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4 Post World War I Lessons: How Psychotherapy Helps

“Downton Abbey” offers a dramatic, romantic vision of a family in a place and time that is no more.
Picturesque as it is, this ideal is not unscathed by the trauma, terror and slaughter of World War I whose anniversary is upon us.

A new word entered our vocabulary following the war, as casualties experienced “shell-shock” – an emotional rather than a physical disturbance, which blighted their lives, and which we now recognize as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The psychiatric profession struggled to treat such patients until they discovered Sigmund Freud.

Bernard Hart, in his book “The Psychology of Insanity” (1912), suggested that external physical disturbance reflected an internal psychological disturbance.

My personal copy was previously owned by the Bishop of Manchester, William Temple – later an Archbishop of Canterbury – who saw reconciliation as a personal and social event spanning religion, class and culture.

There emerged a wider movement called “New Psychology” that applied Freud’s and Carl Jung’s ideas to everyday life. How did the church respond to these developments?

First, important figures allied Christian faith to their psychiatric and psychoanalytic thinking and practice.

In 1920, the Tavistock Clinic was founded by Hugh Crichton-Miller to treat shell-shocked soldiers and offer a free psychological clinic to the public.

Second, some ministers saw the “new psychology” as offering a way to understand the modern world and illuminate the Christian faith.

Many were influenced by their experience as chaplains coping with the traumas of war and struggling to find answers.

Thomas Pym’s “Psychology and the Christian Life” (1921) is an early example of an increasing number of references to “new psychology” from 1915 onward.

Counseling and psychotherapy can aid us in understanding who and what we are, which then helps us, through the church, to engage with the traumas of our contemporary society.

Third, there were ministers who advocated the wholesale adoption of therapeutic ideas, especially Freud, as an aid to reconciling the struggles of the soul, such as Protestant theologian Leslie Weatherhead.

During the 1920s, he developed his ideas in print, including the controversial “The Mastery of Sex through Psychology and Religion” (1931).

He later developed “psychological interviewing” using the skills of Christian psychotherapists based at City Temple, London, where after World War II he established a psychological clinic as part of the church’s role.

So what can we learn at the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I that will benefit our future?

First, every war produces casualties who must live with physical and psychological wounds.

Our souls should cry out for the people of Syria caught up in a terrible struggle that will result in a shattered society and many shattered lives. This will take decades to repair.

Yet so many homeless on the streets of our major cities are ex-military with nowhere to belong, no comrades to support and no battles to fight.

The challenge for the church to be a community of care to wounded people in body and spirit is as great today as ever before.

Yet many are wounded not by “shell-shock” or PTSD but by the changes to society World War I introduced, seen in the psychological disturbance of the soul.

Second, pioneers find themselves in liminal or unorthodox places, then and now.

We don’t like uncomfortable questions that threaten our view of the world. Our challenge is to embrace rather than reject them.

It is easier to exclude or exile those whose voices we need to hear. We do not need to agree but we begin by listening and in doing so dare to believe we may discern the voice of God.

Third, the desire to engage with culture is commendable but often lacks a critical depth or appears too late in the process to be of any great value.

The church fights yesterday’s battle when the world has moved on – for example, the case of woman bishops, making the church seem at best irrelevant and at worst patriarchal and patronizing.

Many in the church after World War I tried to turn the clock back, not realizing that the clock was broken.

In a frenetic world of an instant dissemination of ideas and overwhelming volumes of data, the challenges are formidable, but it is essential they are tackled by critically drawing from the depths of our theological understanding.

Fourth, William Temple’s vision of reconciliation at personal and societal levels spanning religion, class and culture is still relevant today.

We are in the same business of reconciling our inner and outer worlds in order to live in a community of grace for the benefits of others as an essential aspect of being fully human.

Freud, Jung and multiple forms of counseling and psychotherapy are an asset we can use in this task.

Yet we must also bring our neglected theological resources to engage in a reconciling dialogue.

Alistair Ross is a Baptist minister who has worked as a pastoral counselor and pastoral theologian. He is currently the director of psychodynamic studies, associate professor in psychotherapy and dean of Kellogg College at Oxford University. A longer version of this article first appeared in the spring 2014 edition of Baptists Together, a publication of The Baptist Times of Great Britain. It is used with permission.