Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: The Importance of Thoughts (Part 3 of 4)

The following is the third in a series of four guest posts from Father Alexis Trader, a priestmonk and spiritual father of Karakallou Monastery on the Holy Mountain, and author of In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord: An Orthodox Interpretation of the Gifts of the Spirit (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2002). Fr Alexis has recently released a new book, and it is about this new book that he writes below. (The first, second, and fourth posts either have been or will be posted elsewhere; please see the posting schedule at the end of this post.)

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The Importance of the Thoughts: Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron
Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds

So, what’s the book about? In a word, thoughts. The New Testament and the Church Fathers both recognize that a person’s spiritual state is a reflection of the thoughts harbored in the heart. Research in cognitive therapy has verified that psychological states of depression, anxiety, and anger are largely a function of the evaluative thoughts that individuals have about their current situation. Obviously, there is something very similar and something very different going on here. What are the similarities? What are the differences? And what does all this mean?

To tease out these issues, I decided to approach the subject in two ways or through two lenses, one panoramic and the other close-up. First, I looked at the Christian conception of the world as the foundation from which Christian views on the thoughts make sense and the scientific worldview as the basis for cognitive therapeutic positions on the mental life. Of course, huge differences surfaced rather quickly in this examination, but what is far more interesting is the existence of perhaps unexpected similarities with patristic approaches in certain philosophical currents at the heart of the scientific method and intrinsic to cognitive therapy. The details can be found in Chapter Two: “Worlds Apart: Myth, Method, and Metaphysics.” Originally, the table of contents listed the subheadings. I’ll list them now to give the reader a bird’s eye view of what is covered in that section:

1. Beholding the World in the Light of the Christian Narrative

A. The World in the Beginning: Creation ex nihilo and the in Image of God

B. A Fallen Humanity and a Fallen World: the Ancestral Sin

C. The World’s Salvation: Christ’s Wondrous Work

D. Divine Revelation to the World and the Orthodox Christian Worldview

2. Explicit Method and Implicit Metaphysics: Underpinnings of the Worldview of Modern Science

A. Novum Organum: Empiricism, Rationalism, and Atomism

B. Metaphysics Concealed: Naturalism, Positivism, and Materialism

C. Method or Metaphysics? Evolutionary Theory and Related Philosophies

D. A Pragmatic Postscript: As Long as it Works

3. Seeking a Common World Between Divergent Worldviews

4. Slaying the Serpent to Rescue the Remedy

I would say more, but this post is not intended to be a spoiler.

Second, I decided to look at how Aaron Beck’s cognitive theory defines thought, emotion, behavior, and their relationship to one another in normal human functioning, in psychopathology, and in recovery. That’s a fascinating subject in its own right, but I wanted to go further. I wanted to see how the Church Fathers would look at these psychological subjects. At times, the Fathers speak quite directly to issues raised by cognitive therapy. At other times, their responses are more indirect. But the Fathers are always relevant! This exploration, which makes up the second third of the book, brings a lot of fascinating issues to the fore. In this post, I’ll just note four major themes. First of all, patristic and cognitive views on how our emotions are affected by the way we interpret our situation converge in the following passage by Epictetus that is cited with approval by both Church Fathers and cognitive therapists: “It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things…. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never blame anyone but ourselves, that means our own judgments.” Second, cognitive theory refers to deeper beliefs about danger, pain, helplessness, and lovability that are primitive in terms of being developed during childhood or similar to the reactions of animals under threat. These deeper beliefs seem to be related to the patristic notion of the passions that the Fathers see as both childish and brutish. That explains the subheading: “Of Beasts and Babes” in Chapter Three. Third, cognitive thinking errors such as making a mountain out of a molehill and the patristic bad thoughts such as gluttony are related in intriguing ways that suggest how cognitive therapy can be useful for pastors asked to explain why a bad thought is bad from a psychological perspective and for therapists looking for some moral direction when giving advice to Christian patients. Finally, I explore the deceptively similar issues of selfishness and egocentricity, which are so crucial in matters concerning sin and psychopathology. Knowledge of when a person is acting for selfish motives verses egocentric reasons turns out to be quite important for spiritual fathers and therapists, so they can determine whether a given problem with which they are dealing is primarily psychological, spiritual or both. In the next blog post, I will write a bit about the themes in the third half of the book in which I consider what cognitive theory looks like in practice, what goes on in a therapy session, and what techniques are used to modify thought, behavior, and emotion.

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The book, published by Peter Lang, is readily available for purchase from Amazon. Those unfamiliar with academic presses that cater to the “library market” will doubtless find the book rather expensive; yet the publisher has suggested that if the hardcover copies sell well in the immediate future, a less expensive paperback may well be on its way. I would therefore fervently encourage those who wish to read the book, but presently find it outside their budget, to approach their local college or public library about the possibility of purchasing it. Also, perhaps groups of five people could agree to purchase a copy as a donation for their parish library, or even as a gift for their pastor.

For the rest of this series of blog posts, follow the links below:

Post #1 – March 22nd at John Sanidopulos’ Mystagogy
Post #2 – March 25th at Fr Jonathan Tobias’ Second Terrace
Post #4 – March 31st at Kevin Edgecomb’s Biblicalia

Also, extended excerpts from the book are available at the following locations:

Introduction

Chapter 9

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