Christian Morality is Objective

When I was a graduate student, I took a number of classes in moral theology. Having majored in psychology as an undergraduate I turned to theology to learn, well, the meaning of life. Psychology helped me understand how we live, I looked to moral theology to learn how we ought to live (as a young man I was scarred by Kant; I’m better now).

It was the confluence of psychology and moral theology that I lead me to study with Adrian van Kaam at Duquesne. As I’ve mentioned before, van Kaam was a Catholic priest and psychologist who developed a comprehensive personality theory rooted in Thomism and humanistic psychology. Out of these two disciplines, one theoretical the other applied, he developed a psychological theory of the human person that served as foundation for his work in Christian spiritual formation. Continue reading

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Adrian van Kaam’s Personality Theory and the Western Intellectual Tradition

This is second of mt four part series on the personality theory of Adrian van Kaam.

Echoing Erik Erikson’s discussion of wisdom, the Catholic priest and psychologist Adrian van Kaam (1987) argues that human life is fundamentally “an intimate participation in an all pervasive mystery of formation and transformation, in commitment to and congeniality with our formation tradition, and where and when possible, in compatibility with the varied ways in which the same mystery may speak to adherents of other traditions in their genuine striving for intimacy with the mystery” (p. 114).  Some might question the appropriateness for psychology of a theological term like mystery.  And yet as K. Rahner (1978) argues “we can never philosophize as though man had not had that experience which is the experience of Christianity.”  Given this historical reality a “philosophy that is absolutely free of theology is not even possible.”  Like philosophy, contemporary psychology arose within the broadly Christian intellectual tradition.  As such, and again like philosophy, the autonomy of psychology “can only consist in the fact that it reflects upon its historical origins and asks whether it sees itself as still bound to these origins in history and in grace as something valid, and whether this self-experience of man can still be experienced today as something valid and binding” (p. 25).

To understand his work, we need to keep in mind that van Kaam is not simply a Christian thinker, but a Catholic thinker.  His use of the term mystery is an example of his dependence (though not in an exclusive fashion) on the Medieval Christian tradition.  He unapologetically identifies his theoretical and practical reliance not only on St. Thomas Aquinas but also others in the Thomistic and transcendental Thomistic schools such as St. John of the Cross, Karl Rahner and Hans Küng as well as phenomenologists such as Stephen Strasser (1983, p. xv).  The difference, as Byrne (1982) argues, is that where the medieval era focused on the (static) “mystery of Being,” van Kaam offers the more dynamic idea of “the mystery of Being-in-formation.” This overarching dynamism, that “the universe, world, history and humanity are always engaged in a process of formation” is the “fundamental perspective or intuition” that underlies van Kaam’s personality theory (p. 114). Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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