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The mind and the model life

14 August 2015

David Atkinson reads a psychological guide to Christian virtues

The Psychology of Christian Character Formation
Joanna Collicutt
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


SPIRITUAL formation, rightly a key component of all Christian leadership training, is "the transforming work of God’s Spirit in every aspect of life of the believer". It is "growing up" in Christ. It is the body of Christ learning how to become its true self.

Joanna Collicutt draws on many years as clinical psychologist, priest, and theological educator — most recently at Ripon College, Cuddesdon — to provide a rich interdisciplinary guide to Christian character formation. She provides a psychological manual for Christian spirituality, with the aim of equipping the Christian disciple (particularly, I think, ordinands and clergy) with psychological insights and practical ideas to support spiritual growth.

Collicutt identifies seven "virtues" that express the character of Jesus. After chapters outlining pertinent insights from contemporary psychology — from temperament to attachment theory — she develops a conversation between psychology and biblical theology to help the reader learn what growing such virtues (producing the fruits of God’s Spirit) would mean in their own spiritual development.

We reflect on Jesus’s intimacy with the Holy Other to illuminate our identity as children of our Heavenly Father. We are reminded of Jesus’s humble power, and what it implies for our self-esteem, defensive pride, and shame, to have the mind of Christ. As Jesus paid attention to "heaven in the ordinary", we give attention to the natural world, to prayerful wonder and creativity. As Jesus achieved coherence in his life by balancing the competing demands on him, so we, with the Spirit’s aid, can find the balance of the good life.

The hospitality, compassion (including a passion for justice), and non-retaliation seen in Jesus have implications for our visiting, welcoming, inclusion, mercy and empathy, social involvement, and forgiveness. The wisdom of Jesus illustrates how we can "inhabit uncertainty" with confidence. Walking the way of the Cross and resurrection enables both resilience and transformation as we work together with God in the processes of Christian formation.

It does not do justice to the richness of Collicutt’s writing to summarise so much in these few sentences. There is a great deal here from which all Christian disciples would benefit, and that all ordinands should be required to read.

Why am I left, then, with some unease? I think it is partly that there seem to be two books woven together: a more academic class textbook, with vast numbers of biblical and biographical references (why are these annoyingly in the text and not in footnotes?); and a more informal "self-help" spiritual guide with homely illustrative anecdotes, apt quotations from the "wise guides" in the history of Christian spiritual writing, and lists of questions, meditations, and spiritual exercises for the reader to use.

Mostly the weaving works well; but there are some places where, for me, the academic gets in the way of the "self-help".

I have some unease also about what is not there. Although Collicutt refers to the "hard road to glory", there is little sense of the struggle of growing up. Jesus, St Luke says, "beat his way forward" as he grew in wisdom and stature; he "learned obedience through what he suffered"; St Paul talks about endurance as being part of the testing of character; disciples are to "take up their cross".

I think there might be a chapter needed on the "virtue" of keeping struggling on. And I would have valued something on Jesus’s taking part in corporate worship "as his custom was", and the implications this might have for our life together in the Church as a school for character-building, and for our mutual growth and mutual accountability within the body of Christ.


Dr David Atkinson is an Honorary Assistant Bishop in the diocese of Southwark.

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