Jill McNish undertakes an ambitious task of putting Christian tradition in dialogue with depth psychological theory to better understand the phenomenon of shame. She presents theology and psychology as "interpenetrating, interlocking disciplines which mutually inform each other;" both probe the depths of human experience, human relatedness, and transcendence, facilitating a three-dimensional view of human life and spirituality. Both disciplines are necessary for an adequate account of shame.
Rev. McNish analyzes the ontology of shame and the shame dynamic. In her critical, empathetic, and integrative review of psychological theories which address the etiology of shame, readers are exposed to classic analytic, neoanaltyic, object relations, and self-psychology perspectives. She distinguishes between guilt and shame and between healthy shame and toxic shame. She locates the origin of shame in the central tension in human life—the tension between individuality and relatedness. She sees the experience of shame and its reconciliation as central to the Christ event and to our own spiritual and psychological growth. She asserts that shame has the ability to transform us and deepen our formation in the body of Christ. However that potential transformation is often impeded by our personal and communal reluctance to face the shame encounter, but to resort instead to shame defenses.
McNish clarifies that "shame defenses help us flee from our true selves, from intimacy with one another and from God". She identifies three primary shame defenses: rage, assertion of power and righteousness. Other shame defenses include: withdrawal, perfectionism, defeatism, transfer of blame, and envy. She elaborates on each defense in turn with rich supporting theoretical, historical, scriptural, institutional, and clinical detail. Her insights regarding the Roman Catholic Church's righteous response to the priest pedophilia crisis illustrates defensive institutional responses to underlying sexual shame. All of the shame defenses run counter to the ministry and life of Jesus. In blocking tension, they make transformation impossible.
'Psychological biblical criticism' is employed to provide a historical and cultural context for shame and honor in the Mediterranean world in which Jesus lived and to relate this to his unorthodox birth, life, ministry and death. She argues that at whatever level of reality one views and experiences the Christ event, the dynamics of shame are of central importance. She confronts the projection of shame onto outcasts as presented in Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry, and challenges us to address the "exiled outcast within" as we discover our own sense of shame and isolation. She asserts that the Christ event is about redemption from shame rather than atonement for sin. Her message is clear, "unless we are willing to enter into this process of naming and owning the shameful, shamed and isolated parts of ourselves, we will be unable to achieve any sense of unity with God."
McNish proposes that the elimination of all shame would be an inappropriate goal for the Christian Church equating with the metaphor of Jesus refusing to be crucified. Yet, at the same time, she argues that over history the Church has promoted toxic shame and the development of a shame-based personality and that those most drawn to its most active participation and ministry have often not dealt with their own shame and may employ shame defenses such as righteousness, power and projection. She confronts the Christian message that we are "miserable sinners and should be ashamed of ourselves" and argues that such a message depletes the transformative power of shame. She offers several recommendations to counter the institutional Church's complicity in fostering toxic shame as well as pastoral suggestions for constructively working with shame in self and others. Incorporating insights from object relation theorists and others, she presents the thesis that humans desire connectedness with a real and living God. Premises of depth psychology, as a result, can be used to enrich preaching, to more fully understand parishioners, to explore the psychic/mythic meaning of sacraments and the theological statements of the Church and to analyze shadow aspects of the institutional Church.
This thoroughly researched, well-written, and focused study would be useful as a supplemental text for seminaries or for graduate courses in pastoral counseling and practical theology. It should be on every pastor's bookshelf.