US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Finding God on the (counselor's) couch: Prayer as personal therapy

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

An interesting guest op-ed in today's New York Times explores the image of God as a therapist--not necessarily her therapist, but therapist for the nation's tens of millions of evangelical Christians. Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford anthroplogist who spent time studying evangelicals associated with The Vineyard churches, spends today's highly coveted NYT column-inches talking about how evangelical Christians of Rick Warren fame on down describe the ways in which God is the Rollo May-esque "unconditionally loving" figure with whom one can share every secret without fear of judgment. (I wrote about Luhrmann's research in my June 2012 column.)

What's great about Luhrmann's writing is the empathy and care with which she tell people's stories: the couple who lost a child late in pregnancy who relied on the Gospel of John in their despair, asking with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go?" Or the pastor of a church in which a vibrant young father of two died suddenly who has the courage to admit in his congregation that "Creation is beautiful but not safe."

Where Luhrmann surprises and disappoints is when she departs from her research: "This approach to the age-old problem of theodicy is not really available to mainstream Protestants and Catholics, who do not imagine a God so intimate, so loving, so much like a person." What was that again? On the contrary, I know piles of mainliners and Catholics who also rely on that personal relationship, so I'm not sure where Luhrmann is getting her info when she writes this way. In fact, I think that's one common thread that Christians across denominations can offer to our culture's sense of abandonment: the proposition of a relationship with a God who, if the stories preserved in the Bible and Christian tradition can be trusted, is ever eager to be with us in good times and bad.

That's not to say that a relationship with God is a cure-all, as the death by suicide of Rick and Kay Warren's son, Matthew, tragically illustrates--though we can be confident that God's embrace of Matthew endures even now. But I do wonder how the world will change if fewer and fewer people are convinced of the possibility of intimate relationship with God, one that constantly draws us beyond ourselves--another reason for those of us who live in that constant relationship to be generous in sharing its fruits.