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Reason and Speech: Timeless Truth and Secular Echoes

Introduction to Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

Father Alexis Trader

Could an ancient mystical path of inner transformation, most rigorously pursued and explored by monks and hermits, possibly bear much resemblance to what now seems to be establishing itself as the standard psychotherapeutic approach to living an effective and rational life? Would they not of necessity lie worlds apart, reflecting two different mindsets, one pre-modern and the other modern and indeed post-modern—one rational and secular, and the other mystical and sacred? As the first century Christian theologian Tertullian asked: “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”[1]

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”[2] In this short verse, from the prologue to the Gospel of Saint John, the Beloved Disciple and Evangelist of the Word proclaims the apostolic experience of revelation to be the fount of the highest form of knowledge. But this needs to be properly understood not as the statement of a dogmatic claim, accessible only to faith, but rather as an invitation to a dimension of noetic or mystical experience that can lead to a radical transformation of the soul. Through the transfiguring experience of beholding Christ in glory, the apostles and saints experienced their senses being refined, their thoughts being made luminous, and they believed that they came to know the truth about humanity and the rest of creation. This knowledge attained through theosis, glorification or deification in Christ, together with the knowledge gained through their earlier experiences of purification [katharsis] from the passions and illumination [phōtismo] by the Holy Spirit[3] form the empirical foundation for the saints” counsels about the healing of the human person and the cleansing of the divine image within, counsels which reflect various aspects of that conceptually rich Greek term logos rendered according to context as reason, speech, and wisdom of God.

Since antiquity, philosophers and ascetics alike have known that reason and speech are the keys to the world of thought at both a personal and collective level. In the course of two thousand years, the saints (those who have pursued most successfully the threefold path of purification, illumination, and theosis) of ancient, traditional Christianity (which this study will maintain persists as a living tradition today in the Eastern Orthodox Church) have explored and recorded the mechanics and dynamics of spiritual transformation, known generally as metanoia or repentance, which begins with a change in a person’s thought-life through the therapeutic use of reason and speech, and ends with the cure of the illness of the soul that since the time of the ancient church has been called hamartia, literally missing the mark, the disease of alienation of the soul from its truest end of joyful vision of God and things divine, that is, in short, sin. The saints have also found that selfish thoughts, left unchecked, lead a person to sinful acts, passions, habits, and eventually alienation from God and neighbor; whereas godly thoughts, when cultivated, guide a person by the grace of God to virtuous actions, habits, and ultimately purification from the passions, illumination by the Holy Spirit, and deification in Christ. Beneath the surface of this outwardly simplistic scheme lies an ocean of patristic texts providing a wealth of counsel and direction for making this good change a reality.

Remarkably, in our own very secular society, cognitive therapists are echoing these patristic findings, albeit in a noticeably altered key and in ontologically thin, but theoretically elegant form. These enticingly comparable, yet elusively dissimilar, resonances call for a nuanced Orthodox Christian response. Cognitive therapy’s taboo-breaking discourse about the reality of mental states is surely a step forward from its immediate historical predecessor, behaviorism. Behaviorism was a scientifically framed psychological theory quite apt at predicting the reward-driven behavior of rats threading mazes, pigeons pecking feeders, and gamblers pulling slot machines, but highly unsatisfactory in dealing with the freedom and complexity of the human soul.[4] In responding to behaviorism, the Orthodox Christian could readily acknowledge the reinforcing influence of anticipated reward (e.g., the joy of mystical union with God, which since ancient times has been called theosis) or punishment (for instance, the anguish of separation from God) on human behavior. Notwithstanding, the Church’s vision of humanity based on her experiential knowledge of the saint and sinner in the image of God could never be encompassed, much less elucidated, by the facile reductionism and crude, mechanistic determinism of American behavioralism.

By the 1970s, however, the vast landscape of American psychology had been radically altered by the accumulated weight of a series of studies indicating that statements about the effects of cognitive processes could be reliably predicted and scientifically tested. In this milieu, which would come to be known as the cognitive revolution, the clinical psychiatrist Aaron Temkin Beck (1921-) completed research studies on depression, yielding results that were at marked variance from the expectations of the Freudian hypotheses being tested. These findings, together with Beck’s clinical observations about the relationship between transient thoughts and emotions, led him to develop an evidence-driven procedure and a well developed theory of psychotherapy that would come to be known as cognitive-behavioral therapy.[5]

Alongside of Aaron Beck, other cognitive theorists, such as Albert Ellis, Donald Meichenbaum, George Kelly, Maxie Maultsby, William Glasser, Arnold Lazarus, Michael Mahoney, Vittorio Guidano, and Giovanni Liotti, developed similar therapies. [6] Among these figures, two thinkers are preeminent: Albert Ellis, the founder of rational-emotive therapy, often referred to as “the grandfather of cognitive therapy” and Aaron Beck, widely known as “the father of cognitive therapy.” Our study will focus primarily on the writings of Aaron Beck and his coworkers[7] for several reasons. First, Beck’s writings are “more scientific in their formulation, less dogmatic, and more well researched” [8] than those of Ellis. Second, Beck’s approach not only subsumes Ellis’s system based on the “action-belief-consequence” paradigm,[9] but also adds a vertical dimension, including deeper underlying layers of beliefs that are the ultimate source of problematic thinking.[10] Third, Ellis’s system has been marginalized in clinical practice by Beck’s approach.[11] Finally, Ellis’s commitment to atheism and a sometimes-coarse hedonism lead him to judgments about rationality at such variance with Christian teaching that any fruitful dialogue is obstructed from the very outset.[12]

Succinctly defined, Beck’s “cognitive therapy is a system of therapy that attempts to reduce excessive emotional reactions and self-defeating behavior by modifying the faulty or erroneous thinking and maladaptive beliefs that underlie these reactions.”[13] On account of the empirical support demonstrating the effectiveness of cognitive therapeutic treatments, it has become for many syndromes the assumed and preeminent form of short-term therapy implemented in the United States and the United Kingdom.[14] In practical terms, this means that most psychiatric hospitals have programs in cognitive therapy; most university psychology curricula are required to teach courses about cognitive therapy; and insurance companies will only co-pay cognitive therapeutic treatments for certain disorders.[15] Given the expanding influence of therapy in Western culture and the shrinking authority of Christianity,[16] given the ubiquity of psychological modes of thought and the paucity of theologically informed ways of thinking in modern society,[17] Christian pastors would be well served by a balanced patristic evaluation of the tenets and techniques of cognitive therapy. Secular therapists, too, may be pleasantly surprised to discover that the territory they are just beginning to explore has been exhaustively mapped over two thousand years by intrepid voyagers of the spirit in the Eastern Church, men and women of whom the West has rarely been cognizant, let alone conversant. And it is hoped, too, that the lay reader may also take a certain interest in the exploration of the meeting of the mindset of ancient Christian asceticism and modern scientific rationality.

At first glance, the similarities between patristic pastoral tradition and cognitive therapy are indeed striking. Byzantine epistemology with its unity between theoria and praxis has been functionally described as “rationalism and empiricism,”[18] the very terms that could be used to characterize the epistemology utilized in cognitive therapy. In fact, the church fathers, as empiricists,[19] follow the pathway that underlies cognitive research—clinical observation followed by theoretical composition,[20] or put differently, empiricism and then rational discourse.[21] Both the fathers and cognitive therapists are committed to honesty and avoiding deception.[22] Both “assume limited freedom and a partial determinism.”[23] Both are motivated by compassion for suffering people and a desire for their restoration to health.[24] Both recognize that talking can be a means for behavioral change.[25] Both affirm the centrality of the thought-life or meaning-making structures of cognition in psychological functioning.[26] Both view unhealthy thoughts about the self, the environment, and the future as a source for psychological problems.[27] Both recognize that the correction of the thoughts[28] or the purification of the thoughts is the foundational dimension of the return to health and wholeness. Both see the use of reason as instrumental in better human functioning.[29] Both assert that a human being is able to exert “personal control over thoughts and behaviors that promote change in a healthy direction.”[30]

Given such similarities, it is not surprising that psychiatrists with training in Orthodox theology such as Fr. Vasilios Thermos and Fr. Adamantios Augoustidis identify patristic examples of what are currently known as cognitive therapy techniques.[31] Fr. George Morelli, an Orthodox Christian cognitive psychologist, is even more emphatic, stressing that “cognitive psychologists, using their own technical vocabulary, have demonstrated empirical evidence” for processes described in ascetic literature.[32] He even goes so far as to conclude that “the Christian spiritual tradition, including the prayers and practice of the Church, scripture and the writings of the spiritual fathers lends itself to an elegant integration with the cognitive therapy methods noted above.”[33]

Although “an elegant integration” may be possible, care is required lest that integration either distort patristic teaching by putting it to foreign use or dull cognitive therapy’s cutting edge by mixing it with material extraneous to strictly scientific method. Two simple yet related facts should always be kept in mind. First, the fathers were not cognitive therapists treating people suffering from anxiety or depression, but human beings striving to follow the commandments of Christ, to acquire the love that “seeks not its own,”[34] and to reach union with God. Second, cognitive therapists are not church fathers seeking to describe humanity in its ideal state or to answer ultimate questions, but mental health professionals attempting to reduce the symptoms of those suffering from various disorders so that these patients can function better in society.While certain domains of concern between cognitive therapists and the fathers coincide, the material that does not overlap will inevitably be considered more significant by purist cognitive therapists as well as by ardent followers of the patristic tradition.

Establishing and then evaluating a relationship between patristic pastoral tradition and cognitive therapy is an enterprise requiring both a brief comparison of worldviews underlying each orientation and an extensive juxtaposition of the discrete components that constitute each approach. On the one hand, a terse comparison between Orthodox anthropology based on revelation and the philosophical anthropology assumed by cognitive therapy should highlight stark differences between the two. On the other hand, an in-depth contrast between the constituent elements of cognitive therapy with their counterparts in the patristic tradition should point to startling similarities. Together, both perspectives should lead to an informed and fair Orthodox Christian response to cognitive therapy as well as an appreciation of Orthodox ascetic theology by cognitive therapists.

Of course, preliminary convictions inevitably influence subsequent conclusions. It is necessary to be frank about training and commitments at a personal level, for two reasons outlined by Dr. David Entwistle: “A valid critique can only come from the position of a person who is sufficiently informed so as to be working with actual disciplinary concerns, rather than a mere caricature or limited sample of disciplinary content”[35] and “The theorist’s personal commitments will invariably influence the model that he or she proposes.”[36] In terms of training, the writer’s graduate work and personal life as an Athonite monk have been centered on Orthodox spiritual life and theology. Notwithstanding, earlier training in chemistry has provided the writer with sufficient grounding in the scientific method to appreciate its application in works written for mental health professionals.[37] In terms of commitments, the writer’s ultimate loyalty lies with the patristic teaching of the Orthodox Church, whose practical guidance for striving to embody the virtues of the Gospel and to participate in the Church’s mysteries begins with daily life and stretches into eternity. This devotion, however, in no way precludes a healthy respect for empirical findings in psychological research utilized as applications to reduce human suffering. Obviously, prior commitments and training orient the writer toward some sort of approach involving dialogue, if such a dialogue is indeed consistent with patristic tradition.

To decide whether that hypothetical “if” can become a statement of fact, we will next turn our attention to historical relationships between patristic theology and secular knowledge in order to discern a proper model that will guide those Orthodox Christians sojourning in the desert of contemporary society, so that they might constructively make use of cognitive therapy, the present-day equivalent to the Passover gold of the Egyptians. Without the guidance of Moses, the children of Israel took that gold and made a molten calf to their perdition. With his guidance, they made an altar of gold for the tabernacle of the law to their sanctification.[38] Whosoever “readeth, let him understand.”[39]

From Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds, by Fr. Alexis Trader (Peter Lang Publishing, 2011). Available from Amazon.com. See book for endnotes.