The Table Video

Marie Hoffman & Steve L. Porter

How our psychology influences our theology

Associate Professor of Psychology, New York University / Co-founder of the Brookhaven Center for Counseling and Development
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Theology, Spiritual Formation, and Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
January 31, 2014

Marie Hoffman (New York University, Brookhaven Institute) discusses how our own psychological history influences the development of theological ideas.


Thanks for checking out this video from The Table conference. This is psychoanalyst Marie Hoffman and she’s going to be talking about how some early figures in fundamentalist evangelical theology developed their views perhaps partly in response to trauma they experienced in their own lives. So this video gives us a sense of how our own psychological history influences the development of theological ideas. We hope you enjoy it.

My topic tonight is on listening and, specifically, listening to suffering. And even more specifically, the suffering and how it’s responded to by the church. Many years ago, my husband and I hopped on a jet and went to a little town in Switzerland, Huemoz. A place where L’Abri was located. We went there because of the suffering in our hearts.

We had been filled with many doctrines and many words but our hearts were empty. And there, we found people who listened. People who heard our hearts cry. And we experienced the love of God. I remember sitting in their chapel, Farel House, and hearing this hymn for the first time. “My song is love unknown, “My Saviour’s love to me; “Love to the loveless shown, “That they might lovely be.” I’ll never forget that.

And I’ll never forget that the mark of the Christian is love. After being there, our lives were transformed and we decided that we would do listening for a life profession. And we became psychologists. [audience laughs] Unfortunately, I see the lights in my eyes but I don’t see my papers so I’m gonna I’m gonna stand over here. Here we go. Okay. Thank you, thank you. Listening to the cry of the Church today.

There are cries that are spoken. I sit with people such as the elderly man who has a schizophrenic daughter, and that daughter is not accepted in any home in the Church because they don’t get her. I sit with the abused wife who needs a haven and needs a place to go to. Can I turn to the Church? No. I have to go to a [cough] excuse me, a secular organization. The widower who comes to see me, spends Christmas alone every year.

The discouraged pastor, has to be strong, cannot show his broken heart. These are the spoken sufferings that I deal with when people come to my office. But then, there are the cries that are forgotten. The cries that are forgotten are most of the time with people who have had a history of pain in their family. There are secrets. There are things that haven’t been told and they’ve learned, I don’t need to feel my pain. I don’t need to talk about my pain. And until crisis hits, they typically don’t end up in my office. So, the cries that are forgotten in a certain way are cries that concern me more. And these are the kinds of things that cause people to stay away in general from pain and suffering.

So I began to think as a psychoanalyst, well, if that is a marker for a person having suffered pain and trauma, that they don’t want to get near it, then is there something in the Church that happened in history that causes the Church oftentimes to not attend to the suffering of the people in its ranks? I’m the only one drinking water, but man, I am thirsty. Okay. Listening to the cry of the Church in history.

Before the Civil War there was a vision that the Church was progressing, that the Church was going to transform the world. Princeton, Yale, Harvard, they were founded. Hospitals were founded. Jonathan Edwards basically said visible wickedness is going to be suppressed everywhere and God is gonna establish His kingdom. Same with Finney. His preaching led to social and religious reform, anti-slavery, peace, and educational progress. And he thought the coming of God was imminent. But, with the Civil War, everything changed.

Woman: Transposed the percentage of dead that mid 19th century America faced into our own time. What would we as a nation

Okay. Okay. We lost 2.5% of the American population

Woman: Today, be Like [audience Laughs] if we faced the loss of so many individuals?

Thank you! [chuckles]

Woman: How can people live through that and not be transformed? [emotional music]

Old Man: The soldiers ran off to war expecting this would be quick and the Southerners thought, “We’ll bloody their nose and they’ll think better of this.”

Man: You’ve got Lincoln recruiting soldiers for 90 days. That tells you in part what people are thinking of the duration of the war.

Man: History is full of brutal surprises that we really don’t see coming. Nobody predicted Antietam. Nobody predicted Gettysburg.

Man: The war has the misfortune of being fought at a time when military tactics, military strategy, was a step behind technology.

Man: It is dreadful to see the poor soldier just thrown in the ditch and covered over without any box. This is not how we bury folks at home.

Woman: The true patriot willingly loses his life for his country. These poor men have lost, not only their lives, but the very record of their death.

Okay. We’ll stop with that, and you get the sense that the Civil War, was, brought a radical shift to the psyche of all of America, but specifically of the Church. 750,000 died in the Civil War and that’s 2.5% of the population. Okay. With this monumental shift, the Church also experienced a shift. The Church saw that the world was a sinking ship.

It turned away from social concerns and it focused on the spiritual, making a horizontal split between earthly and heavenly. Vulnerability and nurture were replaced with a muscular Christianity and an aggressive spirit. Separation distanced even those who helped Orthodox faith making a vertical split between people and between ideas. The present world of suffering and the future world of glory became split with greater focus on the future than the complexities of the present. And this created a temporal split. So what happened pre-Civil War was, gung-ho, rah-rah God’s gonna change the world. Then 750,000 people die.

Every family’s pretty much affected in some way and there was a shift to massive pessimism. A total reversal. But it didn’t just happen to the culture at large, it happened in personal lives, real people. And we’re gonna look at some of these real people, people who already had trauma and pain before the Civil War even started. C.I. Scofield. C.I. Scodield’s mother died as a result of his birth. So he never knew a mother. He enlisted in the Confederate Army at 17 years of age. He fought in the battle of Antietam in which 23,000 soldiers died in one day. It is no wonder that he embraced a pessimistic view of the world.

And this became annotated in the bible that was published, the “Scofield Reference Bible.” That shift to a pessimistic view of God’s work in the world. James Brookes, Presbyterian minister, actually is the one who mentored C.I. Scofield in this new theological perspective. Brookes’ father died suddenly when he was three years old and he was sent far away from home to be taken care of by others. His pessimism in his view of life is reflected in his response to the question of what he thought of self-esteem. This was later when he became quite well known. He answered, “Well I tell you, I think men ought to have a third leg to kick himself over creation with.”

So the pessimism came through in terms of even how he viewed the goodness that is in humanity. Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday. Dwight Moody’s father died when he was four years old. His family became destitute. And when he was an evangelist he was asked whether he cared about social justice. And he famously remarked that, quote, “Such concerns are like polishing brass on a sinking ship.” Unquote.

Billy Sunday was five weeks old when his father died in a Civil War battle. He shared Moody’s perspectives and preached to 100 million people during his lifetime, winning people to Christ, but also to a new view of the Christian life. We’re not talking here about right theology wrong theology. We’re talking about devastated people whose devastation filters into the way that they view their faith. John Darby.

All of the above men were influenced by this man. Irishman John Darby who lectured in all major U.S. cities between 1859 and 1874. He’s considered the father of this new theological perspective. His mother abandoned him when he was five years old and he never saw her again. Father disinherited him and he wrestled with suicidal depression for a good portion of his 20’s. As he wrestled with his suffering he became convinced of a new view of scripture which I believe emerged from his own difficulty in dealing with pain. The new view focused heavily on the ultimate escape from suffering of the world which is destined for fire.

In life, one was to forget any involvement in social concerns and look to heavenly things. And he said, “If you can vote a good person into office “you shouldn’t do it because we are not of this world.” Here are the words spoken, he spoke to parents who had just lost their baby. “I thank you and dear M. “much for having thought of sending me “the account of the accident to your dear babe. “The knowledge of the love of God has brightened “with the most blessed rays all its darkness. “There is nothing in the heart but light. “Besides, it is only in the part which has to be “broken and corrected that we suffer.

“It is only when the will mixes itself up with the sorrow “that there is any bitterness in it “or pain in which Christ is not. “But then, this is all useful and what we need. “The Lord takes your dear babe to heaven. “He who has made a mother’s feelings knows what they are, “knows what He has wounded, and knows why, “has a purpose of love in it. “God breaks in upon us. How many things He shoos. “How many cords He cuts at one blow.”

Those are the words of a person that has difficulty touching suffering. I’m here tonight to say that God does care about what happens to you and to us here and now. And it’s time for the Church to re-embrace the good news by returning to some very old theology. Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Incarnation. Incarnation is the opposite of extraction. Incarnation moves toward the pain and suffering of the world. Incarnation operates through witnessing.

Not in the old fashioned sense. Witnessing is the act of bearing with, listening to, and also testifying to hope. In this witnessing, we’re addressing the horizontal split by bringing the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in heaven. In practical terms, incarnation may mean that churches ban together to operate clinics or highly skilled staff offer excellent in-depth care. Not quick fixes to people where witnessing of pain takes place in the context of love. I want you to get what I’m trying to do here.

I’m saying that the Church used to be engaged in social concerns. Tremendous trauma shifted the perspective of the culture, moved it away from that, and caused people to only look at, “We want to get to heaven. Get me that ticket.” And basically, the people that would come into the Church would get brought into Church with the ticket and then left. Although more Christian counselors than ever exist, dealing with the unspoken trauma often does not occur.

Consequently, many well-known preachers have fallen. A national initiative that offers intensive psychotherapy to pastors with follow-up care may ensure that our churches are safer places. Crucifixion. Rather than projecting our badness and weakness onto others as those who railed at Christ on the cross, we take our place as the weak, the sin bearers, the vulnerable, alongside of those who are at the least of these.

I love what was said in the liturgy. “I make myself all things to save people, to save all.” I make myself weak, vulnerable. Surrender like this addresses the vertical split that marginalizes the weak and the most vulnerable.

In practical terms, churches embracing crucifixion may create, foster families that house, or embrace the abused, the widowed, the struggling, under the caring eye of trained staff. Breaking down the dividing walls may mean making the church a home for those with serious mental illness. Like the community of Geel, Belgium, which has done this since the 1300’s. With clinical supervision, people need not be warehoused but loved in this place we call The House of God. Resurrection.

Transforming resurrection from a future present split will mean viewing resurrection as a transformation to new life as a result of incarnation and crucifixion. Through being witnessed, through being surrendered to servanthood, our pain becomes converted into the very stuff of empathy and care. Our wounds become our strengths in the Kingdom of God. Our hearts of gratitude cause us to care for others out of the experience of our past. This is conversion. Resurrection is the conversion of people from the wounded ones receiving care to those who can minister case, as in the model of AA.

Resurrection is the conversion of ashes into beauty and addresses the temporal split in which glory awaited in heaven. Resurrection in practice goes hand in hand with vocation. Groups can be led by people who have experienced significant healing and who can be guided in helping others. Retired elderly can serve as godparents to the younger. Sisterhoods, not unlike the Catholic Church, can be established for those who no longer work or raise a family and feel alone and without purpose.

Resurrection and subsequent conversion as a telos sees the Church as an amazing storehouse of love and goodness for the establishing of the Kingdom of God. Where ashes are regularly turned into beauty. Those many years ago in the hamlet of Huemoz, Switzerland, my husband and I were faced with a choice of two melodies to which we could listen. The first is associated by some with the sinking of the Titanic. “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” The other, “Joy to the World, the Lord has Come.” We chose the latter and it has made all the difference. Which melody will you be listening to?

Thanks for watching, everyone. If you want to watch other videos from the same session, check them out right here. And if you really want to follow all of the videos that are coming out of The Center for Christian Thought, make sure you subscribe to our channel.

Continue the conversation with this discussion with Marie Hoffman. 

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