Psyche, Spirit, Body

This post is part 3 in a 7 part series of relflections as I turn 25 years old. I’m convinced that to be human is to struggle and to struggle with God. This series serves to honor the difficult questions. I don’t know if everyone has questions their mind continually turns over while they walk the dog, shower, drive to work, but these are mine. I’m hopeful that in 25 more years I’ll have more compelling, more faithful answers to them than I do now – or that I’ll have moved on to more interesting things altogether. Either way.


I’m convinced most of the great debates, which we first passionately take part in and then gradually learn to appreciate as expressions of different aspects of reality, are simply that – expressions of the complex nature of the cosmos. They also evidence our various ways of perception so that we can believe the Calvinist and the Armenian when we see the fire in their eyes and the earmarked pages in their Bibles. So it could be this question is of the same nature; if so, I just haven’t realized it yet.

Which is the start and which is the goal – which is the gateway to the other – which is primary? Theology or psychology? In graduate counselling classes, theological explanations are seen as second rate. They are viewed as moral arguments which may only point to psychological realities. Psychology is primary, though some try to access it by theology.

And in books such as The Cure which we’re reading as a group at Aim Right, “sin” is viewed as the primary explanation for unhealth. Things like attachment theory or even therapy are means of accessing and dealing with sin and its effects. This is to say that theology is primary, and psychology is an access point.

Perhaps psychology and theology aren’t the best terms here. But the questions seems to be rooted in how we relate and understand ourselves in context. Are we working to be reconciled to the divine or are we working to be made psychologically whole? Obviously, or perhaps not always obviously, but seemingly, the result is pretty similar (though the theologian may resist here). It is my view that what is called “God” very often an idol, something rather constructed, a “god.” In this case, I think psychology is accessed through religion, trite religion.

When “God” is understood differently, as in “the Tao which is the true Tao cannot be named,” I think theology is correctly and ultimately , primary. Psychology is a subset, a throughway, to theology, queen of the sciences. But I’m afraid this is a far cry from anything very much resembling Evangelicalism. This religion is, for most of human history, inaccessible to most of the world’s people. This is never true of a psychological understanding. I.E. if there are people, on islands or deep in Asia or whatever, who are said to be psychologically well but theologically damned, I don’t think this is a theology adequate to be primary.

This presents a bit of a quandary to ever affirming anyone’s viewpoint it seems. So many are certain that God damns those who don’t pray the prayer, walk the aisle, etc. In this case, I think their religion only points to something more ultimate – something like a psychological accounting. Even I don’t really know what I mean by “primary.” I don’t thing that’s the best way of putting it. Jung comes closest to what I sent sense here in my reading so far.

He tells the story of speaking to a primitive mountain tribe, the Elgonyi, whom he asks about their religious customs. They do not consider it a religious act, but they tell him of their tradition of every morning upon leaving their huts at sunrise they “spit on their hands, and hold them up to the sun” (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, pg. 150). Jung goes on to comment on the meaning of this ceremony:

Clearly it is an offering to the sun which for these natives in munguthat is mana, or divine – only at the moment of rising. If they have spittle on their hands, this is the substance which, according to primitive belief, contains the personal mana, the force that cures, conjures and sustains life. If they breathe upon their hands, breath is wind and spirit – it is roho, in Arabic ruch, in Hebrew ruach, and in Greek pneuma. The wordless, acted prayer, which could equally well be spoken: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Does this merely happen so, or was this though already incubated and purposed before man existed? I must leave this question unanswered” (Ibid, pg. 151).

Jung admits he doesn’t know which is primary. Earlier in the same chapter, he comments on baptism:

“Baptism endows the human being with a unique soul. I do not mean of course, the baptismal rite in itself as a magical act that is effective at one performance. I mean that the idea of baptism lifts a man out of his archaic identification with the world and changes him into a being who stands above it. The fact that mankind has risen to the level of this idea is baptism in the deepest sense, for it means the birth of spiritual man who transcends nature” (Ibid, pg. 145).

Jung poses the question, which I believe is something similar to what I’m trying to get at, this way:

“The question is nothing less than this: does the psychic in general – that is, the spirit, or the unconscious – arise in us; or is the psyche, in the early stages of consciousness actually outside us in the form of arbitrary powers with intentions of their own, and does it gradually take its place within us in the course of the psychic development” (Ibid, pg. 147-148).

Are we best aided in our troubles by the pastor or the therapist? It depends who you are of course. My sense is that whichever you are the most inclined to seek out, you may be better served by the other. Those who grew up in church, couples who’ve only ever heard sermons on marriage might ought to see a therapist. And those who’ve gone religiously to counselling an its books may be hungry for a spiritual food which a pastor could provide. Writing in 1933, Jung thought, “It is indeed high time for the clergyman and the psychotherapist to join forces to meet this great spiritual task” (Ibid, pg. 229).

Theology and psychology are each wonderful avenues into the greatest questions. I cannot yet, and perhaps never will, tell which one subsumes the other – whether “sin” is another way of getting at un-wholeness/imbalance/separation in the psyche, or whether these malfunctions or broken patters of behavior are something signalling a disunion with the divine (God).

Other ways of getting at the question might be in terms of prayer/meditation: do you pray because you believe communicating/communing with the divine reorders your being and your psyche – or do you pray because you believe that saying phrases falls on the ears of deity, and God acts as a result of your words?

Did Christ come so that humankind could learn a way of living which was peace with each other and in his teachings find a way of reordering ourselves and acting out our lives; or because a blood sacrifice was necessary to appease/propitiate the wrath of the deity so humankind could live in bliss for eternity and at peace on earth?

Is cocaine addiction the devil, or is the devil cocaine addiction. Is using cocaine (drugs, pornography, etc) falling victim to the predation of an active, real devil character – to be bludgeoned by the tools of darkness. Or is cocaine addiction a manifestation of evil which is just anthropomorphised?

It doesn’t ever seem to be only of the two. It must be both. Still I am not satisfied I understand. Kierkegaard seems to think it is the spirit which reconciles, or unifies, the psyche and the physical. So maybe it’s better this way. Rather than asking whether theology or psychology is primary, we could say the spiritual reconciles the psyche and the physical, it is something of a bridge. According to Kierkegaard, the human being is the synthesis of psyche and matter unified by spirit (The Concept of Anxiety). So it seems humanity is where these realities touch together.

I am certain I will someday have much more to say on these topics. But for today, I have many questions.

painting by Faye Akassa

Published by javenbear

Javen Bear is 25 years old and lives with his beautiful wife Aleisha in Phoenix, Arizona. He recently entered a mental health counseling graduate program at Grand Canyon University where he also works as an admissions representative. Javen’s super-power, if he had one, would be the ability to press pause on the world and catch up on reading. He enjoys talking walks with his wife, playing guitar, and always uses Oxford commas.

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