Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: Soulful Spirituality

Soulful Spirituality (2011)  is a significant book. In part it is significant because it offers practical help for those seeking to be more “fully alive and deeply human.” But it is more significant in that it demonstrates the difference between “soulful” spirituality and “Christian” spirituality. The “scandal of the particularity of Christ” seems to be missing from Benner’s latest work.

As a Christian spiritual director, coach, and retreat leader, the ultimate difference between “soulful” and “Christian” spirituality is more than significant (“I would not still be a Christian if I did not think that Christian spirituality had truly significant contributions to make to the human developmental journey” [p 14]). If we take Jesus and Paul seriously, the difference between soulful and Christian spirituality can only be described as ultimate. It is the difference between alienation from God and fellowship with God, between more egoic False Self living (as functional and “healthy” as it may be) and True Self living (since our True Self is found only in Christ), between death and life.

Benner is a fellow pilgrim in the journey of faith. Maybe I have misunderstood what he means. Maybe he assumes a Christological reality which he did not have time to address in this book. Maybe he understands the exclusive orientation of the New Testament toward Christ to be just one metaphor among many. Maybe he believes that Christ makes possible and validates all other “deep” religious and spiritual approaches whether one acknowledges by faith “Jesus is Lord” or not. Maybe none of the above is true. But whatever is true from his perspective, this is what is true from my perspective—if Christian spiritual formation fails to locate transformation in one’s participation in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, it is no longer “Christian” spiritual formation. It may be a spiritual formation which nurtures a therapeutically functional human being, but it is not a spiritual formation which nurtures conscious communion with the Triune God. That comes only through one’s participation in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Having highlighted what I believe to be the most significant thing about Soulful Spirituality (i.e. the drift into a generic rather than Christian spirituality), let me return to what is helpful and profitable in the book. Simply put, Benner highlights the absolute necessity of six “practices” for the soul’s transformation. The transformation is from egocentricity and disassociation with the body to a healthy ego acting as COO to the CEO of the “larger Self” (“that finds its place in relationship to the transcendent”) in an integrated manner. Clearly, living this way will result in a more therapeutically healthy state of being, becoming, and belonging. It will go a long way toward making the subtitle of the book a reality—“Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human.” But it doesn’t make one a Christian (at least as I understand the New Testament).

There is an extremely powerful force at work in our culture as well as in Christianity (and more particularly in Evangelicalism) which values behavior over belief. This is not new (the Apostle James seemed to have the same value hierarchy!). Maybe behavior is more important than belief. Many have been hurt by those of us who say we believe in Christ but have not behaved like Christ. I understand that. But we cannot through the baby out with the bath water. The content of belief is still important. Else we have no answer to a radical “end justifies the means” way of living. Else we are unable to critique a way of life which says, “If it works for you it is fine as long as you don’t get in my space.” Else generic spirituality can be a substitute for Christian spirituality in leading us to communion with and participation in the Triune God.

Benner is tired of Christians who have the “right” beliefs but are living in an unhealthy and unholy way. Rightfully so. However, his answer is not a correction of a misunderstanding and mis-appropriation of Christian beliefs, but rather a trusting of six soul practices to bring us more in touch with our original “Self” and the transcendent. The six practices (awareness, wonder, otherness, reality, presence, and surrender) are indeed critical for the health of the soul just like food, drink, exercise, and rest are critical for the body. We neglect the six practices to our detriment as human beings. They are generic in that they fall in the category of “Common Grace” needs. But does not Christianity have something unique to offer us that Buddhism, Sufism, and Judaism (to name three traditions Benner often quotes) do not have to offer? And ultimately, is not what Christianity has to offer the only thing which results in humans being “fully alive” to the glory of God?

Christianity does have something to offer which is unique—participation in the very life of Christ by means of the Spirit. This is the message of Paul (e.g. Romans 6 and Ephesians 2). This is the message of Jesus (e.g. John 15). And it is our participation in Christ which we cannot surrender as followers of Christ if we are going to introduce people to and nurture the True Self which is found only in Christ (which I understood Benner to say in his earlier works of Surrender to Love and The Gift of Being Yourself). This is the belief that makes the ultimate difference in our behavior in this life and our destiny in the life to come.

I am not saying Benner does not believe in the exclusivity of Christ. I am saying that we cannot confuse or substitute therapeutic wholeness with theological holiness. Indeed, we don’t have to do so. Irenaeus (who said “the glory of God is men and women who are fully alive”) and Calvin (see Calvin’s Ladder) reminded us of the truth of the Good News—life is found in Christ. By adoption through the Spirit we have received forgiveness of our fallenness and reconciliation with the Father because we are participating in the life of the Son. The Christian story of life in Christ is the only story which truly offers all that is needed when it comes to being a healthy human being (e.g. relational attachment). Let’s run to it, not away from it.

Generic spiritual practices serve a real and vital purpose in that they help prepare the soul to see and experience the transcendent. They rightly introduce and bring the soul into an apophatic way of knowing. I believe they play an important role in helping us live into the reality of our participation in Christ. But, ultimately, our practices cannot bring us to God or God to us. They cannot change our alienation from the Source of Life. They inevitably cannot deliver the loving relationships, place of belonging, and transcendent meaning which we long for as human beings or as Christians (these are Benner’s three criteria of healthy spirituality). Our False Self (i.e. our “flesh”) is too corrupted and strong for that to happen. No matter how psychologically integrated a person becomes, he or she still cannot experience fullness of life apart from Christ. That kind of life is found only IN Jesus. Thus we must also embrace the specific, concrete kataphatic way of knowing. We must hear and surrender to the Word who became flesh. By faith we are partakers of His life through the Spirit. When, because of our experience, we can say, like Paul, “It is no longer I but Christ who lives in me” then we will bring glory to God as men and women “fully alive.”

Again, Soulful Spirituality is a significant book. Significant because it highlights important theoretical and practical issues around the matter of soul care. But as good and profitable as Benner’s work is (and it really is in many ways), at the end of the day the best it can claim is to live up to its title as a “soulful” (i.e. generic) spirituality. To be fair, Benner does not suggest it is a book offering a “Christian” spirituality. However, those of us who serve as Christian spiritual directors and counselors will have to look elsewhere for a book offering a thoroughly Christian perspective. Because I have profited greatly from Benner’s past works and believe he has a lot to offer the Christian community, I was hoping for more than a generic spirituality in his latest work.


Benner, D.G. (2011). Soulful spirituality: Becoming fully alive and deeply human. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. 

James Cofield ThM
Crosspoint Ministries

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