Monthly Archives: May 2022

Exploring the resonances between psychodynamic therapy and the Judaeo-Christian faith 5

Some of the posts on this subject might have felt a bit one-sided from the point of view of the therapist being the one who in some way ‘knows’, or as in the last post in some way ‘redeems’ through love. In psychodynamic work this is very much a two-way process when the unconscious dynamics between the person being seen and the therapist are used as ways of bringing into consciousness and speaking about feelings that may have been repressed.

Carl Jung was very insistent that both therapist and person being seen are affected by the relationship – both develop and change as a result of the encounters. Revd Chris MacKenna – also a Jungian analyst called this ‘the way of exchange’. Jung, himself writes that the personalities of the therapist and person being seen are often more important for the work than what is said or thought: ‘For two personalities to meet is like mixing two different chemical substances: if there is any combination at all, both are transformed.’ So, there is mutual risk and mutual possibility.

The idea of exchange is very much part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition – though often in a paradoxical form. Salvation is a free gift and anyone can have it, but it will cost us not less than everything. 2 Corinthians 8 v. 9 describes this way of exchange: ‘You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’

The Judaeo-Christian tradition is mostly now dismissed in the west partly because of its endless moralising and hypocritical judgements about how others ‘should’ live, there doesn’t seem much to replace it beyond a vague idea that people should do what they want so long as they don’t interfere too much with others. There is a sense of uncertainty and values are relative.

In psychodynamic work and in spiritual practices we seek for something of real value. And these can sometimes be experienced in luminous moments of insight or awareness. In both the therapy and in religion there is a searching for truth – truth that can be discovered and known, felt and integrated – and that adds deep meaning to life. Psychodynamic therapy is not a religion but there is a distinctive spirit to the work which resonates with many aspects of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.


Exploring the resonances between psychodynamic therapy and the Judaeo-Christian faith 4

There are other characteristics of psychodynamic therapy that resonate with aspects of Judaeo-Christian faith and one is the idea of the wounded healer. No one gets involved in this sort of work unless they are in some way wounded. The key issue here is to be aware of it, which is why personal therapy is a requirement and the ongoing commitment to self-knowledge and self-examination is central. Taking ‘the log’ out of our own eyes’ is the priority before rushing to remove the speck from someone else’s – to paraphrase Jesus (Matthew 7, 3-5).

This links with the motivation behind doing the work. I like the account from Gerald Priestland a previous BBC religious affairs correspondent who said he was converted on the couch of a mid-European Jew. Chris MacKenna says whilst this is a wonderfully teasing statement, he thinks it is about how on the couch, Priestland learnt the meaning of grace as a deeply integrating experience – freely given, unmerited love. MacKenna also comments that to want to pass on this love is understandable, but this is where self-knowledge comes in, and he quotes the memorable comment by C.S. Lewis about the person who went around doing good, and you could tell who he did good to by the hunted look in their eyes!

In psychodynamic work we agree to keep to the function of the work so we behave ‘schematically’ – there is technique and arrangements, but there is also acceptance and a genuine depth of feeling – linked here to St Paul’s hymn to love in Corinthians 1, 13, v 5, which includes the sentence translated rather literally as ‘love does not behave itself a-schematically’.

The idea of accountability in therapeutic work can be seen to resonate with the idea of judgement – here this is only condemnation for those who are wilfully perverse rather the more usual meaning of judgement is ‘sorting things out’. Most believers and therapists would expect to give an account of their thoughts, actions and words albeit in different contexts.

Is it too much to suggest that depth psychology is a form of redemption – we need others to help us on the journey to wholeness? As in religious belief we accept that we cannot manage by ourselves – the psycho-spiritual journey begins with the appearance of another who is prepared to stand with us. Redemption by love is about the shared cost of the therapeutic endeavour and the power of really being seen by another human being who accepts the uniqueness of our being. As with Christ ‘then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (Corinthians 1 13, v 12).



Exploring the resonances between psychodynamic therapy and the Judaeo-Christian faith 3

The idea of internalizing an experience of being with a therapist is a powerful one – it’s a gradual process of taking in the core values and attitude of our therapist. It’s a bit like being a young child with parents, but there is not the same imbalance of authority and often the attitudes of the therapist work to soften or change the values we grew up with. After a good therapy has ended it is often as though the therapist or counsellor is living inside us – still available as a reference point – though as Chris MacKenna adds there is now what joy – no fees. In psychodynamic work we are being opened up to the unconscious processes that we may have been unaware of before the psychodynamic work took place and that were inhibiting and hurting us.

Here there is a similarity with the disciples’ discovery after the resurrection which was that the Spirit of Jesus whom they had lived alongside was now dwelling within them. The Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Jesus became the internal inspiration of the Christian life.

Carl Jung was critical of Christians who tried to imitate Jesus rather than live their own life to the full which would in Jung’s view be the true way of following him. I like the way Chris MacKenna explains here the helpful use of Winnicott’s idea of transitional space which can be found between the therapist and the person they are seeing and between the believer and Jesus. In this space the distinction between ‘me’ and ‘not me’ is clouded and some mysterious process of exchange takes place. So, there are powerful processes of identification and internalization that leave both parties changed.

There is though always the shadow side to this, so we might also internalize the prejudices and blind spots of the therapist alongside their creativity towards unconscious processes and events in the external world. Similarly, as a believer we inevitably take on much extra baggage usually this has next to nothing to do with God and more to do with the community, family or religious group.

In both there is the on-going need for self-awareness and openness to find the true ‘spirit’.


Exploring the resonances between psychodynamic therapy and the Judaeo-Christian faith 2

A further link can be seen in the belief found in psychodynamic work that there is a remedy through stablishing a different kind of relationship. In this relationship the therapist or counsellor is prepared to enter deeply into the person’s pain and confusion. By doing this the therapist or counsellor can get a sense of what is going on in the inner world of the person, though it can create disturbance too in the therapist. Christianity offers redemption also through relationship where another steps into our darkness and share sour suffering with us. The person of Jesus can become an intense companion and reality in the mind of the believer. I like the way Revd Chris MacKenna, priest and Jungian analyst, puts it:

‘There is loving identification with one who has shared our life and died our death. There is a powerful dynamic of projection and introjection through which all our sin, muddle and confusion is put “into” the figure of Jesus on the cross, but then detoxified and offered back in changed form by the risen Christ. Jesus’ death is the depressive nightmare: we seem to have destroyed the source of love, and to be left in total, hopeless darkness. His resurrection, though, shows that not even all our envy, shit and rage can annihilate the power of love.’

This is the risen Christ as the indestructible container and in the Eucharist, we place ourselves as the symbolic bread and wine on the altar so we can be made into the Body of Christ. In both the practice of the Eucharist and in psychodynamic work we grow through relationship with an Other.

In therapy we begin to put together – helped by interpretations from the therapist a new story that helps us understand our experiences. There is a meaning to be gained from our symptoms and this can be added to the new narrative to explain ourselves to ourselves. Again, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition narrative plays an essential part – memories of slavery; stories of the life of Jesus. The message is that life comes through death and the narratives help to locate us. The search for meaning is central to the inner sense of the truth of our existence. Ready-made religious stories can be stultifying and stunting but the narratives are often archetypal and we can find our own struggles within them rather than hearing them as history. In therapy a new story is elicited and put together in religion the stories are already present but in both we are trying to locate and find the truth of our experiences.