Conversatio Divina

Therapeutic Theology

Doctrines that Catalyze Human Flourishing

Preston McDaniel Hill

01.  Theology and Thriving

Theology is a sticky word. It has a negative connotation for many people, and for good reason. Images arise of combative and hostile debates where people in power argue over who has the right opinion of God or a specific matter of faith. In such contexts, there is often collateral damage to the heart. People can become so obsessed with getting their theology right that they lose track of healthy relationships and forget about the impact that anxious searches for truth can have on vulnerable hearts wanting connection with God for thriving in life.

This makes sense. After all, theology means talking (logos) about God (Theos), the source and goal of ultimate reality. What could be more important? Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas defined theology as the study of God and all things in relation to God.Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1.7. Quite a task! Given that the stakes are so high, one can see why people are concerned with getting it right. Theology in this sense is aimed at truth, objectivity, description, and accuracy. As Augustine once said, theology means “rational discourse concerning divinity.”Augustine, City of God, VIII.1. If we’re talking about God, we want to talk accurately, rationally, clearly.

And yet, for all his “rational” discourse, Augustine is also the one who wrote Confessions, one of the most beautiful works of theology ever written. It definitely isn’t irrational, but it also isn’t definitive. It is full of rich ambiguity and autobiography that reflects the complexity of not just thinking about God but living with God. It poses more questions than answers and is written as a first-person dialogue toward God in prayer. It throbs with experiential knowledge of God and is marked by a hunger to do theology by recognizing theology’s impact on lived experience.

Some of the greatest works of Christian theology follow suit with Augustine. I immediately think of Anselm’s Proslogion; Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love; Pseudo-Dionysius’s Mystical Theology. Each of these is a theological treatise written in prayer form. Something about the beauty of these works is captured in a quote from desert father Evagrius of Pontus who said that “a theologian is whoever who prays, and whoever prays is a true theologian.”Evagrius of Pontus, Chapters on Prayer, 60 (Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, Robert E. Sinkewicz, trans.[Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003]), 199.That is a wonderfully minimal entry requirement! The heartbeat of theology, according to this idea, is not an effort to achieve accurate cognition but an ongoing invitation to cultivate experiences of flourishing in divine friendship that shape our deepest convictions.

Theology should actively be shaped by lived experience and aimed at experiences of flourishing in sacred friendship. This is why Evagrius of Pontus further defined theology with the prayer as “breast of the Lord, knowledge of God: whoever rests against it, a theologian shall be.”Evagrius of Pontus, Ad Monachos, 120. Theologians are not simply the thinkers: they are the feelers, and the feelers that flourish. The image is one of nursing and nurturing, like a baby awash in breastmilk. Theology should be a rich experience that cultivates thriving for vulnerable humans.

02.  And How Does That Make You Feel?

All of this suggests that while theology and Christian doctrine are traditionally thought of as truth-aimed disciplines that attempt to describe divine realities accurately, the effect of such descriptions on human experience is an important feature that should not be neglected.

Theology may be truth-aimed but is always experienced by people in the real world. Theologian Simeon Zahl describes the importance of this idea in his book The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience by exploring what he calls “the affective salience of doctrine.”Simeon Zahl, “On the Affective Salience of Doctrines,” Modern Theology 31, no. 3 (2015), 434–43,  in Simeon Zahl, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 4. By this term, Zahl is referring to ways in which theology is a social activity that has a felt impact on people in the real world. Theology doesn’t just tell truths: it makes feelings. Given this fact, theologians ought to be attentive to whether doctrines they espouse are “practically recognizable” and “psychologically plausible” for people in the real world. As Joanna Leidenhag has summarized, theologians should be in the business of asking the question of the therapist, “and how does that make you feel” while they are theologizing.Joanna Leidenhag, review of Simeon Zahl’s The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience in Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 15, no. 1 (2022): 143–152.

You might call this theology done from the gut. How does this or that piece of theology make you feel, deep down inside? That is an important, but difficult question. For example, if someone is taught to believe in a doctrine of penal substitution as a preferred theory of atonement and the saving work of Christ, we should not just ask if that doctrine is true or traditional, but also how that doctrine “lands” in the human heart. How does it make you feel that God’s wrath needs to be satisfied by punishing Christ for your sinful human nature?

Of course, individual answers are likely to be diverse, and there are varieties of any given doctrine, including penal substitution. Doctrines and people vary wildly. But that is beside the point. The question of affective salience deserves to be asked. How a doctrine makes someone feel tells us something important about its plausibility.

One might anticipate the objection that feelings cannot always be trusted and need to be balanced with other criteria like truth, reason, tradition, and Scripture. Fair enough. But the same is true of those other criteria, too. Sometimes people think their opinion is true, reasonable, traditional, or Scriptural . . . and it isn’t. What is required is humility to have multiple criteria for theological discernment active upon each other at once. “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22, NIVScripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission.).

It might be useful here to think of the “Wesleyan quadrilateral” as a paradigm for reintroducing experience into theological adjudication.Stephen Greggo and Timothy Sisemore, Counseling and Christianity: Five Approaches (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 24. This heuristic consists of (1) Scripture, (2), tradition, (3) reason, and (4) experience as four normative criteria for theological discernment. While some traditions lean more heavily on some of these criteria than others (e.g., Catholic and Orthodox esteem tradition, while Protestants favor Scripture), there is a general sense in which the first two involve special revelation (Scripture and apostolic tradition) while the latter two appeal to general revelation and natural theology (reason and experience).

It is worth noting that since the influence of Karl Barth on Protestantism in the modern era, natural theology and appeals to human intuition for meaningful knowledge of God have generally been viewed with suspicion among evangelicals today. Hence, many American churches have identified themselves as vanguards of “truth” against the experiential impulses of the world. While this reaction is understandable when human intuition gets God wrong, that doesn’t mean natural theology and appeals to experience are unimportant or never to be trusted.

In fact, appeals to experience have always been an important criterion of theological discernment. We need all the tools in our tool belt. Using Wesleyan’s quadrilateral and corresponding models in the integration of theology and psychology, this feature of how doctrine affectively impacts us could be conceptualized as the appeal to “experience” as a legitimate criterion of theological discernment. We should allow ourselves to open up to the affective salience of doctrine and permit ourselves to make theological adjudications on that basis. Not on that basis alone, but definitely not ignoring it either.

Given all of this, it seems obvious to me that we need to recognize how doctrines both describe and construct reality, in that they attempt to convey divine truths but also have experiential effects in the world, and these experiential effects are important criteria for assessing the viability of doctrine. Simply put, theology doesn’t simply tell us truths. It also makes us feel certain ways. And according to established norms in the discipline of theology, how a given doctrine makes you feel should tell you something important about its plausibility.

Psychological experience matters for good theology. The affective salience of what one says about God is an essential feature of discerning whether God has in fact been known. We need to psychoanalyze our theology by getting in the habit of asking: “how does that doctrine make you feel?”

03.  A Lesson from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount

The most powerful lesson of all might be for us to embrace that this is not just a modern innovation. I think Jesus was the first therapeutic theologian.

Consider this passage from the New Testament where Jesus gives his famous Sermon on the Mount. This passage has become known as a catalogue of The Beatitudes. Like all good theological jargon, this word is made up. Beatitude comes from the Latin word beatus and simply means “blessed.” That is an unfortunate translation because it is loaded with Christianese implications for many. A better translation for us today would be “flourishing.”Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017). In his sermon, Jesus is describing what a “flourishing” kind of life looks like: poverty of spirit, humble, merciful, yearning for justice, pure in heart, and making peace.

Toward the end of his sermon, Jesus says the following words:

“Is there anyone of you who, if your child asks for bread, would give a stone? Or if your child asks for a fish, would give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:9–11, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.).

Reading Jesus’ words carefully, he is making a logical argument known as the argumentum a fortiori: the “argument from the greater.” This is when you argue from an accepted conclusion to an even more evident one. For example, if a five-year-old child cannot safely be trusted to ride a bicycle alone in the street, how much more can that same child not safely be trusted to drive a car by themselves. If this thing is true, then that thing over there must be even more true.

But look carefully at how Jesus does it. If I may paraphrase: “You all know how you love your children and want them to flourish?” (The crowd rhetorically responds, “Yes Jesus, we know what you are talking about”). “Then,” Jesus reasons, “think of it this way: God is like that, but even more.”

Jesus is inviting the crowd to look at the world around them. Find examples of human flourishing. Get that feeling of goodness, that you know to be true, deep into your heart and gut. And then know that it is telling you something about what God is like. Your experience of flourishing tells you something important and true about God.

If we take this line of thinking fully, Jesus is being a therapeutic theologian. He is inviting us to give ourselves permission to reason from our experience of psychological flourishing toward divine realities. How humans thrive in horizontal relationships tells us true things about vertical reality. In short, good psychology—and good therapy—can teach us good theology. Or, so says Jesus.

04.  Clinical Theology as Therapeutic Theology

All of this, I think, leads us to some promising conclusions for thinking about “clinical theology.” The word “clinical” comes from the Latin word klinike which means “bedside” and refers to the care one offers for humans under vulnerable conditions. In this sense, “clinical theology” would simply be theology that aims at human healing and human flourishing.

In order to do theology for human flourishing, we have to know how humans flourish, and then consider how our theology and doctrines might partner in that task. Thankfully, as I have shown from Jesus and the broader Christian tradition, this way of doing things is not as new as it might first appear. Maybe we have just forgotten some important ancient lessons. After all, as the early church father Irenaeus once said, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. 4.20.7. God glories in human flourishing. So should those who talk of God.

If we want to do clinical theology, perhaps we can start by doing therapeutic theology. By this, I mean that theology can begin to be more intentionally therapeutic, that is, aiming at healing malignancies and catalyze flourishing of human nature in the embodied experience of its articulation.

As I have suggested, there is a moral imperative upon theologians to attend to the “down-stream” effects of their theologizing and to assess the veracity of doctrine on the basis of experiential criteria. Theology should intentionally evaluate the knowledge it produces against its potential to catalyze human flourishing in the lived experience people who orient their lives according to such produced knowledge. Ultimately, theology should be oriented to therapeutic ends both because such ends are good in themselves and because such ends are germane to the object of theology’s knowledge. In this way, the criteria for “therapeutic theology” may ideally express the emergent intuitions of “clinical theology” more broadly.