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Winnicott's object relations theory and the work of the Holy Spirit.

While various studies have focused on the practical working of the Holy Spirit in counseling and therapy and the impact of the Holy Spirit on personality growth and development, few studies have offered sustained theoretical reflections or now the work of the Holy Spirit might be understood psychologically. This article uses the object relations psychology of D.W, Winnicott to redress this need. It argues that Winnicott's developmental psychology, especially his concepts of "transitional objects" and "object usage" provide useful lenses for psychological reflections on the work of the Holy Spirit.


Theological work focused specifically on the nature and work of the Holy Spirit is plentiful (e.g., Bloesch, 2000; Moltmann, 1997; Pin-nock, 1996). However, when one looks for works devoted to understanding the nature and work of the Holy Spirit from a psychological frame, the story is very different Apart from a few studies on the psychological nature of "speaking in tongues" (e.g., Kildahl, 1972; Malony & Lovekin, 1985; Oates, 1967) there has been little work in this area. While a few studies have focused on the work of the Holy Spirit in counseling or therapy (Decker, 2002), virtually no serious theoretical work exploring a positive psychological contribution to understanding the work of the Holy Spirit has been done.

For thirty years, the work of D.W. Winnicott has inspired a breadth of psychological reflections on the role of religion in life and culture (McDargh, 1983 Meissner, 1984; Rizutto, 1979; Sorenson, 2004). Much of the research on "God images" and their place in counseling and therapy owes a debt to his pioneering work, especially on transitional phenonmena (Lawrence, 1997; Moriarty, 2006; Rizutto, 1979; St Clair, 1984). Although there are numerous studies on the implication of Winnicott's work for understanding religious experience, very few people have employed Winnicott's theory to reflect specifically on the work of the Holy Spirit (e.g., Parker, 1999). While the role of the Holy Spirit in counseling and therapy has been the subject or over a dozen articles in journals devoted to Christianity and psychology (Decker, 2002), these studies do not take the form of sustained theoretical reflections on how the work of the Holy Spirit might be understood psychologically. Some authors have reflected on the impact of the Holy Spirit on personality noting that the Spirit helps move people to various visions of wholeness and spiritual growth (Coe, 1999; Craker, 1976; Dodd, 1999; Ingram, 1996; cf. Kunst & Tan, 1996). This article is unique in its efforts to use the work of D.W. Winnicott to reflect on the psychological mechanisms involved in the work of the Holy Spirit.

Reflecting psychologically on the work of the Holy Spirit has several advantages. It helps one identify ways in which human development and spiritual development may co-mingle. It allows for identification of parallels between the normal processes of human maturation and the formation of the Christian self. Conversely, such an approach may make Christian therapists aware of ways the work of the Holy Spirit in human development and therapy gets overlooked. Furthermore, such an approach will provide a supplemental lens for Christian therapists interested in psychological theory. It also has the potential to offer a language for those who dialogue with less overtly religious colleagues who nevertheless are open to spiritual dimensions in therapy. Finally, the particular theoretical approach employed in this essay--object relations theory--also helps accentuate the relational nature of God, including the relational aspects of the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. Grentz, 2001).

It should be emphasized that this attempt to reflect psychologically on the work of the Holy Spirit, even though cast as a positive contribution of religious experience to psychological health, is not intended to reduce such experiences to natural phenomena. Furthermore, there is an admittedly speculative quality to these reflections; they clearly are not the only ways to understand these experiences. This approach is simply offered as a heuristic lens.


While the nature and work of the Holy Spirit does not lend itself easily to short summaries, one might note that the early Creeds affirm a belief in "the Holy Spirit ... the giver of life" (cf. Nicene Creed). Although this designation as life-giver does not capture all the work and activity of the Holy Spirit, it nevertheless reflects much of the Biblical material concerning the Holy Spirit's ministry. In the Old Testament, the dominant metaphor for the Spirit is ruach (wind, breath), and hence an early connection to the idea of the Spirit's life-giving quality. The first mention of the ruach of God is in Genesis 1, where the "Spirit" (ruach) is identified as God's creative agent moving over the primordial chaos. The life-giving aspect of the Spirit is illustrated further in the account of the valley of dry bones that come to life through the ruach of God (Ezekiel 37, Revised Standard Version).

In the New Testament this metaphor of the Spirit (Greek: pneuma; cf. English "wind") creating new life is addressed in the context of the regeneration of the believer (Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5). St. Paul further connects the life-giving work of the Spirit to the transformation of the believer into the very image or likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). Thus, for Paul, the new life of the Christian can be characterized as one in which the old life of the "flesh" is exchanged for a new life dominated by the Spirit (Romans 8). If the Holy Spirit is thought of as the life-giving aspect of God's manifestation, how is this life-giving work to be understood psychologically?


The psychological lens employed in this article is the developmental psychology of D.W. Winnicott (1966, 1971), Winnicott's contributions are generally located within a larger psychological tradition known as object relations theory. Object relations psychology is a rather diverse group of psychoanalytic thinkers who, in extending Freud's (1905/1953, 1914/1957) insights regarding the objects of libidinal desire, modified (or replaced) his drive theory with a theory of personality development based on the quality of the relationship between the infant and its primary caregiver(s) (Greenberg &: Mitchell, 1983; Scharff & Scharff, 1992).

Object relations theory argues that the formation of the self occurs in the context of interactions with others (i.e., one's so called "objects"), that this formation follows a developmental path that begins with a sense of merger with one's caregiver and eventuates in a mature adult able to interact realistically and objectively with others. From its interactions with its primary caregiver(s), the infant develops both its capacity and its patterns for relating to self, others, and world. How one's significant others are perceived and how they relate to oneself becomes the best predictor of a person's emotions, reactions, and behaviors (cf. Edkins, 1985; Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983; Kropp, 1990), But just how does this journey take place for Winnicott?

The Emergence of the Self in Winnicott

According to Winnicott (1966, 1987), infants are born into an interpersonal context that includes certain expectations regarding the child. Winnicott notes that during the last few months of the pregnancy and for the first few weeks after the infant's birth, the mother becomes preoccupied with her infant, a state that he called "primary maternal preoccupation." It is a state involving fantasies of and about the infant that makes the mother especially attuned to her infant's needs. This temporary hyper-attentiveness to the infant's needs creates an environment in which the infant experiences itself as "omnipotent" and the "creator" of its environment. Winnicott sees the mother's attunement to the infant's needs for feeding as creating a "moment of illusion" in which the infant's wishes for and envisioning of a solution for its needs co-occurs with the mother's presentation of her breast. This co-occurrence gives the infant the subjective experience that it created the breast that appeared and that it therefore controls its environment. These experiences become the basis for a later sense of a creative, capable self for Winnicott. Without this temporary, but necessary, experience of subjective omnipotence the child's belief in its own creativity and power is undermined and the emergence of the true self is hindered. Both in her expectations for the infant and in her "bringing the world [e.g., the breast] to the infant" in a well-timed, synchronistic manner, the mother provides a "holding environment" which allows the infant to begin to piece together its previously "unintegrated" experiences of self and others. In her interactions with her baby, the mother functions somewhat like a "mirror" through which the infant can perceive a reflection of its own experience and gestures despite the unintegrated quality of these experiences. Winnicott's chief metaphor for this ability to perceive oneself through the (m)other is the eye contact between mother and infant. Through these exchanges, the infant gets its initial sense of what it looks like (at least to the mother) and is able to use these experiences as building blocks for future experiences of self and others.

Although a subjective sense of omnipotence is necessary for a brief period, if this illusion is prolonged, the infant is ill prepared to deal with the objective world of reality. Therefore, the mother's task is twofold for Winnicott (1966, 1971). First, she must temporarily provide and allow for the infant's illusion of omnipotence through her early hyper-attentiveness. However, once this sense of illusion is established, she must then "disillusion" the child. The mother's initial "perfect" adaptability to the child's needs must give way to a "good enough mothering" in which she returns to an awareness of and tending to her own needs and constraints. Her inability to perpetuate this perfect meeting of the infant's needs has the salutatory effect of forcing the infant to come to terms with the fact that its experience of omnipotence is an illusion and that it must respond to the reality of the external world of which the mother is a part.

There are two concepts that help one grasp Winnicott's way of envisioning the movement from the state of merger to the recognition of self and environment as separate. These are his concepts of transitional phenomena and that of object usage. These two central concepts provide the background for the psychological reflections on the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit. Transitional phenomena is an umbrella term that refers to a cluster of related concepts including Winnicott's proposals regarding "transitional objects," "potential space," "illusion," and use of symbols. Object usage refers to a developmental achievement in which the child is able to recognize the objectivity of its environment and to interact with others in ways that recognize the other as a person in his or her own right. In object usage, the infant or child moves beyond the fantasy that others are created by and for his or her own desires or wishes.

Winnicott's Concept of Transitional Phenomena

For Winnicott (1971), the journey from a sense of merger with the mother toward a sense of self as separate from and related to its environment involves an "intermediate" or "transitional" area; a middle ground for sorting through and interrelating the realities of one's inner and outer worlds. It is a place where one experiments with letting go of one's illusions and develops in one's ability to tolerate delays in need satisfaction. According to Winnicott, during the transition from the inability to distinguish oneself from one's objects in the infants world take on a special significance because they have the ability to bridge the gap between the infant's fantasy world (where needs are perfectly met and one has an illusion of omnipotence), and the external world of reality where needs are sometimes frustrated. These special "transitional objects" occupy an intermediate area where their "reality" is a combination of what the child brings to the object by way of its fantasy and imagination and the object's "external" qualities. Because of the child's own investiture these objects have a reality for the child not accessible to an outside observer. However, it is the nature of such objects that the outside observer (e.g., the parent) does not challenge the child's reality regarding this object, but also grants it a special status (e.g., by not washing it because to do so would destroy the continuity of the child's experience with this object). Through the creation of an intermediate space where inner and outer worlds, internal and external reality, co-mingle both the child and the parent provide a safe place in which the infant can experiment or "play" with its emerging ability to sort the real, external world from its own internal fantasy world. One might say that transitional objects assist the infant in its movement from being "merged" with the mother to being a separate other through their ability to ally anxiety. They enable the infant's growing abilities to recall an image of the mother's care during her absence; that is, they come to symbolize the mother's care.

Because these transitional objects belong to an "unchallenged" and "intermediate" area contributed to by both internal and external reality they serve as a "resting place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated" (Winnicott, 1971, p. 2). Belonging to a "potential space" between the mother and the child, a space that is "outside, inside, on the border," transitional objects have a special relation to fantasy and illusion. However, unlike Freud (1913/1955), Winnicott views illusion as a positive aspect of development. That is, rather than being an obstruction to reality (delusional defenses), illusion leads to the ability to play, and play is what allows for the emergence of culture, art, and religion. Because the task of reality-acceptance is never completed for Winnicott, the movement from an idiosyncratic inner reality toward one in which external reality is accepted and shared is not a linear progression but a task humans continue to negotiate throughout life. For Winnicott, this ability to play, to fantasize and create, is what allows view, original, sometimes surprising possibilities to emerge.

Object Usage

A second concept from Winnicott that will provide insight into psychological reflections on the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit is his concept of "object usage." This concept was his last major theoretical contribution and is not particularly easy to grasp. His initial presentation of this concept to the New York Psychoanalytic Society was not well received or understood (Goldman, 1993, Kahr, 1995) and he continued to refine what he sought to convey by this term up until his death.

In some ways, Winnicott's notion of object usage revisits and extends some of the ideas associated with transitional phenomena. That is to say, one might understand his comments on object usage as continuing his reflections on the processes involved as the infant comes to experience itself as a self separate from its environment (e.g., the mother), and the environment as having a reality of its own.

To grasp Winnicott's concept of object usage, one notes that he distinguishes "object usage" from "object relating." The latter term refers to a developmental stage in which the infant or child does not fully experience itself as separate from its objects. In object relating, the object to which one relates is more projection of one's internal fantasies and desires toward the object that an externally verifiable reality. Object usage, by contrast, refers to a later developmental achievement that recognizes one's objects as other than one's projections; that is, as objects in their own right with desires and needs of their own. Coming to understand and to relate to the external world as separate from oneself with its own needs and desires is a complex journey that takes the infant and child through several developmental steps, as noted above. The steps include the moment of illusion, a good enough holding environment, a time disillusioning, an intermediate area in which one can play, and the growing ability to symbolize.

The journey from object relating to object usage is complex and involves the infant's growing ability to integrate its positive and negative experiences of both self and other. For instance, it comes to see that the mother who attends to is excited needs is the same mother that is present during its quiescent times. Similarly, it comes to know that the self it is in times of excited, devouring need is the same self that can be concerned for the mother after its needs have been satisfied. The journey toward the ability to integrate these experiences is bound up with fantasies of destruction for Winnicott (1971). In times of instinctually driven need, such as hunger, the infant knows only of its need and its satisfaction, "Finding" the mother's breast, it seeks to "devour" or destroy it, (and thinks it does so in its fantasy). Coming to see that the breast survives its destructive, need driven impulses (and does not retaliate), the infant comes to see the object ( the breast) in a different light. The object's survival testifies that it is different from the infant's fantasies about the object (including its fantasies of destruction), and is now available for a different (more realistic and objective) kind of relationship; it is available for "use." Winnicott envisions the baby saying "I find you; you survive what I do to you as I come to recognize you as not-me; I use you ..." (Winnicott, 1987, p. 103). For Winnicott, the true mark of health was the ability to find and use objects; that is, to recognize them as more than projections and the mean toward satisfaction of one's desires.


How might one use Winnicott's (1966, 1971) psychology to understand the means by which the life-giving, empowering work of the Spirit operates? Might there be parallels to one's growth toward a life in the Spirit and the normal processes of growth as articulated by Winnicott? In what ways might the transforming work of the Spirit that nurtures the new self in Christ resemble the initial journey that nurtured the original emergence of the self?

Work of the Holy Spirit and the Emergence of the Self

Several connections between the processes Winnicott (1966, 1971) describes and the growth of the new creation in Christ seem possible. Two general connections to the emergence of the self are explored here: (1) that formation of one's spiritual identity is the work of the Holy Spirit, and (2) that the Holy Spirit creates a spiritual holding environment from which strong spiritual selves can emerge.

One can envision the work of the Spirit in the formation of the new creation as bringing a certain level of wantedness and expectations that confer a sense of destiny and identity. There are several passages in Paul's writings where he speaks of the Spirit's work as one of confirming or affirming the sense of one's birth or "adoption" into God's spiritual family: "it is the Spirit itself bearing witness with our spirit, that we are children of God (Romans 8:16; cf. verses 14-17; Galatians 4:6)". Thus, the birth of the new creation in Christ also occurs in the social context of the family of God, a context that includes a sense of destiny and identity conferred by the witness of the Holy Spirit. But how does this witness occur and to what might it be likened in normal development?

Winnicott's (1966, 1971) notion that one's sense of identity (origin and destiny) is conferred primarily through the "mirroring" eye contact between mother and infant is suggestive that a sense of vitalizing spiritual identity would need a parallel process. One might suggest that the Spirit's ability to reflect back to us in some way what God sees us to be allows an image of the new creation (new self) to emerge. How might this occur? The kind of ecstatic experiences that Pentecostals sometimes report as conveying a kind of visceral sense of being gazed upon comes to mind (cf. Psalm 31:16). While one would not want to suggest that everyone must undergo similar ecstatic experiences, those who have them often report a sense of spiritual aliveness,; some have even suggested resemblance between certain Pentecostal experiences (such as tongue speaking) and the kinds of emotional connectedness experienced between infants and their mothers (Castelein, 1984; Kirkpatrick, 1992; Lapsley and Simpson, 1964). Of course, Pentecostal experiences of God's gaze. The Spirit may "strangely warm" the heart (cf. Wesley's experience) or simply convey a deep abiding sense of presence. Despite the potential for abuse, it seems important to affirm the relevance of the affective dimension of such experiences (over against merely cognitive assent) for subsequent growth in spiritual vitality (cf. Ulanov, 2001).

Another connection between Winnicott's (1966, 1971) psychology and the work of the Holy Spirit in the formation of the new creation concerns the importance of frustration of needs for healthy development. Winnicott points out that the mother's task is twofold. Having established a temporary sense of omnipotent illusion, the mother must disillusion the infant. Otherwise, a healthy person capable of success in the external world cannot emerge. The mother provides a "holding environment" with two qualities: it is a safe place that also respects the infant's growing ability to tolerate delay in need satisfaction.

New converts sometimes offer reports of God's especial closeness to the point that wishes and prayers seem confused in people's experience. While it is intriguing to speculate that such reports might point to a temporary ministry of the Holy Spirit that parallels the mother's creating and allowing a momentary illusion of omnipotence, one must concede that there is no clear New Testament teaching on the Holy Spirit to confirm this notion. On a more practical note, one observes that where there are such illusions of God bowing to one's wishes, they are short-lived. Neither ordinary human life, nor life in the Spirit, is that way. What is clear from the New Testament is that spiritual growth also emerges through suffering (cf. Hebrews 5:8). Similar to Winnicott's (1966, 1971) position that the self emerges (at least in part) through the mother's frustrations of the infant's needs, one can envision the work of the Holy Spirit as similar to the good enough mother who must disillusion the infant's sense of omnipotence if it is to grow and thrive. How again, might this work or what might it look like?

The most obvious parallel with Winnicott (1966, 1971) has to do with times of the mother's absence, briefly at first, but growing with the infant's ability to tolerance delay of need satisfaction. Likewise, times of God's experienced absence become important for the spiritual self to grow. St. John of the Cross (1959), a medieval mystic, identified the "dark night of the soul" as an important aspect of one's spiritual journey. Others, including Teresa of Avila and John Bunyon point to similar experiences. In an article on the motif of the presence and absence of God, Underwood (1986) uses Winnicott's work to argue that experiences of God's absence are what allow one to experience God as real. Underwood rightly argues that if God were always meeting one's needs, i.e., was always experienced as present, one would have no way to distinguish such experiences from fantasies. From this perspective, one would suggest that the work of the Holy Spirit in fostering spiritual maturity is seen in aiding the person's grappling with the frustration that God's world is not conforming to one's demands and that God is not on call for one's every wish.

Here, parallels with certain Christian pre-occupations with emotional experience are suggestive. Might the preoccupation with such experiences be under-stood as attempts to prolong the moment of illusion beyond what might be healthy for spiritual growth? While this is certainly not the only way to understand such experiences, it suggests that attempts at prolongation of such intimate experiences may be counterproductive to true spiritual development. This aspect of development is important: a strong self does not emerge from a world in which there is no frustration of desires. Similarly, a Christian life without temptations or frustrations will not produce strong Christians. In normal development, the infant's growing ability to tolerate delay in need satisfaction is connected to the infant's growing ability to retain a memory of the mother in her absence. In a theological sense, the Holy Spirit as "another" or "second paraclete," might be understood as that which allows one to retain a sense of Christ's presence during his physical absence (cf. John 14:16, 26). From a psychological perspective, the work of the Holy Spirit would be understood as that of establishing "good enough" (but not perfect) experiences of God's presence.

This way of conceiving the work of the Holy spirit it points to significant theological issues that cannot be resolved in the space allotted. However, it is important to note that what is being considered is whether a subjective experience of God's presence at all times and places is psychologically healthy. This consideration of a subjective experience of God's presence is different from theological beliefs that affirm God as present at all times and places (regardless of subjective experience).

In summary, one could say the Holy Spirit conveys a sense of identity to the new creation in Christ and provides a safe holding environment from which one can safely spread one's spiritual wings. Like the good enough mother, the Holy Spirit creates a space in which the frustrations of an imperfect world can be tolerated, because the new creation can experience the transcendent reality that has already begun, but is not yet complete. One is not omnipotent, but one is sustained.

Transitional Phenomena and the Work of the Holy Spirit

Winnicott's (1971) concept of transitional phenomena also provides fruitful ways to reflect on the psychological means of the work of the Holy Spirit. Three parallels are noted here: (1) that experiences of the Spirit are creative and adaptive, (2) that there is a middle ground where inner and outer realities co-mingle, and (3) that it is the person, not the object that is "transitional".

The first implication one can draw from Winnicott's (1971) articulation of transitional phenomena is that religious experience can be creative and adaptive rather than defensive (Jones, 1991; Meissner, 1984; Rizzuto, 1979). That is, religious experience arises within a psychic space that allows for and promotes creativity and growth. Winnicott saw transitional phenomena as creative because of their connection to play and imagination. Religion is no longer understood as a process of defense against anxiety, but as a creative psychological process, part of the creative, adaptive responses humans can make to life and continues throughout life. This connection produce art, religion, and culture. Winnicott's argument does not mean that faith in God cannot be defensive, but it opens one to the possibility that faith in God can be seen as a genuinely creative response to life. This connection of religion and creativity points to the first parallel with the life-giving quality of the work of the Holy Spirit can be conceived as that which allows new creative possibilities to emerge, a tapping into the creative potential of this transitional space in times of distress or decision.

If one asks how the Holy Spirit aids the emergence of new, creative adaptations, several possibilities suggest themselves. One is that the Spirit allows the recapture of early positive object images that helped form the God image. These images, drawn from interactions with early caregivers, help one understand the nurturing, guiding, strengthening qualities of God. In times of distress or decision, the Holy Spirit facilitates the recall and remembrance of previous encounters in ways that strengthen and guide the present. A second way the Holy Spirit aids creative adaptation in terms of the God image, is that it allows the reworking of negative self or object images that helped form one's God image. Because interactions with parents provide the building blocks for our understanding of God sometimes, these images of God can be skewed negatively; people can sometimes confuse parental voices with the voice of God. Creative adaptations would include the reworking of these God images so that different or more mature ways of relating to God emerge. The conflation of destructive early object images with our God image can be its own primordial chaos over which the Spirit needs to hover and blow and create something new (cf. Romans 8:26, 27). A third way the Holy Spirit might be understood to open up creative possibilities is through the incorporation of primary process thinking into decision making. The recapture of primary process thinking taps a dimension of our knowing not normally available through secondary ideation (Ulanov and Ulanov 1982), making more of our total self available for use in decision making. The ability of primary process thought to transcend dichotomies and apprehend otherwise unknown unities (Loewald, 1978), makes possible insights that could not be perceived through logic and reason alone. These three possibilities for the creative, adaptive work of the Holy Spirit point to complex processes that are described in more detail elsewhere (Parker 1996, 1999, 2007).

The notion of a creative middle ground where inner and outer worlds meet also has several implications for how the work of the Holy Spirit is envisioned. First, one can think of the recapturing and reworking of object images noted above as taking place in this transitional space. Transitional space is creative and life giving because it is a "resting place" that allows one to return to the task of sorting out and accepting the harder reality of life. Furthermore, some religious experiences create transitional space (often by means of rituals) that loosen the boundaries between God and self, creating an atmosphere or space that aid these processes. In addition, transitional space can be conceived of as a realm in which the Holy Spirit especially meets humans. The experience of the "life-giving" nature of the Holy Spirit might be understood psychologically as a time/place in which the Holy Spirit provides new energies for witness and service by opening up new creative solutions accessible only when one revisits this creative, playful intersection between inner and outer worlds (cf. Gaultiere. 1990).

A third connection between the work of the Holy Spirit and transitional phenomena is in the notion of transition. For Winnicott (1966, 1971), transitional objects and the transitional space are variously conceived as providing a means of transition from the inner world of fantasy to the outer world of reality (e.g., for dealing with the mother's absence until she returns). In this sense, it is not so much the object that is transitional but the infant who is in transition; one is always in the process of sorting out reality. This interesting extension of his concept invites reflections on what Christian development is a transition from and transition to.

If one thinks in Pauline terms, the chief transition the Spirit is said to facilitate is becoming more like Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18) by moving us from a life lived against God (in the flash) to a life lived toward God (in the Spirit) (Romans 8). Some ways this happens is the movement from destructive patterns, such as envy and self-centeredness, to more wholesome and relationship building behaviors like joy, self-control, and love (Galatians 5:16-25).

One way the work of the Holy Spirit is similar to (the creation of a) transitional space concerns times when we live "in between" the world of Spirit filled life and the world of the fleshly life. Just as the transition from global experiencing to reality based experiencing was facilitated by the infant's ability to capture an image of the mother in her absence, one might conceive of the Holy Spirit allowing the remembrance of what the Christian life can be in the absence of our living it out fully. One might say that the work of the Holy Spirit allows a transition from the supposed lost ideal of the old life (sin has pleasure for a reason) to the fullness of the new life in the Spirit that is not yet realized.

Object Usage and the Work of the Holy Spirit

Winnicott's (1971) concept of object usage also provides fruitful ways to reflect on the psychological means of the work of the Holy Spirit. Two parallels are noted here: (1) it is only in surviving (the fantasized destruction) that the object becomes "real," and thus can be interacted within a new way; (2) as a consequence, the object's survival allows the "subject" to experience itself as "real" or "alive" in a new way.

Winnicott argues that it is only through surviving the infant's fantasized destruction that the mother comes to be understood as something different than the infant's projections about her. Similarly, it is only when God is allowed to be other than what one wishes God to be, or dreads God to be, that the God who truly is might be known and responded to as something other than our projections. One could suggest that it is only as God is able to survive all our fantasies about God (both good and bad), that the true God that is, other than just our projections about God, is able to emerge and be real to us. However, just as other objects cannot become real without the prior capacity to experience the moment of illusion, the real God cannot emerge without our prior imaginative capacities to project God. The life-giving work of the Holy Spirit might be understood as that which conveys God's survival and non-retaliatory presence no matter how needy or devouring or frightening our images of God and self. When a fundamental sense of hope is present when all our wishes, dreams, disappointments, fears, and frustrations have been spent, this is the work of the Holy Spirit giving life and making God real despite the void.

Hopkins (1989) notes that in a similar manner,. it is only when one acknowledges one's destructive impulses, that it to say, one's "sin," that one can fully experience the independent reality of God's abiding love. If one denies or hides from one's destructiveness (one's sinfulness), then God can only continue in some projected role (e.g., of indulgent or terrifying father). If God is incapable of being experienced as truly real, as something "wholly other" that stands external to and over against one's own internal world. It is the Holy Spirit that helps convince one of "sin," the full force of one's destructiveness, so that true faith may arise (John 16:8-9). It is the work of the Holy Spirit to help one encounter the God who is, the One who survives one's destructive fantasies and wishes, who obtains the kind of "object-constancy" that inspires trust. Only such a God can "feed back other-than-me substance" into the person, making the person alive in a new way as well.

As one's objects are experienced as external and real, as other than one's projections and wishes, one comes to experience oneself in a new way in relationship to such objects. Seeing that the object is not destroyed by one's needs allows one to experience one's own internal world differently as well. Fantasies of destruction are seen to be that, fantasies, and not real in the way they were imagines. Experiencing the object as real permits "a new kind of freedom ... a new realness of self-feeling exactly because the other is now felt to be real as well (Eigen, 1981, p. 415). As Eigen further notes,

the core sense of creativeness that permeates transitional experiencing is reborn on a new level, in so far as genuine not-me nutriment becomes available for personal use. The subject can use otherness for true growth purposes and, through risk of difference as such, gains access to the genuinely new (p. 415).

In similar way, one would argue that one finds new life, that is, comes to experience oneself as new, alive and real, after one has encountered God as other than (and surviving) one's projections, especially destructive ones. The engendering of such new creations is the life-giving work of the Spirit.


The article has offered several psychological reflections on how one might understand certain aspects of the work of the Holy Spirit using the work of object relations theorist D.W. Winnicott. The Holy Spirit was seen to work in conferring a sense of identity and providing an environment for emergence of a strong spiritual self. The work of the Holy Spirit was also seen as tapping into the creative potential of what Winnicott (1971) calls "transitional phenomena," and in engendering new life by making God real in ways that transcend our imaginings.


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PARKER, STEPHEN. Address: School of Psychology and Counseling, Regent University, 1000 Regent University Drive, Virginia Beach, VA 23464. Title: Professor. Degree: Ph.D., Theology and Personality Studies, Emory University. Specializations: models of spiritual/religious development and the interface of theology and personality theory.

Correspondence should be addressed to School of Psychology and Counseling. Regent University. 1000 Regent University Drive, Virginia Beach, VA 23464. Email:


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Author:Parker, Stephen
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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