Book Write-Up: Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue

Thomas M. Crisp, Steven L. Porter, and Gregg A. Ten Elshof. Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue: Moral and Spiritual Change in Christian Perspective. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

This book is about the intersection between psychology and Christian spiritual formation. In this review, I will comment on each essay.

“Spiritual Theology: When Psychology and Theology in the Spirit Service Faith,” by John H. Coe.

This chapter starts strong, with a story about a person who is told by a pastor to pray more, to put off anger, and not to worry. The person responds that he knows about that and has tried doing it, but it does not work for him. As far as I can recall, the chapter did not revisit this issue. Still, it offers a compelling summary of St. John of the Cross’s “Dark Knight of the Soul,” with its descriptions of desolation and consolation. It also offers a biblical defense of psychology, treating it as part of the human wisdom to which the Bible and historical Christianity have been open.

“Is Spiritual Formation More Cultural Than Theo-Anthropological? An Ongoing Dialogue,” by James M. Houston.

A solid intellectual chapter, as it compares European and American Christianity in their emphases, discusses postmodern conceptions of the self, and engages Ignatian spiritual formation and Rene Girard. The conclusion may be a bit obvious: people need metanoia. But the journey is intellectually rich.

“‘End of Faith as Its Beginning’: A Christ-Centered Developmental Spirituality,” by Bruce Hindmarsh.

It just seemed to me that this chapter couched a basic point in a lot of advanced language: humans are made in God’s image, and there is more to them than what science can discern.

“Living ‘Before God’: A Kierkegaardian View of Spirituality,” by C. Stephen Evans.

This is one of the few down-to-earth essays in this book. It talks about Kierkegaard’s view on reading Scripture. Kierkegaard strikes me as rather legalistic, and the chapter would have been better had it addressed Kierkegaard’s own misanthropy, and how he may have reconciled that with the biblical imperative to love one’s neighbor. Still, the chapter summarizes Kierkegaard’s intriguing point that reading Scripture in community can be an attempt to shield ourselves from the personal conviction that reading Scripture can bring. That is refreshing, in light of the contemporary emphasis on communitarianism.

“Beyond Resilience, Posttraumatic Growth, and Self-Care: A Biblical Perspective on Suffering and Christian Spiritual Formation,” by Siang-Yang Tan.

The point of this chapter seems to be that therapy often seeks to remove or lessen suffering, whereas the Bible depicts suffering as a possible pathway to spiritual growth, depending on one’s response to it. This is a question worth addressing. Speaking personally, I feel that I do well to take anti-depressants instead of relying solely on prayer and Bible reading (not that the author suggests otherwise); they complement each other, and it makes me more tolerable to be around.

“Seeking the Tropological Import of Psalm 35,” by Ellen T. Charry.

There is not much here that I have not encountered before: the imprecatory Psalms are a cry for divine justice.

“On Specks and Planks: Psychotherapy, Spiritual Formation, and Moral Judgment,” by Earl D. Bland.

What enhanced this chapter was the case study. A Catholic named William does not think his wife is traditional enough, and he is understanding towards virtually everyone except his own wife. They work on their issues.

“Queen of the Virtues and King of the Vices: Graced Gratitude and Disgraced Ingratitude,” by Robert A. Emmons.

Basically, we should be grateful rather than seeing good things as our due and taking them for granted.

“Relational Spirituality, Differentiation, and Mature Alterity,” by Steven J. Sandage, David R. Paine, and Jonathan Morgan.

This on page 191 caught my eye: “Bonhoeffer spoke to this dialectic in saying the person who cannot be alone is not ready for community, and the person who cannot be in community is not ready to be alone.” How to move towards this state of wholeness is an excellent question. The quote rubs me the wrong way, but it also is refreshing in light of some of the pat answers that I have heard. Some say to loners: “You need to rejoice in being alone—by learning to be by yourself, you are developing a self that can be in community.” Well, that makes me feel better about being alone, but things do not necessarily work that way. Being alone for a long period of time can hinder one from having the skills to fit into communities.

“Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Contributions of Positive Psychology to Spiritual Formation,” by Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Brandon J. Griffin, and Caroline R. Lavelock.

This chapter illustrates that being around generous, socially-concerned people can make us more generous and socially-concerned. Or at least we will try to act the part when we are around them!

“Born to Relate: In Trauma, in Transformation, in Transcendence,” by Marie T. Hoffman.

This chapter has a case study about a couple that learns empathy towards each other.

“Give Up Childish Ways or Receive the Kingdom Like a Child? Spiritual Formation from a Developmental Psychology Perspective,” by Justin L. Barrett.

This is the best chapter in the book. It talks about the cross-cultural awareness of the spiritual in children. It seems to associate the fruit of the Spirit with familial or tribal loyalty, treating political liberals as deficient because they supposedly lack that. I did not care much for that point and question how biblical it is, considering the biblical writings that challenge the societies of their day. This chapter does well, though, to address the question of how psychology and the Holy Spirit can interact. The book as a whole would have been better had it done that more, and in greater depth. I agree that people’s identity as agents is preserved once they become Christian: they are not automatons. At the same time, if people can become better through psychological means, or through doing spiritual practices, where does spiritual transformation from the Holy Spirit fit into the picture?

I apologize if I misinterpreted or missed the point of any of these contributions.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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