Harry Van Belle
Coram Deo: Living Life in the Presence of God in a Secular Age
Legacy Press 2019
This review appeared here in The Christian Courier.
Harry Van Belle has written an invitation to those shaped by our secular age, offering a perspective on life as coram deo, lived before the face of God. This entails seeking the meaning, intimacy, and vitality that comes from recognizing that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus loves and cares for us, and calls us to a life of deep spirituality and love. Van Belle writes as a professor, psychologist, and lover of the Bible, and he has a keen eye for getting to the heart of what it means to be human–in a world that belongs to God.
I should add that Dr. Van Belle was my professor at Redeemer University a few decades back. I was a psychology minor, and so I picked up just enough psychology to learn how to falsely diagnose myself. This is not uncommon for students: you read about a few vague symptoms and you start to feel them yourself. “A little learning is a dangerous thing” wrote Alexander Pope.
Van Belle not only shows coram deo as a comprehensive approach to understanding human history and the Bible, but as a way of life that brings meaning to vocation, education, and the seasons of life. The strongest chapter in the book, chapter 8, is where Van Belle brings his perspective to bear on his own profession—psychotherapy. He insists that the presence of God is vital to successful psychotherapy, but he compares an “integrationist” Christian approach with one based on the structure of the therapeutic relationship and its potential directions. The integrationist approach he critiques as setting up a false separation of “faith and feelings” and “spirituality and psychology.” Sadly, one side of the binary often gets reduced to the other side—all depending on whether one is Christian or more secular in orientation.
Instead, regardless of one’s worldview, a therapist should have some idea of what the structure of the therapeutic relationship ought to be. Van Belle says it is a “healing (or wholing) and a liberating (or opening up).” There is no short cut to therapeutic success by quoting Bible verses or prescribing spiritual disciplines—the therapist stills needs to seek out the creational structure for therapy. This is something that comes as part of general revelation and God’s common grace. In fact, Van Belle maintains that “God’s grace favours non-Christian therapists more, since the preponderance of insight into the structure for therapy come from non-Christians.” Furthermore, “non-Christians may have been willing to open themselves to the presence of God in therapy and may have been more diligent in searching out God’s will for therapy than Christians.” This reversal of our Christian expectations he compares to Matthew 7:21 and 21:28, where those who present as faithful are often not the truly faithful to God’s intentions for human life.
This is not to say the Bible is irrelevant to therapy—Van Belle is clearly a lover of the Biblical story and insists that it offers a basic framework for understanding all of life. “But,” he continues, “precisely because the written Word of God is such a rich source of insight it is not intended to restrict our understanding of human in general and of psychotherapy in particular, but to enrich it.” Scripture is not a crude legislative instrument, but an enabling, empowering, and enriching resource that opens up our vision, widening and deepening our perspective into the structure of life and its intended direction. And in the therapeutic relationship, Van Belle focuses on quieting himself inside, listening for the Holy Spirit’s leading. Word and Spirit are together his guide, but where “Word” is the structure of creation re-affirmed in the Bible and epitomized in the life of Jesus Christ.
Footnotes to Charles Taylor and Karen Armstrong aside, anyone familiar with the Reformed, Christian tradition (with a Dooyeweerdian slant) will enjoy this book as a refresher on such theological touchstones as creation, fall, redemption; antithesis and common grace; the cultural mandate; structure and direction; the Bible as an infallible rule for faith and life; and of course, coram deo. This could make a good primer for anyone wishing to articulate a cogent, Christian view of history, reality, and the nature of human life; a perspective that brings meaning to all things because they are understood with reference to the presence of a loving God, who providentially continues to uphold the universe, even in a secular age.