Adrian van Kaam and Christian Psychology

Later this year, I’m writing a series of posts for the Society of Christian Psychology’s blog. I’m also editing a special issue of their journal, Edifications, that will look at what has come to be called “Orthodox Pyschotherapy” by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna and others. My own contribution for the blog will focus on the work of the late Adrian van Kaam a thinker whose work in convergence of contemporary psychology and Christian spirituality has been sadly neglected. Anyway, here’s the first of what will be a series of four posts.  Posts on the SCP blog will included the references to van Kaam’s work that I have not included here.  As always, I’m interested in your thoughts on what I’ve written.

Writing primarily in the area of personality theory, the Roman Catholic priest/psychologist Adrian van Kaam offers us an interesting critical but appreciative understanding of contemporary psychology based on the intuition that human beings both give and receive form or shape to their lives. He called his personality theory formation science. He argues that this human propensity to give and receive form participates in a larger, universal process of formation that embraces the whole of existence. This mystery of formation is possible because being is not static but a process of dialogical unfolding.=

In human life this dynamic of becoming (or of formation) is a two-fold process of self-discovery and self-expression. Unlike the methodological individualism and ontological nominalism common to both quantitative and qualitative approaches to psychology, van Kaam argued that human formation always happens within the context of tradition. The process of self-discovery and self-expression always and everywhere takes place in, through and by that wisdom that is both received from our ancestors and passed on to our descendents.

At the center then of van Kaam’s work is a teleological anthropology. Human life is purposeful; human life is goal oriented—we act for both practical and transcendent reasons. It transcendence, the ability to more than what the empirical data says about us, that is distinctively quality of the human person. Spirituality is that realm of like that is concerned with distinctive, rather than merely, human living.

Unlike the more secular theorists in humanistic psychology with whom he worked closely, van Kaam sense of human spirituality was drawn not simply from phenomenology and existentialism but also, and this is key to understanding his work, the classical writers of the Christian spiritual and theological tradition. St Thomas Aquinas, the spiritual classics of the Christian tradition and especially St John of the Cross all figure quietly, prominently, in van Kaam’s personality theory.

It is his close and creative reading of Christian spiritual classics as a source of insight into the human personality that van Kaam makes his greatest contribution to psychology. His is a personality theory that unapologetically appeals to the anthropological insights of the Christian ascetical and mystical tradition. As someone formed spiritually and intellectually in both the Eastern and Western forms of this tradition, I more and more come to appreciate the importance of van Kaam’s approach to psychology as a hermeneutic that helps reveal the convergence between contemporary psychology and the Christian tradition (especially the Church fathers).

Next time, van Kaam’s understanding of “mystery.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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