Remembering Who We Are: Recovering from Cultural Amnesia.

The western loss of the larger and smaller narratives which depicted the horizons of life, is a loss of memory on a grand scale, a sign of some deep disorder for those who see it.

Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, Western Civilization illustration, St. Peter

Forgetting one’s life story is taken as a serious sign of disorder by medical professionals and psychologists, with attempts being made to restore what has been lost. What if the loss of memory is on the level of a society and culture? In  The Western Dreaming (2001), John Carroll says the western world is in the process of forgetting its major stories. He says that “the spirit cannot breathe without a story” and that “western culture runs on stories starting with Homer’s mythic recounting of a few episodes from the tenth year of the Trojan War,” adding that it “is not just the sacred stories that have faded. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, the orthodox life-narratives have also crumbled.” 1

For whatever reason, whether traumatic or ideological, the western loss of the larger and smaller narratives which depicted the horizons of life, is a loss of memory on a grand scale, a sign of some deep disorder for those who see it. Those suffering from the disorder usually don’t know they are suffering, nor what a disorder is. So, many live in forgetfulness of the historical, theological, and philosophical legacy of the West. As tourists, they can wander the world gazing at churches, art, and symbols, not realizing what they are seeing.

Pope John Paul II recognized the disorder of the times, approaching the matter, not with condemnation of the sick person, but with the compassion of a consummate spiritual healer.  In his Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Europa (2003), he refers to:

…the loss of Europe’s Christian memory and heritage, accompanied by a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference, whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots, and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history. 2

John Paul II comments as if he were the father of the prodigal son who squandered his inheritance—the inheritance here being the Christian one—without which Europe and the West cannot be understood, not its culture, society, nor its inner life. It cannot be understood because its great periods of evangelization provided the foundations for the moral, social, and scientific growth of western civilization itself.

In similar vein, Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger), in Values in a Time of Upheaval (2004), says that “the true meaning of the teaching authority of the Pope is that he is the advocate of Christian memory”—a reminder of all of the Christian realities in an age of forgetfulness. 3 He reminds us not only of the Christian inheritance, but that it is easy to forget it. The Pope is a spiritual amnesia specialist for it is an occupational hazard of being human to be charmed by utopias, forgetting the reality that there is a Creator who made us.

One person who is aware of the forgetfulness of the age, particularly within his own profession, is the American Catholic psychologist, academic, and author, Paul Vitz. In his writings, Vitz surveys a century of deconstruction of Christian memory, within psychology and western society in general, patiently working to retrieve and reconstruct the Christian legacy. For example, he reminds his peers that the rejection of Judeo-Christian thought in Freudian, behaviourist, and humanistic psychological theories is a form of forgetting the Christian heritage. This amounts to an attempt to extinguish memory itself. These major waves in psychology, which have invaded our thought during the last century, ignore the fact that everyone has a spiritual story, which is more significant than any Oedipal, behaviourist, or “self-actualization” story. The psychological narratives ignore the fact that psychology itself has a story about the human person.  They ignore the fact that the term “person” (presumably whom psychologists wish to heal) itself owes most of its origin to Christian thought during the first three hundred years after Christ, when the natures of human and divine personhoods were reflected on profoundly. Central to the understanding of the human person was the soul—the very word “psychology” can be translated as the “study of the soul.” The Greeks, and their predecessors, knew we had a soul. Many current Christians seem to have forgotten it, or behave as if they did not have one.

Of course, many modern psychologists have ignored the soul. It is only in very tremulous tones that the word is uttered in their intellectual circles. Before the waves of Freudian, behaviourist, and humanistic psychology held sway, however, there was a period of intense experimentation, centred mainly in Germany—an “early modern” period from the early 19th century onwards—where the soul was taken for granted. An outstanding Catholic pioneer, Johannes Müller (1801-1858), integrated scientific knowledge with psychological questions. He always saw his progress in psychology as an example of the greatness of God’s creation and, for all his brilliance, never forgot human beings were a body-soul unity. Later came Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), who started the first psychological laboratory in 1879 in Leipzig. Wundt, who was not a Catholic, was delighted to discuss the papal encyclical, Aeterni Patris (published in the same year – 1879), with the very Thomistic American, Fr. Pace (1861-1938), who had come to visit him in Leipzig in 1889. Pace, in turn, was delighted to discuss the encyclical with Wundt. One can only imagine this extraordinary scene where the American and German discuss the latest psychological advances, with reference to papal encyclicals. This occurred in the most prestigious psychological laboratory of the time. Pace stayed on in Leipzig to complete a doctorate in psychology. He then returned to America to begin the first courses in psychology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. There, he taught many future psychologists, including the extraordinary priest/monk/psychologist, Fr. Verner Moore, who was to head the first departmentthere which was only dedicated to psychology.

Catholic psychologists, during the early modern period, had no difficulty in engaging in experimental psychology, rejoicing in its discoveries, while retaining an understanding of the human person as a union of a body and a soul. However, not only was the term “soul” virtually forgotten in modern psychology, but also the contribution of the many extraordinary Catholic pioneers in psychology, such as: Albert Michotte, Father Joseph Fröbes, Agostino Gemelli, and Kazimierz Twardowski. 4

In the subsequent “Freudian” era that was loosed upon the world, Catholics were more often entranced by Freud than by the many pre-Freudian pioneers, who, whether Christian or not, had some regard for the Judeo-Christian theological anthropology. They, at least, recognized its existence for the past two millennia. While Freud chose to publicly ignore the Christian legacy, he, nevertheless, acknowledged the importance of narrative in each person’s life, for he had his patients recount their stories. The trouble is he constructed his own narrative, and then applied it to his middle-class clients. As Paul Vitz says, the “psychoanalyst’s interpretation of the past, is really a construction … that describes and summarizes the client’s past,” and has “narrative form.” 5 This is because narrative is a constructive organizing principle for human action: “people make up narratives about their own lives; that is, people typically interpret their life as a story or narrative.” 6

Freud himself used stories to “explain” human behaviour, in particular, the Oedipus myth, which indicates that while narrative was important to him, it was his interpretation of the narrative which became even more important. Freud’s version of reality—that boys love their mothers, and hate their fathers—has not stood the test of time, not even 100 years, being consigned to the dustbin of historical curiosities, even by many Freudian psychologists. The Christian narrative by contrast—which states that we are created by God, that each person is a reflection of the Imago Dei, and has an eternal destiny—still persists after enduring for millennia. Somehow, people just cannot forget that they have a mysterious inner “something,” a quietly persistent soul, which echoes throughout their lives, in harrowing sufferings and deepest joys. That soul never ceases asking where we came from, and why we are here.

One major reason that Freud’s version of reality has faded is that, as a story, it offers little hope.  Paul Vitz explains that it is not the kind of story that human beings are drawn to, referring to Northrop Frye’s, The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), to find a framework in which to understand types of narrative. 7 Vitz refers to “the four great types of stories” which Frye identifies at the basis of all literature: comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. He points out that Freud’s emphases are tragic and ironic in contrast to the Christian vision, which is both a romance and a comedy— though it may come as a surprise to Christians that we are living out a romance and a comedy.  Vitz points out that the only hope in the Freudian approach is psychoanalysis, which provides a tragic acceptance of life’s inalterable past, present, and future. The recall of the past is “corroded by the process of analysis itself” because the person being analyzed realizes that there are “no adventurous solutions, à la Indiana Jones” but rather a “‘tragic ironic’ view of the world and a final ‘heroic, though tragic’ working through of one’s conflicts.” 8 Vitz says that the Freudian patient remains a tragic hero. The narrative weakness of psychoanalysis is that it seriously implies that “the tragic and the ironic are superior forms of truth … It excludes from life the great truths of hope, of purpose, of reform” and “undermines action of any kind.” 9

One can say that for Freud, and the behaviourists, and the humanistic psychologists, death is an inescapable tragedy with no meaning, apart from total tragic extinction of the person. For the Christian, by contrast, life is a series of travails and suffering which end in a future—in God’s kingdom—where every tear will be wiped away. And like every romance and comedy, it involves many obstacles, ending in a wedding, the “wedding feast of the lamb,” as the finale. As Christians, we are implicated in this pilgrim plot, all playing our various roles, moving inexorably towards this finale. Vitz refers to the life of St. Paul in this regard:

In many respects, the life of St. Paul, as presented in the New Testament, is a romance: his travels, persecutions, and successes throughout the Mediterranean world. However, perhaps the better term to describe the adventures of St. Paul, and every Christian, is a pilgrimage. We are all travelers—exiles—journeying through tribulations toward our home. 10

Each Christian is a protagonist who, like all protagonists in comedy and romance, will emerge triumphant and exalted in the end. Thus, the Christian approach to existential angst is to listen to, and fully acknowledge, the suffering and tragedy of the past, but to move to transcend it, seeing inner strengths and resilience of the client in the context of soundly-based hope, guaranteed by God himself. Vitz himself as therapist has used narrative therapy with great success in his work as a psychologist, enabling many to see a previously unalterably tragic narrative in a totally different way.

Thus, for psychologists and the rest of the world, the narrative of Christianity is the source of enduring reality and hope. In Ecclesia in Europa, Pope John Paul II reminded the world of this fact:

After 20 centuries, the Church stands at the beginning of the third millennium with a message which is ever the same, a message which constitutes her sole treasure: Jesus Christ is Lord; in him, and in no one else, do we find salvation. 11

He added that only a God, who reveals his plans, can tell the whole story that unites this world with the world beyond. In the end, only “Jesus is able to reveal and bring about the plan of God, hidden therein.” 12 In the end, deep down, we know we can only accept a divine guarantee as to our future—no human guarantee, no matter what the utopian promises, can reassure us.

The antidote to the cultural amnesia of our times is to restate what has been forgotten, to restate it in every which way we can—this post-Auschwitz, post-gulag, post-Christian, post-colonial, post-modern, and post post-modern world—particularly in a way that speaks to the current wounded era. Cultural amnesia has only spawned fear of the future, existential fragmentation, loss of solidarity, and a vision of life apart from God, which are all consequences of the secularist and subjectivist disorders of our times. We need a kind of spiritual “Ginkgo” for our lost memories. The good news is that they are there for the finding, without pills, surrounding us in books, art, liturgy, and the haunting questions of our souls. The current era is in need of profound healing, and is, perhaps, only too ready to hear what it has forgotten, if those who remember are willing to say it.

At its base, the Christian “story” invites trust, and in our telling of it, so must we. Christ’s exhortation—to trust in his divine mercy—is a cosmic counterpoint to the emphasis on human trust in utopian stories, a counterpoint to the misplaced trust in human leaders, and to the betrayed trust by institutional and ideological leaders. Jesus is not a human therapist, but with divine empathy, he heals “being” at its deepest level, preparing us for the continuing story beyond death.  Faith in the God who has revealed the whole story to us, leads to a trust in the only One who can be trusted. Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger) puts it succinctly in saying that Christian faith, in its revelation of the true story of our lives, tells us that:

… faith does not offer man some psychotherapy—its psychotherapy is the truth. 13

  1. John Carroll. The Western Dreaming: The Western World is Dying for Want of a Story (Australia: Harper –Collins, 2001), 6. 9-10.
  2. Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in Europa. Par. 7.
  3. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006) 95.
  4. An account of these Catholic pioneers of psychology can be found in the unique account of Henryk Misiak and Virginia Staudt, Catholics in Psychology: A Historical Survey (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1954).
  5. Vitz, “Narratives and Counseling: Part 1: From Analysis of the Past to Stories about it,”  Journal of Psychology and Theology, 20 (1992), 14.
  6. Vitz, “The Use of Stories in Moral Development: New psychological Reasons for an Old education Method,” in  American Psychologist, 45, (1990), 711.
  7. Northrop  Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).
  8. Vitz, “Narrative and Theological Aspects of Freudian and Jungian Psychology,” in K.E. Yandell, ed., Faith and Narrative (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 159.
  9. Ibid., 160.
  10. Vitz, “Narratives and Counselling,” 16.
  11. Ecclesia in Europa, Par 17.
  12. Ibid., Par 44.
  13. Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of  Theology (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993), 103.
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avatar About Dr. Wanda Skowronska, Ph.D.

Wanda Skowronska is an educational psychologist, living and working in Sydney, Australia. She has done pro-life counselling for Family Life International, and regularly writes for the Catholic journal, Annals. She completed a Ph.D. at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, in 2011, and is currently working on a book on Catholic involvement in early modern psychology.

Comments

  1. avatar Justin says:

    Much of what is said is true but the sad fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church herself in many ways has—for the last 50 some odd years—also forgotten who she is and suffers from a sort of “amnesia” surrouding her own venerable traditions. The banal in the new liturgy, church architecture, liturgical music, truncated and desacralized prayers, etc. are symbolic that after Vatican II the Catholic Church lost touch with her roots. Luckily there are signs in some places that this is changing, especially with Summorum Pontificum and the zeal for the unadulaterated Catholic Faith seen by many of todays youth despite the fact that their parents and grandparents and several generations of bishops and priests quite simply have not passed it on in any way, shape or form. Like it or not the West is tied in with the Roman Catholic Church and unless the Church herself returns to the Traditions that sustained her and made saints and gave a reference point to the culture at large there will be no restoration of the West, period, close the book.

    • avatar St Donatus says:

      I agree for the most part but it has been longer than 50 years. It was just the last 50 years that we have seen it on the surface. We can look at the architecture of many of the Catholic churches built between 1920 and 1960 and see that the desire among many priests and bishops, even then, was to change the church, to modernize. We can also see it start to appear in books written in this period. Modernism in the Church is a very destructive force. I purchased a latin missal written in 1958 that described the priests vestments as coming from a ‘bad fashion period’. A very disrespectful and irreverent description in a child’s missal. Satan has been planting the seeds that would cause the pain we see in the Church today like 75% not attending weekly mass. Most don’t believe it is a mortal sin to miss mass, most use contraceptives, and most don’t even believe in Satan or hell.

      Yes, we have seen things start to turn around but when there are only about 20 Catholic Colleges that can be recommended by the Newman society out of around 237 Catholic Colleges in the US, we still have a long way to go.

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