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Psychology and dying to self

15 March 2013

A neglected Christian theme appears here, says Anne Spalding


Grace for the Injured Self: The healing approach of Heinz Kohut
Terry D. Cooper and Robert L. Randall
The Lutterworth Press £17.50

Dying to Self and Detachment
James Kellenberger
Ashgate £50
Church Times Bookshop £45 (Use code CT618 )

I FOUND Grace for the Injured Self clear and engaging. Prior knowledge of psychology and theology may be useful, but did not seem essential. The authors lay out the approach of Heinz Kohut, who recognised that the self in everyone is injured through living. In other words, both in childhood and throughout life, people do not reflect back to us in ways we need, and this affects the core of who we are.

The key to addressing an individual or a group's difficulties, therefore, is to deal first with the reality of these psychological injuries. Kohut argues that solutions are relational, and that in practice empathy is the essential start. From my experience of life and church, I found the argument convincing: the descriptions of church conflict and the solutions were particularly illuminating, but I would need more information to be confident of identifying the appropriate approach for myself.

Cooper and Randall then record two interviews between Kohut and Randall, from which they comment separately on Kohut's view of religion. Kohut sees religion as essential for human society, and he focuses on religion's human benefit. Readers may or may not be sympa­thetic to this view, but, with the authors' reflections, it gives plenty of material for further dis­cussion.

While helpful for the practicalities of church, Kohut, Cooper, and Randall do not address the call of Jesus to deny self. Thankfully, Kellenberger, inDying to Self and Detachment,does so in detail, with clarity and precision. Kellenberger assumes that Christ fully lived this "detachment", and that Meister Eckhart and St Teresa of Ávila model it appropriately; but he also draws on others from Christian and other traditions, particularly Buddhism. He explores humility and pride, noting the different meanings in common use, and builds a picture of "detach­ment" (Eckhart's word) that is not aloofness.

I welcomed the serious consid­eration given to the reality that some people negate or have an undeveloped self. In fact, Kellen­berger argues that "detachment" includes appropriate self-respect and self-love. Also, a "detached" person knows peace and joy, but remains affected by stress and sorrow, as Christ was in the wilder­ness. Altogether, this makes "detach­ment" sound a desirable quality; so how does one become "detached"?

Kellenberger investigates chemical stimuli such as LSD and some things that might be mistaken for "detachment", including religious ecstasy. Nevertheless, he is clear that, although in Western tradition "detachment" is given, in all traditions it is something to seek and strive for.

Yet it is many years since I have heard anyone preach on dying to self. Presumably, this is because it is assumed to be a negative process, at odds with psychological insights. So Kellenberger's study is an important analysis, encouraging a fresh look at this aspect of a continuing spiritual journey. All the same, other issues still need exploration.

For example, I wonder how a nuanced under­standing of "detachment" fits, say, with the Ignatian tradition, and how contemporary psychologists might respond to such a subtle under­stand­ing of dying to self.

In practice, I found Kellen­berger's study inspiring, but his contention that a "detached" person may engage with people and institutions is a long way from exploring the reality of the pastoral issues that are Cooper and Randall's focus. Nevertheless, both books offer plenty to think through as we grapple with both the ideal and everyday reality.

Dr Anne Spalding is a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, and lives in Suffolk.

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