Volume > Issue > Briefly: September 1996

September 1996

The Mind's Fate: A Psychiatrist Looks at His Profession

By Robert Coles

Publisher: Little, Brown

Pages: 409

Price: $25.95

Review Author: Raymond P. Roden

“You could observe a lot by watching carefully,” Yogi Berra once said, and Robert Coles has watched with rapt attention the doings of psychiatry and psychology over the past 30 years as practitioner, critic, and teacher. The Mind’s Fate is a collection of his writings, brimful of cogent and helpful insights for anyone trying to discern what value, if any, psychology has. No easy task at a time when psychobabble seems to rule the day, and so many are so quick to tag one another as being in need of some kind of therapy.

Coles is at his brilliant best when he notes the many requests he receives each year from assorted bishops and church officials asking him to “pass judgment psychologically” on candidates for the ministry. When, he asks, was the last time a bishop or priest was asked to comment on the character of a would-be doctor or psychiatric trainee? Where would we be had the fate of St. Francis of Assisi or St. Teresa of Avila or the Old Testament prophets depended on a Rorschach test?

Coles touches more than once on his vexation at the tragedy of so many priests and ministers who have traded their faith for psychology. Sacramental grace is jettisoned for self-righteous, agnostic, facile jargon, ranging from “adaptive defense mechanisms” if they like someone to “pathological” if they don’t. He wonders “whether the deepest mire…for many of America’s clergy…may be found in the dreary solipsistic world [of]…the mind’s moods, the various ‘stages’ and ‘phases’ of ‘human development’ or of ‘dying,’ all dwelt upon (God save us!) as if Stations of the Cross.”

At the root of the problem of psychology as religion is America’s capacity to make a religion out of almost anything, even out of psychotherapy. Freud himself, who had no use for religion, didn’t trust America because he knew this to be the case. He knew Americans would turn his work into something it wasn’t meant to be, would ask it to do what it couldn’t do. And what about Freud anyway? Coles’s advice concerning the valuable, but thoroughly limited, work of this genius is to take a good look and move on.

Coles points to Fr. Hans Küng as one who has stumbled into the psychology-as-religion trap, jargon and all. Küng, in his Freud and the Problem of God, coined the term “ecclesiogenic neuroses” — or, in plain language, the Church is to blame for everyone’s problems, including Freud’s. Coles says Küng sounds like Freud when he calls the religion of many “a return to infantile structure” or “a regression to childish wishing.” Küng’s notions are strange, coming as they do from one who purports to be a Catholic theologian, and they play into the hands of critics who are interested not in renewal of the Church but in tearing her down. Of Küng, who seems to be uncomfortable in his own Catholic skin, Coles observes that he “calls upon psychoanalysis to help him criticize Catholic history, Catholic religious reality — forgetting that much of what he finds unacceptable in Rome was to be found not only in Freud’s Viennese world but Jung’s Zurich world: rigidity, arrogance, pettiness, or legalistic fractiousness. And when Küng starts using normative judgments (‘maturity’ or ‘childish wishing’) he is on dangerously thin ice. It is sadly inappropriate for a Catholic theologian to use psychoanalysis as a means of name calling.”

The highest compliment I can pay The Mind’s Fate is to say about Coles what he said about his friend Walker Percy: “His has been a voice in the wilderness.”

Augustine and the Limits of Politics

By Jean Bethke Elshtain

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 143

Price: No price given

Review Author: Paul J. Weithman

In a famous passage from The City of God, St. Augustine likened citizens of the heavenly city to travelers making their way laboriously through this life. This image is all the more evocative because Augustine’s dislike for traveling was intense.

Travel and its inconveniences make it hard to give sustained attention to study. Interruption was no doubt one reason Augustine disliked travel, and his work sometimes reads as if it were written while traveling. There are flashes of brilliance on every page, but his insights into the human condition can strike the reader as unsystematic. The impression that he was an unsystematic thinker seems confirmed by the fact that he notoriously changed his mind on important questions. Scholars reinforce the impression by treating his chapters in isolation from whole works or abstracting whole works from the development of his thought.

The view that Augustine’s texts consist of unconnected but brilliant insights makes them seem like a body of writing that can be read in transit, profitably studied during the gaps in one’s itinerary. His writing seems to lend itself to being picked up and put down in a way that the works of Aquinas do not. Augustine thus seems a theologian bound to attract those who think their own journeys through life mirror his. Elshtain notes in the book under review here that she is herself a pilgrim not unlike Augustine. In her peregrinations, Augustine has been her companion. This despite the fact that he is out of fashion, by turns neglected as irrelevant and criticized as a misogynist or in need of psychotherapy.

Elshtain wants to rescue Augustine from his critics and to argue that some of his most brilliant arguments have important implications for political theory. The problem is that Augustine never composed a sustained work of political philosophy. The City of God, the text that contains the most overtly political material, was written over the course of two decades and intersperses politics with history, theology, and much else. In order to demonstrate Augustine’s political relevance, Elshtain thinks herself forced to adopt the approach to which his works seem to lend themselves so readily. She mines various of Augustine’s writings for insights that speak to her concerns. The result is a series of sophisticated reflections on a number of themes in Elshtain’s own writings — feminism, the family, just and unjust war, the banality of evil, the importance of philosophy, democracy.

This raises the question of how reliable a guide to Augustine Elshtain is. As she admits, she treats his thought as a sort of vademecum. Augustine’s works may lend themselves to this treatment. But it is far from clear that this is the best way to read his texts. Augustine has proven himself a valuable companion on Elshtain’s journey, and many readers will find her a fascinating fellow traveler on journeys of their own. But demonstrating Augustine’s importance for political theory would benefit from the contextualization and recovery of what Augustine himself actually thought. This, in turn, would require a very different, but far less companionable book, than Elshtain’s.

Moonie-Buddhist-Catholic: A Spiritual Odyssey

By Thomas W. Case

Publisher: White Horse Press

Pages: 240

Price: $15.95

Review Author: Dale Vree

Contrary to what the title of this book might imply, Case isn’t a Catholic with Moonie and Buddhist leanings. Rather, he’s a Catholic who is an ex-Moonie and ex-Buddhist — and, probably most significantly, an ex-hippie of Haight-Ashbury vintage. The hippie world of drugs, free sex, and rock music almost ruined his life.

Somehow he pulled himself together, sort of. He tried to “settle down a bit.” He got married, but to a girl who was embracing what he was trying to shake free of. She became pregnant and “informed” him that she was going to have an abortion. Case was devastated: “I felt our marriage crumble as my sense of fatherhood crumbled into the dust. All that wonderful, natural feeling of coming into my manhood as a husband, father, provider and protector drained away in an instant…. The crushing blow was that according to the laws of the land, it was her decision and hers alone to make. She blasted my power of creating new life with her while the state blasted my rights as a husband and father.” She left him a few months later.

Not too surprisingly, Case then got involved with the Moonies — as well as the Buddhists and various New-Agey concoctions — and the bulk of the book is about the serious short-comings of all that.

Who will want to buy this book? Probably Catholic parents, who may want to give it to a wayward child for his birthday. The title of the book could easily have been Don’t Do What I Did.

Fortunately, the book has a happy ending. After having taken several “stabs” at becoming a Catholic (frustrated by the priests he sought out, who turned out to be half-hearted half-believers — i.e., dissenters), Case was finally able to embrace Catholicism, thanks in no small measure to finding a fervent, orthodox priest.

Case’s tale reveals how the confusion and laxity in the post-conciliar Church bear a certain responsibility for the rise of the cults. Case quotes Anne Muggeridge: “People have turned to cults…because the Church has abandoned its certainty.” Well, not all the Church has, not by a long shot, and so Case, an earnest seeker who wouldn’t rest until he found the genuine article, was able to find his way to Christ and the Church He founded.

The Way of Prayer

By Pope John Paul II

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 64

Price: $4.95

Review Author: Elaine Hallett

How can so small a book loom so large that it seems to encompass the whole of truth? It’s not that the publisher set the text in six-point type. The feat is accomplished, rather, because the mind of the writer expresses itself with such lucidity. This work has the simplicity that proceeds from purity of soul; the truth is stated simply as truth and because all dross has been expunged, the Holy Father can express in five words that for which others would need 50 or 500.

Take, for example, the ground that is covered in the first four chapters. In this tiny book of meditations, Pope John Paul II begins with the obvious question: Why do I pray? The answer is simplicity itself: “I pray because God exists.” No time wasted with humbug! The next question follows naturally: How do I pray? The answer again is simple: “Pray constantly, and for all things give thanks to God.” Then comes definition. Prayer is in essence “a talk, or a conversation with God,” not a monologue, for prayer includes listening. One learns “to hear the interior voice of grace.” Prayer, like conversation, becomes truly profound when we exchange not mere words but thoughts, those thoughts that are deepest in our hearts. Four chapters, two pages at most per chapter — but already we are tasting “the sweetness of intimate conversation with God.”

Take, as a last example, the Pope’s suggestion that “to learn to pray means ‘to learn the Father,'” by which he means to learn what absolute trust is. Basic to this lesson is the paradox that Jesus gives us the promise, the assurance, that the Father never refuses anything that is asked of Him. Yet I pray and my prayer seems to go unanswered. The paradox is resolved by our learning “absolute trust in the Father.” We are contingent beings, and we ask “according to our needs,” expressing our deepest and often painful longings. God understands these needs, but His understanding is vastly beyond ours and what He gives is more generous than what we ask for. “The answer to every request,” the Pope explains, “is always given through a substantial gift: the Father gives us the Holy Spirit — in his crucified and risen Son.” Invariably.

The profound is always simple, true simplicity always profound. That is the quality of the Pope’s three little books. I say three because The Way of Prayer belongs to a series, along with The Way of Christ and The Way of Love. Taken together, they form a trinity, the first focusing on God, the second on the Son, and the third on the Holy Spirit. If one understands that the “way” of these titles suggests a pathway, one will recognize that to read these books is to take the Holy Father as a guide, just as Dante took Beatrice. The way leads to nothing less than participation in the interior life of the Holy Trinity.

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