Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jesus as psychiatrist

Dr Keith Ablow is an American psychiatrist and contributor to Fox news. A recent column of his was titled "Was Jesus the first psychiatrist?". The answer Ablow gives is yes:

Recently, many people who have e-mailed me asking whether there are parallels between God’s teachings and the field of psychiatry and psychology. In the end, I believe the two things are very nearly one

You might be preparing yourself for something terrible to follow, but it's not too bad - there's some good advice for depressed people. However, part of his message illustrates something about modern thought that's worth criticising. Ablow writes:

The key truths that people must seek out are those elements of self that define them as individuals—who they really, truly, finally and irrevocably are, deep inside...

They must, essentially, reawaken some of what they were born with—the God-given, inexplicable, ultimately undefeatable capacity to move in the direction of their own, unique interests, abilities, beliefs and dreams.

This is a compromise version of liberalism - and it's a very common strand within modern thought.

We could distinguish between three different positions. A traditionalist recognises the existence of what might be called group essences. For instance, a traditionalist is likely to recognise that the term "masculinity" represents a real, unchanging essence which provides part of a man's telos: what he is to fulfil as an aspect of his being.

A radical liberal is likely to deny the existence of essences altogether. There are no such properties, there are only social constructs. Nor is there a given telos: value comes from the act of self-creating or self-defining our own being and concept of existence.

But many moderns don't hold consistently to this full-blown anti-essentialist position. They hold to a compromise position of recognising not group essences, but individual ones. They believe that each individual has a unique essence that must be realised through an individual life path and that this requires, above all, an absence of external constraints on the individual, and equal opportunities.

In popular culture you hear this compromise position in the insistent call to "follow your dreams, never give up". Within academic liberalism it exists in the assumption that our chief end as humans is a professional career such as a violinist in an orchestra or a surgeon or a writer. In romcoms, the heroines usually have professional jobs in glamorous, creative fields such as being a magazine editor or TV producer.

It's possible that the compromise position is a secularised version of the Calvinist idea of having a calling in the world of work. The problem, though, is that in a secular society there is no longer a belief that such a calling is directed at pleasing or glorifying God - which would allow humble and everyday work to count. Instead, a professional calling has to mark you out as a special and unique individual - it has to be the fulfilment of who you are as a person.

So instead of sacralising the everyday work we do in the world as men and women, we get a belief that there is one special, creative career path that will realise our true self. This places the fulfilment of our being very narrowly and individualistically within the field of certain types of career ambition.

If we look again at what Dr Ablow recommends he states first of all that,

The key truths that people must seek out are those elements of self that define them as individuals—who they really, truly, finally and irrevocably are, deep inside...

A traditionalist could agree substantially with that, although given our different view of essences we could leave out the phrase "as individuals" - and we would not just look deep inside for our identity but also to who we are in relation to an external reality.

Dr Ablow then writes,

They must, essentially, reawaken some of what they were born with—the God-given, inexplicable, ultimately undefeatable capacity to move in the direction of their own, unique interests, abilities, beliefs and dreams.

And we would largely disagree. Why do we have to move in the direction of our unique beliefs and dreams? Why can't, for instance, a woman find a considerable aspect of her meaningful identity in motherhood? That's not going to be a unique belief or dream, but one shared by many women since the dawn of time. But it doesn't lessen its significance.

Dr Ablow is an interesting case. It's difficult to find consistency in the political and philosophical positions he defends. He definitely holds to some right-liberal/libertarian positions, but there are some conservative/traditionalist ones as well (perhaps because he accepts the idea of essences in general, he is more receptive to traditionalist positions than an anti-essentialist, social construct liberal would be).

If I get the chance I'll look at some of his other pieces in a future post.

5 comments:

  1. ""That's not going to be a unique belief or dream, but one shared by many women since the dawn of time. But it doesn't lessen its significance.""

    The idea of EVERYONE without exception having a "unique" set interests, abilities, beliefs and dreams strikes me as a cross between the balcony scene in The Life of Brian and gross narcissism.


    Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for your selves! You're ALL individuals!

    The Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals!

    Brian: You're all different!

    The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!


    Everyone wants to feel special...

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  2. "their own, unique interests, abilities, beliefs and dreams" usually aren't all that unique.

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  3. Some groups may have a telos, but not every set defined by a government is a group with a telos. You can draw a line around an area containing struggling tribes or maintain a line around an area that was once a community but that mass immigration has turned into a zone with no group identity (till the immigrants win and the natives flee) but that doesn't mean that the individuals that live in or come from these areas are part of or grew up as part of anything with a telos.

    In this case, you may need to believe in a "God-given, inexplicable, ultimately undefeatable capacity to move in the direction of [your] own, unique interests, abilities, beliefs and dreams."

    That can be confusing, and it can also lead to deep inauthenticity when it's identified with career and a narrow range of professionally creative careers, to be won and kept at whatever cost to one's character. (And which careers most people won't get anyway, obviously.)

    But other options can also be confusing, even if you just want to do something absolutely primal like marry and raise kids. What kind of kids, with what continuity and part of what group identity? What do the mother and the father have to pass on that they can have any confidence in? (And that the government won't sweep away and define as antique or reprehensible under some new, ephemeral moral rule.) And, simply in genetic terms (surely relevant when discussing having kids) how related to you should these offspring be? If you marry someone distant enough from you in racial terms, your children may be less like you, genetically, than any random, passing member of your own race.

    That's strange; but chaos, created and maintained by governments that may bring even more chaos in future, can problematize nearly anything.

    So chaos breeds chaos, literally.

    It makes sense to me that people need to believe they have a purely individual telos that's strong enough to meet any demand that may be made of it.

    It doesn't make sense to me to suppose that for many people to need this is good for them or for what otherwise could be healthy and relatively homogenous communities. I think it would be better for only small numbers of people to be in that situation.

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  4. Jesus was about leading people to God's purposes, not helping people reach their own.

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