Volume > Issue > Psychology as Faith

Psychology as Faith

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | June 1984

At various moments in these columns I have made snide references to the secular idolatry which it has been the fate of psychology and psychiatry to become for so many of us. My wife and our sons have suggested I spell out some of my thoughts on this subject, hence this essay. I must say that I speak as one of the gullible, the susceptible, the all too readily devotional — having put in years of teaching in medicine and pediatrics, in psychiatry and child psychiatry, in psychoanalysis, and done so with an eagerness and zeal and self-assurance, if not self-importance, I have yet to shake off, no matter these words, and others I’ll write before I go to meet my Maker. “Once smitten, for life smit­ten,” as a teacher of mine in high school used to say, and how we mocked his arrogant determinism, we who were so sure that no one or nothing would get its teeth into us unless we rationally and with utterly independent judgment had decided that such be the case.

In fact, I think we need to know why that teacher’s observation does so commonly turn out to be true — the intellectual and psychological, and not least, social and economic “investment,” so to speak, we make in what amounts to a way of thinking, as well as a career. The issue, as always, is pride, the sin of sins. To be a psychiatrist in Ameri­ca today, one says with all the risks of even more pride, of narcissism, is to take a substantial risk with one’s spiritual future, as Anna Freud oblique­ly declared in one of her books (Normality and Pathology in Childhood). There she rendered a chronicle of the unblinking credulity accorded any and every psychoanalytic assumption, however ten­tatively posited; and as she said more bluntly to a few of us at Yale Medical School in a meeting both instructive and unsettling during the mid-1970s: “I do not understand why so many people want us to tell them the answers to everything that happens in life! We have enough trouble figuring out the few riddles we are equipped to investigate!”

Well, of course, she did understand only too well what has happened, especially in America: the mind as a constant preoccupation for many people who are basically agnostic, and who regard them­selves as the ultimate, if passing, reality — which preoccupation constitutes a socially and historical­ly conditioned boost to the egoism or narcissism we all must confront in ourselves. The result is ev­erywhere apparent: parents who don’t dare bring up their children, from infancy on, without re­course to one expert’s book, then another’s; stu­dents who are mesmerized by talk of psychological “stages” and “phases” and “behavioral patterns” and “complexes”; grown-up people who constantly talk of an “identity crisis” or a “mid-life crisis”; el­derly men and women who worry about “the emo­tional aspects of old age,” and those attending them at home or in the hospital who aim at becom­ing versed in steering the “dying” through their “stages” or “phases”; newspaper columnists, if not gurus, and their counterparts on television who have something to say about every single human predicament — the bottom line being, always, a consultation with a “therapist”; and worst of all, the everyday language of our given culture, saturat­ed with psychological expressions, if not banalities, to the point that a Woody Allen movie strikes one not as exaggeration, caricature, or satire, but as documentary realism.

Especially sad and disedifying is the preoccu­pation of all too many clergy with the dubious blandishments of contemporary psychology and psychiatry. I do not mean to say there is no value in understanding what psychoanalytic studies, and others done in this century by medical and psycho­logical investigators, have to offer any of us who spend time with our fellow human beings — in the home, in school, at work, and certainly, in the var­ious places visited by ministers and priests. The is­sue is the further step not a few of today’s clergy have taken — whereby “pastoral counseling,” for instance, becomes their major ideological absorp­tion and the use of the language of psychology their major source of self-satisfaction. Surely we are in danger of losing our religious faith when the chief satisfaction of our lives consists of an endless attribution of psychological nomenclature to all who happen to come our way.

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