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Grace for the Injured Self: The Healing Approach of Hans Kohut

Author: Terry D Cooper and Robert L Randall
Published By: The Lutterworth Press
Pages: 164
Price: £17.50
ISBN: 978 0 7188 9258 6

Reviewed by Philip Joy.

Many believe Kohut to be the most significant psychoanalyst since Freud, and his ideas are here explored in close conversation with biblical texts. So in what way is his ‘self-psychology’ approach congruent with our core Christian beliefs and can be it useful in every day ministry?

First, ‘self-psychology’ seems to contradict ‘dying to self’: self-love and navel-gazing are surely the problem, not the cure? Psychoanalysts argue, however, that a healthy narcissism is essential to the basic self-esteem good parents pass on to their children: pathological narcissism is what prevents people from developing love for others. This is not unlike what Jesus implied when he said: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – that is, a basic level of self-regard is necessary for human wholeness, and for loving others.

More controversially Cooper and Randall argue that we need to abandon Augustinian notions of the Fall and eternal damnation, as Kohut abandoned Freud’s view of inherently destructive drives and the guilt that accompanies them. Such notions simply “contribute to feelings of worthlessness and disgust…” Yet this does not seem as theologically radical as it might once have. It is clear we all have a propensity for making wrong choices, and there are plenty of more nuanced accounts than Augustine’s. As for eternal damnation, again, there are plenty of biblical references to God’s rehabilitative justice on which to draw.

Cooper and Randall find their inspiration in the Fatherhood of God. They show how many a sin derives from the low self-esteem of the sinner and the attempt of the sinner to restore psychic balance to themselves at the expense of others. On the other hand, the gracious gift of another’s support can rehabilitate self-esteem and take offenders in the opposite direction. Kohut himself said that “the grace of God is the unsolicited kindness of strangers.”

The pastoral model of grace begins to be apparent. First, pastors must develop their ability to ‘think psychologically’: to spot patterns of narcissism at work in themselves and congregations and to give unexpected love and support instead of the condemnation that people secretly believe they deserve. Pastors must love, but, in regard to their own limitations, must ‘love wisely’, remembering each new day offers the possibility of a fresh start. The authors provide some analyses of typical pastoral situations to make their point. Congregational work begins from the understanding of the group as a ‘self’ in its own right, which may be immobilized, devitalized or disintegrating. By attending to the conflicting self-issues of pastor and congregation there are opportunities for a fundamentally reconnected corporate life.

There is much food for thought here. What rang most true was the authors’ assertion that pastors are taught at college to ‘think theologically’, but rarely to ‘think psychologically’, (unless it is something reductionist like Transactional Analysis). We study God, but we do not study people. We too often focus on the God whom we love, without giving room for understanding the self who does the loving, thereby either failing to see the beam in our own eye, or failing to apply God’s compassion to ourselves or others. The approach of this book, I believe, offers a valuable corrective.

Philip Joy

Specialist in Old Testament narrative and typology

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You are reading Issue 57 of Ministry Today, published in April 2013.

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