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Dear Doctor Robert,

We live near Todos Santos, and actually I have met you a couple of times, but I don't know if you would remember me. My husband and I have been married for six years, and we have a lot of problems with sex, money, and how to raise our children, and my husband has problems with cocaine and alcohol. In fact, I am afraid that he is becoming addicted to cocaine. And I am afraid, although he denies it, that he may be having sex with another woman. Some friends have recommended you, and we have been talking about coming to see you for marriage counseling, but after visiting your website, and reading your recent answer to another person about marriage counseling, I am not so sure that you would be the right therapist for us.

You see, we are Christians, and your answer seems to cast doubt on our faith when you say that effective couples counseling has nothing to do with "offering verses from the Bible or other religious texts."

According to our pastor, the Bible teaches that God created marriage by saying "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." And in our Bible study group we were taught that true marriage is not a contract between a man and a women the way that secular society imagines it, but that true marriage takes place only in Jesus Christ.

According to our pastor, since the Bible teaches that man is the head of woman, not in himself but in Christ (1 Cor. 11:3), a woman must be obedient to her husband and respect him even when he himself is not perfect. Well, my husband is far from perfect, but if marriage takes place in Jesus Christ, then I believe I must obey him.

We go to our pastor for Bible study, and for private marriage counseling. He counsels us with verses from the Bible, and has told us that the spirit of impurity is always waiting to tempt us, and it will slip into the sanctuary of marriage whenever we open the door to it. If impurity enters a marriage, it becomes more and more difficult to keep focused on God's love, and easier and easier to bypass one another and succumb to evil temptations, so that we must avoid temptations, and try to purify ourselves. He told us that we must depend on Jesus and his love and purity to save our marriage.

Our pastor is a good man, and I know that he is trying to help us, but after visiting your website many times, I am beginning to have doubts about him as a marriage counselor. I don't think that our pastor is helping us with our real problems, but on the other hand, if we come to you for counseling, I am afraid that you will not respect our Christian faith. In fact, I am even a bit afraid to send this letter to you. I know that we need help, and I am going around in circles about this. Please help.

[name withheld]


As I understand it, the word "faith" has two different, almost opposite, meanings. Apparently what you mean when you say "faith" is believing in something because you have read it in a book or have been told by an authority, such as a pastor, that it is true. But how do you know that it is true unless you have experienced it for yourself? How does the pastor know that it is true unless he has experienced it for himself? And even if the pastor claims to have experienced it, how do you know that his experience should be taken as a guide for your beliefs and your behavior? In other words, when you use the word "faith," you seem to be saying that you have been told at some time or another that the Bible is literally true, that it is literally the "word of God," that Jesus was literally the son of God, that heaven and hell literally exist, that only by belief in Jesus as savior can one go to heaven after death, etc., and that, having been told these things, you somehow came to believe them without question. I have no quarrel with this kind of faith if you feel that it serves you in your life, but I like to use the word faith in a different, more open-ended manner.

As I prefer to view "faith," one comes to the understanding that no one knows the answers to ultimate questions such as "Is there a creator of the universe who can hear and respond to prayer"?, "Is there an afterlife?" or "Does life have any meaning at all beyond survival and death?" Then, having realized that these questions will never be answered beyond all doubt, one lives fully as if life itself does have a deep meaning, and that the meaning of life may be revealed, not by some authority such as a book or a pastor, but by the person him or herself having the faith to live fully, honestly, and openly in this very eternal moment. In other words, this kind of faith is not a faith in "God" (quotation marks because no one knows if such a thing exists, or to what that word really refers), but a faith in the present situation in which one finds oneself, a faith that the moment itself contains that which is necessary to live it.

We use this kind of faith every day, usually without even thinking about it. For example, I will take a bite of bread with the faith that my mouth will be filled with the saliva necessary to swallow it. I do not pray to God to help me swallow the bread, I simply chew it. Perhaps there really is a "God" who created me and the bread, but I do not need to believe that in order to chew and swallow the bread.

In my experience, the first kind of faith--faith in heaven, hell, and salvation--involves a constant struggle with doubt. Why? Because something in us must be aware, at least to some extent, that such ideas might be no more than fairy tales, and so to maintain this kind of faith, the believer is forced continually to push his or her doubts under the rug, to make the doubts unconscious, that is. And, as people are constituted psychologically, each time the repressed doubts threaten to become conscious, to slip out from under the rug, the person must become more and more vehement in declaring his or her "faith," even to the extent of trying to convert other people to the same set of beliefs, since people feel that there is strength in numbers. In other words, the more doubt I feel about my so-called faith, the more I need to declare my beliefs, and to huddle together with others who declare their belief in the same set of ideas.

The other kind of faith also involves doubt, but in that kind of faith doubt is welcomed as an ally, not banished as an enemy. In other words, in the second kind of faith, I am not sure if life has meaning or not (besides simply eating, digesting, defecating, procreating, and dying), but I am willing to find out. In other words, faith, as I understand the word, means a trust in the energy of this very moment, without needing to believe in some better future. Faith, seen in this way, means feeling that life itself is sacred without necessarily needing to believe in a separate divinity, a creator god, or any kind of salvation whatsoever. In my experience, that kind of faith usually deepens as one lives it, and the initial doubts change into expanded understanding of the human situation, change, that is, into compassion. There are, by the way, Christians who practice this second kind of faith, and no serious Christian theologian of whom I am aware believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and in an actual concrete "God." Unfortunately, the need to ignore the more advanced side of Christian thought in favor of a "faith" in a big daddy in the sky who makes rules for his children seems to dominate Bible study classes, and born-again churches. And this, in my experience, creates all manner of confusion, such as the confused so-called "counseling" that your pastor has been perpetrating upon you and your husband.

I hope you are not offended by this discussion, for it is not intended as a criticism of your faith at all, but an honest attempt to answer your "ask the psychologist" letter to me. You have, of course, a perfect right to believe in anything you wish, but I would like to suggest to you that you might profit both emotionally and spiritually if you make an effort to distinguish between belief and fact. Almost always, beliefs are chosen because they make us feel more comfortable or perhaps special in some way. Often, as I see it, religious beliefs, most particularly the Christian and Muslim varieties, function in the service of the ego, which does not want to imagine itself to be finite and perishable, but would rather imagine that "I" will continue "eternally," perhaps even in a reconstituted physical body, forever in "heaven."

By identifying yourself as a "Christian," I imagine you mean that you like to believe that the Bible is literally true, and that the words in it are the words of "God." And, believing this, you like to imagine the Bible as a kind of rule book for living. Beginning with that belief, your pastor then becomes a kind of interpreter of the rules, and the "counseling" he is giving you is largely a command to follow the rules. But as I understand your question to "ask the psychologist," if that system were working for you, you never would have written to me at all. According to your letter, your marriage is deeply troubled, your husband is not leading an upright life, and, no matter what the pastor or the Bible says about a wife's obedience to her husband, you know in your heart that obedience to an alcoholic, drug addict husband is not just foolish, but dangerous. In other words, the marriage counseling your pastor is giving you is not working, and you know it.

In my experience, pastoral counseling with an engaged couple, in other words, counseling prior to marriage, can sometimes be useful in helping the would-be marriage partners to know one another better before they take such a serious step. At best, this kind of counseling investigates honestly the places where the partners are compatible and where they are not. This exploration prior to saying the vows may teach the couple how to avoid some common pitfalls and misunderstandings so that the marriage gets off to a good start, or may convince one or the other that the marriage is not a good idea, which certainly could prevent much later grief. However, once a marriage is in trouble like yours, most pastors are simply out of their depth, and should not be doing such counseling at all. In fact, in my opinion, your pastor is doing great harm to both of you when he counsels you to use the Bible as a marriage manual. Every couple is different, and once a marriage gets into the kind of trouble that is ruining yours, the only workable approach, in my professional opinion, is a consideration in depth of the psychological situations of both partners, including, in the case of your marriage, direct intervention into the drug, alcohol, and possible infidelity problems of your husband.

I will not get into all the reasons why a literal belief in so-called "scripture" [quotation marks because there are so many "scriptures," each prized by a different culture as the one true revealed word of "God"] is, from my point of view, not just childish, but positively harmful to humanity. However, I must point out that, as I see it, the need of some people to believe that "our" God is the one true God inflames much of the war and strife on this benighted planet.

I imagine that your pastor tells you that according to the Bible, Jesus is the one and only way to God, and that others who do not believe that are doomed to go to hell. This includes, of course, the majority of people on Earth! Is this not absurd on the face of it? Do you not realize that Muslims are told the very same thing about their "faith"? And what kind of merciful god would damn everyone except those who happen to adhere to a certain literal way of worship? If there is a god at all in the sense in which you like to believe, is it not the god of all of us? If you believe that "Jesus is the one and only way to salvation," then you must believe the rest of us on this planet are damned and going to hell unless we change our points of view to match yours. In other words, your "faith" requires you to believe that you and your "saved" friends are in the favored group, the group that knows the "truth," and the rest of humanity is living in ignorance. Is this not the height of arrogance? Where is the humility that "Christians" always seem to be preaching? Please consider this.

If after having looked at this, you still want to go on reading your Bible as if it were literally true, and as if it were the literal word of "God," then you may be correct in feeling that I am not the right therapist for you. But if you do decide that you would like to consult me, you will find, I think, that I will treat you with respect, that I will not talk about right and wrong, but rather what is actually happening, that I will try to help you and your husband to have a marriage that really works, and that I will allow room for respectful consideration of your religious beliefs as part of the therapeutic endeavor with a view towards empowering your religious impulses to find more mature and serviceable ways of expression.

Be well.

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page last modified February 28, 2006

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