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Christian Spiritual Formation in Psychological Perspective

Mary Frolich

An Interdisciplinary Course and Syllabus on "Psychology & Spiritual Formation"

Professor of Spirituality, Catholic Theological Union
August 1, 2013

This is a course description and syllabus developed from our 2013 course development grant competition. See below for a downloadable syllabus.

This course takes the perspective that the ultimate challenge of Christian spiritual formation is the purification and re-ordering of desire in the Spirit. Students are engaged in an intensive dialogue between psychology and theology as they approach it at the practical level of how to re-form human desire through spiritual community and practices. On the basis of a fundamentally theological view of the human person, the course explores how psychospiritual desire is manifested and transformed within stories, intimate relationships, community-building, Eucharistic worship, contemplative prayer, and social compassion. An eclectic range of psychological and neurobiological theories are examined in search of what each may offer to enhance the effectiveness of Christian spiritual formation. Students learn to recognize and evaluate the assumptions and methods behind these various theories, while keeping their main focus on developing a coherent Christian spiritual formation program.

Click here to download the syllabus for Christian Spiritual Formation in Psychological Perspective

Learning Outcomes

After taking this course, students will be able to:

  1. Articulate a well-grounded theological perspective on the value of employing psychological and neurobiological perspectives in Christian spiritual formation.
  2. Describe the trajectory and goals of Christian spiritual formation in both theological and psychological terms.
  3. Compare the assumptions, methods, and theoretical stances of various psychological and theological perspectives on several key elements of spiritual formation.
  4. Evaluate the impact on spiritual formation of choices made among a range of psychological theories and theological stances.
  5. Employ a variety of effective methods of spiritual formation that are enhanced by psychological and neurobiological insight.


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Robert Emmons

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Course Outline and Readings

1 Introduction: Christian Life in an Age of Psychology

Specific challenges facing programs of Christian formation today, for example, secularism, postmodernism, consumerism. How this plays out in different global regions and cultures. Psychology as lingua franca. Comparison between worldviews of Christianity and psychological science. The range of psychological theories and theological approaches that are in dialogue.

Gaillardetz, Richard R. Transforming Our Days: Spirituality, Community, and Liturgy in a Technological Culture. New York: Crossroad, 2000.

Ruffing, Janet K. “Psychology as a Resource for Christian Spirituality.” Horizons 17, no. 1 (March 1, 1990): 47–59.

McDargh, John. “Theological Uses of Psychology: Retrospective and Prospective.” Horizons 12, no. 2 (September 1, 1985): 247–264.

Entwistle, David N. “A Holistic Psychology of Persons: Implications for Theory and Practice.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 141–148.

Vitz, Paul C. “Christian and Catholic Advantages for Connecting Psychology with the Faith.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 30, no. 4 (December 1, 2011): 294–306.

Gillespie, C Kevin. “Psychology and American Catholicism After Vatican II: Currents, Cross-currents and Confluences.” U.S. Catholic Historian 25, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 117–131.

Wright, Ronald W., and Brad D. Strawn. “Grief, Hope, and Prophetic Imagination: Psychoanalysis and Christian Tradition in Dialogue.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 29, no. 2 (June 1, 2010): 149–157.


Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 2: Identify three images (metaphors) for what a “good Christian” (the fruit of excellent spiritual formation) would be like.

2 Strong, Loving, and Wise: The Formed and Transformed Christian

Psychological, cultural, and theological perspectives on “wisdom,” “virtue,” and “maturity.” Meanings of “formation” and “transformation.” What kind of person do we hope will emerge from our spiritual formation programs? Dealing with differing cultural norms and ideals

Ellsberg, Robert. The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints. New York: North Point Pr, 2003.

Roberts, Robert C. “Wisdom and Psychotherapy.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 25, no. 2 (June 1, 2006): 127–136.

Entwistle, David N., and Stephen K. Moroney. “Integrative Perspectives on Human Flourishing: The Imago Dei and Positive Psychology.” Journal of Psychology & Theology 39, no. 4 (December 1, 2011): 295–303.

Pembroke, Neil F. “Merton’s True Self and the Psychology of the Dialogical Self.” Religious Studies and Theology 25, no. 2 (January 1, 2006): 191–210.

Moncher, Frank J., and Craig Steven Titus. “Foundations for a Psychotherapy of Virtue: An Integrated Catholic Perspective.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 28, no. 1 (March 1, 2009): 22–35.

Majerus, Brian D. “Differentiation of Self and Christian Spiritual Maturity: Social Science and Theological Integration.” Journal of Psychology & Theology 38, no. 1 (March 1, 2010): 41–51.

DeHoff, Susan L. “In Search of a Paradigm for Psychological and Spiritual Growth: Implications for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction.” Pastoral Psychology 46, no. 5 (May 1, 1998): 333–346.

Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 3: Tell a story (that you feel comfortable sharing) about a time when you have been challenged by your own desires.

3 The Story-telling Self and the Knot of Desire

Experience of human identity as a drama drawn forward by desire. The essential formative challenge: purifying and re-ordering desire in the Spirit. Formative role of eros in human life. Compare/ contrast perspectives on distorted desire: theology of sin, psychology of pathology, sociology of oppression.

Whitehead, James D., and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead. Holy Eros: Pathways to a Passionate God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009.

Giles, James E. “The Story of the Self: The Self of the Story.” Religion and Intellectual Life 4, no. 1 (September 1, 1986): 105–112.

Doehring, Carrie. “Life-Giving Sexual and Spiritual Desire.” Journal of Pastoral Theology 4 (June 1, 1994): 49–69.

Black, Peter. “The Broken Wings of Eros: Christian Ethics and the Denial of Desire.” Theological Studies 64, no. 1 (March 1, 2003): 106–126.

Edwards, John P. “The Self Prior to Mimetic Desire: Rahner and Alison on Original Sin and Conversion.” Horizons 35, no. 1 (March 1, 2008): 7–31.

Carson, David K., Herdley Paolini, Dale Ziglear, and W John Fox. “The Unconverted Subconscious in Psychotherapy: Biblical Foundations, Psychological Explorations and Clinical Applications.” Journal of Psychology & Theology 37, no. 4 (December 1, 2009): 276–293.

Bom, Klaas. “Directed by Desire: An Exploration Based on the Structures of Desire for God.” Scottish Journal of Theology 62, no. 2 (January 1, 2009): 135–148.

Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 4: Practice “Lectio Divina” with a Psalm (instructions will be provided). Write a paragraph on how (or whether) this is an experience of intimacy with the Spirit.

4 The Self and the Spirit: How Does Sanctification Work?

Psychology of the “self” in view of theological anthropology. Theology of sanctification viewed through lense of psychology. Significance of intimacy with other persons and with God. The contributions of contemplative psychology and of mystical writers.

De Wit, Han F. The Spiritual Path: An Introduction to the Psychology of the Spiritual Traditions. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University, 1999.

McDargh, John. “The Life of the Self in Christian Spirituality and Contemporary Psychoanalysis.” Horizons 11, no. 2 (September 1, 1984): 344–360.

Puffer, Keith A. “Essential Biblical Assumptions About Human Nature: a Modest Proposal.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 26, no. 1 (March 1, 2007): 45–56.

Hackney, Charles H. “Sanctification as a Source of Theological Guidance in the Construction of a Christian Positive Psychology.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 29, no. 3 (September 1, 2010): 195–207.

Sandage, Steven J., Mary L. Jensen, and Daniel Jass. “Relational Spirituality and Transformation: Risking Intimacy and Alterity.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 1, no. 2 (September 1, 2008): 182–206.

Banks, Amy. “Developing the Capacity to Connect.” Zygon 46, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 168–182.

FitzGerald, Constance. “The Desire for God and the Transformative Power of Contemplation.” In Light Burdens, Heavy Blessings, 201–222. Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 2000.

De Wit, Han F. “The Case for Contemplative Psychology.” Shambala Sun (2001).

Raab, Kelley A. “Mysticism, Creativity, and Psychoanalysis: Learning from Marion Milner.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 13, no. 2 (January 1, 2003): 79–96.


Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 5: Report on your experience of participating in a Eucharist with special attention to how the event affects you both psychologically and spiritually.

5 Maturing through Community, Ritual, and Eucharist

The human person as fundamentally social and Christian life as ecclesial. Psychological and theological views on the tensions and complementarity between community and individuality. Psychology of ritual. Risks and opportunities in the spirituality of Eucharist as participation in Jesus’ kenotic self-gift.

Johnson, Susanne. Christian Spiritual Formation in the Church and Classroom. Nashville: Abingdon Pr, 1989.

Rahner, Karl. “On the Significance in Redemptive History of the Individual Member of the Church.” In Mission and Grace, 1:114–170. London: Sheed and Ward, 1963.

Frohlich, Mary. “The Responsorial Self.” Liturgy 7, no. 2 (1987): 39–45.

Teske, John A. “Externalism, Relational Selves, and Redemptive Relationships.” Zygon 46, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 183–203.

Hennessey, R A S. “Attachment Theory, the Eucharist, Priesthood and Self-awareness.” Contact no. 140 (January 1, 2003): 9–16.

Madden, Kathryn. “Ritual, Drama, and the Unconscious in the Eucharist: Contributions of Victor Turner to Depth Psychology and Religion.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 53, no. 1–2 (January 1, 1999): 111–124.

Dahill, Lisa E. “Reading from the Underside of Selfhood: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Spiritual Formation.” Spiritus 1, no. 2 (September 1, 2001): 186–203.

Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 6: Tell a story about companioning someone who is experiencing a crisis or difficult time in life.

6 Accompaniment: Psychotherapy, Spiritual Direction, Soul Friendship

Distinctions among various forms of individual and group accompaniment. Situations in which accompaniment is essential, advisable, or beneficial to enhance human and spiritual growth. Contributions of psychology and spirituality to understanding best practices of accompaniment.

Louf, André. Grace Can Do More. Cistercian, 2002.

Shea, John J. “Adult Faith, Pastoral Counseling, and Spiritual Direction.” Journal of Pastoral Care 51, no. 3 (September 1, 1997): 259–270.

De Smet, Andrew. “Counselling, Spiritual Accompanying & Pastoral Care.” Contact no. 143 (January 1, 2004): 28–36.

Bamberger, John Eudes. “Spiritual Accompaniment: Observing Love and Its Transformations.” Cistercian Studies Quarterly 37, no. 4 (2002): 415–428.

Ruffing, Janet K. “Recent Literature and Emerging Issues in the Ministry of Spiritual Direction.” Spiritus 2, no. 1 (March 1, 2002): 99–107.

Gubi, Peter Madsen. “A Qualitative Exploration of the Similarities and Differences Between Counselling and Spiritual Accompaniment.” Practical Theology 4, no. 3 (December 1, 2011): 339–358.

Hoffman, Marie. “From Libido to Love: Relational Psychoanalysis and the Redemption of Sexuality.” Journal of Psychology & Theology 35, no. 1 (March 1, 2007): 74–82.


Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 7: Using paint or pencils, create a visual image of God and bring it to class.

7 God and God-Images in the Life Cycle

Strengths and weaknesses of psychological life stage theory as guide to spiritual growth. Psychological factors contributing to character of God-images in early life and adulthood. Differences among cultures and eras on these matters. Theology of divine ineffability, incarnation, sacramentality as balance to psychological perspective.

Armistead, M. Kathryn. God-Images in the Healing Process. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995.

Kelcourse, Felicity. “Finding Faith: Life Cycle Stages in Body, Mind, and Soul.” In Human Development and Faith: Life-cycle Stages of Body, Mind, and Soul, 59–90. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2004.

Parker, Stephen, and Yvonne Bissonnette Tate. “Using Erikson’s Developmental Theory to Understand and Nurture Spiritual Development in Christians.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 26, no. 3 (September 1, 2007): 218–226.

Rizzuto, Ana-Maria. “The Psychological Foundations of Belief in God.” In Toward Moral and Religious Maturity. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett, 1980.

Slife, Brent D., Tiffani D. Stevenson, and Dennis C. Wendt. “Including God in Psychotherapy: Strong Vs. Weak Theism.” Journal of Psychology & Theology 38, no. 3 (September 1, 2010): 163–174.

Kim, Simone Sunghae. “A Korean Feminist Perspective on God Representation.” Pastoral Psychology 55, no. 1 (September 1, 2006): 35–45.

Stevens, Bruce A. “‘Love Supreme’: On Spiritual Experience and Change in Personality Structure.” Journal of Psychology & Theology 34, no. 4 (December 1, 2006): 318–326.

Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 8: Practice “Healing of Memories” prayer with a text from the gospels (instructions will be provided). Write a paragraph on the experience.

8 Working with Imagination and Memory

Psychology of imagination and memory. The paschal mystery as foundation of Christian spiritual life. Forms of imaginative prayer as means of transforming desire. Healing of memories prayer.The rhythm of cataphatic and apophatic in contemplative forms of prayer.

Merkur, Daniel. Crucified with Christ: Meditation on the Passion, Mystical Death, and the Medieval Invention of Psychology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Pr, 2007.

Neuman, Matthias. “Self-Identity, Symbol and Imagination.” In Symbolisme Et Theologie. Vol. 7. Sacramentum. Rome: Anselmia, 1974.

Schweitzer, Carol L Schnabl. “When ‘Living Stories’ Encounter the Living Word.” Pastoral Psychology 58, no. 5–6 (December 1, 2009): 629–640.

Chordas, Thomas J., and Steven J. Cross. “Healing of Memories: Psychotherapeutic Ritual Among Catholic Pentecostals.” Journal of Pastoral Care 30, no. 4 (December 1, 1976): 245–257.

Anderson, Herbert. “How Rituals Heal.” Word & World 30, no. 1 (December 1, 2010): 41–50.

Schrock, Dan. “The Obscure Night of Prayer.” Vision (Winnipeg, Man.) 7, no. 2 (September 1, 2006): 70–77.

FitzGerald, Constance. “Impasse and Dark Night.” In Living with Apocalypse: Spiritual Resources for Social Comparison., 93–116. Harper and Row, 1984, 1984.

Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 10: Practice “mindfulness meditation” (instructions will be provided). Report on its effects.

9 Neurobiology of Spiritual Practices: So What?

Findings of neurobiology and cognitive psychology on the impact of practices such as ritual, meditation, and mindfulness. What Christians can learn from Buddhists. Theological view of interfaith practice. Risks and opportunities for enhanced Christian practices.

Jeeves, Malcolm A., and Warren S. Brown. Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities About Human Nature. West Conshohocken, Pa: Templeton Fndtn Pr, 2009.

Hogue, David A. Remembering the Future, Imagining the Past: Story, Ritual, and the Human Brain. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003.

Hogue, David. “Brain Matters: Neuroscience, Empathy, and Pastoral Theology.” Journal of Pastoral Theology 20, no. 2 (December 1, 2010): 25–55.

Teske, John A. “The Spiritual Limits of Neuropsychological Life.” Zygon 31, no. 2 (June 1, 1996): 209–234.

Teske, John A. “The Haunting of the Human Spirit.” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 34, no. 2 (June 1999): 307.

Fayard, Carlos, Melissa J. Pereau, and Antonia Ciovica. “Love the Lord With All Your Mind’: Explorations on a Possible Neurobiology of the Experience of God and Some Implications for the Practice of Psychotherapy.” Journal of Psychology & Christianity 28, no. 2 (Summer2009 2009): 167–181.

D’ Aquili, Eugene G., and Andrew B. Newberg. “The Neuropsychology of Aesthetic, Spiritual, and Mystical States.” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 35, no. 1 (March 2000): 39.

Garden, Mary. “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist 67, no. 5 (September 2007): 20–24. doi:Article.

Frohlich, Mary. “What I Know and Don’t Know: A Christian Reflects on Buddhist Practice.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 21 (2001): 37–41.


Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 10: Summarize key events of your own “conversion story.”

10 Perspectives on Conversion

Reviewing research on theological, psychological, and sociological understandings of religious conversion. What Christians need to learn from the human sciences on this topic.

Markham, Paul N. Rewired: Exploring Religious Conversion. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Pubns, 2007.

Smith, Gordon T. “Models of Conversion in the New Testament.” In Beginning Well: Christian Conversion and Authentic Transformation, 107–133. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Pr, 2001.

Lonergan, Bernard. “Dimensions of Conversion.” In Method in Theology, 237–243. NY: Herder and Herder, 1972.

P asquier, Jacques. “Experience and Conversion.” The Way 17 (1977): 114–122.

Cooey, Paula M. “The Power of Transformation and the Transformation of Power.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 1, no. 1 (March 1, 1985): 23–36.

Smith, Aaron C T., and Bob Stewart. “Becoming Believers: Studying the Conversion Process from Within.” Zygon 46, no. 4 (December 1, 2011): 806–834.

Davis, Patricia M., and Lewis R. Rambo. “Converting: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Change.” In Soul, Psyche, Brain: New Directions in the Study of Religion and Brain-Mind Science, by Kelly Bulkeley, 159–173, 159–173. NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 11: Tell a story about a discernment process that you have participated in or observed.

11 Discernment as a Way of Life

Christian traditions of how to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit. What psychology can contribute to this. Case studies of discernment viewed both psychologically and spiritually.

Liebert, Elizabeth. The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

Frohlich, Mary. “Discernment as a Way of Life.” New Theology Review 18, no. 3 (2005): 41–51.

Rakoczy, Susan. “Transforming the Tradition of Discernment.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa no. 139 (March 1, 2011): 91–109.

Barry, William. “Touchstone Experiences as Divining Rods in Discernment.” Review for Religious 49 (1990): 610–614.

Moore, Mary Elizabeth. “Stories of Vocation: Education for Vocational Discernment.” Religious Education 103, no. 2 (March 1, 2008): 218–239.

Shelton, Charles M. “Discernment in Everyday Life: Spiritual and Psychological Considerations.” Spirituality Today 34 (1982): 326–334.

Asselin, David. “Discernment and Christian Maturity.” Review for Religious 27 (1968).

Practicum Exercise to prepare for Topic 12: During the week, notice someone who engages in a compassionate practice. Reflect on what may have contributed to that persons’ capacity for compassion.

12 Formation for Social Responsibility: Best Practices

Theology and psychology of vocation. What enables Christians to experience desire for a more just society and to act effectively to help create it? How can the topics we have studied this semester contribute to forming Christians for social responsibility?

Daloz, Laurent A. Common Fire: Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. Boston: Beacon Pr, 1996.

Bidwell, Duane R. “‘Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want’: Desire, Vocation, and Gifts for Service.” In Passion for Christian Unity, 111–124. St Louis: Chalice Pr, 2009.

Nolan, Albert. “Spiritual Growth and the Option for the Poor.” Church (1985): 45–48.

Locklin, Reid Blackmer. “Weakness, Belonging, and the Intercordia Experience: The Logic and Limits of Dissonance as a Transformative Learning Tool.” Teaching Theology & Religion 13, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 3–14.

Hollingsworth, Andrea. “Neuroscience and Spirituality: Implications of Interpersonal Neurobiology for a Spirituality of Compassion.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 43, no. 4 (December 1, 2008): 837–860. doi:Journal Article.

Van Slyke, James A. “Cognitive and Evolutionary Factors in the Emergence of Human Altruism.” Zygon 45, no. 4 (December 1, 2010): 841–859.