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by Gerald Alper
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Dec 29th 2015
Readers opening God & Therapy enter immediately into the inimitable, enthrallingly intellectually beautiful world of the author, Gerald Alper. Alper is a psychotherapist, based in New York City; he is, as well, a prolific writer of books. In the book's "Preface", readers learn that the genesis of the book is rooted intellectually in the overarching question of why, in over thirty years of private practice, after listening to hundreds and hundreds of patients' dreams, Alper not once has encountered the presence of God, the radiant appearance of an angel, any mention of heaven, or the joyful fantasy of an afterlife?
In the book's last chapter, Alper asserts that a lot of the mystery evaporates when the question is eyed through the lens of a psychodynamic psychotherapeutic approach, advocating the introduction of the impact of the dynamic unconscious. Discoursing that people begin life as existential, pre-verbal beings, who enter immediately into a symbiotic relationship with a seemingly omnipotent caretaker, Alper asks: Is it any wonder that, imprinted in the unconscious, is a deep, lifelong yearning for a cosmic parent? Alper opines that this cosmic, parental figure is a transient being, used selectively on a crisis-intervention basis.
Alper is a tireless intellectual excavator, who probes cautiously, and digs deeply, in an intellectually very diligent and unrelenting effort to unearth truths. The intellectual treasures unearthed by Alper's toilsome efforts extend the reading appeal of the book universally.
The body of substantive discourse is garbed cerebrally with the cloak of relative abstruseness.
Coursing powerfully through the arteries and veins of the book is a strongly edifying, psychodynamic psychotherapeutic current.
Across the length and breadth of the text, Alper, in expert, substantively germane fashion, rivets readers' attention on an expansive array of great thinkers.
And congruently, an abundance of research materials germanely elicit critically discerning comment by Alper.
In a "References" section (following the text), Alper presents citations, alphabetized by author last name, for textually pertinent research materials.
Substantively animating quotes, culled anecdotally from some of Alper's real life patients, contribute significantly to the forming of the book's substance. These data are screened with great depth of thought through the filter of Alper's masterful ability to cerebrally dissect and examine the true inner workings of the human mind.
Snippets in the shape of quotes collected from an eclectic range of sources further enliven the text's body.
Here and there, Alper recounts anecdotally biographical bits and pieces of his life.
In the relentless, insatiably curious search for truth, intellectually fearless Alper is not afraid to plunge into myriad, deeply cerebral questions, which may cause waves in otherwise still waters.
The findings of Alper are pondered customarily in intellectually critical, curious, and thoughtful manner.
Concerning the metaphysical fate of one's consciousness or soul, Alper ponders that, absent plausible scientific evidence, the temptation will be enormous to be told by some authority what to think. And this may be why, in over thirty years of dealing with thousands of patients, Alper has been struck repeatedly by the poverty of genuine creative thought concerning fundamental religious beliefs.
Alper muses that a core of religious belief can be understood as the SOS of a very frightened human being to whoever, or whatever, in the cosmos may be listening.
According to Alper, all of his patients, whatever their religious beliefs, would feel that bad things happen constantly to good people, that life is unfair, hard, and unforgiving, and that justice is almost never distributed evenly.
The history of religion, as pondered by Alper, in a sense has been the record of the various answers to the problem of evil. Alper adds that this is a problem no patient of his has ever been able to resolve.
And likewise, no patient has been able to solve the problem of how to deal with the fact of their death.
Alper opines that there is little doubt that the unconscious denial of death is the single most powerful defense mechanism. And indeed, Alper doesn't think he has ever seen a patient who fully overcame their denial of death, if only because it is impossible psychologically to identify with the state of non-existence.
Alper muses that, it may be that nature protects against being overly terrified of inevitable death right up to the moment of one's death throes; at that point, the denial of death switch is switched off, and a seeming acceptance of death takes over.
Alper teaches that patients, in the immediate wake of a particularly unbearable loss, will often address the person who has just died (not expecting to be heard, but finding it soothing to talk to the other as though the other was still alive).
And Alper teaches further that patients pray to God; and they will sometimes speak to God; but patients almost never wish for God to speak to them.
Regarding the promise of a spiritual afterlife, Alper explains that patients have various attitudes: there is hope; there is doubt; there is fear. And then, when the blows one is asked to endure become unbearable, there is rage.
With regard to the respective perspectives of the devout believer and the skeptic, Alper discourses that, from the skeptic's perspective, one can certainly have belief, but one must also have reason and doubt. The devout believer, in contrast, does not value reason less; the devout believer values emotion more.
The question is put forth by Alper: Since the existence of supernatural forces can neither be proved nor disproved, and since there can be nothing biologically adaptive in investing energy in such a project, what is the point of attempting to do so?
The answer of Alper, to the question foregoing, is: There is more to life than the pursuit of a kind of tensionless nirvana on earth; there is the recognition of the tragic dimension of life; there is the need to appreciate the transient nature of everything people most value; and there is the primal yearning for a spiritual connection to a cosmic Other.
Readers are instructed that therapists see patients, the great majority of whom believe there is something more to the world than the physical, and very much want there to be; who conceive of God as a kind of evanescent presence; who are ambivalent at best regarding what heaven or hell might be; and who have only a dream-like conception of what the afterlife might be, almost never looking forward to the afterlife, but invariably fearing it.
What is most striking to Alper about patients claiming to be in communion with a personal God is the ordinariness of their behavior. No significant difference has been detected by Alper between patients who are religious and those who are not.
In Alper's view, the psychodynamic perspective on the roots of religious beliefs adds the much neglected basic emotions; incorporates the dynamic unconscious; and, most significantly, strives to capture the unpredictable complexity of a lived life.
Housed in the Pantheon of Alper's book is highly discerning discourse, extending to: Harold Kushner, Rick Warren, Freud, Carl Jung, Elisabeth Kϋbler-Ross, Sherwin Nuland, Abraham Maslow, William James, James Wood, Edward Wilson, Christopher Bollas, V.S. Ramachandran, Mary Roach, Carl Sagan, Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Alan Guth, Paul Steinhardt, and Neil Turok.
In the enframing context of the issues fleshed out by Alper, the concern may be raised whether the cohort of patients in therapy is representative fully of the larger populace of persons.
And, with regard to many of the intriguing questions pondered pensively by Alper, there may be no consensual answers.
But certainly, the intellectual brilliance of Alper is on display fully throughout the book.
The range of professionals who may greatly benefit professionally from the keen intellectual acumen displayed by Alper surely encompasses: mental health professionals, theologians, scientists, and philosophers.
© 2016 Leo Uzych
Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University. His area of special professional interest is healthcare. Twitter @LeoUzych