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AHC B Who Do You Say I Am? Appendix 2 - Hebrew Catholics

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Appendix 2 — Psychological Seduction

(By William Kirk Kilpatrick (Thomas Nelson Inc. Tenessee. 1983)
(American spelling retained.)

We present two brief but significant clippings from this outstanding book which we recommend highly for your personal permanent library. Both readings refer in some way to modern inadequate attitudes towards the preoccupation with promotion of self under various guises.

(Text in bold is our emphasis.)

I     The Modern Cast of Characters — Being real

I began this chapter with a discussion of characteristic mentality and suggested that a psychological society creates a climate of unrelenting seriousness. If approached from another direction, the question of characteristic mentality becomes the question of what characters are missing from the story.

I cannot prove statistically what I am about to say: you will have to check it against your own observations. However, my observation is that in the modern theater of life, not only is the set — tradition, ritual, family — discarded but the cast of characters has been narrowed down alarmingly. The present atmosphere does not allow much room for spirited eccentricity, for that larger-than-life character represented in literature by Sir John Falstaff or Samuel Pickwick and in reality by a man like Samuel Johnson — men, in short, who live their lives with outrageous exuberance.

When we think of these characters, we think fondly; they are like overgrown children. It never occurs to them that growing older means growing more serious about oneself. Johnson, even in his later years, delighted in rolling downhill. Pickwick and Falstaff, likewise, spend their days tumbling from one merry episode to the next. What all three have in common is the capacity to give pleasure by their company and their conversation. The reason is their levity. Beneath the surface vanities, they take themselves lightly. Giving pleasure of the kind they give depends on a basic humility, a recognition that they are but men among men, not special selves on the high road to fulfilment.

Now humility does not mean pretending to be less smart or less talented than you really are. Johnson, for example, knew well enough that few men in London could match his intelligence. He was no fool. Yet, on another level he had a fundamental modesty, a belief that all stand equal in the eyes of God, and that in those eyes all of us must at times look foolish. Johnson, in any event, was not above making a fool of himself. He was glad for any occasion of foolishness and created them when none came to hand. He was, wrote a close friend, “incomparable at buffoonery.”

It is hard for lightheartedness to hold the stage, though, once we learn how very seriously we ought to take ourselves. And this is what psychology has taught us. We hear a lot these days, for example, about the dignity of the person. This is a good emphasis if it means that no one ought to exploit or abuse anyone else. But if it means we are to perceive ourselves as solemn godlings and canters of wholeness, the idea can do much harm.

One casualty of our over seriousness may be our sense of humor. And that is because all humor involves a loss of dignity. The man who makes faces to amuse a baby gives up his dignity; so does the man who roars with laughter. The essential condition for having fun is to forget your dignity, that is, to forget yourself. We recognize this truth, for example, when we say, “I was beside myself with laughter.” We have to get outside ourselves to enjoy ourselves. Otherwise, we won’t have any perspective; we won’t see the joke. But an excess of self-preoccupation robs us of all perspective: enter self-seriousness, exit humour.

Exit humour, exit sanity. We sometimes speak of people as having a “saving grace,” some quality that keeps them from meanness or dullness, and a sense of humour is certainly one of those saving graces. Among other things, humour helps us save our sanity. This seems true, for example, of Johnson, who was naturally disposed to melancholy and suffered from poverty, grave physical ailments, and a singular physical ugliness as well. Indeed, he feared at some points that he would lose his mind. The remedy, he realized, was not to court self-awareness. The cure consisted rather in getting away from himself. No one can say what would have been the result had psychotherapy been available in those days. But we do know that therapy encourages self-analysis. Perhaps Johnson was fortunate that it was not available.

That Johnson was able to get outside himself we know from the genial legacy of his antics. There is the picture of Johnson gathering up his brown coattails like a pouch and hopping his bulky frame across the room to amuse his guests with an imitation of a kangaroo. And there is Johnson in the London streets bursting “into such a fit of laughter that he appeared to be almost in a convulsion; and, in order to support himself, laid hold of one of the posts …and sent forth peals so loud, that in the silence of the night his voice seemed to resound from Temple-bar to Fleet-ditch.”

If we are to obtain wholeness, then, we ought to employ the right strategy. People are most themselves when they get outside themselves.

II     Misguided Christian Notions

We started several chapters ago with the intention of disentangling Christian notions from psychological ones. This means that if we are going to criticize certain psychological ideas we must equally criticize them when they show up wearing Christian garb. If we are honest we have to admit that many Christians also have a great faith in positive thinking. It was a Christian minister, after all, who coined the term “the power of positive thinking.” You may want to object that with Christians it is not the same thing. But in point of fact it often is: it is faith in self rather than faith in God.

Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy, for example, comes perilously close to a faith in the sheer power of believing. The object of faith seems almost secondary. Although Peale wants us to believe in God, he seems primarily concerned with belief as a psychological mechanism for achieving successful living. And he puts an extraordinary emphasis on believing in ourselves. You find the same attitude in some of the media evangelists. Some talk about the power of belief, some talk about “possibility thinking,” and they nearly always talk about prosperity. The point here is that this attitude is remarkably similar to the attitude of popular psychology: belief is pragmatic; certain beliefs are useful in producing positive mental states; and positive mental states produce prosperity. Believe and grow rich, or believe and overcome your troubles — that sort of thing.

Even when the positive-thinking Christian places his faith in God, it is sometimes a very presumptive faith. You may be told by some Christians that you have “a claim on Christ,” and the sense of it is often that God is obligated to answer our prayers exactly to our satisfaction, as though we were filing a claim with an insurance company. Now this may be biblical in the sense that you can find one or two passages to lend support to it, but it is not biblical if you look at the whole and obvious testament of the Scriptures. The characters in the Bible are not as a rule people who received success in life — certainly not worldly success. “Listening to the disciples,” writes David Myers, “one hears no glamorous testimonies of ‘how I overcame anger, selfishness, and doubt.”‘ What you get, rather, is a record of constant temptation, backsliding, and struggle.

I am not saying God does not perform miracles, nor do I deny that in some cases He may shower us with worldly blessings. He may grant us such things from time to time “in order that you may believe,” or for some other reason best known to Him. But that is up to God. And He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not a slot machine.

The problem that crops up here is the same problem that afflicts the victim of popular psychology. Suppose after putting your faith in the Lord you still have that arthritis or cancer? What then? Does it mean you haven’t prayed hard enough? Does it mean something is wrong with your faith? And isn’t it, finally, a form of Pelagianism — a way of thinking that God can be bought if you can ante up sufficient personal effort? That attitude, you must remember, was the one the Reformers attacked most strongly. The proper Christian emphasis is not on our efforts, our abilities, or even our faith.

Shalom!

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