Orthodox America

 from The Book Shelf - Psychology as Religion 

Reviewed by Fr. Alexey Young

by Paul C. Vitz; Wm. B. Eerdmans Pubi. Co, 1977; 149 pp.;

This tremendous critique of psychology should be 'must' reading-with one qualification, which will be mentioned later. Written by a professor of psychology at New York University, Dr. Paul C. Vitz, Psychology of Religion (aptly sub titled "The Cult of Self-Worship") is based upon the following theses: psychology as religion (i.e., secular human i 5 m) exists in strength throughout our society, is deeply anti-Christian and "has been for years destroying individuals, families, and communities"; it is "extensively supported by schools, universities, and social programs financed by taxes," and "can be criticized on many grounds quite independent of religion"- not least of which is the fact that modern psychology is simply "bad science."

Dr. Vitz presents the four major theorists of psychology, Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and RolloMay. After outlining their theories for the reader, he explains that their ideas "had to be translated into popular form before they could reach large numbers of people." This process took place primarily through the form of encounter groups, self-help books (like Games People Play,  etc.), EST (Erhard Seminar Training), and enormously popular sex manuals.

Dr. Vitz maintains that all of these forms of popularized "selfism" or self-worship, may be directly linked to Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841) which had such an influence on Marx, Nietzche, Huxley, Freud and others: "The book consists of an argument against both the divinity of Christ and the existence of God, with the general premise that all theology be resolved into anthropology (the study of man)"! This is certainly reflected in the modern idea that man is somehow intrinsically good, and never e v i 1. Therefore, the greatest thing any man can do in this life is to experience herself ("self-realization"). God has no particular reality-He's just a "notion" in someone's head, and therefore He has no claim on anyone, nor need He be worshipped or obeyed, unless it "feels" subjectively "right" to the individual alone.

A particularly interesting section deals with the phenomenon of pietism and the "similarity...of encounter groups to the Christian pietism and Jewish Hasidism of the 18th and 19th centuries

In its various manifestations there was an emphasis on intense emotional response, usually occurring in small groups but sometimes involving larger revival meetings. Pietism was a reaction against the arid, intellectualistic.. forms which Lutheran, Anglican, and Jewish established religions had taken." From this, the Orthodox reader can easily see that modern Protestant fundamentalism and both Protestant and Roman Catholic pentacostalism are basically "pietistic" in origin and form, barely disguised manifestations of Se1f-worship and a kind of ecclesiastical humanism."

Of course, in its purely secularized form, pietism thrives as humanism, psychology, self- ism, and has become a creed for today's youth culture and consumer society It is certainly behind the pro-abortion movement. "It should be obvious," writes the author, "that the relent less and single-minded search for and glorification of the self is at direct cross-purposes with the Christian injunction to lose the self. Certainly Jesus Christ neither lived nor advocated a life that would qualify by today's standards as self-actualized'. . . . Selfism is an example of a horizontal heresy, with its emphasis only on the present, and oneself-centered ethics. At its very best (which is not often), it is Christianity without the first commandment.."

As a critique, Dr. Vitz's book is without equal. Alas, it is not enough Vitz speaks about Christian tradition-the v e r y tradition which itself produced the "cult of self-worship" he is criticizing. There his insights and analyses, invaluable though they are, are self-limiting. The Orthodox reader will find the book stimulating, and will learn from it; but ultimately he will put it aside as unsatisfactory, for the "Christian" solutions presented are shallow and unable to nourish the soul. Having finished the book, the Orthodox reader must then turn to his own Faith, which stands completely out s i d e the Western Christian phenomenon; he will turn to the lives of the saints and, particularly, the writings of the Desert Fathers, in whom will be found the highest, deepest, and broadest possible under standing of the human psyche-which is true psychology.