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A Tale of Two Therapies

April 12, 2007 Length: 9:43

What is the therapeutic strategy of the Orthodox Church?

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Hello, and welcome to the inaugural podcast of Faith and Philosophy, Reflections on Orthodoxy and Culture. Over the next few weeks we will be looking at the relationship between the Orthodox Christian faith as taught by the apostles of Christ and preserved intact within the Orthodox Church today, and the intellectual traditions and movements that have helped to create and shape the culture in which we live.

I am an historian of early Christianity by training, and a professor of philosophy by vocation. I hope that over the next few weeks we will come to understand that the dichotomy between philosophy and faith between Athens and Jerusalem, is for the most part, a false dichotomy. To live a life of obedient faith in Christ, is nothing else than to live philosophically, that is, to love and search after wisdom, for Christ is, himself, the wisdom and reason of the Father.

The philosophy teacher in me would like to plan out the whole course of these podcasts so that every one logically leads to the next. But let’s face it. If you have ever read the Church Fathers, or any ancient philosopher, for that matter, you know none of them were ever that organized, and the reason is simple. For them, theology or philosophy, is a lived discourse. It is something you do, not something you just sit around and talk about.

So these talks will not follow any grand scheme or outline. I may revisit the same topic three or four times, but always from a slightly different angle. The purpose, as always, will be to explore the ways in which our Orthodox faith impacts our relationship to, and our life within, our own culture. To that end, I have chosen as my topic for today, A Tale of Two Therapies.

Those of you who are familiar with the works of the late theologian, Father John Romanides, or of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, will recognize the theme of Orthodox Christianity as a therapeutic science. That is, they present Orthodoxy, above all, as a therapeutic method designed to heal the human soul. I would add here, the Greek word for soul is psyche, from which we get our words, psyche, psychology, and psychiatry. Indeed, Metropolitan Heirotheos entitled one of his books, Orthodox Psychotherapy.  On the other hand, in his book, For the Life of the World, Father Alexander Schmemann railed against those who would treat Orthodoxy as a means of helping people get through life, and ultimately reconciling them with the inevitability of death. In other words, he flatly rejected any attempt to treat Orthodoxy as a form of secular, or even religious, therapy.

It would be all too easy, at this point, to assume that Fathers Romanides and Schmemman are simply at odds with one another, one treating Orthodoxy as a kind of therapy, and the other denying it. But such is not the case, for what Father Schmemann opposed was therapy conceived as a humanistic endeavor, designed to reconcile man with the fact of his own impending death. To this fact, and to all of the humanistic strategies designed to help us accept it, Father Schmemann opposed the Church’s Paschal exclamation, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” In other words, Orthodoxy does not accept death as a fact, but considers it an enemy to be overcome, and proclaims that Christ has done just that.

Against this backdrop, the Church’s therapeutic strategies, prayer, fasting, vigil, self-denial, etc., can never be considered mere coping mechanisms. They are not designed to help us simply get through life until the moment of our inevitable death. Rather, they are designed to help us participate in Christ’s victory over death here and now. “Let us begin the fast with joy,” we sing at the beginning of Lent, “that we may all see the Holy Passion of Christ, our God, and rejoice in spirit at his Holy Resurrection.”

What Fathers Romanides and Schmemann have done, in fact, is to stress two completely different, but complementary, and mutually dependent, aspects of the Orthodox faith. Father Schmemann has emphasized the objective fact that by his incarnation, death and resurrection, Christ has destroyed death and opened the depths of God’s immortal life to mortal men. As a liturgical and sacramental theologian par excellence, he has further emphasized for us that this victory over death is offered to us objectively in the sacramental life of the Church. Baptism is our death and resurrection with Christ. The eucharist is our participation in the deified humanity of the crucified and risen Lord.

By the same token, Father Romanides’ writings serve to remind us that what is given objectively in the Church must be received and lived subjectively by each one of us. Yet, as we know, this is easier said than done. To truly receive and live the life that Christ offers to us requires work, and this precisely because, in St. Paul’s terminology, we must strive against the old man, our nature that is subject to the fear of death.

Metropolitan Hierotheos stresses the patristic image of the Church as a spiritual hospital. The Church is the inn where the Good Samaritan brings the man who fell among thieves after he had been ignored by everyone else who passed by.  When every secular and religious help fails, Christ appears, and offers us healing of body and soul in his Church.

It is precisely because the Church is Christ’s hospital, that our healing, our very salvation, depends on both of these aspects. The objective fact of Christ’s victory over death offered to us in the sacraments, and the subjective appropriation of this gift through a life of humble obedience and spiritual struggle. Without the grace of the risen Christ, without a life anchored in the mystical life of Christ’s body, churchly therapy becomes just another humanistic attempt at self-improvement, fasting just another dietary program, and prayer just another form of meditation. On the other hand, without the Church’s therapeutic discipline, the sacraments become magical rites, or just as bad, mere social customs. Baptism without catechesis is just another rite of passage. Communion without confession, just another communal meal.

It is imperative for us to remember, therefore, that when we hear Orthodoxy described as a therapeutic science, and the Church as a spiritual hospital, we do not understand these phrases in the same way that they are used and abused in our popular culture. When a celebrity gets arrested he blames alcohol or prescription drugs and goes into rehab for a week or two. When another celebrity has a public meltdown, she goes into rehab for a day or two. At this rate, the 30-minute rehab is almost inevitable. We have even reached the point where celebrities who insult special interest groups have to check into rehab as part of their public mea culpa. This last is way too reminiscent of the gulag archipelago for my taste.

The point is that Orthodox therapeia is not rehab. It is not a crash program designed to help us cope with the stresses of life. It is, rather, a tried and true method, tested and proved again and again over the last 2000 years, of healing our passions and disciplining our minds, so that the grace of God, which is given to us freely in Christ, may grow within us as a seed and transfigure us, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “Be not conformed to this world, but be transfigured by the renewing of your nous.” Orthodox therapeia is precisely this transfiguring renewal.

May our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, the vanquisher of death, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska, my patron saint, who preached the Word of God to the native peoples of Alaska in their own languages, and within the context of their own cultures, and of the blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, who spoke the Word of God to us within the context of our own crazy, post-modern culture, have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich entrance into His eternal kingdom.


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