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A metacognitive perspective on internal dialogues and rhetoric: derived from the prodigal son's parable.

This article explores the reading of the Prodigal Son's self-talk though the lenses of a metacognitive-dialogical paradigm. The main thrust of the parable is provided and followed by a hypothetical reading of the succinct excerpts of the Prodigal's internal dialogues and rhetoric, recognizing their ancillary character, illustrative meaning, and contextual purpose. Such processes appear to be involved in metanoia--a change of mind: (a) the son's attention, perception, and recognition of his negative predicament; (b) his kairotic "aha" experience charged with regret, remorse, and repentance; (c) his inner dialogues--deliberating with self; (d) his mindful detachment, allowing for a purposeful shift to take place, so as to do the right thing; (e) his angst--arising in view of the consequences of his actions--prompting his anticipatory dialogues with the father (a sort of "stress inoculation training" to prepare for the eventual encounter); and (f) his actual decision to enact a purposeful response. The musings derived from such analysis may provide valuable insights into human nature in need of change. The article seeks to integrate biblical-theological insights with psychological principles that can be applied to theoretical and therapeutic endeavors in both disciplines.

Contextual Background

The parables of Jesus are figurative narratives expressed in terms of life events, employing similes and metaphors designed to analogically convey the mysteries of God's kingdom. The parable known as the "Prodigal Son" (Lk. 15:11-31, New English Translation) is the last of three consecutive stories (i.e., the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) narrated in Luke 15, which emphasize the redemptive theme of God's grace, mercy, and love toward the underserving lost. Most scholars emphasize the notion that parables convey central ideas regarding the kingdom of God (e.g., Bailey, 1998; Barclay, 1999; Dodd, 1961; Jeremiahs, 1954; Pentecost, 1998). In order to understand these central ideas and follow the movement of the plot, the context, structure, and details of each parable must be analyzed.

The intended audience. Jesus directed his story at the Pharisees. The religious leaders listening to Jesus were familiar with the teachings of the Hebrew Tanakh, which included five parables (see 2 Sam 12:1-4; 14:6-8; 1 Kings 20:39-40; Isa. 5:1-6; 28:24-28). Boyarin (2003) pointed out that comparisons and analogies, such as those found in parables, were a common method of rabbinical teaching. Some scholars have compared the use of such parables (or mashalim) to the style of teaching employed by Jesus (Meier, 1994).

The upright Pharisees had accused Jesus of welcoming and eating with "sinners." In their eyes, God owed them a place in the kingdom. They counted themselves as being "in" with the Father and regarded Gentiles, Jewish tax collectors, and sinners, as outcast prodigals, who did not follow the Torah, were departed from God's domain, and were estranged from the blessings of Israel. They, like the older son in the parable, were the upright children who, by virtue of their punctilious keeping of commands and strict adhesion the Law, had adopted a self-righteous, judgmental, and despising attitude toward their fallen, estranged brothers. These prodigals, in their judgment, were unworthy of the Father's favor.

The Pharisees had also defined Jesus in their own judgmental and derogatory terms, calling him "a friend of sinners" because he addressed the concerns of those who were prodigals. His attentive care and ministry to "sinners" was highly offensive to the Pharisees, who despised, judged, and rejected Jesus and his messianic claims because of his association. The parable pierced through their hypocritical, judgmental, and demeaning attitudes.

The main thrust of the parable. Most interpreters agree that the well-known parable stands as a superb example of God's boundless mercy, unilateral love, and exuberant joy manifested toward his undeserving, lost children (Bailey, 1998; Dodd, 1961; Jeremiahs, 1954; Longnecker, 2000; Pentecost, 1998; Stein, 1994). The encompassing love of the "prodigal father" (Keller, 2011) for both children is exemplified in the parable: The lavish, treatment of the returning son is coupled with the father's appeal to the older son to join in the celebration. Yet, the older son's rejecting, self-righteous, and judgmental response renders him a defiant and departing son as well. The older son's attitude is depicted to establish the basis for Jesus' contrasting, assertive, and validating account of the father's redeeming action toward the undeserving outcasts. The story ends with restoration, celebration, and gladness.

The details of the parable. I recognize the hermeneutical guideline to keep the main thing as the main thing and am aware of the possibility of misinterpreting or overstating the primary issues of the parable by focusing on its details (which some consider an uncustomary or "improper" way of approaching the parable). Despite these potential pitfalls, I present three reasons to explore the parable in this manner:

1. A person shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. It seems that the words employed in narrating the details (i.e., inner dialogues and rhetoric) may provide nourishment and insights about human nature in need of redemption without altering the main thrust of the parable.

2. The Bible is not an anthropocentric textbook. Thus, any biblical anthropology of value must derive its notions and postulates from scrutinizing and inferring the meaning of all scriptural passages dealing with the human, as no such systematic category is overtly provided. The details of the parable, as expressed by the creator of human nature, provide glimpses into such theologically-constructed anthropology.

3. Any storyteller of literary stature has to emphatically enter the mindset of the characters being scripted. Thus, the details presented by Jesus--the one who knows the mindset of every human being--are important and worthy of consideration. To treat such rich details as inconsequential or supplemental may deprive us from gathering further insights into valuable processes that may be otherwise gleaned from the "remains" left by those who have harvested the text for centuries.

Thus, it is not my intention to slant the main purpose or construct a main doctrine based on the parable's details. These dialogical excerpts stand out as a means of amplifying and validating essential aspects of the process involving human co-participation with God's promptings: an illustrative glimpse of the possible metacognitive-dialogical processes that may take place in the inner workings of the mind of a repentant person. Internal dialogues and rhetoric are presented in intermittent, sequential fashion and described from a metacognitive perspective. These appear to be the processes at play in metanoia--a "change of mind" involving cognitive-emotive-enactive dimensions (e.g., self-monitoring, recognition, regret, remorse, and repentance, leading to purposive decision making, restitution, rebuilding, restoring, and renewing of a state of being) framed in relational terms.

A speculative analysis of internal dialogues in the mind of the parable's fictional character may resonate with, and have some bearing on the experience of many people who may find themselves in negative predicaments. These internal dialogues may also be of functional value to people who are dealing with similar issues to those depicted in the narrative. In this essay, I attempt to integrate these theological reflections with psychological principles dealing with cognitive, metacognitive, and dialogical notions about the self.

Psychological Notions Integrated with Biblical-Theological Insights

Cognitive-behavioral approaches in the field of clinical psychology emphasize that cognitive processes underlie sensations, feelings, and dilemmas in conditions such as depression, anxiety, and stress. These approaches focus on the content of automatic negative thoughts that are associated with irrational beliefs. The strategies are geared toward becoming aware of, pinpointing, challenging, and replacing negative cognitions with positive ones. Cognitive approaches have proven to be effective and are regarded as excellent avenues of therapeutic help (e.g., Beck & Beck, 2011; Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1987). In recent years, a metacognitive emphasis has been proposed as a more adequate and fundamental basis for understanding and treating psychological disturbances (Wells, 2009; Wells & Matthews, 1994).

Metacognition. The term refers to "one's knowledge concerning one's own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant properties of information or data" (Flavell, 1976, p. 232). In the psychological field, metacognition has been an object of study since the 1970's (cf. Brown, 1978; Flavell, 1979; Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994). It is associated with the brain's executive functions, which ascertain, monitor, interpret, modulate, and control thinking. To acquire metacognitive knowledge (i.e., conscious awareness) is to think about one's thinking, to consciously know what one knows, and to explicitly process one's cognitive processes. Thinking, reasoning, attribution of meaning, learning, decision making, judgment, consolidation of memory, and retrieval are all processes amenable to one's own scrutiny. Metacognitive regulation is the monitoring, modulating, and controlling of one's cognitive and learning experiences through a set of activities or processes that allow one to acquire and use knowledge. Metacognitive experiences are those experiences pertaining to current, ongoing cognitive endeavors in which a person is engaged.

The fields of cognitive science and neurobiology appeal to the notion of a top-executive agent, capable of regulating, modulating, and directing the cognitive processes associated with decision making and judgment (Siegel, 2010; 2012; Stenberg, 1984). Along such views, my opinion is that the shifts that occur within the mindset respond to a metacognitive executive control mechanism (MEC) that is triggered by servomechanisms at work in human processing systems that modulate, regulate, or activate analytical, judging, and decision making processes. Because the executive functions of the brain are capable of mindfully detaching from an ongoing, activated reaction, MEC may be a pivotal aspect of metacognitive-emotive processing in that it may allow a person to engage in purposeful mindfulness that guides the decision to modulate, regulate, and control a given response. By repeatedly exercising the MEC in attempts to foster self-control (regarded as an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit) a character trait may develop and become a habitual, tacit, personal, intrinsic part of a person's response repertoire and self-efficacy ("training oneself in godliness").

Currently, the field of metacognitive therapy emphasizes the critical role that metanarratives or negative styles of thinking (e.g., brooding or rumination) play in emotional problems. Psychological disorders are seen as being generated and maintained by the extent to which negative cognitive processes are generalized, recycled, consolidated, or released. Thus, Wells (2009) argues that therapeutic approaches should focus on changing styles of thinking (i.e., metacognitions) rather than episodic, negative thoughts Scrutinizing the metacognitive processes underlying psychological disorders can provide insights into the possible etiology of these disorders and allow more objective, rational, and functional coping strategies to be developed. Wells' model seems to follow Stenberg's (1984) notions of dealing with meta-components and executive functions that appear to regulate, in top-down fashion, the subsidiary processes under such agency. A higher order of internal cognitive factors seems to control, monitor, and appraise our thoughts. Meta-Cognitive Therapy (MCT) is meta-process focused (processing processes) versus content focused (as is the case in more traditional Cognitive Behavior Therapy). Such therapy appears to fall in line with what some researchers have termed "the third-wave behavior therapies" such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) or Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

Detached and purposeful mindfulness. The concept of "mindfulness" has been utilized in diverse forms by different authors (e.g., Kabat-Zinn, 1990; 1994; Langer, 1990; 2009; Linehan, 1993; Shiffrin & Schneider, 1997; Wells & Matthews, 1994). Mindfulnessbased techniques are found in therapeutic approaches, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT; Linehan, 1993). Mindfulness is a concept derived from different epistemological, ontological, and hermeneutical basis within each therapeutic approach. These differences are evident both in the terms used to define the construct and in the distinctive emphases placed either on self-centered consciousness or on transpersonal consciousness of a higher, spiritual order.

In this article, the concept of "detached mindfulness" runs parallel to Wells' (2005) notion, defined as "a state of awareness of internal events, without responding to them with sustained evaluation, attempting to control or suppress them, or respond to them behaviorally" (p. 340). Detached mindfulness is a component central to a Metacognitive Therapy (MCT) of emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression (Wells, 2009). Detached mindfulness is the capacity to disengage automatic reactions from running their course, remain metacognitive or consciously at rest, monitor internal dialogues, and hold on to faith and hope in spite of being challenged by negative contingencies. In analogical terms, it is similar to pressing the pedal of a clutch and detaching the engine from the driving train in order to purposefully shift gears and provide the option of moving forward, going backward, or setting the system in neutral so as to stop the car.

Detached mindfulness keeps the mind at peace, allowing the self to be objective about subjective states and assess what is going on without the need to react. Such a state of mind also allows subcortical processes (which are activated by stimuli such as attention, sensation, emotional arousal) to be monitored and the autonomic nerve system (ANS, which elicits and activates all automatic functions related to stress) to be modulated or controlled. In Christian terms, detached mindfulness may be seen as a dependent state of mind-, although detached from events, circumstances, or people, it remains tacitly or consciously attached to the source of security, peace, and self-efficacy--the person and power of the Holy Spirit co-participating with the "heart-mind" set and the indwelling Word of God, intrinsically allocated as to provide the basis of faith and conduct.

I expand the mindfulness construct to include a dual dimension, stressing the need to shift from detached to "purposeful mindfulness" as well. Purposeful mindfulness is the empowered ability to desire, hone, direct the mindset, and decide to take some action. It represents the adoption of a super-conscious state of mind that is directed and endowed with a metacognitive grasp of the available coping strategies (in Christian terms, being empowered by the Spirit and the indwelling Word) to be employed under stressful circumstances. Such a concept is congruent with the metacognitive thrust stressed in Scripture--to actively desire, promote, seek, hone, and engage the mind in order to align it with God's Word and Spirit (Col. 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 1:13; 4:1). Purposeful mindfulness enters into play in the hypothesized metacognitive-executive control (MEC) mechanism--monitoring, regulating, and prompting the shift of cognitive-emotive-enactive processes; engaging a functional and desirable fight or flight response; or adopting a neutral, relaxed, steadfast stance.

Mindful detachment is not intended to be a prolonged state of mind--as in transcendental meditation or in a prolonged passive avoidance--but rather a brief period allowing the person to shift to a proper gear and move forward, backward, or stop. Stopping may serve diverse functions. It may represent a sense of accomplishment for having arrived at a destination or a sense of redirection through engaging in inner dialogues, shifting to rhetoric, changing plans, and deciding on a different course. Individuals may choose to purposefully disengage and adopt an objective, relaxed, or detached stance to calm their thinking (Kahneman, 2011), then re-engage the capacity to regulate and control purposive and desirable responses. Needless to say, the assiduous driving with such a mechanism eventually becomes a learned, habitual behavior that is as natural as any automatic or stereotyped behavior (Polanyi, 1958). Additionally, scripture seems to allude to the intentional processes of purposeful mindfulness (e.g., Col. 3:1; 1 Pet. 4:1; Phil. 3:12-15; 2 Tim. 1:12; Jas. 1:15).

In terms of the capacity of the human mind to respond versus react to provoking events, the findings of Benson's (1976) research on the "relaxation response" have demonstrated the possibility of developing a viable option to the classic "fight-flight" reactions. The relaxation response is the outcome of a process involving the purposeful training of the autonomic nerve system (ANS), fostering the capacity of the organism to monitor and achieve a purposeful control of responses to life's challenges. With practice and learning over time, such responses become a natural alternative in managing stress.

In his social learning theory, Bandura (1997; 2001) focused on the construct of "self-efficacy," defined as a person's capacity to successfully approach challenges and accomplish goals or tasks. Bandura emphasized four factors that seem to contribute to self-efficacy: the control of the autonomic nerve system (ANS), self-talk (dialogue/rhetoric), coaching, and modeling effects (which are perceived, apprehended, and consolidated through observational, vicarious learning). In some fashion, self-efficacy may be equated with the term "self-control," a dimension in Pauline theology that refers to a person's emergent property--a "fruit"--fostered and empowered by the Spirit in co-participation with the executive agency of the human (Gal. 5:22-23).

The dialogical self. Adding the dialogical aspects to these metacognitive musings invokes the notion of the self as being not just logical, but dialogical as well. That is, the self is capable of engaging in internal dialogues with self as an interlocutor, departing from diverse positions of the "I" (Hermans, 1996; Hermans, Kempen, & Van Loon, 1992). From an integrative standpoint, the internal dialogues taking place between the self and introjects (i.e., the unconscious adoption of the ideas or attitudes of others) or between the self and others "in mind" (regarded as "presence in absence") enter into play (Polischuk, 1998). The tone of such dialogues depends on the contextual aspects of self-talk, as slow thinking may be involved in both positive and negative self-reflections. When confronted with negative content or engaged in a negative style of internal dialogues (e.g., excessive ruminations or threat monitoring), an empowered self may be able to slow, stop, or disengage its reactionary process through detached mindfulness, in order to engage in internal rhetoric that facilitates directed, purposeful action (Nienkamp, 2001).

The dialogical self, although new in the field of psychology, has a long presence in the accounts provided in Scriptures. The inner dialogues and rhetoric of the self appear quite often in the Psalms. As Brueggemann (1995) emphasized, "the laments show clearly that biblical faith, as it faces life fully, is uncompromisingly and unembarrassedly dialogic" (p. 68; italics in the original). Besides numerous dialogues with God as a "Thou" the psalmists address themselves in reflective, deliberative, and rhetorical ways (e.g., Ps. 27:5-9; 13-14; 30:6; 31:13-15; 32: 3-5; 39:1-4; 42:1-11; 55:1-9; 57:8-9; 77:1-13; 94:18-20; 102:24-28; 103:1-6; 104:33-35; 118:5-8). Also, the Psalms convey the internal rhetoric of Hebrew poets in adopting a third-party perspective (speaking for someone else or addressing a counterpart) as well as God's transcending voice in addressing others who are present "in the mind" of the narrator. The citations are too numerous to be expounded here.

In the New Testament, besides the parable of the father and the two sons, Jesus alludes to another story that contains inner dialogues (Lk. 12:16-20). A rich man engages in self-talk: "What should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops. Then he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones ... and I will say to myself, 'You have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!'" His ambitious projects are countered by the introjection of a third voice: "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?"' (Lk. 12:20).

It is safe to assume that Jesus was a narrator who actually knew the thought content and intentions of his fictional characters. In the prodigal's parable, the father, the prodigal son, and the older brother, were given voices by the One who knows what occurs in the mind of every person (see Mt. 12:25; Jn. 2:24). Though the details are not the main point of the parable, Jesus' voicing of the Prodigal's internal dialogues and rhetoric may be regarded as profoundly descriptive and defining aspects of core human traits that, from a metacognitive-dialogical paradigm, are worthy of scrutiny.

The Prodigal's Saga in Metacognitive-Dialogical Terms

A metacognitive perspective guides the considerations extracted from the biblical text alluded to in this article. Focusing on the details provided by Jesus in Luke's narrative pertaining to the fictional character's internal dialogues and rhetoric, some reflective musings are provided in conjectural fashion, offering a hypothetical glimpse into the Prodigal's inner processes as narrated in the text. The changes that took place in his mindset (metanoia)--"coming to himself," engaging in internal dialogues, and persuading himself with internal rhetoric--are dimensions of cognitive-emotive and enactive processes considered from a top-down perspective. A reflective analysis of the character's responses is presented to examine how the character may have used detached mindfulness, purposeful mindfulness, slow thinking, and decision making as coping mechanisms (Kahneman, 2011).

The parable does not provide details about the contextual background of the prodigal son. In view of the character and complaints of the older son, we may surmise that the socialization process at home involved the presence of a good, benevolent, and loving father who provided him with all the ingredients necessary for a secure attachment (such as safety, nurturance, guidance, a sense of belongingness, and instruction)--for some cultural reason, mother was not inserted as an object of attachment in the parable. The focus on the father had to do with the graceful context of the story, being the provider of goods and the source of the sons' future inheritance. The younger son's urge to be autonomous and depart from home in order to enact his own script resulted in his degraded and deranged state. After suffering the repercussions of his decisions, he engaged in inner dialogues and rhetoric, which are succinctly depicted in the excerpts of the narrative. Using metacognitive-dialogical terms, these internal dialogues and rhetoric may be understood as follows:

The Prodigal's quest for emancipation, his foolish choices, and fallen state. The prodigal son started with a quest for autonomy that lacked propriety and wisdom. In Jesus' parable, the son's behavior and stance towards his father is depicted as unwise, irreverent, and naive, and in violation of acceptable cultural and familial norms. His mindset is portrayed as a self-centered pursuit of his impulses, cravings, and dictates of his flesh. Asking for his future inheritance was a nuanced expression of a wish that his father was already dead or at least unable to exert any control or authority over his life. No details are given about the father's response to the son's request; simply, as the story goes, the father acceded and granted him his inheritance and his freedom.

His radical emancipation and separation from the father and his household allowed him to enjoy an extravagant yet ephemeral lifestyle. Surrounded by hedonistic and materialistic "friends," he became trapped in his own vain and foolish ways. Having lost his money, his friendships, and his dignity, he ended up demeaned, degraded, and defeated. At this junction, a hypothetical mechanism may have entered into play. In theoretical terms, this servomechanism triggers his metacognitive executive control (MEC) and acts in ways similar to a Test-Operate-Test-Exit (TOTE) unit (that is, an algorithm used to solve non-deterministic problems in a complex system; Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960). It may be seen as a basic cognitive monitoring device that controls the acquisition and processing of an input-output relationship via feedback loops. The Prodigal was able to somehow enter into a metacognitive-dialogical, super-conscious monitoring process, by means of which he gained a consciously objective perception of his subjective state of being.

A metacognitive realization--his kairotic "aha" experience. The Prodigal's existential awareness of his predicament emerged, as his thoughts and feelings became accelerated by a myriad of negative contingencies colluding and spiraling him into an abysmal angst. At the lowest level, experiencing his utter defeat, his feeble yet functional metacognitive executive control (MEC1 depicted in Figure 1) prompted a sort of mindful detachment, fostering his self-scrutiny and assessment. In the author's conjectural view, a sort of servomechanism entered into play, and enabled him to "come to himself." He experienced an "aha" moment in space and time. In Jesus' words, he came to his senses (Lk. 15:17). His top-down, executive agency was prompted by his conscience (perhaps aided by the upsurge of emergent consolidated metanarratives lodging his semantic and episodic memories of a good attachment to the father, and the previous benefits enjoyed at his household, as compared to the drastic changes registered in his existential predicament). A sort of a metacognitive executive control mechanism enabled him to disengage from his entrapment and shift away from his reactionary despair and hopelessness. Figure 1 may help to elucidate the process of such a metacognitive-executive control prompted by a servomechanism.

As the note in Figure 1 indicates, the author assumes that it was the top-down agency (his conscience) that prompted the move toward his change of mind. Being prompted, the person's conscious realization allowed him to engage in self-observation in a detached yet mindful state of mind, as to ponder, observe, and stop his reactionary, fast thinking, negative style. The servomechanism triggering the MEC1 may be further elucidated: It may be seen at work at the junction of top-down and bottom-up processes, where the promptings of human conscience (or in contemporary terms, the promptings of the Holy Spirit indwelling the believer) interacts with the human appeal to a higher order of processing so as to be empowered to do the right thing. Figure 2 is provided to elucidate such a point.

Both feedback and feedforward flows of information are depicted in Figure 2. On the right side of the flow the natural reactions are registered at both a basic S-R level and a more conscious cognitive-emotive-behavioral level. A third, higher order of processing is noted by the engagement of higher cortical functions (i.e., the metacognitive-emotive executive control system, regarded as a top-down executive agency). The naturally assessed feedback that carries negative signals is superseded by the influx of a detached/ breaking feedback (fed and impinged upon by the instructive feedforward flow from the MEC) running upwards in parallel fashion, carrying such signals back to the MEC. In turn, the MEC sends back "down" a purposive feedforward loop (on the left side of the diagram) to the observing/monitoring processing, as well as to the sensory and motoric systems, resulting in a corrected, purposive, controlled, and empowered response.

Back to the details: Having an objective glimpse about his subjective state, the prodigal son was able to apply a "clutch" to his reactive, negative fast thinking, allowing him to disengage his cognitive-emotive spinning "engine" from his organismic, natural driving train. That is, he was able to activate his metacognitive executive control and detach mindfully into a neutral state that allowed him to "open his eyes" to his own predicament.

In such a state, he experienced a kairotic moment, (a catalytic or cathartic teaching/learning moment = At) , in which his morbid, automatic processes were unlocked, and he became open to further monitoring and assessing his predicament. In Jesus' words, he came to his senses (Lk. 15:17). His top-down, executive agency enabled him to stop the flux of consciousness, to become mindfully aware, and to shift away from the entrapment of his reactive thinking and associated sense of despair, helplessness, and hopelessness.

In psychology, a moment in which the multiplicity of experiential elements of a situation come together or emerge suddenly as a gestalt has been called the "aha" experience (Kohler, 1921/1925). In psychoanalytic terms, the "aha" experience is analogous to the mirror stage of development that also involves a moment of sudden insight that leads to a significant change in a person's' mental organization (Lacan, 1949/2006). In the field of cognitive science, the concept of "chunking" vast amounts of data into abstract units of knowledge was developed by Miller (1956) and further elaborated by Simon (1974), who stressed that insightful, intuition-based solutions are abstracted phenomena of a tacit nature. A vast array of experiential knowledge is consolidated into personal, tacit knowledge by means of multiform avenues chunking in the brain (Simon, 1995). Such intuition may lie at the crossroads between perception, knowledge, and emotional modulation (Chassy & Gober, 2011).

Analytically and hypothetically speaking, the episodic memories or reminiscences of the Prodigal's original, secure attachment to the father--lost due to an apostatic movement or detachment of a negative nature--were possibly triggered and reactivated by the postulated metacognitive-executive control mechanism in tacit manner. Hall's (2004) relational-spiritual paradigm, drawing from Bucci's (1997) multiple coding notions, pointed to the possibility that images appear to mediate the self s capacity to organize and symbolize experiences of a sub- symbolic nature. Such processes may provide the basis for connecting images and nonverbal experiences into words, labeled by Bucci (1997) as a "referential activity" of reflective nature, which is parallel to Fonagy's (2001) "mentalization" or reflective function. In such a view, the capacity to represent experiences and to understand others' mental states depends on the ability to represent one's own experiences (Hall, 2004).

The Prodigal's "aha" experience may be seen as an emergent property that first arises from his episodic, subconscious, sub-symbolic, non-verbal imagery and from his symbolic, verbal, semantic memories, and is then chunked and elicited by means of a second engagement of the metacognitive-executive control mechanism (labeled as MEC2 in Figure 3). The sequential process may be outlined with the recognition that such processes are not linear or serial in nature, but rather convoluted, parallel processes with distributed functions that may be further elaborated. For our purposes, a simplified sequential process is outlined in Figure 3.

Before such "aha" experiences, the Prodigal could be described as a person "beside himself' as compared to his present insight, disposition, and choices. Thus, coming into himself denotes a metacognitive perception of his own state, status, and predicament--a top-down, augmented elucidation that results in a cathartic experience and is mediated by means of the super-conscious exercise (i.e., an executive agent delving into his intrinsic considerations, musings, and deliberations). The outcast, rebellious, and sinful son came to repentance with regret and remorse. He was able to see himself in an objective, mindfully detached fashion and to engage in comparative dialogues and ruminations over his lost status and miserable experiences compared against the benefits experienced by those who remained in the father's house.

Having in mind a critical, judgmental audience--the Pharisees represented by the older son--Jesus apparently alluded to a longstanding Hebraic tradition dealing with repentance. This theme may be surmised from Israel's history of cyclical disobedience, defeat, and degradation that culminated in oppression, slavery, and the loss of inheritance and status. It was through repentance and obedience that Israel would experience God's grace, mercy, and forgiveness, leading to the restoration and enjoyment of their freedom and blessings. Examples of such cycles may be found in the book of Judges as well as in 1st and 2nd Kings. Such recurrent patterns stretched from their deportation to Babylon (597 BCE) until Jesus' times when the Israelites were subjected to the Roman rule--a reminder of their defeated, subjugated, degraded state and their need for repentance and restoration.

The Old Testament demanded that inner contrition of the heart had to be followed by a decisive change of mind, as exemplified in outward behaviors. Thus, remorse, regret, and repentance had to be translated into actual deeds, including restitution and making amends. The transgressors had to cease their offending behavior (Isa. 33:15; Ps. 15; 24:4) and engage in good works (Isa. 1:17; 58:5; Jer. 7:3; 26:13; Amos 5:14-15; Ps. 34:15lb; 37:27). Human co-participation with God's restorative process was stressed in several passages: "Incline the heart to the Lord" (Josh. 24:23); "make oneself a new heart" (Ezek. 18:31); "circumcise the heart" (Jer. 4:4); and "wash the heart" (Jer. 4:14). These expressions seem to permeate the penitential literature of the Old Testament, which eventually developed into the rabbinic teaching on repentance as a major feature in a process of forgiveness and restoration of the fallen state.

Jesus' appeal to such teaching implied that, at the ontological level and in spite of the fall and the deformation of the Tselem Elohim, God has endowed the human with a sort of latent or potential "capacity within human incapacity" (Zizioulas, 1975, p. 403) to change his mind and turn back from his ways. The Prodigal's distress seemed to re-activate such potential, allowing him to turn back and go home. His latent capacity, or potential energy, for a good attachment became a kinetic movement, turning his apostasis (moving away from the father) into ectasis (moving toward him). In this framework, the repentant sinner has the potential to turn from evil to goodness, and the very act of turning would activate God's ever present grace, mercy, and benign concern and lead to forgiveness, acceptance, restoration, and validation as God's child.

In any case, such inner prompting allowed the prodigal to engage in metacognitive processes--thinking about his state, mindset, etc. His musings and deliberations led to the realignment of his cognitive processes with a reality-tested outcome. The postulated top-down agency, exercising metacognitive executive control, "acted upon" his mindset, allowing the Prodigal to come to his senses.

Internal dialogue. In Luke's narrative, Jesus provides details and gives voice to the Prodigal's internal dialogues. In cognitive terms, a mediating organization of the Prodigal's awareness, sensation, perception, and chunked experience of an organismic nature gathered a cognitive-emotional momentum, prompting a metacognitive shift. This mechanism (labeled as MEC3 in Figure 3) allowed a shift from mindful detachment to a reflective, deliberative, internal dialogue to take place.

A secular example, taken from Homer's depiction of heroes in his Iliad, gives us a glimpse of internal dialogues and rhetoric: When heroes were alone, faced with difficult situations, and had no interlocutor to address or consult with, they resorted to their own internal dialogues (deliberations with self) and rhetoric (persuasive self-talk) so as to address and persuade themselves to do whatever was necessary to cope with their challenges (Nienkamp, 2001). In the biblical narrative, when the Prodigal was distressed, alone, and without an interlocutor, he addressed himself with both internal dialogues and internal rhetoric.

Departing from an observing, monitoring, and assessing top-executive level, the Prodigal tapped into his episodic memories and used reflective cognitive processes to compare and contrast his previous experiences at his father's house with his current situation. Such awareness--a conscious or mindful realization of what he had lost and what he needed to regain--prompted him to engage in reflective, internal dialogues with self: "How many of my father's hired workers have food enough to spare, but here I am dying from hunger!" (Lk. 15:17). After comparing, contrasting, and deliberating with introjects and with himself, his dialogues were subject to a new MEC action, eliciting a shift into his internal rhetoric.

Internal rhetoric. The shift from dialogue to rhetoric may be seen as a decisive, insightful, learning moment--a new kairotic time--in which a metacognitive shift took place (MEC4 in Figure 3). The Prodigal's internal musings and deliberations were marked by comparisons and contrasts between his past and present status and mixed with regret, remorse, and repentance. After reflecting upon his isolation and destitution, the Prodigal addressed himself with an empowered voice and persuaded himself to solve his problem. The text succinctly alludes to this decisive moment ("Having risen up"), then illustrates his sense of direction and purpose as he persuades himself ("I will go to my father, and I will say to him ..." [Lk. 15:18a]).

Shifting back to internal dialogue: Anticipatory rehearsal and stress inoculation. The Prodigal was able to face the reality of his offenses against a benevolent father, which triggered his conscience, elevated his anxiety and distress about the repercussions of his poor choices and elicited a great deal of guilt and shame in having to face his father. It seems that the anticipatory impact of the eventual encounter with the father would elicit a fight or flight response; however, in the parable, the son seems to have shifted from an initial emotional impulse (to go to the father and face him) into an anticipatory, deliberate, and slow-thinking process of proactive nature.

The Prodigal's conscious, metacognitive executive control (now labeled as MEC5 in Figure 3) introduced a profound awareness of his condition and exposed his vulnerability and defeat. The Prodigal's feelings of destitution, shame, guilt, and repentance, prompted him to make amends. The necessity of adopting a coping style to address his angst became evident in the context of the parable. How to face the father after having done what the Prodigal did? The self shifted back and resorted to an internal dialogue. This time, a proactive, anticipatory rehearsal of possible interchanges with his introjected father took place. Such dialogical rehearsal may be described as an exercise in stress inoculation training (McGuire, 1964; Meichenbaum, 1985) through which he prepared his mindset for the eventual encounter. The prospect of facing his father and experiencing the associated angst rendered his anticipatory dialogue a more deliberate, purposive, rational, and humble endeavor.

Luke registers Jesus's voicing of the Prodigal's internal dialogue in the words, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you" and "No longer am I worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your servants" (Lk. 15:18b--19). His awakened conscience exposed his unworthiness; in mindful awareness of his state, he begged to become a hired worker and earn his stay, perhaps, to do the right thing and pay back what he had splurged (in accordance with the doctrine of restitution that was familiar to the Pharisees).

The content of his internal dialogue deals with the recognition that he has offended both a higher order ("I have sinned against heaven") as well as a natural order ("before you"). Thus, the Prodigal is mindful of the transcendental and superordinate as well as the ordinary and natural ramifications of his offense. At this point in the story, the son is unaware of the father's grace, mercy, and love, so he needs to prepare his mind for possible retaliation, chastisement, or eventual suffering. He is willing to work to regain a place among hired servants, counting himself unworthy of regaining the status of a son. Such is the content of his slow-thinking, deliberate, mindful dialogue. The modulation and regulation of such processes led the prodigal to finally take the proper action.

Enactment of a mindful, purposeful decision. The Prodigal's experience ends with the enactment of his persuasive command--"And he got up and went to his father" (Lk. 15:20). After his anticipatory and mindfully dialogical preparedness, the Prodigal finally shifted back to his internal rhetoric, persuaded himself to get up, and do the right thing. Conjecturally speaking, it is possible that the engagement of the intuitional, personal, automatic function of the executive agent (metacognitive-executive control MEC6) prompted such a decision and actualized his potential capacity within his incapacity (Zizioulas, 1975) to do the right thing.

The re-oriented or directional shift in the Prodigal's mindset caused his intentions, motivations, emotions, and convictions to be actualized or enacted behaviorally. He turned back (or re-turned, as in metanoia) in the direction of his father, regaining a hypostatic-ecstatic movement (coming out of himself and redirecting himself toward the object of his love). Being consciously aware (or having regained his senses), he acted upon the basis of his inner persuasion and conviction. From his isolated, narcissistic "I" in despair, he reoriented his being towards a grounded "I-Thou," as Buber (1923) would put it.


The musings and reflective analysis considered in this article are circumscribed to Luke's narrative of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Readers--especially those engaged in helping professions with individuals in disoriented, dysfunctional, or "prodigal" situations--may find some analogies to draw from such insights. The paradigm is expandable to a more accurate rendering (having in mind the provision of the canon of Scriptures and the indwelling Holy Spirit as a Paraclete), able to empower the top-down executive functions of a believer--the metacognitive-executive control and subsidiary processes that may regulate and direct the self-efficacy of the person who is faced with disorienting, defeating, or challenging contingencies and in need of change.

The envisioned metacognitive-dialogical paradigm goes beyond the classic cognitive-behavioral strategies that focus on the content of cognitive events and processes. Therapeutic help aligned with metacognitive-dialogical perspectives may include (a) the fostering of a top-down, metacognitive, insightful awareness of attentive, sensory, and perceptive biases that may underlie a person's consolidated metanarratives and negative styles of thinking; (b) the development of a person's capacity to engage in mindful detachment in order to observe, monitor, and stop undesirable reactions; (c) the employment of a top-down metacognitive executive control, to be exercised in mindfully purposeful engagement with deliberative inner dialogues; and (d) the empowering of internal rhetoric as an aid in decision making.

In terms of biblical counseling, a metacognitive-dialogical paradigm offers a more encompassing, principled approach to counseling beyond a simple appeal to scriptural quotes that are applicable to discrete situations. A metacognitive-dialogical paradigm may allow professionals to address the ontologically consolidated metanarratives and cognitive processing styles of those in distress. In so doing, individuals' underlying metanarratives may be activated and their inner dialogues (e.g., ruminations, threat monitoring, negative self-confirmatory biases, catastrophic thinking, etc.) must be addressed and challenged with an empowered internal rhetoric. This inner persuasion may reinforce the processes of reframing, redirecting, or changing cognitive-emotive styles and metanarratives that individuals hold. Along such endeavors, integrative theological-psychological efforts may be dedicated investigating and developing insights into the workings of the human mind. With such understanding, a therapist may engage in biblical counseling, presented here as a dialogical process, with a metacognitive-paradigmatic, conceptually encompassing mindset.

Author Note: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Pablo Polischuk, Counseling Program, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, MA 01982. Email: pablo@


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Pablo Polischuk

Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary

POLISCHUK, PABLO. PhD. Address: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 130 Essex Street, South Hamilton, MA 01982. Title: Licensed Clinical Psychologist; Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology. Degrees: BA (Psychology) University of California, Berkeley; MA (Research Psychology) San Francisco State University; MA (Theology) Fuller Theological Seminary; PhD (Clinical Psychology) Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. Specializations: Integration of psychology and theology, metacognitive-dialogical issues in psychotherapy.
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Date:Mar 22, 2015
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