The Psychology of Mature Spirituality: Integrity, Wisdom, Transcendence (Book Review)

Title:  The Psychology of Mature Spirituality: Integrity, Wisdom, Transcendence
Author:  Young-Eisendrath, Polly and Melvin E. Miller
Publisher:  Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge, 2000
Reviewed By:  Jeff Fine-Thomas, Winter 2004, pp. 38-40

The examination of spirituality and religion has long been a complex topic that has spurred debate in psychology as well as other fields. The Psychology of Mature Spirituality: Integrity, Wisdom, Transcendence is an intriguing example of how a productive examination of spirituality might be framed within the field of clinical psychology. The editors frame the discussions enclosed in the book by stating

“This volume of essays was designed to address this dilemma. Is it possible to embrace spiritual meaning and not become either childish or irrational, while increasing one’s genuine awe, inspiration, gratitude, and intellectual appreciation of living now in the period of scientific skepticism?” (p. 2).

The contributors to The Psychology of Mature Spirituality have risen to this challenge.

As one who seeks a reasonable integration of the values common to science and those of religion, I am grateful that The Psychology of Mature Spirituality invites a type of intellectual dialogue about spirituality and religion. However, such an invitation brings forward many unanswerable questions such as those asked explicitly or implicitly in the book: What is my purpose here? Who are we? What does it mean to be human? Who is God? How can we connect with God? The reader must approach this text knowing that neither a scientific method nor religious dogma can reduce the occasional anxiety induced by ultimate questions. Paradoxically, while these questions may not be answerable, attempting a discussion, as is done in this book, can bring the reader a process pregnant with possibility.

One of the most striking features of The Psychology of Mature Spirituality is the open invitation the editors seem to have given to the distinguished contributors to speak about spirituality as they conceive it, and from their own perspectives. The result is a rich diversity of topics from traditional religious traditions, to philosophical accounts of spirituality, to contemporary psychologies of wholeness and actualization outside a specifically religious or spiritual tradition. The editors organize the text along the broad themes of integrity, wisdom, and transcendence. I will attempt to summarize some of the salient points addressed in what is necessarily a selection among a wealth of articles included in this volume.

In the section on integrity, Melvin Miller offers a chapter on the role of therapeutic stance in promoting integrity in the patient. More specifically, he offers the reader a concise history of the notion of neutrality starting with Freud’s mandate of evenly hovering attention to Bion’s concept of bracketing memory, desire, and understanding to promote the proper neutral stance. He contrasts these traditional notions of neutrality with contemporary models such as those promoted by Wolf, in which neutrality becomes an affirmation of the patient’s self and a communication of being on the patient’s side. The history of views on neutrality shapes the central conflict, in Miller’s view, as stated by Stark, “If therapists never allow themselves to be drawn into participation with patients in their reenactments, then we speak of a failure of empathy. On the other hand, if therapists allow themselves to be drawn into their patients’ internal dramas but then get lost in reenactment, then we speak of a failure of containment” (p. 42).

Miller suggests that sometimes it is more appropriate to approach the patient in a traditional stance of neutrality, while at other times exerting influence is optimal. Miller utilizes Buber’s I/Thou paradigm to argue that the therapist has a “responsibility to be a complete, responsive, caring other for the patient” (p. 43); and that the patient benefits from both the skill of the therapist and the therapist’s humanity. Thus the mutual influence between patient and therapist is essential to the patient’s effort to seek integrity.

Demaris Wehr writes on the ways in which spiritual abuse degrades integrity. Wehr introduces the reader to a lexicon related to spiritual abuse. Wehr defines spiritual abuse as “irresponsible behaviors such as using the seeker for the healer’s own purposes, making unwise pronouncements, abusing the seeker sexually, giving self-serving advice in the name of God” (p. 49). She notes that “wounding healers” deny wrongdoing and/or are completely unaware of how they impact others. They also tend to disconfirm the wounded one’s perceptions. Wehr describer a pattern in cases of spiritual abuse in which the wounding healer is attractive to the seeker because of characteristics of “niceness,” which may engender idealization of the wounding healer in others. As the connection between the wounding healer and the seeker solidifies, the seeker is faced with what Wehr calls a “terrible choice.” This form of double bind asks the seeker to choose between “his or her own deepest sense about a situation, intuitions, repressed knowing (which may show up in bodily symptoms), and the abuser’s view of the situation” (p. 50). Thus, the abuser uses the relationship with the seeker to deconstruct the seeker’s sense of integrity. The seeker has to choose between their sense of right and what the wounding healer says is right.

Several dynamics can follow once the “terrible choice” has been made. Using his or her authority, the wounding healer twists scripture in the name of God as a means to coerce without regard to the impact this has on the seeker. This coercion serves to increase the authority of the wounding healer while simultaneously making the seeker deny his or her own needs. Subsequently, there is an increase in compliance to the wounding healer’s expectations. Wehr also outlines dynamics of projection and projective identification. She suggests that the seeker often confuses the niceness of the wounding healer with spirituality. Then, the seeker projects positive aspects of the self onto the wounding healer creating an inaccurate idealization. Similarly, in projective identification one or both parties accept and act out the projected aspects of the other. This can result in an idealization of the wounding healer and a devaluation of the seeker.

Another dynamic Wehr discusses is the distortion of the mirroring process in which the wounding healer inaccurately mirrors the seeker. The seeker, not realizing the inaccuracy, may then orient him or herself to the mirroring provided by the wounding healer. Consequently, the seeker loses touch with his or her sense of identity. The consequences of these dynamics is that the seeker feels betrayed by God, has post traumatic stress-like symptoms, and suffers a damaged relationship with the sacred, making it difficult to connect with sacred aspects of life. Wehr notes that many people move through general stages of recovering including: blaming self and/or others, disillusionment, disempowering anger, and a realization that there is a sense of lack of identity. Perhaps the most helpful aspect of the chapter is Wehr’s use of case material to describe her point. It clarifies and identifies the concrete behaviors and dynamics of spiritual abuse.

In the wisdom section of the book, Ruthellen Josselson provides an intriguing view of the development of wisdom and integrity in thirty women she studied over a twenty-year period. Using dialogue from interviews with these women, Josselson constructs an argument that women make meaning through a developmental process of relating. She states: “Intersubjectivity is a developmental process in which increasing knowledge of others exists in tandem and in tension with knowledge of the self, interactively, recursively, and, often, paradoxically” (p. 93). Perhaps one of Josselson’s most significant points is that wisdom is embedded in the relational process. She states

“Throughout life other people may be experienced in four different ways: The Other may not be differentiated at all, as in merger; the Other may be experienced as a need-satisfier–an object who may or may not be internalized as part of the self; the Other may be felt as a selfobject–separate but still part of the self; or the Other may be represented as fully a subject–related to one’s self but operating from a separate center. Recognition of the Other as subject is an unevenly realized task of development” (p. 94).

Josselson concludes by reflecting on another path to wisdom that she describes as an enlargement of care. She places the process of caring into a developmental frame, notes its reliance on both affect and thought, and describes its complexity because of our increasing awareness of the limits of care as we age.

As a therapist who has worked with Christian people for years, I was pleased to find Roger Brooke’s chapter on Christian fundamentalism in the transcendence section of the text. Tackling the issues involved in treatment of those who describe themselves as fundamentalists is particularly difficult because of the ethical mandate to minimize value imposition. However, Brooke manages to adeptly argue that it is necessary to discuss faith issues in treatment. He states “… refusal to comment on spirituality and, more specifically, religious beliefs, leaves us without the means to confront the violence perpetuated by some branches of fundamentalist Christianity on those who are struggling psychologically to make sense of their lives” (p. 146).

Brooke describes fundamentalism in this way: “Fundamentalism opposes modernism (and certainly postmodernism!) with the following explicit assertions: (1) the authority of the scriptures is absolute, and its words are to be understood as literally, empirically true; (2) the human being is born in a state of sin; and (3) there is no salvation without a personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s savior. Thus fundamentalism offers a vision of divine judgment rather than love. It is a conservative moral stance that tends to hypostatize ethical sensibility into moral law, and radically to split the world in two: Christian and non-Christian, God and devil, and so on” (p. 147).

Brooke also identifies a major defensive process utilized by some fundamentalist Christians suggesting that they think of transcendence as a refuge from anxiety and suffering rather than a capacity to pass through it. He also points out that the fundamentalist Christian believes that they have privileged access to truth via prayer and scripture and that all others have succumbed to satanic influence. Brooke states: “Fundamentalist Christianity involves an identification with the transcendent order and a continual effort to overcome the downward pull of the body’s sexuality, aggression, sickness, and death” (p. 148).

Brooke notes that the defenses of splitting and projection are particularly potent in this population as they serve to sever the fundamentalist Christian from unwanted “sinful” aspects of the self. He states: “When the image of transcendence is split off from the world and our human fallibility, and when projection fails as a defense, one tends to implode into self loathing” (p. 152). He suggests that along with this self-loathing comes a secret and inflated grandiosity. Brooke describes the primary dilemma for the fundamentalist Christian as a lack of faith in the tenets of grace and forgiveness. It is here that he suggests psychotherapy to be most useful because psychotherapy offers exploration of grace and forgiveness.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the text is that the perspective shifts between chapters create a paradox in which the reader is forced to integrate new language and meaning with the reader’s current value set. I found that a diligent reading yielded both crisis and opportunity in critical thinking. Coming from a Christian tradition, it was at times difficult to immerse myself in the language of Buddhism, Taoism, or even Jungian thought, even though I am familiar with all of them. I found myself rewarded by these perspective changes both by the expansion of my own horizons and by the resulting reformulation of my own thoughts from within a Christian perspective. I suspect many readers, no matter their tradition, may have a similar experience from reading this text.

I noticed two prominent internal struggles while I interacted with the text. The first was the ongoing need for a sensitive clinical method for addressing spiritual aspects of the patient’s experience. The second was the constant but subtle pull I noticed within myself toward the notion that religion is the defensive process created, by necessity, from early injury to the patient. This, of course, was a remnant of my education rather than a view posited in the book. Although I have yet to find some sort of balancing principle to these poles—and I suspect other readers would experience entirely different internal processes emerging while reading the text—it seems to me that the editors have succeeded in developing a venue for initiating such struggles that can only benefit those providing psychological services.

Finally, I had a great appreciation for the fact the editors invited contributors who spoke sometimes from the frame of psychology-observing-spirituality, while at other times from a frame of religion/spirituality—and then drawing psychology into their spiritual frame. It seems to me a mistake to reduce the topic of spirituality to a set of scientific observations. Similarly, speaking of a psychology of spirituality from within a religious tradition risks degeneration of the effort to find an objective method to understand aspects of spirituality. Thus, the editors have nicely balanced these different perspectives so that the reader is asked to switch frames throughout the book and to hold the inherent tension between psychology and religion.

Reviewer Note

Jeff Fine-Thomas received a master’s from Fuller Theological Seminary, Graduate School of Psychology and is currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at The Fielding Graduate Institute. He is in private practice in Oklahoma City and has worked with religious clients since 1991.


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