Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Psychotherapy


Is “secular psychotherapy” compatible to Orthodoxy’s anthropology?


Jean Claude Larcher

From an interview with University Professor Mr. Jean Claude Larcher, who has a doctorate in human sciences and has studied psychopathology, philosophy and the Fathers of the East. He also has a clinical experience of psychiatric clinics.

The following discussion has been taken from the program “Radio Barrack”, of the Church of Greece’s radio station at 89,5 FM, which took place on Sunday the 6th of February 2000, on the topic “Are Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy sciences?”

fr. Constantine Strategopoulos: We thank you for being with us here tonight. The subject of our program is the psychotherapy of the Fathers of the East and secular “psychotherapy”.

Given that you are specialized in this area, we would like to ask you a few questions. In your opinion, is secular “psychotherapy” compatible to the principles and the anthropology of Orthodoxy?

Mr. Jean Claude Larcher: I think we need to make a distinction. There are many secular psychotherapies, but there are some I would say that prevail - and more especially psychoanalysis - and within the psychoanalytic current, there is Freud’s psychoanalysis and Jung’s psychoanalysis. As far as Freud’s psychoanalysis is concerned, I would say that there is a quite significant issue of non-concurrence with Christian anthropology. First of all, because Freud’s presuppositions are such that indicate he has a vision of Man who denies God - the relationship with God - and on the other hand, he has a vision for Man that is entirely materialistic and furthermore, he –naturally- has a vision of shaping Man’s idiosyncrasy – something that is almost contrary to Christian perception. I will give a few explanations: for example, according to Freud, there are initially two major categories, two proclivities, which are the sexual and the aggressive stances. Freud believes that Man’s entire preternatural life is explained by them (stances), in which even the most ideal proclivities are also included; for example, even the proclivities that Man displays within his ecclesiastic life, in philosophical thought, in artistic creativity…. all of the above traits are to him (Freud) a form of specific utilization, a specific orientation of sexual energy, and we obviously know that in Orthodox churches, sexuality is a negative expression, of an energy that constitutes a deviation from the energy that is originally directed towards God; in other words, Man was created by God with all his functions orientated towards God; but from the moment that Man alienated himself from God and sinned, his energy deviated in various ways, especially towards sexuality, but also towards an ugly aggressiveness.

I would also like to say something on aggressiveness. According to Freud, there exists a primordial aggressiveness within Man, which is directed against all others; but for Christianity, the proper orientation of aggressiveness is one’s struggle against evil - his struggle against sin; and when it is turned against others, this aggressiveness is equivalent to a kind of perversion – it is a nasty orientation. Naturally, we have here, already, an entirely contradictory vision. On the other hand, there is another principle within Freud’s perception; one that is entirely incompatible to Christianity, that is, whereas Christian anthropology focuses much more on Man’s freedom – on the fact that Man possesses a potential for self-determination – which he must use in collaboration with the Grace of God in order to develop, Freud, however, believes that Man is already predetermined, in his psychological structure, in his psychological life, from the very first years of his life and he is therefore subject to proclivities which have been instilled in his subconscious and he is thus somehow trapped and cannot free himself on his own.

I would briefly like to say one thing more, regarding other forms of “psychotherapy”. We previously mentioned Jung’s “psychotherapy, which is yet another form – a far more advanced one. Jung obviously has a vision – a slightly different one – a slightly more spiritual one – but it is a spirituality that is not Christian. For example, one finds a significant interest in Jung’s psychology among various mystical or occult movements and quite often, we even find this kind of “psychotherapy” linked to para-religious groups or those with beliefs foreign to Christianity! And we are currently observing in the West a rapid development of psychotherapies that are closely tied to para-religious movements, and quite often this is a means that certain para-religious leaders are utilizing, in order to attract people to their group!

Therefore, the problems that are posed are, in my opinion, that there is no psychotherapy that is truly autonomous and free of anthropological interventions. What I mean to say is that, behind every form of psychotherapy there is an underlying anthropology - that is, a specific perception of Man – and quite often, these “psychotherapies” are structured outside of Christianity and as such are –precisely- different to Christian anthropology; so, by implementing these psychotherapies, we are at risk –if you will- of orientating Man’s psychological life by means of models that are not suited to the Christian faith.

fr. Constantine Strategopoulos: Can secular “psychotherapy” contribute towards the Church’s therapeutics?

Mr. Jean Claude Larcher: Well now. If you like, in my books, I have expounded this matter also. It may sound odd, but I have developed the opposite idea: that is, I have developed the idea that on the contrary, it is the Church, who can offer something to secular “psychotherapy”. In the end, secular “psychotherapy” often appears to be very superficial in the manner that it perceives Man; in other words, it conceives Man within a purely psychological framework and a purely social one, and not in the least in a spiritual framework. Undoubtedly, in Christian anthropology there is really no autonomy in psychological life; that is, psychological life is linked in part to the life of the body – it is often dependent on the condition of the body. The Fathers have stated this frequently: sometimes there are certain psychological ailments or psychological disorders that are linked to physical disorders, which should be handled through organic means – with medication.

On the other hand, there are many cases where psychological disorders are linked to spiritual illnesses! We must, therefore, carefully discern between what belongs to the psychological or the spiritual category, and not confuse the two. Thus, we justifiably have a tradition of therapy for spiritual ailments in the Orthodox Church. The Fathers have developed this view extensively, by studying Man’s passions, as well as the way that they negatively influence Man’s life, and have shown how almost all passions generate significant disorders within Man’s soul. For example, in the lives of Saints we can see that anger is the cause of many psychological illnesses; or, the passion of grief, which causes unrest to the soul, or stress; then there is remissness, which is the source of depression and weakness, and there is the passion of fear, which creates phobic neuroses. So, it occurred to me that there are –if you will- within the traditional, patristically-defined heritage of the Orthodox Church, and especially within the immense wealth of Patristic teachings, very many things that we can utilize in order to comprehend the disorders of the human soul, and that we can use them to tend to and to heal those disorders, based on the modern psychotherapies’ proposed analyses. When we study the Ladder by Saint John, when we read the books written by Evagrios of Pontus, there is a very elegant, subtle, and very, very profound analysis of the function of the human soul. And we have infinitely much to gain from these texts; but unfortunately, this patristic heritage has often been forgotten to a large degree.

fr. Constantine Strategopoulos: What does the Orthodox Tradition offer towards the therapy of psychological ailments?

Mr. Jean Claude Larcher: I believe that there is here a teaching of such amazing wealth, which is however somewhat forgotten. But I do believe that we can reach the stage, through the study of ascetic texts, of comprehending the function of psychological life, both in regard to health and sickness, in a manner that is entirely concordant with Christian anthropology.

fr. Constantine Strategopoulos: Can secular anthropology heal the soul?

Mr. Jean Claude Larcher: Listen! We need to discern between two things here: inside the soul we need to discern what is psychological and what is spiritual. If the question is whether it can heal spiritual ailments, it is obvious that no, it cannot. But I can say that in some cases, secular psychotherapies can provide a certain degree of relief to psychological ailments. But there is no “psychotherapy” that can actually heal the soul. Proof of this fact is that these psychotherapies are multiple and varied. If there had indeed been even one among them that could heal, well, then it would have imposed itself – it would have been able to prevail over all the others. The fact that we are continuously searching for new methods of psychotherapy indicates that we have not found a therapeutic method that is truly satisfactory. But some psychotherapies do at least alleviate certain kinds of psychological suffering, which is the result of psychological disorders. But I would say that we can also bring about a certain degree of relief through current practices, thanks to “listening sessions”. I think that if priests, through their practice of listening to confessions, were to dedicate time to listen to the parishioners who come to confession – to actually listen to them with love and also with a feeling of compassion, sympathy and also praying for them - they will achieve results that are not only as good as, but even better than, the results of “psychotherapy”. I would venture to say that Christianity, the Church, offers something far more, because when a patient goes to the “therapist”, the “therapist” listens to him and he can quite often confide secrets of his inner life, his difficulties and find relief; the Church, however, offers something beyond merely listening to the other: She offers philanthropy, God’s forgiveness, and consequently the dissolution of certain root causes – the quelling of some of the causes of psychological pain, to the degree that those psychological disorders are linked to sins and passions.

fr. Constantine Strategopoulos: Do the methods of secular “psychotherapy” agree with the Church’s therapeutics?

Mr. Jean Claude Larcher: I would like to underline that there is a significant difference in the way that secular “psychotherapy” acts, and the way that we can find therapy inside the Church. I would like to add something that is relevant to the difference that exists between psychoanalysis and what takes place in Church – which we have sometimes compared psychoanalysis to – and that is CONFESSION.

The principle of psychoanalysis is based on one’s talking about the past - by describing it in every detail, and re-discovering the situations that may have been the source of their psychological disorders. The aim is, eventually, for that person to become aware, and to express things that have been forgotten but are quite possibly linked to the root of certain ailments. However, the patient –or the one undergoing psychoanalysis- must finally comprehend that situation, without being given the means to find a meaning behind it, or, better still, he must get past that situation through any other means – other than accepting it. There is a huge difference in the Church, because confession is not only a return to the past, but is also one’s disclosing to his spiritual father the true condition of his soul, so that the spiritual father can provide precise assistance, thereafter also enabling the person confessing to find the way to confront the condition of his soul and finally be relieved of it. But confession is not a simple psychological practice; it is a practice that must be linked to an overall ascetic lifestyle and should be especially linked to prayer and sacramental living, through which we become recipients of God’s Grace – which is what can help us. In other words, in “psychotherapy”, Man is confronted with purely physical means, and quite often he does not have the strength to confront his inner life (which he sees, only through “psychoanalysis”). But, in the framework of the Church, he is the recipient on the one hand of his spiritual father’s guidance -which is discernment- as well as the help of God’s Grace on the other.

I would also like to underline that psychoanalysis presents certain dangers, because there are certain individuals who are precisely in difficult situations that they have lived in the past, who recall these situations and become aware of them, but are unable to confront them, while the psychoanalyst does not offer them any means of overcoming those situations. In fact, those psychoanalyses sometimes have a tragic ending: there are frequently suicides, or, there may even be a development – a worsening – of the condition, instead of therapy. It is precisely because this idea – or this reality – that Man can benefit from an external, powerful help (as is the case in the Church) does not exist in them (psychoanalyses).

On the other hand, I would also like to add something more –if you will allow me: there is an inherent danger…there actually danger involved, when recalling in detail all our past passions: the Fathers advise us to confess them – to actually voice them, and not just “know” before God what sins we have committed – but to also describe all our difficulties. The Fathers however also advise us - (even discourage us) - from re-living in detail whatever in the past did not have a positive outcome, and was linked to our sins. Thus, confession is NOT a recollection that the patient should thereafter remain attached to, but should be something that we confess before God in order to receive His forgiveness; and forgiveness is, precisely, the elimination of all the pathological results, even of that very source of the sickness or the disorders that are linked to it, when they are linked to sin. In other words, divine forgiveness truly offers a therapy, which secular “psychotherapy” essentially does not provide.

 Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 23-4-2008.

Last update: 23-4-2008.