Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

A Theological and Psychological Provisional Definition of Narcissism

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

A Theological and Psychological Provisional Definition of Narcissism

Article excerpt

Wolfhart Pannenberg's Christian anthropology along with Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut's object relations modalities offer theological and psychological insights for arriving at an integrated provisional definition of narcissism from these two disciplines. Psychology provides intellectual insights and natural means for approaching such a definition. Likewise, theology employs these, but also contributes supernatural identifiers for our understanding. Pannenberg's Christian anthropology of personhood asserts human beings experience the Fall as an unnatural narcissistic disturbance. According to Christian theology, we see only reflected features of our humanity, and are never fully known this side of eternity (see 1 Cor. 13:12). Psychology, through its continuing research and redefinition of various disorders, attests current diagnoses are not comprehensive but await further research. Hence, even the provisional definition here proposed is an approximation. This is a phenomenological definition to be used as a starting point for understanding narcissistic disturbances as experienced to some degree by all humans. It is a compassionate definition, not a label to be feared, which I hope opens new doors for pastoral and psychological treatments.


Can a Christian anthropology of personhood and dynamic psychology engage in a constructive conversation so as to arrive at an integrated, albeit provisional, definition of narcissism? The goal of this paper is to answer that question in the affirmative vis-a-vis an interdisciplinary dialogue between the theological anthropology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (1) and the psychoanalytical object relations schools of Otto F. Kernberg (2) and Heinz Kohut. (3) The purpose of such a provisional definition is to provide pastoral caregivers and Christian therapists a shared entry point for compassionately treating narcissistic disturbances from an integration of Christian theology and psychology.

Why Pannenberg, Kernberg, and Kohut?

My opening question, which inquires about a provisional definition of narcissism, frames part of the answer. Namely, providing a definitive definition is not my task. Rather, what is here offered is a phenomenological definition that identifies some constitutive features of narcissistic states experienced by all human beings. It my hope that such a definition will elicit compassion from my reader about the various experiences of narcissistic disturbances all humans experience, to some degree. I begin with a look at theological anthropology followed by an introduction to Pannenberg. Then what follows is a review of three psychological typologies of narcissism and a brief exposition of the continued relevancy of Kernberg and Kohut.

Pannenberg: An Authoritative Voice in Theological Anthropology

Theological anthropology offers a variety of answers to the question of the state of personhood, as Christoph Schwobel (Schwobel & Gunton, 1991) attests:

   [W]e are today confronted with a sometimes bewildering
   diversity of conceptions of personhood developed from
   a variety of perspectives, differing not only with regard
   to the material understanding of what it means to be a
   person, but also with regard to the status of personhood
   in our conceptual and practical interactions with one another
   and with the world, (p. 3)

Arriving at a viable theological definition of narcissism requires I delimit my sources so as not to succumb to 'bewildering diversity.' Therefore, my argument concentrates on a critical analysis of Pannenberg's theological anthropology of personhood and his engagement with narcissism from dynamic psychology. In Anthropology in Theological Perspective (ATP), Pannenberg (1985) attempted to ignite an interdisciplinary discussion between religion and human nature in the academy. Twenty years after ATP was published he lamented, "But in the secularist climate of our culture such a discussion did not develop" (Pannenberg, 2006, p. …

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