Book Review: Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds
This book, by a gifted scholar and Hieromonk at the Karakallou
Monastery on Mount Athos, is a new volume in Peter Lang’s American
University Studies Series. In his foreword, H.T. Englehardt remarks that
Father Alexis, who holds a doctoral degree in theology from the University
of Thessaloniki, brings together in this book the world of psychology
and the spiritual teachings of the Church fathers: enriching science,
thereby, with a spiritual dimension that it can appreciate without necessarily
acknowledging the foundational principles of Christianity; and,
at the same time, demonstrating that Orthodox Christians—who after
all used, as he notes, the principles of secular architecture and engineering
to build what was for centuries the greatest monument of Christendom,
the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople—can enhance the spiritual
life with a study and examination of certain psychotherapeutic principles
and methods. Between science and spirituality, there can be a fecund
meeting of minds.
As the title of the book indicates, Father Alexis draws his comments
on spiritual anthropology and psychology from the writings of the Church
Fathers (both Greek and Latin). His discussion of the world of psychology
he centers on the work of Aaron Beck, popularly known as the “father”
of cognitive therapy and widely acclaimed for a number of psychometric
instruments for diagnosing anxiety disorders or depression
(notably, the BDI, or Beck Depression Inventory). This parallel scheme
—juxtaposing the principles and practices of “Patristic psychology” with
a secular psychoanalytic school—reminds one of an earlier work of this
kind by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Naupaktos, who in his ῾Yπαρξιακὴ
Ψυχολογία καὶὈρθόδοξηΨυχοθεραπεία (Existential Psychology and
Orthodox Psychotherapy) contrasts and compares Patristic methods for
achieving mental wellness with the existential theories and methods of
Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy.
Father Alexis’s choice of cognitive therapy as a prism through
which to focus his comments on secular psychology was certainly perspicacious.
Its focus, not so much on the content and specific nature of
stimuli in our sensory and psychic environments as determinants of
adaptive and maladaptive behaviors as on the psychic cognitions that
we construct and internalize from them, is immediately reminiscent of
stoicism and other classical Greek philosophies. As such, since aspects
of classical philosophy adumbrated early Christian wisdom, cognitive
therapy provides facile access to Patristic teachings on the treatment of
psychic valetudinarianism, the cleansing of the mind, and the healing
of the νοῦς. The Fathers, too, concentrate on the cognitive world; that
is, they seek to control and restrict in πρᾶξις that to which we attend
in everyday life, but with the goal of restoring our cognitions about,
and view (θεωρία) of, the world around us to a natural state—viz., that
of aligning the human will to the Divine Will, a conceptual and
ontological counterpart, if you will, of moving from a maladaptive to
an adaptive an salutary psychological state.
With regard to the ontological dimension of Patristic therapy, Father
Alexis does not touch specifically on the notion of θέωσις and its
vision of the total rehabilitation of the human state of being (salvation
in union with God through Grace). Admittedly, his book is not concerned
with the ontological dimensions of Orthodox psychology, but
stresses the existential aspects of the curative regimen of the Fathers.
Nonetheless, I would have valued—if simply for the pleasure of seeing
him expand his masterful treatment of the Patristic corpus and his skillful
scrutiny of cognitive therapy (rare for someone not trained as a psychologist
or psychiatrist)—a discussion of Patristic psychology as it
reaches beyond existence into being and beyond man into the world of
the novus homo, though such an adventure may have perhaps compromised
the parallels between the mind of the therapist and the spiritual,
noetic sense of the spiritual father which he so beautifully establishes.
I admit that I had to read parts of this book several times, since it
covers such a vast amount of material. normally, I would criticize this
as a sign of the dispersion that results from an overly ambitious work.
In this case, I cannot do so. First, rereading Father Alexis’s excellent
prose was a delight in itself. Secondly the book does follow a careful
development in four parts, and has a helpful coda that summarizes the
text. A splendid, highly recommended book that is not to be missed.
Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies
From Orthodox Tradition, Volume XXVIII, Number 2 (June, 2011). Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds is available from Amazon.com.