Owe Wikström
 

God as “acting Agent” in Psychotherapy

Paper read at the Conference “Mental Health and Religion” in Krakow, Poland dec 9-13 2002

Owe Wikström 

God as “acting Agent” in Psychotherapy

Theoretical remarks  

Introduction

One of the basic assumptions of the mainline object relation theoreticians in Psychology of Religion (among others Rizutto 1979, Meissner 1984, 1987, Vergote 1988,  Mc Glashan 1990) is that the individuals´ experience of God, and his conceptualizing of God ultimately points to a mental activity generated by early interpersonal human-to-human relations and discourse, rather than to any objective relationship between humans and a divine object that in fact exists independant of human emotions, perception and language. The psychological function of this very externalized and introjected transitional object – God – is that it enters into relationship with and promotes the development of the Self. In that sense, it is claimed that the mental image of God and the concepts in relation to this very image can therapeutically be used to strenghten the Ego (Erikson 1966).  

The veridical character

Spero (1990) has, among others (Müller-Pozzi 1975, Vitz 1977, Browning 1987, Capps 1986, Spero 1985, Lovinger 1985) observed the difficulties with this one-sided psychodynamic perspective on the genesis and function of  the symbiosis of emotional and cognitive processes in the godsrepresentation. These difficulties have both theoretical and therapeutic implications.  He, among others, wants to illuminate the veridical character of the religious mans´ experience of God. It must be important for the therapist to understand the patients experience of God as a real acting person, and not only a mental concept mirroring early memories. One has to give it a serious scientific explanation. I would like to discuss this problem from a metatheoretical point of view. 

To understand the experience of God only as a product of early compensating, projective or regressive emotional human-human material that is nurturing the Selfstructure of the individual is onsesided. I think it is misleading both from a theoretical and therapeutical point of view. According to my theoretical thinking and my therapeutic experiences the object relation theory lack – as other psychodynamic theories – a model that from a scientific perspective can conceptualize the religious man’s experience of feeling and being in a relation with an allegedly veridical God; sui generis.

Therefore I agree with those who claims that one main  problem with objectrelation  theory applied to the religious experience is that it does not take into proper consideration whether “the divine object of duly labeled genuine belief ought to be considered objectively or subjectively real and whether this makes a difference in treatment”. Or to quote Leavy: “a strict psychodynamic objectrelation  theory affords us no access to the possibility of awareness or of contact with an existence not given in the symbolic series: mother, blanket, estethic or religious object. We can include religious objects in the series (eg icon, scroll, mezzuzah, crucifix) without hesitation, but we cannot include the faith that animates religious objects both affectively and cognitively. Or, more properly, we can include that faith only if we drop the distinction between religious and other cultural objects, which in my opinion leads to the old reductionism with a new face. It explains the category of transcendence by eliminating it.” (Leavy in “Psychoanalysis and Religion” 1990,53)

These are important observations. I do not, however, agree with the kind of solution which is to postulate – inside the psychological theory  -  the reality of an X-factor or psi factor, a transcendent object, or more clearly God (Spero 1990, 56). Instead of introducing a theistic metapsychological ontology in the psychological theory (which will lead to unhappy blend of theological/ontological and psychological/functional terms and epistemiological confusion) it is – in my opinion – necessary to propose a cognitive or rather cultural contextual theory in order to decribe and understand the genesis and the function of the experience of God as a “living” partner. Such a  psycho-cultural theory stresses the role of the religious myths; gods, prophets, saints and heros. Influences from the religious traditions can reinforce, challenge or even change the emotional loaded intrapsychic objects that has risen out from object relation experiences.

Instead of postulating theological a-priori the psychologist of religion must search for a valid theory that can offer explanational value for an experience that include the devotees expereince of the objectivity (or activity)  of this very  object; God.

Spero tries to find a model: “Althought the internalized God-object of the patients discourse may have what we recognize as psychosexual, psychosocial, transitional existential or even linguistical qualities – that is, God may be represented in such fashion – the object itself may be of a unique dimension, requiring a distinct model for conceptualizing its multifaceted expression in human perception”.  To solve this very question Spero (1990,54) proposes a difference between “anthropocentric” (human and human enounter) and “deocentric” perspectives (human and God encounter).

I think he is both right and wrong. Right in the sense that the creative character of the individuals experience of God can been destroyed and corrupted by a atomizing and reducing theory (nothing-but-ness), and that objectrelation theory so far have not managed to make this perspective visible. But I think he is wrong when he build into his theory a transcendent reality which is coming “through”, “with”, “in” or “during” the individuals social or psychological reality.

Socially transmitted myths, texts and dramatized rituals are as important in building an individuals worldview or godrepresentatins as are the intrapsychological emotions that filters or colours the devotees using of these very texts or myths in their selfunderstanding.  In that sense I think it is important for a more adequate description of the religious experience to understand it as an interaction of emotionally generated motivestructures and the cognitive contents of the devotees cultural/religious traditions provided by his group of references.(Wikström 1980,1982 a 1982 b, 1984, 1989, 1990).  

Two questions to be kept separate

One way to come further in this unhappy blend of philosophical, psychological and theological mixture is, I think, to differentiate between two separate questions. 1) How do we find a psychological theory that does justice to the relational character of the religious experience?   2)  What is the relation between the ontological reductionism and the scientifically legitimated and necessary methodologically reduction in the Psychology of Religion. I will first elaborate these questions a bit and then point in a direction of a sociopsychological perspective for a completing theoretical understanding of God ans an ” acting agent”. 

As to the first question one can clearly observe that the religious man´s experience of God is of a reality not as something just imagined. God is – from the perspective of the pious man in the main western traditions – felt as something personal and external to man. At least the educated religious man can often differentiate between a) his wishful feelings and the way these feelings in a compensating way colours his god experiences and b) those real situations which he has understood and attributed as messages from or meeting with a personal living God, separated from himself.  The religious experience in the main theistic religions are (the mystics partly excluded) in Martin Bubers terms relational. It is a meeting with a living and acting Other, a Thou; God, Allah, Jahve, Krisna or Shiva.

Already at this point we can see that if one claims that God is – nothing but early emotional experiences, or that the verbal symbol  “God” is condensating early supressed or longed-for memories – this cannot fit in to the reality character of the pious man description of what he really meet.  And if we as scientist still continue to press our psychodynamic model upon our material or patients, there are tremendous validity problems. We talk of the religios man, but he cannot recognize our interpretation as valid. Patients often have – after elaborating the neurotic or emotional character of their godrepresentations insight in how their godrepresentation has been “colored” by early maternal or paternal emotional deprivation or objectrelations. And they can differentiate between this inner object and another inner object built upon perceptual experiences tied together of those occasions where they have met God in an active action, often he is experienced as answering on a prayer.

Now, from this observation of lacking validity of a one-sided application of the objectrelation theory one cannot jump into the other ditch and become a theologian. In my opinion it is on the contrary very important to remain in the social- or behavioural sciences. One must search for scientifically solid theories inside the ordinary scholarly epistemiology and inside psychological traditions in order to understand exactly this very relational character.

In other words, in order to defend the “objective” (or rather “subjective”) experience of God as a living and acting person – separated from the emotional make-up of the individual – it is not necessary to leave the basic agnostic scientific assumption and introduce the “real” transcendent God that is intervening directly or in the Psyche of the individual. It opens up for all kind of psychotheologies which in my opinion is something important but lies outside the theories and methods of psychology of religion. To assume a theological anthropology and cosmology is of course legitime in a theological context. A Psychologist of Religion instead must find transcultural valid psychological theories that can do justice to the personal and creative experience av the “living” character of the Other; God.

This can be the case if one link objectrelation theory with social psychological -functional- theories, which stress the role of the cognitive content of the religious symbolic universe that legitimaze the religios man. In the pespective of Sociology of knowledge  the reality character of god is important, but it is defined and legitimated inside a theologic symbolic universe of the religious patient and his context (Berger-Luckman 1966).  A theologically impregnated worldview containts legends, traditions and narratives of identificational persons (roles) that an individual can take. Theories from Sociology of knowledge in a fertile manner both challenge the basic assumtions of a strict objectrelation description and can therefore be a necessary completing perspective (Berger 1969), that can help us to understand the relational character  the religious experioence. I will in the end of my paper discuss this problem a little bit further. 

As to the second question:  If the psychologist of religion “too early” switches perspectives and leaves the common theoretical rules of academic psychology and not only observe and accept the individuals experiences of the real character of God, but also – as researcher or therapist – reinforce or question the truth claims of this very experience of God as ontological real, then he leaves the common ground of psychology as science, psychotherapy as a socio-medical profession (to be performed professionally independant of  the researchers or the therapists own worldview). He will then became philosopher/theologian or promotor or prohibitor of a certain theological/profane world view

To stress a theological perspective is of course an important  enterprize for the christian, jew etc, or even for the believing therapist or scientist outside the therapy room or the researching context but then it is neither  psychological theory nor psychotherapy based on a scientific model.Instead it is theology or pastoral care. And they exist inside other language games or symbolic universes  (Meissner and  Vergote in “Psychoanalysis and Religion” 1990).

Every effort to understand the an individuals psyche need reduction. Atomizing in order to se how emotions, social forces, motives and desires  cooperate in mans psychological make up must always be a part of a scientific unerstanding. This neccesary reduction, which I will call a methodologial reduction has however nothing to say about the ontological status of what an individual really experience. If one claims that the methodologically reduction – which is nessecary in order to not create total anarchy in our thinking, measuring and desribing of cases etc – and also can answer the question of the truth claims of a specific religion – i e that a God exists for example – then the methodological reduction has changed into ontological reductionism. God is “nothing but” early object relation. Instead I think it is necessary to stress the importance of perspectivism.   

 It is important in all social sciences of religion to be as aware of the necessity of methodological reduction as it is to understand that these – scientifically motivated reductions – can not give answers to ontological questions. To be more precise; a methodological reduction means that the researcher reduces the phenomenon  – for a specific purpose in the terms that the theory provides.  But as soon as the researcher claims that his perspective is the One and the Only, then his methodologial reduction has passed over to an ontological reductionism. It has become a “Wissenschaftsaberglaube”.

All scientific perspectives are fundamentally provisory. To claim that experience of God is possible to describe in just one or a combination of theories must be false because man is too complex and above all, the different religious rituals and myhologies are too multidimensional. Instead I think it is necessary to speak about different perspectives which are complementary to each other, and from which one can find psychological connections which do justice to the individual´s experiences.

Let me at last just point in a direction where I think it is neccessary to complete the objectrelation theory. I will describe a few elements of the role-taking theory of our grand old man in Scandinavian Psychology of Religion; Hjalmar Sundén:

The reciprocal character of the religious experience. 

The role-taking theory of Hjalmar Sundén is elaborated in order to answer to the basic question  “How are at all religious experiences psychologically possible?”. He combines elements taken from three theoretical domains. Firstly, from Sociology of knowledge  and particularly its proposition that cultural provided systems of language generates a socially determined  view of reality.  One type of language system is the religious myth in which stories are told about the interaction between God/s and men.

This socio-cultural perspective is combined with the Social psychological  observations on the function of roles in social interaction. Roles  do not only contain behavioural patterns but perceptual patterns as well. Roles create expectations of how “the other” in a dyad or a triad etc., will behave towards oneself. Attention  is focused on the dual role situations. These roles can either  be social provided by priests, religious parents,  other religious Significant Others in  their  relationship to God, or they can be  “fixed roles of the religious traditions”. Examples of  these traditional  roles are persons described in the Bible, who act in relation to God of the Old testament, or in relation to Christ in the New testament. This “role-theoretical” model is in its turn combined with the Psychology of perception. The necessary condition for a religious experience -  as perception – is the dynamic interaction  between an outer stimuli and the readiness found in the role expectation.

Reality, either the scientifically  based or the religious,  is a social agreement (1966,48). Both the scientific model of reality as well as myths and concepts  found in fundamental religious texts constitute a basis for a socially determined experience and perception of reality. His view is based upon classical texts such as Geertz´s:”/….the importance of religion lies in its capacity to serve, for an individual of for a group, as a source  of general, yet distinctive, conceptions of the world, the self and the relations between them, on the one hand- its model of  aspect – and of rooted, no less distinctive “mental” dispositions – its models for  aspect – on the other./..Religious concepts spread beyond their specifically metaphysical contexts to provide a framework of general ideas in terms of which a wide  range of experience – intellectual, emotional moral – can be given  meaningful form”. (Geertz l973, 123)

This  perspective perspective can be linked to anthropological observations  indicating that religious myths, psychologically speaking, seem to  provide models and roles for a certain kind of perceptual “set” (Hallowell l957) and that the perspectives of a group  confirms, legitimates and maintain this frame of reference(Mead 1934). This means that the content of the religious text describe God as an acting Other, this very description can – in its turn – function as an perceptional condition for experience a God not in the emotional inner sense but as something external, God is acting through the things that is happening. The religious experience is a kind of attribution (Spilka et al 1985, Wikström 1987).  “Perspectives are continually subjected to the test of reality. All perception is hypothetical. Because of what is taken for granted from each standpoint, each situation is approached with a set of expectations; if transactions actually take place  as anticipated, the perspective itself is reinforced.It is thus the confirming responses that provide support for perspectives. (Shibutani 1955,569).

 The religious frame of reference contains “roles”, which from  psychological perspectives, are perceptual patterns. Role-taking implies putting oneself sufficiently into the other persons position in order to anticipate how he will respond (Sundén 1966). A role, therefore, is partly a model of behaviour and partly creates an expectation of how the “Other” in  a dual role system will behave. The expectation determined by the religious role can be confirmed  and  this is what occurs in the experiences of an  interactional  nature ( “the Other has spoken or acted, – God is not merely a  concept   but a living person.”)

 The religious tradition can thus be seen as a language. If a person has assimilated  this tradition and its internalized  patterns are maintained by Bible or Koran reading, listening to sermons and songs, and participating of religious rituals or services – then the preconditions for a perceptual experience of God are satisfied. When the frame of reference is activated, stimuli which would otherwise be left unnoticed, are now not only  observed but also combined and attributed to a living and acting “other”, to God.

This implies that what make the role God a “acting” reality, are occurences taking place in the external world. The same events could be defined in technical or profane terms, but in such cases man experiences these events as chance, fate, as  accidential occurences or remarkable coincidences, or as an empty  intention.  The dual role, however, activates the attribution “God´s actions”.

“The ontological structures inherent in language and judgement pre-create the contours of the experience and thus make ‘pure experience’ a chimera. Language and judgement also belongs to and indeed are inseparable from social life. This structural matrix works to locate both experience and experiencer in a given socio-historic conceptual field whose problems and problematics he or she adopts and aims to One often uses the word “model” as the matrix generating the experience (Barbour l974). From the psychological point of view, I think that the  role-concept with its relational character contributes more to  the  understanding of experiences, at least  for the theistic religions.  In the concept of model there are  built-in  mechanic associations.  The concept of role can focus upon the devotees  “meeting with God” and thereby grasp both the reciprocal and dynamic character of the experience,  which is both a form  of attribution   of  reality -  a personal God -  and an attribution of the self.

Summary

Objectrelation theory grasp the intrapsychological conditions for some of the experiences that can be labeled as experience of God. The theoretical models that forms explanation and terminology in relatin to the emotional make up, genesis and funcktion can blurr the role of the cognitibve content of the surrounding religiopus traditions. Focusing on the emotional forces can make it more difficult to theoretically grasp the devotees experience of God as an acting partner. In order to understand both a) the relational and the b) veridical character of the religious experience I have proposed a completing a social or cognitive  perspective.  The religious “roles” described in the religious traditions can function as idendification figures in the socialisational priocess,  they in their turn generate an specific religious expectation and when something happens in the outer world that correspond to the theologically legitimated expectations, it is understood or attributed in terms like “messages from the God”. These kind of experiences must also be taken into consideration in the scientific understanding of how the religious person build his godrepresentation and must be taken into consideration in the therapy with religious devotees( Wikström 1989).  

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