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A Peaceable Psychology: Christian Therapy in a World of Many Cultures

July 21, 2014

Peaceable PsychologyThis summer I’ve been taking a course on multicultural counseling. Here I offer some interaction with and reflection on A Peaceable Psychology, pictured at left.

Key Points of Learning: Agreements and Concerns

Before reading A Peaceable Psychology, I hadn’t really thought about counseling and therapy as “political” acts. And yet Alvin Dueck and Kevin Reimer warn well against the illusion that the therapist can somehow counsel apolitically, aculturally, amorally, and areligiously. One of the key, unifying ideas of the book is: “Civility includes learning and validating the language of the ethno-religious client. It is polite to defer to the meaning framework of a client.”

I found this to be a helpful way of framing the quest for diversity competence among therapists and pastors. Dueck and Reimer do go even farther than saying this kind of psychotherapy is polite; they suggest that to counsel in this way is to be like Jesus, especially when therapist and client can inhabit the same place of suffering together.

Although Dueck and Reimer have a healthy (and hearty!) reluctance toward philosophical foundationalism as such, they see the work and life and love of Jesus as foundational to a peaceable psychology. This is especially evident in their view of the importance of the atonement.

I found myself in agreement with Dueck and Reimer when they wrote:

The reconciling atonement of Christ is not spiritual alone but contains physical, psychological, and social dimensions of human brokenness. The suffering God is a beckoning God, who in Christ offers the potential of a new beginning. Consequently, a peaceable psychology is an incarnational event whereupon the invisible spiritual reality of God’s grace is attached to and bound up in the visible life of both the victim and the offender.

They go on, “Atonement is God’s welcoming of the enemy, of the other. It is an invitation to new life, to freedom from sin. This is the basis of a peaceable psychology.”

When considering various theological theories of the atonement, I find myself convinced by an all-of-the-above approach. (How could we limit the efficacy of the atonement by proffering just one theory as to what it was and how it happened?) The work and suffering of Jesus, they suggest, is to transform the therapist-client relationship. “If Juanita were our client,” they ask, “would her suffering fully impact us?”

This, however, also was a potential point of disagreement I had with the authors. Or at least I had questions and wanted to add qualifications. To be sure, the idea of the “kenotic therapist” makes sense to me—especially as a pastor. But the following expression of kenotic therapy was too much, at least for me: “Indeed, I am held hostage by my clients’ suffering. Their face places an ethical claim on me because as a fellow human I am systemically responsible for their suffering.”

While I can agree about “an ethical claim,” I’m not sure being “held hostage” is the most useful metaphor. How many clients will—or can—a therapist allow to hold him hostage before he feels imprisoned in an unhealthy and stultifying way? I wish the authors had spoken more to the point with some practical suggestions and caveats.

Implications for Pastoral Care

Dueck and Reimer say, “We fear that the American psychologist who assumes a level playing field for the linguistic comprehension of ‘self’ has already begun a subtle process of imposition upon the client.”

This is a valuable reminder to me as a minister. I simply cannot make assumptions about the cultural backgrounds of congregants. Further, there is value in this approach (of not assuming “a level playing field for the linguistic comprehension of ‘self’”) that has already—just this last week—had practical import and payoff in my biblical hermeneutics for preaching.

Yesterday I preached on Psalm 23. Due in large part to the idea Dueck and Reimer articulate above, namely, that constructions of self are culturally conditioned and informed, I was able to observe the following about Psalm 23.

David uses the first person singular pronoun throughout the Psalm. God is the shepherd of each individual who would follow him.

This may seem slightly unremarkable to us. We live in a North American society that already tends toward individualism. Our cultural construction of the self tends to be individually-focused.

The culture in which David found himself was much more communally-oriented. …A person’s sense of self was constructed and informed and shaped in a communal context.

So it’s at least a little remarkable, in the larger context of Hebrew worshiping society, that David begins–the Lord is MY shepherd.

This really drove home the point in another article we read in class: “Since hermeneutical understanding is always intercultural and contextual, cultural self-awareness is a prerequisite to responsibly interpreting Scripture and spiritual experience” (Sandage, Jensen, and Jass).

I also do and will find it useful for my own pastoring to consider that “a peaceable therapist recognizes that healing is best conducted ethnically, in the client’s mother tongue and in his or her local culture.”

Of course no therapist can be already conversant in the mother tongue of every cultural or religious tradition. But Dueck and Reimer realize that, and are suggesting more of an “ad hoc” approach anyway: “A peaceable therapist is a linguist; he or she recognizes differences between languages and honors them by learning them.”

May God help us–therapists and ministers alike–so to do!

Find A Peaceable Pscyhology at Amazon here. Baker/Brazos has its product page here, with an excerpt (including Table of Contents) here. No review copy–I bought this one!

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