Theology, Spirituality, Psychology, and Stature

By Bruce Epperly

Open and relational theology is holistic and interdisciplinary in nature.

Open and relational theology seamlessly joins the often-separated disciplines of theology, spirituality, psychology, and pastoral care. Each of these disciplines shapes and informs the others, and gains insight in the interplay of theory, practice, and experience in a world in which our agency matters and our actions help create the future for us, others, and God.

As a pastor-professor for over forty years, I have observed that growth in theological insight transforms persons’ spiritual and emotional lives. Conversely, psychological growth inspires new approaches to theology and spirituality. A new image of God inspires new visions of human possibility and behavior. When we discover that God is on our side and that God wants to help us and not hurt us, our lives open to greater energy and creativity. When we realize that our future and the future of our loved ones and associates is open, and that God revels in adventure and delights in our agency, we can let go of unhealthy relational and emotional limitations, and chart new courses for our lives.

In an open and relational system, our lives are intended to be expansive in nature, pushing beyond the impact of past experiences, negative as well as positive, toward new horizons of personal and relational growth. God confronts dysfunctional behaviors and relationships and seeks to eliminate anything that blocks our full humanity in partnership with our Creator and our fellow creatures.

We know that one’s age or life stage does not determine spiritual, intellectual, emotional, or relational growth. One of my favorite scriptures describes Jesus’ spiritual and relational growth: “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and humankind.” (Luke 2:52) Being older doesn’t necessarily make us wiser, and a child or teen can lead us to imagine a different way of life. Think of Anne Frank or Greta Thunberg, or the surprising wisdom beyond the years of our own children and grandchildren.

As pastoral caregivers, psychotherapists, and spiritual directors realize, “stature” (Luke 2:52) is more than “years.” Despite being at an older age, and whether they are the head of a family or a nation, if they show no significant personal, emotional, or relational growth, then families and nations suffer from their leaders’ stifled and cramped emotional lives.

In the Luke passage, Jesus differentiates himself from his parents. He recognizes that he has choices and must take responsibility for his own spiritual growth in the context of responsibilities to his parents. In so doing, Jesus explores new possibilities, and begins charting and claiming his future vocation. Though he doesn’t abandon his commitment to his parents and siblings and accepts his role as a carpenter contributing to his family’s economic wellbeing, Jesus is growing into a newer, larger self that will embrace and transcend the familial, religious, and social structures of his time. Though his external behavior reflects social norms of his family-focused social structure in which individual self-expression is subordinate to family identity, his inner life is dramatically changing and will eventually draw him away from the carpenter shop to his spiritual vocation and mission to all creation.

In its quest for theological, relational, and psychological stature, open and relational theology affirms the sentiment of process-relational theologian Bernard Loomer:

By size I mean the stature of a person’s soul, the range and depth of his love, his capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness.

The open and relational God wants big-spirited persons, mahatmas, and “fat souls,” to use the imagery of theologian Patricia Adams Farmer, who become agents of their personal destinies and positively shape the world around them by identifying their growth with the growth of their communities, nation, and the planet. The open and relational God desires open and relational people and communities.

Wholeness involves expansiveness of spirit, relating to the past, present, and future, as well as one’s environment and relationships. The goals of spiritual direction, pastoral care, and psychotherapy, involve, among other things, embracing as much of your life as possible and recognizing the dreams of youth, the roads not taken, choices made and rejected, and tragic realities as well as unexpected successes that have shaped your life. Denial saps us of emotional and relational energy, whether it involves denial of emotional issues, fractured relationships, or a nation’s history of injustice. Failure to embrace our failures, grief, trauma, and the impact of our decisions and the decisions of others on our lives constricts our experience and stands in the way of new and adventurous possibilities. We remain prisoners of conscious or unconscious past experiences.

In contrast to the path of denial, which is ultimately a pathway of hopelessness and passivity, the goal of pastoral care, spiritual direction, and psychotherapy from an open and relational perspective is to invite people to listen to their whole lives, to experience in mind, body, and spirit, as much of their personal history as possible and lift into consciousness undiscovered aspects of their lives, as the prelude to letting their lives speak in creative relationships and activities. In the embracing of our whole lives, we grow in wisdom and stature and become self-aware, mindful people who are agents of our own destiny. In embracing the fullness of our lives, we encounter a loving God moving within our lives, calling us to deeper encounters with the holy in our finite, flesh and blood experiences and relationships.

The Hebraic patriarch Jacob dreams of a ladder of angels joining earth and heaven, body and spirit, and unconscious and conscious, and awakens to realize that the ladder is the gateway to God, and that divine messengers are found in his conflict-ridden life. “God was in this place”—my life and relationships—“and I did not know it,” stammers Jacob. Growth in stature involves wrestling with dazzling darkness of divinity and our deepest selves, as Jacob later discovers in his nocturnal encounter at the stream of Jabbok. (Genesis 28:10-19 and 32:22-32)

The graceful open relationality, necessary for the synergetic growth of the pastoral caregiver/psychotherapist/spiritual director and their client/congregant/spiritual directee is captured in the words of Frederick Buechner.

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Open and relational theology undergirds growth-oriented counseling, pastoral care, and psychotherapy. When we grow, we join in spirit and agency with an open-spirited God who wants us to grow and God grows along with us, a healing companion who aims at wholeness and beauty, and who invites us to go from cramped self-interest to cosmopolitan openness to our own lives and the moral and spiritual arcs that flow through us. The future is open, and God wants us in our journeys of wholeness to choose our own adventures. An open and relational God says to care giver and client alike, “Surprise me! Create something that I haven’t fully imagined! Bring forth a new creation, first in your wondrous self-discovery and then in your dynamic agency! Help me fashion a healing and healthy future for yourself and others!”

In listening to our lives, we find the courage and direction to let our lives speak and discover untapped resources for healing and agency. This may mean leaving an abusive relationship, exploring new professional possibilities, or protesting injustice in your community. In the words of Frederick Buechner, we find our voice and vocation, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

In over forty years of pastoral care and spiritual direction as well as academic and professional mentoring, I have been guided by the spirit of process and open and relational theologies. My image of God has inspired my practice of pastoral care and mentoring. When I meet with someone seeking to live more deeply, passionately, and abundantly, someone in search of their vocation or struggling to find healing, I am guided by the following theological affirmations:

• God aims at abundant life, even if this means making significant changes in our personal life and relationships.

• God leaves our future open, does not demand a particular outcome.

• God welcomes creative transformation and personal agency.

• God is more interested in growth and process than a predetermined outcome. Accordingly, there are many positive outcomes we can pursue in our personal and relational growth, and what we perceive as failure may open to new possibilities for adventure and creativity.

• God rejoices in our agency, even if it means abandoning past limitations and relational patterns, to embrace our current vocation.

• God’s uncontrolling love accepts us as we are and lures us toward new dimensions of ourselves.

• God’s love undergirds us regardless of our success or failure in realizing our personal, relational, or vocational goals.

• God is present, inspiring pastoral caregiver and client alike. As a caregiver, I am part of the process and am invited to grow in compassion and creativity in the context of putting my client’s/congregant’s/spiritual directee’s needs first in our pastoral care relationship.

A God of sufficient stature, leaning toward an open future, can embrace diversity, contrast, change, and conflict, in ways that inspire the quest for stature and wholeness in caregiver and client alike. This is the healing gift of open and relational theology for the interdependent practices of pastoral care, spiritual direction, and psychotherapy.

Bruce Epperly has served as a university chaplain, seminary professor and administrator, and congregational pastor for over forty years. Ordained in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he is the author of over seventy books, including Process Theology and Pastoral Care, Process and Ministry, The Elephant is Running: Process and Open and Relational Theologies and Religious Pluralism, and Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love