On May 12 the Swiss physician and counselor Paul Tournier celebrates his seventy-fifth birthday. Widely known because of his fifteen practical and jargon-free books on psychology and Christianity, Tournier recently published another that bears the interesting title Learn to Grow Old. This is essentially an autobiography in which he describes his present life, analyzes the problems of old people, reaffirms his Christian commitment, and tells something of his past.
Tournier was born in Geneva, the son of a pastor who served for many years at St. Peter’s Cathedral, where Calvin had preached and taught three centuries earlier. Although he learned about Calvinistic theology as a young boy and committed his life to Christ after hearing an evangelistic sermon when he was eleven, Tournier grew up as a lonely orphan who had very little interest in spiritual matters. As a young man he read the Institutes and was involved in church work, but his religion was cold, impersonal, and not very satisfying.
Then in 1932, several years after his graduation from medical school, Tournier went to a meeting of the Oxford Group and learned both to talk with others about his insecurities and to spend an hour every day in quiet meditation before God. Slowly the young doctor’s aloofness toward people began to change. He started treating his patients as persons rather than as cases, and within a few years he had become a respected counselor, though he had never aspired to this kind of work and had never taken a formal course in psychiatry or psychology.
As his life work changed, Tournier began to keep a record of his experiences and observations, and this record formed the basis of his first book. Friends urged him not to publish the manuscript, and he had some difficulty finding a publisher; but when The Healing of Persons finally appeared in French shortly before World War II, it was well received and went on to become probably the most popular and widely read of Tournier’s writings.
Approaching seventy-five, Tournier has been alert, perceptive, witty, and deeply interested in people. He is a humble man with a strong Christian commitment, and he seems both surprised and embarrassed by the acclaim that comes his way. A sensitive person himself, he makes a real effort to avoid disappointing or harming anyone. He shows great tolerance in his dealings with people and a willingness to accept all persons as equal.
Tournier is not without his critics, however, and his books have aroused condemnation as well as admiration. The very characteristics that make Tournier’s writing style so attractive to many of his followers—lack of technical jargon, practicality, non-systematic format, abundance of case histories, frequent references to himself—cause others, including many professional counselors, to dismiss him as an eccentric physician who writes rambling books about an unworkable religion. Some still criticize Tournier for his lack of psychiatric training, though he is well read in the psychological literature. Despite his lack of training, his writings now appear in eleven languages and have influenced literally thousands of people. So perceptively does Tournier analyze the needs of modern man that few can read his books without finding themselves and their problems discussed somewhere.
Tournier’s success as a counselor and writer has resulted, at least in part, from characteristics he has developed over the years. Psychological research has shown that counseling effectiveness depends more on what the counselor is than on what he does, and people who know Paul Tournier realize that he is an unusual man. His life radiates:
a deep concern for other people;
a willingness to listen patiently to others, without jumping to premature conclusions;
an intense desire to yield himself completely to God and to seek divine leading in everything he does;
a respect for the Scriptures and a continual effort to understand how the Word of God can have a practical relevance for one’s daily and professional life;
a concern for society’s ills accompanied by a conviction that the elimination of social injustice requires a transformation of individual men;
a healthful respect for science, but a respect tempered by the realization that science alone cannot understand and change the universe or mankind;
a bold willingness to give witness to what he believes and to urge others to submit to Christ;
an awesome awareness of the power of sin, the existence of the devil, and the divine influence of the Holy Spirit in men’s lives; and
an honesty about his own spiritual struggles.
Many of the people who read Tournier’s books and are helped by them wonder where this self-educated “psychologist” stands theologically. Tournier does little to shed light on this question. He avoids using theological jargon that might give a clue to his position. He claims to know nothing about theology, and apart from calling himself a Calvinist he does not align himself with any theological camp. He knew Brunner in the Oxford Group, was greatly influenced by Buber, has long admired the writings of Barth, and greatly respects the ministry of Billy Graham, but he would not closely align himself with any of these men.
In his books, articles, and lectures, Tournier often stresses the importance of the Bible, the sinfulness of man, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ. A strong believer in the sovereignty of God, he also believes that God forgives, loves unconditionally, and is personally interested in even the smallest details of our lives. He wants social change but believes that this can come only after individual men first yield their lives to Christ. Becoming a Christian does not free men from all the trials and anxieties of life, Tournier believes, but commitment to Christ does give them a new purpose and enables them to experience life as an “adventure.”
Despite these orthodox views, Tournier’s informal and non-systematic theology has elements that would raise questions for those who maintain a high view of Scripture. He describes himself as having “a personal evangelistic faith completely subject to the authority of the Bible” (The Person Reborn, p. 98), but he never says whether this biblical authority is the Word of God or whether it merely contains God’s Word. Quite probably a distinction like this has never occurred to him. It is also difficult to determine whether Tournier identifies all of the Bible as true and historical or thinks that accounts of such events as the expulsion from Eden and the tribulations of Job are poetic myths that teach us about God but are not to be taken literally (Guilt and Grace, p. 212; A Place For You, p. 50). Questions like these are important for theologians, but apparently they do not concern Tournier very much. He describes himself as a layman who knows nothing about theology and is primarily interested in discovering how the Bible can give practical answers to the problems of men.
In Guilt and Grace there is evidence that Tournier is a universalist who thinks that evangelism consists of telling men they have all been redeemed already. “I don’t know if hell exists,” he said during one of my recent conversations with him. “I much prefer to stress God’s love and forgiveness rather than God’s wrath.” It is easy to understand why a sensitive counselor would want to shy away from a theological issue that stimulates despondency and fear in emotionally troubled people. Surely it would be better, however, if Tournier could acknowledge the reality of divine punishment and then set this alongside the parallel truth that a living God has provided a way for men to be liberated from their sin and freed from the reality of a future hell.
Tournier states his convictions with boldness, but when he disagrees with someone he is never cynical or vindictive. When the Oxford Group changed its name and emphasis to become Moral Rearmament following World War II, Tournier felt he had to resign even though he was widely criticized for his decision. Later he established an informal group for the study of medicine and theology, a group that still holds annual conferences in Europe. Tournier likes to think of this as one of the first examples of ecumenical cooperation. Although he is still an active member of the Calvinistic “National Protestant Church of Geneva,” he nevertheless enjoys contact with Catholics, Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, and other non-Calvinists. Regrettably, however, Tournier has bent over backward to cooperate with those who hold non-biblical views. His extreme tolerance of the opinions of others coupled with his vagueness on some important theological issues has led people from a variety of religious backgrounds to claim that Tournier is at one with them. Tournier himself makes no comment.
Only the most devoted followers of a prolific writer like Tournier could agree with everything he writes, but this should in no way be allowed to distract from appreciation of his wisdom, the depth of his understanding, and his influence in the lives of innumerable people around the world. Paul Tournier is the bestknown and most widely respected of Christian counselors. The example of his own life and the practical insights that radiate from his books will continue to encourage and help people all over the world, long after he puts down his pen for the last time.
At seventy-five, Tournier can look back on a life that has been rich and productive, but he also looks forward to a better life that is yet to come. “In my childhood,” he once wrote,
I had already come to know God, quite naïvely, of course; nevertheless, I thank God for those who led me to him. Yet it took a revolutionary experience in order for this knowledge to go beyond the abstract nature of a few ideas about God, however right those ideas might have been. I had to meet him in the full activity of adulthood, through dialogue with inspired men. They put my life, my home, and my medical work, under the light of God. Ever since, Jesus Christ has become my unseen companion of every day, the witness of all my successes and all my failures, the confidant of my rejoicings and my times of sadness. It is in this life shared with him that the knowledge of God is continuously strengthened and sharpened. All that I can hope, when my time for action will be over, is that I may yet go further in the riches of this knowledge. Doubtless, the abundance of life is not attained here below. Yet it begins here.… I know that beyond the winter of death I shall see God face to face, and understand fully, even as I have been fully understood, from before my birth [The Seasons of Life, p. 62].
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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