Therapeutic sensibilities make for timid Christians
I went to the zoo this past weekend. It was a beautiful zoo except for the fact that it seemed to have far more animal enclosures than actual animals. It may be that the animals were there but just in hiding. Hard to know.
One of the things I noticed was that the animal exhibits were all plastered with signage extolling the altruistic virtues of the zoo and the benevolent basis for having any particular animal in captivity. The polar bear had been abandoned by its mother. The red wolves were endangered and the zoo had a breeding program. The puffin was injured and so couldn't survive in the wild. You get the idea. I didn't take notes, but I don't recall any animal exhibit that didn't make these kinds of claims about the virtuous basis for the zoo's activities.
The need, apparently felt strongly by the staff at the zoo, to drench the exhibits in an apologetic for having had the audacity to display captive animals, was suggestive of an entire set of underlying yet unstated assumptions. The background premise and related question seemed to be that since human beings are merely one of many species competing for life and resources on the planet, who are we to be holding these other species captive? What right do we have to put other species on display? It's not as if human beings hold a place of preeminence in the world. Thus, consistent with the unstated premise, the zoo seemed to conclude that it must justify itself in the eyes of zoo visitors by framing the zoo's actions in terms of its beneficence toward the animals themselves. It is apparently just not morally justifiable to maintain a zoo merely for the intellectual enrichment and enjoyment of the human species.
Now, I may be doing a closer reading of my zoo experience than you are accustomed to. The kind of virtue signaling being done by the zoo is so commonplace in organizations now that it can easily just blend into the background noise. But some understanding by zoo personnel of their own project motivated them to slather the walls and walkways with signage declaring their moral bona fides.
The zoo's behavior is not easily separated from a set of underlying assumptions about the nature of our existence on earth, and the place human beings hold within our world. It is also, I suspect, rooted in certain anthropomorphic projections being foisted onto the animals themselves – perhaps due to too many years of watching Disney movies. As you can see in the following exchange from Twitter, the question of the place of human beings relative to the place of animals is an on-going discussion within the culture.
I recently visited Yellowstone National Park. Shortly after my departure, a woman there was killed by a grizzly bear while she was out on a walk. The news reporting about this tragedy was replete with unstated assumptions that human beings and bears possess morally equivalent claims to life. There was very much an it's-dangerous-out-there-and-not-much-can-be-done-about-it kind of vibe to the article I read. Lots of advice about carrying bear spray and staying indoors if possible. Not even a head nod, though, toward the idea that anyone might want to exercise the option of carrying a gun of sufficient power to shoot a marauding bear to death. The entire unstated premise was that human prerogatives have no preferential place above the prerogatives of bears. Our forefathers would have, I suspect, harbored a very different set of assumptions regarding the welfare of predatory bears. They would have been relentlessly intentional about eliminating the threat to their kith and kin, operating as they did on the assumption that human lives are more important than the lives of rampaging bears. What we assume about our place in the world turns out to be, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
My larger point here is that the premises we maintain about how our existence has been arranged invariably inform our understanding of our actions and, even, the boundaries of what is morally acceptable.
One of my complaints about modern protestant Christianity is that, whether consciously or not, it has allowed itself to be maneuvered into a position in which it makes its moral arguments in isolation of claims about the essential nature of our existence. This has contributed, I suspect, to a kind of weak sauce Christianity in which our moral prescriptions are motivated more by therapeutic concerns than by any foundational premises about the nature of our existence and the ends for which we exist. We will argue our corner on, say, sexual ethics, but it is more rare than not for me to stumble across an evangelical writer who frames his discussion in the broader context of God's overarching project in the created world.
Most of the socially contentious issues of our time are rooted in a conflict of visions regarding what human beings are, and what we're here for. Maybe that's always been true. I don't know for sure. Nevertheless, the bible does offer a comprehensive point of view regarding where we fit into God's project in the world, yet I rarely read an evangelical writer who, for example, argues against homosexuality on the basis of its incompatibility with the ends for which we were put here in the first place.
"Supposing one were a thing after all - a thing designed and invented by Someone else and valued for qualities quite different from what one had decided to regard as one's own true self?" - C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
In the quote inlined above, Lewis hints at this idea in his prescient novel That Hideous Strength. Coming to grips with our createdness, and the fact that our "inventor" may be in a position to impose a purpose onto our existence, is an idea that is repugnant to the therapeutically minded modern. Nevertheless, the implication of not being self-originating is inescapably that sexual ethics must, at some level, emerge from what we were made to be and to do. In other words, what constitutes morality is imposed upon us by the purposes chosen for us by our creator.
Another way to unpack this is to ask it as a question: Is the church in the business of distributing "red pills", or is it merely a therapist dispensing a kind of moral orthodontia? Does a Christian worldview lay down an entire set of premises about what it means to be human, or is it primarily only focused on a therapeutic sort of moral rehabilitation? What I'm implicitly suggesting here is that any notion of having a need for moral therapy, if divorced from the question of the purpose, or telos, of our existence, turns the discussion into a squabble over prescriptive moral and emotional preferences rather than a conversation about how moral imperatives inevitably flow from the nature of reality itself.
The Judeo-Christian scriptures make the claim that human beings hold a place of dominion in the world, to rule over the created order. Do such assumptions about human preeminence on earth implicate, say, the moral basis for the curation of zoos? Does it suggest anything at all about the primacy of human flourishing as a premise to inform our voting, for example, or our public policies about such things as wildlife management? Those same scriptures suggest that there is a creation mandate for humans to reproduce. If that really is the reality-based context of our existence, does it tell us anything about the moral bounds of sexual expression? Does the reproductive mandate asserted by the biblical text shed any light on the rest of the biblical writings that address sexual expression? Can we infer, from observable human anatomy, that the design of our bodies is in support of the procreative purpose, as established in the first principles of our existence and described by the bible? Could it be that the purpose of any moral rehabilitation project is not merely psycho-social therapy but is for bringing our affections and our actions back into conformity with the purpose for which we were originally "invented"?
Mary Harrington is one of the most interesting writers I'm reading these days. I think she may be Anglican, but I'm not rightly sure. I'm not totally sure she's a Christian even. In any case, she offers her own typically unflinching and, sometimes, saucy look at the implications of human physiology for social and sexual mores in her most recent substack post. Commenting on the recent Barbie movie, she says:
But even as this grows cartoonish, it all still looks weightless. And this won’t change, as long as Barbie feminism refuses to interrogate the central fact of our duality: how we make babies. No “feminist” message will succeed in tackling the gap between shiny appearance and fleshy reality, if it swerves the question of fertility. In real life, female beauty is inseparable from our reproductive role. We may sometimes chafe against this fact, but the female attributes that make men stare are robustly correlated with youth and fertility: perky boobs, a trim waist, elastic skin and good muscle tone. Conversely, too, male sexual desire is intensified by embodied features of male physiology, including testosterone levels. The telos of sexuality is, for men and women, the creation of new men and women.
What interests me about what she's saying here is not especially her observations about sexual attraction, but that she grounds her argument in observable reality rather than in doctrinaire therapeutic concerns. Ms. Harrington is suggesting that, notwithstanding how we might want the world to be, we must grapple with the world as it is.
We can contrast Ms. Harrington's approach with a popular contemporary Christian song, sung by one Lauren Daigle. The song is titled, "You Say", and in it, Ms. Daigle is entirely concerned with her inner feelings about herself. Ms. Daigle's interests, at least insofar as the song is concerned, are focused on her own psycho-therapeutic needs.
I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I'm not enough
Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up
Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low?
Remind me once again just who I am because I need to know
You say I am loved when I can't feel a thing
You say I am strong when I think I am weak
And You say I am held when I am falling short
And when I don't belong, oh You say I am Yours
There's a whiff, in these lyrics, of an easily recognized phenomenon which is especially prevalent among adolescents, though by no means limited to that particular community. A young person, when asked why he or she is attracted to this or that person in their acquaintance, will sometimes respond that the attraction is based on the way that person makes them feel. In other words, the attraction is not being animated by anything particularly admirable about the other person. Or, at least, their means of assessing their own attraction to that person is not informed by the attributes of the other person so much but by their own feelings of attraction.
Ms. Harrington is involved in the more adult exercise of bringing her own expectations about the world, and of herself, into conformity with the way the world itself actually is. She is, in a sense, red-pilling herself. She adopts an outward facing point of reference which isn't primarily oriented toward the way she feels about things, but toward the way the circumstances of her existence objectively are. Ms. Daigle, by contrast, is operating from the point of view of her own therapeutic needs.
Just to be clear, the point of using Ms. Daigle's song is to illustrate a worldview that emerges from therapeutic concerns, in contrast to Ms. Harrington, who offers us a kind of red-pilled understanding of the world we actually inhabit.
As a brief aside, I don't mean to be too hard on Ms. Daigle. She may be more personally mature than the lyrics of her song suggest. It was written and sung quite a while ago - one even hopes that she has matured substantially since recording it. But Ms. Daigle's lyrics are, and were, wildly popular among contemporary evangelicals. That fact alone suggests that the therapeutic message of the song resonates with many modern Christians, and is not confined to Ms. Daigle alone. Ms. Daigle's lyrics thus offer a useful contrast to the less therapeutic sensibilities of someone like Ms. Harrington.
I'm not Catholic. And I can easily relate to Peter Thiel who, when asked why he himself isn't Catholic, offers a two word answer: "Pope. Francis." I laughed when I listened to Thiel say that because there is more than a whiff of truth in his answer. My own reasons for not being Catholic may be more extensive than Thiel's, but what I do find is that, compared to the evangelicals I read, Catholic writers, also Orthodox writers to some extent, very often have a richer, more developed understanding of how the moral rehabilitation project of Christianity is inseparably interwoven with the nature of our whole existence. The willingness of the Catholic church to take the position it has on contraception, for example, illustrates this kind of more holistic and integrated point of view.
Ms. Harrington goes farther even than the Catholic position, as I understand it, on the moral questions raised by contraception when she characterizes medical contraception (i.e. "the pill") as the beginning of transhumanism:
Regular readers will know my argument that contraception, underwritten as a last resort by legal abortion, is our entry-point into the transhumanist age and signals the transformation of feminism into bio-libertarianism. - Mary Harrington, Reactionary Feminist
In multiple venues, Mary Harrington has argued that "the pill" represented the beginning of the transhuman age, because it reflected the first widespread acceptance of the idea that medical interventions which negate the proper functioning of the body are both desirable and moral. Accordingly, she suggests, proponents of "the pill" have implicitly accepted this philosophical premise, and are thus in a poor position to argue against the atrocity of gender affirming surgery.
Again, what interests me about Harrington's argument is not her specific conclusion, but that she is reasoning through the lens of telos – in other words, she is thinking within the context of what our bodies are for. She is also not a priori assuming that what we want, and what we are for, are one and the same thing. Nor does she assume that our wants should be catered to.
Another writer, one Connor Fitzgerald, recently described an emerging online female discussion that revolves around "what's wrong with men". (Perhaps you are as unsurprised as I am that this is actually a topic of online discussion among women.) But Fitzgerald does something in the following snippet that is important - he suggests that the question of male "defects" should be interpreted in the context of male human nature and be done in ways that are informed by the purpose of that nature. (I wondered, after reading this, if the modern instinct to reason mostly in terms of a therapeutic need, rather than in terms of the way our natures have been designed, may also explain some of the general reluctance among many men to involve themselves more rigorously in the life of their churches. But I digress.)
One of the other reasons men shy away from the discourse is they know before even setting foot on the road that the destination is Therapy. The true cliche, often quoted by Richard Reeves, is that women relate face to face, men relate shoulder to shoulder. That may be why men find therapy and the therapeutic worldview alien and unhelpful. Even the flimsiest male specimen has psychological needs related to accomplishment, strength, usefulness and capability; an atmosphere of unconditional empathy and unrestrained emotional disclosure can be poisonous to those things. Whatever the reason, men understand that therapy (the practice) is mostly just the medical codification of a typically female worldview as objectively true and correct. Most men aren't going to be interested in joining a conversation conducted in that spirit. https://www.conorfitzgerald.com/p/whats-wrong-with-the-whats-wrong
If Fitzgerald is right, it means that men tend to act in ways that are consistent with their mannish human natures. Do you find that surprising? The online women apparently do. But Fitzgerald goes on to suggest that our current therapeutic enthusiasms reflect the triumph of feminization within the broader assumptions maintained by the culture.
It is inescapably the case that men in general are more oriented toward purpose and goals than toward relational self-disclosure. Wildly popular internet memes have even been written about the comical relational dynamics that ensue from this commonly recognized attribute of men. Memes don't arise for no reason.
It isn't accidental, I suspect, that some of the most listened-to people on the internet are making an argument to men about what they are for, and what such a manly purpose implies about what men should work toward accomplishing. Also, what they should therefore also avoid as a matter of fulfilling their purpose. In other words, the moral imperative is being drawn from a sense of the telos of manly attributes.
This framing of the conversation turns out to be especially attractive to younger men, who have grown up in an age in which boys have been denied exposure to any ideas which might suggest they have innate abilities that are uniquely male and, therefore, they don't exist merely as interchangeable parts with the women around them. Boys and young men often have an intuition about themselves, and their purpose, but they are being aggressively indoctrinated against indulging any inkling that their specifically boyish inclinations might reflect anything other than social defects. So, when they come across someone who speaks to their secret intuitions about themselves, someone who suggests that their mannish human nature has a purpose all its own, the young men can be intensely drawn to those discussions.
I want to reiterate that the larger point I'm making here is the distinction between drawing moral conclusions from our purpose, or telos, as seen in both biblical and observable reality, or drawing them from a therapeutic need (e.g. one's emotional or spiritual deficit). In most of my evangelical reading, anecdotal to be sure, I see far more effort put into persuading on subjects, like sexual ethics, from a therapeutic perspective. I find lots of talk about moral rehabilitation, eternal salvation, and relational fidelity. All of which are good things as far as they go. But I find few writers making the argument against, say, the use of porn, on the basis of it being, quite literally, unmanly - in the sense that a porn user is focusing his sexual interest in a way that is inconsistent with the telos of his sexuality. The evangelical focus on the question of porn tends to be on the moral hygiene of one's thought life, along with relational fidelity. In other words, the concerns are therapeutic. Thus, evangelical sensibility regarding human sexuality is often largely untethered from the intent or purpose of such sexuality within the larger created order. It is reduced to something mostly personal and relational. It is not less than that, to be sure, but it is also a great deal more.
Some of this all boils down to whether we believe that God is offering us an integrated, holistic understanding of what it means to be human, or whether he confines his offer to just our spiritual/moral rehabilitation. I will note, in passing, that the apostle Peter himself suggested that what God provides to us is "everything we need" for both "life" and "godliness". Just sayin'.
It may seem like I'm making an esoteric point, but I think the distinction between the red pill and the therapeutic provides some explanatory power regarding the fracturing that is, and has been, taking place within evangelicalism over Covid and politics generally. If you're unaware of the fracturing taking place among evangelicals, consider the following exchange:
During Covid, an entire claque of celebrity evangelicals, including David French, Russell Moore, and Francis Collins, along with numerous others, adopted a spiritually coercive posture toward their Christian brothers, hectoring them from their respective media and government platforms. They wagged their rhetorical fingers at evangelicals, informing them that an unwillingness to be vaccinated represented a moral failure. They proposed an entirely novel view of Christian ethics, one in which Christians are suddenly now morally obligated to undergo unproven/speculative medical interventions largely out of concern for the feelings of others. Evangelicals were repeatedly told that refusing to get the vaccine amounted to a failure to love their neighbor.
The reality that obtained with the vaccines was, of course, rather more complicated than the celebrity evangelicals allowed for with their finger-wagging histrionics. But their position was always more grounded in the perceived psycho-social therapeutic benefits of vaccines than in either the biological science or in any empirical evidence. We are now discovering, not too surprisingly, that there was a great deal of skullduggery going on behind the scenes, and that these erstwhile evangelical leaders were either themselves up to their necks in the manipulative shenanigans (e.g. Collins), or gullible participants in an ethically dubious effort to bully the evangelical community into compliance with the health bureaucracy's diktats. I write as someone who was not vaccine "hesitant", having received multiple doses during the height of Covid. But I believed then, and believe now, that the lack of a bias for liberty, which lack was so apparent in the priorities of the aforementioned evangelical bullies, not to mention the political class, has been the cause of all manner of unnecessary division and heartbreak within the broader community. As far as I know, to this day not one of the accusatory celebrity evangelicals has ever apologized for falsely accusing his brothers. If they have, any such apologies have been nowhere near as loud and public as the original accusations that they made.
While much of evangelicalism seems caught up in a psycho-social perspective on faith, not all therapeutic evangelicals bully their neighbors in this way. The bullying itself is not the point I'm actually trying to make. But therapeutic evangelicals do have a general tendency, when reasoning about moral imperatives, to prioritize the therapeutic considerations above any other. Accordingly, the emotional and relational implications of any question tend to blot out most other aspects of a subject. The Covid bullies are merely illustrative of this propensity to prioritize sentiment over reality. When push came to shove, the evangelical bullies of Covid elevated their therapeutic concern for the feelings of an abstract "neighbor" above the actual medical welfare of their own Christian brothers. They may now say, "but we didn't know!" Well, yes, they didn't, know. Many of us knew they didn't know. But that didn't stop them from accusing and bullying.
You can easily observe this evangelical fracturing by browsing around on YouTube. On one side is an emerging cadre of what I'll call "red pill evangelicals", who offer an unambiguous vision that tethers calls for morality to our telos, as defined by God. Their reasoning is more similar to the Catholics I often read - more wholly integrated - than to the more mainstream evangelical writers and teachers. These red pill evangelicals tend to speak and teach with little ambiguity, and with an unvarnished forthrightness that men especially find appealing I think. I have in mind evangelicals like Doug Wilson, John MacArthur or Voddie Baucham. There are numerous others.
The question of whether faith touches upon all of reality, or whether it is mostly concerned with our moral and spiritual therapeutic needs, strongly implicates the extent to which Christianity will be willing to assert itself within the broader culture. Framing moral questions in primarily therapeutic terms has led us to where we find ourselves in our culture today: carving off the genitalia of children in the name of therapy, with the nodding approval of the cultural elite. For the sake of our neighbors and the health of our culture, evangelical Christians would do well to rediscover a more robust, assertive, reality-based apologetic of human moral imperatives. One which is less concerned with how everyone feels, and more concerned with what human beings are for.