When therapy becomes theology: A critical view of empathy

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




David L. Miller


Religion, Philosophy, Psychotherapy

Subject Categories



The dissertation proposes that a critical definition of empathy can provide one explanation for why psychotherapy is at times suspected of being a "pseudo-religion." Therapy becomes theology when consumers are provided with understandings of themselves that transcend their own understandings of themselves, and when two parties enter into a collusive rhetoric of pathos.

The dissertation arrives at this proposal by evaluating the claim of Heinz Kohut's critics to the effect that his theory of empathy is "really theology." This claim is investigated by researching the literature on empathy in theology and religious studies and by comparing views presented in this literature with what Kohut wrote about empathy. The dissertation finds that the claim is often warranted and seeks to arrive at an explanation for why empathy as a concept tends to blur the boundaries between psychotherapy and religion. The thesis is proposed that a narrative convention that is tied to a metaphysical habit of mind has survived the translation of the word from its original context into the English language and into the field of psychotherapy. Arguing that the concept is not necessarily bound to this history, the dissertation proposes a conceptual "treatment" and redefinition of empathy as a reading strategy that is alert to this "theologistic" tendency to overcome differences between "I" and "You." Applying Freud's concept of collusion and Brecht's notion of Verfremdungseffekt to psychotherapeutic case histories that were intended to illustrate empathy, the dissertation arrives at the description of a theologistic "script" to which therapist and patient adhere to varying degrees when they engage in "empathy." When critical, ironic distance is gained from this script, the seductive, collusive spell of the metaphor is broken and therapy remains therapy.


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