Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Tradition Sensitive Psychotherapy: Anabaptism

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Tradition Sensitive Psychotherapy: Anabaptism

Article excerpt

While the notion of tradition has developed a pejorative reputation, there are voices (Wittgenstein and MacIntyre) calling for a refurbishing of the concept. Sub-traditions and religious communities engender loyalty that shapes the members' worldview, convictions, emotions, and practices. This essay reflects on the impact of a particular religious tradition-Anabaptism-on the author's life and practice as a psychologist engaged in teaching, research, and psychotherapy. A brief history of this movement, its beliefs, its exemplars, and archetypal stories are reviewed. That is followed by a summary of five themes in theological anthropology found in various Anabaptist writers: an ethical perspective on being human, the self as communal, Christ as model of the political self, the sacrality of individual and collective life, the mystery of personhood, and a historical view of sin. Some implications for psychotherapy from the perspective of this tradition are indicated.

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle-they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments. (Alfred North Whitehead, 1911, p. 6l)

Tradition has received a negative reputation in the modem world. The Boston tea party thought European, aristocratic, hierarchical culture was best left behind. Later immigrants, eager to assimilate to Western culture, viewed the traditionalism of their parents and the culture of the old country as an unbearable burden (Joyce, 1916/2008). Today's individualists harbor considerable antipathy toward culture, tradition, and custom as foreign intrusions from which children need protection (Bellah et al., 1985/2007; Hogan, 1975). Evolutionary psychologists refer to earlier psychologies as "the dead hand of the past'' because contemporary life is so different from ancestral life (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Buss, 2000).

In contrast, a nascent chorus of voices is making the case for the importance of tradition. Wittgenstein (1953) famously argued that to understand a sentence requires knowledge of the culture behind the utterance. Language and tradition are then inextricably connected. Language games (grammars) are rules learned in a linguistic and custom laden community and to extract a word from that language community creates the illusion that the meaning of a word is universal. A more recent spokesperson, Alasdair MacIntyre, has proposed that there is no rationality that is not in some way connected to a tradition (1988). Writing of the Encyclopaedists, he states:

Descartes symbolized for the nineteenth-century Encyclopaedist a declaration of independence by reason from the particular bonds of any particular moral and religious community. It is on this view of the essence of rationality that its objectivity is inseparable from its freedom from the partialities of all such communities. It is allegiance to reason as such, impersonal, impartial, disinterested, uniting, and universal, that the Encyclopaedist summons his or her readers and hearers. (1990, p. 49)

Culture and society shape us in amorphous ways but a sub-tradition (Republican or Democratic, masculine or feminine, north or south, Oakland A's or Pittsburgh Pirates, mid-western Canadian or American) demands deeper loyalties and thus can have an even more profound effect on how the individual views society, religion, others, and self. Our beliefs, emotions, attitudes, behaviors, relationships are impacted by one's tradition. Such traditions can shape our political convictions and how we vote, our sexual habits, or our willingness to share wealth.

If we are immersed in a tradition over time it begins unconsciously to nurture our convictions, passions, and moods to the point where they may function autonomously, automatically. …

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