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The Desiring Self: Rooting Pastoral Counseling and Spiritual Direction in Self-Transcendence

Author: Walter Conn

Publisher: Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ; 188 pp.

Reviewer: Jim Kanaris, Ph.D. Candidate, McGill University

May 12, 2000
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I now have at least two authors I can commend with confidence to students interested in the mediation of Lonergan’s insights to the field of psychology. The first, of course, is Robert M. Doran whose theory of psychic conversion met with the approval of Lonergan himself. The second, less well known to me until now, is Walter E. Conn. There is also the Christotherapy of Bernard J. Tyrell. However, I must confess that I am less familiar with his work in this area.

The verdict is promising. The blurb reads: “With the publication of The Desiring Self, Walter Conn establishes himself as one of the most important contemporary contributors to the field of psychology and spirituality” (Lewis R. Rambo, Editor, Pastoral Psychology). Conn’s ease of style and the confidence he exerts in squeezing complex issues competently into 181 pages validate this. His straightforward mediation of Lonergan’s concept of the self in dialectical conversation with that of others is doubtless another factor.

The book is well structured. The central chapters are a clarification of issues that lead to varying interpretations of a story, outlined in chapter 1 (“Understanding Mary”). The story figures prominently in James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (1981). In the final chapter, chapter 8 (“Mary Revisited”), Conn is able to pronounce on these interpretations on account of his ruminations in chapters 2 to 7. The story is that of Mary, “a young woman struggling with her post-conversion Christian faith” (9). The interpretations are those of Fowler and Mary Ford-Grabowsky. Both feel that Mary’s conversion is genuine but her unmitigated reliance on conventional faith and moral reasoning forces Fowler to conclude that she has a truncated view of her “faithing” self. Ford-Grabowsky feels that it is Fowler’s theory, not Mary’s faith development, that is truncated. Perhaps, Conn paraphrases Ford-Grabowsky as suggesting, Fowler’s six stages of faith needs a seventh, one that accounts for “the development of the Christian self possible with grace” (18). Jung’s distinction between the self and the ego and Hildegard von Bingen’s theological concept of the inner person are the critical tools she employs in opposing Fowler. Apparently Fowler concentrates on the ego, Mary’s center only of consciousness, in his assessment. He is neglectful of her journey, contends Ford-Grabowsky, in terms of what Jung saw as the fuller reality of the self (a “transcendental postulate”) to the Pauline understanding of the inner person, the characteristically spiritual interpretation Hildegard emphasizes. Conn takes these mutually exclusive views to be symptomatic of a theoretical inadequacy about the self that he intends to correct in the remainder of the book.

Before Conn gets to the “meat” of his position, he briefs the reader on the history of the pastoral counseling movement in America, which chapter 2 (“From Self-Denial to Self-Realization: An American History”) is all about. E. Brooks Holifield’s 1983 study, A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization, is relied on for an overview of four centuries of development that culminates with what is said to be the ideal of our own age: self-realization. Conn then focuses on the insights of four modern authors in this movement, Steward Hiltner, Carroll Wise, Paul Johnson, and Wayne Oates. They broadly define for him what he means by self-realization. “[S]elf-realization is what in this book we are calling self-transcendence” (30). It consists in fulfilling the exigencies of our true selves (authentic self-realization) and the rejection of any interest, wish, or desire that interferes with this realization (authentic self-denial).

Conn is at his philosophical best in chapter 3 (“Understanding the Self”). In it he sorts through the various meanings of often equivocated terms like “self,” “ego,” and “person,” “subject,” the “I,” and the “me.” He concentrates specifically on developments following the 17th century that resume the Augustinian theme of interiority more systematically, re-rooting prior treatments of the self in essentially third-person, objective terms (“person”) in first-person, subjective reality (“self”). Among the several authors mentioned, Conn pays special attention to Freud, Jung, and Erickson on the “ego” and William James and Lonergan on the conscious “I”—the latter two dominate the discussion. By the ego varying things are meant. Conn uses it to mean “the unconscious side of the self’s ‘I’ [44], . . . as unifying drive toward meaning . . . Ego is the drive toward integration, organization, meaning; anxiety is the failure of ego in this drive: disintegration, disorganization, meaninglessness [45].” Lonergan is invoked as one who has clarified important yet presumably unwieldy notions like James’s of the duplex self, the unity of the “I” and the “me” in the stream of consciousness. The “I” is presence of self to self as subject within intentional operations, the self-as-subject. The “me” is presence of self to self as object in reflexive knowing, the self-as-object. According to Conn, James moves away from experience of the “I” while Lonergan presses toward it through a self-validating exercise of conscious awareness. This validating process is precisely that: a process, consciousness being its condition, not its object. Thus the “I” is only experienced, the “me” being that part of it that is known, objectified.

What is distinctive for Conn about Lonergan’s position, besides the clarity he brings to the discussion, is that the “I” affirmed, the self-as-subject, is not a postulate— metaphysical, transcendental, or otherwise—but the actual albeit elusive self verified in and through intentionality. This is pivotal for him for assessing views of the self that give greater heed to hypothetical postulates about the self than to insights into data of the self available to experience.

Lonergan drops from sight in the treatment of self-as-object, which suggests James has more to offer here structurally. Considered are James’s three dimensions of the “me”: the material “me,” the social “me,” and the spiritual “me.” Conn wants us to keep in plain view that this objective pole in James is an extension of subjective, psychic reality. It regards one’s perception of these grades of experience, one’s body, clothes, social recognition, spiritual enlightenment or potential for it. “James’s discussion of the material, social, and spiritual selves can most accurately be understood as a specification of various dimensions or aspects of the single ‘me,’ the self-as-object (which, itself, is only distinct, not separate, from the self-as-subject)” (55).

A very brief relation of this concept of the self to developments in post-Freudian psychoanalysis ensues in chapter 4 (“The Self in Post-Freudian Psychoanalytic Theory”). The relevance of Lonergan here is his comprehensive treatment of the unity of the self that object-relations theorists like Ronald Fairbairn, D.W. Winnicott, and Harry Guntrip have been laboring over. Incidentally, Michael Polanyi is listed alongside Lonergan as another who has contributed significantly to the notion of person as a multileveled reality in whom integrated levels of psychic life constitute a greater unity.

Self-transcendence is underlined in chapter 5 (“Self-Transcendence, the True Self, and Self-Love”) as necessary to self-actualization. Self-actualization is but a “side effect” of it. A radically interpersonal, relational reality, self-transcendence, as in Lonergan, is cognitive, affective, moral, and religious. “Pastoral counseling and spiritual direction are aimed at empowering persons to realize ever greater self-transcendence in their lives. To a great degree, this means helping people to liberate themselves from the countless defense mechanisms and other distortions of the personality that constitute a drag on the desire for self-transcendence” (75). Not all defense mechanisms are negative, however. Freud recognized a constructive aspect to “sublimation,” for example. However, I don’t think Conn means to exclude such aspects in self-transcendent development. The chapter ends with some thoughts on Thomas Merton’s largely ‘descriptive’ concept of the true self, which Lonergan’s model is seen as more or less corroborating from an ‘explanatory’ viewpoint, and the issue of self-love, which is contrasted, naturally, with selfishness.

Chapter 6 (“The Developing Self: A Pastoral Counseling Guide”) is something of a mental checkpoint through the various stages of psychic life, from egocentric to objective child consciousness, the adolescent search for independent meaning, faith, and values, the young adult’s desire for intimacy, mutuality, and commitment, to the middle and older adult’s quest for interiority and final integration. Conn’s guides for his mini-guide are Erik Erikson on the affective, Jean Piaget on the cognitive, Lawrence Kohlberg on the moral, James Fowler on faith, and Robert Kegan on the “self” itself. Conn highlights how the very meaning of development traced by these individuals in these patterned dimensions is self-transcendence, thanks to Lonergan’s theory of the self.

In chapter 7 (“The Self in Radical Transformation: Spiritual Direction for Christian Conversion”) Conn returns to Merton. The aim is to trace the developmental patterns previously outlined in light of the premise that conversion, “an about-face, a radical reorientation of one’s life” (116), is fundamental to Christian living. An interesting overview of the various stages of conversion in Merton’s journey of faith is then embarked on, beginning with what Conn describes as Merton’s moral yet uncritical conversion of 1938-1941 and ending with his post 1950s disposition rooted in affective and critical conversions.

Mary is revisited in the closing chapter, chapter 8, followed by a brief appendix on the relation of self-transcendence to the works of Gerald Egan and Gerald Corey. More relevant to this outline is the judgment he reaches about Mary.

Ford-Grabowsky’s take on Mary is rejected on the grounds that, unlike Fowler’s view, it is non-integrationist, assuming that nature and grace are totally separate realms. Moreover, and contrary to the view expressed in chapter 3, her understanding of the Christian self is hypothetical, a postulate that cannot be experienced. Conn prefers Fowler’s interpretation, although he finds it inadequate. For the most part, he says, it is “a taken-for-granted common-sense understanding that deals with none of the theoretical issues of the self, such as consciousness, for example, in any explicit way” (141). Nevertheless, he is fully persuaded by Fowler’s analysis of Mary. Still, besides needing a stronger basis in theory, Conn contends that Fowler’s analysis, and Ford-Grabowsky’s no less, would profit from a developmental view of conversion understood as structural stage change in addition to their own emphasis on content stage change. Thus Mary, though very intelligent, may be seen as lacking cognitive conversion, incapable of reflecting on herself and her own cognitive power in a critical way. The repercussions of this on her moral outlook are not insignificant. Though genuine, her moral conversion is uncritical in much the same way that Conn diagnosis Merton’s to have been in the early part of his faith journey. Her affective constitution is not, as most people’s, without problems as well.

Short of therapy, only something like Fowler’s recapitulation process is likely to help Mary gain the strength of independent identity necessary for the challenge of true intimacy—and affective conversion. Then her desire to give of her self will be liberated from the bonds of self-interest needs, and the fundamental thrust of her Christian moral conversion will be realized with significant consistency. (151)

Her religious conversion, understood in terms of Lonergan’s mature other-worldly falling in love, is thought to correspond to Stage 3 “across the board” (152), Piaget’s “early formal,” Erikson’s “initiative/guilt purpose,” Kegan’s “interpersonal,” Kohlberg’s “interpersonal concordance,” and Fowler’s “synthetic conventional.” In other words, Mary’s faith development is underdeveloped when compared to the highest stages outlined by these individuals. Conn concludes in effect that Mary is a textbook case of someone in whom “the developmental conditions for the possibility of religious conversion in the full, radical sense” are less than ripe.

The book is very informative and lucidly written. It accomplishes well what the subtitle communicates. It is not a guide for spiritual direction but a way of rooting it in a clearly defined understanding of the self vis-à-vis the most significant (current) contributions in psychology and pastoral counseling. Conn successfully shows how Lonergan’s view of the self may be mediated in psychological discourse without entertaining pretensions of an omni-competency on Lonergan’s part with regard to specific matters in psychology and pastoral counseling. The book does contain a great deal of information for its size. One would have liked to see it either trimmed down or developed more fully. But books are expensive and schedules are rigid. Were it not for Conn’s obvious knack for keeping things on track, I could foresee this as a problem. However, as it now stands, the book delivers remarkably on its promise to clarify issues related to the self in psychology and spirituality.

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