Thursday, May 25, 2006

Still Here

I know. I committed the cardinal sin of blogging. I haven't posted anything for over a week. Fortunately, my hiatus was not due to illness or any other emergency. I've just been giving my attention to some other things on my plate that outweigh keeping the blog current. Not only did I fall behind in posting here, I also fell way behind in reading the blogs I usually check on a daily basis. I shuddered to see how many entries I had missed when I finally checked my Bloglines subscriptions. Had I tried to get caught up I'd still be reading so I'm sure I deleted a lot of good stuff. I was even more nervous about seeing how many subscribers I lost due to my inactivity but I guess it pays to be quiet sometimes because there are actually more than there were before my hibernation. Anyway, I intend to get back to posting more regularly even if it may not be a daily occurrence.

I can't recall which of his books I read it in but I'm confident that somewhere years ago I read John Piper recommend that believers select a trustworthy saint from the past to serve as a spiritual guide through their writings. Of course, Jonathan Edwards served in that capacity for Piper and at one time I thought I'd follow suit. Ambitiously (and perhaps naively) I determined to make it my lifelong goal to forge through all of his works. That didn't last too long. Don't get me wrong. I've profited immensely from reading him and expect that I will continue to in the future. However, the combination of the density of his thought, the style of his writing, the small print (at least in the two-volume collection of his works that I own) and my aging eyes has made me reconsider.

I now have what I believe is a more realistic endeavor that will not require my reading the entire corpus of the author's work but one volume. The author is the seventeenth century Puritan pastor Richard Baxter and the book I'd like to complete before my dying day is his A Christian Directory which I've made reference to in the past. No, it's not a phone book (though it's certainly thick enough). Baxter called it a directory because it is a compendium of pastoral counsel or directions for Christian living; hence it's alternative title A Sum of Practical Theology and Cases of Conscience. Baxter divided it into four parts: Christian ethics, family life (or economics), Christian ecclesiastics (having to do with the ministries of the church), and Christian politics in which he addresses the believer's societal responsibilities to his neighbors.

The more I read the more I understand why Dr. Tim Keller has called it "the greatest manual on biblical counseling ever produced." Baxter had a wonderful way of dovetailing biblical doctrine and specific situations with which people struggle. He didn't leave orthodoxy hanging in the air in vague generalities but brought it into potent contact with concrete life situations. Nor did he settle for simplistic behavioristic prescriptions. As Kenneth Roth notes in an article titled "The Psychology and Counseling of Richard Baxter (1615-1691)": "Baxter's approach aims at internal insight and change because he realizes that it is the internal motivations from which the external behaviors and problems stem" (Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 17 (1998): 323).

One of the things I appreciate most about works such as Baxter's is the repeated emphasis that doctrine, in concert with the Holy Spirit's activity, is intended to illuminate and transform how we live. That's the reason counseling issues are of such great interest to me. I fear that a largely theologically illiterate church has prematurely concluded that the Bible is only peripherally relevant to the nuts and bolts personal and interpersonal problems we've come to associate with mental health professionalism. Mine is but one voice in a chorus lamenting the psychologizing of the faith. What Christian psychiatrist Jeffrey Boyd has declared of our larger culture is likewise true of the household of faith. "Homo psychologicus has replaced Homo theologicus."

But it's not enough to bemoan the current situation, at least it's not if it's to be corrected. We need to admit that the emergence and proliferation of the therapeutic mindset in the church is due in large measure to the absence of the kind of personalized pastoral theology that Baxter and his peers were so skilled in. When we preach to a congregation we do our best to illustrate and apply the truths about which we're speaking. It's more challenging, however, when dealing with a particular person facing a specific trial or temptation, to help him interpret his life in terms of biblical themes and see the relevance of the gospel to the uniqueness of his situation. What, if anything, does Christ have to say to a young mother so frustrated by her child's behavior that she literally bangs her own head against the wall? What motivates her to such self-destructive and unproductive action? What biblical themes and categories might inform our conversation with her? Is there a way to give her biblical help without merely hurling verses at her? Is it possible to explore with her the possibility (make that the likelihood) that sinful desires are the delta from which her behavior flows but to do so in such a way that she knows that she is being loved and not condemned? And above all, can we aid her in seeing that the gospel has far greater relevance to moms who bang their heads against walls than she had ever thought?

Many of the pioneers of secular psychotherapy understood their efforts as an attempt to address issues that had previously been framed and treated in a theological context. Freud wrote in The Question of Lay Analysis that the analyst's function could aptly be described as that of a "secular pastoral worker." And Carl Jung, in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, wrote that "...we psychotherapists must occupy ourselves with problems which, strictly speaking, belong to the theologian." How ironic and tragic. Theses unbelieving men clearly saw their work as being about the same subject matter as that of the church. Today, the church has become so intoxicated from drinking from the therapeutic goblet, that its members are often resistant to the idea that theology is of any value for dealing with the complexities and pains of life.

No comments: