Saturday, April 13, 2013

God as therapist and the Holocaust

I was just reading an article in the New York Times about evangelical Christians’ relationship with God – that they treat God like a therapist, someone that you can bring your problems to and share them, that God is close and supportive. Evangelicals have closer, more personal relationship to God than other Protestants or Catholics. I think this is certainly true also for Jews – I have never had a conversation with anyone who has said that they have that kind of personal relationship with God. The people I know don’t talk about talking with God. The article says:

More strikingly, I saw that the church implicitly invited people to treat God like an actual therapist. In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.
“It’s just like talking to a therapist,” one woman told me, “especially in the beginning, when you’re revealing things that are deep in your heart and deep in your soul, the things that have been pushed down and denied.” The church encourages people to bring those conversations with God into their prayer group and to share their struggles with others, who are expected to respond with love, respect and compassion.
I find it striking that prayer is described as a conversation – which suggests that they receive answers, that there is someone replying to them. How do they envision this? What does God say to them? How would they describe the conversation? How do they imagine God? I have prayed to God and even felt that I was answered – but it wasn’t a back and forth conversation, because for me God is so strange and other than we humans. How can I have a conversation with God like I would have a conversation with a human being? Other humans are on the same level as I am – frail, flawed, limited in time and space. God is not. Communion with God is with the Wholly Other, as Rudolph Otto put it. But yet somehow it is possible to have a relationship with God – but I think much of it is nonverbal, intuitive – not put in words. Can loving God be put into words? Or apprehending God in feeling God’s presence all around – and pointing to something beyond our ordinary human perceptions?
You can see this therapeutic dimension most clearly when evangelicals respond to the body blows of life. The churches I studied resisted turning to God for an explanation of tragedy. They asked only that people turn to God for help in dealing with the pain. “God doesn’t want to be analyzed,” one woman explained to me. “He wants your love.”
I don’t agree with her, because I don’t think that turning to God for explanation is analyzing God. I think it’s a very important part of a relationship with God – at least it has been for me. I wouldn’t even call it asking God for an explanation – sometimes it’s getting angry or despairing with God. The emotion is a bridge to God – even if it’s anger.
A young man — a kind man with two adorable children and a loving wife — died unexpectedly in one of the churches where I spent time. When the pastor spoke in church the following Sunday, he did not try to explain the death. Instead, he told the church to experience God as present. “This is a difficult philosophical issue for Christians,” he said. “We who believe in a loving, personal God who created the earth and can intervene at any time — we have this problem.” His answer? “Creation is beautiful but it is not safe.” He called our everyday reality “broken.” What should you do? Get to know God. “Learn to hang out with him now.”
I like this – “Creation is beautiful but it is not safe.” Read the book of Job – the descriptions of the beauty of the creation are stunning, but it’s clear that creation is not safe. God says to Job, “Where were you when I founded the earth?” Job is overawed and ceases to speak. The world is not safe – we’re in danger from natural and human-made dangers, and we all die in the end. I don’t feel a need to have God explain to me why the natural dangers exist - they’re the conditions of our existence. What I need is an explanation for human evil.
I saw the same thing at another church, where a young couple lost a child in a late miscarriage. Some months later I spent several hours with them. Clearly numbed, they told me they did not understand why God had allowed the child to die. But they never gave a theological explanation for what happened. They blamed neither their own wickedness nor demons. Instead, they talked about how important it was to know that God had stood by their side. The husband quoted from memory a passage in the Gospel of John, where many followers abandon Jesus because his teachings don’t make sense to them. Jesus says sadly to his disciples, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
The question about the source of evil is universal, and can be raised by anything, but as a Jew it is always raised for me by the Holocaust and the other disasters of Jewish history. I can’t imagine not asking God why these things happened, especially within the framework of Jewish theology, where the Jewish people and God have made a covenant. We might have transgressed against the covenant, but God has torn it asunder. I don’t feel satisfied with the assertion that God stood by our side. It’s comforting to think that God stands by us when we are in distress – but did people feel that at Auschwitz? Or when they were about to be shot in front of an open pit? I can’t answer that question, only somebody who was there could answer that question for themselves. I visited Terezin in the Czech Republic when visiting there in the summer of 2005. There were one place there that I could only walk through with the thought that God was present even here in this place – inside the Small Fortress where people were taken to be executed. But at one place I was so horrified that I could scarcely even think – at the crematorium.
So how would evangelical Christians deal with experiences like that? What about when it’s impossible to feel sure that God is with you, because the horror is too great? I’m not talking about unbelief – going to Terezin didn’t make me doubt God’s existence. It made me question reality, in a way – the incommensurability of normal middle-class American existence and life and death in Terezin.
I'm sure that evangelical Christians have seen the sites of the concentration camps in Europe - what are their theological responses?


  1. I'm hardly an evangelical or Christian at all, but my understanding is that there's a certain part of our stream of consciousness that evangelicals label as being the voice of G-d or, perhaps more accurately, divinely inspired. Not as hallucinatory as it used to seem to be to me.

    From a different perspective, your second question about explanations reminds me of Ko Bong's Three Gates. As a Jew with knowledge of the Holocaust, I spend a lot of time with that last question ("The whole universe is on fire. Through what kind of [mind] can you escape being burned?"). The first ("The sun shines everywhere. Why does a cloud obscure the sun?") probably relates better to asking for explanations. But the point of a koan, and I think it may be similar theologically to the evangelical response that seems so odd, is ultimately that your responses to the world around you should be direct and not inappropriately filtered by your thinking. Thinking is a useful tool, but so often it cuts off our compassion and separates us from one another. And when we use our thinking to blunt our pain, we also blunt our compassion. Contrary to what Luhrmann says ("That’s when they feel that they most need Him"), I would guess that when the horror is "too great" may be an opportunity to cut through the stuff that keeps us separate.

    1. Except I checked because it seemed to conflict with my memory. The Ko Bong who first asked those questions of his students was not the same Ko Bong described in the link. The right Ko Bong lived in China from 1238 to 1295.