Faith and Human Maturing

In setting out to reflect on the relationship between faith and human maturing I’m aware that these are not often considered together. An individual can be said to be mature in their faith but their maturity as a person does not necessarily follow from that. But I believe that faith and human maturity depend on each other. Human maturity is necessary for a person to be mature in their faith, but, at the same time faith is necessary for human maturity. Thomas Aquinas was saying something along these lines when he wrote that grace presupposes nature and grace perfects (completes) nature. And so if the project of the church is the promotion of the mature humanity that Paul talks about in Ephesians 4 then we must recognise the close and interdependent relationship that exists between the two.

I may be preaching to the converted here, but I certainly come from a tradition where faith and human maturity are treated as distinct and independent qualities. A young person can be converted and immediately seen as having a mature faith, even though they don’t yet have a mature character. It is as though a mature faith can be given by God instantaneously and miraculously. The reason for this I think is that maturity of faith is often measured by the intensity of a person’s devotional life and not by their character, which is the basis on which human maturity is measured. So forgive me if I am saying something here that doesn’t need to be said, but much of what I am about to say will be aimed at demonstrating that a mature faith requires a mature character and that a mature character is completed by faith.

The Narrative Self

What It Is and Why

So where do we begin in developing our understanding of the relationship between faith and human maturity? I think the first thing we need to do is develop a theory of the self, since it is the transformation of the self that we are trying to understand when discussing both human maturing and faith. So what is the self? What does it mean for any one of us to refer to ourselves as “I”?

I want to argue that to be a human self is to make meaning out of our experiences through narrative and in community. We experience ourselves through the stories we formulate out of our experiences, and those stories are created and narrated within the context of our social relations. This, I believe, is how the Bible encourages us to understand our selves.

To see this we need to begin at the beginning and in the beginning was the Logos: the Word. All words represent not a single point of meaning, but a whole field of meaning, and logos’ semantic field is larger than most. It is word, reason, conversation, meaning and more beside. In understanding it we want to avoid an idea of ‘word’ in an abstract sense; merely the concept of a ‘word’. Logos, as John uses it, is no mere signifier. We want to understand Logos as an act of communication, a speech act. And so the Logos of John’s prologue is Word and Meaning, but Meaning spoken, communicated; Word or Meaning in communion. The Logos then is the meaning of all things. He gives them their being, their form, their place and purpose. The Logos unifies all things in himself as the ultimate meaning. He is the alpha of creation’s story and he is its omega. The story of all things begins and ends in him; it flows from him and is for him.

Our understanding of what it means to be human must, therefore, begin and end with the Logos. But how do we access this meaning since the Logos, being God, is other? Well, as John tells us, the Logos became flesh. The Meaning became a human being, revealing the meaning he gives to our humanity, infusing our experience of being human with meaning. By his incarnation the Logos has entered the story of human existence and experience, he has taken possession of that story and become its locus; he is revealed to be its creator and its goal.

And so the one who is the ultimate meaning, who alone can give meaning to humanity, assumed a story. He became a being with a beginning, a middle and an end … and a new beginning (Aristotle’s famous definition of a story is rewritten by Christ!), and in his story meaning is given to all our lives. This, of course, is the gospel, but what I am emphasising here is that the gospel is concerned with what it means to be human, and in its concern for our humanity it gives human beings meaning and it does this through the narration and declaration of the story of Jesus Christ.

We are Meaning Making Creatures

I want to pause at this point and reflect on the fact that we are meaning making creatures, and that we make meaning through creating stories out of our experiences.

Meaning making is what we do, we are always creating meaning out of new experiences and we fit the stories we tell ourselves about those new experiences into the bigger story we have of ourselves. For example, if you were to greet a friend on the way into this conference and they didn’t respond to you, but just walked on by, you would probably immediately turn that experience into a story in order to make sense of it. What is more, the mini story you compose would reflect the bigger story you already tell yourself about who you are. And so if your big story about yourself cast you in the role of an unacceptable person, liable to be rejected by everyone else, then you would interpret this experience as one of rejection. But if your big story framed others as being unacceptable then you would compose a story about your friend’s inadequacies. In this way you would use this new experience to reinforce your view of yourself and the world you have already adopted.

Equally, experiences that undermine the story we tell ourselves about ourselves are quickly forgotten or re-interpreted. Only those that reinforce our self-narrative are given any credence. And so a person who has grown up with the story that they are a failure may, in order to escape the difficult feelings brought about by this belief, pursue success all their lives and they may even become very successful, but all their success will be unable to shift those unwanted feelings of failure. Their self-definition has been formed by the story of failure they adopted for themselves years earlier, which means that experiences that contradict that story fail to register.

To summarise then, we all need to make meaning for ourselves to know who we are and the way we do this is by ordering our experiences into a coherent narrative. We know who we are because of the story we compose about ourselves. Our identity is formed and maintained through story-telling.

Christ Takes Into Himself The Story Of Humanity

We see this identity forming process reflected in the role of the festivals of OT Israel. The Israelites understood who they were by virtue of the story of the formation and salvation of their nation. Repeatedly throughout the year they retold that story through their festivals. The Passover, the Feast of Booths etc. all spoke to them of where they had come from (beginning), where they were (middle) and where, through the promises of God, they were going (end). The festivals were a retelling of the story about who they were. But they were also the means by which they were able to make sense of all their new experiences. We see this in the preaching of the prophets who would refer to God’s previous saving works in calling the people to repent.

In the NT Jesus, the incarnate Logos, is revealed to be the locus of Israel’s self-narrative. He is the true Israel, the offspring of Abraham who will bless the nations. His story is not a part of Israel’s story, rather his story encompasses the story of Israel so that Israel’s history is given meaning by him, it makes sense in him and only in him. We know who Israel is because of Christ.

But Jesus’ story encompasses not only the story of Israel, it takes into itself the story of the human race and indeed of everything. He is the Second Adam, the human to whom is given authority over all creation, to whom is entrusted the story of the universe. And so he gives humanity its story, the human race finds out who it is through him.

And so when Paul speaks of believers as being in Christ, he is describing the creation of the new humanity through its participation in Jesus’ narrative. The new humanity is the human race with a new story, which is the story of Jesus, a story of communion with God, a story of self-sacrificial love, a story of resurrection and renewal.

All of this does two things. First, it establishes that we can understand the human self in terms of the narrative humans compose about their experiences. And so if I were to ask you, “Who are you?”, you would no doubt tell me your name, where you are from, whether or not you are married etc. In other words you would tell me your story.

Incidentally, this story can reveal itself in intriguing ways. One of the exercises I sometimes do with my clients is to ask them what story was most significant to them as children and often, as they retell their favourite childhood story, I can sit back and watch the penny drop as they realise that they have been acting out that story ever since!

Second, it tells us that our narrative can only ultimately be coherent if it is integrated into the narrative of Christ. A mature identity for all humans must ultimately be found in Jesus. As we place ourselves within his narrative so we are led into the maturity that God intends for us.

Put together these lead us to the conclusion that we need to abandon the notion that there is a spiritual maturity and then there is also a personal maturity. There is only human maturity, which is completed by faith. This being the case the church cannot be indifferent to what it means to be human. We must not forsake our inheritance as those who have received the revelation of perfect humanity in Christ. More than anyone else the Christian church must be concerned with human growth towards maturity since God is renewing humanity itself in Christ. And so the business of Christianity is nothing less than the project of ‘becoming human.’

The Goal: Love

How The Therapeutic Conversation Is About Love

What does this becoming human look like? The answer to this question identifies the goal of pastoral counselling as I understand it and is seen in the life and teaching of Jesus. Becoming human means to transcend our selves in self-giving love.

Here Christianity has something different from some within the psychotherapeutic community to say. Often the goal of therapy is said to be individuation, or self-actualisation. As Christians we can’t go along with this. If Christ is the new humanity then the ultimate expression of our humanity must be self-transcending love.

Now we need to address a possible objection at this point, because some may see the nature of a therapeutic conversation as being the exact opposite of love: it is a conversation entirely about the client, doesn’t it, therefore, promote self-centredness and self-worship? The reason the conversation focuses on the individual is not to promote a narcissistic obsession with self, but to explore and overcome those restrictions that are limiting that person’s growth and their ability to love others. Self-obsession and self-centredness are actually promoted by emotional and psychological difficulties such as chronic shame, chronic anxiety, unintegrated anger etc.. The objective of pastoral counselling is to identify those beliefs and ways of making meaning that are fuelling or supporting this shame, anxiety or suppressing this anger, with the aim of helping the other to transcend themselves and to love.

How psychotherapy can help

But how can psychotherapy help the church in this process? Let’s consider a woman, Mary, who is known for helping others. Her entire life seems to be given over to helping others. Everyone thinks that she is the epitome of Christian love: everyone must be like Mary! But if you looked more closely (and honestly) at Mary’s life you would soon get curious about certain patterns. For instance, she never accepts any help from others, what is more, she frequently does things for others when in fact it would be better for them if they did them themselves.

Mary eventually seeks your help because of a sense of emptiness in her life. So how can Mary be helped to change? Well, the pastoral process, if it is helped by psychotherapy theory and techniques, will be able to uncover the story that supports this behaviour and help her make changes to that story which will bring about changes in her self. And so during the pastoral conversation it may emerge that her helping people is a defence against an inner self-loathing. As a child she learned to cope with her unacceptability by believing that she could win people’s love through doing things for them and rescuing them. And now she is lonely because she is afraid to allow anyone else into her life in case they will expose her unacceptability. To the world she presents a competent and caring self, but that is as far from her inner experience as it is possible to get.

Mary’s helping of others, it goes without saying, is not love. In fact she finds love extremely difficult. Her self-narrative leads her to disrespect others by discounting their abilities to overcome their own problems. Her need to defend against her self-loathing leads her to use others to prop up her own fragile ability to be in the world. She is a slave to her own psychological processes and she needs to be set free from them if she is going to learn to love. Only then will she be able to choose freely to transcend herself by accepting and respecting others and by loving them.

What I hope this example shows is that Psychotherapy theory can help us to make sense of our own inability to grow and to flourish. Since the concern of the Christian faith is to promote the new human, the pastoral process must be focussed on growth towards human maturity, a maturity that is seen in the whole of life and that flourishes in love. It must delve into the causes of our failure to grow into ethical, which is to say, loving human beings. To do this it must be willing to borrow from other disciplines, like psychotherapy, which furnish us with a vocabulary and a grammar for making sense of a human’s failure to grow.

The Method: Love

Incarnational Love

So far we have seen that the process of human maturing is an ongoing surrendering of our own narrative to God’s narrative with the goal of a life of Christ-like love. To put it another way, the gospel summons us to consider all that we are, our psychosomatic, relational and responsible existence and to submit it all to God’s narrative with the result that our ethical existence resembles that of Jesus’.

All of which leads us to consider the method by which we can help one another achieve this growth. How does a pastoral counsellor help someone free themselves from those processes that hinder growth?

Let me begin to answer this question by stating what it doesn’t involve. It doesn’t involve us standing on the outside of someone’s experience and calling on them to repent of their sins; standing on the outside of someone’s narrative of stuckness and calling them to become unstuck. That is not what Jesus did!

Growth is promoted by someone climbing into that part of another’s story that is a hindrance to their growth, being present with them, experiencing it with them and leading them out into a different way of being. It means getting our hands dirty. Jesus did not stand on the outside of people’s immaturity, self-centredness and sin and call them to come out. Rather he entered into the experience of those who needed help and sought to deliver them from the forces that kept them from growing.

In other words, transformation is brought about by incarnational love. I hesitate to use the word ‘incarnational’ as it has been used to refer to manipulative and inauthentic forms of evangelism. However, it does fit what I am describing. Jesus is of course the prototype of incarnation. He entered into the experience of the individual, and standing alongside them he encouraged them to look around and see their hindrances to growth and so to follow him into a new way of being. A reading of his encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 is surely enough to convince us of this. But it is not only his encounters with individuals but also, and ultimately, his death and resurrection that establish the pattern whereby a pastoral counsellor can facilitate deep and long-lasting transformation. On the cross Jesus entered into our experience of unacceptability, shame, guilt and immaturity in order to deliver us from them all.

In my experience this incarnational love is what psychotherapy is all about and what psychotherapists dedicate themselves to. One text book on psychotherapy I read a few years ago actually began with the statement that the psychotherapeutic relationship is a living out of the Biblical command to love your neighbour as yourself.

And so love is not only the goal of pastoral counselling it is also the means. Our transformation and growth happen within the context of a relationship in which we experience the other as accepting us, welcoming us, and sacrificially giving of themselves to us.

Incarnational Love And The Schizoid Process

Let’s take another example. Consider a man who doesn’t engage with others in spite of having listened to many excellent sermons about love. He is withdrawn, and awkward in conversations, and he spends the vast majority of his time alone and almost all his energy in maintaining his aloneness. How can he be helped to love others better? To simply tell him to love others, I suggest, would be counterproductive. You see, using psychotherapy theory to uncover his storyline, we may find that he doesn’t engage with others because he concluded as a child that others will only reject him. Perhaps his parents didn’t want him and their true feelings leaked out in some form, which encouraged him to form a self-narrative of being unwanted, possibly even hated. Consequently, he believes that to engage with others would be to expose himself to rejection or abuse all over again and so he has developed strategies to get himself through life whilst maintaining a safe distance from others. This has left him lonely and angry, but he simply hasn’t the resources to change his situation.

By the way, this is a story of a person who has what is called a ‘schizoid’ process. To have a schizoid process has nothing to do with being schizophrenic! Rather it describes a person who lives in their head. Often excellent thinkers, many learn very early on to take refuge in forms of spirituality: a relationship with God is where they imagine they can find the intimacy they were denied by their parents and for which they continue to look. A key point here is that those who have this kind of process experience themselves as already trying their very best, and so to tell them off and command them to repent without making that effort to understand them is experienced by them to be an act of unlove and it risks repeating the experience of being abused they suffered as children.

Calls to repentance without that incarnational love that gets involved in the experiences of stuckness and sin of our congregations, will result in superficial repentance at best, where the individual concerned will summon all their reserves to “mortify” their behaviour, but without actually addressing its causes. At worst it will provoke shame and a sense of despair that either the Christian faith doesn’t work, or they can’t work in the Christian faith. Christ shows us a better way. His self-giving incarnational love produces transformation towards our God-appointed destiny as human beings.

A Closer Look At Incarnational Love

So what does this incarnational love look like? In the case of the example I’ve just given, the first ingredient any helpful pastoral relationship will need will be patience. These wounds are formed at a very early age and as such are very well protected. We may need to be prepared to be in a pastoral relationship measured in years, not in weeks. But what do pastoral relationships require from us in general? Let me limit myself to four important ways of relating which we need to adopt if we want to help anyone.

1. Respecting. To be in a position to help someone else make sense of their experiences, and to grow is an immense privilege. Everyone who speaks to us bears God’s image. This must be remembered as they trust us with their vulnerability. The position of power they grant us must only be accepted with humility and gratitude. It also means that we must respect the uniqueness of the person we are speaking to. I don’t believe that it is consistent with Christ-like love to reduce a person to a theory and to imagine that a category such as “schizoid” or “borderline” says anything close to all that can be said about them.

2. Welcoming. The person who comes to us for help must not only be accepted by us, but they must also be welcomed. Among other things, this means that they must not be judged by us. No matter what they tell us about their story we must constantly communicate to them that they are welcomed by us and that communication must be truthful. This is not merely a technique to persuade others to open up to us, it is surely the working out of a Christian life-position.

3. Witnessing. We must be prepared to go with them wherever they wish to lead us as they narrate their story. This means that we empathically enter into their experience. This is an extremely difficult task and requires a great deal of skill as we listen to what is being said and what is not being said, as we note how it is being said and as we allow ourselves to feel what is being felt.

4. Self-reflecting. We must not exclude ourselves from this process of gaining self-awareness. The one tool we have in pastoral therapy is our self: we respond to how the other feels, we react to how they relate to us. If we are to use this tool effectively then we need to grow in our understanding of it. The fact is that we all have our own issues, but the question that arises in the pastoral counselling process is whether the feelings we experience are related to my relationship with the other person or do they belong to my own issues?

Conclusions

1. The self is structured by narrative and formed in community. We narrate our selves in response to our experiences of others around us. This narrative is not only created but also re-written in relationship. For this reason the church is the community where healing and growth can happen. It is where our experience of Christ-like love encourages us to submit our own narratives to the narrative of God. It is the community where new meaning can be created.

2. To be this the Church must be in dialogue with psychotherapy. Because faith and human maturing — grace and nature — are mutually dependent the church cannot be ignorant of how nature works if it is to promote faith. And so we need to be in conversation with those who have dedicated their efforts to understanding what it means to grow as humans. We can and must learn from those disciplines that can help us to help each other.

There is a fear in some quarters that psychotherapy is trespassing on the territory of the church. One Christian expressed doubt in the wisdom of my training as a psychotherapist by asking me, “Isn’t the gospel enough?” I hope I have gone some way to showing that to a significant degree the concerns of the church and of the psychotherapeutic community legitimately overlap. We are both concerned with what it means to be human and how humans can be helped towards maturity. There are significant differences in the answers that either community will provide to these questions, but there are also important commonalities.

I wish to conclude by addressing a question I would want to ask had I heard this address, and that is, why hasn’t the Holy Spirit been mentioned at all? The reason for this omission is not a discounting of the work of the Spirit on my part, quite the opposite in fact. I believe that I have from the very beginning of this paper been talking about nothing other than the work of the Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of truth and the Spirit of life. Any process, therefore, that promotes the discovery of meaning and that promotes human flourishing is one to which the Spirit is central. As the church works to encourage its members to flourish in the whole of life, to grow towards maturity in their personalities, to blossom in their self-giving and Christ-like love so she is participating in the Spirit’s work of bringing about God’s kingdom.

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