A Theological Response to a Serious Question

Ralph Underwager

Psychology Editor's Note: Shortly after the publication of our 1994 book, "Return of the Furies (Paperback)," dealing with claims of recovered memories of childhood abuse, we received a letter from a father whose daughter claimed he had abused her. She had been in counseling with a member of the clergy who used recovered memory therapy techniques and now supported the daughter in her accusations and rejection of the father. The father asked us how it was possible for a person claiming to believe the Christian Gospel to do this kind of counseling. The father thought that this must be contrary to the faith as he understood it, but did not quite know how. He asked me to give him a theological opinion. This is my response to him from within an orthodox, conservative theology.

Dear Mr. . . .

You are most perceptive to see the paradox involving persons, clergy and lay alike, who claim to believe the Christian Gospel but also foster the development, in themselves or others, of false memories of childhood abuse. This most often includes assertions that specific persons, usually parents, committed heinous acts and that it is proper, indeed, virtuous and good, to hate them and punish them. You are correct that these behaviors are violations of the Fourth and Eighth commandments. I may add that such behaviors also may well violate the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Commandments. I will show how the behaviors can violate these commandments later on in my response to your question. Let me say now that my training and my theology are as an orthodox, conservative Lutheran. My numbering of the commandments may therefore be slightly different than some other enumerations.

I understand your question to me to be "How can a person professing the Christian faith, identified as a clergyperson, while purportedly providing spiritual counsel, then proceed to elicit false memories of childhood abuse?" You describe this as a "very vexing question" for parents and, indeed, it is. You also understand that this question imposes on parents and their families "added theological paradoxes." The anguish of falsely accused parents, the sense of betrayal, the destruction of love and family unity, the confusion and desperate efforts to comprehend how such monstrous accusations can arise, and the assaultive violation of personal integrity are compounded by the actions of a person or institution from whom it is reasonable to expect adherence to morality, virtue, and compassion. The world has gone awry!

There are some contributing factors to the paradox you and others experience that are crucial in understanding how it can happen. First, beginning in the first century A.D., for about 1700 years, the best intellects in the western world were in the service of Christian theology. This era produced the work of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Occam, Francis, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Erasmus. Many others, less well known, worked to preserve the intellectual heritage of the west and advance the basic assumptions of the Christian faith.

These include the conviction that there is a real, objective world out there. It is a world that is regular and lawful, not random, capricious, or whimsical. Entities affect one another. It is a world in which the reality is that behavior has consequences. The epistemological assumption is that reason is the avenue for knowing what is out there as well as what is truly inside. Truth is objective and discernible. There is a teleological direction, that is, time is linear and there is purposeful movement from a beginning to an end. This permits the accumulation of knowledge and the reality of change and development. Further, to be human is to be responsible for the nurturance and progression of the objective real world. To be human and in the image of God is to be made for wholeness, love, unity, and intimacy. Therefore to be human is also to be responsible for the society we generate and the quality of the relationships we have with each other.

It is not happenstance that what we now know as science developed in the western world. The assumptions above are those necessary for the pursuit of systematic, organized understanding of the objective reality we live in. No answer is needed to the paralyzing question why there should be anything at all. There it is. The incremental knowledge and understanding that has produced ever greater ability to nurture both humanity and all that there is reached a point in the mid-18th century where the best human intellects were able to turn to science, not theology. This led to the exponential burst of growth in science. It also led to the emergence of science as the chief, if not only, intellectual competitor to the Christian faith in the western world.

Unfortunately, I believe, the combination of less intellectual ability available for theology and the freezing of the best intellects at an adolescent level of theological astuteness precipitated a mutual antipathy. Mistakenly, many think science and Christianity are mutually exclusive. Again, mistakenly, many adherents of science think of it as the source of truth and, even more troublesome, many who claim to be Christians also implicitly have the understanding that real truth comes from science.

It is also the case that the social prestige of the clergyperson has dramatically dropped to be about on a par with used car salespersons. However, the scientist is the high prestige person and can successfully sell any number of products just by wearing a white lab coat. Authority has shifted from the pastor being the most learned and educated person in the community to the scientist who can bask in the successes of science in changing the way we live and the way we understand the world.

The history of the pastoral counseling movement shows an initial dependence upon Freudian personality theory for the conceptual framework to understand what pastoral counseling is. This was in spite of several hundred years of a long history of care of souls (Seelsorge) that was primarily an active, teaching approach. The next development in pastoral counseling in the late 50s was to shift to a Rogerian, client-centered model. This appears to remain the more dominant theoretical approach in pastoral counseling, although there have been some efforts to incorporate learning theory and a more behavioral approach into pastoral counseling. It has been my judgment for many years that the pastoral counseling movement effectively abandons the tenets of the Christian faith and accepts as a new gospel whatever convenient theoretical model that is labeled scientific and can be imported from the mental health professions. A gloss of piety may be laid on top but it is an epiphenomenon like the head on a glass of beer.

This results in a condition where professing Christians are peculiarly but subtly vulnerable to anything that can cloak itself in the mantle of science. If there is any reliance on a body of revealed assertions, they may be shifted and altered to meet the apparent truths labeled scientific. This may or may not be a conscious action. The end result is that there is a consensus among many Christians, albeit unspoken, that truth comes from science. Competent scientists, however, understand that truth cannot be established by science. Popper, the eminent philosopher of science, sums it up by saying, "Our science is not knowledge (episteme): it can never claim to have attained truth, or even a substitute for it, such as probability."1

On the other hand, some Christian apologists who do not understand the nature of science and who are limited to a theology that confuses law and gospel (more about this later) are compelled to resort to claims based on something other than reason. Hence, the bugaboo of agnosticism, "The Bible says . . ." or the claim of personal experience such as conversion, speaking in tongues, or the baptism of the spirit, are thought to be characteristic of Christianity. Indeed, many think of this as exhausting the content of Christianity. This is how the impasse between science and theology has been reached where the one is regarded as rational (science) and the other as irrational and emotional (religion). This is an erroneous view but nevertheless one widely held.

Beginning with the New Testament, theologians have recognized there are two factors involved in Christianity: One is the law and the other is the gospel. The law accuses, condemns, and kills. The gospel frees and liberates persons from the law and proffers life. In the history of the Christian church, it is confusing law and gospel that causes controversy, charges and countercharges of heresy, and schisms. At any time that the Christian faith is understood by anyone to be primarily concerned with ethics and/or morality it can be assumed there is a confusion of law and gospel. At any time anyone presents a claim that there is either a single way to be a Christian or that he or she knows what that single way is, it is also likely to be a confusion of law and gospel. At any time a religious view is promulgated that causes people to believe they are accused, have failed to measure up, or are doomed or fated for misfortune, this is likely a confusion of law and gospel. A religious view may include any system of meaning for life and the world. It is possible for people to feel they are not good enough agnostics or skeptics.

The scientific study of the psychology of religion has, since the days of William James, understood there are two ways that people can hold to religious beliefs. This is what I wrote in A Study of Generations in 1972: "One is a committed, internalized, more intense, more personal religious stance. The other is consensual, external, instrumental, and self-oriented."2 In this research project, the former is termed a gospel-orientation and the latter a law-orientation. This empirical, quantified finding is based on a national random sample of 5,444 people, ages 14 to 65, who were members of the Lutheran Church. They responded to a 740-item questionnaire administered by one of our research assistants. There were also over 1,000 structured interviews. Statistical analysis included cluster analysis, analysis of variance, multivariate interaction detection, and second order factor analysis. The results agree with the prior findings of several other scientific researchers as well as with the observations of theologians across the centuries.

I also wrote about the findings relating to people who live under the law-orientation in my 1972 book I Hurt Inside.3 Religious faith is supposed to deliver a good, happy, rewarding life. When it is lived under the accusation of any form of demand to conform to some rule or regimen, it does not work. No matter what the demand is, to be a good communist, a good chicken plucker, or a good parent or child, what I do is never good enough. This can lead to a condition described in the early theological literature as anomie. In current psychiatric literature the closest analog is depression or, in theological terms, the deadly sin of sloth. Albert Ellis calls living this way "shoulding" on yourself. This may include rage and a sense of betrayal of having been lied to by those who said to you, "Believe, and you will have a good life." Therefore, I hurt inside.

Combine implicit acceptance of science as truth, the weak intellectual quality of much contemporary theology, the failure of law-oriented religious belief to deliver as promised, and the contemporary exaltation of the mental health professions as the solution to all problems. Add a dash of spurious but loudly proclaimed assertions that it is science that shows memory can be repressed. Remember, Freud always insisted that psychoanalysis was scientific. Mix in the social prestige of doing psychotherapy and the powerful seductive quality of telling somebody else how to live. Sprinkle with the confection of authoritarianism. Grease the pan with the underlying, possibly unrecognized, hostility and rage generated by anomie. You now have the recipe for a clergyperson to act in a counseling relationship to produce false memories of childhood abuse and teach the counselee to reject and punish the alleged perpetrator or divorce the family and anyone who does not believe the claim of abuse. All of this can be cloaked with a patina or frosting of virtue because it is completely necessary for the individual to be healed. The clergyperson may even begin to believe this course of action is mandated by the call to minister and serve the needs of persons.

There may also be factors such as intolerance of ambiguity involved. When there is rapid social change and the social contract breaks down, as is occurring now, persons with insufficient ego strength may not be able to live with ambiguity. Therefore they seek some external source of surety. One of the oldest and most frequent external entities used to resolve ambiguities is a demon of some sort, an enemy. When you know who the enemy is, you know who you are. There is no better demon available today than the most vile of all creatures, the child molester.

To counter such convictions, if present, the law in its accusing demands must be presented. Here is where the Ten Commandments can be used. They are, as you correctly observed, unequivocal. In commenting upon them, I will use the form I am most familiar with, adding the explanation, in italics, from Luther's Small Catechism.

I. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

What does this Mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

Accepting science as the source of truth, even if done implicitly and without full cognitive apprehension, is to violate this commandment. It is to raise up science into the place of God. If behavior demonstrates conformity to the cultural acceptance of faith, and science as inimical or mutually exclusive, it is not just dumbness. It is idolatry. Also, to advance emotion and feelings as the epistemological ground, and place greater value on feelings than on reason is to place human capacities in the seat of God and deny the creation of humanity as rational persons.

II. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by his name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.

To cover folly with claims of virtue and goodness, morality, and probity, even if not directly connected with some religious expression, but only through occupying the role of clergyperson, is to lie and deceive by His Name. If the counseling also leads to claims of ritual, satanic abuse, and focuses on this form of error, it is also using magic and witchcraft for individual, personal agendas. We wrote about this in the first paper we presented in Dallas early in March, 1992, criticizing recovered memory therapy. It was titled Magic, Mischief, and Memory.

III. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. (Thou shalt sanctify the holy day.)

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.

To persist in erroneous beliefs and patterns of behavior and refuse correction when it can be demonstrated that God's revelation clearly speaks of freedom from the law, that there is no accusation, that truth, grace, and mercy give life is to violate this commandment. To influence anyone else into sloth, despair, and rage is to violate this commandment. To put rage and anger into the place of grace and promulgate the concept that expression of rage and anger can be therapeutic is not only contrary to the scientific findings about anger but also is a violation of this commandment.

IV. Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not despise our parents and masters nor provoke them to anger, but give them honor, serve and obey them, and hold them in love and esteem.

As you correctly discerned, to elicit false memories and lead counselees to wrongly accuse parents of abuse, separate from them, and treat them as evil, wicked, nonpersons is a violation of this commandment. In itself, it also is to dishonor parents and parenthood by the clergyperson developing such beliefs. Note also that this is the only commandment with a specific promised outcome of a good life. It may be of interest to you to know that O. Hobart Mowrer, a former president of the American Psychological Association, reviewed all the scientific evidence available at the time in the middle 70s and concluded that indeed, conformity to the values of parents produced the most pathology-free life. He falsified the Freudian dogma that an overactive superego inculcated by parents causes neurosis and emotional disturbance. His conclusion is that, indeed, it is bad behavior that causes emotional disorders. Later research suggests it may be an interaction with genetic factors. At any rate, encouraging and supporting the dishonoring of parents does no one any good. Even if parents are wicked and evil people, dishonoring them accomplishes no therapeutic function or goal.

V. Thou shalt not kill.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.

Surely it is well established that imposition of stress and emotionally assaultive behavior can produce physical effects that are harmful. The consequences of a false accusation for many may include sleeplessness, anxiety, stress, anguish, confusion. There have been some instances in which persons falsely accused have experienced stress reactions requiring hospitalization. Illness may be a direct consequence of stress. This can include the full range of psychophysiological disorders.

VI. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in word and deed and each love and honor his spouse.

Leading people who may have come for a variety of reasons, none of them related to childhood sexual abuse, to believe they were sexually abused is to violate this commandment. To cause people to focus on their sexuality, to explain their entire personhood in terms of sexuality, and to make sexual fantasies real is to so genitalize their lives that they cannot readily experience or accept decency. To populate the experiential world of a counselee with sexual monsters and sexual monstrosities, sexual deviancy, and sexual anguish not only makes victims out of nonabused people but may also reflect the prurient interests of the counselor. There may well be a subtle eroticization occurring when counselors spend hours mucking about in sexual fantasies of others or their own fantasies. Theologians have also long understood that sexual fantasy is equally as opprobrious as the actions.

VII. Thou shalt not steal.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor's money or goods, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business.

When a false allegation of childhood abuse is accompanied with demands for restitution, payment of therapy costs, or threat of litigation, clearly this violates the Seventh Commandment. It is false ware, theft, trickery, and knavery. A counselor who colludes in such attempts to extort money is a thief. Also, the impact of a false allegation, as many thousands of families can attest, materially affects the life, property, and economic well being of the persons falsely accused. It is hardly behavior that helps them to improve and protect their property or business. It can readily and easily affect the emotional well being of falsely accused persons and result in loss of work, career, livelihood, friends, and other family members. A false accusation steals and robs from people.

VIII. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, nor defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

Obviously, as you understood, this commandment is violated by a false accusation of childhood abuse. Given the social climate of our times and the media coverage of child abuse, to accuse another of child abuse, especially, sexual abuse, is likely the worst and most destructive accusation that can be made. To label wrongly another person a child abuser is to inflict grievous harm and damage. For a counselor to rely on the flimsiest of evidence, such as a list of alleged behavioral indicators, and use that to encourage a counselee to produce false memories is to deceitfully belie and betray another. To assist or guide a counselee to overinterpret, misinterpret, or embellish innocuous or innocent events, or even unfortunate but nonabusive actions, to mean that abuse actually occurred is not to speak well of or defend another. It most assuredly is considerably less than putting the best construction on everything. Blaming other persons or teaching counselees to blame other persons for their actions and to insist they are the cause of the individual's problems also violates this commandment. You will, of course, recognize that that is the great American Freudian game. Bad children are caused by bad parents.

IX. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor's inheritance or house, nor obtain it by a show of right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.

The counselor who uses false memories recovered in therapy to make an erroneous diagnosis and then collects from an insurance company or from the client is craftily seeking to get money by a show of right. The frequency with which hospitals and counselors stop therapy when the insurance runs out suggests this may well be a part of at least some of the instances of recovered memories. Making a false and incorrect diagnosis based on misreading of symptoms or on flawed theory is fraud. It is also contrary to the ethical principles of psychologists and psychiatrists. Social workers should not be making diagnoses since they are not trained or qualified to do it. Any social worker who makes a diagnosis is exceeding the competency of the profession. This is to obtain fraudulently another's property by a show of right.

X. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor's.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away from our neighbor his wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and do their duty.

A counselor who has influenced a counselee to develop false memories of childhood abuse and to be estranged from parents and family is apt to be functioning as a substitute family or parent. Several persons who have developed and later retracted sexual abuse memories have said that the group or their therapist functioned as a surrogate family. A counselor who, wittingly or unwittingly, falls into the role of being a substitute parent or seeing the counselee as a substitute child is violating this commandment. Here lies the seductive power of the counseling relationship for the counselor. Therapists sometimes call this countertransference. It is always destructive of the therapy and the relationship. It is an exploitation of the counselee and is the most frequent cause of iatrogenic harm to the counselee.

I hope this outline can give you a sense of my conviction that for a counselor to be involved in recovered memory therapy is immoral, wicked, and contrary to the commandments. I also believe that the acceptance of Freudian personality theory, psychoanalytic dogma, including repression, and the elevation of feelings to a source of truth is, for a Christian, heretical. Both are contrary to the doctrines of the Christian faith expressed in all historic credal and confessional statements. Both specifically are contrary to the doctrine of humanity which is the second major category of doctrine after only the doctrine of God. The Doctrine of humanity maintains that God created us as rational beings and, above all, in His image. Human reason is a gift of God's creative activity.

The concept of Image of God is crucial to the Christian faith. Being made in God's image means we have the capacity to reason and to speak and communicate with each other, and that we are accountable and responsible for our own personhood. The prevailing current barbarism of our age is violence against the image of God, hence the disdain for human life evidenced in our wars and the ready commission of genocide, rapine, and homicide. The encouragement and support of rage and punitiveness, so often a part of recovered memory therapy, is a violation of the image of God. Teaching people to believe that a deathbed confrontation with a recovered memory accusation of childhood abuse violates the concept of the image of God.

If you must deal with a person claiming to be a Christian or a clergyperson who encourages development of false memories of repressed childhood abuse, I suggest you take the stance of the prophets and declare the consequences of such error. Here is the close of the commandments:

What does God say of all these commandments? He says thus: I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.

What does this mean? God threatens to punish all that transgress these commandments. Therefore we should fear His wrath and not act contrary to them. But he promises grace and every blessing to all that keep these Commandments. Therefore we should also love and trust in Him and willingly do according to His Commandments.

I hope that this brief answer meets your request for something to help you deal with this "very vexing question." If you desire anything further, I would be glad to elaborate on some the concepts advanced or to explain further any that may seem unclear. Thank you for your respect and confidence in writing to me with this request.

Sincerely yours,

Ralph Underwager, Ph.D.


1 Popper, K. R. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Paperback Reprint), Republished in 1961, New York: Science Editions, Inc., p. 278.  [Back]

2 Strommen, M. P., Brekke, M. L., Underwager, R. C., & Johnson, A. L. (1973). A Study of Generations. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, p. 137.  [Back]

3 Underwager, R. (1973). I Hurt Inside (Out of Print). Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House[Back]

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