The priest, the therapist, and the tyrant
How moral development frees us… but comes with risks
I actually have an acquaintance who is all three of a priest, a therapist, and an Irishman. I don’t know what happens when he walks into a bar, having never observed it, but it’s probably amusing every time. Sadly I don’t have any jokes about the time when a priest, therapist, and tyrant go out for a night on the town — maybe because the tyrant caused every venue to shut via lockdowns. But it feels like I ought to have one: if you have a suggestion, let me know!
More seriously, I have been spending many hours pondering how I live my own life, and the moral code I am following (or not). I have explicitly rejected the way of the tyrant, who offers easy false virtue by unthinking obedience and cowardly compliance. As a result, old friends may ignore me, and my family does shun me, but I have freed myself from any desire for their approval. I handed out my last fook several years ago, and don’t plan on restocking, so don’t have any fresh fooks to give for what others think of me.
This leaves me with two paths of moral evolution, which I am going to unfairly stereotype as the ways of the therapist and the priest, ignoring that one person can embody both. Each of them is helping us to free ourself from “stuck” patterns of behaviour, to take on a journey of personal transformation, and to live in a way that better serves our soul. Both the pastor and the psychologist form long-term trusted relationships where our most intimate thoughts and painful experiences can be shared, turning psychic poo into nourishing compost.
The tyrant ultimately wishes to enslave your body, which is achieved via subversion of the mind and spirit. We have seen this play out with “the poison poke”, where people gladly give over their bodies to the state to be genetically reprogrammed, not questioning the mechanism in play, and despite ample evidence of malevolent intent. The tyrant will sell you the idea that this is to “save grandma”, but in reality is about the need for social approval due to low innate self-worth. Group ideology displaces individual sovereignty as the moral code is inverted: that which is repugnant is marketed as righteous, so real freedom to choose is denounced as selfishness.
The therapist’s creed is located in the mind, and how our beliefs (that shape actions) are formed in childhood and through trauma. By reliving our past, and reinterpreting our hurts, we gain additional latitude for action into the future. Behaviours that were unconscious and automatic are surfaced as we become more self-aware; this offers us the chance to interject conscious choice. Shame and guilt, often used to control us, are shed and replaced with a more nuanced understanding of our context and circumstances. Repeating patterns of family behaviour can be prisons, and therapists are locksmiths with master keys to escape them.
The therapist helps us to free ourselves by offering different perspectives, which we can safely hear without having to commit ourselves to adopting. The nature of the endeavour is to take black-and-white thinking and move it towards more shades of grey. The “mushy middle” is where most of human experience lies, with competing personal views on the same complex situation. By moving us out of a solipsistic mindset we can accept that ours is not the only way of seeing the world; the therapist is an immediately present exemplar of that diversity.
In contrast, the priest (we hope!) starts from a spiritual place. The evangelist and the pastor by nature align to a polarising good versus evil: the Divine Creator of free will versus the Devious Controller of lost souls. (Note that destruction is part of creation; the budding tree is no more or less than the rotting trunk.) Morality and reality are not to be defined via our own frail understanding, but by reference to longstanding wisdom and external reference points. It is freeing in the long run in that we are kept away from the seductive (but eventually entrapping) temptations of sin.
Rational doubt is encouraged by the priest, but not at the price of becoming sole arbiter of what is real and righteous. To riff off Jiddu Krishnamurti, while the truth may be a pathless land, in the priestly outlook morality is a narrow path that goes uphill all the way. The downward sloping highway of gratification is heavily trodden, but ultimately takes us towards despair and death. Going the narrow way requires us to confront our pride, our conceit, and our selfishness, and to turn outwards in the quest for salvation from our inevitable moral shortfall.
Only a (likely lonesome) journey over the high pass of forgiveness into a less fallen land will restore us. This is “the way”, and there is only one way. The priest (if he is doing his job right) calls us to account on what we worship (i.e. the destination we seek), and whether we are on the narrow path, or strayed far from it. My tentative view is that what we worship is that journey which we are willing to risk our bodily life for. As a counter-example, I recently stood in Durham cathedral (as a tourist) while a Lent service was being held.
The priest was teaching provably false political dogma about Ukraine to the congregation, going beyond his spiritual remit and personal competence. The worship was unholy (i.e. opposing truth and justice), venerating propaganda from a corrupt state and its controlled mass media. I felt sickened by the lies, but also could sense my own power as a truth teller, stood there in my brown monkish hoodie. It was not appropriate or productive at that moment for me to call him out as a corrupt fool, but in a different time and place I would have felly fully entitled and empowered to do so.
As I wandered the cloisters I also caught a snippet of a conversation between another befrocked priest and a young person, which showed me that the concerns of the institution were ungodly and doctrinaire. My personal life is closer to “severe warning” than “superb example” of upstanding moral behaviour, but nothing wayward I have done rivals this kind of wrongdoing. It is not an experience I will easily forget; we all are obligated to fight against deception, and do not need positional authority to do it. I have done both my own “priest” and “therapist” inner work to know for sure when I see self-serving wickedness.
The therapist also has boundaries of competence and failure modes. Many therapists will not take on clients with active unresolved addictions, as this takes separate treatment. Some kinds of trauma, like Satanic ritual abuse, require extra healing powers and specialist help. Every therapist will inevitably have their own blind spots and moral failings, which limits the help they can offer their client. But the real limit of the therapist is that it defaults towards that “mushy middle”, erasing ideas of holiness, sacredness, and worship.
The risk of seeing everything as matters of perspective is that it leads to moral relativism and self-justifying wrongdoing. We make peace with our personal demons, rather than driving them out. There are some situations where we should find a way to accept what we cannot change, and the way of the therapist is the right way. Yet there are other situations where we should definitely change what we should never accept, and moral outrage should not be tempered with a muddied conscience.
The priest has the reverse problem. It is easy to locate the “nearest Bible quote” to any problem or situation, and reduce it to a unidimensional issue of right versus wrong. That there may be many competing principles, as as well unintended consequences, gets lost in the rush towards theocratic trivialisation. I cannot help wonder if the priest should never reject engaging with a problem on the basis that it is too big, as metaphysics is the foundation of spirituality; but it may be wise to give it a pass if it is too small, and hand it to a more temporally-minded aide, such as a therapist.
There is inevitable large overlap between the priest and the therapist, even if obscured by different language and frameworks. The priest could talk of witchcraft, and the therapist would look on bemused. But if you split out the elements of witchcraft — manipulation, intimidation, and divination — the therapist might see more familiar issues of gaslighting narcissism, projected anger, and power via self-interested prophesy. Where the priest preaches forgiveness the therapist may advocate acceptance, but the end goal is the same: making peace with that which is.
My view is that our lives need both priest and therapist roles in them. We need those who steer us away from wickedness and towards righteousness, as well as those who provide a safe space to articulate our hurt and avoid recapitulating the past over and over. Yet ultimately the priest role has to be the “boss” of the therapist one, in terms of moral design and development. The holy war against deception and evil resides under the priest’s broad and eternal remit, including the self-delusions every therapist must encounter.
In order to become free, each of us has to confront the limits of our own understanding, reject “mushy middle” thinking on matters of morality, and up our game by taking a more holy path in life. We graduate from therapy when we seek out a priest; yet a priest may seek therapy when they are weighed down by life events. Neither is better or worse, and it is by being “ambidextrous” in these moral paradigms that we learn and grow beyond the limits of each. No one moral guide or code can address all known problems, no one method comes without limits and risks, and no one person can progress without encountering problems outside of their existing spiritual comfort zone.
Although that said… in the absence of a priest or therapist, just heading to a bar with an Irishman immediately solves most hard life problems, no? 🤪
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