Discipling the Psychological Person

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by Bill Hull

This makes Christianity look highly implausible at the current time. If the message about the self is that of expressive individualism or psychological man, and if that message is being preached from every commercial, every website, every newscast, and every billboard to which people are exposed on a daily basis, the task of the church in cultivating a different understanding of the self is humanly speaking, likely to provoke despair. [1]

The major conflict in making disciples in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “World Come of Age” is that as society progressed, it developed its own mind and went its own way. It went so much off the rails in its idealism, and its progressive thought progressed beyond its knowledge, beyond its means, and lost control of society. Bonhoeffer didn’t recommend leaving behind the gospel and its foundational truths that shaped Western civilization; instead, he simply recommended that Christianity shed its ancient garment and take on a more modern look, what he called a “religionless Christianity.”

But people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer no longer exist.

Bonhoeffer was a product of German aristocracy: brilliant, high strung, pampered, privileged, fastidious, judgmental—essentially an intellectual snob. He was fluent in several languages and learned new ones easily. He was familiar with history’s greatest poets, scientists, historians, theologians, and philosophers. He was also a connoisseur of opera, the theater, and was himself an accomplished pianist. He traveled first class and was accustomed to servants. His father provided a personal chauffeur, and Dietrich drove a new Mercedes convertible provided by his family.

He looked down on American theology and theologians. By the time he was at Union Theological Seminary in 1930 on a post-doctoral study grant, he had already earned two PhDs at the University of Berlin that dwarfed anything American liberal theology had to offer. The students and faculty amused him with their quaint, weak theology and in how choosing their beliefs was like choosing an automobile.

In our present era we will not find a student like Bonhoeffer or any of his ilk. People are simply not that well-educated any more. Rather, society has transformed its disciples. Someone suggested the contemporary person experiences transubstantiation by credit card, and consumerism is the monarch.

This transformation took centuries to develop. It required the advancement of technology, the rise of science, the power of economics, hundreds of years, and the cooperation of the church. Philip Rieff, the late Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Triumph of the Therapeutic,” traced this change in the types of people who developed through the ages.

The development through time began with the idiotic person, with “idiotic” referring to one focused primarily on self and survival. This person was a product of a primitive culture, a pagan world whose moral code was based in myth or unknown forces like the sun, the moon, or trees, and whose faith was in fate.

The next era was marked by the political person, who created a society rooted in cooperation and community, which came from such things as the Greek polis, the idea of democracy, and the early formation of philosophy through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But the larger moral codes of society rooted in formal religion had yet taken root in the West.

The third era gave rise to the religious person. In this era, God was revealed as personal and transcendent, and law and morality were rooted in a biblical narrative. This brought stability to society and an impulse to rely on a greater power. This was the era that built the great nations and powers in Western civilization. I would argue this occurred primarily because this era was in sync with reality and the way the earth and humans were created.

Next came the economic person, who believed capitalism was the way out of poverty and essential to the development of the middle class. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” was published in 1776, arguing how societies could be improved through work and productivity. Karl Marx and “The Communist Manifesto,” which presented a utopian idealism that could only work with governmental tyranny, countered this philosophy in 1848. Its primary weakness was to misunderstand human beings. All people need to be governed but not by the government; rather, people need self-governance based on the development of godly character.

The next era, which is the age in which humanity currently exists, began in the 1960s and introduced the psychological person. This person is a product of what Rieff called the “Triumph of the Therapeutic,” driven mostly by consumption, personal reflection, with desire rather than self-discipline as the dominant force in their inner life. The psychological person is morally confused, lacks an objective moral foundation, and is cut off from history. Such an individual is lost at sea and easily tossed around by what they are told in superficially packaged “news” reports. They are sucked into the vortex of self-creation. This person is self-transformed by the credit card. The customer is king and consumes products that create the image of what they want to be. The present age is one where images are created by camera angles and good lighting, and people can be changed by the swipe of a credit card.

Into this illusionary world disciples have been sent to minister. In fact, we are part of it and have been successfully discipled by it. We have become the very thing we are against and are working to correct. What can be done? Into this morass, Jesus plops down his Word and his requirements that have not changed since he spoke them because humans have not changed since then. We are still foundationally the same.

Jesus warned his disciples not to tell anyone who he was. “The Son of Man must suffer many terrible things,” he said. “He will be rejected by the elders, the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. He will be killed, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead.” (Luke 9:21, 22, NLT)

At this stage Jesus knew he was within a year of experiencing what he described. But this, like some information, was only for his most trusted insiders. There must have been a slight break in the action as now he began to address a larger crowd. And here was the explosive truth. What he was about to say was clearly not just for leaders or insiders. In fact, it was the gospel for all people.

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?” (Luke 9:23–25, NLT, emphasis added)

SOME OBSERVATIONS

  • Faith equals following Jesus. If you’re not following Jesus, your faith fails.
  • Turning from selfish ways requires reflection and repentance.
  • Turning from selfish ways is a decision followed by a process.
  • Taking up your cross is required, is personal to each life, and can’t be done alone. You need a like-minded community.
  • A cross means putting to death your former life, your dreams, your agendas, and your plans.
  • You will fail if you try to “hang on” to bits and pieces of the old life.
  • If you give up your life, you will actually save it. Being “saved” requires this process: repenting, believing, following.
  • If you reject this and don’t follow Jesus, you will not be saved. You will be lost/destroyed.
  • All who are called to salvation are called to discipleship—no exceptions and no excuses. Do you see any exceptions in Jesus’ declaration?

By Bill Hull. This post comes from https://thebonhoefferproject.com/weeklycolumn/therapeutic. Used with permission.

[1] Carl R. Trueman, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2020), 404.

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