The difference between a Skinner box and a confessional

I went out for coffee last night with one of my parishioners. He is a psychology major at Concordia University, and was one of my students a while ago. Our conversation was somewhat freewheeling, taking in (in no particular order) the proper way to make a cappuccino, the weakness of the Euro vs. the American Dollar, and the strengths and weaknesses of Quebec public policy regarding education.

One of the more interesting points of our discussion, however, was when we discussed Philip Rieff’s book The Triumph of the Therapeutic. This book was written in 1966, and it has quite accurately predicted many of the features of our current 2004 culture. My coffee partner agreed with much of Rieff’s assessment, especially since he sees a lot of it contained in his textbooks as a set of not-so-hidden assumptions. What we both came to realise is that what is at stake is our vision of what it means to be human.

Christianity, in my view, is not really so much about God-as-such as about God-with-us. Christianity is a religion about salvation, which means it demands a particular vision of the human person. The most basic doctrines of Christianity — the Incarnation, for example — require us to present such a vision. IMHO, most Christian heresies in fact stem from a poor understanding of human nature. But as Vatican II put it,

“The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” (Gaudium et spes, no. 22)

Modern psychology, with its related sciences of sociology and anthropology, has built a pseudo-scientific vision of man that, in my opinion, has a major Achilles heel: it is not able to properly take into account free will. These disciplines attempt to be sciences, and so therefore contain a necessary deterministic assumption. This is, in my opinion, what truly distinguishes a therapy session from an experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, because while scientific psychology has trouble incorporating free will in its model of the human person, confession presumes the person has free will in the first place, that the person has abused it through sin, and that now the person is using it to repent and reconcile with God. To be sure, some knowledge of psychology and therapeutic techniques (such as active listening) is very valuable in the confessional, but the presumption is in favour of free will, not in favour of determinism. There is a big difference between a “confessional box” and a Skinner box!