Losing My Religion: Faith and Doubt in Psychotherapy
Jim Moyers, MA, MFT
Based on a June 4, 2010 presentation at The Psychotherapy Institute, Berkeley, CA
"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1 (RSV)
As a , I was born into a cosmic battle between good and evil. The apocalyptic scenario in which I was taught Adventists were destined to play a key role was quite exciting for me as a child. While other kids had fantasies of riding with Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger, I imagined myself bravely enduring the persecution which I was told would start any day as Satanic forces made one last attempt to overthrow the throne of God, a conflict that would directly involve Seventh-day Adventists, "God’s Chosen People," who alone of all the people on the earth understood and followed God’s will for humanity.
I was taught that everything I needed to know was contained in the Bible as understood through Adventist dogma. Questions tended to be answered with the stock response of "We have been told . . ." followed by a citation from the Bible or the writings of the church prophet. What wasn’t encompassed within Adventist teachings either was of little importance or would be explained in "the world to come." One shouldn’t ask questions about such things but rather focus on the supremely important task of "finishing the work" of preparation for the imminent Second Coming of Jesus.
Attending SDA schools from first grade through my third year in college, I had very little exposure to the world outside of Adventism, and was taught next to nothing about music, art, literature, philosophy, and other "worldly things." But I wasn’t entirely cut off from "the things of the world." From the time I learned to read I’ve been a compulsive reader. As a child and adolescent I read a lot in the Bible and the many publications produced by the church. But, almost automatically reading any and all printed material I came across, I also looked into more "worldly" books and magazines where I discovered things that didn’t fit neatly into what I had been taught to regard as TRUTH beyond question. But as I "knew" that people who were so unfortunate as to not know Adventist teachings had many mistaken ideas, things that might have otherwise presented challenges to those teachings were relatively easy to dismiss. And I had been warned against doubt as the tool of the devil. So I managed to at least consciously push away most of my doubts until I got to college.
I attended an Adventist college that had a reputation within our conservative denomination for being a particularly conservative "school of standards." But there for the first time I encountered in the classroom things that took me outside the narrow bounds of Adventist thought. While direct challenges to Adventist theology were not tolerated in classroom discussions, I repeatedly noticed discrepancies between what I had been taught to regard as true and what I was learning about the world, and more importantly, myself. Repressed doubts began to surface and grow, like cracks in a foundation that spread until the whole structure came crashing down, leaving me more than a little bewildered, depressed, and angry. By the end of my junior year I was very lost, sure of nothing beyond the fact that I no longer believed in something that had guided my life up to that point. Faith in "the sure word of God" gave way to massive doubt about almost everything.
Redefining reality, and myself, was a long and often near disastrous process. I was seriously adrift for much of my twenties. No longer having an academic goal, I dropped out of college after my third year. I eventually began psychotherapy with a Jungian who was also a very liberal Anglican clergyman. With his help I began to gain some understanding of the crisis of faith that had left me so disoriented. Through a combination of therapy and extensive reading, I discovered a way of understanding spirituality as a transformative and symbolic experiential process very far removed from the concretized scripture based religion that had been handed to me as a child.
In rejecting Seventh-day Adventist beliefs I thought that I had also rejected Christianity as a valid form of spirituality. Like so many of my baby boom peers, I became interested in Eastern traditions. But in reading Jung and Joseph Campbell, I came across references to Christian traditions that were very different from what I had been taught was the only valid way to be a Christian. I decided to attend the local campus of the University of California to finally complete my undergraduate degree. Following my interests (as well as a very vivid dream), and seeking to undo my many years of religious indoctrination, I majored in religious studies and found that there indeed was much more to religion than what I had been exposed to as an Adventist. I was surprised to discover a very lively Christian mystical tradition which, contrary to the fundamentalist paradigm with its insistence that the divine is to be understood in a literal concrete manner, uses words like "the cloud of unknowing" and "Godhead beyond God," to point towards an Ultimate for which words are inadequate. That, in combination with what I had learned about Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist ideas abut reality as something to be experienced rather than explained, supported a natural inclination to mysticism that was emerging from the ruins of my fundamentalist indoctrination.
After college I enrolled in a graduate program that offered a specialization in Jungian psychology. Throughout graduate school I was a committed Jungian with a tendency to dismiss other theories. But out of school and practicing as a psychotherapist, I found other approaches were often helpful. Much as I had with many other things, I would follow what seemed like an interesting thread from something I had read or a workshop I had attended to explore things that were new to me. I discovered self psychology, which in turn led to other facets of non-Jungian psychoanalytic theory. In taking courses at the San Francisco Jung Institute, I was surprised to discover how much interest people there had in contemporary psychoanalytic thought. My perspective broadened considerably. While I continue to think of myself as a Jungian oriented depth psychotherapist, in actual practice I am all over the map, drawing from here and there as seems helpful.
I have done a lot of work in various settings with people affected by severe and persistent mental illness which, in my experience, presents serious challenges to any and all theories that might be called upon to explain it. For over twenty five years I annually supervised five to six graduate students who did most of the clinical work at the Berkeley Creative Wellness Center, an innovative day program for mentally ill adults. There my psychodynamic orientation often has to be set aside to address immediate and practical concerns. And I often have to admit that there is still much that I do not understand about the strange psychic transformations that occur in severe mental illness.
I tell my supervisees that what matters most in doing psychotherapy is whether a particular theory, technique, or way of thinking is helpful or not. Whatever helps is valid! That isn’t far removed from William James’ (p. 34) pragmatic test of religious experience. What matters, according to James, is the effect of religion in the believer’s life. If it has a positive effect, the experience is a genuine religious experience regardless of the theological baggage that may come with it. So too with psychotherapy - if an intervention or way of conceptualizing the work, no matter where it comes from, is helpful, then by all means use it.
In looking back on both my personal and professional journeys to this point in my life, I notice parallels between my progress from being a true believer in the religious tradition I was born into through disbelief to an open-ended sense of some ineffable Something and my progression as a psychotherapist from being an adherent of one particular theoretical approach to my current open-ended view.
But if I don’t understand the process of psychotherapy through any one lens, how do I make sense of it? How do I explain how therapy works to someone who has no experience of it? Where do I get the audacity to claim that I can help someone whom I’ve just met? I can no more say that I have some wonderful process guaranteed to transform a life than I can lay claim to a religious practice or belief that has all the answers. I do know from experience that positive change happens more often than not in the course of psychotherapy. Still I have more than a few doubts: Will I really be able to help a client? How can I possibly understand someone whose experience may be very different from mine? Do I ever really have a full understanding of what happens in a session let alone over the course of psychotherapy? After more than thirty years in the field, I have to admit that, despite all the words and concepts I may use to talk about it, I still often have only a very foggy notion of the what, how, or why of psychotherapy.
At the Berkeley Creative Wellness Center I watched the beginning therapists whom I supervise struggle to understand psychotic experiences so far removed from anything they know as to seem to be beyond any hope of comprehension. And often I have to admit to how little I know despite my many years of experience working, and just being, with psychotic individuals. Bion’s famous injunction to be without knowledge, memory, or desire can be somewhat reassuring at such times, but so very hard to follow! And then I think of St. John of the Cross and his description of the dark night of the soul in which there is absolutely nothing to cling to. Is it possible to practice psychotherapy, or even exist, in such a state of not knowing?
Of course I still turn to theory for help in shaping my sense of what might be going on. One of the many things that appeals to me about Jungian theory is its dialectical nature. Jung’s writings are full of pairs of opposites/compliments which together constitute the whole. If I look at my experience in the realms of both spirituality and psychotherapy (which from my perspective really aren’t all that different), there is clearly an ongoing dialectic of faith and doubt running though both. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I was warned against doubt as a tool of Satan. And sure enough, doubt led me away from the things that I was told I must accept in faith. But my doubts in turn led me to a much deeper sense of faith in an ineffable Something that my old time religion was simply too small to admit as even a possibility.
As a therapist, I have repeatedly found various theories lacking. I have learned, sometimes the hard way, the importance of being open to doubts about how I think and what I do as a psychotherapist and a supervisor. But I also have come to a sort of abiding faith in the process of psychotherapy, a faith that grounds me in the midst of doubt and carries me through even when I have little idea of what to do or where to go. It seems to be a faith that if I and my client or supervisee cultivate a curious and open attitude, letting go of the need to have things be one way or another, or even to understand what is happening, something meaningful will emerge, although what it will be, even whether it will in fact turn up, is unknown until it puts in an appearance. The poet John Keats, in an 1817 letter to his brother, spoke about what he called "Negative Capability, this is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties. . . mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" (quoted in Grotstein, p. 109) as being essential to creative process. Psychotherapy is in so many ways a creative process. Being able to tolerate, even cultivate, the unknown without foreclosing possibilities via premature application of theory or technique is absolutely essential to the practice of depth psychotherapy. Therapeutic faith seems to rest in a belief that, if we can stay with the chaos of psychic disorder long enough, sooner or later some degree of order and meaning will emerge.
While the connection to spiritual tradition is perhaps not so immediately apparent, there are fascinating parallels to Jung’s engagement with spirituality in the very deep and often perplexing work of Wilfred Bion, who apparently had very little acquaintance with Jungian thought. In his wonderful book, A Beam of Intense Darkness, on Bion, James Grotstein repeatedly refers to Bion’s familiarity with mystical literature and says, "Bion has enfranchised mysticism as an invaluable and obligatory component of psychoanalytic epistemology" (p.3). Bion’s concept of O, a symbol that points towards Something for which there is no adequate name, is more or less synonymous with the mystic’s concept of an ineffable divinity.
Grotstein (p. 318) writes, "The chaos of infinite O is organized, not random." The discovery of organization in the apparent chaos that so many clients initially present is, in my thinking anyway, what the work of depth psychotherapy is all about. Faith that order and meaning will eventually emerge is essential. For Bion, "An act of faith has as its background something that is unconscious and unknown because it has not happened" (quoted in Grotstein, p. 316). Commenting on Bion’s concept of faith, or "F" as Bion labels it, Eigen (p. 76) writes, "It is openness to unknowing (perhaps the unknowable) that grounds the analytic attitude." In the process that emerges from such openness, "the center of gravity shifts from knowing to being."
According to Grotstein, the arrival of Bion’s "selected fact" - "the appearance of an observable or conceivable pattern in a sea of incoherence and uncertainty" (p. 211) - is itself faith. "The analyst must have the faith that his inner repertoire of unconscious emotions, memories, and inherent preconceptions (Ideal Forms, noumena) exists and can be spontaneously and appropriately summoned and retrieved so as to match up with those in the analysand" (p. 317). If I understand this correctly, the arrival of the selected fact brings together the separate but parallel processes of therapist and client to produce something meaningful that before its arrival in the consciousness of both - or perhaps better stated, the shared psychic space in which it is often unclear what belongs to whom - was unknowable. Which sounds much like Jung’s coniunctio – the union of opposites via a transcendent function that subsumes and transcends both.
So theories that begin from very different places often seem to converge upon something that remains at its core mostly a mystery. As Bion might put it, different theories are “vertices” approaching the same thing, O, from differing perspectives. Some vertices may provide fuller views than others, but none completely comprehends O/God. For "God may be a name for the infinite unknowable, which is a name for whatever God is a name for, which is unnameable." (Eigen, p. 82).
In an ongoing dialectic, doubt reminds us that we can never be sure that our understanding is complete while faith gives us reason to continue on toward a more complete understanding. Depth psychotherapy is based upon faith that something that cannot be known before its appearance will emerge from the seeming chaos, provided that we can manage to cultivate an openness to the possibility of such an occurrence. Doubt guards against the temptation to think it possible to encompass the psyche, to fully understand what is going on in any given moment. As Jung (par. 87) put it, nowhere is there an Archimedean viewpoint outside the psyche from which to objectively observe it. But, given enough time and patience along with Keats' capacity for "being in uncertainties. . . mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason," form and meaning, as in the Genesis creation myth, emerge from chaos. An act of faith brings us through doubt, past despair and meaninglessness, and creation happens again and again in the psychotherapeutic encounter.
Bion, W. R. (1970/1983), Attention and Interpretation, New York: J. Aronson.
Eigen, M. (1998), The Mystical Psychoanalyst, London & New York: Free Association Books.
Grotstein, J (2007), A Beam of Intense Darkness, London: Karnac.
James, W. (1902/1997), The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Jung. C. G. (1938/1940), "Psychology and Religion" in (1958/1969) CW 9, Part 1, Psychology and Religion: West and East, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
©2011 Jim Moyers
Jim Moyers, MFT is in private practice in Berkeley and Hayward, CA. He is a supervisor at The Psychotherapy Institute and clinical coordinator at the Berkeley Creative Living Center.