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Whenever we process information, interpret an experience, or organize our actions, we do so within the context of existing intellectual knowledge abstractions”schemas. Schema theory has been developed within the field of psychology in an attempt to explain how these cognitive knowledge structures are derived from personal experience and how they are organized in memory. Furthermore, schema theory has allowed us to investigate how these schemas serve as prototypes in memory and how they influence our interpretations of events.

As an example, we can briefly examine a little story discussed in the 1985-published proceedings of Nobel Conference XX, How We Know (edited by Michael Shafto): “John went to a restaurant. He ordered lobster. He left a small tip. He left.” As we consider the story, we might conclude that we actually know quite a bit about John even though explicit items of information are not mentioned in the passage. We might say that we know that John ate lobster, was served by a waitress or a waiter, and was not pleased with the service and / or the food. What this brief example suggests is that when we process information, we do so within the context of our present cognitive knowledge. Therefore, when I read a paragraph (Sunday’s gospel passage, for example), or experience an event (the sacrament of Reconciliation), or interact with others (a social in the parish hall), I process and interpret these situations within the context of what I know about the world”that is, within the context of my stored schemas.

To further clarify this important point about how we process information, let’s look at a second example. I referenced the following paragraph years ago, in my dissertation research into the effects of contextual information on the comprehension and memory of prose material:

With hocked gems financing him / Our hero bravely defied all scornful laughter / That tried to prevent his scheme / Your eyes deceive / He had said / An egg / Not a table / Correctly typifies this unexplored planet / Now three sturdy sisters sought proof / Forging along sometimes through calm vastness / Yet more often over turbulent peaks and valleys / Days became weeks / As many doubters spread fearful rumors about the edge / At last / From nowhere / Welcome winged creatures appeared / Signifying momentous success.

People’s ability to comprehend and remember this passage is much greater when they are told that it is about Christopher Columbus discovering America than when they are not given any contextual hints as to its meaning. Furthermore, when readers are not given any contextual cues for the interpretation of the passage, they typically attempt to subjectively conjure up a viable context from their own idiosyncratic knowledge of the world”a context that might enable them personally to derive meaning from the passage. To the extent that they are able to develop such a context, they are able to comprehend and remember the paragraph.

These examples serve as elementary illustrations that when we process and interpret events, we do so from our perspective of the world. It is, then, through a synthesis of our cognitive knowledge of the world with present input that we derive meaning from our experiences. Furthermore, when we do not have the appropriate context for an event at our cognitive disposal, we often adopt an alternative contextual interpretation whereby meaning might be derived.

* * *

Many years ago, cultural pundits began to intimate that Americans increasingly would find themselves living in a psychologized society. This point was stated poignantly by C.G. Ellison in an essay in Current Perspectives in the Psychology of Religion (1977): “Psychology has grown into a giant during the twentieth century. No other age has witnessed such intense concentration upon the nature and functioning of ‘homo sapiens.’ Psychological terminology has become an integral part of the common vernacular and psychological concepts strongly influence contemporary thought.”

In the midst of this “psychologization” of Western language and thought, we have more and more come to view the vicissitudes of life in terms of psychological categories. Or, as argued by the authors of the unlikely best seller Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985), it is the therapist (along with the manager) who largely defines what constitutes effective living in American culture. The authors of this book offered the following statement as a succinct summary of this therapeutic mind-set: “Like the manager, the therapist is a specialist in mobilizing resources for effective action , only here the resources are largely internal to the individual and the measure of effectiveness is the elusive criterion of personal satisfaction . . . . Indeed, the very term therapeutic suggests a life focused on the need for a cure. But a cure of what ?” (italics mine).

We find within this definition the following components of the therapeutic mind-set. First, as it attempts to provide a viable framework for the interpretation of reality, this set of cognitive knowledge structures concentrates on the internal psychological and emotional workings of the individual. Second, this mind-set emphasizes the need for men and women to be cured / healed. Third, the therapeutic schemas suggest to the twenty-first century interpreters of events (that is, to us) that the end result of this healing process should be fewer blocks to personal growth, greater personal satisfaction, less personal suffering, and a greater sense of personal well-being. Fourth, this therapeutic way of perceiving reality emphasizes a utilitarian view of life, a view in which virtually all human endeavors (from reading Scripture, to worship, to personal relationships) are evaluated based on criteria of psychological effectiveness.

As we move forward in the twenty-first century, there is little to suggest that this psychologization of Western thought and language has abated. In Modernizing the Mind: Psychological Knowledge and the Remaking of Society (2002), author Steven C. Ward put it this way: “Throughout this book I have tried to illustrate how over the course of the last century psychological categories and practices became ‘naturalized.’ As this happened, psychology, like other naturalized ideas and categories, ‘disappeared into infrastructure, into habit, into the taken for granted.’ Psychology’s presence in schools, workplaces, and homes is now an ordinary and seemingly indispensable feature of the cultural landscape . . . . Today, psychological knowledge and categories seem ‘intuitively right and reasonable because they are rooted in everyday life.’”

* * *

The encroachment of a psychological mind-set into the day-to-day workings of Western culture is obvious. It can be argued, in fact, that therapeutic schemas have grown to such a stature of prevalence, consequence, and acceptability within the culture that they dwarf all other views of reality. As a result, it should not be at all surprising to find a growing presence of therapeutic schemas within the Christian churches. The authors of a 2005 book titled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers have suggested that this may be the case much more than had previously been suspected.

Soul Searching is based on in-depth interviews with more than 265 teens from various faith traditions. The authors of the book begin by offering some encouraging findings about young people and their faith. As these teens responded to specific questions in the interview sessions, for example, the vast majority identified themselves as Christian. Furthermore, many of the teens reported being involved in such religious activities as regular church services, youth retreats, youth rallies, and service projects; they saw participation in an organized faith community as an important way to have ongoing contact with influential adults; and most of them responded with positive attitudes toward their religion and their parish or congregation.

In an effort to further gauge the religious lives of these young people, the authors proceeded not only to record the teens’ overt responses to the specific interview questions, but also to take note of the words, terms, and phrases that most often emerged in the transcripts of the interview sessions. These analyses begin to reveal quite a different picture of the spiritual lives of young people in the United States.

For the most part, the language of the young people did not reveal a faith that revolved around traditionally relevant Christian themes. The teens’ expressed belief systems did not center on being faithful to God, or repenting for sin, or building character through steadfastness. Instead, for most of them, what was essential to their faith was “feeling good, happy, secure, at peace””what the authors term the “therapeutic benefits” of religious involvement.

More specifically, the authors report that the phrase “the grace of God” was mentioned by these 265 teens a scant three times. The same was true for “honoring God with your life” and “the importance of loving your neighbor.” Similarly, “the justice of God” was mentioned only twice, and several historically significant Christian themes”self-discipline, sanctification, social justice”were not mentioned at all. In contrast, 112 teens mentioned personally feeling happy or being made happy through faith, and 99 different teens discussed feeling good about one’s life. In fact, the specific phrase “feel happy” was used more than 2,000 times during the interviews.

In a particularly pithy summary of these interviews, the authors offer the following: “When teenagers talked in their interviews about grace, they were usually talking about the television show Will and Grace , not about God’s grace. When teenagers discussed honor, they were almost always talking about taking honors courses or making the honor role at school, very rarely about honoring God with their lives. When teens mentioned being justified, they almost always meant having a reason for doing something behaviorally questionable, not having their relationship with God made right.”

One might be tempted to speculate that although such religious trends may typify the spiritual lives of many (if not most) young people, they certainly are not an accurate reflection of the more seasoned faith of adult believers in the United States. The authors of Soul Searching beg to differ, however. They are quick to assert that the type of belief system encountered among the teens who were interviewed is not restricted to the young; rather, it “is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults. Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.”

* * *

One need not be a seer to perceive the infiltration of this therapeutic mentality into sectors of the twenty-first century Church. One need only be cognizant, first, of the growing number of committed Christian men and women for whom the virtues of courage, fortitude, compassion, and charity have become blurred in the midst of their psychological and emotional misgivings; second, of the number for whom the pursuit of goodness, truth, beauty, and moral character has been supplanted by a search for personal satisfaction; third, of those for whom thoughts of loyalty, duty, and commitment have been recast in terms of personal growth and well-being; and, fourth, of those for whom suffering has become merely an indication that something is personally not right and needs to be cured or fixed. One need only listen to some of the messages emanating from the pulpits in today’s churches”messages in which personal hurts may be portrayed as greater pitfalls to the Christian walk than personal sins; where psychological wholeness is emphasized more than sanctity; where the presence of authority may be viewed as spiritually more destructive than the presence of Satan; and where believers may be encouraged to find themselves more than they are encouraged to find God.

These comments are not meant to suggest that the gospel is opposed to personal well-being and the diminution of suffering, only that such therapeutic categories may not provide legitimate criteria for evaluating the efficacy of one’s decisions, behaviors, and relationships. Nor are these comments meant to suggest that solid psychological intervention may not be a vital part of the spiritual growth process for some Christian men and women, only that the standards against which the success of such interventions are evaluated may not be therapeutic ones. In other words, the gospel has never claimed, in our classical, Judeo-Christian tradition, to provide another path to “the therapeutic good life.” Christianity has not claimed uniqueness for its therapeutic benefits.

* * *

Years ago, when I was a graduate student in Chicago, there was an article in one of the local papers about a wealthy woman who had instructed her chauffeur to drive her to a new McDonald’s that had opened in a downtown shopping mall. On entering the restaurant, the woman took a seat at an open table and waited. No one came. The longer she waited, the more upset she became. Finally, she asked to see the manager to complain about the poor service. As this woman attempted to understand her experience at McDonald’s, she cognitively accessed her understanding of how restaurants work. Because the restaurant schema she had developed over the years was incorrect for a visit to McDonald’s, however, she misinterpreted the situation and, accordingly, organized her actions mistakenly.

There are many men and women in the Church today who, like the woman at McDonald’s, cognitively access their available schemas in an attempt to make sense of their life circumstances but come up short because the therapeutic schemas with which they have been equipped fail to adequately represent the reality of our human condition. One should not be surprised to find that when this happens, traditional Christian ideals such as selflessness and self-denial, duty and fortitude, repentance and reconciliation, and sacrifice and sanctification are scarce commodities, even among some of the most committed of Christian men and women.

At present we face a challenge of great importance. We face it in our parishes and congregations, in the everyday lives of our fellow Christians, and, as a consequence, in our society. Increasingly, the ideological and cultural character of churches today is being formed by a worldview that espouses not virtue, but psychological satisfaction and well-being. It is a worldview in which the moral excellence that can be found in suffering often is negated in the hurried search for relief; it is also a worldview in which the greatness of character that derives from habitually meeting all of one’s duties with excellence is challenged by the voice of therapeutic reason: “This is hard. Besides, what am I going to get out of it?” Is it any wonder that people decide to shift their church affiliation based on such criteria as enjoyable music, lively homilies, or a satisfying Sunday-morning coffee-and-donut experience? Or that people who find themselves in personally unfulfilling marriages conclude that God could not possibly be in such a marriage?

Both Christianity and modern psychology provide ideologies for the understanding and guidance of the interior life, and many of us find ourselves in singular positions as we strive to bridge these sometimes disparate disciplines. The English geographer Sir Halford John Mackinder stated in 1887 that “Knowledge is one. Its division into subjects is a concession to human weakness.” Conceding to our human weakness, we must explore carefully the differences between these two models of care for the interior life. The problems of human existence take on a distinctively different significance when viewed through a psychological mind-set intent on the attainment of positive internal states than when viewed through the eyes of one who realizes the inherent suffering in the ongoing personal repentance, conversion, and regeneration asked of us by Christ. Conceding to our human weakness, we should be the first to pursue all that psychology has to offer in the understanding of the human condition; but, at the same time, we should be the last to blur the distinctiveness of the Christian gospel.

John Buri is a professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of over fifty professional articles and one book ( How to Love Your Wife ). He also teaches a course in the Catholic Studies Program at St. Thomas in which traditional Thomisic moral theology is compared with modern psychology.

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