In his new book Spirituality and the Awakening Self, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Spirituality David Benner convincingly brings together the language of psychological development and spiritual transformation. Although it is perhaps unfortunate that “spirituality” is the accepted term for the kind of transformation Benner wants to focus on, he makes clear that spirituality is much more of a mode of living and relating to what is transcendent to the self than it is something “spiritual” in the sense of being otherworldly or even explicitly religious. His preferred metaphor of what he calls “the Great Nest [rather than Chain] of Being,” (134), of body giving rise to mind, which gives rise to soul, which gives rise to spirit, makes clear that transformation involves not surpassing the body or the mind, but not being stalled at those levels of self-awareness. Benner leads the reader through his “Great Nest of Being” with a series of stereotypical stages of self-identification correlating with the various levels of self: identification with body, with appearance, with roles, through mind, thoughts, community, and so on, all the way through recognizing one’s own capacity for falsehood and ultimately to union with the Divine and with all reality. He makes clear that previous stages are not left behind as the person develops, which is helpful in its refusal of the perennial Christian temptation to dualism. He correlates this kind of human development with deepening potentialities in one’s life of faith, which he distinguishes from simple “belief” or even religiosity; faith, he argues, “is not so much what we believe as how we believe.” (43)
Benner readily acknowledges that religious traditions have a tendency to inculcate stasis rather than dynamic human development; as he puts it, “the church has often reduced [transformation] to a journey of sin avoidance, faithfulness to religious practices, and personal piety.” (72) However, one can almost hear him addressing the classical critiques of religion from Marx to Nietzsche to Freud, particularly in his positive vision of religion as a means of “wak[ing] us up in the areas of life where we are asleep and where we avoid naked, direct contact with life.” (14) He goes so far as to say that “despite the ambivalence that many religious authorities have about genuine transformation that they do not control, religion retains an absolutely indispensable role in transformation” insofar as religions in their own contexts provide “the only credible source of authority that can sanction the higher stages of human development” and have the potential to support contemplative practices. (171) How universally this is true of all religions, both in theory and in practice, remains an open question. Similarly, Benner’s predilection is for the language of “blurred boundaries with the Divine” (144) as a standard development among mystics, even noting that the metaphor of “relationship” with God is not always appropriate given that this implies a subject and an object. While this meshes nicely with the Lonerganian vision of the human person which he endorses, in which fuller presence to God fosters greater human wholeness rather than self-abnegation or loss of selfhood, it is not obvious that this is the sole or even the primary metaphor of the self toward which Christian mysticism points.
From the beginning Benner lets us know that “Although personal transformation will be my primary focus, we will also see that ultimately transformation is not just a personal matter.” (ix) In particular, in his chapter dealing with the communal context of transformation, he focuses on the role of the community in fostering or hindering transformation, and provides an often-neglected discussion of the importance of communities “holding,” that is, staying involved and supporting, members without confining them. He includes in this discussion an important section on continuing to care for and even celebrate those members who feel a need to move beyond those communities. Rather than reacting defensively and seeing members’ departure as an affront to the community or a sense of failure that the community cannot be all things to all people, a positive culture supports transformation in its members and is open to its own ongoing transformation, embraces diversity, and “encourages seeking rather than self-contented finding.” (185)
Benner nicely handles the tension between merely reducing transformation to moral perfection and making transformation into a purely inner-worldly reality. On one hand, he argues against reducing spiritual development to “self-improvement,” especially the kind of ego-reinforcing practices that Richard Rohr calls “personal holiness projects.” On the other hand, Benner engages tendencies toward solipsism in both psychology and mysticism, arguing that, “the days of myopically viewing people as isolated psyches seem finally behind us” (186) and noting the danger of “private” mysticism that “does not translate into actions” (77) of love for humanity. My sole critique is a minor one: that Benner so convincingly captures the relationship of personal transformation to its communal context and so smoothly meshes the language of psychological development and that of union with/in the Divine that one might wish to see more engagement with questions of the social critical or prophetic dimension of mysticism.
Benner’s use of case studies from his own psychotherapeutic practice is helpful and thickens the relationship between religious transformation and human development, at least in a Western context. Additionally, each chapter ends with a series of questions, whether hypothetical or actually posed by former students or clients, and his answers. He does a good job of recapitulating the most important kernels from each chapter while also using his answers to draw the conversation forward. In summary, this is a welcome addition to the literature on psychology and transformation and is appropriate both for academic work and for personal development.