Thursday, January 7, 2016

Book Review: Adventures in Soulmaking (Part 1)

Despite the acres of books being sold in the category of Christian Living, the concept that one might benefit from anything other than solitary prayer and Bible reading in the making of the righteous Christian is bordering on sacrilege.  Reading the Bible for oneself is after all probably the single most significant tenet of being Protestant.  Finding it fully sufficient for salvation and sanctification, needing nothing else, is foundational to Protestantism and Evangelicals use that doctrine as the basis to denounce all kinds of spiritual practices from praying with beads or even praying memorized prayers, to meditation (except as they define it--conscious prayer and intellectual consideration of Scripture), to the lighting of candles or veneration of icons or saints or mandalas.

Although in practice Evangelicals often don't read their Bibles as often as they claim nor as completely or with the open-minded curiosity and willingness to question that marks the spiritual scholar, depending instead on the weekly exposition of the text by one's preacher and the writers of Bible study guides to interpret their religion to them, and though Evangelicals like spiritual mentoring lookalikes such as accountability partners or discipleship group leaders (both of which tend to focus more on behavioral changes in one's life that are supposed to demonstrate profound spiritual growth, but in my experience rarely do), actually entering into an intentional mentorship with a spiritual teacher or director for the purpose of open-ended spiritual development is rare.  It was unheard of when I was fully immersed in Evangelicalism a couple decades ago.

For this reason, Troy Caldwell's book on spiritual direction, written by an Evangelical for Evangelicals is a very significant mark of progress.  I heartily applaud Caldwell's desire to bring spiritual direction and other aspects of contemplative Christianity to Evangelicals, for whom it has long been anathema.  Educating Evangelicals in such a foreign concept and its long-ridiculed related practices is a huge undertaking.  Caldwell's heart for his mission is obvious and a credit to him and his work.

It is that same Evangelical flavor, however, that I consider to be the biggest flaw in this book.  Schooled both in Jungian psychology and Baptist theology and practicing both, Caldwell appears to have made his own peace with the inherent contradictions between the two.  I suspect he has done this by simply ignoring the Evangelical theology when it doesn't quite fit his Jungian perspective.  He clearly has embraced the broader theology of the greater Christianity beyond Evangelicalism (quoting from authors in Orthodox, Celtic, Anglican, Catholic, Medieval European Christian, and other non-Evangelical traditions).  In itself this embracing is no bad thing, as a Heretic myself indeed I commend him for it, but it makes his use of Evangelical language and theology awkward and jarring. His voice sounds much more authentic when he writes from his Jungian or contemplative traditional perspective.  His use of Evangelical language, cultural assumptions, or doctrinal stances stands out to me as being a bit forced--as if he really isn't much of the paternalistic, chauvinistic character that is quintessential contemporary Evangelicalism.

Fundamentally, Evangelical Christianity is a theology of renunciation and annihilation.  It is, or has become, a religion promoting simultaneously exceptionalism and shame culture. One is identified as a sinner worthy of death and is expected to own that identity.  Only in owning that shame and subsequently renouncing one's identity (to take on the identity of Christ, or to cover one's own shame in the blood of Christ as Caldwell's imagery in the temple meditation describes) can one become redeemed.  Upon redemption, however, one is immediately transformed into something far more exceptional than those evildoers still outside the righteous few. Furthermore, one is expected then to conform to culturally determined Christian behaviors or to experience further shaming, even to the experience of threatened or real excommunication in the form of social shunning, which is a psychological annihilation either in the shunning or in the renunciation of the self to become or remain one of the group.

In the same way that salvation or the renunciation of oneself, is the goal of Evangelical Christianity, the goal of Jungian psychology is individuation, becoming wholly oneself, through the integration of the opposing aspects of one's being.  Evangelicalism is all about identifying with the Good and renouncing the Evil; Jungian psychology is about integrating and transcending any such dualism.  In Jung's system there is nothing is wholly evil nor wholly good.  In fact, good and evil eventually cease to have absolute meaning because any aspect of the person or any belief or experience one has contains within it both good and evil, as well as the means for using both the good and the evil in any aspect as a tool for transcending the moment and becoming more fully whole and more fully the Self.

While there has been some excellent work showing the parallels between Jungian psychology and broader Christian theology, the more limited and dogmatically dualistic Evangelical theology is more difficult to synthesize successfully. I think Caldwell's attempts to do so fundamentally shortchange either Jung or Evangelicalism.  Admittedly, I am biased about Evangelicalism and find acknowledging its finer aspects all but impossible.  I try but my efforts are insubstantial against the weight of my prejudice.  Without doubt, that bias colors my reading of the parts of this book that are more overtly Evangelical. Almost certainly, an Evangelical reader of Caldwell's book would not notice or care about what I find so disconcerting--partly because they would be reading from within the Evangelical mindset and thus unlikely to be too critical about it, even more because they likely have little or no experience or exposure to depth psychology, mysticism, or contemplative Christianity. So to that target reader, the Evangelical layperson, study group leader, or counseling clergy, Adventures in Soulmaking is probably an excellent resource.

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