In a class on spiritual formation at an evangelical Christian university, one would think that the spiritual journey would move toward a deeper Christian faith. However, I have found that as I have explored the purpose of spirituality in my own life as it relates to psychotherapy, I have made a deliberate shift away from orthodox Christianity.
Both of my parents are Christians. My grandmother dedicated my dad to be a missionary from a very early age. But instead, he decided to be a pastor and then ultimately pursued business. He was raised in the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Canada. God was against a lot of things like dancing, playing cards, roller skating,makeup, movies, any music with a beat and of course, cigarettes, alcohol, sex, drugs, and homosexuality. My mom was raised an Episcopalian but as a teenager she was drawn to a Young Life group at a Baptist church because she found them welcoming at a time when her parents had divorced.
I “accepted Jesus as my savior” when I was in the fourth grade at an evangelistic concert at church. By this time my dad was moving away from fundamentalism and becoming more mainstream evangelical. The messages of faith that I received were more positive than negative, for which I am grateful. I did not believe in Jesus out of fear of going to hell. I believed because I felt loved and accepted byGod. Eternal life did not have much appeal for me. My focus was always on what we do while we’re here on earth as a response to God’s love. I heard my dad say, “Jesus came to show us how to live.”
My early childhood was spent in non-denominational churches but by the age of twelve we had started to attend a Presbyterian church. At that age I didn’t notice the differences in theology. I stayed Presbyterian through high school and college; I got married there and raised my kids there. The church started to decline and I switched to a Nazarene church and then finally ended up at a Pentecostal church.
While my theology was growing more liberal, the churches I attended were more conservative. I was puzzled why I was attracted to these churches when the theology I heard was disturbing to me. I determined that I was drawn to the emotional nature of the worship style while I was going through a divorce and discovering my emotions. It was very healing for me. Ultimately the differences in belief became a barrier to engaging in an authentic way with the members and I left two years ago.
I have found in my journey that all dialogue on theological issues comes down to how one interprets the Bible. I was taught that the Bible was inspired by God but it was not dictated or inerrant. I had a sense that it was important to be interested in what the Bible said for spiritual growth. Today, I believe the Bible to be a human book written by people who lived over 2,000 to 3,000 years ago reflecting their opinion and experience in an attempt to make sense of good and evil and their perception of God’s role in that. It is valuable just as all human experience is valuable.
I was taught that God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving. Having grown up in an evangelical church, I was exposed to a personal God – a God with human qualities. I didn’t ask God for too much and when I did I didn’t pray for the outcome but for the process. I don’t think I ever really believed that God would intervene in the final outcome but I wanted to believe that he could guide the process, able to somehow influence perceptions and feelings. I remember struggling with the idea that God intervenes in supernatural ways because that would mean that he would choose not to intervene in obvious cases where a loving, all powerful God should intervene. I never prayed for sick people to be healed but for help accepting a negative outcome. I thought of God as knowing me better than myself and would pray for him to reveal my true self to me. I heard mostly about a God of love; however we weren’t to forget he was the God of justice, meaning there was tobe a penalty for offenses against God. I could not figure out how an all-powerful God of love and justice could exist together.
As I look back over my experience with God, I never did fully embrace the God that was preached in church; what I now understand as supernatural theism. I always felt like I was trying toreframe what I was told in order to have it fit what I thought or experienced. About ten years ago, I finally found the language that aligned with my idea of God. It came through the writing of Marcus Borg and then subsequently John Shelby Spong and others. He introduced me to the idea of pantheism. It is the idea that “God is the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. Paul is quoted in Acts as having said, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Borg says,“The universe is not separate from God, but in God.” (Borg, 2003, pg66) Paul Tillich says, “The God above the God of theism is present, although hidden, in every divine-human encounter.” (Tillich, 1952, pg 187) We ascribe human characteristics to God because it helps us articulate how the relationship with God feels to us. This does not mean that God literally has human attributes.
The traditional Christian understanding of human nature says that we were originally created good in God’s image but then we were corrupted by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, instigated by a talking serpent. From that point on we are by nature prone to hate God and neighbor. Unless we are born again through the Spirit of God we will be punished eternally. (Ursinus,1563) I don’t believe that God intended for theworld to be without sin. There is no cause and effect relationship between this mythical Genesis story and what is defined as our sinful nature. Morality existed long before the Bible was written and the author of Genesis did not have an inside knowledge on the beginning of the world. The Bible is an expression of the morality that had been worked out to that point in history.
All ethical values, all moral principles, and even all religious beliefs, originate within the human brain. All we have is our perceptions and experiences of what we call God. God’s existence cannot be proven or disproven. The only absolute is something that is common to all forms of life -- the survival instinct. Our survival instinct is responsible for both good and evil. In orderto survive we have to work together to establish rules that are good for all. However since we do have free will, we can lose sense of that. Spong says that human life is“described as the product of a struggle for survival that has left the scars of self-centeredness writ large on our psyches.” (Spong, 2001, pg 165)
In spite of the good that humans are capable of, there seems to be something that is just not right with our condition which Christians call sin. So if something is wrong, what is the solution? The traditional Christian view says that sin separates us from God and that somehow this offense against God has to be paid for. The death of Jesus is the payment that provides reconnection with God and gives us life after death. This belief, by its very nature, seems to be judgmental and exclusive. Why would a God of unconditional love condemn his creation to eternal torment when they don’t choose a relationship with Him? Why would a God of grace create a plan of salvation that required an innocent man be crucified? By definition grace is unmerited favor that requires nothing of us, including belief.
Borg gives three reasons that the Christian emphasis on the afterlife is one of the worst contributions to religion. First he says it turns Christianity into a religion of requirements. It just doesn’t seem right that everyone should be able to get into heaven so we have to have a way of separating those who get in from those who don’t by requiring something that we believe or do. Second, this creates a distinction between those who are in and those who are out, those who are saved and those who aren’t. Third, focus on the next world takes our attention away from transformation of this world. (Borg, 2003)
Salvation is not a ticket to the afterlife. It is about wholeness and healing both personally and socially. Salvation is about life together bringing peace and justice for all. Spong references Carl Jung saying that this healing won’t occur until we embrace our shadow and accept our own evil which is part of our being. “Human life is not perfectible,” says Spong. (Spong, 2001, pg 167) Therefore the goal is not to wipe away our sin with the blood of Jesus. Redemption is not necessary.
Spirituality in a general sense refers to a person’s inner journey to discover the essence of his or her being, or the deepest values and meanings by which we live. It is an experience of connectedness with a larger reality which would include ourselves, others and humanity. It is the sense that there is something more than we can ever fully know.
Religion is an expression of spirituality; however spirituality can occur outside of religion. I consider myself in the growing group of people who define themselves as spiritual but not religious and believe there are many different spiritual paths. This kind of spirituality is open to new ideas, and more pluralistic than the doctrinal faiths of organized religions. It does not rely solely on ancient scriptures and practices.
Although my roots are in Christianity,my spiritual path is no longer uniquely Christian; in fact in my own journey I’m finding the traditional evangelical tradition quite limiting and irrelevant. Dallas Willard,author on Christian spiritual formation, says, “Spiritual formation in Christ moves toward a total interchange of our ideas and images for his.” (Willard, 2002, pg 102) “Single-minded and joyous devotion to God and his will, to what God wants for us…is what the will transformed into Christlikeness looks like. That is the outcome of Christian spiritual formation with reference to the will, heart, or spirit.” (Willard,2002, pg 143)
Christian thought says that the goal of spiritual formation is righteousness, living a life that is worthy before God, a life which assures us the opportunity to be with God forever. Willard’s motivation for putting on the character of Christ is two-fold; to guarantee a spot in heaven for him and to be a light in a darkworld with the purpose of helping others guarantee a spot in heaven for them.
Spiritual formation is not about the afterlife. It is the growth and development of the whole person by an intentional focus on one’s spiritual and interior life and interactions with others in ordinary life. This does not necessarily include a supernatural being – a theistic interventionist God -- which expects our devotion and hasa will for our life. God does not direct our path as much as God is discovered in the journey. God is being itself. God is in the moments of connectedness between us.
The biggest influence on Christian spiritual formation is the church. Spong says that the primary task of the church is to be a community “to assist in the creation of wholeness – not goodness, but wholeness.” (2001, Spong, pg 169) Spong’s image of the church is where all parts of our humanity can be bound together. We cannot achieve wholeness by ourselves. That only happens in a community so deep that good and evil might dwell together. So it isn’t about replacing evil with good, as Willard believes; it is about accepting the good and bad in ourselves and others. It is out of that acceptance that we experience true healing and that is done in community and relationship. The need for community is true outside of Christianity as well. We are formed and sustained by relationships.
Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard, says we need to realize that we are not wicked, debased, helpless creatures waiting for God to bless us with strength, wisdom and love. We have that potential inside us but by ourselves we are not enough. But it isn’t God we need, it is people. “All of us know what it feels like to realize, ‘I am a person.’ But it takes a little more awareness to realize, ‘You are also a person.’ And it takes even greater awareness still to recognize that I am more of a person when I am helping you to be more of a person.” (Epstein, 2009, pg 93) A belief in God and a church community can be very instrumental in supporting our choice to reach out to others but it is not necessary.
If spirituality is understood as the development of inner peace as the foundation for happiness, then spiritual practice of some kind is essential for personal well being. Over the past thirty years,Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have studied spiritual practices common in all world religions. Following are some of the spiritual practices they have identified that resonate with me.
Attention is also known as mindfulness or awareness. We must pay attention not to risk missing critical elements of the spiritual life — moments of grace, opportunities for gratitude, evidence of our connections to others, signs of the presence of Spirit. Being present in the spiritual life means being here now, living in the moment with full awareness. We don’t hold onto regrets or fantasize about the future. Compassion is a feeling deep within us and it is also a way of acting— being affected by the suffering of others and moving on their behalf. Jesus is an exemplar of compassion, and it is the central ethical virtue of Christianity. The practice of connections reinforces holistic thinking and our awareness of how the spiritual, emotional, and mental aspects of our being nourish each other. The spiritual practice of gratitude is a state of mind and a way of life. To learn to be thankful for all experiences, both joyful and painful. Doing justice is a central imperative in all religions emphasizing right relationships within communities, recognizing the equality and dignity of all. It assumes that none of us is free until all of us are. Listening enables us to tune in to others and our inner voices of intuition and conscience. Listening leads to a deepening of relationships and a greater sense of self for all parties. Openness is an ability to be receptive to new possibilities, without prejudging them. It is important in the spiritual life to keep an open mind,open to ideas, experiences, people, the world, and the Sacred. The spiritual practice of you challenges us to become all we are meant to be. The ideal is to live with both our strengths and our weaknesses. The spiritual practice of you is the prescription to help you find and express your authentic self. (1998,Brussat)
Why would a God of unconditional love condemn his creation to eternal torment when they don’t choose a relationship with Him?Thinking clinically, the question is not what the truth is, but what purpose does faith, or belief,serve in one’s life? Where faith comes from in the first place? Nicholas Wade, science writer for the New York Times, suggests that “religion is so natural to humanity that it seems to be part of human nature.” (2009, Wade, pg3) His basic premise is that the instinct for religious behavior is an evolved part of human nature for the purpose of survival, much like language. People survive as social groups, not as individuals. The practice of religion is social; it belongs to a community of people who all share the same belief. This creates rules for behavior that benefit all members and creates a unity among the group that makes it more likely to prevail in war. (Wade,2009)
Even though most religions claim to have absolute truth, it is not really about that. Religion is a man made invention that developed with the unintentional outcome of helping ensure survival of the species. It is attractive because it can bring deep personal satisfaction. It is the source of some of our deepest emotions and commitments as well asa sense of rightness and harmony with the world. Another aspect of religion that motivates obedience to the group’s moral code is the fear of divine punishment. Morality is at the heart of our social behavior and the instinct for religion enforces moral instincts with both positive and negative motivations. (Wade, 2009) This is quite different from the Christian idea that our human nature is basically evil and that morality comes fromGod.
The reason it is important to consider someone’s faith clinically is because the power of religious beliefs lies in the fact that they are so emotional. Borg summarizes, “Whatever God is ultimately like, our relationship to God is personal. This relationship engages us as persons at our deepest and most passionate level.” (Borg, 2003, pg 72)
Spirituality also comes into play in the deepest issues of our lives. Carlton Cornett identifies six clinically relevant elements of spirituality: the meaning of life, values,mortality, organization of the universe, suffering, and life after death. As we explore these areas with our clients, Cornett cautions against two extremes of counter transference in spiritually attuned clinical work. One is the fear of the mysterious or unanswerable. The other is when there is no mystery in spirituality when the therapist has arrived at all the decisions and sees no room for any other truth. Not only is it important to understand one’s own spirituality but also to be able to accept a different spirituality in our clients. If the therapist is not flexible in their spiritual system they will not be effective clinically with those who differ from them. (Cornett,1998)
Cornett encourages an active, non-judgmental curiosity, which emphasizes an interest in understanding. Rigidity and dogmatism, associated with absolutism, work actively against curiosity. In addition to curiosity, he suggests the importance of qualities like a comfort with mystery and the willingness to look at one’sown internal world. Spirituality presents more mysteries than knowable conclusions. The therapist must be willing to see questions as being valuable in locating answers. With curiosity and mystery comes chaos and out of the chaos comes the client’s most profound truth. The best environment in order to allow this chaos is one of empathy. Two important components of an emphatic response are the willingness to see reality as relative and the suspension of disbelief in listening to the client’s story. When the therapist is willing to understand themselves, it allows them to help their clients increase interest in and acceptance of their humanity. This acceptance brings healing. (Cornett, 1998)
Theoretically I’m drawn to interpersonal psychotherapy. Harry Stack Sullivan says that , “…man requires interpersonal relationships, or interchange with others.” (Sullivan,1953, p. 32). Sullivan said we have what he calls a tendency toward health. If other things do not interfere, personalities tend to grow in healthy ways. This tendency toward emotional and interpersonal health is a result of man’s evolution over millions of years. Sullivan would believe that a good life can be lived without any religious belief and in fact would probably think that religious thought gets in the way. It is our bad interrelationships that create an immoral person.
Therapeutically we have to be open to the idea that someone’s faith system can be very destructive to their own emotional health and the welfare of others. One of the distinguishing features of any religion is the attention to right belief or right thinking. For a fundamentalist, or even most evangelicals,Christianity is at the core of their identity. It provides a framework for meaning out of which good things can and do happen. However any threat to the loss of this meaning system is serious. If they find that part of their belief system is in error, it challenges their entire system. They live under the schema that says, “If I don’t get it right, I am not a Christian and I will go to hell.” Therefore they are intolerant of ambiguity and must defend their beliefs at all costs, even if they are contrary to evidence and otherwise unreasonable. (Mercer, 2009)
Faith is about belief in belief and the meaning that belief has for the client. The supportive power of faith to console and provide hope has nothing to do with whether it is actually true and everything to do with whether one believes it is true. Although devout believers would reject the comparison, there are similarities between faith and a placebo. A placebo is effective because the patient believes it is effective. If a doctor told the patient he was on a placebo, any potential affect would be lost. Likewise, if a doctor lies to a terminal cancer patient that he is cured, he will be consoled in the same way as another man who is truly told he is cured. So just because someone feels supported in their belief system does not make it true. (Dawkins, 2006) This is why it is crucial that the therapist not debate the beliefs of a client but identify the meaning of those beliefs. Challenging or even ignoring a client’s beliefs could have the same effect as telling someone they are taking a placebo.
In summary, the development of religion and spirituality is a product of evolution for the purpose of survival. It could be one of the most valuable things ever invented by humans, not because it is true but because of the meaning it provides in our lives both individually and socially. Some find comfort in absolutes because it helps them manage chaos in their lives, however, “Absolutes are not consistent with the ambivalence and elegant complexities inherent in the human condition.” (Cornett, 1993, pg 119) Others are content just to ponder the mystery of feeling like there is something more, even though we can’t really know what that is. The dialogue of our common experience becomes meaningful whether we have all the answers or not.
Humans are not depraved in need of redemption through a crucified Christ. The most powerful force we have is that of free will -- personal choice. We choose to live a moral life and when we do we find that life is meaningful and supports the survival of all of us. A moral life of meaning is found in relationship with others. Based on the circumstances into which we are born and the quality of the relationships that shape us, choices can be more difficult for some than others.
It is the task of the therapist to encourage and experience genuine dialogue and to help remove any obstacles to healthy relationships. The goal is to have what Martin Buber calls the I-Thou relationship. This occurs when our personal uniqueness enters into relationship with another’s personal uniqueness through genuine listening. Engaging in genuine dialogue enhances the possibilities for realizing our unique wholeness. (Kramer, 2003) This dialogue must include exploration of our spirituality. It is in this meeting between ourselves, including therapist and client,that we experience God.
Borg, M.J. (2003) The Heart of Christianity. SanFrancisco: HarperCollins
Brussat, F and Brussat, M.A. (1998) Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life. New York:Scribner
Cornett, C. (1998) The Soul ofPsychotherapy New York: The Free Press
Dawkins, R.(2006) The God Delusion Great Britain: Black Swan
Epstein, G. (2009) Good Without God. New York: HarperCollins
Kramer, K.P. (2003) Martin Buber’s I and Thou. New York: Paulist Press
Mercer, C. (2009)Slaves to Faith. Westport, CT: Praeger
Spong, J.S.(2001) A Christianity for a New World. New York:HarperCollins Publishers
Sullivan, H. S. (1953) TheInterpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. New York: W.W. Norton &Company.
Tillich, P. (1952) The Courage toBe. New Haven: Yale University Press
Ursinus, Z. andOlevianus, C. (1563) The Heidelberg Catechism Retrieved February 20,2010,http://www.reformed.
Wade, N. (2009) The Faith Instinct New York: The PenguinPress
Willard, D. (2002) Renovation of the Heart. Colorado Springs: NavPress
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