Morality: therapeutic or forensic?

I just got back from a meeting to discuss my older son’s progress in school. He qualifies for special education because of several developmental issues that he has. There’s a part of me that grumbles about the way that kids growing up today cannot possibly do anything wrong, because their behavior is analyzed through a therapeutic moral lens rather than a forensic one. If they jump out of their seats in the middle of class, it’s ADD. If they have strange inappropriate emotional outbursts, maybe it’s bipolar. In the evangelical Christian world, the therapeutic view of reality is often ridiculed as secular humanist nonsense. The assumption is that kids would be better behaved if they got smacked with a ruler when they got out of their seats instead of sending them to the school psychologist. Part of me sympathizes with that view; part of me is revolted by it. How do we understand sin in the age of therapy? Is it wrong to see it as a pathology that needs to be healed (the therapeutic perspective) rather than a violation that needs to be punished (the forensic perspective)?

I’m ambivalent about the forensic understanding of sin. Part of what undermined it for me was my experience of mental illness. I went through a period of time in which I didn’t have control over my mind. Viewing my behavior through a purely moralistic lens, I was simply being lazy, self-pitying, and unwilling to trust God. I had all of these judgments in my head in a ferocious whirlwind telling me what a worthless, horrible person I was. And then the fact that I couldn’t just a flip a switch and turn off these demoralizing thoughts meant that I was listening to the devil rather than to God. Going through a half-decade of deep depression created a crisis for my sense of morality. It was Henri Nouwen’s account of the God who spends all His energy trying to persuade us that we’re loveable (Life of the Beloved) that I latched onto during those dark times, in other words a God who was very much a therapist.

The other experience I’ve had that has turned me off to the forensic understanding of sin is being a father. What I have experienced is that I get way too much pleasure out of being a disciplinarian and defining my parenting style against my wife’s, which I often caricature in my mind as being overly soft and driven by the “worldly wisdom” of parenting expert gurus. I enjoy telling my sons what to do and getting in their face like a drill sergeant when they screw up. Part of the reason that I enjoy being their boss is because it’s a way of making it clear that even though I can’t fix appliances when they break and I suck at most sports and I don’t really know how to fish, I’m still the man of my house. When I noticed that my youngest son was afraid of me and figured out that my insecurity with my masculinity was a huge part of why I disciplined the way I did, I got pretty disgusted with myself.

So I’ve become more of a therapeutic disciplinarian. I try to consider why my sons do what they do and address the needs behind the problem rather than making sure that they pay for every transgression. Sometimes if they’re acting crazy and doing punishment-worthy things like jumping on the couch which has always been an automatic timeout, I just need to open the back door and send them out to play soccer instead of trying to assess penalties with mathematical exactitude. When my youngest son said, “Spanking is hitting and we don’t hit!” enough times, it kind of froze me in my tracks. If he does something really bad and dangerous like throwing a stuffed animal at me while I’m driving, then I tell him he’s getting a spanking and use it as a negotiating chip like a “suspended sentence” to get him to do something else he wouldn’t otherwise have been willing to do. Part of me feels like a worthless pushover being manipulated by a three year old, and part of me wants to believe that I can somehow win his trust and respect. I still set boundaries and give consequences for bad choices of course, but I’m not the same commanding presence that I needed to see myself as six months ago.

In any case, I’m having trouble grappling with the forensic view of morality in which people who do bad things have to be punished or else the whole society collapses, as opposed to the therapeutic view in which people who do things that show they’re sick need to be healed and put in a place where they can’t harm others until they get well. It’s very hard not to prefer the therapeutic account to the forensic one, which seems like it belongs to the era of guillotines or societies where thieves have their hands chopped off and adulteresses are stoned. Doesn’t Jesus fulfillment of the logic of retribution on the cross make us people who are no longer supposed to look at the world through the lens of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”? When we persist with a need for rule-breakers to get punished for purely retributive reasons as opposed to educated, convicted, healed, etc, does that mean that we have not yet fully accepted Christ’s sacrifice?

I’m not willing to say that morality is supposed to be entirely therapeutic and not at all forensic, though I’m leaning in that direction. I’m going to need to face this question in my book, and I’m pretty sure I need to do so  in a way that is more developed and nuanced than the muddle I feel in my brain right now. So I need somebody who thinks the forensic view is worthwhile to defend it in a way that doesn’t rely on ridiculing those silly arrogant postmodern fools (like me) or proof-texting John Wesley or Augustine or the apostle Paul. I know that Western Christianity has had a primarily forensic view of morality for most of its history (though perhaps the East has always been therapeutic). I need help reconciling scripture and tradition with my reason and experience, to use the terms of the Wesleyan quadrilateral.

10 thoughts on “Morality: therapeutic or forensic?

  1. I do not see a conflict between a therapeutic and forensic view of morality. The example of special education is a good one. For background: I am a speech therapist in a public school. I work with children who have almost every “issue” you can name.

    For all of those children, there is a strong element of the therapeutic. They have a disorder, a chemical brain imbalance, a health condition, or a history. These things make everyday life into a huge challenge. Things like sitting in chairs or not hitting your neighbor, which are easy for other kids, are very difficult for these kids. We make allowances, because it would be cruel and wrong to not do so.

    On the other hand, these children make volitional choices all day long. They chose to scream; they chose to hit; they chose to act up and disobey and do wrong. And a good, caring teacher will not let them get away with these things. The children will learn to control themselves as much as they can; and they will have consequences for misbehaving. These consequences will not be anything close to “what they deserve”, but they will also not allow bad behavior to continue. They will be fair, based on what the child could honestly be expected to do; and they will continue to grow the child into a functional, caring person.

    God’s grace works the same for us. We are born with an irresistible desire to sin, which we have no hope of conquering on our own. God has already dealt with that, and is working to heal us. And yet, we commit individual volitional sin, which has consequences. We are forgiven, but will still be judged.

  2. Karl Menninger’s “Whatever Happened to Sin?” is actually a very famous book by a therapist arguing for a more “juridical” account of sin as an important concept that needs to not be lost. To lose the juridical is to lose the moral, the ethical, the responsible. I mean, ultimately I think it’s a both/and. Still, there is a dignity to the juridical that we discard at our peril.

    C.S. Lewis has a very interesting article on the “Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” in the contest of a capital punishment. There are things to criticize, but it’s, as always, quite interesting. http://www.angelfire.com/pro/lewiscs/humanitarian.html

    As always, good post.

    • Thanks for the resources. One thing I’m interested in pressing you on is to elaborate what you mean when you talk about the “objectivity” of God’s justice, atonement, our sin, etc (you probably already have so I apologize if I wasn’t paying attention). Because of where I’m coming from, I’m very suspicious of what I would call an “abstracted” explanation of justice, atonement, sin, etc as having 100% to do with God’s glory and 0% to do with God’s love and solidarity for His creatures (e.g. John Piper’s favorite verse: “Against you alone have I sinned”).

      I think abstraction of love of God from love of neighbor is how evangelicalism has ended up with a temple like the one described in Isaiah 1:10-17. It’s also why a lot of reasonable postmodern millennials (who shouldn’t be mocked) say, “Wow, God is such a sanctimonious dooshbag” rather than saying, “Wow, God really loves all of His creatures so intensely that He pours out His wrath on whatever causes their suffering.” So if there’s a way to distinguish what you’re calling “objectivity” from what I’m calling “abstraction,” I’m very interested in learning it.

      • Great point. By “objective”, I don’t mean “abstract” in the sense of impersonal. The justice of God is always God’s own justice. No, by objective, I mean “not subjective.” Subjective accounts are modern ones of the moral exemplar sort, where the locus of action is in the individual–the kinds that stress that God’s act in Christ shows us what God is like, which changes OUR hearts and atones us to God. Now, that’s true, but accounts that reduce atonement exclusively to some experience in the life of the individual, I think, are leaving something key out. In fact, the main thing. When I talk about an objective atonement, I’m talking an atonement that is more than calling forth a subjective response. The point is more that the Cross DOES SOMETHING real before I ever hear about it, feel things, or think things. Something key has happened before I ever respond in faith.

        Silly example: I owe a debt. My buddy goes and pays the debt. That is an objective event that has happened without me having anything to do with it yet. Before I find out my debt has been paid, feel gratefully towards my friend, stop worrying about the debt, etc. the real situation has changed.

        In that sense, atonement is objective when it is focused more on an accomplished action of some sort as in the penal motif, or the victory motif. Christ has satisfied God’s covenant (relational/legal) justice, defeated my enemies (sin, death, the devil), etc. which I then place my faith in and subjectively appropriate.

        Now, to be sure, some of the atoning process has to do with “subjective” appropriation, but it cannot be reduced to the response of the individual.

      • Also, part of what I’d say is that we could speak of an “objectivity” in justice which includes God’s concern and solidarity with His creatures. Violence against God’s creatures really is a culpable offense against the covenant God that must be dealt with/paid for.

        At the same time whole attempt at a Trinitarian account of God’s wrath was part of me getting at an non-abstract, personal, yet objective sense of injustice that sin is apart from anything we do to each other. I’m trying to get at the sense that we can truly “sin against God”, where God is the sole offended party and that it is right for that to be judged. That is not a palatable idea, but this is where we come up against the root sin of idolatry and the metaphor of adultery, where sin is choosing not-God, rejecting God, the ultimate good, goodness Himself.

        I’m rambling now.

    • Lewis has his feet firmly planted in modernity. I’m not sure I buy it. I can see the hazards of the therapeutic view, but to call retribution the whole of “justice” means an uncritical appropriation of the Roman iustitia instead of the Hebrew mishpat. What if anything should change about our need to see others pay for their sins against us if we’ve accepted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins? I think Christianity ought to incline us towards restorative justice more than retribution, deterrence, or therapy. There’s of course a long tradition of penance within our history.

      • Lewis does not have his feet firmly planted in modernity. He’s one of the most classical thinkers of his period. Yes, there is a modern edge to it, but you can’t simply write it off. In any case, it’s a good corrective of the therapeutic views on offer. The point is you need all of those elements. I’ll go on record again as saying I think it’s a mistake to oppose the restorative to the retributive. The two go together. If there is one thing that’s characteristically modern it’s the false dichotomy we’re so often presented in these matters.

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