Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Psychologising the Spiritual

I was recently talking to someone who was very taken with a spiritual movement that combined the insights of traditional Eastern mysticism with modern Western depth psychology. As he saw it, this provided the best of both worlds. This person is intelligent, sensitive and fully able to see the emptiness of materialism, and such an approach seemed to him to be just what the modern world needs. It was serious, and promised no instant enlightenment but required hard work and dedication.

But is this really what the modern world needs or is it an approach to the religious question that is largely based on an intellectual attitude and effectively 'psychologises' spirituality, treating it as a kind of therapy designed to make you feel better or a technique to open up your consciousness? When all is said and done, is it actually a spirituality for personal advancement of some kind, a spirituality of the self?

What I mean is that adherents of this kind of path often pursue it for themselves and their own spiritual ends not out of love of God. This is always the problem when immanence is emphasised and the transcendent Creator explained away or treated as a symbol of inner wholeness; and in these pseudo-Eastern paths, by which I mean paths that take the philosophical aspects and mystical techniques but strip out the religion, he always is. There is plenty of talk of love, and people practise their idea of love, but the real love of God as a Person, which is the only love that can be called spiritual, is not present.  God is not central as he must be in any genuine form of spirituality. 

Why is that? For two very simple reasons. Firstly, because only this centrality of God can really take us beyond self, and, secondly, because God is real. It's as straightforward as that. In fact, God the Creator is the root of all reality and to reckon without him in your spiritual search is to try to build a house without a foundation. The forms of spirituality that don't acknowledge this
 never go beyond the merely human even if the merely human is a lot more than the materialists would concede.

Here again we see the risks of spirituality without religion.  It has a tendency to reduce the spiritual to the psychological and the transcendent to the immanent. Even if the transcendent is considered, it is as a vague abstraction and not a real Person. As I never tire of saying, Reality is Personal. God is life, certainly, but he is also alive. Imagine that God breathes because he does. Not, of course, as we do but he breathes and his breath is life. Our spirit is God's breath.

When people take to this kind of abstract spirituality with no personal focus on God or his Logos, that being the creative principle of order which is Christ, they almost invariably fall into an imitation of spirituality. They understand that goodness and love are the basis of right spiritual behaviour but if they do not respond to these as manifested in Christ, and therefore seek to acquire them through aligning themselves with him, they will start to self-consciously practice these as they understand them to be in their own earthly minds. This means they are responding dualistically, at one or several removes from the thing itself, and that means that instead of naturally and innocently actually being good and loving, they will make a system of goodness and love and act according to that. This is extremely common in spiritual circles. 

For they have intellectually defined goodness and love, and then try to enact their image of these things but they are not in touch with the reality behind the mental image because they deny the personal nature of reality. They may be well-meaning but, although it might sound cruel to say so, they are actually fakes because they seek to behave in a way that has gone beyond the ego or separate self from within the ego or separate self. The only solution is to acknowledge the personal nature of reality, embodied for us by Christ, and incline their hearts and minds to that.

I'm never quite sure if Jung performed a service by reintroducing the spiritual to a materialistic world or a disservice by reducing the true spiritual to a psychological level. Unfortunately the latter is very common these days.


Anonymous said...

My psychotherapist friend has read this blog, and I have her permission to quote her,

"I see the role of a therapist is to provide a reflective space to enable or extend a person’s spiritual process. This may unfold into a belief, or strengthening a belief, in god or may not, it is not a therapist’s role to direct. That would be the realms more of a spiritual guide or leader".

Do you have a view on this position? Both she and I would like to hear it if you do.

William Wildblood said...

That seems fair enough to me. What I am against is reducing the spiritual to the psychological or trying to raise the psychological to the spiritual but the lines of demarcation are not absolute.

Anonymous said...

My therapist friend asked me what I thought. I said,

"I think that the psychological and the spiritual are different. God is central to the spiritual. Without a God, and an afterlife, then 'spiritual' is meaningless. I remember telling my therapist [a different therapist] that I saw things of the mind/mental issues could only be resolved properly by acknowledgement that God was at the centre of everything, both as creator and sustainer of the universe. Without God, material reality is just a cruel joke with a nasty ending for every living thing. Unbearable. I also said that therapists were on a lower rung of the 'ladder of knowing' than theists in all their forms, and so their power to help, although real, was not as powerful as that of theists. I would qualify that now (I think), by saying that those therapists who are also theists, and theists first, are possibly likely to be able to help clients a lot. A priest trained in therapy would be better. Again, because theism comes first, as is clear from the priest's job description."

Chris said...

This post was super timely for me because I just started re-reading a book that I hadn't looked at for some time by Stephan Hoeller entitled "The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons of the Dead". Here is a quote from that book, "Gnosticism pursues the inner way; its authority is not external but internal- a living personal experience -but without denying the outer world...."

I think, perhaps, that the views of the Traditionalist School a la Guenon/Schuon can be helpful here. Some years ago, I was very much in the Jung/Campbell/Wilber/Watts camp- it was the arguments of the Perennialist writers that persuaded me of the importance of spirituality within the protective/saving framework of Tradition (Capital T). So (from a Perennialist perspective) the critical issue is not theism (or not), but Tradition as opposed to formless personal "spirituality".

William Wildblood said...

A bit of Jungian synchronicity perhaps!

Anonymous said...

My therapist friend said,

"A priest could only be a therapist if he / she suspended their spiritual belief whilst providing therapy, otherwise it is not therapy, but, spiritual guidance! And not all priests are great spiritual leaders, some are too entrenched in dogma, not providing an enlightened view!"

William Wildblood said...

That's true. I think it would be wise to regard psychology/ therapy and spirituality as belonging to two quite different areas of life. I also wonder how much a normal person would need the former if they truthfully followed the latter. Hardly at all I would say.

Anonymous said...

And her comment following your last,

"I agree. Therapists tend to see people in a spiritual crisis or facing an emerging one (maybe outside their awareness). Generally those on a more established spiritual path will not turn to therapy and have suitable alternative support available. It is not unusual for a client to become more spiritually aware during therapy and then they may well source some sort of spiritual guidance eg a retreat etc. Of course, as you have said before, some therapists maybe do not attend to the spiritual dimension, probably a reflection of where they are in their own spiritual journey. I certainly use therapy for a progressive spiritual dialogue and reflective space, however, I know the therapists that can offer me this."

Anonymous said...

My therapist friend's therapy roots are in the theory of Carl Rogers.

Rogers' unconditonal positive regard v. conditional positive regard has always struck me as how we are told God and Christ see us. They always have positive regard for us, even when we do wrong. They allow us to experiment, get things wrong, and learn, but the love still flows towards us. There is nothing conditional about their regard. At the same time, they never condone our sin, but make it clear that they love us still, even though we have been bad. This is unlike our experiences with human beings. The best experiences are those where we behave badly, and the other person loves us no matter what, just like God. But very commonly in people's lives, love is withheld if the giver of love does not like or approve our behaviour. This is conditional regard. The best parents always give unconditional regard - the child always knows that he is loved, even if he knows that his parent is disappointed in his behaviour.

Here is a link to a short piece on Carl Rogers' theory if it is of interest: