Fr. Marek Tatar, PhD, ProfTit: Between spirituality and psychology. Friends or enemies?


The observation of life of a present day person, a Christian, as well as formation groups that come into being both in the Catholic Church and in other Christian denominations makes it possible to claim the arising tension between spirituality and psychology. A typical representative of this tendency is a Benedictine from Münsterschwarzach Abbey Fr. Anselm Grün. In his monastery life he studied both, philosophy and theology at St. Ottilien and in Rome receiving the title of the Doctor of Theology. He is also known as a psychologist and psychotherapist. He is an author of many publications (around 77 of which have been translated into Polish). In one of them, entitled ‘Mysticism’ Grün claims: ‘In relation to mysticism psychology and religion make up two fields that are strictly connected and enriching one another’ and later he adds: ‘Moreover psychology forms the criteria of the authenticity of experiencing God’[1].

1. The essence of understanding spirituality

Widely understood culture of a man influences the way spirituality is comprehended. Following the research of Fr. prof. I. Bokwa, it can be undoubtedly stated that we deal with the age which he defines as postmodernity[2]. This brought to life diametrical change in the undertaking of the essence of spirituality. Separation from the Person of God directed a man towards themselves which led to creation of invidualistic anthropocentric spirituality[3]. Therefore there is a talk about the spirituality of an atheist. Another echo of such tendencies is the spirituality borrowed from the Eastern non-Christian directions which was oriented towards ecology, which has been brought up to the level of religion. R. Rolheiser remarks that we now deal with perceiving spirituality as something ‘exotic, esoteric, not a thing that derives from everyday life’[4]. To define spirituality it is essential to analyse the structure of a person who experiences, goes through and develops the spirituality. The attempts of defining a person make a clear distinction between the material dimension of a man and its opposite or the spiritual element. The integrated nature of a manἕνωσις (henozis) therefore contains σῶμα(soma) materiality and spirituality – ψυχή (psyche) as something opposing, non-material, non-corporeal[5]. The encyclopaedic term defining the idea of spirituality relates it to the religious context and gives the following description: ‘Religious spirituality, a form of spiritual life based on the acceptance of sacrum as the superior value, forming the awareness of a person and their pursuit to personal excellence in a fully eschatological perspective; it joins religiosity, asceticism and mysticism that is a part of ethos and together with this it is the subject matter of studies of a separate section of theology[6]. This really broad expression emphasises a few important elements: a) a form of life of a person; b) the existence and the acceptance of sacrum; c) eschatic orientation; d) multidimensionality. J. Aumann, in turn, specifies the understanding of spirituality defining it in relation to Jesus Christ. He states that Christian spirituality is Christ centric. He understands this as the participation of a person in the mystery of Christ.. It is done by life in grace that brings the spiritual virtues of faith, hope and love as well as other virtues. This is, in his opinion, entering of a person into the inner life of the Holy Trinity[7].

2. The Copernican revolution in relation psychology and spirituality

A huge influence of psychological sciences cannon be unseen in present day civilisation and culture. Therefore the meeting ground of spirituality and psychological research is a person. Against this background arise serious divergences as there are four ways of treating this relation that be talked about: a) the dissimilarity of understanding a person as well as the diversity of research methods excluding their cooperation - separatism; b) both of the fields are at opposing positions and reject one another - antagonism; c) the dominance of psychology reducing the spirituality to psychological processes - psychologism; debasement of psychology and fideistic perceiving of a person which does not take into consideration a person's psycho-somatism - spiritism and escapism. As it can be noticed the key idea influencing the way of understanding spirituality on theological and psychological grounds is psyche (ψυχή). L. Węgrzynowicz, referring to the analysis of Card. G. Ravasi, reveals its biblical connotations and claims that it means ‘respiration, breathing, breath’ and it means the soul as the rule of life. At the same time he notices that such a way of understanding does not exist on the grounds of psychology[8]. In research on the question of understanding psyche an essential and at the same time problematic moment was the withdrawal from metaphysics and focusing of scientific research on natural and empirical sciences. The research of Wilhelm Wundt who is considered the founder and pioneer of experimental psychology took place on this ground. In his research the stress was shifted from the analysis of a person's psyche in relation to the spirit onto its relation to one's biologic life. This way methods of introspection and retrospection came to life, limiting the research space to a person themselves and at the same time separating it from the religious understanding. Spiritualism has been understood therefore as a psychological life and a set of a person's behavioural attributes[9]. The term ‘spirituality’ became present in psychology in the 1980s. However, it was joined with the institutional religiosity as well as with the individual experience. M. Jarosz referring to D.M. Wulff and K.I. Pargament claims that what we deal with is yet another one split. It concerns the relation of spirituality as dynamic pursuit to sacrum and religiosity of a static character. The split of spirituality and religiosity took place on this ground[10]. The 18th and 19th centuries are characterised by the tendencies of removing the idea and the Person of God from the field of philosophy. Short philosophic panorama reveals trends and directions focused on a human being and placing them in the centre with yet simultaneous accusation of God for anti-humanism. This is how a specific ‘anthropocentric religion’ whose foundation became humanistic philosophy of a universalist character came into life[11]. As A Maslow claim on this ground psychology adopts broad understanding of spirituality as aiming to maturity on the path of the development of hierarchy of needs with keeping balance of the physical and emotional dimensions. The split within psychology itself whose fields began dealing with certain segments of a human life: creation, thinking, behaviour need to be taken into consideration. This led to the lack of integral perception of a person as well as the subjectivism of assessment. As a response to those challenges personalistic psychology (P. McAdams, V. Frankl, R. May) referring to objectives values was developed. Finally Z. Freud treats religiousness as obsessive compulsive disorder and collective neurosis which is rooted in Oedipus complex that is noticeable in ontogenesis as well as in phylogenesis[12]. A. Adler notices that religiousness can be used in a negative way, even though the religiousness does not have such character. C. G. Jung, a very popular within psychologists of Christian provenience, raised the meaning of religion to psychological development of a person. He located ‘imago Dei’ which is of great importance to theology on the boarder of the counsciousness and collective subcounsciousness and it is on the bottom of Selbst - self. His understanding of the person of God remains problematic. His connection with non-Christian religions of the East as well as spiritistic tendencies need to be emphasised. According to him, ‘mandala’ meaning self (das ware Selbst) is the centre of experience being the inner temple. V. Frankl, in turn, the creator of existential analysis was neither Christian nor catholic. When talking about God thought of universal God. He perceived a person in bodily-psychic-spiritual categories as one continuously seeking the sense of life. He claimed that a person is on the way to incarnated religiousness[13].

3. Non-aggression pact - aiming to consent with keeping competences

The main posts of spirituality resulting from religiousness and psychology drifting towards naturalism presented above, force us to ask a question about the possibility of cooperation and coexistence of these fields of studies. The Christian spirituality faces therefore a basic problem us using the possibilities given by psychology. B.J. Groeschel's answer is: ‘Yes, provided the psychology is properly and carefully used. Spirituality does not exist in vacuum’[14]. One should also take into consideration conditions resulting from the challenges of a present day civilisation. The lack of agreement or any act of rejection are not enough to solve the problem. Spirituality, like any other field, seeks for the adequate tools on the worldly as well as on the supernatural grounds[15]. Undoubtedly the key role in the process of the development of a person is played by the whole axiological system which enables the objectivisation of assessment of one's own ideal ‘I’ with the ‘real I’. These values should be looked for beyond the person themselves but at the same time it is necessary to take into account the whole psycho-physical-spiritual structure of a person. A. Cencini and A. Manenti, being psychologists, using their theologian-formation experience suggest trifurcation of the levels, i.e. psycho-physical, psycho-social and rational-spiritual ones[16]. The search, however, cannot be limited the psychology of religion as, it was proven above, it deals with the phenomenon of religiousness which can also by analysed from the individual, social or even political point of view. The suggestion of Fr. A. J. Nowak using the division of phases into: genotypic, phenotypic and especially into interpersonal and intrapersonal refers to sacrum. However, it is the interpersonal experience of God which brings relation to Him, interiorises and socialises oneself[17]. In this context it is necessary to emphasise the unity of spirituality that is based on the supernatural revelation and its plurality at the same time, i.e. it is realised in a multidirectional and multidimensional ways. This proofs the reaction of spirituality on a person and their spiritual needs as well as the needs of Church which lives and exists in real life[18]. Psychology, being the experimental science, allows us to grasp the empirical material, yet on the grounds of the supernatural relation to God it does not possess the adequate tools to research or assess it. The problem also lies in the matter of the study of these two fields itself. Psychology focuses on a person in their individual, social, cultural dimension, etc. It researches behaviour and reactions of a person in their religious experience. Spirituality, however, deals in its research with the experience of God and the transformation that takes place in a person themselves that is influenced by God's actions. B. J. Groeschel pays attention to an essential element in using psychology. He states that its popularisation and commercialisation is a kind of threat. It means that psychology has undergone a marketing trend. While examining a person's needs it tries to fulfil them. Instead of searching for solutions of the problems it tries to find the explanations that would excuse and justify the attitudes and behaviours of a person[19]. In the context of spirituality, psychology of religion, psychology of personality and psychology are of great meaning. The analysis of the stages of the spiritual development of a person needs the knowledge of basic elements of development psychology founded by John Broadus Watson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They acquired the three-staged development of a person, i.e. infancy, childhood and adolescence[20]. Christian spirituality does not distance itself from the achievements of experimental sciences in this regard since when talking about the process of spiritual development an essential place is given to human development and psychological maturity, e.g. concerning fundamental decisions in a person's life.

Therapeutic psychology also called psychotherapy (ψυχή – soul; θεραπεύειν – treat, take care of, serve) is of great importance especially in the context of experiences causing personal disorders. In its descriptions one can find conclusion that this is a professional help in the conditions of psychogenic disorders lading to disorder of psychological and physical spheres of a person. The above mentioned Z. Freud[21] is considered to be its forerunner. Unfortunately, present day situation makes impression that what we deal with is a certain limitation to this direction, and sometimes it simply becomes a condition of e.g. the understanding of vocation[22].

While looking for the planes on which it aims at conciliation of these two fields one needs to indicate the practice of spiritual direction on the basis of Christian formation. Without a doubt it needs at least basic psychological knowledge. Father S. Mojek characterising the process of preparation of such a person states: ‘…a spiritual director must have a good knowledge of psychology and pedagogic as well as a bit of knowledge of psychiatry in a way which would enable him to recognise the pathology, unwellness of psychical life and definitely send a given person to a specialist in this field’[23]. Present day challenges clearly need a professional preparation of the theologians of spirituality, formers of Christian life as well as psychologists. It is obvious that these two fields cannot be separated because of anthropological, religious as well as social reasons. It needs to be stated that they both are very important, really needed and necessary with their competences. The solutions aimed at separating the two must not be accepted, yet the other unacceptable ideas are psychologism which tries to replace spirituality or fideistic spirituality which does not take into account the obvious psychological reality. The solution of this problem matter remains mutual help with retaining the proper competences.


Present day challenges put a person in the presence of the need to interpret their identity afresh. Undoubtedly it takes place in confrontation with revelation, surrounding world, another person as well as with the person themselves. Spirituality based on the revelation and the interpersonal experience of God accepts the Christian way of perceiving a person. At the same time, a person created in the image of God (cf. Gen. 1, 27) is a psycho-physic-spiritual being. When a person is deprived of any of these elements their integral being is made incomplete. At the same time the person who is gifted with rational nature finds in their structure a psychical sphere which needs to be taken into account it ones development. The growing lack of consensus between spirituality and psychology results from different axiology and thereby the anthropological idea. Nevertheless, both fields are somehow related to one another. Therefore psychology cannot usurp the right to replace spirituality. For this reason their cooperation with maintaining the autonomy and at the same within the range of their competences is absolutely essential.

[1] A. Grün, Mistyka, tr. K. Markiewicz, Kraków 2021, p. 20. [2] Cf. I. Bokwa, Teologia w warunkach nowoczesności i ponowoczesności, Sandomierz 2010, pp. 108-109. [3] Cf. Sth. II-II, q.64, a. 2, ad 3. [4] R. Rolheiser, W poszukiwaniu duchowości XXI wieku, tr. K. Tybinka, Kraków 2006, p. 19. [5] Cf. Cz. Bartnik, Dogmatyka katolicka, Lublin 2000, p. 362; K. Wojtyła, Osoba i czyn in: Osoba i czyn oraz inne studia antropologiczne, [ed.] T. Styczeń, W. Hudy, J. Gałkowski, A. Rodziński, A. Szostek, Lublin 1994, pp. 227-228. [6] S. Witek, Duchowość religijna, EK, vol. IV, p. 330. [7] Cf. J. Aumann, Spiritual Theology, London 1982, s. 18. [8] Cf. L. Węgrzynowicz, Psychologia a duchowość – między nauką a wiarą, (access [9] Cf., ibid. [10] Cf. M. Jarosz, Pojęcie duchowości w psychologii, „Studia z Psychologii w KUL” vol. 16 (2010), pp. 13-14; 19. [11] Cf. Van der Leeuw, Fenomenologia religii, Warszawa 1997, p. 440. [12] Cf. J. Biela, Psychoanaliza Zygmunta Freuda, op. cit., pp. 74-77. [13] Cf. A. Nowak, Homo religiosus, op.cit., pp. 67-121. [14] Cf. B.J. Groeschel, Duchowy rozwój. Psychologia a mistyka, tr. E. Czerwińska, Warszawa 1998, p. 158. [15] Cf. M. Tatar, Fenomen powołania do zakonnego życia konsekrowanego w rzeczywistości świata ponowoczesnego, in: Przebudźcie świat! Wypełnić wiernie misję w Kościele, „Scriptura Theologica Thoruniensia” (35) Communio Sanctorum (3), [ed.] S. Suwiński, I. Werbiński, Toruń 2015, s. 57-64. [16] Cf. A. Cencini, A. Manenti, Psychologia a formacja, tr. K. Kozak, Kraków 2002, pp. 19-37. [17] Cf. M. Jarosz, Pojęcie duchowości, op.cit., p. 16-17. [18] Cf. I. Werbiński, Jedność i wielość duchowości, op.cit., p. 81-83. [19] Cf. B.J. Groeschel, Duchowy rozwój, op.cit., p. 145; M. Tatar, Spirituality of suffering in the face of chosen aspects of psychology, „Warsaw Pastores Studies” 15th/2012, pp. 47-63. [20] Cf. John D.J.D. Hogan John D.J.D., J.D. J.D.Developmental psychology: History of the field, [in:] Alan E.A.E. Kazdin (red.), Encyclopedia of Psychology, vol. 3, New York 2000, pp. 9-13; E. Rzechowska, Psychologia rozwojowa, EK, vol. XVI, Lublin 2012, pp. 853-856. [21] Cf. K. Ciepliński, Psychoterapia, EK, t. XVI, Lublin 2012, p. 881. It is currently estimated that around 400 schools follow this specialization. [22] Cf. L. Cierpiałkowska, E. Soroko, Zaburzenia osobowości w modelach medycznych i w psychologii różnic indywidualnych, in: Zaburzenia osobowości. Problemy diagnozy klinicznej, [ed.] L. Cierpiałkowska, E. Soroko, Poznań 2017, pp. 21-22. [23] S. Mojek, Kierownictwo duchowe, in: Teologia duchowości, op.cit., p. 337., Z. Kroplewski, Kierownictwo duchowe a psychoterapia, in: Sztuka kierownictwa duchowego, [ed.] J. Augustyn, J. Kołacz, Kraków 2007, pp.347-355.

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