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The Table Video

Eric L. Johnson& Theresa Tisdale

Redemptive Transformation [CCT Conversation Johnson/Tisdale]

Lawrence and Charlotte Hoover Professor of Pastoral Care, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Professor of Psychology, Azusa Pacific University
September 26, 2014

It’s pretty trendy to want to “change the world.” But if you want to be a transformer (no, not the autobot kind), you yourself need to undergo transformation by the Holy Spirit. In this CCT Conversation, Eric Johnson (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) interviews Theresa Tisdale (Azusa Pacific University) on the transformative power of psychology in the context of Christian theology.


[gentle music]

Theresa: The more deeply we are transformed by the Spirit of God, the more able we are to be accessible, available to God to work redemptively through us in the lives of others.

Well thanks, Theresa, for being willing to engage in this conversation.

Mm-hmm, you’re welcome.

So I kinda wanted to begin by asking you maybe to describe how you see your personal and spiritual and clinical lives woven together.

It’s been a process and a journey of discovery, I would say, that my first understanding of integration was as something that I was trying to relate these two disciplines of psychology and theology at a conceptual level. And then I’d say I took another step of discovery about what does that look like, clinically, if I’m trying to be mindful of the presence of God in my clinical work. And then the final step I’d say I took in graduate school was in discovering what does it mean to be an integrated person, so that whatever I’m doing, wherever I am, that I’m mindful of how God might be moving, in and through me, whether that’s with a client, a student, a family member. And so I appreciate your observation, because it’s what I aspire to be, an integrated person, where my sensibility about the kingdom of God and God’s redemptive purposes in the world are part of how I live, whether that’s in a session with a patient, or teaching a class with students, or whatever that might be. So I very much want to be cooperative and collaborative with what the Spirit of God wants to do in whatever context I’m in.

How does spirituality influence your clinical work?

Well I think that spirituality, for me, is really the heart of my clinical work. It’s the fuel of my clinical work. I was raised Catholic, and so I’m very liturgical in how I think about time, the orientation to time and the church year, the seasons of the church year, how we focus on different aspects of the life of Jesus during different seasons of the church year. And so going with those rhythms of seasons which, right now we’re in the season of Advent, and that’s the season of waiting, and what does it look like to wait for things in our life, to wait on God, to wait for things that we long for and desire? And then at a metanarrative level, what does it mean to be waiting for the return of Jesus and the establishment of his kingdom, then and also now, and how to be cooperative with that, as it’s happening right now? So I’m very much informed by my spirituality in many and deep ways. I guess that’s a backdrop for that.

Do you bring up spiritual things when you work with people?

I come to my clinical life, my therapeutic life, with a belief, with a deep belief, that the Spirit of God desires wholeness for this person. And my hope and prayer is that I will have a part in that in some way. And so what I’m listening for is the language that they use to describe their spirituality, which I find Ken Pargament’s broad definition of spirituality as the search for the sacred. It’s our longing to be connected with transcendence, with something bigger than what we are. And for me, of course, that’s God. As a Christian, that’s the Trinitarian God. And for others though, I’m very open to how God has been moving in their life up to that time, and what’s the language that they use to describe it, in terms of meaning, purpose, values? And so I listen for the language that they use to describe that. Jim Dornan has a really helpful chapter on that, on listening for the language that our patients use to describe their spiritual life, their moral life, their psychological life. So that’s what I tune in for and listen for how we can bring that into our work. So I typically ask patients if spirituality is important to them in some way, is there a way they want to bring that into our work together, and I’ll take my lead from them.

How would you say psychotherapy is related to spirituality? How do they intersect or overlap?

Right, I’m particularly drawn to psychodynamic psychotherapy, because it’s about deep change. It’s about what is sometimes referred to as structural change, which has to do with the way our very personality has been formed, and that we know now from research on infant attachment, and that even from earliest hours of life, even before we’re born, that that connection with our mother is so important and crucial for developing a sense of wellbeing, a sense of identity. And so in psychodynamic therapy, there’s a recognition that there are ways that our personality may have come together that is keeping us from a full life, that as a Christian we would say, keeping us from becoming all God created us to be. And so there is both a recognition of deep brokenness and the hope for deep change beyond the relief of symptoms, but a true transformation. And so I find that very compelling and consistent with what I believe as a Christian.

One of the themes of Christianity that is kinda the darker side, I guess, of Christianity, is the concept of sin, and that we’re all born in a way of alienation from God. Is there a way where Christian psychodynamic therapy can work with that issue?

Mm-hmm, so you’re wondering about how a Christian approach or method of psychodynamic therapy would address the reality of sin, for example.

Sin and alienation from God. The challenge, when we talk about spirituality, is there’s many spiritualities and many ways in which we relate to the transcendent or to the ultimate, and Christianity has this kind of edge to it that suggests that our spiritualities fall short of what God’s wanting, and that therefore we need conversion and we need, definitely, a deep transformation, a new creation, in order to have a kind of relationship with our creator that comes to us through Christ. And so this is a rather robust, maybe we could say kind of a redemptive aspect of Christianity. But when I think of psychodynamic therapy, I think Christians can do that too, but it’s gonna be complicated by this set of considerations.

One thing I like to say is that both Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein, two prominent analysts historically, of course, Freud’s the founder of psychoanalysis, felt that it was important for people to acknowledge the darker side of human nature, the aggression, the hate, the envy, the greed. And Freud, who got a lot of things wrong in terms of religion, I think got one thing quite right about religion, is that some people would use religion as a way of avoiding looking at unpleasant realities of life, and would use religion as an escape. So I think that that’s a nuanced understanding of his theory that I think is very important, because I would say, even now, as a Christian psychologist, I think that’s still true. And I think that it is important for our patients, for our clients, our counselees, to acknowledge this darker side of our nature and the need for change. Now where a Christian informed, infused psychoanalysis is most helpful is in the hope for redemption and the belief that that is most possible, will be most fully realized, in relationship to Christ, and that while a patient is on the way toward their encounters, or encounter with God, that I can in some way, my hope and prayer would be a means through which God might work in moving them in this self-awareness toward a fuller acknowledgement of God in their life, the reality of their need for God. That that would become evermore explicit to them, that would be my hope.

Okay, yeah, but that’s a real interesting way of interpreting Freud, and in a way that actually serves the church. I hadn’t thought of that. We can take that insight that Freud had, that religion can be a mechanism of avoidance, a kinda defense mechanism, and bring it into the Christian life and recognize that we all do that to some extent. And that’s pretty stunning thought. So yeah, thank you. And it leads me to wanna talk with you about some of your work and thinking, regarding the God image that people develop, and how that can be so different from our God concept. What’s some of your thoughts on that?

A very wonderful Catholic psychoanalyst, Ana-Maria Rizzuto, some years ago conducted a qualitative study with the intention of discovering how people formed what she called a representation of God, so it would be the inner understanding and experience of God. And so she designed a very creative research study to explore that. And through her research, she articulated what’s called a God concept, which is the more organized theological understanding about God, so it’s–

Kind of more intellectual, right?

Right, exactly, so yes, more cognitive, more intellectual, more informed by religious education. And so it’s what we might say doctrinally we believe about God, like a credal understanding, perhaps. And then what she discovered was that there was something quite different, what she called the God image, which has to do with a person’s emotional, subjective experience of God. And later contributions from attachment theory would add the inclusion that it’s a implicit working model. We would say it’s an implicit understanding of how God moves and works in my life. And so what we discovered through a number of research studies I’ve been involved in is that a person’s God concept, like what I might credally proclaim to believe about God, may be quite different than what I relationally experience about God. So one way we might say this is yes, I believe God is loving, but you couldn’t prove it by my life, that when I come to think about where is God in relation to me, well God may be quite distant or uninterested or unmoved by my suffering. And what we know from research is that that has something to do, not everything to do, but something to do with these earliest life experiences in relationship and how we’ve internalized our understanding of ourselves and others and the world. So our God image is born out of that, but also, it’s born out of our need of who we need God to be, or who we wish God to be. This, Rizzuto also discovered in her research.

Wow, seminaries do a good job of teaching about the God concept then, what are the attributes of God and nature of God and so on. But it occurs to me that we don’t spend as much time thinking, at a seminary, about one’s God image then, this deep kind of internalized, relational structure that is the means by which we connect with God. That’s pretty revolutionary, probably, for seminary education. We need to pursue that, I think.

Mm-hmm, I think that would be wonderful, because in preparation for ministry, what pastors, ’cause I’ve also been passionate about working with pastors over the years, what they’ll encounter is both. I mean they’ll be teaching and preaching and teaching people about God, and sort of schooling along their concept of God, but what they’ll encounter in their pastoral sessions with parishioners has more to do with God image. It’s what’s the working out in my life of what I believe?

Yeah, I find people that are troubled, or come from religiously troubled homes, and they might even say, well I know God loves people, but I’m different. I’m in a separate class. And presumably, in a way, it’s the God image structure that is in the way. At least to me, He feels like He’s opposed to me or against me. Do you help your students to deal with these concepts and to become familiar with working with them in their clinical work?

I do, I do, and it’s something that I’ve added to my courses over the years, because I discovered [clears throat], excuse me, I discovered that in helping to prepare students to respond to their patients’ spiritual lives, a parallel I might draw is that I could educate them, theologically, or even clinically, about interventions or techniques that they could use, even the studies on prayer, for example, or the use of sacred texts. But what I was discovering was that what was blocking their capacity to really engage with their patients had to do with their own God image and their own woundedness from perhaps religious contexts or experiences that they had had. And so I began to make more space in my courses for talking about that, and for introducing them to this notion of God concept and God image. It’s been quite striking for them to find the language to say yes, that’s right, there is a difference in what I was taught about God and how I feel like God is really relating to me. It is quite stunning and revolutionary for some of them.

I think so. I assume, given your orientation, that the emotions are important to you as well. How do you work with emotions when you’re working with people?

Well I think there are a range of ways of responding to emotion. I think that, first of all, to see emotion as central to how God has created us. I think, as a Christian, that’s important. I think there was a time in some Christian circles where emotions were thought of as unreliable, as fickle, as unimportant, or, if not unimportant, certainly not central. That we needed reason, we needed will, and that in a holistic model of our Christian understanding, I really love Dallas Willard’s work on this in “Renovation of the Heart”, that we need to understand, we need to embrace our emotionality as part of how we are created by God. And that in my patients, I’m thinking particularly of patients who have been traumatized, that their emotions often are signals to them of danger that they are feeling or experiencing that can lead to a lot of reactionary patterns in their life. And so depending on the patient, depending on what they’re coming to therapy for, to first of all validate the importance of feelings, ’cause many of them are trying to push their feelings aside or push them out of awareness. So to first of all acknowledge that they are there, and then see how emotions are operative. Is there a lack of emotion? So we’re trying to bring emotional awareness forward. Or is there too much emotion, in the sense that they’re flooded and ineffective and impulsive? And so we need to sort of find a way to bring more reason to balance the emotion. So I think it depends on the patient and the work that we’re doing.

I also noticed you have an interest in bringing narrative into therapy. How do you do that?

The metanarrative of our life, of course, has to do with God’s redemptive movements in creation and in humanity. And so then how does my story become part of that story? And so we ran these groups for 10 weeks with about 35 participants here at APU. And it was astounding what they came to discover about themselves through using this method of narrative, which, essentially, storied their life in chapters, much like a novel or an epic movie would be structured. It was modeled after Dan McAdams’ “The Stories We Live By”, his book on narrative. And so it was a very elegant intervention that we found to be quite powerful in students’ lives and their realizing different chapters that they were leaving out out of their story, or chapters they wanted to discover and the themes and tones and plots and characters. So it was really wonderful.

You’re writing an article, as I understand it, on something like a Catholic approach to psychodynamic therapy. What does that look like? Can you give us a summary?

A long time ago, Gary Collins said, “Integration begins with the integrator.” And I think he was right. I think there’s a need for our own self-awareness around what has influenced us and the way that we think about integrating our spirituality, our faith, with our psychology or psychoanalytic clinical thinking. I really resonate with the British Independent Tradition of psychoanalysis, which is theorists and analysts like Donald Winnicott and Ronald Fairbairn, Harry Guntrip. And I was raised Roman Catholic, and still consider that very much the core of my Christian identity, and so I wrote about my perspective on the British Independent Tradition of analysis from my experience as a Catholic. So there’s a focus on particularity, on awareness, and also on dialogue, that some some analysts in recent years have written about how their religious tradition informs their view of analysis, and how their experience as an analyst informs their religious tradition and their religious belief, how they see themselves as a religious person. So I think that the reciprocal dialogue is particularly important for us as Christians.

Well I’m curious how you take care of your soul. What sorts of things are you doing to care for yourself?

That’s the fuel that keeps us going, to have the vitality of our life in God. So I think that there are rhythms that I observe. What I feel like nourishes me most is a mindful awareness of the reality of the movement of God, every moment, where we are in our life. Some years ago, when I was in Boston, I went to a conference on spirituality and healing in medicine. And one of the talks was on developing mindful awareness of God’s movement in every moment of our life, and what does it mean to try to have mindful attention in the moment. That was such a revolutionary concept for me. I began, gosh, it was probably 15 years ago, I began to try to practice that. Like what would it mean to be in the moment of what I was doing, teaching, counseling, whatever it might be, rather than thinking about what happened yesterday or what I need to do later? And so to bring mindful attention to my days, and also mindful awareness that God is here, now, something about the imminent presence of God, and what might be a redemptive opportunity that I would miss if I wasn’t aware of it. Now obviously, some days I’m doing all I can to move through, but I find even on those most intense days, that mindful attention, it does, it keeps me going. And I start all my classes with a moment of deep breathing and silence and reflection. I want a model for my students, and I tell them, “Do your best to, in this moment, “connect with yourself, “and prepare to connect with each other.” For some of them, they tell me, “It’s the only minute I have in my week “to pause and breath and connect with myself.” And so they’re simple ways, but I think sometimes simple is profound.

Yeah, I’m surprised, when I think about sometimes, I can be writing, for example, about God, for like hours, and yet not have been with Him for that whole time. So this is a great reminder of practicing the presence, as Brother Lawrence talked about.

Theresa: Indeed.

Well thanks so much, Theresa, for sharing some of your life and story with us.

You’re welcome Eric. It’s been my pleasure.