Looking For a Priest in All the Wrong Places
Alain de Botton has been in the news a lot recently. His Religion for Atheists has garnered considerable attention, whether from atheists who think he is entirely too appreciative of religion or from religious folks who think he is rather selectively and inconsistently describing and accessing their traditions. In the last week alone, I’ve come across no fewer than ten reviews, articles, and interviews trying to make sense of his strange (to some) project of trying to take the best parts of religion and use them to construct a more meaningful secularism.
This morning’s selection of de Botton fare included a review from The Globe and Mail in my church mailbox and a piece from The Huffington Post in my news aggregator. It is the latter that has me thinking today. In it, de Botton asks the question, “Who will look after an atheist’s soul?” Historically, this was the job of priests and pastors, but in the post-Christian landscape this is an increasingly unlikely and undesirable option for many. Many associate “religious professionals” with scandalous and immoral behaviour. Many are uncomfortable around this strange category of humanity—these relics from a bygone age. And, of course, many simply think that priests and pastors inhabit an imaginary world populated by supernatural forces and realities that is flat-out false and ridiculous, if not dangerous. The office of a priest or a pastor would be the last place they would consider going to talk about any problems they might be facing, whether of the mundane or the existential variety.
But whether we are secular or religious people, says de Botton, we still have “soul-related needs” and these needs require attention:
[A] key question to ask might be: where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with all the stuff we used to go to the priest for? Who is looking after it? The inner self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the seven loaves and fishes.
de Botton’s solution? Therapists ought to be our new priests:
My suggestion is that society would benefit if therapists were more explicitly reorganised along the model set by the priesthood; that therapists should be secular society’s new priests.
It’s an interesting proposal, to be sure. As with de Botton’s project in general, I think he sees some things very clearly and misses others entirely. He is surely correct in noticing that therapists, not priests and pastors, are where people increasingly tend to go to talk about their problems and questions. He is also undoubtedly right to argue that psychotherapy ought not only to be something that people turn to when they find themselves in a crisis of some kind, nor should people who access the assistance of therapists be looked at askance, as if they have now entered the pitiable category of people who “need help”—a category which, presumably, “normal” people do not belong to.
Yet I think that, as is the case with de Botton’s understanding of “religion,” he simply misunderstands the role that a priest/pastor plays (or ought to play) for people and in the world. It seems like de Botton has taken a wholly inadequate understanding of priests/pastors as “people who help you with problems,” looked around to see where people who aren’t religious go to talk about their problems, and performed a simple swap. Priests helped people with their problems based on religious views; therapists help people with their problems based on scientific views (sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc). We’ll just trade one for the other and things should be good, right?
Well, maybe not. Whatever else might be said about the role of the priest/pastor, they are not pre-therapists or “the people you would go to if you were in trouble before we knew more or knew better.” At least they shouldn’t be. Of course, this may be how the role is/was conceived by others at times. It may even be how some priests/pastors currently think of themselves. But I don’t think this is the nature of the role. It certainly isn’t how I understand it or how I view myself. While I may have something to contribute when it comes to questions of God, the Bible, human meaning, ethics, etc, I am painfully aware that I have no unique insight into the human psyche or behaviour, nor do I possess any special ability to diagnose and/or fix people’s problems. I am not a therapist.
So what is the role of the priest/pastor? Well, obviously a lot could be (and has been) said about this. I will not presume to speak for others, but when I think of my role as a pastor I often think of myself as a storyteller. Week and week out, I hold up a story to a group of people— a story about what God has done in and for the world and about what this story might have to say about our stories and where they are going. I hold up this story, in all of its maddening complexity, and try to locate our stories—as individuals, families, communities of faith—within a larger story of meaning and hope. And in the telling of this story alongside our stories, I hope to make clear that our stories are judged in light of God’s story and not vice versa. It may sound simplistic, it may even sound kind of vague or useless or impractical in comparison with the work of the therapist. But it is a different task.
So, if atheists are looking for help with their problems—emotional, psychological, and relational, etc—, they should, like the rest of us, find a good therapist. If they are looking for mediators of a story of meaning and hope by which to interpret and re-narrate and judge their lives, they will probably have to look elsewhere.
I hope that the preceding is not in any way taken as a denigration of the occupation of the therapist or counsellor because happen to think quite highly of people who work in these fields. I think so highly of them, in fact, that I do not attempt to do their job, and am happy to refer people into their capable hands.