Minding Spirituality (Book Review)

Author:  Sorenson, Randall
Publisher: Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 2004
Reviewed By: Ryan LaMothe, Summer 2004, pp. 67-69

Erasmus was known to have said that he would spend any money he had on books and if there was any left over he would buy food and clothes. I suspect that his deep, perhaps spiritual, pleasure in reading was not indiscriminate. Likewise, we know that there are some books that are worth the money and time because they not only provide us with new vistas and perspectives, they also reveal a spirit that invites us to take a journey with the author to other worlds. Randall Sorenson’s book, Minding Spirituality, falls in this camp. There is a spirit of compassion, understanding, curiosity, and intellectual depth and breadth that rises from the text. Dr. Sorenson’s book embodies the best of psychoanalytic respect and curiosity as well as liberal Protestant openness and hospitality to others.

Regardless of whether one is kindly disposed to religion and spirituality or ambivalent about religious faith, this book is well worth reading. Moreover, given the prevalence and diversity of religious and spiritual beliefs and experiences in this society, it is prudent and ethical, whatever one’s views, to read a book that critically and constructively engages the complex issues that emerge between science and religion, in general, and psychoanalysis and religion, in particular. While Sorenson might not have intended this, I also believe the book is timely because of the seemingly mindless spirituality manifested in violent religious and political fundamentalism in the world today and the rise of a totalitarian mindset in some segments of Western societies. In each case there is foreclosure of mystery, openness, and mutual self-critical discourse.

My hope, in this review, is to provide an overview of Dr. Sorenson’s book that gives readers a taste of the banquet of questions, ideas, and research that awaits them. His thought provoking multidisciplinary approach and original research will enrich and enlighten the reader. Of course, any review will raise questions and highlight some of the limitations of the book, but that should not serve to dissuade people from reading this important book. Indeed, any therapist would benefit from the research, insights, and clinical acumen Dr. Sorenson brings to the table.

Dr. Sorenson begins by arguing that multiple methods help us approach issues and questions regarding religion and psychoanalysis. This includes his interesting and clearly presented use of empirical research in mapping psychoanalytic research. For those of us whose eyes glaze over whenever we begin to read statistical research, Dr. Sorenson, in this and other chapters, presents his unique research in a lucid and interesting manner. For example, in his introduction he uses multidimensional scaling to map the perceptual boundaries between the various psychoanalytic schools. He uses multiple perspectives, in part, to illustrate his approach throughout the book as well as to depict how psychoanalytic groups function, from a sociological perspective, like religious groups. That is, psychoanalytic groups often behave in fundamentalist ways. This tendency toward fundamentalism forecloses kenosis or self-emptying, which can, as he demonstrates, occur in sessions with patients. In other words, fundamentalist tendencies, whether in religion or psychoanalysis, stifles the spirit of openness, curiosity, and surprise. Indeed, analytic fundamentalism is in direct opposition to the tenet of free association. Dr. Sorenson goes on to tell us that he is going to attend to the psychological processes implicated in psychoanalysis and spirituality as well as offer an explanation (chapter 7) of how psychoanalysis and spirituality are “parallel and complimentary [not identical] approaches to problems in living” (p. 11).

Included in his introduction is acknowledgment of his own rich religious and psychoanalytic heritage; both of which have the spirit of openness, mystery, curiosity, and deep respect for the transcendence of the other—reminiscent of Emmanuel Levinas. Acknowledgement of one’s history and values, as we all know, is important in attending to the ways we attend to and handle patients’ communications.

Chapter one sets the stage by defining spirituality and explaining what minding spirituality means (i.e., being bothered by it, alert to is presence, care for it). Interspersed with this is research that shows the importance of religion in many patients’ lives as well as an overview of changes in how analysts have understood and attended to religious experience during the past century. His hope is that psychoanalysis and religion can “meet in a profound space in which neither is statically master or slave, neither annexes or subsumes the other” (p. 39). I suspect this Hegelian desire is the hope that we can embrace the paradox of likeness in difference and difference in likeness—a sure sign of mature and humane relationships.

In this chapter, I would have liked Dr. Sorenson to pay more attention to how spirituality and religion are defined. These are notoriously difficult topics and their relation to the thorny concept of faith deserves more than two pages. More specifically, I believe a clear discussion on the idea and dynamics of faith would be important to address because many people in the psychological professions often misunderstand both. There is a wealth of literature on the psychology of faith, which is inextricably joined to spirituality and a necessary perspective to include. I would add that one might also address the faith of and in psychoanalytic “spirituality.” Having said this, I realize that authors and editors must make sacrifices in giving birth to a book, though psychologists and analysts could learn from theologians and philosophers who have thought deeply about spirituality and faith.

The oft-conflicted and ambivalent relation between psychoanalysis and religion is surely not surprising to anyone familiar with the psychoanalytic tradition. In the second and third chapters, Dr. Sorenson addresses how changes in psychoanalytic theory and training have altered the analysis of religious experience. Dr. Sorenson goes beyond theory, however. That is, he argues that there is a correlation between theoretical handling of religious experience and the ways analyst’s are trained to handle the patient’s religious experience. It appears, as Dr. Sorenson notes, that many analysts are more comfortable exploring a patient’s sexual life and decidedly uncomfortable in being curious about a patient’s spiritual life and practices. Included in this chapter is a discussion on recent narrative and constructive approaches in psychoanalysis and how these changes shape the analytic minding of the patient’s spirituality.

Traditionally, analytically oriented therapists attend to the analyst’s experience of the patient as well as the patient’s experience of the analyst. Chapter four addresses this dynamic. In particular, Dr. Sorenson provides empirical evidence that indicates that the foreclosure of interest and expression of religious sentiment by the patient is due, to a large degree, on the patient’s experience of the analyst’s beliefs about religion and spirituality. Put another way, does it make a difference whether the analyst is open to the possibility of transcendence? Before answering this question with his own research, Dr. Sorenson is careful to lay the groundwork by addressing philosophical, clinical, and pedagogical objections to examining empirically the patient’s experience of the analyst’s spirituality.

In chapter five, Dr. Sorenson shifts to the analyst’s experience of the patient’s religious experience. He finds that the perspectives of God as a corresponding and compensatory object tend toward psychological reductionism. Ever the analyst, this reductionism is not without a scent of psychological arrogance, omnipotent thinking, and the foreclosure of transcendence. He advocates God as object X, which introduces a measure of mystery and, more importantly, epistemological humility. God as X affirms mystery and the limits of human knowing. More important, X creates a space for curiosity and exploration. I am reminded of Bollas’ aleatory objects--those objects we discover; objects that surprise us. Aleatory objects and God as X only appear when there is a spirit of openness, hospitality, and humility. I believe one can see this clearly demonstrated in Dr. Sorenson’s clinical illustrations.

In this chapter I would have liked to see Dr. Sorenson address some of the possible experiences that analysts may have in relation to the patient’s experience of God. I am thinking of the analyst’s envy or fear of transcendence. There are, of course, numerous other unconscious motives for avoiding the topic.

Lest one lapse into disidentification with regard to religion and religious communities, Dr. Sorenson, in chapter six, returns to a topic he touched on in the introduction. He argues that psychoanalytic institutes operate, at times, like religious groups. Relying on theoretical and empirical studies in the sociology of religion, the reader is faced with the myopic “fundamentalism” of psychoanalytic institutes. This reminded me of my experience. There were times, at the institute I attended, that I had the experience of being in a basic catechism class where doctrine is taught and criticism avoided. Openness was espoused, but the ethos was one of accepting psychoanalytic doctrine. Those who questioned or offered other perspectives were discouraged in a variety of sophisticated ways. What does this have to do with spirituality? Dr. Sorenson, I believe, is attempting to challenge teachers and practitioners of psychoanalysis to recognize how their educational principles and practices can restrict analytic curiosity and respect for the spiritual and religious practices and beliefs of their patients.

This discussion raises the important question concerning the differences between religion and psychoanalysis. Dr. Sorenson, in this last chapter, argues that the easy answer to the question of whether psychoanalysis and religion are in the same business is no. But by examining the warfare metaphor that characterizes the history of the relationship between science and religion, the secularization hypothesis in the sociology of religion, and the decline of foundationalism in the philosophy of science, Dr. Sorenson brings a perspective that changes how we think about this relationship. For example, his careful scholarship indicates that 1) the claims of science can be quite imaginative and difficult to find credible, which is not radically different from religious imagination and claims about the mystery of the world we are thrown into; 2) both psychoanalysis and religion resist succumbing to nihilism; 3) psychoanalysis, like religion, possesses anthropologies and therefore addresses questions about the cause of human suffering and what is a good life. All of this together suggests that psychoanalysis and religion, while not in the same business, are not poles apart. Dr. Sorenson may be said to advocate a transitional space between psychoanalysis and religion—a space that Winnicott believed required the capacities to recognize and handle similarity and difference. Perhaps the maturity and creativity of both psychoanalysis and religion is to be able to handle and appreciate the paradox of likeness in difference and difference in likeness in this transitional space.

Psychoanalysts and psychoanalytically informed clinicians are tasked to mind all manner of human experience. My own interpretation of Dr. Sorenson’s view of the capacity for “minding” in psychoanalysis is connected to the analyst’s courage to be open to mystery and transcendence. Theory, training, and our own idiosyncratic histories can foreclose our capacity to mind the patient’s spirituality as well as our own. Dr. Sorenson challenges us to mind the questions and issues of spirituality and psychoanalysis. This book is an important contribution to the critical and constructive discourse between two, often troubling, siblings of human life and experience. From a different and related angle, I would add that his book is a balm and an invitation. It is a balm because he points to the possibility of engaging the “other” in ways that facilitate humility and openness—two virtues essential for learning and community. It is an invitation to reach out and learn from the other, from the strange other. I do not know of a more apt invitation not only for analysts but for also for all of us in this increasingly polarized, fearful, and violent world.

Reviewer Note

Ryan LaMothe is an associate professor of pastoral counseling, and associate professor of pastoral counseling at St. Meinrad School of Theology.

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