Benner Cares Spiritually Through Dialogue—Part 1

Benner_review_08072015David G. Benner. 1998.  Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. (Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One distinctive of biblical faith is that each human being is created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). One practical implication of this image doctrine is that when you speak with someone, it is like speaking to God himself.  In fact, many times God speaks to us through the people around us. A second practical implication is that each and every human has intrinsic value in the eyes of God[1].  Between the hint of the divine and this intrinsic value, everyone has an interesting story to tell—if one takes the time to listen.

In his book, Care of Souls, David Benner implicitly understands and accepts the doctrine of the image.  He writes:

“Care refers to actions that are designed to support the well-being of something or someone. Cure refers to actions that are designed to restore well-being that has been lost.” (21)

One only cares for something of value.  In this case, we are talking about souls which he defines as:

“soul as referring to the whole person, including the body, but with particular focus on the inner world of thinking, feeling, and willing.” (22)

This is the Hebrew understanding of soul (nefesh or נַפְשִׁ֖י) which is quite distinct from the Greek understanding from Plato which divided a person into body and soul[1], which were truly divided (11).

This body and soul unity is important in Benner’s thinking especially when he delves into the distinction between the conscious and non-conscious parts of our inner life.  He writes:

“Caring for souls is caring for people in ways that not only acknowledge them as persons but also engage and address them in the deepest and most profoundly human aspects of their lives.  This is the reason for the priority of the spiritual and psychological aspects of the person’s inner world in soul care.” (23)

While the cure of souls focuses on remedy for sin; care of souls focuses on the need for spiritual growth (28).

Benner sees 4 elements in care of souls:

  1. Healing—“helping others overcome some impairment and move towards wholeness”,
  2. Sustaining—“acts of caring designed to help a hurting person endure and transcend” a challenging situation,
  3. Reconciling—“efforts to reestablish broken relationships”, and
  4. Guiding—“helping people make wise choices and thereby grow in spiritual maturity” (31-32)

I used to use the analogy of two soccer players working with each other to succeed in their game play and taking care of each other.

Benner offers 6 helpful principles (he calls them conclusions) defining soul care. “Christian soul care”…

  1. “is something that we do for each other, not to ourselves.”
  2. “operates within a moral context.”
  3. “is concerned about community not just individuals.”
  4. “is normally provided through the medium of dialogue within the context of a relationship.”
  5. “does not focus on some narrow spiritual aspect of personality but addresses the whole person.”
  6. “is much too important to be restricted to the clergy or any other single group of people.”

 This last point is important—the idea of Christian friends is fundamental in Christian discipling. In fact, the first book by Benner that I read and reviewed was focused on this point[2].

Another key point is that the focus in care of souls is on dialogue between equals before God.  Benner distinguishes 4 types of interpersonal discourse:

  1. Debate“a civilized form of combat…has a focus and implicit rules that encourage participants to stick to the understood topic”. (134)
  2. Discussion“involves the advocacy of ideas and positions with resulting winners and losers” .(134)
  3. Conversation“involve the exchange not just of facts and arguments but also of feelings, values, and construals” but not to the extent and with the mutual trust required for a dialogue. (135)
  4. Dialogue“shared inquiry that is designed to increase awareness, understanding, and insight” among mutually trusting individuals. (131)

This focus on dialogue distinguishes soul care from psychiatric care where true dialogue is not possible, in part, because the talking is more of doctor-patient conversation between two parties that are inherently not equal. Dialogue is the preferred discourse in soul care because healing, sustaining, reconciling, and guiding are able to take place only when trust is present.

Dr. David Benner works and lives in Canada.  He describes himself as: “an internationally known depth psychologist, wisdom teacher, transformational coach, and author whose life’s work has been directed toward helping people walk the human path in a deeply spiritual way and the spiritual path in a deeply human way.”  He has held numerous faculty positions and written about 30 books [4].

Benner writes in 11 chapters divided into 2 parts.  These chapters are:

Part 1:  Understanding Soul Care

  1. What is Soul Care?
  2. The Rise of Therapeutic Soul Care
  3. The Boundaries of the Soul
  4. Psychology and Spirituality
  5. Christian Spirituality

Part 2:  Giving and Receiving Soul Care

  1. The Psychospiritual Focus and Soul Care
  2. Dialogue in Soul Care
  3. Dreams, the Unconscious, and the Language of the Soul
  4. Forms of Christian Soul Care
  5. Challenges of Christian Soul Care
  6. Receiving Soul Care

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and an introduction.  They are followed by notes and a topical index.

David Benner’s Care of Souls is a transformative text.  Although some of these ideas here appear elsewhere, many of the discussions are uniquely Benner. For example, Benner goes a lot further than many authors in offering a theological underpinning to soul care, integrates the therapeutic ideas better than other authors into his care, and spends more time in explaining the usefulness and uniqueness of dialogue.  I highly recommend this book to pastors, other Christian care givers, and Christians who want to be spiritually sensitive in their ministry.

In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of Benner’s book.  In part 2, I will dig deeper into some of his more interesting ideas.

Question: Do you think that soul care is possible outside of a therapeutic relationship?  Why or why not?

 

[1] This intrinsic value provides the philosophical foundation for human rights. In the absence of this theological doctrine, the secular interest in human rights is a philosophical orphan easily forgotten.

[2] Or body, mind, and soul.

[3] See (Benner 2003) Also see review:  Benner Points to God (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-u3)

[4] www.DrDavidGBenner.ca

REFERENCES

Benner, David G. 2003.  Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction.  Downers Grove:  IVP Books.

 

 

 

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