Confession in religion3

The practical correlation between guilt and good works still found in Western societies is an enduring artifact of religio^. But it is eroding, and has been at least since the nineteenth century. Nietzsche is a key figure in this (the Übermensch does not act out of guilt, but out of the joy of asserting unrestrained power), as is Arthur Rimbaud, whose legendary contempt for morality and the values of ordinary people was viewed by himself and his admirers as evidence of his poetic genius. But before both of these provocateurs there was Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose influence on US culture has been more thorough and permanent. Emerson's essay, On Self-Reliance (1841), dismisses family obligations when they conflict with the impulses of one's own genius, and berates philanthropists and relief societies who contribute even a dime to strangers and try to compel him to do likewise. His own shame, he tells us, is that he occasionally succumbs to their appeals. By and by, he assures us, he will have the "manhood" to resist. He sneers at those who do good works as an apology for their comforts in life: "Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live." He goes on,

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he. I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.40

To recognize only those duties that issue from one's own nature is to live according to what Emerson calls "self-trust." And because it is in the nature of the self to change over time, one's sense of one's duties will change. A "great soul" harbors no reverence for its own past acts or promises, worrying that by acting with inconsistency others might be disappointed. "Why drag about this corpse of your memory?" Emerson asks. It is better, he counsels, to "live ever in a new day"; after all, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."41 The great souls among us will have nothing to do with consistency; instead, they will attend to their whims and follow where they lead. This, he tells us, is precisely what Socrates, Jesus, Luther and Galileo did, and it is what made them great.

Like Nietzsche, Emerson was a great admirer of Jesus for being a genius who respected no values other than those he invented.

Emerson marks a significant shift in the traditional practice of care for the soul. In place of the long struggle of the divided will, straining to conform one's desires to the good of the community and to the divine will as it has been represented in the faith community, the struggle for Emerson consists in asserting one's own inner nature - a nature that discloses itself to us through our whims, a sort of flashing epiphany of insight - against society and the obligations it seeks to impose. Values derived from the inner sanctum of the self are the preeminent way to order and justify our existence. He goes so far as to suggest that he might write "Whim" on the lintel of his doorpost, to warn all comers that he owes no explanations for his defiant thoughts and actions.42 Victor Turner has alerted us to pay attention to symbols that appear at passageways. Emerson's doorpost has no gargoyles or ancient inscriptions, but the simple word, in uppercase, "Whim." This is the power that stands guard outside the sacred precincts of the inner self.

This unencumbered self, bound to no social conventions, no vows, not even the hobgoblin of foolish consistency, but only to pursuing the good of its own whimsical "nature," has become the ultimate concern for many in our society. Emerson received the gift of the concept of the self as cause, agent, and author of its actions from its long gestation in religion2 and repositioned it in the center of a new faith. And as a faith, it has evolved for several generations since. It is not hard to hear in Emerson's writings a principled philosophy for what has come to be seen as the preeminence of the therapeutic in our culture. According to Philip Rieff, an early diagnostician of this phenomenon, a therapeutic culture is one in which a "sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end."43

Many of the practices associated with the therapeutic and psychotherapy represent a religion3 secularization of the old penitential system, offering an arena for confession, penance and absolution, and with many commendable effects. "Psychotherapy," after all, means healing (therapeia) of the soul (psyche). The therapeutic care of the soul, as an industry, is in the hands of psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, therapists, counselors, social workers, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. As of the late 1990s, Americans spent $69 billion a year managing their feelings and tending to their emotional health.44 The therapeutic includes this industry, but has expanded beyond it into popular culture at every level, which is permeated with its messages: trust your feelings, have faith in yourself, follow your bliss, do your own thing, listen to your inner child, do what feels right, be true to yourself. These messages are offered as formulas for salvation. Therapeutic values that are worthy of organizing one's life around, such as self-esteem, self-fulfillment, self-realization, and self-expression have come to be accepted as axiomatic, occupying the normative heights once controlled by such counter values as self-discipline, self-control and self-denial. As Eva Moskowitz likes to point out, as a measure of what has taken place: in a very short period of time, "America had four successive bestselling magazines: Life, People, Us, and Self.."45

The therapeutic has for some time been evolving on multiple fronts. It has carried one of its own most precious cultural goods - the feeling of personal happiness - to the various spheres of our culture (family, economy, law, politics, art, science, education) and offered it to them with the invitation that they make it their own central good. In this it has had many successes, and created many new markets for itself. In light of this, it is possible to view the therapeutic as approaching the status of a full-fledged religion2 - complete with its own basic creed and rituals of salvation. Drawing on the recent book by Moskowitz, In Therapy We Trust: America's Obsession with Self-Fulfillment, its religion elements could be outlined as follows:46

• Creed: Personal happiness is the ultimate concern. Happiness is lodged in one's feelings, and particularly in feelings of self-esteem, which are sacred. The root sin is the lack of self-esteem, the causes of which are typically found in poor parenting and in an array of authoritarian and disciplinarian institutions that we are raised to be answerable to. These institutions have thwarted the free emergence of our true selves.

• Rituals: All problems (in our personal lives, families, work, economic, educational, civic and political involvements) are treatable through therapeutic techniques: psychotherapy, support groups, encounter groups, recovery movements, motivational seminars, self-help books, talk shows, anti-depressants and other pharmaceuticals, and dance, play, music, sex, aroma, drama, or touch therapies. The primary aim of these rituals is to teach one to be authentic about one's feelings and to come to trust this level of the self. This authenticity is prerequisite to personal happiness.

That individual happiness has become an ultimate concern, and that happiness is a matter of deep feeling rather than of a disciplined will, is certainly not characteristic of all forms of therapy. But it is common in the thin kinds of pop therapeutic that show up in popular culture - as has been seen in the movie Chocolat. Other movies like The Fisher King, Patch Adams, Dead Poets' Society, and Good Will Hunting (note the common denominator of actor Robin Williams in each one) build their scripts around repressed feelings and memories that must be uncorked before characters can move forward and stalled plotlines resolved. Woody Allen has made a career out of screenplays about his own neuroses - Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Mighty Aphrodite, Husbands and Wives, and Deconstructing Harry. Ridley Scott's 1991 hit, Thelma and Louise, was about two women who finally ditch abusive relationships and set out on a journey of self-discovery, trusting the guidance-system of their desires for the first time in their lives, which leads to a dark but exhilarating - and we are led to believe, fulfilling - charge into the unknown. Or, in what may be the most memorable distillation of the therapeutic in modern cinema, Obi-Wan Kenobi advises Luke Sky-walker at the end of the first Star Wars movie: "Turn off your computer, turn off your machine and do it yourself, follow your feelings, trust your feelings." "Let go, Luke!" he presses him, "Feel, don't think!"

Even the Disney Studio's animated films of the last several years - Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Finding Nemo - have been a consistent platform for lessons in cherishing one's inner self, trusting one's feelings, and overcoming haunted childhoods. In the latest, Finding Nemo (2003), an overly protective, widowed clown fish named Marlin has his worst fears realized when his only son, Nemo, is fished from the barrier reef. Marlin, who has been agoraphobic since his wife's death, must set out on a quest that forces him to leave his home and plunge into all the dangers he had ordered his life to avoid. Nemo, meanwhile, has been relocated to the tabletop aquarium of a dentist in Sydney, where each of his tankmates has some form of captivity disorder, include a Royal Gramma who has a phobia about germs and a shrimp with a cleaning fetish. On his journey in search of Nemo, Marlin has an encounter with a shark who is wavering in his twelve-step program for recovering fish eaters, who repeats the mantra "Fish are our friends, they are not food," as he struggles to restrain his sharkish instincts. As he nears Sydney, Marlin falls under the capable spiritual direction of a sea turtle whose Taoist surrender to the flow of life begins to soften Marlin's worst anxieties. The story is a showcase of neuroses and recoveries, filling young viewers with the idea that even marine life operates according to therapeutic norms that prioritize feelings of self-esteem and seek to overcome the haunting effects of past traumas.

The therapeutic self is also a staple on television. The Home Box Office (HBO) network's Soprano's sends mob boss Tony Soprano off to weekly sessions with his therapist, as he searches for the happiness that eludes him in the rough world of organized crime. And on Sex and the City, Carry Bradshaw, the tell-all columnist who details the exploits of single women looking for love in New York City, takes the view that men must be instruments to her happiness, or else there really is no use for them. The final episode of the final season of the show concluded with Bradshaw's voiceover swansong: "The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself and if you find someone to love the you that you love, well, that's just fabulous."

But the true hot house of the therapeutic through the 1990s was the daytime talk show. Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jesse Raphael, Jerry Springer and all of their imitators were evangelists of the talking cure who believed that secrets are a slow-working poison to the soul, and that confessing them in a public forum has a healing effect. It was as a form of mass entertainment that the religion of therapy made many of its deepest inroads into our culture. Sinners and the sinned against from all walks of life appeared before studio audiences to reveal their traumas, disorders and wicked deeds - celebrities, politicians, clergy, skinheads, professionals, prostitutes, drug addicts, cheating husbands, pedophiles - sat in the same chair day after day to be coaxed into divulging their secrets. Whatever other motives they had for appearing, they acquiesced to the idea that disclosing to a national audience their misdeeds and emotional afflictions would cleanse their souls. Our society gradually came to recognize these confessions as admirable and heroic, and followed the old penitential habit of granting absolution to the truly contrite. As Kathleen Lowney has remarked in her study of this phenomenon, the talk show inherited from the old revivalist camp meeting the practice of bringing repentant sinners up to the podium and allowing them to testify to lives of sin and depravity for the purpose of provoking their conversion and edifying all who would listen.47 It is also worth noting that the very public nature of talk show confessions invokes the even older practice of public confession in the early church - where a private confession was considered insufficient because true contrition required a willingness to expose one's sins to public scrutiny and shame.

All of these instruments of popular culture bear some variation of the message that strong feelings are destructive if they are repressed, denied, or intellectualized. Each of these "defense mechanisms" must be overcome through talking the poison out, ideally under the care of a trained counselor, if one is to be healed. This is all part of the task of exfoliating the self, stripping away the layers of denied feelings that have made our inner selves appear so ugly and unworthy and in need of being hidden - even to oneself.

A major source of this branch of the therapeutic can be traced to an influential circle of psychologists including Fritz Perls, Timothy Leary, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers who constituted a kind of brain trust for the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Esalen was a great crossroads, beginning in 1962 when it opened, for these already established scientists of human consciousness who were joined by people like Carlos Castaneda, Alan Watts, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Aldous Huxley, all of whom took an interest in reawakening the life of feeling. Because its inaugural sessions were entitled "The Human Potentiality," Esalen is remembered for generating what came to be called the human potential movement. The central idea of the movement was that taking responsibility for one's life means becoming aware of passing feelings and learning to trust them. They used unorthodox methods to teach their workshop participants how to get in touch with their feelings by silencing the brain's incessant commentary, overcoming inhibitions that prevented them from acting out their feelings, and liberating the deep emotions that subsist at the bedrock stratum of the true self. In their view, the full life was to be lived on this level, giving reign to the passions. As Carl Rogers described it, the "way to the good life" is to get the person to experience his feelings fully, "so that for the moment he is his fear, or his anger, or his tenderness, or his strength. And as he lives these widely varied feelings, in all their degrees of intensity, he discovers that he has experienced himself, that he is all these feelings." Unlocking the human potential is a matter of learning to listen to these feelings, and "doing what feels right proves to be a competent and trustworthy guide to behavior which is truly satisfying."48

Jack Kerouac was another voice that was respected by the human potential movement. He and his fellow beat writers (Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs) served as kind of raw specimens of human actualization for those in the human potential movement. Kerouac's book, On the Road, is one of its manifestos. In it, Kerouac explains:

the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes "Awww!"49

It was his pursuit of a life lived at this level, chasing every impulse as it crossed the screen of his consciousness, that sent him out on the road and down the different side roads he traveled. "I could hear a new call and see a new horizon," he confides, "I was a young writer and I wanted to take off. Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me."50 The quintessential rock and roll musician of the 1960s, often selfconsciously under the spell of Kerouac and the beat ethos, was another avatar of this aggressive veneration of one's deepest layer of feeling. It could manifest itself in feelings of love for all creatures, as expressed in the music of Donovan and Nick Drake, or in a Dionysian overthrow of all restraints, as in the music and lives of Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and

Jim Morrison. Morrison made a religion out of irony, chasing down every taboo as a source of redemptive liberation, and dismissing every cultural totem as a source of stultifying mediocrity. For him, salvation was to be found precisely in the orgiastic life.

Lowney suggests that this ironic sensibility is characteristic of the whole therapeutic ethos. It "reverses just about everything we thought we knew," she writes.

The family is not the nurturing environment in which we start life, but the means by which we are abused and broken down. Sin no longer means making selfish choices that harm others but instead is about not putting oneself first. Morality has become whatever facilitates the search for the actualized self____Personal responsibility for one's choices has been abandoned; instead one is free to - encouraged to - blame parents, siblings, and society for all personal problems.51

As Lowney helps to make plain, the therapeutic impulse can idolize self-fulfillment regardless of the cost this exacts on others, even those we are closest to - in fact, especially those we are closest to, who are reduced to being merely the means of maximizing our own pleasure, or, worse, the recipients of blame when we feel our desire to find ourselves is being hampered. How many decent people have been crushed by loved ones who have emerged from their therapy sessions or group encounters with permission to disclose long harbored grievances and do what feels right? The strident self-care found in some forms of therapy can wreak havoc on otherwise sound families and friendships, stomping on whoever gets in the way of the patient's freedom to self-actualize. The pursuit of self-fulfillment that consults feelings to the exclusion of all other guidance that presses upon one inevitably results in actions that are contrary to the single most common moral principle in all of the world's religions, that is, Love your neighbor as yourself.

Much of this is justified on the basis of the axiomatic status that has been granted to self-esteem. Building people's self-esteem, their sense of self-worth, has replaced the older ethic of self-denial and self-control, which has come to be seen by many as a debilitating ethic. But research is beginning to chip away at this elevation of self-esteem, suggesting that people with low self-esteem enjoy just as much happiness in life as those with high self-esteem. The happiness of those with high self-esteem is always vulnerable to the fact that the higher their opinion of themselves, the more likely they are to perceive feedback from others - friends, lovers, bosses, family - as falling short of what they deserve. Moreover, low self-esteem, the research shows, is a positive variable in people's efforts to transcend their own past achievements. People with low self-esteem, that is, try harder so that they can do better.52 This dynamic has long been recognized in theological circles as the predictable outcome of pride, that inordinate self-esteem that makes oneself the center of value in the world and has often been described as the taproot of all other sins.

As this examination of the therapeutic unfolds, it drifts towards therapy's more outrageous excesses, which makes it an easy target. These excesses, however, do not exhaust the religious significance of therapy and the great variety of recovery movements. As Richard Mouw has argued, while there are many legitimate critiques of the therapeutic, there is also much within it that, from a Christian perspective, is worth salvaging. He, too, recognizes that at its core there is a confessional impulse to introspection that can be healthy. It was the psalmist, he recalls, who prayed, "Search me, O God, and know my heart." Then he suggests that "Good psychology can help me understand the complexities of the self that I present for divine scrutiny." We ought not attempt an end run around modern psychology, he argues; after all, because of it "we do know more about the human psyche today than our Christian forebears did."53

Similarly, Charles Taylor has argued for an "ethic of authenticity" that recovers an older notion of authenticity and moral feeling. He is aware that there is a deviant form of individual self-fulfillment circulating in our culture; but a "root-and-branch condemnation," he argues, is not the answer.54 It is disingenuous to deny, as some of the more shrill critics of the therapeutic do, that the aspiration to authenticity and self-fulfillment is corrupt at its core. What reasonable person wouldn't at least factor in self-fulfillment, or the aim of realizing their potential, when faced with a significant life choice?55 Authenticity is a legitimate value that arose in the early modern period as an affirmation of the conscience as a voice within, and was conceived as a reaction to a morality driven by calculations of divine reward and punishment. It was described as a listening to the voice of nature speaking from within, as a particular "way of experiencing our lives, our ordinary desires and fulfillments, and the larger natural order in which we are set." In the thinking of early Romantic writers like Herder and Rousseau, the feelings that rose to consciousness when one surrendered to this inner voice were feelings of "oneness with humanity or a response of joy and reverence to the spectacle of untamed nature." These sentiments were then, at least at the outset, well in line with traditional moral and theistic convictions - self-fulfillment was to be found through conforming to sentiments of solidarity, benevolence, and sympathy for others.56 Admittedly, this alternative view of the source of the good life, what Taylor calls the "moral sense theory," was unstable and gave way to replacing traditional moral virtues with moral feelings. Nevertheless, there is a truth here that ought not be dismissed: moral actions flow out of moral dispositions, and moral dispositions have a feeling component to them. Authenticity of the best sort is found in those whose actions in life emerge from and honestly reflect their dispositions. There is something inherently good about self-integrity of this sort.

In effect, according to Taylor, there are deeper and shallower forms of authenticity. Given the prevalence of authenticity as an ideal in our culture, he advises steering it in the direction of its deeper form. The crucial difference between shallow and deep authenticity is found in its "openness to horizons of significance" - deep authenticity has a horizon beyond the self, a good that transcends it. The trust that early Romantic thinkers placed in the inner voice of nature was based on their theological assumption that nature had a providential order, and that human consciousness was the place where this order rose to awareness. It was in listening to this inner voice that the individual discerned how to conform her own will to transcendent purposes. Shallow authenticity, on the other hand, has no greater good than the self itself; in effect it makes the self and its desires its ultimate concern. Even "deep" feelings are not all that deep if they are only as deep as the self. Therapeutic approaches that promote a shallow authenticity respect no restraints on the expression of one's deepest and most powerful desires, and lead to an "ethic" that absolutizes the uninhibited freedom of choice.57 Such an ethic of choice is a tremendous justification for a society driven by consumption, coercing every sphere of the culture to reconfigure itself as an array of wonderful, consumable options, but it offers little in the way of training individuals in the kinds of commitments, promise-keeping, and sacrifice that are necessary for a flourishing and enduring civil society.

Both Mouw and Taylor, then, in their moderated praise for the therapeutic, offer arguments for a middle-way that neither idolizes the self nor neglects the useful self-knowledge that a probing of one's feelings can provide. An appropriate use of the therapeutic, in general, probes the layers of human feeling in light of convictions about transcendent goodness for the purpose of training the self to come to value itself and all things sub specie aeternitatis - in light of their relation to God.

One therapeutic method that exemplifies this middle-way is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Many critics of the therapeutic fail to recognize this, and lump AA together with encounter groups, self-help techniques and primal scream therapies, disparaging "twelve-step programs" as indulgent opportunities to "talk about me." AA is purported by these critics to be the ur-recovery movement, whose founders Bill Wilson and Bob Smith put in place the twin errors of labeling addiction a disease (which, it can be argued, displaces responsibility from the alcoholic to the illness) and relying too heavily on the remedy of the talking cure. But this blanket critique misses AA's key elements. While AA does label alcoholism as a disease, it specifies that it is a spiritual disease, one that is to be ameliorated through rigorous spiritual exercises. The twelve steps follow a classic progression of remorse, confession, and penance designed to force the alcoholic to acknowledge responsibility for his actions and their impact on others. As described in the Big Book, "The alcoholic is like a tornado roaring his way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead. Affections have been uprooted. Selfish and inconsiderate habits have kept the home in turmoil."58 Moreover, following through on the steps demands that one inventory the harm one has caused and embark on a long period of reconstruction, mending the damage that has been done to others. "Remorseful mumbling" - that is, talk therapy - is not enough.59

The soteriology of AA is precisely the opposite of the human potential movement. The alcoholic deceives herself if she imagines that restoring self-esteem, getting in touch with her feelings, or having faith in herself is the route to salvation. In fact, making self-fulfillment the aim of one's actions is viewed as the root of the disease. "The alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness."60 Nor is the humble goal of sobriety the aim. Sobriety is a secondary effect that will reliably follow on the heels of throwing oneself ardently into the task of helping others - first undoing as much of one's own ill-effects on others as one can, and then making service to others a way of life. Finally, the twelve-step regimen is unapologetically theistic. Wilson and Smith confess that after repeated failures of their own self-reliance to overcome their addiction, they conceded, "We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves."61 They had to learn to "trust infinite God rather than our finite selves" and practice daily to transform their desires through the prayer: "How can I best serve Thee - Thy will (not mine) be done."62 In effect, the twelve steps of AA are designed to deepen one's consciousness of God and to gradually realign one's self will to the purposes of God, not to release the inner child.

This is not to say that in actual practice, twelve-step groups, including AA groups, avoid the temptation to become less than what the twelve-step regimen demands as a spiritual exercise. But to the extent that they may come to mimic the more self-obsessed kinds of therapy, they have departed from their charter.

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