"Love Supreme": On Spiritual Experience and Change in Personality Structure

By Stevens, Bruce A. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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"Love Supreme": On Spiritual Experience and Change in Personality Structure


Stevens, Bruce A., Journal of Psychology and Theology


This article attempts to address the crucial question of how an experience of God might lead to changes in personality. Important concepts are drawn from psychoanalytic theory emphasising relational perspectives which have developed in recent decades. While somewhat under developed, there were relational aspects in Freud's thinking, both clinically in the transference and theoretically with oedipal dynamics and the formation of the superego. There is a brief mention of other psychoanalytic theorists and an outline of the work of Hans Loewald in regard to internalization of relationship patterns. There is an examination of some relevant results from infant observation and developmental research. And finally the article presents a view about how experiences of God are internalized in terms of relational patterns, adding structure to personality in a maturing and possibly healing way. This thesis is illustrated with a case drawn from the author's practice.

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In 1964 tenor sax player John Coltrane recorded his masterpiece A Love Supreme. Like many in his generation of jazz musicians, he struggled with heroin addiction but he discovered something new in a relationship with God. In A Love Supreme, with its remarkable "sustained intensity", he gave thanks "Let us sing all songs to God, to whom all praise is due ... praise God." Coltrane experienced the divine love and made a lasting tribute in his music.

The experience of John Coltrane raises a fundamental question for all Christian psychologists regardless of theoretical orientation. How does an experience of God impact the structure of personality? And what is it about our work that facilitates personal growth and ultimately greater spiritual maturity? I will offer a relational perspective from psychoanalytic theory and infant research, with the hope that this will add something to our understanding of such crucial issues.

1. About Freud and the Origins of a Relational Perspective

Psychoanalysis, rich in theory and practice, can potentially provide something of value to a consideration of the psychological aspects of religious experience. This might surprise some Christian psychologists, since Freud was a renowned sceptic in religious matters (cf. Freud, 1928), but there have been leading analysts over the last century, beginning with Pastor Oscar Pfister, who have been committed Christians. I value the psychoanalytic perspective because it provides a sophisticated theory of personality which is constantly being revised by advances in various areas such as neuropsychology, neuroanatomy, psychopathology and developmental research. In recent decades there has been an increasing emphasis on relational aspects of theory and treatment. I will first explore the relational dimension in Freud's theory and then briefly outline this development in psychoanalytic circles, which will be informed by developmental research and finally a consideration of the relational dimension of the believer's experience of God in Christ.

Freud's writings abound with seminal insights, sometimes as asides or in footnotes that remain embryonic and never mature in his writings. He recognized the importance of what was potentially a relational perspective. He told a story, "I once heard a three-year-old boy calling out of a dark room 'Auntie, speak to me! I'm frightened because it is so dark.' His aunt answered him: 'What good would that do? You can't see me.' 'That doesn't matter,' replied the child, 'if anyone speaks, it gets light'. Thus what he was afraid of what not the dark, but the absence of someone he loved; he could feel sure of being soothed as soon as he had evidence of that person's presence" (1905, p. 224).

The link between Freud and Oedipal dynamics has become part of popular culture. It should be noted that he understood it within the theoretical context of his drive theory (1900), but it was also potentially a theory of object-relations (how internal representations of important figures relate to each other).

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