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The congruence of the philosophy of rational emotive behavior therapy within the philosophy of mainstream Christianity

Vol VI, No. 1, 2006 Comments (0)

Steve JOHNSON
Congregational Care and Counseling
Valley Community Church
Avon, Connecticut

Abstract:
This paper attempts to demonstrate that the philosophy of REBT and the philosophy of Christianity are congruent. Both seek to transform the individual who is experiencing pain, alienation, self-defeating behaviors into a person with a radically new and liberating philosophy of life, or newly uncovered and self-accepted being. Moreover, the key to this transformation is a change of fundamental beliefs away from dogmatic demandingness, awfulizing, low frustration tolerance, and self and other-downing toward an unconditional acceptance of the self, others, the world, and life.

Key words: REBT, Christian philosophy, unconditional self acceptance (USA), unconditional other acceptance (UOA), unconditional life acceptance (ULA)

Pages: 45-55

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to:

Steve Johnson
Albert Ellis Institute
45 E. 65th Street
New York, NY 10021

Basic Philosophy of REBT

Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and grandfather of all cognitive behavioral therapies, has often commented to this writer and others that the deepest, most profound change that you can help clients achieve is to help them change their philosophy of life. One’s philosophy of life can be thought of as a set of beliefs of varying degrees of generality and specificity that constitute a way of seeing life, the world, others, and the self. Another way to consider a set of beliefs was set forth rather poetically by F.P. Ramsey, a student of Wittgenstein, when he defined beliefs approximately as a map and something by which we steer. This is close to Ellis’s view that beliefs, rather than situations, largely determine what we feel and do—a view Ellis has claimed from Epictetus’ Enchiridion.
According to Armstrong, who adopted Ramsey’s view of beliefs, irrational beliefs create a wild fanciful map that does not correspond to social reality: When we try to steer by it, we encounter all kinds of life problems. Rational beliefs create a map that more closely corresponds to social reality, and more important, when one steers by that map one encounters fewer problems. Thus beliefs are not merely cognitive. Instead, as Ramsey claimed, they have an action component; that is, they frequently indicate a tendency to act in a particular way under particular conditions. C.S. Peirce, who developed some arguments that led William James to be the first to use the term pragmatism, noted that beliefs represent not only a tendency to act in a particular way, but they are held for emotional reasons. They act to reduce or dispel the problem of doubt. This view is similar to Ellis’s view (1994) that cognition, action, and emotion are inextricably interrelated. When we think, we feel and have a tendency to act. When we act, we feel and hold beliefs. When we feel, we tend to act in particular ways due to the beliefs behind the feelings.
REBT practitioners like myself have argued that a complete irrational belief frequently has at least two irrational parts: a core irrational demand and an irrational derivative. A core demand usually contains absolutistic words such as “must,” “absolutely should,” “ought,” “need,” or “have to.” For example,

  • God must answer my prayers as I want them answered.
  • I absolutely should be unconditionally loved by my fellow Christians.
  • I ought to be unquestionably obeyed by others when I quote scripture to defend my position.
  • I need to be certain about how my life will progress.
  • You have to accept me just as I am.

A derivative takes one of four forms:

  • Awfulizing: X is awful, terrible, horrible, catastrophic, or as bad as it could possibly be.
  • Low Frustration Tolerance: I can’t stand X, X is too much, X is intolerable or unbearable.
  • Self-Downing: I am no good, worthless, useless, an utter failure, beyond help, or hope, damnable, devoid of value.
  • Other Downing: You are no good, worthless, useless, an utter failure, beyond help or hope, damnable, devoid of value.

A core demand is usually combined with one or more derivatives:

  • God must answer my prayers as I want them answered, or it is awful. (Demand + Awfulizing)
  • I absolutely should be loved by my fellow Christians, or I can’t stand it. (Demand + Low Frustration Tolerance)
  • You have to accept me just as I am, otherwise I am a failure. (Demand + Self-Downing)
  • I ought to be unquestionably obeyed by others when I quote scripture to defend my position, or those who do not obey are utterly useless and no good. (Demand + Other-Downing)

Notice that each of these pairs is associated with some unhelpful negative emotion. For example, the demand plus the awfulizing might consistently be associated with anger. Similarly, the demand plus the self-downing might help to generate depression; and the demand plus the low frustration tolerance might be coupled with anxiety or high frustration.
REBT (Elllis, 1996) holds that since emotions such as anger, depression, anxiety, and low frustration tolerance (or discomfort anxiety) are likely to interfere with an individual’s life goals, it is in her/his best interest to change the core demand and associated derivatives. Clearly, the therapeutic goal of REBT is to help an individual to change his/her irrational beliefs that in part constitute a philosophy of life. That way the individual most likely will be better able to achieve her or his desired goals.
Correlative to each of the irrational beliefs are rational beliefs. The alternative to demandingness is to create a want, preference, or desire. For example, instead of demanding that you accept me just as I am, I prefer for you to so accept me as another fallible human being. Thus, desires, wants, or preferences accept (not necessarily like) that the world, life, the self, or others are as they are—with both strengths and weaknesses. A philosophical demand dogmatically insists that reality be different than it is.
Each of the derivatives also has a rational alternative: Instead of awfulizing, we accept the badness of a state of affairs without catastrophizing about it. Instead of having low frustration tolerance, we acknowledge our displeasure about a state of affairs, but we do not view it as unbearable. Instead of self-downing, which REBT says entails globally rating the self in roles, we accept that the transcendent self, or better yet, the “I” is too complex to rate. Thus we rate our actions and behaviors within roles, rather than the I, of which we are aware, but do not rate. Similarly, rather than globally rating others, we acknowledge the badness of their deeds without rating their core I.
As seen in the rational alternatives to self and other downing, REBT holds to the unconditional acceptance of the self and others. This unconditional acceptance is extended to the world and life, and so Ellis and others such as Stephen Stosney have written about USA—unconditional self acceptance, UOA—unconditional other acceptance, and ULA—unconditional life acceptance. A mark of mental and emotional health is that reality, including the reality of the self and others, is accepted as it is. This does not mean that we are to like the badness of the situation, enjoy the circumstances, prefer the state of affairs, or passively do nothing in the face of the reality. However, we are better able to handle the badness of a reality when we acknowledge its badness. We accept that this is the way it has to be right now because that is the way it is, and then we can resolve to do what we can to change it if change is possible. If change is not possible, then accepting that situation as it is rather than demanding that it be different can help to minimize the emotional investment in the face of the unwanted situation.
REBT helps us minimize the occurrence of unhelpful negative emotions and self-sabotaging actions by giving us a method by which we can recognize our irrational beliefs, demonstrate to ourselves why they are irrational (dispute them), and then replace them with rational alternatives. In other words, REBT helps individuals achieve a radically new and more effective “way of seeing” or adopt a new philosophy of life.

Basics of Christian Philosophy

Christian scripture, both Old and New Testaments, emphasize the importance of beliefs and their use in seeing the world differently while acting differently in that world. Thus beliefs and actions are inextricably intertwined even if in the New Testament some passages seem to emphasize the importance of belief over action. In fact, beliefs are emphasized in scripture so that some Christian writers have concluded, “[REBT] is based on a thoroughly biblical principle, the importance of what one thinks.” Paul, in the New Testament goes so far as to link becoming a new being in Christ with seeing the world and others differently, namely, adopting a new philosophy of life. He writes,

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).

This view is stated again in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which he writes,

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off the old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).

The passage in Ephesians goes even further in elucidating how one’s beliefs or attitudes give rise to actions and what is being advocated is the adoption of a completely new philosophy of life, or new being or self. Being a new self that acts rightly is linked to having had a right attitude.
If these biblical passages are discussing philosophy of life or ontological issues, others are more concrete, even going so far as to specify with what content one should occupy one’s mind. For example, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4:8 it reads,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think abut such things (Philippians 4:8).

While scripture may emphasize the importance of belief and the goal of adopting a new philosophy of life or becoming a new being, it does not necessarily follow that the scripture’s views of what constitute helpful transformative beliefs and unhelpful beliefs holding one in bondage to “sin” in any way agree with what REBT holds to be rational and irrational beliefs. Therefore, let us see what scripture might have to say about demandingness, awfulizing, low frustration tolerance, self-downing, and other-downing.

Demandingness

Many Christians view scripture claiming that God alone is the creator and sustainer of the universe. Humans may create and sustain, but not in the global sense that God does. Consequently, God alone can creatively demand and have the demand establish reality. Humans do not have that level of ontological control or creativity as given capacities of their natures. Thus when humans demand, it does not follow that reality will come into being. The person who demands sets him or herself up for frustration and emotional disturbance. Therefore, being demanding proves to be self-defeating and emotionally disturbing for humans because demands do not create reality in the way theology says God does.
Some Christians may claim that scripture does approve of Christians being demanding about some issues. For example, some Christians may think that the Bible demands that we do the good and refrain from doing the bad, such as feeding the poor and refrain from stealing from them. An important distinction needs to be made among types of demands. There are metaphysical demands and moral demands. A metaphysical demand is of the sort, “Reality (X) must be a particular way,” whereas a moral demand is of the sort, “To be moral one must do or be Y.” Moral demands can be written as a conditional in a way that metaphysical demands cannot. Namely, “If one wants to be moral, then one should (must) do or be Y.” Thus a moral demands for human beings always are conditional, and thus non-absolute demand. A metaphysical demand, however, is not conditional; instead, it is an absolute demand.
Let us consider some examples of this distinction among types of demands. If right now I am typing on my computer, then metaphysically I am in the act of typing on my computer. I cannot be typing on the computer and not typing on the computer at the same time and under the same conditions. That would be a metaphysical impossibility and would violate the law of non-contradiction; i.e., a thing cannot be and not be at one and the same time under the same conditions. On the other hand, if I believe that as a Christian I should help the needy, then what I am saying is that if I want to be a good Christian, then I should help the needy. Helping the needy is not a metaphysical demand because it is conceivable that someone does not care to be a good Christian, in which case there is no necessity for him or her to care for the needy. The moral demand is only binding if certain conditions are fulfilled: in this case the condition would be that I have the desire or wish to be a good Christian. However, if certain conditions have to be fulfilled for the moral demand to be binding, then it is not an absolute demand. In philosophical ethics the question is asked, “Why be moral?” There are many reasons offered for being moral, but the mere fact that reasons are given for why it is preferable to be moral demonstrates that morality is a choice, and because it is a choice, it is not a metaphysical demand or necessity.
I am aware that Kant held that moral demands are categorical or absolute. One statement of his famous categorical imperative is “I must act in such a way that I can at the same time will that my maxim of action be a universal law.” The wording of the moral imperative reveals that it cannot be absolute in the metaphysical sense. If I have to will that my maxim of action be a universal law, then it is not a metaphysical absolute. Willing is irrelevant to a metaphysical absolute, and the fact that it is integral to acting morally demonstrates the contingent nature of the categorical imperative. Of course, as an idealist, Kant was discussing mental categories and held that we could not know the thing in itself. Necessarily, his universal was a universal of the mind, not a universal outside the mind, or a metaphysical universal.
Scripturally, even if God gives commandments (demands), as in the Decalogue, those are moral demands that are binding only if one wants to be moral and if one wants to have eternal life. The Decalogue does not consist of metaphysical demands. In other words, the Decalogue does not create the reality they command. If they did, humans would have no choice but to honor parents, refrain from murder, avoid stealing, and refrain from committing adultery since they would be determined by the laws of nature. The commandment not to murder is contingent on one wanting to be moral and thus it would be better to state it in the following form: If I want to be moral, then I must not kill. If “Thou shalt not kill” were truly a metaphysical must or demand, it would be impossible for humans to murder. Reading the newspaper or listening to the news makes it clear that humans have the freedom to murder. Actually, if moral demands were metaphysical demands, then humans would have no free will and morality would not make sense. Morality presupposes having the freedom to choose to act and to choose to refrain from acting. One could argue that the Decalogue are metaphysical demands for God, and they have been revealed by him. However, given that we each have will or the capacity of choice, the Decalogue for us are not metaphysical demands. Thus morality is absolute but we humans can accept or reject them in our choices.
REBT only declares as irrational and problematical the absolute metaphysical demands, not the conditional moral shoulds or oughts. In Christian terms, if God allows us the freedom to be moral or not to be moral, then humans cannot legitimately demand that others act as though they had no freedom and be the way we demand them to be.

Awfulizing

REBT asserts that an event can never be truly awful, which seems counterintuitive. Surely, there must be some events that are awful. What is being said is that nothing is ever truly completely bad, as bad as it could possibly be, as in world shattering. It may be tragic, but not utterly catastrophic in the sense of negating all meaning, purpose, and possibility of pleasure and happiness. This is not a mere semantic difference. What is being asserted is that bad events do occur. If we are rational, we will acknowledge the undesirability of the event, and perhaps even assert that we never want anyone to undergo such an event, but the event cannot metaphysically determine the future as utterly catastrophic. Metaphysically, events simply obtain—they merely take place. Evaluations of events are mental acts. Evaluating an event is rational if it is an assessment that a situation is tragic, unfortunate, or undesirable because we are asserting how the act is related to goals for human beings. Evaluating an event as awful is irrational because it makes a prediction about an unknown future. It is also irrational because it involves over-generalizing from a present situation into the future. In other words, awfulizing actually asserts that because a current situation is very bad, the future must inevitably be so because it feels so bad right now. This reasoning is also irrational because it asserts that since the current situation is bad, that I must feel bad and that I will always feel this way. It magically asserts the exaggeration that the bad will always be bad and moreover it will be negative for all time and the possibility of being anything other than utterly bad cannot take place.
Scripture takes a radically different view, one more consistent with REBT: that is that nothing is utterly catastrophic or awful. Romans 8:39 says that nothing can separate us from the love of God, absolutely nothing. If this is true, then nothing can negate the good within our lives. As bad as things may get, and at times this can be very bad, in the midst of the bad, we are each loved by God.

Low Frustration Tolerance

If scripture holds that nothing is truly awful, it would seem to follow that nothing is so bad that we cannot stand it. This is not to take a Pollyannish approach to declare what is bad is good. Clearly, situations can be very bad and tragic, but because we are grounded in God and supported by God’s love, we can tolerate our lot. (This does not mean that we merely accept our lot without wanting and trying to change the bad). In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “For I have learned to find resources in myself whatever my circumstances,” and “I have strength for anything through Him who gives me power.” We can deal with the bad without either asserting that we cannot handle it, or without irrationally declaring the bad to be good. This latter view is the approach of the philosophy known as “the power of positive thinking.” This approach declares that bad situations are actually good and that we should be happy. For example, if I fail a test, then I can see the failing as good because it permits me to see myself as a fallible human relying on others, and thereby creating community. The only reason for such an approach is because people have a tendency to make themselves miserable about bad events, and so we try to wish it away or declare it away rather than realize that we can through correct thinking realize that we can endure the situation and work to change it if there is any way it can be corrected. In fact, enduring a bad situation is held up as an ideal within scripture, “Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” (James 5:11).

Self and Other-Downing

Two fundamental tenets of Christian faith are that everyone is created in the image of God and everyone has sinned. The denial of either one creates a theological problem. If we deny that we are created in the image of God, then it is difficult (not impossible) to argue that humans are intrinsically valuable. If we deny that everyone has sinned, then we cannot account for the negative actions and consequences seen within the world. Notice that our fundamental nature is good, but that we have a pervasive tendency toward sinning. The pervasiveness of that tendency to sin is characterized differently by different Christian denominations, but all agree that there is a tendency toward sinning The implication for humans is clear. It makes sense to evaluate or assess our actions as either good or bad. If bad, then we are to repent and turn toward right relationship with God. It makes no sense to evaluate the ontological core of a human—that part that is created in the image of God. One can evaluate one’s relationship with God because there can be degrees of relatedness. Thus I can assess degree of relatedness and if appropriate make a judgment to repent. The image of God is good, so each person has that indelible imprint on his or her very being. Therefore, consistent with REBT, it makes theological sense for an individual to negatively evaluate his/her actions and behaviors, but it makes little sense to evaluate the person. Human sin is real, but we can never reduce a person to their sin. Sin can never define the person, nor should it be granted such significance that the person is evaluated by the sin such that it is granted more power and significance in our value than is given the image of God within us.
The consequence of the distinction between our nature as created in the image of God and our pervasive tendency toward sin supports REBT’s notion of unconditional self and other acceptance. The self can be unconditionally accepted because as created in the image of God it is unconditionally valuable. This is why Buber said that humans should always be treated as an ends and never as a means only. Buber raises another very important theological tenet and that is that just as God is relational by nature, we, as created in God’s image, are relational. This means that our value is relationally grounded and USA and UOA flow out of that theological tenet.
There is one distinction between Christian philosophy and REBT concerning unconditional self acceptance. REBT would have us not rate the self at all because the self is too complex to rate. Therefore, one should simply accept the self because the consequences of not accepting the self can be negative. Christianity would go further and say that the self is indeed intrinsically valuable because it is created in the image of God and as a result the possibility or continuation of self acceptance is grounded rather than a choice made for mere pragmatic reasons. The commonality is that the self can never legitimately be rated as evil, beyond hope, etc. This distinction between the self and the self’s actions as tied to unconditional self acceptance is found in the following scriptural verse.
But when the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4-7)

Are Some Christian Beliefs At Odds with REBT?

Some Christians hold beliefs that are at odds with REBT and justify their arguments by appealing to scripture or Christian theology. Two of those issues are that suffering is at times ordained by God, and Christians should be perfect. A third belief is that Christians should at times feel guilty.
It is not uncommon for Christians who are undergoing some life crisis to say, “It is God’s will.” For some people this is an effective coping statement in the face of an unpleasant event. However, for others, especially those who believe that an activating event is associated with a consequence, it can support the belief that their misery is inescapable, awful, and ordained by God. Here the activating event (A)-belief about the activating event (B)-consequence (C) distinction within REBT can be helpful. The obvious response is that although God may ordain the event (A), the free will of humans means that humans can choose their belief about the event, and consequently are responsible for their own misery. That is to say, God ordains A, but humans are responsible for B and C. This requires a bit more explanation. God does ordain A’s, but the Church Fathers often asserted that the badness of an A is an absence rather than a metaphysical presence. Thus God ordains the good (presence) but not that which is absent. In other words, God’s creation is a creation of presence, not absence. Therefore, God in no way ordains or creates evil.
Of course, one could claim that free will is only psychological, not ontological, and really is at an ontological level an illusion. This view is problematic scripturally because there are verses that presuppose free will. For example, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart.” This verse makes little sense unless there is free will. The reality is that humans choose to accept the beliefs that cause misery, but they are not bound to so accept them.
Some Christians read Matthew 5:48, “Be ye therefore perfect as your Father who is in heaven is perfect,” and wrongfully believe that it is a demand for perfection in all areas of life. Theologically there is none but God who is perfect, so to assert that humans are to be completely perfect would seem to be idolatry. Actually, the verse is the last verse of a chapter that discusses loving action toward those who are difficult to love. The conclusion is that our perfection in a limited sense is our love of those who are difficult to love. It in no way is attributing god-like perfection to the person, or even demanding that all our actions be perfect. It is a command to love and that this is exemplified in forgiveness. Our perfection is our love and love is a perfection because God is love.
Many Christians live a considerable portion of their lives suffering from guilt. Many also believe that they should feel guilty; in fact, some Christians believe that scripture even seems to recommend and praise guilt. However, an important distinction needs to be made between remorse or Godly grief and worldy grief or neurotic guilt.
Remorse, or Godly grief, is the emotion people experience when they transgress what they take to be a rule of good behavior and wish in retrospect that they had not done so. Although that feeling is unpleasant, it spurs one to repent and change one’s ways—to be more Christ-like. An example is King David in scripture. Although he is guilty of murder and adultery, in Psalm 51 he is not engaged in self-downing, but rather acknowledges the badness of the acts and focuses on the loving forgiveness of God and repents for the bad deeds. David, however, changes his ways and moves on to become one of the greatest rulers of Israel.
Neurotic guilt, on the other hand, is the emotion people experience when they believe that they absolutely should not have transgressed a rule of good behavior and they are no good or worthless as a result. This form of guilt tends not to spur people to repent and change; rather, it leads to depression, inactivity, or a vicious cycle of beating themselves up emotionally, feeling guilty, tiring of the guilt, repeating the transgression, and beating up on themselves, ad nauseum. Their thinking becomes so beclouded that they do the same thing over and over again—the very thing about which they made themselves feel guilt in the first place. The healthy alternative is at base relational, viz., repentance is a turning back to one’s relationship with God and others.
When scripture talks about guilt, it is describing what REBT calls remorse or what St. Paul calls Godly grief.
I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a Godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief [guilt] produces death (2 Corinthians 7:9-10)
Some Christians believe that there are things that as a Christian they absolutely must not do. St. Paul makes it very clear that there is no such moral demand that has the force of a metaphysical demand. Thus there is an ontological demand or absolute revealed by God, but our free will does not permit the ontological demand to obtain.
Twice in his first letter to the Corinthians he says, “All things are lawful for me” he can do all things; he has free will. Once recognizing that fact, Paul could truly be moral because as he writes, “not all things are helpful.” David Stoop, a Christian writer commenting on this passage says that the point is that all things are lawful, so we are to remove the demands on the self. Christians believe that Christ came to free people from slavery and condemnation, so it would be contradictory to enslave oneself again with the demand behind guilt.
You were dead through the trespasses and sins…But God who is rich in mercy, out of great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:1, 4-5)

Conclusion

In this paper I have attempted to demonstrate that the philosophy of REBT and the philosophy of Christianity are congruent. Both seek to transform the individual who is experiencing pain, alienation, self-defeating behaviors into a person with a radically new and liberating philosophy of life, or newly uncovered and self-accepted being. Moreover, the key to this transformation is a change of fundamental beliefs away from dogmatic demandingness, awfulizing, low frustration tolerance, and self and other-downing toward an unconditional acceptance of the self, others, the world, and life.

REFERENCES

  • Armstrong, D.M. (1973). Belief, Truth and Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Craigie, F.D. & Tan, S.-Y. (1989). Changing Resistant Assumptions in Christian Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 17(98).
  • Ellis, A. (1993). The Advantages and Disadvantages of Self-help Therapy Materials. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 24.
  • Johnson, S. A. (1993). Incorporating Religion into Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy with the Christian Client, Albert Ellis Institute.
  • Lawrence, C. (1987). Rational Emotive Therapy and the Religious Client. Journal of Rational-Emotive Therapy, 5(19).
  • Peirce, C.S. (1955). The Fixation of Belief. In Justus Buchler (ed). Philosophical Writings of Peirce, Dover Publications: New York.
  • Stoop, D. (1997). Self-Talk: Key to Personal Growth. Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell.
  • West, G.F. & Reynolds, J. (1997). The Applicability of Selected Rational-Emotive Therapy Principles for Pastoral Counseling. The Journal of Pastoral Care, Summer, 187-194.

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