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Dis-integrating psychology and theology.

This essay explores the dis-integrative dynamics within the ongoing process of relating the disciplines of psychology and theology, suggesting that such dissolutive forces can play an important and valuable role in the dialogue. Healthy development requires that we sometimes let things fall apart. The main sections of the article point to the potentially generative power of dis-integrating psychology, theology, selves and gods. The conclusion addresses the existential fear and desire that often characterize human attempts to hold it all together, i.e., the tasks of "integration" in all its forms.

Integrating the disciplines of psychology and theology is an exciting and important academic task, one in which I have been involved for quite a long time and to which I remain committed. In this essay, however, I want to draw attention to the importance--and the value--of disintegration. Although the generative forces of disintegration are inexorably at work in all interdisciplinary engagement, they are too often inadequately emphasized and sometimes ignored or even suppressed. In my view, these ways of dealing with disintegrative dynamics are not good for the disciplines or for their disciples. Attending positively to the creative potential of disintegrative negation can open up new possibilities for healthier ways of engaging within and across the fields of psychology and theology.

As I hope to make clear, my intention is not to idealize disciplinary schizophrenia or to dismiss the ideal of integrity--for scientists or for the sciences. However, I am resisting the idea that the and in "psychology and theology" can be reduced to a kind of linear function in which two integers are added together through a simple arithmetic conjunction. Instead we might imagine the relation of the disciplines within a non-linear topological space that invites a more complicated infinitesimal calculus, in which finding integrals requires attention to differentials, to changes in the value of functions. The goal of "integration" should not be a final enumeration or sum (mary) of static ideas, but an ongoing generation of open systems of dynamic inquiry in which the value of breaking things apart can be included in the equations.

Coming up with a provocative title is one thing--provoking in ways that move the discussion forward is quite another. In this context my limited goals are to point out some of the disruptive and dissolutive forces within the ongoing task of integration and to advocate an open, differentiated way of relating to them. This is consonant with the "relational" model of integration that psychologist Steven Sandage and I have developed and defended in a variety of places (Shults and Sandage, 2003, 2006; Sandage and Shults, 2007, 2011). We have consistently emphasized the importance of facing the potentially transformative function of negation, of welcoming the "dark night" of the interdisciplinary soul as part of the ongoing quest for spiritual--and intellectual--enlightenment. In what follows, I press this point even further. In the conclusion, I will return to the necessary (and valuable) task of trying to hold it all together. First, however, let us acknowledge the value (and necessity) of letting go.

Letting it All Fall Apart

Good therapists know that the process of emotional healing usually (if not always) involves coming to a point where one is willing to let things fall apart. It is quite natural for human beings to try to hold things together; indeed, without integration of some kind we could not survive, much less thrive. When the integrator's hold on a particular integrative strategy becomes rigid and anxious, however, tightening one's grip on the "integrand" only makes the problem worse. Sometimes there must be a strategic dissolution before a new solution can be found. Healthy development in adapting to our natural and social environments occasionally calls for letting go of an integrand; the most radical transformations usually include intense moments of (at least partial) disintegration.

Good theologians know this too. As James Loder argued, existential transformation involves a negation of negation, a facing of the Void in which one recognizes the incapacity of the self to hold together its lived world (1989). The great spiritual writers of the religious traditions testified to this in a variety of ways, pointing to the importance of acknowl-edging the inability of finite persons to secure themselves vis-a-vis the infinite ground (or abyss) of (non)existence. The vast majority of the world's population manages this anxiety through imaginative engagement with God (or gods), which is one of the main reasons why the dialogue between psychologists and theologians is so important.

The human experience of the (dis)integrativc processes of life is often characterized by fear and desire. We fear the pain of isolation and the threat of absorption; we desire to hold and be held in pleasurable communion with others. These powerful forces sometimes lead us to take extreme measures to maintain the "integrity" of the community and our place within it, even at the cost of putting up walls that inhibit (or even prohibit) authentic and lively communication, within and across these socially constructed boundaries. Letting things fall apart can be scary, but it can also be beautiful. Dis-integration happens whether we like it or not. The question is whether we can learn to open up our selves and our disciplines to the creative potential of these dissolutive events.

Dis-integrating Psychology

When we approach the task of integrating "psychology" with theology (or any other discipline), it is important to acknowledge that we are not dealing with a fixed object. Psychology is not a substance that can be combined with others into new chemical compositions. Even if we stuck with the chemistry metaphor, dissolution of some kind is usually a precondition for a new solution. Simply perusing the abstracts at an APA conference or titles in the PsycINFO database is enough to bring the point home: psychology is not an integrated whole. Nor should it be. What makes the field interesting is the open and lively debate among (for example) developmental, moral, cognitive, evolutionary, social and clinical psychologists. It is precisely this openness to the in-breaking of critical and dis-integrative voices (even from other disciplines) that keeps "psychology" alive.

Watching the carefully woven fabric of one's favorite theory being ripped apart can be an unpleasant experience, but sometimes this disassembly sparks insights that lead to new and more functional theoretical fashions that better fit the data. Dis-integration may be aggravating but it creates space and time for aggregating empirical data and concepts in novel ways. One of the reasons for the continuing explanatory power of the psychological disciplines is the way in which competing scientific paradigms (Kuhn) or research programs (Lakatos) continually dis-mantle one another, forcing the use of new conceptual threads for weaving together the patchwork of empirical findings.

These reflections also apply to "psychology and theology," which many consider to be its own (interdisciplinary) field or discipline. Here too we should be wary of the temptation to mark of intellectual boundaries too quickly. The metaphor "field" should be construed not in geographical but in physical terms: a dynamic force field of interconnected and open explanatory events. Calling it a "discipline" should be understood not as an attempt to determine its departmental location but as a reminder to discipline our selves to remain interconnected and open during every event of explanation. Is this too idealistic? We might be optimistic about finding psychologists who, as scientists, would be willing to commit themselves to such explanatory openness. But can we really expect theo-logians to go along? This depends, of course, on what we mean by "theology."

Dis-integrating Theology

In many of the contexts in which readers of this journal operate, theology is explicitly tied to the beliefs, behaviors and experiences of a particular religious coalition. The task of theologians working within and for the sake of a confessional community is often understood as protecting, articulating and transmitting a coherent (integrated) set of doctrines. In this model part of the function of "theology" is holding together a coalition of believers, constituting and regulating its boundaries. Elsewhere I have called this the sacerdotal trajectory of theology, and distinguished it from an iconoclastic theological trajectory that breaks apart idolized conceptual schemes protected and policed by the religious elite (Shults, 2012a; 2012b). Theology in the service of the mono-theistic traditions has too often been characterized by a mono-polistic obsession with unified propositional systems.

Some of the most significant developments in late modern theology, even within the sacerdotal trajectory, have been reactions against such rigid modes of "integration." In Christianity, for example, we can point to the more fluid and praxis-oriented tendencies of narrative, feminist and liberation theologies. This is also evident in the renewal of interest in pneumatology among systematic theologians. In the west Christian theology has most often privileged logos over pneuma, emphasizing the importance of the (logical) ordering of the cosmos and downplaying or even resisting the equally creative (pneumatic) forces that shake up our worlds, tossing them out of order. Both of these dynamics are part of life, and way in which we balance (or fail to balance) them theologically has powerful political and psychological ramifications.

The success of the integrative efforts promoted by the Journal of Psychology & Theology (JPT) depends on good, healthy theological disintegration. Resistance among (sacerdotal) theologians to interdisciplinary engagement can be a manifestation of an unhealthy over-attachment to a particular doctrinal integration, which is taken to be the indissoluble basis of the integrity of the coalition. This not only blocks open dialogue with and learning from other scientific disciplines (or religious coalitions), it also has the effect of petrifying (in both senses of the term) the theologian and the coalition. The kind of "integration" that JPT aims to sponsor becomes truly possible when (iconoclastic) theologians are willing to engage in the vulnerable process of opening up their favorite formulations to radical critique as well as openly criticizing the fallacies and foibles they perceive in psychological theories and therapies. My point is not that theologians should give up on the ideal of systematicity but that the idealization of a finally closed systematic "integration" actually hinders the process of discovery and blocks the transformation of the disciplines and the disciplinarians within them.

Dis-integrating Selves

One of the reasons it is so difficult to let (even part of) our disciplines fall apart is that our own identities can so easily become fused with the disciplines (or coalitions) with which we identify. It is easy to understand why the petrification of psychological or theological formulations can seem attractive as a way of protecting against disintegration. However, this strategy only represses and so intensifies the petrifying anxiety that can drive the self toward such strategies in the first place (Shults, 2011). "Integration" is accomplished (or attempted) by embodied selves in embedded social relations. Interdisciplinary engagement can only be truly transformative when it includes attention to the formal dynamics by which selves in relation "hold on to the material issues under discussion.

Late modern thinkers have increasingly rejected early modern notions of selfhood that rely on categories such as essence and identity, preferring instead to emphasize the becoming and hybridity of "selves." One does not have to appeal to radical postmodernists to illustrate the point. In Robert Kegan's theory of The Evolving Self (1982), for example, the developmental process is described as involving "evolutionary truces" in which the self learns new, more complex ways of adapting to the tension between the longings for inclusion and distinctness. Growth sometimes requires the "loss" of an old "self," a letting go and renegotiation of the way in which consciousness is ordered (cf. Kegan, 1994). The key point here is that healthy integration is an ongoing process that requires an ongoing openness of selves to healthy dis-integration, which is sometimes required in our adaptations to our natural and social worlds.

The literature of the major religious traditions is also attentive to the importance of dis-integrating selves. For example, the stories of Abraham, Moses, David, Confucius, Zhuangzi, Arjuna, Buddha, Epictetus, Lucretius, Jesus, Paul, Mohammed and Rumi include significant moments of "letting go" and their teachings or reflections often encourage (albeit in different ways) a humble openness to and acceptance of the role that dissolutive forces play in transformation. Of course, the preferred exemplars and doctrines of the world's religions also sometimes manifest and even instill in their followers anxious ways of attempting to hold on to the self at all costs. Nevertheless, there are resources in virtually all traditions for understanding and facilitating non-anxious ways of differentiating selves within religious "families of origin" (cf. Shults, 2010). If healthy integration requires an openness to some kind of deconstruction of psyche, where does that leave theos?

Dis-integrating Gods

For most readers of this journal, this penultimate section will probably be the most dis-concerting, and understandably so. However, take a moment to reflect on your own journey in the integrative process. For most people I know, radical transformations in their self-understanding have included radical transformations in their understanding of ultimate reality. Several studies have shown the powerful connection between people's working models of themselves (and others), which is shaped by their way of relating to a human "primary attachment figure," and their working model of God (e.g., Kirkpatrick, 2005). Moreover, reports of longitudinal therapeutic interventions suggest that people's God images are usually altered as they experience psychological and spiritual growth, for example from a judgmental, controlling Parent to less anthropomorphic conceptions of the divine (Wallin, 2007). This psychological process can be just as painful, and just as healing, as learning to let go of an unhealthy way of relating to an idealized image of another human being.

However, it is important to acknowledge that gods also play a powerful political role in the social worlds of human beings. Those of us raised in the Christian tradition are accustomed to speaking of "God," but monotheism is a recent development in human evolution, emerging alongside the development of complex literate states that required new forms of unified policing. The religious lives of most people (including monotheists) are typically characterized by shared imaginative engagement with a variety of supernatural agents (e.g., saints, angels, demons, jinn, ancestors, etc.). As long as the integration of "psychology and theology" is limited to attempts to hold together particular western notions of psyche and theos, the exercise will (at best) only be of value for provincial in-groups or (at worst) only reinforce alienating attitudes toward out-groups.

For this reason, it will become increasingly important to engage the empirical findings and theoretical insights of the bio-cultural sciences of religion (cf. Wildman, 2009, 2011) insofar as they shed light on the psychological and political significance of the way in which humans understand their shared engagement with "gods." In my view this is one of the most significant tasks ahead for those interested in promoting integration within the disciplined conceptual fields of "psychology and theology." Overcoming the monopolizing sacerdotal forces that hinder real integration (inter alia by forbidding or punishing dis-integration) will require openness to the value of iconoclastic forces that can break open new possibilities for healthy reconstructive engagement across traditions and disciplines (cf. Shults, 2012a, 2012b). The way in which we imagine our gods may help hold our in-groups together, but rigidly holding on to these images also holds us apart from out-groups and, indeed, crushes open discourse within our coalitions as well.

Holding it All Together

I anticipate that some readers will judge my comments here as insufficiently sensitive to the human need to hold things together. For the reasons outlined in the introduction and throughout this brief essay, I have decided in this context to stress the need for humans to learn to let things fall apart. Nevertheless, life is not simply dis-integration, and dissolution is not always healthy. Both sides of this dialectic are necessary. For some of us, it is literally our "job" to work at integration. Doing this job well, however, will require ongoing attention to the generative and salutary potential of the forces of disruption, dissolution and dis-integration.

This special issue of JPT invites reflection on the past, present and future of integration. I want to emphasize the pluperfect subjunctive and anterior future of integrating.

The integrative process about which we are all enthusiastic is just that a process. It is always and already occurring at the intersection, which is also the disjunction, of the passing of past "integrating" that may have not been but now once were and the arrival of new possibilities for "integratings" that may or may not be, but soon will or will not have been. "Integration" is what we do in the temporal space of the present that is constituted by this disjunctive intersection. Always dis-integrating and integrating, for better or for worse--as long as we all shall live. Our presence is our participation in the nexus of events within which we live and move and have our (dis)integrating. This applies to the way we relate psychology and theology as much as it does to anything else.

We cannot hold it all together. We cannot let it all fall apart. This tension is part of human life. Too often our efforts at integration are driven by an inordinate desire to hold onto old psychological and political patterns that have held us together--or by an inordinate fear of their dis-integration. But there is nothing to be afraid of really. Can we learn to accept--and perhaps even enjoy--the dissolution of our being that makes possible our discovery of novel solutions? A final solution in which a static "integration" was totally secured against any future alteration is not a live option; indeed, it is death. The ongoing vivacity of our attempts to integrate psychology and theology depends on our ability to develop healthy selves, healthy polities, and healthy disciplines. A hypochondriac obsession with maintaining the integrity of these systems by over-protecting them from contact with foreign elements does not promote health in any robust sense; vigorous integration only comes with and through energetic and risky engagement with the dis-integrative.


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Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kirkpatrick, L.A. (2005). Attachment, evolution and the psychology of religion. New York: Guilford Press.

Loder, J.E. (1989). The transforming moment. [2.sup.nd] edition. Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard.

Sandage, S.J. and Shults, F.L. (2007). "Relational Spirituality" Christian Counselling Today, 14/4: 63-66.

Sandage, S.J. and Shults, F.L. (2011). "Relational Transformation," in Tim Clinton and Ron Hawkins, eds., The Popular Encyclopedia of Christian Counseling. 147-148. New York: Harvest House

Shults, F.L. (2010). "Transforming religious plurality: anxiety and differentiation in religious families of origin." Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 20/2: 148-169.

Shults, F.L. (2011). "Dc-oedipalizing theology: Deleuze, difference and desire," in F. L. Shults and J.O. Henriksen, eds., Saving desire: the seduction of Christian theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Shults, F.L. (2012a). "Science and religious supremacy," in W. Wildman and P. McNamara, eds., Science and the world's religions. New York: Praeger.

Shults, F.L. (2012b). "The problem of good (and evil): arguing about axiological engagement in science and religion." in W. Wildman and P. McNamara, eds., Science and the worlds religions. New York: Praeger.

Shults, F.L. and Sandage, S.J. (2003). The faces of forgiveness: searching for wholeness and salvation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Shults, F. L. and Sandage, S.J. (2006). Transforming spirituality: integrating theology and psychology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Wallin, D.J. (2007). Attachment in psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Wildman, W.J. (2009). Science and religious anthropology. Farnam, UK: Ashgate.

Wildman, W.J. (2011). Religious and spiritual experiences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

F. LeRon Shults, Ph.D., Ph.D.

Professor of Theology and Philosophy, University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway

Author Information

SHULTS, F. LERON. Address: Title: Professor of Theology and Philosophy, University of Agder, Institute of Religion, Philosophy and History, Lundsiden, Building 13 4604 Kristiansand, Norway. Degree: Ph.D, Ph.D. Areas of Interest: theology, philosophy, psychology and the cognitive study of religion.
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Author:Shults, LeRon F.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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