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Soul, Spirituality & Psychology

Soul is the most common translation of the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psyche. The biblical meanings of these concepts are richly varied. In the Old Testament, for example, the meanings of nephesh range from life, the inner person (particularly thoughts, feelings and passions), to the whole person, including the body. Similarly, in the New Testament, psyche carries such meaning as the totality of the person, physical life, mind and heart. Here, soul is presented as the religious centre of life and as the seat of desire, emotions and identity.

Many biblical scholars now suggest that the best single word for both nephesh and psyche is either person or self, where such an understanding carries the connotation of wholeness. Here self is not seen as part of a person but their totality. George Eldon Ladd argues that, 'Recent scholarship has recognised that such terms as body, soul and spirit are not different separable faculties of man but different ways of seeing the whole person.' In such a view, we do not have a soul, we are soul, and we are spirit. We don't just have a body, we are our body. Humans are a living and vital whole and each of these is just a particular way of understanding and seeing this whole.

So, we can understand soul as referring to the whole person, including the body, but with particular focus on the inner world of thinking, feeling, perceiving and remembering. Soul care can, therefore, be understood as the care of persons in their totality, with particular attention to their inner lives. It cannot, however, neglect concern for the whole person - body, soul and spirit.

It is only in the last 120 years or so, with the rise of the psychological study and theory, that psychology and spirituality have been seen as separate aspects of a person. The minister now dare not trespass on the domain of the psychologist, or the psychologist on matters of spirit. But these psychological and spiritual categories are human inventions, distorting the biblical understanding of the holistic nature of personhood. No problem of the inner person is either spiritual or psychological and in recent years there is a growing recognition of this within both the psychotherapeutic world and the world of spiritual direction.

So, when we speak of the spiritual, we need to understand that what we refer to is the spiritual face of these inner soul dynamics. Similarly, when we speak of the psychological, that what we refer to is the psychological face of these same inner dynamics. And those that seek to care for others in their spiritual depths need to both discern what is the spiritual face and what is the psychological face of those things that may appear to be simply a spiritual one. This understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and psychological aspects of a person is vitally important for anyone who desires to provide soul care. Psycho-spiritual dynamics form the major threads of the interwoven fabric that constitutes the inner life of a person, as has been understood by the great spiritual writers and saints from all traditions.

Furthermore, our relationship with God, or the Divine, is mediated by the same psychological processes and mechanisms as those involved in relationships with people. The spiritual search is, therefore, at one level, a psychological journey. Psychological and spiritual aspects of human functioning are inextricably interconnected and any segregation of spirituality and psychology is, therefore, artificial and even potentially destructive.

In my work in spiritual direction, I am increasingly aware of this relationship between our spirituality and personal psychology. I've already looked at some key issues of this interface in previous articles such as Spiritual Pathology, Spiritual Life & our Emotions (particularly Spiritual-Bypassing) and in Knowing God: Wholeness & Self-Knowledge. And issues such as spiritual abuse, and its effect on our spiritual path, are only too revealing of the interconnectedness of these aspects of our humanity. Understanding our psychology can also help us to understand and heal obstacles which hinder our openness to God. For example, we can heal our distorted God images formed from childhood wounds, fixations etc.

So, we can not split the psychological and spiritual, they are one and the same nature. And, if we do not include the psychological in the spiritual in soul work, then we are in danger of putting a veneer of spirituality over our psychological problems. We can unhelpfully use our religiosity in the service of psychological defenses against painful memories and experiences that we struggle to allow ourselves to feel or accept, rather than embrace the more difficult and narrow path of facing the truth of ourselves, and our life experience, to allow God's transforming process.

Learning to turn to spirituality as a way of facing, rather than fleeing from, our daily life, is a life long process. But in his final writings Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed by the Nazi regime, calls us to live 'unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities' for 'that, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes human and a Christian.'

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