, come more clearly into view. Alternatively, we will consider how Christianity and other religious traditions can be used defensively, to conceal pain; and manipulatively, to foster unhealthy and abusive submission to charismatic leaders.
Jesus and inner life
We will ask what psychotherapy has to say about the figure of Jesus and other saints, and consider how Christianity can be viewed as a wisdom tradition of inner life. For example, Biblical scholarship has shown that one of the markers of Jesus’s teaching was his focus on inner life. He remarked that people are more concerned with the speck in their neighbour’s eye than they are with the plank in their own, anticipating mechanisms of projection. Alternatively, he taught that the kingdom of God is found within people.
This interest in inner life flourished in the first Christian centuries, producing what might be called the first handbook of inner life written by Evagrius Ponticus, in which he charted dynamics remarkably similar to those analysed by Melanie Klein.
Psychotherapists or clergy?
We will also ask how religious and psychotherapeutic traditions might work together at a more cultural level. In a lecture entitled, Psychotherapists or the Clergy, Jung argued that the churches had become incapable of responding to the psychological needs of modern people, whilst at the same time, psychotherapists needed the resources of religious and spiritual traditions in order to contain and nurture the unconscious. We will ask whether and how such a collaboration might be possible.
Other questions will arise during the day too, such as whether there can be such a thing as “Christian counselling”, and more generally, how churches and religious communities can play a part in mental wellbeing. We will also explore questions such as whether a Christian believer needs a therapist who is Christian, or at least has a sense of the divine, and how theology can inform and challenge psychotherapy’s ideas about God.
For further information and to book
About the host
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist, writer and teacher. He has written a number of books on ancient philosophy and life, and also written an introduction to Jung for the Guardian Shorts series.
Mark has degrees in physics and theology, as well as PhD in ancient philosophy. He has a London-based private practice and also works at the Maudsley.