Thursday 20 March 2014

Confession and paternal authority


There is no doubt that it is vital that Christians confess their sins as a prelude to repentance.

The disagreements begin in understanding what is meant by confession - in particular the question of to-whom the confession must be made: directly to God in prayer, or via some human mediator and authority?

Should confession be to a human person? 

What light can be shed upon this by reflecting on the close analogy between human and divine Fatherhood?


What kind of confession is required of a human Father from his children and why?

Amongst other things, a Father wants to know that the child realizes what it is that is the sin.

This often need clarifying - e.g. kids think they are being punished for wreaking some trivial destruction - breaking a cup or scribbling on the wall - but actually they are being punished for concealing or lying about it.

They need to be taught that the proper behaviour is to acknowledge the accident, preferably pro-actively - and of course the parents must reward and endorse this acknowledgement (and perhaps suppress their annoyance at the destruction of a treasured possession, or the need to spend ten minutes on cleaning).


Further, the Father wants his child to acknowledge and agree that what she did is indeed a sin.

The Father doesn't just want his daughter to stop tormenting her brother as a form of amusement - but to stop because she can feel why it is wicked to destroy another person's happiness because she was bored, and nasty to provoke annoyance for fun - needs to understand that this is a recipe for family misery.


(Rant alert: In some ways this 'dog in the manger' behaviour of spoiling things for other people, of deliberately being annoying and enjoying the annoyance that is caused, is one of the very worst of sins. Not least because it so easily becomes habitual, indeed insatiable; and can so readily be justified by pseudo-moralism - 'she was being so smug/ arrogant - she needed taking down a peg - she deserved it'. (In effect: framing sarcasm, humiliation, aggression as an agent of divine retribution.) Not just families, schools, workplaces and other institutions - but much of the Mass Media, the internet and social networking is replete-with, quantitatively dominated-by, competitive dog-in-the-mangerism. Note: the term comes from a dog who insists on uncomfortably sprawling in the manger among the hay, so the cows cannot eat; the dog is prepared to put himself to considerable effort and discomfort merely to observe the cows annoyance.)


And a Father wants for the child to repent the sin and try his best not to repeat it.

But if or when the child does repeat the sin, to be proactive in confessing it.


So, there is an educational aspect to good confession, and the expected behaviour in response to repeated/ repeatable sins is different from first-time or one-off sins.

The need for education seems almost unavoidable. But the eventual ideal is to for education to be internalized, and confession to become self-policing. 


Accepting that confession to God in prayer is mandatory; unless it is also believed that a human intermediary is essential for a confession to reach God, then on this basis, the main potential value of confession to a human is educational - which seems to imply that the confessor must be both wise and loving - the confessing person must trust their confessor, must believe the confessor wiser than themselves, must believe the confessor has their interests at heart.

The endemic shortage of wise and trusted confessors who are to us asif a loving Father, is probably a major factor in the way that confession as an ideal often asserted, seems so generally to become corrupted into rote, or avoided altogether (either not done at all, or deliberately not done properly).


Thus I do not believe that confession to humans is 'a good thing' as such - I would regard confession as potentially a good thing, under certain circumstances a good thing; but equally it is a thing readily capable of harm.

Just as a bad confession experience tends to be morally distorting to a child, so it would be to us; hence bad confession is worse than no confession at all.

As when a child is punished for the unintended accident of happening to break an expensive china cup; rather than for the real sin of throwing it at his sister's head.



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I think the main point of the dog in the manger is not that the position is uncomfortable for the dog, but that dogs don't eat hay -- so the dog gets no benefit from chasing the other animals away, except the satisfaction of annoying them

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Yes - but going to the stable and getting into the manger involves the dog in actual purposive effort; so it is worse than a merely a passive lack of benefit.

David said...

Do you see modern forms of psychotherapy including CBT as potentially helpful to distressed human beings (who are often gravely sinning at root to their common mental health problems but this language is not accepted or addressed with secular methods)? I am Iincreasingly concerned that the role of psychotherapy/ccounselling in modern society could be more harmful than good? I am considering leaving my profession if possible based on such conerns.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Wearing my psychiatry hat, I regard Freudian type psychotherapy/ counselling (which is essentially confessional) as overall doing considerably more harm than good - by creating dependence while being no more effective than random human interaction.

Charlton, BG. The moral case against psychotherapy. Psychiatric Bulletin, 1991, 15,

Plus, this whole area of activity is riddled by sexual 'abuse'/ exploitation, seduction and the rest of it.

Charlton, Bruce G. Sexual ethics in psychiatry. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 6(5):713-716, October 1993.

On the other hand Alcoholics Anonymous - which is based on Jungian principles, and I religious (albeit minimally) is sometimes very effective - indeed life (and soul) saving.

Behaviour therapy - eg for phobias, is certainly effective and does more good than harm.

Cognitive therapy for depression is modestly effective in a small and pre-selected group - but I suspect there may be 'side effects' in terms of making people less 'in the moment' and more self-conscious' (Cognitive Therapy is a training in rather Aspergerish/ 'Mr Logic' ways of thinking - which do not work optimally when applied to inter-human relationships).

In sum, I am underwhelmed by Cognitive Therapy but accept that it is modestly effective for some intellectual and introspective people with milder problems.

Overall, I am sure that the culture of psychotherapy and counselling does a great deal more harm than good - both to individuals and to the general set-up of modern life - but there is room for picking and choosing.

David said...

Thanks for the feedback. I will check out those papers you reference. Your comments confirm what I have suspected personally for a while now. I feel like if I stay in my current profession/job I will be wasting my potential to participate in God's plan for my life. If, as you believe, and I increasing believe too, that we chose mortal life as a volunteer to paticipate in God's plan then I certainly do not want to disappoint him wasting my time, skills and resources in a job that only pays lip-service to helping other humans but that does not really deliver in a lasting way. I repent daily now and pray to God for wisdom about how to follow what he would like for me to do. Do you believe that he can guide me in this way? I often wonder how to listen and how to follow signs towards my calling in life. I would like to think that all humans have a part to play but that can also seem unclear. He may be guiding the blind with me at times I think. I'm grateful he is perfectly patient :-)

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - yes, but life is trial and error - unavoidably - and so long as we do our best and repent sins, we can learn from the process: indeed, presumably that is why we live in this kind of world. So - you may need to change direction, but do or not you should expect continued trials and errors *as well as* guidance, surety and rewards - and trustfully expect strength sufficient to deal with them!

Adam G. said...

I think I see a second way where confession to another person could work, which doesn't require that the other person be wiser than you.

I have often noticed that talking through something with a sympathetic listener helps me sort out my ideas and realize truths that just thinking about it doesn't. This doesn't require the listener to contribute much themselves or even to understand the topic very well. They just need to listen and occasionally ask questions. This may not be a universal experience, but its not unique to me either. Plenty of others have had the same experience.

This phenomenon applies to confession too.

It doesn't seem to work quite as well in prayer, for whatever reason. In my experience, praying about an issue is no substitute for discussing it with someone, and discussing it with someone is no substitute for prayer.

I tie this phenomenon in to the Mormon doctrine that councils can be avenues of revelation and to the teaching in D&C 50 that when two people make a spiritual connection, the connection to the Holy Ghost becomes easier, though how or why this would be so I don't know.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam -

So sympathetic, trusted, but not wiser - and the confession creates sufficient objectivity o generate self-enlightenment. Quite likely that could be of value.

I have no experience of the kind of council you have experienced (although I have read about them) - all the (secular) committees and meetings I have been involved with (and some Christian ones) have been hermetically-sealed from any possible infiltration by the Holy Ghost (as it were).