Spiritual abandonment in human care: The “differences” fallacy
I am blessed with a nephew who counsels those who suffer from various psychological and emotional ills. His wife is in the same line of work, and both of them have a deep appreciation for the role of the spiritual life in every aspect of personal health. During their visit over the Thanksgiving holidays, I was prompted to ponder this role more deeply.
In today’s culture we are assisted by a genuine insight which has become an almost intolerable burden. I am speaking of our awareness of human differences, and of how far beyond our control these differences very often are. One aspect of this awareness is the tendency (often a positive tendency) to see differences as givens rather than as problems to be corrected. But if you spend your life counseling those who suffer deeply from their inability to cope with the normal stresses of life, you soon learn that this positive tendency can often turn into a deadly trap.
In some cases, the word “difference” is a polite mask for “deficiency”—for a particular sort of human deficiency or brokenness which really does need some degree of “fixing” to make us whole, that is, to make us more fully human, more fully what we are supposed to be..
As we have become more aware of our differences, their causes, and how far they may be beyond our control, we have learned to temper our judgments. We more easily recognize that another person has a different genetic makeup, a different life story, and in all a very different personality from ourselves. Therefore, we can understand that what we may see as odd incapacities or even destructive tendencies may not be as bad or unacceptable as we would have thought, especially in a more homogenous culture.
But this appreciation—this often welcome moral reticence—comes at a price. It is one thing to suspend judgment for a time, but it is quite another to fail to distinguish the good from its lack, and quite another still to turn away from the attempt to maximize the good in our own lives and in the lives of others whenever they are suffering a lack of a due good. One of the highest costs of such a failure to make these necessary distinctions is the rapid dismissal of God and religion. We fall into the mistaken assumption that all spiritual and moral outlooks, having been produced by circumstances beyond our control, are equally valid—or equally invalid.
But this can be true only if the realities with which religion deals are non-existent. The assumption that spiritual and moral divergences are nothing more than “mere differences” may be triggered by the circumstances of modern life, in which we really are overwhelmed by “differences”, but it masks a prior judgment that either God is not real or God cannot be known. Yet both of these conclusions are demonstrably false. They have often been argued, certainly, but in the end they are philosophically, historically, and experientially false.
So here is the problem: Our refusal to engage the spiritual makes it impossible to respond productively to psychological, emotional and, I daresay, even rational troubles and deficiencies.
Exacerbation does not heal
In our time we have a love-hate relationship with human differences. In accordance with the reigning cultural prejudices, we embrace some differences as so far beyond human control as to require the most vociferous and supportive acceptance, while denouncing other differences as so obviously the result of foolish or irrelevant choices as to require an equally vociferous denunciation and suppression. Try same-sex attraction in the first category, for example, and try attachment to natural law in the second.
But too often we miss the most obvious reality of all. We miss the fact that, for all its own pitfalls, the spiritual life is part of what it means to be human, and the failure to address spiritual concerns in the face of psychological and emotional difficulties is like fighting a powerful enemy with one hand tied behind the back. I offer two reasons:
- The first, which need not posit any particular religion at all, is that a healthy spiritual orientation at the very top (so to speak) of our being is absolutely necessary for the proper ordering—and therefore the correction and cure—of the lower faculties.
- The second, which depends on getting one’s religion as right as possible, is that many of our deepest problems cannot be healed and corrected without the reception of the graces we were in fact created to receive, and the reorientation they effect throughout our being.
Sometimes we can heal ourselves, especially with help from wise counselors. More often we need strength and abilities which we will not have until God is able to act more freely in us to reorder our dispositions and affections. Have you ever wondered why 12-step programs typically require a recognition of personal dependence upon God? Such processes are not imposed theologically from the top down. They are rooted in the repeatedly experienced reality that we are not alone, and that to become fully and freely human we need a kind of strength and completion which only God can provide.
Christian psychologists and counselors (not to mention experienced priests) know firsthand how important spiritual reorientation is to personal healing and wholeness. The knowledge that we are beloved by the One who alone is Good, and the conviction that this same One is drawing us to Himself through all our struggles—these are decisive in reordering everything in our lives, including our psychological and emotional disruptions. After all, these are operations of lower faculties which, by design, are supposed to be under spiritual control.
Billions of ordinary people everywhere, responding to grace, find this to be true every day. The story of most of our lives is the progressive and very conscious application of spiritual light and strength to the reformation of our psychological and emotional dispositions. Some deficiencies or disorders are too severe for us to remedy without expert spiritual, psychological or emotional intervention, gained from a priest, a doctor, a counselor, a friend, a support group. Some deficiencies or disorders are so severe as to fall beyond human reach altogether, and these still remain shrouded in mystery. But as a rule, proper spiritual ordering is manifestly helpful in controlling and correcting the myriad disorders which afflict our fallen nature.
This brings us to the decisive question: Why do we use “differences” as an excuse for denying and even outlawing spiritual and moral assistance? Instead, we should be discerning those kinds of “differences” which undermine our humanity and diminish our uniquely human aspiration to the Good. We should be incorporating God, the Church, the sacraments and the spiritual life into psychological and emotional care, not banning them. These are not irrelevant, still less harmful. They are essential to the task.
Now everything I have written here applies also to physical, financial and even social ills of every kind. Moreover, there are powers and principalities at work. To exclude spiritual development from the care of our afflicted brothers and sisters is to abandon them more completely than we know—to abandon them in the very hour of their greatest need, and in the midst of their greatest danger.
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