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Patristic vs. Contemporary Secular Notions Concerning Thoughts

September 21, 2012

For the purposes of this blog post, I would like to make some general statements about the contemporary secular worldview concerning the thoughts.  Such a worldview holds that there is essentially no moral character to thoughts; only actions are right or wrong in relation to the rights of others in society at large.  Thoughts are neither good nor bad, but in the language of evolution, adaptive to one’s environment leading to self-actualization, or maladaptive leading to mental distress. And of course, the distress is mine to keep if I want it.  Thoughts expressing anger, lust, or jealousy are often justified in terms of one’s rights. For example, “I have every right to be angry, can you believe how he spoke to me?” or “I should have received that promotion, instead they give it to someone who has half my experience.”  This same worldview also maintains that whenever we have been hurt by someone else, we have every right to tell someone about it in order to elicit the requisite sympathy.   According to this way of thinking, we are even justified in wishing for retribution on those who have offended or hurt us.

That is not the worldview of the ancient fathers who take their cue from the Gospel and their dynamic relationship with Christ.  Ancient Christian Wisdom provides a lively portrait of the patristic understanding, “Patristic instruction concerning the thoughts is eminently practical, theoretically consistent, and readily understandable.  It is also based on careful observations and time-tested approaches known to bring results.  Obedience to Christ’s commandments and the struggle to attain humility by reproaching oneself, questioning one’s thoughts, and seeking advice are actions that weaken the hold that thoughts have over a person.  Knowledge about when and how a provocation or suggestion becomes a sin of thought increases the believers’ introspective awareness as well as their sense of responsibility for the development of their thoughts.  Thus, this knowledge increases the probability that they will arrest a bad thought at an early stage of development.”

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the two worldviews is that one is stiflingly egocentric, based entirely on me and my own fallen world, while the other is expansively Christocentric, having as a foundation the wonderful revelation of Christ that opens to the believer new, transfigured worlds bathed in the light of holiness.  For the contemporary secularist, need fulfillment determines the utility of thoughts.  The ancient fathers’ measuring stick is the will of God expressed through the commandments of Christ and the call to humility, compassion, and sacrificial love. The fulfillment of these commandments and the presence of these virtues—and not one’s rights and wants—are what determine the quality of the thoughts. And this is something that the soul can empirically sense. Following egocentric, selfish thoughts to their ultimate aim leaves the soul feeling empty, tired, and ultimately alone. Following the commandments of Christ or the virtues of the Christian life attracts the grace of God that brings fullness, renewed strength, and communion with things holy into human life. Although these two worlds are as different as night and day, through carelessness and negligence Christians can descend into twilight in which direction for thought and action is taken from contradictory sources, pulling this way and that. And without consistent effort, that twilight quickly becomes shrouded in an almost impenetrable darkness. The only protection and path of return at our disposal is a consistent prayer life, frequent confession, fasts, and participation in the Divine Liturgy.  Living in a world with such a different worldview affects us all. It can even affect the clergy, especially in their no doubt well-meaning desire to speak in the language of the wider culture and to be relevant. And although it is good to look at the world and all that is in it as a parable for our instruction, the clergy need to be especially careful in seeking inspiration from contemporary examples from popular culture. They need to take heed to St. Gregory Palamas’ advice about the best of classical culture that he likened to a serpent that needed to be handled with great care in order to extract the venom for later pharmaceutical use. To make sure that they offer words and counsels that will introduce the faithful into a worldview that can transfigure their lives, it is incomparably wiser to turn to the holy fathers, rather than to lesser figures with far lesser lights. And the fathers, the ancient fathers, are always relevant. They speak to the deepest problems that people face in life and in death. They even speak to a phenomenon as contemporary as Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy. They surely can speak to all of us.

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4 Comments
  1. I am a psychologist (and an Orthodox Christian) and often utilize the cognitive approach in my work with clients. I find it very useful. The one problem that I have with C. theory is that it generally ignores the unconscious (although cognitive tx theorists will acknowledge that the uc is real). In my opinion, this omission can, a times, lead to a somewhat superficial therapy that overlooks important dynamics that can cause a lot of pain and drive behavior. Similarly, I also ponder who to integrate the Orthodox thinking with the idea of the uc. Appreciate this blog…

    Eric H. Affsprung, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor/Psychological Counselor
    Licensed Psychologist (PA)
    Center for Counseling and Human Development
    Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
    Bloomsburg, PA 17815-1301
    eaffspru@bloomu.edu
    570-389-4255
    Fax 570-389-2052
    http://www.ericaffsprungphd.com

  2. Dear Dr. Affsrpung,

    Thank you so much for your encouragement about my blog. May God bless you for it and for every other act of kindness that can draw us closer to Christ. I agree with you that the fact that cognitive theory does not delve any deeper into the unconscious than inexplicit preconscious schemata is a real drawback. Axiom 9 of the formal theory behind cognitive therapy in passing simply mentions that “There are three levels of cognition: (a) the preconscious, unintentional level (‘automatic thoughts’); (b) the conscious level; and (c) the metacognitive level, which includes ‘realistic’ or ‘rational’ (adaptive) responses. These serve useful functions, but the conscious levels are of primary interest for clinical improvement in psychotherapy.” If the preconscious level serves a useful function, the question arises about the possibility of its malfunction or operation at cross-principles with the conscious functions, in which case it would be a useful target for clinical improvement. I note that many thoughts are so unintentional that Saint John of Damascus (676–749) calls them “ungovernable energies of the mind.” So there is some implicit recognition of the unconscious by some of the Fathers. And of course, the Holy Prophet Jeremiah wrote that “the heart is deeper than all things” (17:9, LXX), which means that the deeper one enters the heart to understand why we do what we do, the more terrain we discover to be present. And the Fathers most certainly tried to enter as deep as they could into the soul, so that the furthest reaches would be illuminated by the grace of God. In fact, I think in the Saint we could say that a large portion of the unconscious (with passions and desires) has been made conscious through humility, holiness, and the grace of God. To discover more and more of the soul, cognitive therapy is truly limited, but following the fathers, opening oneself up in holy confession to an experienced and illumined spiritual father, becoming genuinely humble (as opposed to acting humble or being pridefully humble) are in my mind excellent vehicles for that blessed change.

    Thank you once more for your comments.

    Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

    Father Alexis

  3. Ventseslav Hadjiilev permalink

    Bless me most honourable father Alexis!
    I am orthodox christian from Bulgaria. I graduted psychology.But my greatest love is orthodoxy. I writed about Jung – psychology of religion. I have been one year in a group of psychodrama and had 60 hours cognitive bahaviour therapy. But bothe I think God gave signs, that His will is not to be in such groups and I left them. Yet I think there were good things – the working with the thoughts in the moment. The knowledge how they develop in a destructive manner. How to question and deconstruct them. I had many delusions in other spiritual ways. I have asked myself what my grand mother did not taech me to go in such wrong ways. What I needed? – Metaphysics, mysticism, self discepline. Why I am so inclined the worst of the worst? But I also asked myself what Adam needed in paradise? Why I sdudied psychology, but not theology? May be bacause I am a problematic person! But also may be bacause the true orthodoxy is psychotherapy. But the problem psychology – orthodoxy is important for me! But more important is quering my sowl. That is why I dear to ask to have me in Your holly prayers, if it is possible my son Konstantin and my daughter Maria, my wife Rositsa and my mother Irina too.We are all baptised orthodox christians, but need a lot of prayers and therapy. I shall be glad to have the possibility to ask Your for some advices in the theoretical and practical spheres of working with thoughts, and acquiring knowledge from the ascetic orthodox wisdom, with or without psychology. Forgive me and bless me!

    with great respect:
    sinful, ful of delusions, passions, pathology Vetseslav

    • Dear Veteslav,

      May the Lord God bless you, your family, and your endeavors.

      I am glad to hear about Orthodoxy as your greatest love. Your experience with psychodrama and cognitive therapy is not uncommon in the Balkans, where along the secular-theistic therapy continuum, only the secular extreme is present and that often without the religious sensitivity of most therapists in the United States.

      Psychology can be a useful tool, but at the end of the day, by which I mean, the end of our lives, it is, of course, not enough. I think that one way to look at psychology and theology is to consider a ruler. Psychology uses the ruler to draw straight and careful lines, but theology uses it to measure what is of ultimate importance. Each use has its value according to the task assigned.

      Be of good courage. We are all strugglers. We can all fall into delusion. We all fight the passions. We are all sinners. But we are also more than our struggles, more than our sins, more than our thoughts, and that more we discover in faith and through faith. The Lord Christ came for the sick and the sinful. His work continues in our lives. His miracle can continue in our lives. And the greater our mistakes, the more glorious the wonder of His compassion and his love.

      In Christ,

      Fr. Alexis

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