Winter 1983, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 292-303.

Frederick J. Parrella: Spirituality in Crisis:
      The Search for Transcendence in our Therapeutic Culture

As culture becomes increasingly secular, spirituality must overcome subjectivism, seek transcendence, and avoid extremes of fundamentalism and rejection of tradition.

Dr. Parrella, with a doctorate in theology from Fordham University, is an associate professor in the Religious Studies Department of the University of Santa Clara, in Santa Clara, California

THE contemporary West's understanding of religion differs from every other civilization in this one fact: we have separated religion from the public and political sphere, have removed the spiritual from the province of tribal and communal concern, and have made it a private affair. In separating religion from culture, faith from communal expression, secular history from whatever sacred history they still affirm, modern Westerners have relied ever more heavily on science, technology, and psychology to aid them in ordering and interpreting their world. This world has changed dramatically from a temple of divine action to the raw material of human enjoyment and creativity. Modern life, in its politics, its ideas, and its artistic expression, has become primarily, if not exclusively, secular.

This cultural milieu which has made religion a private affair and a matter of individual choice has produced a crisis of enormous proportions, not only of politics or theology, but of spirituality. In the broadest sense, spirituality defines that area within our deepest selves where we respond as persons to the call of transcendence. God beckons us and we reply, forming the still point where divine spirit and human spirit confront each other in radical sameness and radical difference. But the encounter of spirits can never be separated from visible cultural expression. If so, how can a culture like our own embody and give form to the divine-human relationship? How is a deep spirituality possible in our culture without a living set of religious symbols in which it can live and flourish? Let me offer some general suggestions for a spirituality in this Western culture which is passing between the old which is so familiar to us and something new whose dark and unknown shape lies before us.

First, a contemporary spirituality must begin with experience. As persons we must experience God's personal invitation to us and respond in faith and love. Experience, it should be noted, is "double barreled." It is both subjective and objective; even more, it links subject and object and describes their interrelationship.(1) Without something objectively real (literally, something thrown against us), experience is fantasy or illusion; without a subject capable of feeling, thought, judgment, and a longing for unity, experience is likewise impossible.

While Catholic theologians since the Second Vatican Council have emphasized the role of experience as the starting point of theology,(2) many Catholics still understand experience in purely subjective terms; and a few, who believe that modernism is still alive, characterize experience as dangerous to the objective norms of doctrine and the church's magisterium, or teaching authority. The Protestant tradition, with its roots in an individual's faith prior to the community, was more open to experience but usually confined it to the moral context of sin and grace. Up until the 1960s, few Christians would characterize their weekly worship service as a religious experience; this category would not enter their minds. In fact, fewer still would be able to describe their deepest, most touching human experiences as religious or spiritual in whole or part. Because of this separation between the human and the religious, the realm of the spiritual did not develop with the growth of the category of experience so prominent in the late 1960s. As a result, experience became primarily secular, the religious was understood in institutional terms, and the spiritual reduced to a corner of the human psyche. Whenever it did appear, the spiritual often took unusual or bizarre cultural forms; rarely was it the central integrative factor in personal life it ought to be.

A new wave of spirituality, highly experiential and individualistic in nature, has, of course, stormed through the churches in the last fifteen years. Yet this has sometimes done little to ground spirituality in authentic human experience. In much recent spirituality, experience is once again equated with subjective feelings, only now such feelings are not dangerous but desirable. The object, intrinsic to the nature of experience, becomes lost in the quality and intensity of the feelings inside the experiencing subject. Subjectivism triumphs over subjectivity, with the objective order often only a smorgasbord of individual choice.


Authentic experience as the foundation of a person's response to God's invitation must, of course, be grounded fully in an individual's feelings, desires, and emotions. It must respect them and take them into account, since the psychological makeup of a person helps to define and texture his or her spirituality. At the same time, experience must also be an encounter with what is authentically other, with what actively addresses us and invites us into relationship. To demand that spirituality be experiential is the very opposite of making it warm, mushy, or self-indulgent. It involves us in a meeting with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, an ineffable reality that awes us and attracts us at the same time. No rational or psychological concepts can destroy the utterly "other" quality of the mystery that confronts us, as well as the judgment such an encounter must necessarily contain about our own inadequacies, weaknesses, and sinfulness. Spirituality begins in the personal response of the creature to the creator, and in one's sense of personal nothingness before the All One and All Good. It is an encounter with holiness which both purifies and draws all things to itself at the same time. Every human life is transformed and fulfilled in this meeting place with the divine life.(3)

In addition to an encounter with the living God, a spirituality grounded in experience is also a confrontation with the struggling self. In this often painful spiritual experience, we know our self-centeredness and anxiety, our inner pride and consuming concupiscence. At the same time, we acknowledge that this is not the way we ought to be, and we struggle to become the kind of self that God sees, loves, and nourishes. This self-encounter is the awakening of ourselves to ourselves, where we see ourselves, not as the center of the universe, but as one of God's countless children, infinitely precious as part of a love beyond our grandest expectations. The spiritual life is nothing else than God himself struggling to become more God within us; spirituality is the awareness of this process, shattering our self-deceptions and overwhelming us in its simple truth: we belong to God, not to ourselves, and God loves us beyond anything that we can know or hope for.(4) Experiencing this truth daily is the inner secret of the spiritual life, emerging from the center of oneself and encompassing all of one's world. This experience is the directing force of all of our actions -- indeed, experience equals action in its power and authority as the ground and source of personal life.

This type of spiritual authority, coming from the heart of the divine-human relationship, differs sharply, in Paul Tillich's terms, from both the heteronomous authority imposed on individuals by religious traditions and the fragmented authority of autonomous experience. While authentic spiritual authority sometimes finds expression in institutional forms, often it succumbs to the danger of authoritarianism, and, in the process, loses its creativity and flexibility. The crisis of spirituality of the last two decades is intimately bound up with a reaction to an authority that has lost touch with the living spirit. Likewise, authentic spiritual authority has little in common with authority based on the individual's autonomous experience. Here the divine Spirit appears to succumb to whatever the human spirit wants in its most self-indulgent moments. It is the rule of self by self-analysis, not unlike direction by whim, fancy, passion, or neuroses. In our secular culture, this latter pseudo-authority has become more and more prominent. Because of the inner insecurity it engenders within the self, burdened with its own self-direction, it creates the conditions in which new forms of authoritarianism over the spirit grow. These forms are always more dangerous to the free and creative experience of God's love and will, constitutive of an authentically experiential spirituality, than any traditional authority they might have replaced. An authority grounded in the encounter of human spirit and divine Spirit, or theonomous authority in Tillich's words, succumbs neither to the tyranny of institution nor the capriciousness of self. Rather it is the paradoxical state where God is supremely powerful and each of us supremely free at the same time because God's true authority is not imposed from without but more natural to us than we are to ourselves. A spirituality based on authentic experience knows and struggles to live with this truth all life long.(5)


A second vital element of contemporary spirituality must be its unambiguous directedness to the transcendent. In authentic religious experience, the subject encounters a real object, but not a simple finite object. The spiritual life must be directed toward a "transcendent object," a reality which, by definition, is not only not a subject but also capable of transcending its own nature as object. Transcendence, therefore, is that dimension of the real which embraces and grounds both subject and object. For this reason, the great traditions of spirituality come closest to the divine nature by making God second person, not first or third. God transcends ourselves and all we know outside of us as world; but God can be known whenever God is addressed as Thou. To paraphrase Buber, the divine is neither in the world nor outside of the world, but we can encounter the living God whenever we go forth to meet our Thou daily. In this address, God as wholly other is paradoxically wholly same, more intimate with us than we are with ourselves. Only pure transcendence can also be pure immanence.(6)

Whenever spirituality loses this intense paradox, it also surrenders its life blood. When transcendence disappears, its immanence is replaced by objectification, its intimacy by condition, and its grace by law. Placing God in the third person, making God an object beside others, constantly threatens authentic faith and the life of the spirit, and this situation has marked the religious history of the West for centuries. In reaction, however, our culture has created an unusual form of first person idiolatry, in which transcendence is objectified, not in the form of an idolatrous church or state, but in the individual subject's pursuit of self-improvement. Its power is lost not to a quasidivine object but a pseudodivine subject. In Philip Rieffs terms, the therapeutic culture and psychological man have triumphed, making it more and more difficult for the life of the spirit to flourish in such a milieu.(7) Indeed, some forms of contemporary spirituality may have taken on the primarily therapeutic character of the culture, becoming something like spiritual wolves among innocent sheep.

The danger of the myth of "psychological man" to the spiritual life is both subtle and insidious. For the secular masses, who, in Rieffs phrase, have been "freed from all suspicions of divinity," spirituality in the traditional sense of the word does not exist.(8) Life is understood empirically and dealt with pragmatically. Even though the similarities are strong, psychological man is not religious man; he is not a person committed to a positive order of meanings expressed symbolically in standard cultural forms and shared with others in community. Rather, in lieu of a cultural alternative, he is forced to make himself his own vocation, forced "to become something of a genius about himself . . . . Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased."(9) Religion is thus replaced by the process of therapy, making the analysis of self the definitive mode of self-understanding and self-control.

Authority in a therapeutic culture is subjective and self-imposed, not the authority inherited from ages past through a community which ideally conforms to the inner life of each person. Likewise the analytic attitude strives to tame the inner self and prevent disorders among its parts. Since such an attitude does not render the inner life of service to the outer, it effectively destroys a sense of communion based on shared principles and corporate beliefs. What community exists can only be characterized as a negative community comprised of those who have passed through therapy; membership in this community requires no commitment to a center of unity but only to the ongoing, individual process of analysis itself.(10) In an analytical culture, moral principles and traditional belief systems are of no intrinsic value; they are useful only insofar as they enhance the process of self-understanding. At the heart of therapy, the drive toward overarching religious and political meanings is surrendered to an ideology of self in its quest for self-realization and self-improvement. The secret of the therapeutic culture is not to attach oneself exclusively or with too much fervor to any one particular meaning or object. Neutrality replaces commitment; whenever commitment does occur, it is not to the other as it is in itself, but only insofar as any and all objects of commitment become instrumental to the therapeutic process itself.(11) It is as if we were all walking around with gracious smiles and loving looks saying to each other, "How can I use you? Let me count the ways."

Many persons in our culture consider themselves liberated from their particular inherited faith either because the forms of such faith have been cut off from contemporary experience, or because efforts at reform within the traditions themselves have done little to enhance the effectiveness of their plausibility structures.(12) For these people, the therapeutic culture is the only alternative. It is less a matter of choice than an unquestioning acceptance of the foundation of their entire world view. Transcendence is excluded, not usually through hostility or ill will, but simply because it is unimaginable, given their reigning presuppositions about the self and the culture. Faith in a loving God, in providence, and in prayer is impossible either because it is a remnant of an old, semimagical world view, or because it is an unfittable piece in the awkward puzzle of existence.


Here is the particularly insidious nature of the therapeutic culture; for it does not propose a rival commitment or a substitution for the inherited faith of the tradition, but no commitment at all. It suggests no alternative articles of faith to psychological man, but offers him instead a convenient method of relativizing any faith which claims to have absolute import over human life. Commitment to any communal purpose is to be seriously questioned, rejected, or -- most subtly -- transformed into an instrument of therapy and analysis. Christian prayer, worship, liturgy, and the sacraments can continue and flourish in a therapeutic culture. But do they invite individuals out of their self-centeredness into the sacred ground where they meet a personal, loving, and transcendent God? Or are such religious practices merely the cultural milieu where psychological humanity has chosen -- in all good will and often with great fervor -- to conduct its own private therapy?

Without question, some Christians have unwittingly become psychological persons, victims of endless analysis in pursuit of spiritual good feelings and individual self-realization. Ideally, of course, a spirituality open to transcendence could thrive in any culture, since any symbol system can reveal at least partially the meaning of the divine life in both its otherness and intimacy. Even our therapeutic culture has not been without some benefit to spirituality, primarily in its ability to give the person deeper awareness of his or her individual significance and to heighten his or her powers of reason and criticism. But the particular danger of the therapeutic culture is its metaphysical denial of the objective and universal order of reality; what is real exists as an individual fact, dependent on a subjective interpretation. The individual self is the irreducible starting point for comprehending reality.(13) While this appears to give individuals proper power and control over their life, it simultaneously places an enormous burden upon them. If humanity, as Rieff suggests, at one time imagined itself inside a church, it now "feels trapped in something like a zoo of separate cages."(14) Prayer, liturgy, the moral life, and all our efforts at communion with God and each other, become either futile exercises to create the illusion of human communion, or confirm our sense of isolation in which all we are capable of is tidying up and decorating our own private cage. In a therapeutic culture, the central maxim of the spiritual life -- "They who want their life must give it up" -- is transformed into the dreadfully pragmatic alternative: "They who want their life can have it realized through effort and self analysis. Everything, even love, is at the service of this goal."(15)

In a therapeutic culture, transcendence is obviously lost in God but it is also lost in us. We can never find transcendence within ourselves when we are confined within an empirical and psychological self-interpretation. Our mirror images fascinate us for a while, but nothing is more terrifying than the possibility that this is all we ever have to look at. Certainly, there are hints of transcendence in all that we do, but our own spirit cannot soar by itself, even when we are huddled together with others for comfort. Only in communion with the transcendent spirit of God is authentic communion among persons possible.(16) More importantly, if God is also robbed of transcendence, if, for example, God is reduced to a therapeutic function of our psyche and denied the undergirding role in human life and experience, then God's authentic immanence and intimacy are also lost. What we call God is a projection of our hopes and needs, our divine analyst and consummate therapist. Without a transcendent God, spirituality becomes a human exercise, prayer an opportunity for self-insight, liturgy an emotional jamboree that imparts a sense of belonging, and the moral life at best an unambiguous effort to live "happily ever after" by convincing the sociopolitical order to accept without question our middle class values.

How can transcendence be rediscovered and revivified in our contemporary culture? Certainly not in a spiritual life burdened by rules and abstract formulations. Many who pretend to uphold so-called traditional spiritual values desire only a return to the petrified forms of prayer and liturgy where they were most comfortable. Transcendence had been lost there also -- trapped within a box of objectivism and casuistical rigor. On the contrary, whenever transcendence is encountered, it is always highly personal, relational, and intimate. The spiritual life, after all, is a meeting between the depth of what comprises us as a person and another person, indeed the Person of persons and the source of personal life. Transcendence is always paradoxical: it is extraordinary and outside the stream of common experience, yet also the hidden secret of reality, found in the simplest and most ordinary aspects of life. While it is the source of our being, it refuses to be centered within us, beckoning us, rather, to give ourselves away. It overwhelms us, not as an object of fear but a subject of love. In an active world, it is most easily forgotten, yet it is the most real of realities and nothing lives except in its light. In the presence of transcendence, exemplified in those few holy people we meet in a lifetime, judgment is the simplest knowledge, willingly and gratefully accepted, that we must be better persons. Through the eyes of transcendence, self-insight becomes grace, the moral life the vision of holiness in all persons and the meaning found in a search for love and genuine sacrifice, culture the arena of divine revelation, and history the pursuit of the kingdom of God. Rediscovering this transcendence -- in our family life, in our churches, in schools and religious education, in personal relationships, in the entire sociopolitical order -- is the urgent task of spirituality in the coming years.


Finally, a contemporary spirituality must be critical. By critical I am not suggesting the kind of distanced, glib, cynical attitude which sometimes characterized the Catholic liberals of the 1950s, nor the shock-at-any-price Catholics of the Vatican II era. Too often their own critical abilities were used uncritically. Rather, by critical I mean the intelligent use of one's creative reasoning tempered with common sense in large doses. The critical mind neither accepts nor rejects anything out of hand, demanding that conclusions be based on proper data, while examining the presuppositions upon which the data was gathered in the first place. In a culture where the inherited traditions style themselves to individual needs in order to do battle in the market place for the spiritual allegiance of the posttraditional masses with fads and instant faiths of all sorts, nothing could be more vital for spirituality's survival than a strong critical ability.

Criticism always involves a certain amount of iconoclasm, a tearing down -- often a healthy procedure -- of the sacred images hung out for worship. The irony in our culture is the blindsidedness of so many seeking spiritual commitment and fulfillment. The historically necessary iconoclasm of liberal Catholics during the 1960s has sometimes forced them into an adversary position vis-a*-vis the church, blocking their vision of the vitally important substance of the tradition contained in institutional structures. Likewise, conservatives, in the guise of preserving the eternal tradition, have created an idol out of an ultramontane theological world view. In each situation, the critical ability to evaluate alternatives in an historical perspective has been eroded.

But perhaps the most blindsided are those who have left their traditions altogether. Some have made an idol out of modernity, neglecting the fact that no one is more embarrassingly narrowminded than a secularist with the illusion of freedom from all constraints. Others in this group, many having spent years in the process of deconversion from their inherited commitment, are dangerously uncritical in the speed of their reconversion, either to psychological fad or fundamentalist faith. In their headlong rush from the ambiguities of the therapeutic culture, they are only embracing its inner workings in another form. Born again and raised to adulthood in their new faith almost overnight, they defy all the laws of spiritual genesis even more than those of physical birth. Because of their insecurity and loneliness, they accept a new spiritual allegiance which is neat, clean, uncomplicated, unchallenging -- and safe. Their once healthy iconoclasm against parts of their ancestral tradition has evolved into a new and dangerous form of idolatry in which the idol makers will often use the words of the tradition without bearing its historical weight or authority. Perhaps it is because their individual critical and rational faculties have been overburdened in so many areas of life that many are willing to be so accepting and uncritical about that dimension of life which is of ultimate importance. The last state for the modern man and woman may indeed be worse than the first.

If all this sounds pessimistic, it may be salutary now and then to consider the darker side of our cultural situation. Surely the problems of spirituality -- not a spirituality for the few, but for all who try to live whole human lives in the real world -- need much more careful consideration. Several decades ago, Paul Tillich said that many people are searching for guiding stars.(17) Looking around us now, and at ourselves too, we see many in search of the Spirit and a place to lay their heads. The last years of this millennium will witness what I think will be the greatest challenge, and what I hope will be the supreme triumph, of Christian spirituality. Armed with a reawakened critical sense, a new generation of Christians will discover a spirituality that is in perfect accord with their contemporary experience as modern, technological persons and the ancient tradition of life in union with the triune God. This will be a spirituality that is profoundly worldly, insofar as no part of the world is not from God's creative hand and touched by Christ's redemptive blood. But it will also be otherworldly, since the world as we know it is incomplete without the otherness of God. A new generation of Christians, unfamiliar with the recent past, will develop new modes of response to God's invitation; fresh forms of prayer and Eucharist will evolve which will be grounded in human experience and at the same time, in spite of our therapeutic culture, directed towards transcendence. Perhaps little of the Teilhardian optimism will survive, but much of his vision will -- of a world, in spite of its weaknesses, and of a culture, in spite of its sins, supercharged with the energy of Christ who invites us into deeper communion and summons us to return to our true home.

  1. See John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York: Dover, 1958), p. 8.
  2. See, for example, Dermot Lane, The Experience of God: An Invitation to Do Theology (New York: Paulist, 1981), pp. 5-27; S.J. Kilian, Theological Models for the Parish (Staten Island: Alba House, 1977), pp. 40-46.
  3. See Rudolph Otto's 1917 classic, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958).
  4. See Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp. 39-41.
  5. For theonomy, heteronomy, and autonomy, see Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 240-46. "Theonomy" is one of Tillich's most popular themes and references to it can be found in almost all his writings.
  6. Martin Buber, I and Thou, 2nd ed. (New York: Scribners, 1970), p. 127.
  7. Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (New York: Har per and Row, 1966).
  8. Ibid., p. 61.
  9. Ibid., pp. 62, 24-25. He continues: "The difference was established long ago, when 'I believe,'the cry of the ascetic, lost precedence to'one feels,'the caveat of the therapeutic. And if the therapeutic is to win out, then surely the psychotherapist will be his secular spiritual guide."
  10. Ibid., pp. 32-33.
  11. Ibid., pp. 59-60.
  12. See Peter Berger's treatment of cognitive bargaining with modernity in The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (New York: Anchor Books 1980), pp. 90ff.
  13. See Thomas Merton, "The New Consciousness," in Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1968), p. 22.
  14. Triumph of the Therapeutic, p. 6.
  15. Ibid., p. 60.
  16. See Robert Johann, The Pragmatic Meaning of God (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1966), pp. 40ff.
  17. My Search for Absolutes (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), pp. 103-4.