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God’s dreams for us far exceed our own

March 20, 2015
Father Mark Doherty

The West has not lost religion; it has just changed religions, progressively eschewing Christianity as it embraces what University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Smith is not the first scholar to draw attention to this sea change in religious perspectives. Already back in 1966 Philip Rieff published a landmark book, “The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud,” that explores the 20th-century origins of the therapeutic mindset. In brief, Rieff suggests that Freud’s strictly atheistic, materialistic psychology was deemed unacceptable by some of the Austrian psychoanalyst’s greatest students, especially Carl Jung. Jung and others couldn’t bear the crushing fatalism inherent in Freud’s atheistic materialism. Mankind cannot live without transcendence, they maintained, so they made a pivot and shifted heaven’s horizon, moving it from an external reality to a merely internal, psychological reality. They did what the 19th-century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach claimed all religions do: They turned God into a mere auto-therapeutic construct of the psyche.

Therapeutic Deism maintains that self-actualization and the pursuit of wellness – which stresses the avoidance of psychological and emotional suffering as well as unwanted physical pain – is the key to happiness. The need for transcendence is met by getting in touch with one’s dreams and setting out to realize them. An absolute premium is placed on “experiences.” The more “experiences” I have the “richer” my life will be. Suffering is the great sin of Therapeutic Deism, while being nice to others – affirming others’ life choices – is its great commandment.

What a striking, jarring contrast abides between the therapeutic model and the plan of life given to us in the life and words of the Lord Jesus. While Therapeutic Deism expounds the conviction that to save one’s life one must focus on self-actualization, the Lord Jesus exhorts us to lose our lives and give ourselves over to service of God and the kingdom. While Therapeutic Deism insists that suffering is to be avoided, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us that Christ became perfect and the source of eternal salvation precisely because he accepted to suffer in order to fulfill the Father’s will. Therapeutic Deism commands us to affirm others’ life choices while the Lord Jesus commands us to affirm – and thus glorify – the Father’s will for our lives.

Aristotle is right in asserting at the beginning of his “Nicomachean Ethics” that all men and women want to be happy. The even deeper truth is that God wants us to be happy. Many Americans and Westerners today, influenced as they are by the gnostic gospel of Therapeutic Deism, believe that Christianity underestimates and underappreciates the heart’s desire for happiness. The truth is the reverse. Therapeutic Deism settles for a strictly psychological and, ultimately, merely materialistic and paltry horizon. The Lord Jesus makes the audacious claim that in fact there exists a very real, truly transcendent horizon that opens up onto an eternally deep relationship with God.

Parents want their children to dream big dreams. Right they are to do so. What the Lord Jesus came into this world to tell us is that God the Father’s dreams for us far exceed our own dreams. God the Father’s plans for our life are more expansive than our own plans. All this because God loves us more than we love ourselves, and he therefore wants more for us in the way of life than we want for ourselves. He would give it to us, if only we would hate our lives in this world for the sake of embracing his glorious will.

Father Doherty is a parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish, San Francisco, and a member of the faculty at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory.

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