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Interview: John G. Shobris, clinical psychologist

14 April 2022

‘When we doom to hell those who do not believe the Christian faith, it’s bad theology’

Currently, I work within the Florida Department of Corrections, supervising psychotherapists who provide mental-health treatment to prisoners diagnosed with a mental disorder. I also teach mindfulness meditation, Jungian and Freudian psychology, cognitive-behavioural therapy, neuro-psychology, and neuro-psychoanalysis.

I don’t currently work with Death Row inmates but, when I did, it was a very quiet place.
The appeal process can take so long that some died of natural causes before they were executed, and others were successful in their appeals.

Many prisoners want to discuss their faith.
A Roman Catholic patient recently expressed a great deal of guilt about the people he hurt or possibly killed. We talked about the healing power of Christ’s unconditional forgiveness. In Christ, repentance is possible, even if the mistake involves murder or any other heinous crime.

Another inmate, who converted from Christianity to Islam, said that the God of the Christians is too soft,
and faith did not prevent him from being a criminal. Now, as a Muslim, he insists he no longer engages in criminal activity because his God is much stricter and demands respect.

As therapists, we help each patient come to terms with spiritual reality as they see it,
whatever their religious faith.

Yes, my faith very much informs my clinical practice.
My walk with Christ informs me that, through Christ, there’s no judgement and no condemnation. I don’t judge patients I see. Criminals have to be institutionalised to protect the public, but I cannot condone retribution. Eastern Christian theology suggests: “Our God is a God of mercy, not justice.” To put it another way, in Christianity, justice is mercy.

Most of human pre-history and history went through what I term “paleotheology”
— the idea that the divine realm requires a sacrifice to sustain its favour. The Axial period brought a new understanding: in Hinduism, blood sacrifice was questioned. Buddhism eliminated any blood sacrifice and preached non-violence.

Isaiah described someone who was wounded for our transgressions.
In Christ, the new theology is fleshed out. Christ is the crucified criminal, who is really God. The innocence of the victim is fully revealed in Christ. Who is the victim? We’re all victims. Even those who prey on others are victims of their own ignorance: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Christianity ushers in a new understanding that does not victimise.

The Christian attitude ushered in science, technology, and the modern world;
but it’s not a refined systematic Christian theology [that entails] openness to the possibility of discovery, abolishing persecution of minorities, eliminating slavery, and developing democratic institutions where everyone’s rights are protected and human dignity is upheld.

The modern mind strives to be victimless:
women are equal to men, races are equal, homosexual and transgender individuals are accepted and protected. Criminal punishment is evolving into a spirit of rehabilitation and public safety, and different religions are no longer persecuted.

When we doom to hell those who do not believe the Christian faith,
when we encourage prejudice against any group or gender, or hate, despise, or blame people because of any characteristic they have, it’s bad theology. Bad theology is the belief in the division between the accepted and the rejected. It’s destructive.

As a pre-teenager, I was a Catholic.
In my late teens, I studied Eastern philosophy. After my divorce from my first wife, I embraced a Protestant theology of Christ dying for our sins as the perfect sacrifice to the Father, but I embarked on intense study of Christianity, including Orthodoxy. After working closely with an Eastern Orthodox priest for a year, I was chrismated [confirmed] into the Eastern Church.

Some of the practices of the Orthodox Church reflect at least a tinge of paleotheology,
but there’s no perfect Church, and authentic Christianity isn’t about belonging to any one Church. Christianity means that Jesus Christ is the centre of my life.

When I have moments and forget that truth,
life is more two dimensional and less alive. Christ within me is a living reality that sustains me and my relationship to my wife, children, and the rest of the world.

My wife inspired me to write Christian Meditation.
We live in a very small rural town in north Florida. Each of us had three children in our first marriage; so, when Holly and I married in 2008, we had six young children. Now they’re out of the house, except for a teenage son and our youngest daughter, and we babysit our grandchildren. I also have an autistic son who currently lives with his mother.

Christian Meditation
doesn’t describe techniques. Meditation isn’t a method: it’s an organic process. Jung said he had no method or steps when he engaged in psychotherapy. Every client is different, so he approached each person as a unique individual, allowing the situation to speak for itself, armed only with his insights about psychology and the unconscious.

In psychoanalysis, one goal is to form adequate representations of psychic reality.
To meditate, we need adequate representations of reality. These representations are not reality itself: they’re only roadmaps to reality. With an accurate roadmap, a greater breadth of reality is accessible.

What’s often missing or under-represented in Western versions of reality is the transrational element of existence.
Our book emphasises a deep respect for mystery, a respect that is well elaborated in Eastern Christian theology and Buddhism. The discursive dimension of the book adapts the insights of René Girard on sacrifice and victimisation, and Christ as the last sacrifice and the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. The weakest of all creatures, a crucified criminal, defeats death by the resurrection and demonstrates the truth of the victim. Christ is every human being that has been victimised.

Spinoza believed adequate ideas produce a just and loving world.
Justice and mercy are not a result of the will. They result from adequate ideas. Free will is an inadequate idea. The will is only free in the sense that no one is holding a gun to our heads. It is not free in every other way — our choices are caused by conscious and unconscious motivational vectors. “Free will” suggests the bad choices we make are subject to blame and retribution. We cannot say: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” if we hold people responsible for their bad choices.

I was born in Czechoslovakia when it was in the Soviet bloc,
and my parents escaped with me into Italy, and then to my grandparents in the United States when I was seven.

I had a profound mystical experience when I was 17 while I was meditating.
Through my bedroom window, I saw the infinite nature of existence unfold before my eyes.

I’ve never had such intense mystical experiences as an adult.
I have what I’d call empirical experiences of Christ within me. For me, the Buddha is a saint, but he is not Christ, Lord and the Saviour of the World; but this is a mystical statement, not a discursive theological position. I love the Buddha and regard anyone embracing non-violence as a brother or sister in the Holy Spirit.

We recently purchased e-bikes, and love riding on bike trails.
I love the sound of rushing water. When I retire, we’d love to purchase a camper and travel to all of the nature parks in the United States.

I’d get angry if anyone seriously threatened my wife or children.
I have gotten angry at other family members who were protecting another family member with a substance-abuse problem.

My wife and children make me happy.
Spiritually, Christ is the central to my life and completes me as a person. Christ is more than just happiness. He’s what C. S. Lewis called “joy”.

I’m a fundamentally optimistic person.
My view is very long term for humanity. I believe in the vision of Teilhard de Chardin: I hope we’ll populate the galaxy and eventually the universe. This may sound extravagant, but eventually we’ll be forced to occupy other worlds and adapt to new environments. God may allow us to discover the remedy to ageing, and science will usher in the resurrection. I don’t know. We have billions of years to find out.

In the morning, I pray for the well-being of my family, for humanity, and all of God’s creation.
During the day, I meditate on Christ and the innocence of others as well as myself. At the weekend, I say my own Jesus prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, you are the Light of the world and a lamp on to my feet.” Before going to bed, I have the habit of blessing my teenage son.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Baruch de Spinoza,
because he profoundly influenced my view of the world.

John Shobris was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Christian Meditation: Awakening the Christ within by John and Holly Shobris is published by Palmetto (Church Times Bookshop £11.99); 978-1-63837-494-7.

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