How Separable Are Spirituality and Theology in Psychotherapy?

By Slife, Brent, D.; Richards, P. Scott | Counseling and Values, April 2001 | Go to article overview

How Separable Are Spirituality and Theology in Psychotherapy?


Slife, Brent, D., Richards, P. Scott, Counseling and Values


The authors respond to D. A. Helminiak's (2001) article "Treating Spiritual Issues in Secular Psychotherapy." They focus particularly of Helminiak's argument for secular spirituality (whether spirituality can be independent of theology/religion) and his inherent biases in discussing the nature and existence of spirituality. The authors argue that all spiritual conceptions have theological implications--and thus a theology, broadly defined--and that theology, in this sense, pervades the theory and practice of all psychotherapists, whether or not they are religious.

We are pleased to respond to Helminiak's (2001) thoughtful and complex article, "Treating Spiritual Issues in Secular Psychotherapy." We are sympathetic to Helminiak's basic thrust "that spirituality is inherently relevant to psychotherapy" (p. 163) and agree that a formal conceptualization of spirituality is important to therapy. We view his article as advancing the dialogue about this conceptualization in provocative and productive ways.

However, like any advance in a relatively new dialogue, this article raises as many issues as it resolves. We believe that one of the most difficult issues is spirituality's traditional tie to theology. Specifically, how "independent of, yet open to" religion (p. 163) is Helminiak's approach to spirituality? He contends that his notion of secular spirituality is universal and, thus, nonpartisan or neutral to all forms of spirituality. But, is it? Helminiak makes a valiant effort to attain universality and neutrality, but, as we will attempt to show, he ultimately champions a particular theology and, thus, a particular spirituality. His effort is so thorough, however, that it begs the broader question of whether spirituality can be independent of theology. Certainly, if spirituality cannot be independent of theology, then many of Helminiak's central propositions must be questioned.

Our purpose, then, is to explore this issue more fully. We first ask the question, What does Helminiak mean by the independence of his spirituality conception from religion? Particularly, does such independence imply that his conception avoids positions and biases that are relevant to the existence and nature of God? To answer these questions, we first delineate the theoretical assumptions that underlie, but are not completely acknowledged, in Helminiak's conception. Then, we examine what implications, if any, these assumptions have for theology. We next explore what these assumptions mean for counselors and the practice of psychotherapy.

Independence of Religion

We are puzzled by Helminiak's claim that his conception of spirituality is "independent of" religion (p. 163). Certainly, in the early portions of his article, it is quite clear that he believes his approach is independent of particular, partisan forms of religion, because his approach is the "common human core" (p. 165) or "universal mental phenomenon" (p. 163) of all religious and nonreligious conceptions of spirituality. He acknowledges the traditional intimacy of theology and spirituality but proposes a conception of spirituality that is supposedly nonpartisan or neutral to and, thus, usable by anyone--counselor or client--with any theology. From the early part of his article, then, it makes some sense to consider his conception to be "independent of theological [and religious] explanations" (p. 164).

The problem is that he later uses this supposedly neutral or nonpartisan conception as the basis for rejecting certain theological conceptions. As he puts it, his psychology of spirituality "provides a basis for criticism of religion and religion's appeal to God" (p. 173) that allows a "transformation of religions and cultures" (p. 173). He not only "validates" certain forms of spirituality that fit his notions but also "reinterprets" and "rejects" certain other forms (p. 180). Literalists and fundamentalists get particularly scathing treatment.

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