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We used to have fairies...
Now we have the therapeutic.
Several years ago, I would go on walks in our suburban neighborhood with my daughter and see little outposts of fairy houses at the base of larger trees. I’d lean down while my daughter was enthralled. Did a small being actually live here? Could we add something to her home? If we were very still and quiet might she come back? We’d look carefully at the twigs, stones, and small jewels. Magic seemed accessible just for a moment (even if it was a bit kitschy). The houses harkened to what philosopher Charles Taylor writes about as the “enchanted world” — but we didn’t live there. We lived around the corner in a suburban tract home.
And yet if we pull back the curtain a bit, we don’t just live in houses in neighborhoods, but we also live in a therapeutic age. As I wrote about last week, what has become central is a loosening of authority (if not total annihilation of authority) outside of the self.
When our ultimate authority and identity is in the self, perhaps it comes as no surprise then that our actual houses have become mirrors for self-expression, our fairy houses something cheap to purchase to get a dopamine hit of “magic,” and where we Instagram our walks (I’m guilty on that last one). The issues are much bigger than Instagram. Instagram — like much of social media and more traditional forms of media — is simply the place where we see the grains of sand of our cultural sandbox. Our media consumption shows us culture writ large.
When we look closely, we find that instead of living in an enchanted world, a world where both authority and transcendence were possible, the grains of our common life coalesce around what Philip Rieff called the “therapeutic man.”1
We are no longer enchanted. We are, instead, soothed.
Rieff, a sociologist of culture in the 20th century, noted the rise of the therapeutic as indicative of Western cultural decline. The therapeutic man exists not to build but to tear down. Not to commune with God, but to distract himself. It is a culture of deathworks. He wrote in 1966:
“Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased. 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.”2
Lest you begin to think that Rieff is a staunch conservative and we should simply go back to some “golden age” of transcendence, Rieff is at his best chronicling the late modern age, not bemoaning its loss. I’m just beginning to read his work, but he’s helpful (as is Charles Taylor) in noting three sorts of cultural shifts: a pagan world, followed by a religious world, and a a late modern therapeutic world. He’s keenly aware of the unraveling; he knows we can’t go home again, and he puts words to what we experience in excess here in 2022.
So, I wonder, reading Rieff, if much of what we see online — the cage matches on Twitter amongst ideological tribes; the happy clappy images of happy, clappy families; the aphorisms that may have some heft in a one-on-one therapy session but feel hopelessly vague when put onto media for mass consumption — is simply the rub of these second, third, and coming fourth worlds.
Social media shows us the clash of civilization. In an introduction to Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks, historian James Davison Hunter writes how Rieff gave language to what Hunter termed the “culture war" a few decades ago: “In our own time, the present kulturkampf [culture war] unfolds as an unparalleled and permanent war of worlds.”3 Whichever tack we take, whichever side in a culture war we ascribe to, our culture-war-making efforts are really ways to soothe the deep anxieties about meaning and purpose when we've lost cultural access to the transcendent.
The “religious man” (on both the right and the left) argues on Twitter because there is something to prove, some standard of truth. Salvation then comes by convincing others of properly-understood information. Meanwhile, the “therapeutic man” posts pictures and aphorisms either to distract or soothe on Instagram. Here, salvation is not to be achieved — the end goal is liberation, particularly liberation from constraints from outside the self. In the cosmos of therapeutic man what becomes valuable is not things like expertise, degrees or even wisdom, but performative vulnerability.
We get all of this in jumbled mishmash online. Political cause followed by angry commenters; a look-inside-yourself mantra next to fall recipes; thoughtful analysis punctured with character skewering. It is as if we’ve traveled forward and backward in cultural time with each mindless scroll. No wonder we’re reeling. We’ve not only flattened place into a “nowhere” but also time into a “nowhen.”4 We're dizzy and disoriented.
What is a Christian to do in this world we live in?
We cannot exist only for ourselves. As my friend Alan Noble often says (and he wrote a whole book about it), we do not belong to ourselves. As Christians we testify to the good news that we belong to God, body and soul, and in so doing, we have a responsibilities outside the self. Rieff noted how “I believe” has been replaced by “I feel,” and in so doing, we have moved our locus of belonging from institutions, authorities, the church, and a creedal community of saints across place and time to one’s self. Belief meant we had a connection to transcendence and community. Now, in a therapeutic age, when we belong to ourselves all that our media can really do is further divide us.
In a therapeutic age, the “gospel” is our affinities and ideologies. Our good works are our signs and posters saying “In this house, we….”. Our works of mercy are the likes and shares for those who think exactly the same way as we do. Our good news is that you are broken but it’s never your fault (and how might we find ourselves redeemed, cleansed or reconciled?). We have feasted on the fruit of Christianity while cutting off its roots. It’s no surprise the fruit is dying on the vine.
It’s time to be re-enchanted, reformed, renewed. I’m not saying a fairy house from Michael’s will do the trick — but perhaps a place to start might be these words from Tolkien on fairy stories: “fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough.”5 Humility is enough, indeed.
In the weeks that follow, I’ll be diving more into what the therapeutic looks like on the ground as well as what the way of wisdom requires of us. Thanks for being here. If you’ve enjoyed this and want to take part in the conversation, please share and/or subscribe:
On the Finding Holy Podcast, Bryce and I sit down with Aaron Damiani to talk about living life sacramentally in episode 130. We’ve also had great conversations with Amanda Held Opelt (Episode 129) and Lore Wilbert (Episode 128) recently. Listen at the links or wherever you get your podcasts.
Your age probably indicates how you read these terms. For the purpose of this essay, “therapy” isn’t so much about what happens one-to-one with a licensed professional, but rather I’m using “therapeutic” to address a web of attitudes ultimately that soothes the self; “therapeutic man” is less about integrating mind and body and more about being one’s “true self” (whatever that means).
Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud, (Wilmington, DE: 2006 ), 19.
James Davison Hunter, “Introduction,” My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority,” by Philip Rieff (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), xxiii.
Jamie Smith’s introduction to his newly released book, How to Inhabit Time, makes this point about “nowhen.”
J.R.R. Tolkein, “On Fairy Stories.” https://ia902307.us.archive.org/32/items/on-fairy-stories_202110/J.%20R.%20R.%20Tolkien%20-%20On%20Fairy-Stories.pdf