Positivism, despair and the Cross…

A while ago, I wrote a long piece about my (rather negative!) reaction to the dominance of positive thinking within our culture, and perhaps more particularly within our faith based structures.

My friends will smile. Michaela (sometimes known as Polyanna) is almost universally optimistic in our family- a bit like a cross between Christopher Robin and Tigger, and me- well let’s just say I can be a bit of a donkey! But I suppose that is the point. We live in a life of variety and fluidity. Life has this way of throwing in the unexpected- to bring huge joy, sometimes followed by terrible pain and loss. Our roads are long and there is blessing and holiness in all these things- wherever the journey takes us.

We should beware those voices who push us towards a view of life, and an understanding of God, that is based on relentless positivism. There lies a danger that we live our lives towards a kind of wish-fulfilment- a seductive philosophy/theology of success and power which undermines the core messages of the Gospel… and is very much at odds with the way of Jesus.

Equally we should beware the voices of gloom who counsel us that all is lost and the end is nigh. Too many lives are walled in by defeat and damage done by life- and for these people, the way of Jesus is to seek to be a chain breaker and a freedom maker. Some of this might involve the shift of mind-set towards embracing the possibility of change- that old sleight of hand trick called Cognitive behavioural Therapy that I have practiced in my mental health career. The dominance of this approach to almost every human problem is not without good sound reason- even if the cynic in me might also point to the economics of providing short term, focused, ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of interventions.

I had two reminders of the issues discussed above this week. Firstly, Jonny Baker quoted some lovely writing by Ann Morisy in a discussion paper about mission.

Ann’s take on mission embraces both powerlessness, the eschewing of power AND the power of positive thinking. She cites Seligman, that great doyen of the American ‘self help’ movement. As I read her article I found myself saying YES….yes…(but)…

The YES was to some of these things (my emphasis)-

When we muster an intention to do things like Jesus, i.e. to follow Jesus – even in the most modest of ways – we arrive at the portal into the economy of abundance, where virtuous processes flow and grace cascades; By doing it like Jesus (even just a tad, and even just with the intention – because there is so much grace around) we trigger virtuous processes that gain momentum.

This relevance and transformational power of faith make it urgent to articulate and promote the resources at the heart of faithfulness that lead to human flourishing. And we need others to help us pass the test of public reason – it is not sufficient for our theologians or evangelists to simply assert the virtuous processes that faith sets in train.

The other article that interested me was a post reviewing this book on the Emergent Village blog.

I have not read the book (but it is now on order.)

Root asks the questions as to what a church would look like if it were based upon a theology of despair. He starts with Luther’s theology of the Cross– and suggests the church needs to reclaim a crucial piece of Luther’s insight, which he frames something like this-

God brings life and possibility out of death and impossibility.

I am taken back again to the Cross. To the point of absolute brokenness, failure and despair. To the point where all dreams ended, all hopes vanished and all future was stolen.

In my working life, I have met many people who are in this place. If our call is simply to tell them than in three days, there will be resurrection, and all things will be made new,  then we are in danger of dishonest dealing.

  • because it is not our cross
  • and we are not gifted with foresight
  • and because our voices will not be credible
  • and because those who are broken and in mourning are blessed

Something else that is crucial to me is the possibility that ‘God is to be found in the broken places. That he is made known in nothingness and death’.

Like the Navajo rug perfectly woven apart from one flaw, which allows entry of the Spirit.

And that healing comes most deeply not through a denial of pain- or it’s manipulation into insignificance- but rather through the transformation of discovering God within our difficulties and broken parts.

In which I find myself reacting against positive thinking…

…there is no kind of problem or obstacle for which positive thinking or a positive attitude has not been proposed as a cure. Having trouble finding a mate? Nothing is more attractive to potential suitors than a positive attitude, or more repellent than a negative one. Need money? Wealth is one of the principal goals of positive thinking. There are hundreds of self-help books expounding on how positive thinking can “attract” money – a method supposedly so reliable that you are encouraged to begin spending it now. Practical problems such as low wages and unemployment are mentioned only as potential “excuses”. The real obstacle lies in your mind.

I read this today in an article in the weekend Guardian by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of a new book entitled ‘Smile or die, how positive thinking fooled America and the world‘, and ‘Bright Sided, How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America ‘. I have read neither books, but they appear to be part of an increasingly vocal critique of a certain kind of ‘positive-speak’ found in so much self-help material, life coaching and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT.)

Positive-thinking is a dominant idea that has spread far beyond pyramid selling schemes or Oprah-like self help. It has persisted in cancer treatment, despite contrary research and is force fed to employees at almost every team meeting. It has also found it’s way into our churches, and mingled with fundamentalism to create a kind of unassailable world view that pushes up more than one mega church.

It is something I have been thinking about recently- for several reasons. Firstly, I have practised as a CBT therapist, and so know a lot about the strengths and limitations of ‘positivity’. CBT has a strong wind behind it at the moment in almost every sphere of human activity. In my field (psychiatry) it has more or less replaced all other forms of talking treatments.

However the second reason for my interest and pre-occupation comes from my own introspection. Like most people who are of a sensitive, somewhat artistic, creative bent, I can be somewhat mercurial. More than this, it could perhaps be said that I tend towards the melancholic. It is who I am. At times, I struggle with the consequences of this, but after many years of counselling (on both sides of the ‘couch’,) I know myself well enough to understand where this comes from, and to understand something of the strengths and weaknesses that I am skewed towards. It is the engine for much that is good, including my creativity, and ability to see the need in others.

Along the way, I have met many people who have set themselves on a determined path of self advancement and fulfilment- often fuelled by charismatic and inspirational speaking from other shiny high achievers who exhort you to step forward into a brighter more fulfilled future, just like they did. Some of them may even have achieved this- although this often seems to require quasi-religious self delusion. Many others feel guilty and worthless because they fall short of these plastic-fantastic ideals.

What is the harm in encouraging people to think beyond their limitations and reach out for something better- more hopeful, more vitalising and fulfilling? There is good here I think…

But still, what I find myself asking, is whether the dominance of positivity can also have a negative impact on our society?

I have always felt curiously ill at ease with faced with it- recognising other people’s apparent certainty in the benefit of positive outlooks and attitudes, whilst always wanting to add a big ‘BUT….’

Others are not so reticent in their willingness to critique this dominant world view. Perhaps this is in part a political/economic critique- this from another Guardian article, entitled ‘Welcome to the bright new world of positive living’-

In an economy overseen by optimists, house prices would always go up, stock markets would never crash. Positive thinking became not just the language of the mainstream but, on both sides of the Atlantic, political dogma and economic principle too. An ideology that originated in America has fanned out across the English-speaking world, and from there to everywhere else, hand-in-hand with the doctrine of free-market economics.

It’s globalisation by any other name, according to Eric Wilson, a professor of English, who wrote a book called Against Happiness . “The self-help movement has attempted to commodify experience,” he tells me. “It’s intimately tied into capitalism. Buy this package and, almost like a technology, it will move you forward with the goal of a trouble-free life.”

The article also quotes Oliver James, psychoanalyst and author of books such as ‘Affluenza‘.

“It’s snake oil,” he says, “and I explicitly reject it. Positive psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy and the idea that anybody can be anyone are American ideas involving what’s basically a sort of magical thinking. The purest example is The Secret, which is a disgraceful book. It’s just wicked really. It doesn’t have any kind of basis whatsoever. It says: if you want something you just have to wish for it, like my four-year-old does. It’s a kind of psychology for toddlers.”

For James, the push towards positive thinking has been bound up in a certain kind of economic world view, characterised by this kind of way of living-

The quasi-religious dominance of positivity has perhaps become a distraction or worse a justification of this way of living, that borrows selectively from world religions-particularly Buddhism and Christianity- to make a new heresy that simply fits better in a fast moving corporate world.

But moving away from Macro economic forces and back to the individual level- how about those folk whose lives appear to have been genuinely transformed by the power of positive thinking?

Good luck to you I say. May your life be blessed, in order that you in turn my bless others. I would also caution these people by suggesting that not everyone is like them. Not everyone will benefit from being squeezed into their narrow mindset, which to others can easily become an oppressive mental straight jacket.

There is suffering in this world.

And pain.

And sickness.

And imperfection.

And failure.

And brokenness.

And weakness.

And depression.

And periods when nothing seems to make sense.

And finally, there  is death.

(But in the middle of all of this- there is Grace.)

I would contend that these things define our humanity. They are not things to be suppressed and denied as invalid or minor irritants. They might be things to embrace, to acknowledge or to allow to shape a different form of transformation- one based not on achievement or success, but rather based on a counter cultural world view given to us by Jesus in Matthew chapter 5. Where the weak and poor find blessing, and the first are last and the last first.

And strength is made perfect- in weakness.

There is in me, I have to acknowledge, a skew towards the poor and weak. I think this is most congruent with trying to live in the way of Jesus. I think he told us to focus on the needs we see in others all around us- and he certainly did not promise a trouble free life. But in all this, I acknowledge that we continue to hope for transformation, and healing. We need to inspire hope in those around us  for something new, and better.

But the measure of this ‘better thing’ is too often seen in a kind of ‘success’ that turns my stomach. It is far too much about ‘me’ and tends to make a commodity out of ‘you’.

Perhaps too often, it brings me to this!