In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Paul Deal joins Pete and Jared to discuss the intersection of mental health, psychology, and faith. Together they explore the following questions:
- Why does there seem to be a divide between faith and mental health?
- In what way is the psycho-spiritual approach more apparent in the Gnostic gospels?
- What is the idea of the shadow as coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung?
- What is self-concept and why is it important?
- How does the doctrine of total depravity impact one’s ability to integrate faith and mental health?
- What is the difference between being in a state of religious/spiritual conservation versus religious/spiritual transformation?
- How do theological and psychological barriers make it difficult to look positively at spiritual transformation/deconstruction?
- How can people move past the feeling that exploration of psychological insights are a betrayal to their faith?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Paul Deal you can share.
- “Jung offers us a more viable pathway forward because he’s saying integration is a possibility. Here is someone who is finding a pathway forward between religion, spirituality, and psychology that doesn’t sort of say, you know, never the twain should meet.” -Paul Deal
- “In the case of spiritual or religious transformation – that’s that moment where the person gets to sort of step outside their theology back into the terror and wonder of being a human and start to construct something anew.” -Paul Deal
- “I sense that most of us go kicking and screaming…back into counseling. It takes a point where the suffering of avoidance starts to outweigh the suffering of facing it.” -Paul Deal
- “Be willing to give yourself permission to consider the possibility that the “hard stuff” or “bad stuff” is a teacher, that it may actually be one of the languages of grace.” -Paul Deal
- “We know Christ went to the desert, Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and they were faced with all this really hard stuff. Power, temptation, greed – and that turning towards and being present to that stuff, seeing what’s there and say okay, this is part of the gig…this is part of being human.” -Paul Deal
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: Bringing Spirituality and Religion into Counseling: A Model for Pluralist Practice
- Book: The Courage to Be
- Book: The Bible Tells Me So
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hello everybody, welcome to this episode. Our topic today is “Integrating Faith and Psychology,” and our guest is Paul Deal.
Jared: Yeah, and Paul is Assistant Professor of Counselor Education at State University of New York Plattsburgh, and also author of the recent book, with a few other folks, Bringing Spirituality and Religion into Counseling: A Model for Pluralist Practice, which is a bit of a mouthful, but if you find this conversation interesting, encourage you to pick up a copy of that if you want to do a bit of a nerd deep-dive. And I mention this in the podcast, but Paul and I go way back, we’ve been friends for a long time, had lots of conversations around this, so hopefully you find it interesting as well.
Pete: And the real important part of integrating these things and maybe the barriers to it, how it’s difficult but it’s also very important and just, I just, there are a ton of lights flashing in my mind as we were talking today, so I’m looking forward to the episode and hoping you are too.
Jared: Alright, without further ado.[Music begins]
Paul: The idea is that we all have this thing called a self-concept, unconsciously we tell ourselves the story of who we are, and that story draws the limits around what is allowed and not allowed of the self. I think Jung offers us a more viable pathways forward because he’s saying integration is a possibility. Here is someone who is finding the pathway forward between religion, spirituality, and psychology that doesn’t sort of say never the twain should meet.[Music ends]
Pete: Paul, welcome to the podcast!
Paul: Yeah, it’s good to be here.
Jared: Full disclosure – I think we do have to start with the fact that Paul, you and I, we go back, we go way back.
Jared: So, I’d like to say that upfront. I don’t know why-
Pete: You guys got into legal trouble at the same time too, right? Is that what happened?
Let’s save that for after –
Paul: Is there a rating on this podcast? PG or R? I mean, what’s the boundary? I should have asked that before we started.
Pete: And then nobody knew where you guys were for like a year or two? It’s really, but…
Jared: That’s a different part of our journey.
Paul: We were in the monastery.
Pete: That’s a different podcast.
Paul: We were doing spiritual work.
Jared: Okay, so I just wanted to say that in case that comes up later, just so it doesn’t feel off if I bring up something personal about you that I know.
Paul: Uh oh.
Jared: Or vice versa. Let’s start with this question though, what led you to want to spend your life studying the intersection of spirituality and psychology?
Paul: Yeah, geez. I mean this much of my life anyway. We’ll see what lies ahead. You know, I was thinking about that question a little bit and sort of really unsatisfying answer came into my mind at first, which was, I have no idea. Then I thought, okay, it must be karma, and that didn’t quite feel satisfying either. So, the next thing that popped into my head, really, was an experience that I had probably as like maybe a nine or ten-year-old. I remember we were driving home from the congregational church in New England. I think it was a Fall day, it felt like a Fall day in my memory anyway. And Pastor Creighton, who was an Anglican from the UK, his British accent helped me stay awake during the sermons, he said something along the lines of how God had no beginning or end and in my nine or ten-year-old brain, I think that was my earliest experiences of feeling baffled, kind of like in a stimulating, playful way. Like I just brushed up against the edge of some sort of mystery that I didn’t really know existed before that. And driving home, I was sort of, I was in the passenger seat, I remember looking out the window at the forest sort of awash in the, you know, still somewhat early morning sunlight and just feeling like this bafflement sort of growing and growing, and I don’t think I would’ve used this sort of language then, obviously, but you know, it’s like something either got into my bones in that moment or was awoken in me and that’s really been a sort of animating, I don’t know, feeling, question, drive ever since then. And I think the two ways I’ve opted to explore that feeling of bafflement and mystery and wonder have been through psychology on the one hand, which, you know, has a lot of strengths in terms of its descriptive abilities to describe and understand human phenomenon and then religion and spirituality, which, you know, I think is, I see it as sort of complementing that psychology in a way where it’s still very conversant with the wonder and the mystery, but it’s a little bit more prescriptive in terms of sort of saying what humans are for and, you know, what a full life might look like within community.
Paul: And so, yeah, I think that’s really where I have to start was this experience where I was just sort of hooked by the wonder so to speak.
Jared: Well, you talk about those kind of going hand in hand – psychology and spirituality or religion – in sort of an integrative way for you, but I think historically, at least I would just say, not historically, because I don’t think that’s necessarily true, in my – say in the past thirty years within the tradition I grew up, mental health and faith were almost seen at odds.
Jared: Like, they weren’t, they didn’t play nice together. It was sort of like you could choose one or the other. You could kind of go to counseling and think about mental health and think about emotional awareness and emotional health or you could have faith in Jesus and doing both of those things at the same time didn’t seem to jive.
Pete: And even, not to interrupt, but before you get to this Paul, but there are elements of Christian counseling that amount to religious catechizing, really. And if you get the theology, if you get the thinking right, the problems go away. So yeah, they’re sort of at odds, aren’t they?
Jared: Well, yeah or they have an uneasy relationship where one encroaches on the other or vice versa like what Pete was saying. So, how in your experience, you know, kind of starting with this seems like this journey where they were in harmony in your life and you kind of walked that road, how do you see that relationship?
Paul: Yeah, that’s such a good question and I’d love to hear more about what the two of you did experience in terms of that inner-relationship as well, but I think just to start where your question takes me is, you know, coming up within sort of a mixture of the, you know, like some Calvinist influence from my dad and then some Baptist influence from different college environments and then the Jesuits, you know, like this whole sort of hodge podge of influences, definitely not a very purist theologian in that sense.
Pete: It sounds like you need a therapist actually.
Paul: Yeah. You guys free after this?
Pete: Yeah, I won’t help you, but sure. I’ll take your money.
Paul: Just offer your presence.
Pete: I can do that.
Paul: Keep your eyes open too, that helps.
Paul: But I would say that, yeah, they did start off more integrated, but interestingly enough, I think as I grew up inside religion and spirituality, that sort of organic harmony started to fray a little bit. And I’m trying to think about what did that. You know, I think it might have been, and I’m not sure how much to blame religion or if this is just a human thing, but I think what started to happen there is that this sense of the wonderous, all-powerful sort of omniscient, omnipotent, you know the spiel, divinity, that was somewhat out there and above wasn’t fitting with what I sort of experienced on that drive home as a kid staring at the forest and staring at nature or sitting in nature. They started to sort of become splintered in a way. I guess you could say, if we’re going to put some clunky terms on this, right, like transcendence and imminence or the beyond and the here and now. Started to be unhinged from each other in a way that wasn’t particularly helpful and what happened along with that was this idea that happiness or wellness or well-being or, you know, the different sorts of terms that mental health counseling are trying to pursue, and I guess you could say I think about what religion is trying to pursue in some of its ultimate aims, in the Christian tradition we might call that salvation or something like that. The chasm between salvation and wellness in the here and now started to expand and, like I said, I’m not sure how much to blame religion or if that’s just a developmental thing, you know, where as a kid I’m learning about God and I’m still kind of black and white, you know, but it seemed like when there was a shift from this organic experiential presence I felt to the point where I had to start conceptualizing, that in the conceptualization, the dichotomy started to open up between, you know, God and nature or spirit and matter or, you know, spirit and flesh, however you want to sort of talk about it, God and man. And that sort of drove psychology and religion and spirituality further apart as well.
And then it’s been a sort of slow and intentional journey of putting those back together and really seeing how they complement each other.
Pete: If I could put this way, Paul, if this is what you’re saying that you just had experiences that made those theological, religious categories difficult to make any sense.
Paul: Yeah, like, they may be a little out of alignment or something like that.
Pete: Okay. So, they’re not aligning and so they start separating, but then you started thinking maybe synthetically about how they’re connected, is that where we’re going?
Paul: Yeah. You say you’re not a counselor, but those are two pretty good paraphrases.
Pete: [Light laughter]
Paul: You know, I think, I’m just thinking about off the top of my head, but you know, at some point along the way, there, because of the type of religious teaching that I experienced, the message was something along the lines of either implicitly or explicitly that compartmentalization is your best option.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paul: So, in other words, this thing you want to call sin, or you know, whatever else that associates with, it’s best to suppress it or just let go and let God or, you know, give it over, right? A lot of those clichés start to come to mind here in terms of my experience and there wasn’t really a viable pathway where someone said, so all this human messiness stuff that comes with being thrown into a human incarnation and having a human life is actually the material of salvation, of awakening, of grace. And you know that that material is in fact your teacher and you can pay attention to it, you can learn from it, you can integrate it. It will be painful. It will break you open at times and reframe your sense of what God is or what reality is or what it means to be, you know, in relationship with others, but that, this is sort of a Richard Rohr thing, there’s no remainder is the sort of idea that doesn’t have to be a remainder. There’s room for everything in that integration process and psychology sometimes, we call this the shadow.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paul: You know, and one of the things I like about the Gnostics in particular is because they seem to be a little more inclined to want to work with shadow, what I think of as a like a psycho-spiritual approach rather than traditional, like biblical hermeneutic and I’m out of my depths now, I’ve said hermeneutic. But, you know, there’s sort of this psychospiritual sense where I think in the Gnostic Gospels, maybe the Gospel of Thomas it was, Jesus said something like if you bring forth what is within you what you bring forth will save you, and if you don’t bring it forth, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you. And that’s really the bridge for me to see how psychology and spirituality and religion can really work together in so far as they can bring forth what is within us, does that make sense?
Pete: Oh yeah, it makes a lot of sense, yeah.
Jared: And it’s interesting because we see these impulses, I feel like in some ways the Gnostic Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas and others of these writings, we see these impulses maybe in the New Testament, but they’re not fully fleshed out and so you kind of, they’re ambiguous, and so you can take it one way or you can take it another way.
Paul: Mm hmm.
Jared: Like, there’s a way to read Paul, for instance, where it is Christ in you the hope of glory. There’s this sort of, you have the resources within you to contribute to the world and to be whole and to be well, and then you can read Paul to say there is nothing good in you and you need Jesus and that’s all the good that you have comes from Jesus. And it’s like, well, which is it?
Jared: And so, there’s these different traditions. Is that one way in which this split between mental health and faith happens is if we read Paul in a way that divorces those things, then we’re going to lead to thinking that when psychology, I remember growing up hearing this phrase a lot, psychobabble, right? That whenever psychology says that you have these resources within you, that is psychobabble, that is secularism, whatever the term you wanted to use.
Pete: Denying self.
Jared: But when you say, “I am not good at all and I can get better only when I accept that I am not good and that Jesus is all the good that will ever come into my life,” then that’s like the path to true healing. But there is, I just want to name, it may be very explicit in the Gospel of Thomas, but I think there is this sense in which it’s there in the New Testament as well, but it’s maybe harder to parse out, is that making sense?
Paul: Yeah. Totally
Pete: Can I add something to that, Paul?
Jared: You keep interrupting.
Pete: No, I, because we’re having a conversation here, Jared. Do you know what a conversation is?
Pete: A conversation is when I talk whenever I want to. That’s what a conversation is. What do you think of that, Paul?
Paul: The spirit’s moving now.
Pete: There’s something you said before and then Jared responded and I’m putting a piece together and throwing it out there. You said something very helpful and that’s intuitively true, that the messiness is the teacher. I think, Jared is quoting something from Paul about Christ in us, I think that’s a little bit different, in my opinion, because that’s still Christ in you, but you’re saying something different. Your approach is very integrative, like all of us, every part of us, unless we’re pathological I’m assuming, but every part of us moves us towards healing, towards wholeness, which you know, there are other people who talk like that, it’s making more sense to me, you know, the older I get and think about these things, but who we are is fine and good and that the insights don’t need to come from “read the Psalm again,” which is something that I have heard in my life and others have heard too.
Paul: Yeah, same.
Pete: So, you know, maybe in one sort of intersection between that insight, the messiness is the teacher, is how, and I’m asking rhetorically at this point, we don’t have to get into this, but how does a view of the divine, how can we conceive of the divine that works with that, so to speak, that it’s not an either/or, it’s not two sides and you have to choose one. But maybe, you know, and more traditional might be a Christian language, but the presence of God in your messiness and working in and through it.
Paul: Yeah, I love that. I think that’s really the journey to say something sort of played out, but I mean, that’s the journey of a lifetime and as I was listening the distinction you drew, I think maybe there’s a bridge between that, in terms of how I think about it, but this idea that the messiness is the teacher on the one hand and Christ in us on the other hand, and this is more of a psychospiritual framing, but Christ in me is the space from which I can approach the messiness without shame, without self-condemnation. You know, if you’re a Buddhist, you might call it Buddha mind. If you’re a Hindu, you might call it atman right? There’s different terms. If you’re a Jungian, you might call it Self, but there’s these different terms that are both sort of, you know, you can set innate potentials that exist within us and outside of us as part of the communion of saints, so to speak, that we can tap into and access and learn from.
And, even to hear myself say this, I know this is a dangerous territory, because I can think back to some of the earlier conversations or things I heard about, well okay, you have to be careful there about becoming puffed up or too confident in your own abilities, and I think that fear that, you know, sometimes come out of certain types of religious or spiritual traditions about going inward, you know, it’s in some ways it’s fair. It’s well-founded. You know, there’s such a thing as a lot of navel-gazing psychotherapy that doesn’t successfully turn its gaze outward, and yet at the same time I think that fear goes back to being taught a theology that says there’s no, there’s nothing good in the shadow. Where, in the psychospiritual literature, it says there’s gold in the shadow. In fact, you need to find the courage, ask for the courage, develop a community that can help you sort of integrate that stuff from time to time because when it’s not, and I can tell you this from having worked as a psychotherapist at various religious and spiritual environments, when it’s not integrated, it erupts in an affair. It erupts in substance abuse. It erupts in all sorts of things. So, the alternative to integrate is difficult.
Jared: Can we get really practical with that language, Paul? Because I think that’s a really good point about being able to integrate the shadow and those are conceptual terms, but for practical people, like I really appreciate how you got real. Like, no, it can erupt in not abstract things. It can erupt in, you know, disruptions in relationship and substance abuse and these kinds of things. So, when we’re talking shadow, what are we talking?
Paul: So, you know this is sort of a, just a quick primer, Freud originally thought of the unconscious as this cauldron of seething instinctual, animal-like tendences and the cost of living in a society was learning how to sort of, in large part, you know, I don’t know about repress but sort of come to terms with the fact that you need to develop a super ego strong enough to sort of say no to those things and put them in perspective and sort of draw boundaries and learn when it’s okay to express an urge and not to.
Jung came along, and this is a big part, I’m speaking of Carl Jung here, the Swiss-Austrian psychoanalyst. He came along and said sort of, okay, I think Freud’s conception of the shadow is a bit too depraved. And he sort of said the shadow is actually just this place where all this underdeveloped, immature stuff lives. It’s not necessarily negative, it’s not inherently bad, what makes it “bad” is that it’s immature. You know? And it’s in the task, the journey of life is to learn how to mature it. And how do you mature it? You bring it into conscious awareness so you can learn how to work with it.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Paul: And so, Jung offers us a more viable pathway forward because he’s saying integration is a possibility and there’s a reason why a lot of the Jesuits I studied with in my degree were Jungians, because I think they were intuiting here is someone who is finding a pathway forward between religion, spirituality, and psychology that doesn’t sort of say, you know, never the twain should meet. They’re just different, you know, different schools of thought, we’re sort of stuck with that. So, I don’t know if that clarifies it –
Jared: Well, I just want to clarify when you say the shadow, it could be as simple as –
Paul: It could be anger.
Jared: I am extremely angry at my mom for this thing that I’ve sort of inherited as a pattern, but instead of being able to bring that to consciousness and name it and to work with it, I pretend it doesn’t exist because in my tradition, to be angry at my mom is like this mortal sin and so I can’t even acknowledge it because it means I’m a horrible human being and then shame comes in and all that. Is that an example?
Paul: It’s a great example, yeah. The idea is that we all have this thing called a self-concept, unconsciously we tell ourselves the story of who we are and that story draws the limits around what is allowed and not allowed of the Self and if anger, by your religious/spiritual tradition or just your family culture, whatever it is, is considered outside the self-concept, it would then have to be repressed and you would never develop skillfullness around it. But I think it’s important to note that there’s something called the golden shadow where we may also, because of our conditioning, family, culture or otherwise, repress and push away the golden, I guess, these really positive attributes or you might have, you might have some because of their early childhood have learned that it was never safe to let them be loved, to let their guard down, to experience vulnerability and intimacy. And so, later on in life they really push that stuff away to keep their guard up and the journey for them is similar, but it’s working with this golden shadow aspect of, okay, how do I learn how to let myself be loved in certain circumstances where that’s safe and I can take the risk for fuller life with this person or in this community. So, the shadow is really, it’s dynamic.
Paul: It’s not just the anger, it’s also these sort of bright qualities so to speak.
Pete: We’re complicated people, aren’t we?
Paul: We are.
Pete: You know, something you said before all that Jung and how he said that Freud’s idea of the shadow was too depraved, and you know, right away Christian language comes to mind, and you know, if I’m, and this just may help people get attached to it. This is maybe Jung reacting, as I recall, I know very little about Jung in terms of professionally, but I seem to recall that his father was a Calvinist minister and his uncles were and it was sort of in the family and he just found that to be all too depressing and not really helping to explain people, right?
So, I just think the word depraved, that may have been your word, but it may have been something that Jung was thinking as well, that this is a really dark, this is almost, Freud is too Calvinistic.
Paul: It’s ironic, isn’t it?
Pete: And I’m not picking on Calvinists here –
Pete: I’m really not because, you know, I’m really, really not. But, it’s that utter darkness and uselessness of our interiority or our interior world has proved not to be helpful for people and how they think about themselves and the people around them and their place on this earth. And, you know, maybe Jung is getting to some of those things. Again, that’s somebody that I don’t really understand. I wish I knew him better, but, and that’s language and I think, you know, in other words, maybe something like total depravity. Every aspect of you is depraved. Depraved is a very strong word. Um, from a psychological point-of-view, it’s hard to, it’s hard to have an integrative approach to faith and mental health when the theology says your inner world is just a dark place and needs to be pushed down, confessed, or just ignored, but not to see what lessons can be learned from the stuff that’s happening inside of you, you don’t want to talk to anybody about.
Paul: Mm hmm, yeah. That’s such a good point. And I’ve had clients that upon being invited to reframe that total depravity have really resisted it despite the depression, you know? That’s what I call depravity from a psychological perspective, maybe a deep depression where there’s just constant thoughts of worthlessness and I’m easy to reject and there’s no point in putting myself out there, the lethargy and lack of pleasurable experience that comes with that. So, when it gets deeply ingrained, and this is sort of I guess bleeding into this territory which is, I think, also really complex in the psychology field or pastoral counseling field, is how do we as pastoral counselors adjudicate what counts as healthy and unhealthy religion and spirituality? Given that, sometimes what a client comes in with is not just their own religion and spirituality, but that’s been a conditioned thing that their religious or spiritual subgroup teaches every week or a version of it, right? And so, you don’t work with the client by challenging or undermining the very teaching of their religious subculture, at least not right away. There’s a lot of work before that, but it’s hard. I think it’s a great point and when that really gets in someone’s bones it can be a hard thing to shed.
Pete: Well, one, I mean, one very quick anecdote, again, I only say this so maybe people can relate to it. One of my children years ago was in a therapeutic context in her teens and she was beating herself up for not being good enough and one of the therapists mentioned to her that, “You believe in God, don’t you?” And she said, “yeah.” He says, “Don’t you know that you’re of eternal worth?” And I still get emotional thinking about that because she had been in church her whole life and never once heard that.
Pete: And that has to do, again with, it’s not like the problem of religion and psychology, it’s the problem that some theologies might cause and integrating those two things and for those theologies to survive, you have to keep them separate, I think. I don’t know, Jared, if you agree with that, but you have to. They simply don’t play well together unless the psychology side of it is tamed and adjusted in such a way that it can serve the theology instead of maybe, dare I say, critiquing it, which is a no-no, Jared, right?
Pete: But that’s where we came from, you don’t do that.
Jared: Yeah, I mean, I think the, and what maybe to tie those two together kind of what you were saying a second ago is when is it the, when is it that the theology is elastic enough to contain some of these insights from psychology and things that we’re learning? We do this all the time with, say, science. When is the theology elastic enough to say, you know what? We kind of garnered enough evidence to say evolution is true and so we’ve got to kind of shift and resize this theology to fit it.
And when is it just not going to work and we actually just have to reject this thing? And I just think a lot of people are in that place of wondering – can my theology, my reading of the Bible, the reading of Jesus, this whole Christianity thing, can it be resized in a way that will accept what seems true to me living in our day and age about the human mind, what leads us to flourish or can it not? And it sounds like, you know, as pastoral counselors, you guys, you have to kind of figure that out on the fly almost in these settings of when are we critiquing the system or when are we able to maybe adjust kind of the expectations?
Paul: Well said. And there is some literature that helps guide that, you know, for example there’s some constructs that talk about assessing a person’s religion and spirituality and when it looks like they’re in a place of what is called religious or spiritual conservation versus religious or spiritual transformation. And so, in the former, it’s where the life issue has not sufficiently started to cause the foundations of the person’s theology and religious identity to break apart. In other words, the religion and spirituality are still mostly working, it’s able to help them, it’s called religious conservation in the sense that it’s still effective at helping them conserve a sense of meaning, and so the intervention in those cases is often to ask the client for example like, is there a scripture here that comes to mind that really feeds you and that may be helpful in this moment? And then still, we may need to assess, like, if they bring up a scripture that’s supposed to validate the fact that they’re beloved by the divine and they bring up something from Job or something, you still want to maybe do some sort of assessing there and find out, okay, I wonder why they chose that particular text in that moment.
And in the case of spiritual or religious transformation, that’s where there’s evidence that the religious meaning making systems is breaking down. It’s not working anymore. Sometimes we call that they’re entering into a psychospiritual crisis, and those moments are always really exciting for me, and I don’t mean that in a flippant way, but because that’s that moment where the person gets to sort of step outside their theology back into the terror and wonder of being a human and start to construct something anew. You know I committed the, I think it’s the final line in Tillich’s The Courage to Be because it resonates on this matter-
Pete: That’s Paul Tillich? Right? Paul Tillich? The theologian?
Paul: Yeah. Yeah. The Courage to Be is rooted in the God who appears after God has disappeared in the anxiety and doubt and there may be, you know, throughout our lifetime, the death of numerous God concepts over time, but it takes a really safe holding space for a client to enter into that, it’s a sacred space where, you know, in a collaborative way, something new is being born in the client, it’s often very painful and filled with a lot of anxiety and it’s –
Pete: Well, the anxiety is, I mean that’s, again not to be simplistic but you know, we have people in our lives and Jared and I understand this existentially as well that transformative place, that crisis place, I guess that stepping away from what you know and what you believe into this exciting world where you have no idea and you sort of reinvent yourself. The whole purpose of true religious faith is to make sure that never happens, right? So, I mean that’s the tension I think people feel with that even being in a space where you embrace this, I guess we’re talking about maybe disorientation or deconstruction, that’s language that people might know better, I don’t know if you’re comfortable using that language, but that is like you have to have a certain religious structure that allows that to happen. Maybe the only way to do it is just to be thrown into it, you know? And sort of sink or swim, I don’t know. My point is that there are, there are barriers for people that are theological but that are also psychological in that sense, both sides are affected, that makes it very difficult to look positively at this wonderful yet also frightening time of transformation.
Paul: Yeah. I think that’s really fair, you know, whether it’s from a psychological or theological framework, it’s just the experience of being alive to that edge of, you know, I’m thinking back to what you said, Jared, about support in the New Testament, you know the verse that comes to mind for me is, I think it’s John 10:10, “I come that they may have life and life to the fullest.”
And like you said, that can be interpreted in two different ways, right? But if we’re interpreting it in terms of life to the fullest in the here and now, I think of the sense of aliveness and it takes a lot of resources to be present to that aliveness and it’s a living thing and
35:15 – Sound issue that lasts 35:26
It’s a privilege that goes into being able to talk about it like this, right? None of us here are in survival mode. Our material needs are met. We’ve been blessed in a lot of ways, or are maybe lucky if you want to think about it that way. I think you know, there’s a lot of resistance to that, and it’s just, I think, a human thing. This is scary. This is hard. But if we have a framework that says, no, this is actually the journey, it gets a little easier. Right? It gets just a little bit easier to say – oh wait, other people have tried this path too. I’m in good company.
Jared: I want to come back, Paul, to this idea that this elasticity idea of how can people who, you know, what are ways you’ve seen for people who want to continue down their faith tradition, they want to continue to be Christian and yet they need to make room for things like it’s okay to work on your shadow side. It’s okay not to think of yourself as innately evil. And, you know, that you can be good in our core as human beings and yet still have things to work on and enter into that messiness. What are some steps or processes or ways of thinking or concepts that you’ve seen that help people step into that without, what we’ve seen is that sometimes it feels like a betrayal, like they’re almost cheating on their Christianity by entertaining these –
Pete: Well, adultery. Spiritual adultery.
Jared: Psychological insights. How do people maybe move beyond that?
Paul: Yeah. I’m hearing myself sigh just processing that question. I mean, that’s such an important one and there’s a lot of different things I can say, but the thing that sort of comes to the forefront of my mind is actually that, in order for it to really take, to be something that doesn’t just park in the mind and actually translates into the heart and the body, I think it has to be experienced. It has to be felt. And, you know, for me that’s where something like a practice, you know, Christianity calls it prayer life or contemplative practices, other traditions call it meditation. And that I think those are perhaps spaces where a person by becoming still, you know, and there’s certain persons that, let’s say like with a real serious chronic depression, right? Maybe that would be contraindicated because there’s going to just be an onslaught of negative self-talk or, you know, if the tradition, I’d even call it, like demonic voices or something like that.
So, it’s not for everyone, but I do feel very strongly about the sense that it needs to be experienced and maybe what helps that happen is to first experience it with another, with another human being because there’s a lot of clients, and this goes back to a lot of theory around attachment, folks who are, they say you can be “insecurely attached”, so in other words, there’s not this sort of basic internalization of safety and coregulation in your being that a young infant learned. And more and more, we’re learning the privacy of early development is really key, everything gets built on that foundation, of what’s happening in your nervous system, in your neural pathways and if that space is charged with anxiety and tension and fear and betrayal and abandonment, it doesn’t matter what you learn intellectually about that God, what your God concept is, the God-image, the God that lives in your being is not a safe God, you know? And there’s a lot of theory that talks about how the mom and dad or whoever are caregivers are sort of the first “gods” of our lives and we internalize our ways of relating and perceiving the divine through that imprinting and through those attachment bonds.
But I think where the therapy relationship can be powerful, or you know, with a pastor or mentor, whoever it is, it comes back to this idea of presence and unconditional positive regard we call it in the psychology field, you know, Christianity might call it unconditional love, and I think those are sort of highfalutin terms.
And maybe an easier way to say it is, if someone gets to experience the gift of sitting with someone that needs absolutely nothing from them, doesn’t need anything if they’re smart or talented or good-looking or special, but just has this presence that they can offer for whatever depths or degrees of human messiness might show up and can get their own stuff out of the way enough, because there’s always stuff that’s going to come up as you’re sitting with someone, but to sort of see it when it comes up, sort of bracket it and say okay, well I know what that is, that’s my inner ego meeting this or that or the other. How do I come back to this presence with this person, I think it’s in that dyadic interpersonal relationship where that experience of love becomes internalized and that might be the birth of divine love that was missing.
Jared: I’ve been, I wanted to test this with you because lately I’ve been thinking of it as kind of the unconditional okayness. Like, what I want to offer people when I sit with them is just an okayness. Hey, so when they tell me their shocking shame-filled deep thoughts, I’m like, “okay.” When they tell me these sorts of things, it’s like, “okay!” Like, just to offer a space where they, they’re what they expect from another human being to hear these things that they’ve built up in their heads and to have someone say, “yeah, you know, probably lots, I’ve had the same thoughts,” or, “yeah, this seems pretty normal to me” can just be a really powerful thing. Because, yeah, I think for me the okayness of it, because I also don’t like to over-aggrandize it, I guess, where it’s like, you have to think that like, I have to sit here and lie to you and say you’re the best human being in the world when you have trouble, you have shadow, because in some ways – I call it positive gaslighting – again, this is me, just making up psychological terms, but when it’s like, when it’s like you’re trying to overly inflate someone and they just, you’re kind of asking them to go against their own intuitions, which is kind of like you are a shitty person sometimes. Like, you do kind of bad things sometimes, right? Not, so being able to say like, I guess, for me, it’s not an over aggrandizing because I think that can also neglect the shadow side in the opposite way. And so, to kind of have a more neutral sense of, “you’re okay,” like, and maybe that’s what you mean by positive regard, maybe that’s kind of the psychological framework of it’s not that you’re great and perfect, it’s not that you’re horrible and outside of redemption. It’s that you’re like me, which means we’re okay.
Pete: You’re human.
Jared: You’re human.
Jared: Yeah. Maybe that’s a long way of saying that.
Paul: I like that. I think it really, I think it fits and a little of the positive regard, it’s a way of being or relating to the other person. So, I’m going to regard you in a positive way, radical acceptance, radical compassion, unconditional okayness. These are all terms we could put on that. And if you don’t validate the shitty side as you said, it doesn’t work. Ironically.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Paul: A lot of people would be like, “Oh, you’re just brushing past that.” It’s got to be a both/and, right? To both sort of say like, wow, that’s some heavy intense stuff and welcome to the club.
Pete: Yeah, well we were talking about practical kinds of steps or outlooks to this and, you know, both of you are talking about sitting with somebody else, with other people, which I really agree with very strongly and uh, it’s sort of like you see God in other people, but when you’re conditioned to sort of just pray it away, so to speak, in isolation and sometimes talking to another human being is like the hardest thing you could possibly ever do, right? Because that’s actually, now you’re voicing the betrayal. When you keep it inside, there’s a hope that no one will find out, that you can keep it hidden from everyone, but I’m just saying this as an observation, that it’s, that that first step is very, very difficult for some people to make because that is exactly the evidence that they’re going off the deep end and they’re beyond hope. So, they keep it inside and have cognitive dissonance or, like you said Paul, it sort of erupts in different ways.
Jared: Well, the idea that it’s not real unless you say it.
Pete: Right. Yeah. So, I guess, I mean, the question is how do you get to a point where you feel comfortable actually talking to somebody else and I really am asking that rhetorically unless you feel like you want to answer. I think it’s a hard question, like, it’s almost like you have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired and you just, I just have to do something, it doesn’t matter what it is. So maybe a private thing with a therapist for example or a spiritual advisor where they don’t know you that may be one way to do it. And it’s professional and nobody has to –
Pete: Confidential, right. As opposed to talking to one of your buddies at church or something.
Paul: Yeah. I mean, I think what I’ve found myself saying to classes at times, and I think I actually believe this even just based on my own life experience, like it’s been, I sense that most of us go kicking and screaming, right? You know, it took four deaths in a matter of five years. You know, this is after getting a PhD in pastoral counseling, so you got me back into counseling where I was really willing to like look at some of the, all the stuff and I you know, some of which I had forgotten and so what I guess I’m trying to say I think it takes a point where the suffering of avoidance starts to outweigh the suffering of facing it.
Pete: That’s well put, yeah.
Paul: And, you know, that comes for us in all different forms. You know? Be it a panic attack, it could be losing a job, could be an explosion of various symptoms, relationship problems, again, these are the teachers if we can listen and have a framework that says this isn’t just sin or persecution or, you know, this is actually a part of the path.
Jared: And not to be the Sunday School teacher to kind of bring this back around for The Bible for Normal People, but I guess what I want to say, and Paul, I’d appreciate your insight on this, but the way we’ve been talking the last whatever, half hour or forty minutes, it’s like I can imagine the critics from my childhood of like, well they didn’t even talk about the Bible. They didn’t even talk about Jesus in this. So, how are we even talking about this being Christian in any significant way and I think for me it comes back to what we do here on this podcast, you know, what is the Bible and what do we do with it? The Bible was written in a context where this was not the language or insights that were used or had been discovered yet or we didn’t have this language, and so that doesn’t mean that the Bible is irrelevant to it, but it does mean that we might need to infuse the Bible with new ways of understanding and taking things, like I appreciate what you said about John 10:10. There is a way to infuse John 10:10 with a more contemporary robust understanding of psychological significance and so it’s, it takes work but every generation has to do that work anew, and so I just think it’s not, again, that impulse of thinking these are separate things doesn’t have to be the case. There is a way then to go, to take all these insights and to learn from them and to grow in them and then to go back to the Bible and say, you know what, there’s a way of reading this that actually gives me life now and sometimes we’re too close to it to see it that way. We either want to reject it, you know, because it represents a painful past or we just stay within the framework of it has to mean this one thing. So, I don’t know if you found that with clients or just in your experiences, as this isn’t apart from the Bible, there is a way to breathe new life into it I guess.
Paul: Yeah, I mean, I couldn’t agree more. But you do have to be really careful with that so the timing and dosage and can find ways in and I find it to be incredibly difficult for certain types of clients. There’s a lot of patience involved in the process and, you know, as I was listening, part of what came to mind and I don’t know if this is from, I was thinking about one of the books of yours Pete I read a while ago. I gave it to my Dad, so I don’t remember what it was called, but it had a yellow cover –
Pete: The Bible Tells Me So? Or I think, yeah, the yellow one, that’s how I refer to my books.
Pete: The title is too long, so the yellow one.
Paul: I think part of what came to mind when I listen to you talk Jared, because I feel like one of the things important that I took away from that book that I hadn’t considered really before is that, and maybe you didn’t say this, Pete, maybe it’s just what I projected onto it or needed to hear. Anything to keep moving forward myself was that yes, the words of the biblical texts, sort of, are finished and entombed in that book we all carry around with us, but the Bible is still happening, right? In a way, or the Gospels still happening in a way, maybe, that the living word is that we are still the people of God living out this constantly unfolding sort of narrative and all that messiness and redemption.
And I think, you know, that’s a really heretical idea, I imagine, in certain circles and I don’t know a way around that other than hoping that maybe some part of a person has fertile soil where those seeds might take hold at some point.
Pete: I mean there are so many, I think, interesting and life-giving and dynamic ways of integrating, you know, our emotional lives and our religious theological lives provided you’re open to the idea of integrating those two in a meaningful way and maybe in a creative way and the struggle I think is that there are, I think there are some people who desperately want to do that, but they’re in a place where, again, the very integration is the problem and I think it’s hard to get around that and you know I can think of people and you know how’d you get to the point where you decided to sort of step from a conservation mode and sort of embrace this transformation mode and very often they don’t really have a good answer, they just woke up one morning and this didn’t make sense. You know? So, it might take people their own time and place to get to that place where that fertile soil starts blooming, but many don’t, you know? And you can’t force it I guess, but there are many who deep down probably feel stuck a bit and they don’t know which way to go and there’s no formula to make that work quickly if your religious life has shielded you from even paying attention to that sort of thing. The power of religion, you know, it really is, well, not just religion but I think any ideology. Any ideology can keep you from looking at the shadow, that’s one way of summarizing this stuff.
Paul: And that’s the religion that, to be fair, Freud was attacking.
Pete: Yes. Right, right.
Paul: He wasn’t attacking this other stuff we’re talking about. He was sort of close to it too because he had his own baggage he hadn’t sorted out, but that’s when he was attacking and Nietzsche was attacking, Marx was attacking. All those other folks.
Jared: So, for those who, kind of as we wrap up our time Paul, for those who have this tension within them, what might be just kind of a first step or a few kind of thoughts on how to dip their toes into a world where they don’t have to hold this tension anymore? Giving them a little bit of a leg up on a few things that might help?
Paul: Yeah. I mean maybe this is coming to mind just because of where our conversation has been today, but I think just to consider the possibility, like, to be willing to give oneself permission to consider the possibility that the “hard stuff” or “bad stuff” is a teacher, that it may actually be one of the languages of grace. That maybe gets really complicated real quick, but just more basically that the materials for transformation may be living right inside of us if we have the space, the courage, the support, definitely the support, the permission to sort of turn towards them and say okay, well, what do you have for me here? And maybe most importantly, like from within that framework that says this is part of the gig, like this is part of being human and maybe, right, like we know Christ went to the desert. We know Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and they were faced with all this really hard stuff, right? Power, temptation, lust, greed – whatever, right? And that turning towards and being present to that stuff, seeing what’s there, not drowning in it necessarily although that may happen at times, that’s where self-confession is important, but to be able to sort of turn towards it and say okay, this is part of the gig. And I think, you know, just as a basic psychology idea, when we turn towards and begin to, you know, like systematic desensitization is what’s used for certain phobias and stuff like that, when we turn towards and we recognize that wave of fear, panic, shame, or whatever else moves through us with a little bit of distance and this takes skills to do this or it takes the presence of someone else that has those skills to sort of be with us through it, that we can start to change our relationship to that stuff and get on that path because it doesn’t really ever end I don’t think. There’s always another curveball.
Pete: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Paul: I don’t know if that answers your question. I sort of rambled there, but that’s sort of what comes to mind, Jared.
Jared: Excellent, well thank you so much, Paul, for coming on, and I think is really is a huge topic that I think is going to be more and more relevant to people as more people continue to go through these faith shifts and start to figure out sort of what it means for them and how they think of themselves and their, you know, that kind of psychological element.
Pete: And permission to do something about it, maybe too.
Paul: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Pete: Thank you, Paul.
Jared: See ya![Music begins]
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In other words…
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Dave: For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.[Music ends] [Beep]
Pete: Can I add something to that, Paul, because I –
Jared: You keep interrupting.
Pete: Because we’re having a conversation here, Jared.
Pete: You know what a conversation is?
Jared: [Continued laughter]
Pete: A conversation is when I talk whenever I want to.[End of recorded material]