Alfred Adler’s psychotherapy was popular among the liberal Christianity of his day, due to the superficial resemblance of many of its tenets to orthodox Christianity. However, its worldview is ultimately incompatible with that of the Christian worldview. He attended a church which taught that God does exist and that God has revealed himself in Christ, “through whom God manifested himself to humanity, that Christ showed us through his life and death that we are to strive to actualize the Godlikeness within us and to love one another, [and] that what we ultimately need is courage to trust our Godlikeness, that the mythic spiritual reality of Christ’s resurrections is our inspiration to live in the face of what seems like difficulty and defeat, and finally that the specifics of theological dogma do not matter as much as whether what one believes inspires one faithfulness and actualization o the God within.” Indeed, as something of a pragmatist, Alfred Adler believed that Christianity was admirable because it worked, not because it was true. This means that Adler succumbs to pure subjectivism and relativism, according to which truth becomes irrelevant and/or unattainable.
Admirable and authentically Christian as many of these sentiments are, Adler’s liberal Christianity rejects the belief that Jesus Christ was literally God incarnate and that he literally atoned for the sins of the Church through his sacrifice on the cross. These are central elements of orthodox Christianity. Furthermore, contrary to what Adler would have us believe, dogma matters a great deal. It is heretical to deny Christ’s atonement or the deity of Christ, or the virgin birth, and it is essential to affirm the absolute inerrancy of the Bible. These beliefs matter a great deal and to reject them is to depart from faithfulness to orthodox Christianity.
Indeed, in Adler’s hands, Christianity, and religion in general, is largely demythologized. He regarded God as “a concretization of the idea of perfection, greatness and superiority,” rather than a literal, omnipotent being. Thus, like Sigmund Freud before him, he regarded God as a merely psychological function. Adlerians today believe that religion is useful insofar as it contributes to the mental health of the individual and to the welfare of the social order.
The Adlerian therapist will invariably attempt to redescribe Christianity in Adlerian terms, rather than the other way around. As Stanton L. Jones points out, this makes Adlerian theory the ground of truth rather than Christianity. This is obviously unacceptable, from an orthodox Christian perspective. As Stanton L. Jones notes, the Adlerian perspective describes a world in which “the tension between law and grace is illuminated; law is fruitless, as one either succeeds and becomes arrogant or fails and feels inferior, while grace provides the solution of encouraging us, through God’s acceptance to live a courageous, responsive life of obedience.”
This is quite different from how the Law is describe in Christianity. The Apostle Paul insists that the Law is good and holy and righteous but that it fails to sanctify or justify us because humans are sinful, and this sinfulness disqualifies them from communion with God, since God is holy and requires perfect obedience to dwell comfortably in his presence. Christ therefore had to come into the world and live a life of perfect obedience in order to merit righteousness for us in his perfect obedience, and atone for our sins as a perfect sacrifice by dying on the cross.
Stanton L. Jones notes that sin becomes “the improper attitude one has about his defects” rather than a transgression of God’s perfect law that requires punishment, according to the perfect standards which God requires of us. The Fall becomes “the realization of inferiority feeling,” and thus involves defects due to self-esteem, rather than an objective deviation from a state of perfect holiness to a state of moral dejection that makes humanity liable to God’s wrath. It is totally inappropriate for the Christian to think of sin in terms of low self-esteem, however.
For the Adlerian, humans are teleological or goal-oriented. This is certainly compatible with Christianity, so far as it goes. The scriptures certainly do see humans as goal-oriented. The most authentic and spiritually healthy desires are in order to glorify the Triune God. Adlerians see humans as goal-oriented insofar as humans are conscious of feeling inferior and want to achieve a state of superiority. The cure for an unhealthy striving towards superiority, for the Adlerian, entails a deficient social interest. In other words, the individual is not oriented enough towards serving others. For Christians, however, the human plight is that we live a life of disobedience to God because we do not attempt to glorify him by believing the testimony that he has given concerning his son Jesus Christ.
Adlerian therapy is helpful in that it attempts to balance individual and community. Humans cannot be understood apart from the social context of which we are a part. Indeed, this is typical of the Hebrew thought from which Christianity arose. Humans are never seen as islands outside of a community. We are inherently social and communal creatures. For Adler, the supreme virtue is a life of selfless service to others rather than a selfish life of attempting to rise above others and be the best.
Another central virtue of Adler’s therapy is that of courage:
“The key to normalcy for Adler is the virtue of courage…”Courage refers to the willingness to engage in risk-taking behavior when one either does not know the consequences or when the consequences might be adverse”[quoting Mosak]..while courage per se is not a Christian virtue, a comparable Christian virtue would be willingness to hear and obey God’s law and Word. Such a willing obedience for the Christian would seem to flow from a clear perception of our creaturely status, of God’s status as the rightful lawgiver and beneficent Father who id disciplining his children, and from a perception of the obstacles to obedience as inconsequential compared to the rewards for faithful service to God.”
There is some truth to what Stanton L. Jones says here, although we would emphasize that courage is indeed a Christian virtue and that John, near the end of Revelation, names the “cowardly” as among those who suffer in the lake of fire.
Another cardinal “sin” of Adlerian therapy is that of self-deception. This occurs in order to protect a human’s self-esteem. This self-deception results from a fear of painful inferiority feelings and as a result of discouragement, for Adler. For the Christian, however, the cardinal sin is not self-deception in order to preserve feelings of superiority, but self-deception rooted in an attempt to evade obedience to God and act in accordance with our sinful nature.
Alfred Adler was interested in guilt as what he regarded as a pathological emotion. Many Christians, Stanton L. Jones notes, are consumed with guilt and self-reproach for our sinfulness. While we must not dwell too much on our own personal guilt, insofar as it can distract us from the glory of Christ and gratitude for his imputed righteousness, it is nonetheless true that we must appreciate the gravity and seriousness of sin and the fault placed upon us as moral agents. Adler saw guilt as helpful in that it helped with active contrition for wrongdoing. Nonetheless, Adler never saw guilt as an acceptable response to moral wrongdoing.