Spiritual Experiences Reconsider: A Relational Approach to the Integration of Psychology and Theology

Article excerpt

Attempts to develop a conceptual integration of psychology and theology typically encounter difficulties at the level of ontological and epistemological presuppositions. Our proposal to overcome some Of these difficulties is to begin an attempt at integration with spiritual experiences--particularly experiences of being in an attachment relationship with God. Accounts of experiences of relationship with God are analyzed using the method of relational and contextual reasoning, a form of complementarity. The resulting synthesis is assessed for its coherence, comprehensiveness, and fruitfulness, as well as its limitations. We offer our relational approach as a method and as a case example of integration.

Debate concerning the relationship between psychology and Christian theology has yielded many proposals for partial or complete integration of these two disciplines. We argue that there are difficulties coordinating psychology and theology at the level of global explanatory systems because of their incommensurate assumptions and breadth of scope. Our solution is to take an instance of lived integration and propose a non-reductionist explanation. The explanation, then, is a particular type of conceptual integration. It is not a grand theory but an explanation of a phenomenon (spiritual experience) that is highly significant both to psychology (experience) and theology (the spiritual quality of the experience). We are reconsidering spiritual experience as a proper starting point for a relational, integrative inquiry. It is a relational inquiry because the particular experience under consideration (perceived relationship with God) is a psycho-spiritual experience that requires a relational explanation. Relationship with God also requires integrative inquiry using psychology and theology, as explained below.

Problematic Issues in Current Integration and Attempted Solutions

Integrative work at the level of total disciplines has focused on overcoming ontological differences, recognizing that psychology asserts a materialistic form of monism (e.g., physical matter is the only reality) whereas theology asserts dualism (e.g., reality is both material and spiritual). Differences arise amongst integrationists over whether to propose a modified monism (e.g., a non-reductive physicalism) or argue for dualism. Another disputed presupposition concerns epistemology, or ways of knowing. "Scientific" ways of knowing via sensory experiences are assumed in psychology (although some approaches within psychology--e.g., psychoanalytic approaches--use a hermeneutic, or interpretive, method); whereas knowledge in theology is based upon interpreted accounts of revelation and nature.

Attempts to overcome ontological and epistemological issues have used either psychology or theology to generate shared assumptions for both disciplines. Often the resulting conceptual integration is partial with only some concepts and approaches from each discipline being compared. Furthermore, there is the danger of equating concepts between disciplines where similar language may hide significant conceptual differences (e.g., Clouse [1997] on sin and unconscious urges; and conversion and insight). Poor conceptual integration tends to privilege one discipline over the other (e.g., Johnson's [199] paper entitled, "Christ, the Lord of psychology"), subordinating one to the other discipline and merging what is incommensurate on the basis of surface similarities.

An alternative proposal has been to use another discipline, such as philosophy, to generate a shared basis upon which, and from which, integration may proceed. Philosophy provides tools for evaluating the internal consistency of differing perspectives and of any resulting synthesis of perspectives. However, philosophy cannot test the validity of the content (as opposed to the structure) of arguments for integration, particularly in cases where such content includes references to the transcendent. …