Religious Psychologies and Psychotherapies

The editor of the History of Psychology journal, which is published by the American Psychological Association, invited me to write a response to a forthcoming article by Ingbar Graiver. I attach my pre-publication draft here. Graiver is a historian specializing in Christian monastic psychology in late antiquity. Her forthcoming article argues that modern western psychology and psychotherapy need to pay more attention to history. I agree with her, but make a number of suggestions. Here are some of them:

  1. If we want to take inspiration from Greece and Rome in order to cultivate what we call “mental health” today, maybe it’s best not to focus on either medicine or discussions of “the mind” or “the soul.” For example, I suggest the extremely important Greek term sophrosune would be a great starting point for rethinking mental health. Literally it means “soundness of the midriff.” It pulls together the mysterious energies of the body, powers of a plurality of gods and spirits, rational intelligence, emotional wisdom, relationships and politics. Everyone in Greece agrees it’s super important, but they disagree what it entails in many situations.
  2. Without being too polemical, I note that returning to early Christianity might not be the best way to get critical distance from modern western psychology. That’s because Christianity has had such pervasive and subtle effects on our preconceptions already. I cautiously cite the post-Jungian therapist Jerome Bernstein’s contention (in Living in the Borderland) that Biblical “dominion consciousness” is at the root of huge psychopolitical problems today. Bernstein has been working with Navajo “medicine men” for decades, and even if I’m wary of his sweeping claims, he brings a genuinely novel perspective. One problem that leaps out after thinking about Bernstein is that Graiver’s Christians emphasise “love for all human beings,” which is great — but what about non-human beings?
  3. Modern western psychologies and psychotherapies are less exclusively biophysical than Graiver implies. If historians want to enrich mental health care today, they need to carry on a dialogue with Jungian, transpersonal, ecopsychological, and similar therapists already active in many countries. (I guess that’s what my own project has been about!)

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