David G. Benner. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. (Goto part 1)
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
An important motive for writing my book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality, was the observation that the current fascination with spirituality has neglected the traditional teaching of the church. The Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments outline the details of Christian spirituality, but the deeper insights in them have been lost. The idea, for example, that idolatry (forbidden in the Ten Commandments) involves setting anything other than God as the first priority in one’s life and is potentially life threatening seems lost on most Christians. The traditional teaching of the church defines Christian spirituality.
David Benner takes a similar approach. In his book, Care of Souls, he devotes essentially the first half of his book—Part 1: Understanding Soul Care—to defining the boundaries of soul care—what it is and what it is not.
For example, Benner’s definition of Christian spirituality has 9 points. Christian spirituality:
- “Begins with a response of the call of Spirit to spirit
- Is rooted in a commitment to Jesus and a transformational approach to life
- Is nurtured by the means of grace
- Involves a deep knowing of Jesus and, through him, the Father and the Spirit
- Requires a deep knowing of oneself
- Leads to the realization of the unique self whom God ordained we should be
- Is uniquely developed within the context of suffering
- Is manifest by a sharing of the goodness of God’s love with others and in care for his creation
- Expresses that goodness in celebration in Christian community” (95).
Instead of leaning on church teaching in his definition as I had, Benner prefers to capture the essence of Christian spirituality in his own words.
Capturing the essence of Christian spirituality is surprisingly hard work. For example, In my own walk point 5 was the most surprising. If we are indeed the temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20), then it should be obvious. But I did not understand the importance of self-care in caring for others until I was well into seminary. The lesson here is that we must each struggle to define and refine our understanding of God and ourselves.
Part of the reason spiritual development is hard work is that our whole person—conscious and unconscious—is involved. Benner sees our conscious self as the self of “thought, volition, and behavior” (159)—a kind of aspirational self. The unconscious self is basically everything else—stuff not chosen (or not admitted) but nevertheless part of us. In this sense, Benner writes: “Religion is the achievement of the consciousness; spirituality is the gift of the unconscious.” (160) Working on the unconscious (or shadow) side of our personality according frees us and leaves us better integrated persons, but it also means that we must probe deeply into aspects of our history and life that we have worked hard to suppress from others, but successfully suppressed mostly from ourselves.
Unconsciousness versus Consciousness
The bondage that we experience from our history primarily inhabits our unconscious.
I remember clearly an incident one morning the hospital emergency department in 2012. I met with a young woman who had recently lost a pregnancy in a spontaneous abortion. During the first 20 minutes of our conversation, we connected and the visit went well. Pretty soon, however, we began experiencing a role reversal. I was no longer ministering to her; she was ministering to me. Visiting with her reminded me of a pregnancy that my wife, Maryam, and I had lost about 20 years prior that I had not properly grieved. Emotions welled up in me that I was entirely unaware of. I had to break off my visit with young woman and I ended up in the chapel in tears for a good long spell. My unresolved pain in losing a child prevented me from ministering properly to the woman in the emergency department.
Problem of Repressed Grief
Uncovering repressed grief is not easy. In talking about such spiritual work, Benner writes:
“To be useful for psychospiritual growth, journal writing needs to focus on inner life, that is, on such things as feelings, fantasies, reactions, intuitions, vagrant thoughts, troubling attitudes or behaviors, and puzzling experiences.” (163)
Benner is particularly interested in dreams which have the potential to connect us with our unconscious selves. He compares an unexamined dream to an unopened letter (173).
A lot more could be said about this book.
David Benner’s Care of Souls is an interesting and transformative text. I highly recommend this book to pastors, other Christian care givers, and Christians who want to be spiritually sensitive in their ministry and open to their own spiritual development.
Have you ever been hijacked by an unconscious emotion? How did you respond? Do you feel that it constrained your conscious choices?
 A friend of mine is fond of saying: wherever you go, you show up!
 For details about my book see: http://wp.me/p4iojd-2m.