“Thus, in the spiritual community the Spirit rules; in the emotional community psychological techniques and methods. In the former, unsophisticated, nonpsychological, unmethodical, helping love is offered to one another; in the latter, psychological analysis and design.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), pages 14 - 15.
While Bonhoeffer writes this in observing his own times, one wonders if he envisioned the progression that psychological technique would take in the professing church – to the point of overwhelming and subduing the Scriptures. Bonhoeffer’s observation regarding psychological techniques is more than a record of what he saw in his own generation (and leading up to it), it has a prophetic ring that reminds me of the warning by Francis Schaeffer that the danger the church must beware of at the close of the twentieth century is “personal peace and affluence”; in other words, “leave me alone in my bubble of personal peace and allow me to pursue my own personal good and I won’t bother the world with the Gospel”. Both Schaeffer and Bonhoeffer saw something that the church did not see, they saw something which we do not see.
Just as in the days of Jesus on earth the Word of God was made of no effect by religious tradition (Mark 7:9), so in our own time the Word of God is being made of no effect by psychological techniques and methods. Just as the Word of God can be hedged in by tradition so that it loses its effect, it can also be hedged in by psychological analysis and design. In our own time, our first recourse is not to the Bible but to therapeutic technique and analysis – this is true in ministry to the congregation, and in ministry to families and individuals. Instead of asking how a situation is Biblically informed, instead of looking to the living Christ Jesus, instead of seeking to understand what obedience to Jesus is – our first recourse is to therapy – whether it is “over the counter” therapy through popular authors and thinking, or through paying experts to massage our souls.
The pastor, the preacher, the worship leader are expected to dispense “feel good” palliatives and if they will not do so then the professing Christian will go to a church or minster who will. It is more important for me to feel good than it is for me to encounter the Bible and the Cross and the living Christ of Revelation Chapter One. Worship services are often designed not to offer service and worship to God, but to promote feel-good experience. When a marriage is in trouble we don’t look to the Bible so that we can learn obedience to Jesus Christ, but to self-analysis, technique, and the massage of our souls. When we need the Cross to bring us to death so that we might be raised in newness of life; when we need to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God; when we need to recognize that we are “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20) – instead we embark on a quest of self-understanding designed to preserve much of what is the cause of our trouble – ourselves outside of Christ. We do not look to Christ as the reality of life and the reality of life together, but at psychology. Biblical self-understanding is an acknowledgment that outside of Christ there is nothing good in me and that I desperately need the Cross of Christ – God is not interested in preserving my life, He desires to bring me to death in Christ so that I might rise in newness of life in Him (Romans Chapters 5 – 8). We don’t need self-help, we need to allow God to put an end to the nonsense of ourselves outside of Christ and learn to find life solely in Him.
There is irony in Bonhoeffer’s emotional community. On one end of the emotional community are elements which we might term unscientific – those are the elements which gravitate toward the visceral and intuitively know how to arrange things in the community to achieve emotional results. On the other end is the scientific element, it exalts the soft sciences, such as sociology and psychology, above the Word and the Holy Spirit, to also achieve emotional-therapeutic results. On both ends of this spectrum the Biblical text is an adjunct, the Bible is to serve the emotional needs and goals of the community; the Bible is not to form the community or to mold preaching, teaching, or pastoral care. We may read a Biblical text on a Sunday morning, but then we quickly dispense with it and say what we really want to say.
We are suppressing the Scriptures on both sides of the emotional community, on the scientific and unscientific – whether in a sophisticated urban setting…or elsewhere. Bonhoeffer witnessed the former in the United States and in Europe – those were the circles he lived in; he may have also had the latter in mind too.
I’ll continue this in the next post…