All religions involve caring for souls. Shamans or medicine men, for instance, were considered to be healers of the body and the soul (the physical and nonphysical) and much of their preparation involved secret knowledge and occult practices. The study and treatment of the soul is a religious activity because it deals with the unseen realm of the inner man and includes morals and taboos. As various people groups intermingled through the ages they often incorporated one another’s cultural and religious beliefs and practices. This syncretism is an ancient as well as modern practice.
Syncretism can easily occur when there are similarities between two systems of belief and practice. Particularly in the matter of soul care one can see similarities between cultures and religions. Because God created mankind with a conscience and a moral recognition of right and wrong, there are definite similarities among some of the beliefs and practices of numerous religions. In addition to the God-given conscience, all people groups have the same ancestors from which oral and written tradition would have originated. Nevertheless, because of sin and human error, the information and teachings God gave to Noah would have been corrupted while being passed down through the generations of nations not following God. Even the account of the flood varies throughout different people groups.
If one were to read various religious and philosophical admonitions for how to live righteously and peacefully, one would find many similarities. There was no doubt a great deal of borrowing between cultures. However, God provided His Word and wisdom and He forbade the Israelites from assimilating beliefs and practices from the nations around them. The only source of uncontaminated truth about the soul (mind, will, emotions) is the very Word of God. Thus, even when there are seeming similarities between the Bible and wisdom literature from other cultures, one can know that what God gave in Scripture is the pure truth. Moreover, God has consistently forbidden His people from incorporating foreign religious and philosophical ideas and practices having to do with worship and with the unseen realm of the soul and spirit.
Long History of Syncretism
Thus, from the very beginning, God opposed syncretism among His chosen people, Israel. They were to worship and follow Him alone and not add anything from the faith systems surrounding them. It is very clear that once Israel began dipping into the ways of the surrounding cultures, they assimilated more and more idol worship, as well as human wisdom and occult practices. The fallen human nature is prone to look for pragmatic solutions apart from God, especially when God does not act immediately according to their needs and desires. The Old Testament is filled with Israel’s syncretism, including the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai and the priests bringing pagan idols into the very temple of God (Ezekiel 8). Rather than trusting God alone, they turned to the pagan world with its idols and idle promises.
Paul warned the early believers in Colosse of the dangers of syncretism when he said: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). Syncretism could only distract and subtract from their Christian walk. God had given them new life in Christ. But, rather than becoming established in the faith, the Colossians were contaminating their faith in Christ by adding religious and philosophical elements from the world around them.
Syncretism is defined as “the combination of different forms of belief or practice,” and that is exactly what they were doing. Syncretism is one of Satan’s most deceptive and appealing techniques devised to destroy the true faith and undermine the Christian’s faith in and dependence on Christ. Syncretism can happen in different ways. One way is accommodating customs and religious beliefs and practices by renaming and redefining them, such as cultures turning native deities into Catholic saints.1 Another way is using facets of philosophical systems that seem compatible with Christianity, such as assimilating aspects of Greek Stoicism having to do with morality and consolation.
Our concern is with the syncretism of psychotherapy and its underlying psychologies with Christianity. As we have demonstrated in our writings, psychotherapy and its underlying psychologies are actually religious in nature and practice.3 Robert C. Fuller, in his book Americans and the Unconscious, states this very clearly:
Insofar as psychological theories purport to interpret reality and orient individuals within it, they inevitably assume many of the cultural functions traditionally associated with religion. And to the extent that psychological concepts are used to guide individuals toward life’s intrinsic values and ultimate mysteries, their religious character becomes prominent.4
We call this syncretism psychoheresy, which is taking psychological ideas, theories, and practices and mingling them with Christianity.
The euphemism for this kind of syncretism is “integration,” which occurs when two or more ideas or systems are able to be combined. However, those who take the psychological counseling theories and attempt to combine them with Scripture cannot truly integrate them. They are as different as oil and water! One works with the old man of the flesh (carnal); the other works with the new man in Christ (spiritual). They are at enmity with each other, just as the flesh and the Spirit are contrary to each other (Gal. 5:17) and just as the carnal man is at enmity with God (Rom. 8:7). They cannot mix because they are enemies, just as the idols of the nations around Israel were at enmity with God. Thus these so-called Christian psychologists and other mental health professionals are not practicing and promoting ordinary integration, but rather religious syncretism. They are overlaying their psychology with the Bible, which ultimately serves to disguise the psychological religious systems they are using. As we have shown through the years, this psycho-syncretism subverts and subtracts from the faith.
Psychoheresy began years ago as pastors sought to use the latest information about the mind gleaned from men in the world of science and medicine. Pastors who struggled to help their people thought that the more they could learn about the mind, the better prepared they would be to minister to those in need. They thought that the information about psychological counseling theories that they were learning and using was safe because they believed these ideas came from the world of nature and medicine rather than from another religion. Did any realize that research into the unconscious involved occult practices, putting clairvoyants into trances, and then creating elaborate scientific-sounding theories out of what was spoken by those in the trance state?5 Some suspected the origins; others eagerly embraced what the world offered, often in place of the Bible.
Syncretism and Mesmerism
Franz Anton Mesmer, an eighteenth-century Austrian medical doctor, theorized that all physical and mental problems were the result of an imbalance of a universal, invisible fluid permeating all of life, which he called “animal magnetism.” At first Mesmer had patients swallow tiny bits of iron so that as he moved magnets around their bodies he could attempt to balance this invisible fluid. Later he believed that he could transmit his own personal animal magnetism to the patient as he established a certain kind of rapport. Under his influence and treatment many fell into a trance and some appeared to achieve some element of healing. Mesmer’s followers brought his techniques to England and it became quite the rage, especially between 1830 and the early 1850s. Christian clergy were extremely curious about its possibilities and implications regarding the care of souls. In her book Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain, Alison Winter says:
Mesmerism … held out the tantalizing possibility of teasing apart proper and improper, spiritual and satanic, legitimate and false, forms of influence of the sinful, sick, and suffering. One reason was mesmerism’s similarity to forms of possession and divine inspiration.7
Winter says, “Many clergy became involved in mesmerism.” That is syncretism.
There was great controversy over mesmerism during the mid-nineteenth century in England in both the scientific community and in the church. The clergy could not agree among themselves if mesmerism was the work of the devil or a useful discovery from the natural world and therefore a gift from God. Some clergy used mesmerism in their pastoral care and became masterful in utilizing the techniques. Winter says, “Clerical mesmerists … lulled patients to sleep with mesmeric anesthesia; they claimed to have cured nervous diseases, insanity, and internal disorders.”8
A pastor by the name of William Scoresby believed that “mesmerism revealed the underlying character of divine influence: of the magnet over iron filings, or the earth’s poles over the needle of the compass, of the preacher over his flock, or the social reformer over the community.”9 He believed that proper use of what he called “zoistic magnetism” (animal magnetism) could be used to transform society, since he believed that “God designated a mysterious ethereal fluid or fluids … that enforce his will on earth.” He further contended that this fluid is conducted among people in varying degrees so that some were stronger and others weaker in being conductors of God’s will.10 While there was much debate as to the source of this seeming power, the nineteenth-century clergy continued to use it until the fad ran its course.
But, why even write about pastors using mesmerism, which had no real scientific basis and was found to be on the same plane as séances and occult “table turning,” which were also popular in Britain during the nineteenth century? We do so because mesmerism was a precursor to psychotherapy, which is on the same pseudoscientific plane as mesmerism. The syncretism of mesmerism and Christian soul care gives us a glimpse into the horror of syncretism and should serve as a warning to pastors who look outside Scripture for methods to minister to souls.
Talk therapy (psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, psychological counseling) evolved out of mesmerism, first through hypnosis and later through conversation.11 In his book The Discovery of the Unconscious, Henri Ellenberger describes the general sequence of events that preceded the modern psychological counseling craze:
Historically, modern dynamic psychotherapy derives from primitive medicine, and an uninterrupted continuity can be demonstrated between exorcism and magnetism, magnetism and hypnotism, and hypnotism and the modern dynamic schools.12
As mesmerism came to America, it evolved into three forms: hypnotism, positive thinking, and psychotherapy. In fact Fuller says, “Mesmerists became the first Americans directly to study the psychodynamic nature of interpersonal relationships.”13 One can also see how the positive thinking extension of mesmerism affected the church through Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller. These men and their followers have been strong supporters of psychological counseling therapies and theories that include the idea that people have suffered some sort of deprivation which is what causes them to act as they do. As Fuller puts it, sin came to be “understood as a function of ignorance or lack of self-discipline or as the result of faulty social institutions. Man’s ‘lower nature’ was, therefore, considered to be potentially correctable through humanly initiated reforms.”14
If pastors further believed that spiritual change could be wrought through human effort and human methods, they were ready to embrace human means and methods in their soul care and to seek to know more about the secular study of the soul called “psychology.” The natural next step was to syncretize twentieth-century psychotherapy with Christianity and to continue to expand this syncretism into the twenty-first century.
Faith in God & His Word or Syncretism?
The syncretism of psychology and Christianity appeals to those Christians who believe that what is being discovered about the mind, the will, and the emotions is science, that it is part of God’s creation yet to be discovered in the same way as discoveries are made in physics, chemistry, and biology. Since psychology presents itself as a science and psychotherapeutic ideas are organized into theories, many pastors mistakenly believe that there is no syncretism of religion when adding the models and methods of counseling psychology. This faith in science and belief in a “scientific psychology” goes quite far back. Fuller says:
Underlying the ability of late nineteenth-century Americans to embrace scientific psychology as a source of spiritual edification was a long tradition of seeing nature as fraught with theological significance. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, American Protestants were increasingly fascinated by scientific method.15
In addition, there are subtleties and similarities between certain ideas from psychology and Christianity that increase the vulnerability for one to begin thinking and ministering psychologically rather than biblically. That is why Christians need to be spending time in the Word and in prayer rather than in looking for answers to life’s dilemmas outside Scripture. Psychotherapy and its underlying psychologies are not science.16 They are human speculations about the soul with a pseudo-scientific façade. Those who are Christians attempt to accommodate the faith, but this syncretism will activate the flesh rather than minister to the spirit, because what is added comes from the world rather than the Word.
There has been so much searching outside Scripture to find ways to minister to suffering saints that a whole cadre of psychologically trained or at least psychologically tainted professionals and lay counselors are prepared to minister the ways of men and the wisdom of men along with Scriptures that seem to support their practice. Others who are also guilty of syncretism are: (1) Those Christian schools and seminaries that positively promote the use of counseling psychology and/or prepare individuals to become licensed to practice psychotherapy,especially those Christian schools that have programs accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA), such as Baylor University, Biola University, Fuller Theological Seminary, George Fox University, Regent University, and Wheaton College; (2) Those pastors or others who promote and affirm those psychological ideas and/or refer congregants out to psychotherapists; (3) Those authors and organizations that promote a psychological understanding of man; (4) Those professing Christians who are deeply committed to this syncretism, which comes from not believing that Scripture is sufficient for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Thus many have formed a new faith, which is not “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).
Instead of following the ways of the world, Christians need to search the Word to find out how God changes individuals from the inside out without one human being probing into another person’s inner man, which only God can know. God does the primary work of change and has clearly set forth what believers are to do for one another: preach, pray, admonish, instruct, help, and encourage one another to seek the Lord daily through praying; worshiping; giving thanks; reading, studying, memorizing, and meditating on Scripture; thinking biblically; walking by faith; loving, serving, and obeying God; and loving and serving one another. This care of souls is to be practiced mutually in the body of Christ so that all may grow and flourish in the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). There is no system or program. Instead, it is the very life of Christ in every believer bearing fruit and bringing each to maturity through the Word of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of the saints.
As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving. Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power (Col. 2:6-10).
1 Omar Rodriguez, “Afrocuban Religion and Syncretism with the Catholic Religion,” http://scholar.library.miami.edu/emancipation/religion1.htm.
2 John T. McNeill. A History of The Cure of Souls. New York; Harper & Row, Publishers, 1951, pp. 45-46.
3 Martin and Deidre Bobgan. PsychoHeresy. Santa Barbara, CA: EastGate Publishers, 1987, pp. 11-25.
4 Robert C. Fuller. Americans and the Unconscious. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 6.
5 Henri F. Ellenberger. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books (Harper Collins Publishers), 1970, p. 85.
6 McNeill. op. cit., p. 45.
7 Allison Winter. Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain, p. 246.
8 Ibid., p. 252.
9 Ibid., p. 255.
10 Ibid., pp. 256-257.
11 Ellenberger, op. cit., pp152-153.
12 Ibid., p. 48.
13 Robert C. Fuller, op. cit., p.37.
14 Ibid., p. 42.
15 Ibid., p. 21-22.
16 Bobgan, op.cit., pp. 27-41.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, January-February 2011, Vol. 19, No. 1)