RET can be an emotional life line.

Evangelicals have not had a particularly soft spot in their hearts for psychoanalysis. The revivalistic preacher has castigated psychotherapy from its beginnings as a substitute for conversion. But the believer who reasons in such a fashion becomes a kind of Christian Scientist, expecting God to heal emotional difficulties immediately and transcendentally—even when the believer would not presumably expect a sinner on conversion automatically to receive a cure for diabetes along with salvation.

On a deeper level, evangelicals have been profoundly offended by Freud’s atheistic materialism. When Freud explains God away as the projection of the “father image” on the universe, evangelicals retort by explaining Freud away as a product of his own neuroses. Though the father of psychoanalysis certainly did have a few screws loose—no reader of Ernest Jones’s authorized biography of Freud can doubt it—one must be careful not to throw out the baby (genuine insights into egotistical, fallen human nature) with the bath water (Freud’s personal religious philosophy). After all, C. G. Jung, Freud’s greatest disciple, developed an analytical psychotherapy so open to religious and mystical phenomena that orthodox Freudians (and some theologians!) are appalled by it.

What disturbs evangelicals most about Freud, however, is his root theme of pervasive unconscious motivation. If (as traditional psychoanalysis holds) all our conscious decisions are motivated by unconscious factors, then no “decision for Christ” is necessarily what it appears to be. How could one ever be sure that his conversion experience was not really something very different—for example, an adolescent “identity crisis”?

The pervasive unconscious is the central tenet of orthodox psychoanalysis, and much of the humor and satire directed at psychotherapy focuses at that point. Thus, the story of the two Freudian analysts who meet on the street in Vienna: Says the first, “Good morning, Herr Doktor”; the second, after the first has walked by, murmurs to himself, “Ach, I wonder what he meant by that.”

Analytical philosophers have rightly pointed out that such stories touch the Achilles’ heel of Freudian theory: if no conscious thoughts or actions mean what they appear to, then one could never arrive at any certainty about anything—including psychoanalytic theory. Concretely, the analyst himself would never know that his own analysis was not the product of his own unconscious. And if the reply is given that he has come to understand himself through analysis, that answer simply begs the question: how did the first analyst (Freud?) know that his theory was not really a projection of irrational factors bubbling up from his unconscious?

In most instances our anger or depression is not due to external factors.

Add to this weighty epistemological problem the very practical fact that Freudian analysis has not succeeded very well in the curative realm. After discussing several reputable studies of the results of psychoanalytic treatment, Andrew Salter concluded: “Psychoanalysis failed somewhat more often than it succeeded”; as a therapeutic method, it is “time-consuming and expensive.… I think it is of tremendous importance that we develop sounder forms of therapy” (The Case Against Psychoanalysis [1952]; cf. Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Psychotherapy [1978]).

Among alternative forms of therapy, one particularly deserves a close look from evangelicals. The method, “Rational-Emotive Therapy” (RET), was developed by Albert Ellis (b. 1913), a psychologist and author of some 35 books in the field. The best popular introduction to RET is A New Guide to Rational Living, by Ellis and Robert A. Harper (Wilshire). Another basic title is Ellis’s How To Live Withand Without—Anger (Reader’s Digest).

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The fundamental premise of RET is that one can—and indeed, for happiness, must—achieve rational control over his emotional life. Stress is placed not so much on dredging up the childhood sources of present irrational behavior, but on understanding the nature of the current irrationality, and then training oneself to handle stress situations differently. An analyst versed in RET normally brings a neurotic patient to a self-motivating level of rational behavior within six months—as compared with interminable “depth analyses” that often reach the bottom of the patient’s bank account before they plumb the depths of his psyche. In Los Alamitos, California, Christian psychologist Ronald Rook emphasizes that the method keeps him from becoming a crutch to his patients: they learn new behavior patterns—and he can go on to help new patients.

The key to the method is a concept which Ellis, who is not a Christian, derived from classical Stoicism, but which is entirely compatible with biblical teaching: that the vast majority of our emotional problems derive from irrationally imputing to external conditions what in fact comes from within us (cf. Mark 7:15). Examples: the pastor who gets depressed and preaches badly “because of” the small attendance the previous Sunday; or blows up in anger and leaves parish after parish “because of” criticism; or fights with his wife and children “because of” their lack of appreciation for him and his value system.

In all these instances the real reason for the anger or depression (call it the behavioral consequence) is not the external factor (the activating event—insensitivity, criticism, maltreatment from others), though we invariably attribute our neurotic behavior to what “life” or “the system” or “others” do to us. In reality, our anger or depression stems from a linking factor (our own irrational belief system) that says “life” or “people” ought to treat us in accord with our desires and needs.

But in a fallen world, such a pollyanna philosophy is utterly irrational! RET can help the believer not to let his own expectations of how he “ought” to be treated irrationally reduce his productivity, mar his relations with others, and poison his joy in living. When coordinated with Matthew 10:29–31 and Romans 8:28—verses assuring us that God himself in Christ holds the external circumstances of our lives in his hands—RET can serve as a rational life line for evangelicals struggling to stay emotionally afloat in the turbulent waters of a sinful society.

JOHN WARWICK MONTGOMERYAn attorney-theologian, Dr. Montgomery is dean of the Simon Greenleaf School of Law, Costa Mesa, California, and director of studies at the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France.

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