A few friends have asked me to expand on my critique of Powlison’s Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair, as well as what I’ve said about the basic thinking around idols, repentance, and belief. Before doing that, I’ll say that I agree with much of what I read from Powlison, and appreciate deeply the work of CCEF, the Sonship movement, Tim Keller, and others that hover in the same ‘psychic’ space. I resonate with 90% of what I read, but where I differ is (I think) fairly significant. This post will be too short to some of these things justice, but feel free to write back and ask me to expand where I’m too brief. So, let’s talk.
First, I take as a starting point that human beings are relational, made in and for love, created in the image of a Trinitarian God. Much of what I’ve seen from CCEF treats people as individuals, “repenting of their idols and believing in the Gospel” for the sake of growth and maturity. I don’t disagree. But, relationally there is so much more going on. Consider Luke 15 and the ‘Prodigal God’ story. The story is much less about the prodigal son’s repentance, which most commentators think was half-hearted and self-serving, and much more about God’s pursuing, impassioned, relational love. It’s only in the context of being seen and loved that deeply that we can begin to relax and surrender, embracing the depth of our brokenness and entering into relationship in more loving ways. It says a lot about relational dynamics, the human need for love and belonging. This is why I cannot read Keller’s Prodigal God apart from Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son. The two need one another for an adequate psychology and theology.
Second, I find Powlison’s work to be highly individualistic. The dynamics he talks of are inner dynamics, and the work of change is perhaps prompted by a good counselor but doesn’t require one.
Third, this shortcoming in Powlison’s theology is directly tied, I think, to a typically modern hyper-intellectualism which over-emphasizes cognitive change. Interestingly, Powlison claims to depart from the nouthetic counseling of Jay Adams, rightly critiquing its behaviorism and failure to take the human heart seriously. Yet, Powlison doesn’t go far enough. I do not think his theological anthropology is complex enough. Identifying idols and repenting of them is just one part of a larger project of taking sin and redemption seriously. Consider this thought in his article:
“People do not have needs. We have masters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people, valued objects, Satan.”
On this alone, we could spend much more time reflecting on how theologically and psychologically unfounded this statement is. Powlison expands on this, saying, “I am not “hunger¬driven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.” In saying this, I believe Powlison steps into many problems in both theology and psychology, driving a wedge between hunger/need for love and God that need not be there.
- He effectively dismisses the relational core of human beings in the image-of-God, which is shattered but not destroyed.
- He does with humans what others do with culture, forgetting original goodness, manifesting in a God-ordained relational structure capable of longing and hungering in holy ways.
- By effectively dismissing human need, he misses the beauty of a Trinitarian theology applied to relationships, manifesting in periochoresis – the dance of interdependence, of loving and being loved, and belonging, of believing, of sacrificing, of receiving.
- By dismissing human neediness, I think he undermines an opportunity to see the good desires that lay beneath our mis-directed desires.
- Powlison and others will say that you can’t find good desires beneath everything. Consider murder, or rape, or child abuse. I’d argue that a sufficient theology of relational love would actually bring these things to greater clarity. As a therapist, I’m astounded by what people really long for, and the twisted ways in which they go about getting it.
- To get at these desires beneath, you need an adequate relational theology which sees beneath behaviors, and even our “repenting and believing” to deeper longings for love. This makes therapy all the more complex, of course. But it gets at the heart of who we are and how we change.
- Even more, the best psychology today sees love and attachment as core to human identity. And in doing so, it convinces me that our idols run far deeper than Powlison can identify. Sin is a systemic and relationally intertwined phenomenon. It is a neuro-psychological phenomenon. It is a biological phenomenon. And more.
All of this said, I think Powlison/Keller rely way too heavily on Puritan psychology, missing a much more expansive theology/psychology of love that can be found in the Cappadocian Fathers, the Desert Fathers, the Catholic mystics (Bernard of Clarivaux, Julian of Norwich St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila), the Reformed mystics (Teellinck, the a’Brackel’s, Witsius, even Samuel Rutherford), Augustine, Calvin, Blaise Pascal, and C.S. Lewis. In other words, while I think a case can be made for bad psychology in Powlison, I find his greatest weakness to be theological/biblical on this issue.
Humans are made in and for love. Our hearts are restless, as Augustine says, until we find our rest in God. We’re hungry and thirsty, Eucharistic beings who look for love in all the wrong places. But we can trace our deepest longings beneath the “books and music,” as Lewis says, following that scent, that echo to our heart’s greatest need.
In response to my post about C.S. Lewis and masturbation last night, one friend said, “Is it really about love and longing? Don’t dudes just want to ejaculate?” On the one hand, you can say that a guy is looking to get his needs met apart from God, trusting his idol (masturbation) more than God. So, it’s a simple remedy – repent and believe the Gospel. Maybe the biblical counselor would take it a step further, identifying an idol of control, or false satisfaction, or a need to be loved. But even that, I’ve said, misses the point. Of course we need to be loved!
I’d argue, however, that masturbation is a complex phenomenon which can be understood only as we see our deep hunger for relationship. So much of it has to do with relational fear, a longing to be loved but a fear of moving toward another in relationship. Some of it is neuro-psychological, as chemicals are released that create a feeling that human beings are made for, but which is intended for a bond of intimacy. The conversation must go beyond identifying the idol and repenting of it. It’s got to look at how we love, what we feel, the ways in which we connect to others, what we fear. In other words, beneath it all we’ll find that we’re longing for love. And what we’ll find, as we open ourselves to the love we need most deeply, is that God moves toward us with more intimacy and an even greater experience of ecstasy which will make masturbation pale in comparison. He wants us to experience an even deeper security, belonging, and love. For me, St. John of the Cross has been most helpful on this.
Counseling, in this context, is all-the-more complex, to be sure, but richly enhanced as it invites a deeper conversation about relationship, and even about the relational interactions between client and counselor. I am not against “biblical counseling,” to be sure, as some good friends practice it. I do think its better thought of as short-term pastoral counseling, and that the further work of therapy requires a more expansive theology and psychology.
These are some preliminary thoughts. Feel free to push back. I’ll write more if I think of more…