Grief, Hope, and Prophetic Imagination: Psychoanalysis and Christian Tradition in Dialogue

By Wright, Ronald W.; Strawn, Brad D. | Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Grief, Hope, and Prophetic Imagination: Psychoanalysis and Christian Tradition in Dialogue


Wright, Ronald W., Strawn, Brad D., Journal of Psychology and Christianity


The present article puts psychoanalytic theory in dialogue with Christian theology in order to enrich both. When psychoanalysis is left to its own devices it exhibits a Nietzschean emotivism in which all ethical claims are ultimately reduced to individualistic expressions of preference. By placing psychoanalysis into conversation with the Christian tradition, clinicians will have a thick epistemology from which to make ethical claims. The worship practices of many evangelical Christians may implicitly deny the role of grief and anger as part of a relationship with God. By placing Christianity into conversation with psychoanalysis, Christians will have a rich, practical understanding of how an embodied and relational model can assist in allowing the full range of human emotions and in illuminating the connection of grieving with hope. Specifically, Peter Shabad's psychoanalytic work on grief and the return of hope will be used in conjunction with the prophetic tradition as outlined by Walter Brueggeman as a kind of "test case" for this project. A therapeutic vignette will illustrate the clinical work.

The Loss of Tradition and Ramifications for Psychoanalysis

Over the past 40 years there has been a profound shift in the manner in which the philosophy of the natural and social sciences has been understood (Bernstein, 1983). There has been a gradual moving away from understandings of science as providing an "objective", "neutral", and pristine picture of the natural and social world towards understandings that view the scientific endeavor as always being reliant on paradigms, interpretations, and metaphors (Kühn, 1970). Part of what this critique has revealed is the manner in which moral assumptions inherent in the scientific method and its theoretical outcomes are never examined but taken to be "natural". Thus, the autonomous, neutral, rational, utilitarian, and self-interested individual is taken to be the norm and morality and meaning-making are assumed to be secondary to a scientific knowledge which provides individual and technical control over one's world. Adding to this critique of the hidden moral assumptions of scientific theories is the critique from social constructivism, which suggests that all theory is socially/culturally/historically embedded and makes sense only within those particular dynamics. Thus, for the constructivist, modern scientific method and theory need to be embedded and understood within the historical and cultural milieu characterized by the period of the Enlightenment in the West, but cannot be easily generalized across time, history, and culture.

Psychoanalytic theories are not immune from these critiques, as implicit in most of these theories are universal assumptions about human nature as well as a vision of the good life or what type of life humans should live. That is, psychoanalytic theories often fail to situate themselves historically and culturally, as well as fail to state the moral background of their assumptions. These failures reflect the manner in which the discipline of psychoanalysis is a descendant of what Alasdair Maclntyre (1984) calls the "Enlightenment Project" as well as a descendant of the successor to the Enlightenment which he broadly terms "emotivism."

The Enlightenment Project was largely an attempt to discover universal truth disconnected from history, culture, and tradition. For Maclntyre (1984), the problem with this approach was that moral and ethical terms became disconnected and unmoored from the larger moral scheme and context which had made sense of them in the first place. Within the former Aristotelian traditions, according to Maclntyre, there was a three-fold moral scheme 1) untutored-humannature-as-is, 2) human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos, and 3) the virtues, ethical precepts, and moral injunctions by which one moved from untutored human nature towards one's purpose or telos. When the notion of telos "was rejected during the Enlightenment, moral philosophy attempted to hold together notions of human nature with moral injunctions (often at odds with human nature) through appeal to universal rationality. …

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