Morality and “Me”



by Marcus Otte


It is commonplace for Christians to regard relativism and skepticism as the principle cultural challenges that face catechesis today. And this is not without good reason. But I want to suggest these are not the most fundamental sources of secularism, or of confused religion. Relativism is, at heart, a negative doctrine: it denies the existence of objective truth. Skepticism, which denies the existence of knowledge, is likewise negative. And just as negative passions, such as anger or fear, are ultimately grounded on positive passion (e.g., love for something one believes is threatened), negative doctrines rest upon positive ones. The most fundamental layer of a person’s belief system is not what they are against or deny, but what they are for and affirm.

“Therapy culture,” as it is sometimes called, is among the principle sources of mainstream thought, both secular and religious. I do not intend to criticize therapy as such. Nor am I discouraging anyone from seeking therapy if they would likely benefit from it. The therapeutic culture of which I am speaking is a general social phenomenon, rather than any professional practice inherent to therapy. This social phenomenon originates in the counterculture of the late 1960’s. Today, the doctrines of therapy culture are firmly entrenched in the mainstream.


Therapy culture has all the earmarks of a moral theory, and its central tenets are the bedrock upon which much newfangled morality rests. First, any moral theory is partly founded on a description of human beings. So, Aristotle defines us as “rational animals” and prescribes that we should act as such. For the advocates of therapy culture, the most salient fact about human beings is that we are fragile (and they prescribe that we should act like it). On this view, it is understandable if encounters with ordinary setbacks, disappointments, and conflicts psychologically fracture our egos.  


Second, every moral theory needs a goal. For utilitarians, it is the maximization of pleasure. For Christians, it is union with God. The principle goal of therapeutic culture is a subjective sense of well-being. On the therapeutic view, the good life means feeling good, especially feeling good about oneself.


Third, a moral theory needs to prescribe a means for us to reach its proposed goal. Normally, these means amount to rule-following, or the cultivation of virtue, or both. Given its description of human beings (“we are fragile”) and its prescribed goal (feeling good), the most important rule of therapy culture is to have unconditional positive regard for yourself. Several other norms follow as corollaries. You are exhorted to “be yourself”—that is, to not reign in your eccentricities or practice any irksome discipline. Since you are supposed to feel no shame, the divulging of your innermost world is also considered a normal and healthy mode of self-expression. Furthermore, unconditional positive regard requires that all of your perceptions be validated. If you perceive yourself as stunningly talented, others should affirm this, no matter how unremarkable you may be.


The requirement that one’s perceptions be validated means that positive regard cannot be given unconditionally to others, or to their perceptions. After all, those perceptions might contradict yours. This is why therapy culture gives rise to the crybully. Fair negotiation, or any rational dialogue, requires the awareness of one’s own ignorance and weakness. It also rests on a kind of charity towards others. Dialogue is only possible if we acknowledge there is an objective world to be right or wrong about, and that others have as much access to it as do I. If we elevate ourselves too much, we cannot meet our interlocutor face to face. More importantly, if we refuse to examine ourselves for faults, we will never find matter for repentance. But that matter is assuredly there.


On every count, therapy culture runs contrary to the spirit of Christian religion. The world insulates us from deep self-critique, and indeed, from seriousness itself. But Christ says “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The world says that you cannot love others without first loving yourself (a lot). The commandments of charity, on the other hand, exhort us to love God above all, and to love neighbor “as yourself,” so that the mention of the self comes last and by way of comparison, rather than command. In Augustine’s words, “There was no need for a command to love ourselves.” In toto, therapy culture begins and ends with the self. Christianity begins and ends with God.

Write a comment

Comments: 3
  • #1

    Ms. Gay Okolowicz (Wednesday, 27 September 2017 16:37)

    So happy to see how well you are doing, Marcus..St. Charles is a long time ago but I remember you well. You are a great writer and made this old brain think about what u have said. The last two lines are my favorite. Keep up educating the kids of today. They really need your wisdom. May God bless you in all you do! Ms.O.

  • #2

    Anonymous (Saturday, 04 November 2017 17:09)

    "The world insulates us from...seriousness itself." I found this line intriguing. Therapy culture certainly does seem to be related to a declining "seriousness" in today's culture; relativism and the "radical acceptance" of therapy combine as if to annihilate meaning in life by, ironically, attributing meaning to everything, thereby providing it with a good deal of subtlety so as to sneak under most people's radar. This phenomenon only seems to deepening (if this word can even be used without detracting from the superficial nature of what it describes), though, and as I was reading I found myself hoping you'd delve into its causes. It seems to be a necessary duty for any Christian (and especially those of an intellectual nature) to explore the reasons behind the spread of things such as relativism and therapy culture, given the rapid speed with which they've permeated much of society. What the root causes might be stumps me. If you have any ideas on the origins of therapy culture or how to curb its growth, I'd look forward to reading them.

  • #3

    Marcus Otte (Sunday, 05 November 2017 22:09)

    I just wanted to say, I appreciate both your comments!

    Anonymous reader, your question about the origins of therapy culture is extremely difficult. I am honestly unsure if I will tackle it in a future column, as my views on the matter are very inchoate. But you have motivated me to at least reflect more on this question. Perhaps a future column will be the result.

    I will say this, however. To the extent that therapeutic culture (which, again, is distinct from actual professional therapy) includes sin, those sins are instances of archetypal evil: the sort found in the fall of Satan, the fall of our first parents, the murder of Abel by Cain, the tower of Babel, etc. That doesn't go very far in answering your question of course, because archetypal evil is itself mysterious, and because all sins are exemplifications of such evil.

    I disagree with your assessment that therapy culture attributes meaning to everything. It seems that it vacates everything of meaning, encouraging a culture of "nothing buttery," as C.S. Lewis called it: according to late modernity, thought is nothing but the byproduct of brain chemistry, sex is nothing but a biological function, culture is nothing but arbitrary convention, etc. Those sorts of views often work in tandem with the premises of therapeutic culture. But perhaps we mean different things by "meaning."

    Thank you for reading!

BC Torch on Facebook

Trending Articles

Walking the Talk by Annalise Deal

Christianity Finds Home in Israel by Albert Barkan

Euthanasia Debate by Annalise Deal and Gjergji Evangjeli