Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Spiritual Development and the Epistemology of Systems Theory

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Spiritual Development and the Epistemology of Systems Theory

Article excerpt

Based on systems theory, especially the contributions of Gregory Bateson, the concepts of first-, second-, and third-order change will be presented as a potential framework for conceptualizing spiritual development. The relevance of these concepts to the spiritual process of 12-step recovery will be explored, followed by an application to Christian spirituality. It will be suggested that one way of understanding Jesus' teachings is to view them as addressed to a culture mired in first-order strategies of change. In attempting to introduce a Kingdom based on radically different principles, Jesus made use of paradoxes, reframes, parables, and metaphors as techniques through which the second- and third-order change necessary for an experience of Kingdom life could be facilitated. Specifically, it is the epistemological shifts characteristic of second- and third-order change that are considered constitutive of spiritual development. If these epistemological changes reflect new ways of perceiving, based on the pri nciples of the Kingdom of God as espoused by Jesus, then spiritual development from a Christian perspective could be said to have occurred.


In his classic paper, The Cybernetics of Self: A Theory of Alcoholism, anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1971) suggests that a new epistemology based on cybernetics and systems thinking needs to emerge. He refers to the twelve steps of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), especially the first two steps, to illustrate how their approach to working with alcoholics is consistent with such an epistemology. Since AA's approach is distinctly spiritual, the epistemological change Bateson is identifying is often described as a spiritual awakening (Alcoholic Anonymous, 1976). Bateson (1971) himself described it as "an involuntary change in deep unconscious epistemology--a spiritual experience" (p. 331). In this paper, the connection between epistemological change and spiritual development will be explored from the perspective of systems theory. A special effort will be made to illustrate how this connection is consistent with the emphasis on spiritual development found in both the twelve-step recovery model of AA and the path of C hristian spirituality.


AA has gained a reputation for its success in helping many to achieve a sustained recovery from alcoholism. Based on the twelve steps, its approach is distinctly paradoxical and spiritual. First, alcoholics are challenged to admit powerlessness over their use of alcohol and second, they are encouraged to recognize that the assistance of a Higher Power is available, which is received through surrender. Embarking on this process, however, requires that alcoholics become capable of doing something that previously they have not been able to do. They must break out of their old pattern of addressing their alcoholism. Instead of continuing to insist that they can control their drinking and relying on their own willpower to prove it, a dynamic that Bateson (1971) referred to as "alcoholic pride," they must accept their inability to manage their lives and acknowledge their need for Higher help. For such a drastic shift in strategy to occur, epistemological change is required.

Epistemology is the flip side of the coin from ontology. Whereas ontology is concerned with the nature of reality, epistemology is concerned with the process by which that knowledge of reality is ascertamed. In other words, it addresses the question, "how do we know what we know?" What are the basic assumptions and premises that influence perception (Keeney, 1979)? According to Bateson (1979), "epistemology is always and inevitably personal" (p. 87). No person's mind operates as a blank screen, objectively recording his or her experience. In fact, there is no such thing as objective experience (Bateson, 1979). For Bateson, all experience is processed through personalized filters that interpret that experience on the basis of unconscious presuppositions. …

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