"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, December 6, 2019

Patristic Theology and Depth Psychology: An Interview with Pia Sophia Chaudhari

I sent questions to the author back in September, but Pia Sophia Chaudhari was able to get her answers to me only this week. But like fine wine, these were worth waiting for, not least as the intervening time allowed me to read her book again in a much closer way as a result of which I can say with even greater conviction that Dynamis of Healing: Patristic Theology and the Psyche is an extraordinary and welcome book for all sorts of reasons. If you have any interest in psychology of whatever school (object relations, self-psychology, Jungian, and even Freudian), of Orthodox theology, and of patristics, you will want to read this book. So will those of clinical background interested in understanding spiritual dynamics more deeply.

It is not only the most singular and important engagement of Orthodox theology and depth psychology I have seen. It is also full of the sorts of insights into the psychic and spiritual life, into both theology and psychology, that cause one to write such exclamatory notes in the margins as "At last!" when you come across an author giving welcome voice to what Christopher Bollas so memorably called the "unthought known." This is the sort of book that pays re-reading, and I will certainly be recommending it to students in the years to come.

Following my usual practice, I e-mailed some questions to Pia, and here are her answers.

AD:Tell us about your background, both as a scholar as a Jungian analyst in training. 

PSC: My doctoral work was in the department of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological seminary, where I entered with an interest in theology, early church history and psychology, and eventually focused on Orthodox Christian theology, anthropology, and psychoanalytic theory. Since receiving my PhD  I have taught, continued my research and writing, and started training as a Jungian analyst (I am currently on leave of absence from the program). In 2016 I also co-founded an initiative called APOCC—Analytical Psychology and Orthodox Christianity Consultation to further the conversation between the two fields of study.

AD: Tell us what led you to write this book, Dynamis of Healing: Patristic Theology and the Psyche.

PSC: My first serious engagement with Christianity came about 20 years ago, in a charismatic free church. Everyone there spoke of God’s power to heal, and I found myself drawn by both the hope of healing and a wondering as to how God actually does heal. It’s been a long and winding journey since then, and this book was an attempt to put down some of what I have seen. I don’t claim to have definitive answers, only observations and a continued hope that God does indeed heal, though not always (often!) in the way we expect.

AD: I have found that the very mention of Freud and Jung among some Orthodox and Catholic Christians awakens strong suspicion if not outright condemnation. Has that been your experience, and if so, how have you handled it?

Yes, there’s been some of that. I understand it, and sometimes even agree with it. I think we always have to be careful—and this is a trope that arises over and over again when talking with both these fields—to be curious about the ‘resistance’ (to use a Freudian term) to psychoanalytic insights, while also respectful of the major differences.  Sometimes the resistance is a fear of the psyche, a fear of the unknown, a fear of the body, desire, emotions, vulnerability, anger etc…a fear of oneself in the fullest sense.  Such a resistance can do a disservice to the possibility of healing contained within the psychological work. And these are fears all people have in some form, and which can be couched in any language.

But sometimes the resistance is also either to the overt dismantling of the religious beliefs, as you see in Freud, or to the re-interpretation of them as you see in Jung. As an Orthodox Christian I am firmly against the psychologization of the sacramental, as though it can be reduced to the psychological, even as, of course, it speaks to the psyche and has an impact on it. I think it important not to read either Freud or Jung, but perhaps especially Jung who writes about God, as theologians. They were doctors and their focus was clinical.  Lastly, I would say that we always have to keep in mind the difference between the created order and the uncreated order. Psychology belongs to the former (as do psychoanalysts as well as theologians) but God and His uncreated energies to the latter. They should never be conflated.

AD: Ann Belford Ulanov comes up by p.2 and is a regular interlocutor throughout your book. Tell us a bit about how and why you have found her helpful and insightful

PSC: Ann’s work became very meaningful to me early on in my own work, as her writing managed to convey both rigorous scholarship and deeply embodied application. There is very little that is abstract in her work. It speaks from and to the gut level of existence.

So much theology and psychology can be intellectually stimulating and gratifying, and yet leave you wondering how it applies to your immediate concerns, your underlying pain or emptiness, or even your most mundane joys. But Ann's work speaks to those issues with all the earthy wisdom of a clinician of many decades, and yet, it also manages to hold within it a deep joy and expectation of the transcendent. Of course, her focus on Christian theology and psychoanalytic theory also deeply formed my focus. Her work on the ‘feminine mode of being’ helped me find a toehold into a way of exploring these issues, which I sometimes joke is feminine-ist, rather than feminist.

AD: You seem (p.5) to be at pains to set out both Orthodox theology and depth psychology alongside one another, without conflating the two. Why is it important to maintain that distinction?

For two reasons. The one is that—and perhaps this comes from my early work in peace-building and conflict resolution!—that when inviting two parties to the table to talk I think it only respectful to allow each one to self-define. In other words, let psychology tell us what it is about, and Orthodox theology tell us what it in turn is about. If one party begins to define the other using its own unique terms and language, you’ve already collapsed the space between the two. (I’m sure I do this occasionally anyway even though I try not to.)

The second reason is the same that I gave earlier—particularly because I am Orthodox I am keenly aware of the sacramental side of faith, and I do not think, believe, or experience that you can psychologize the uncreated energies of God. To the degree Orthodoxy talks about anthropology (in the sense of what it is to be human), and to the degree psychology also talks about anthropology, we have a great deal to talk about. But-as above—when Orthodox talk about God as revealed in Holy Tradition and Scripture, I want to be careful not to psychologize this energy or experience or reduce it to its symbolic aspects.

AD: At the same time, you talk about the “meeting places” where the two may be encountered. Tell us a bit about what you mean by that phrase, and give us an example or two.

Well this is what I set out to explore in my work. And what I postulated was that if Orthodox ontological claims, in particular regarding the person, were true, then they ought to show up in our clinical insights and experience of how people heal. That’s what I mean by meeting places. The two main examples I look at in the book is the instinctual urge towards healing out of a kind of innate ‘blueprint’ we contain within ourselves, and then the incredible importance of the energy of eros in healing and flourishing.

AD: I confess that my own work in psychoanalytic thought has much more strongly gravitated towards Freud and the Middle/Independent school in Britain, including Klein, Coltart, Winnicott, Fairbairn, Guntrip, Adam Phillips, and Christopher Bollas. You cite some of these—Klein, Fairbairn, Winnicott—while having been obviously indebted to and influenced by Jung and the traditions developing after him. Tell us how you came to be drawn to Jung and what you think he in particular offers Eastern Christians among others. In your view is he a more congenial interlocutor to Orthodox Christianity than most other analytic and depth psychologists? 

Actually, I love many of the British school analysts you mention, and draw heavily on Winnicott, Fairbairn and Guntrip in my own thinking, in particular because of their relational emphasis. It makes for such interesting conversation with theologies of communion (or desire), as in Zizioulas, Loudovikos, and Yannaras. But my own experience has been more Jungian and many of my mentors have been Jungian as well, so in some ways I speak more from what I know in this realm.

Jung actually studied the Fathers a great deal, and you often will see him quoting St. Irenaeus and others, though I always wish he had managed to find and read the works of St. Maximus. I think there is a great deal to be said between them, and others (e.g Tympas) have explored this directly. Personally, I was drawn to a certain natural wisdom in Jung, as well as his sense of the psyche and Self as guiding and orienting us from within. I love his theory of dreams and the objective psyche and find that it imbues creation with an innate wisdom that is breathtaking and also un-nerving at times.  To some degree his theory of the archetypes could work well with Orthodox anthropology as well.

But I also think Jung can be more dangerous to people of faith because he does talk about God and Spirit in ways that are compelling but not always Christian. He was fascinated with Gnosticism for a period, seeing it as an inner path that compensated for—what he experience to be—the more externally oriented and moralistic Christian traditions.

And then of course he found alchemy, which is richly bound up in Christian mysticism, but I am not an expert on that so I should leave it there. There is always the danger of narcissism or solipsism in any ‘theory of the world’ and Jung is no exception. I think only Holy Communion saves us from that.

AD: I know some Christians who find Jung’s theologizing rather dubious, alleging that he confuses issues in unorthodox ways—e.g., his views on the “problematic fourth” with reference to the feminine and the Trinity. Were there areas where, as an Orthodox Christian scholar, you felt that parts of Jung’s project did indeed go too far outside the bounds of what the Church could accept?

Yes, of course. And it may sound surprising, but I never overly focused on those readings. My project was never to put Jung’s ‘theology’ in conversation with Orthodox theology. I think there would be little to say. My project was to put his ‘boots on the ground’ clinical insights in conversation with Orthodox theology and anthropology, all in the service of healing. I think he had a right, of course, to investigate and postulate what he wanted to about grand theological themes which formed part of his cultural background and of which he tried to make sense, but that is not the same as clinical insights accrued over decades of working with people. I give him far more credence in the latter than the former. I don’t mean that disrespectfully but as I said above, he was a doctor not a theologian and said as much himself.

AD: There are also, of course, clear patristic influences in your work, including especially Maximus the Confessor, Athanasius, Irenaeus, and the Cappadocians. Tell us how you came to work with them, and why you found some of them congenial interlocutors in a book concerned also with depth psychology.

One of my first classes at Union was about the early Church, taught by Fr. John McGuckin (who later became my priest). I was fascinated by the history, and then increasingly by the theology. In fact, it became increasingly difficult for me to read the ‘moderns’, as Fr. John called them (by which he probably meant Aquinas!). I also benefitted from their focus on anthropology, and between Fr. John McGuckin and later Fr. John Behr, was privileged and delighted to enter in to a whole new world of learning.

I felt that the Fathers wrote out of an experience, with all the power of their formidable intellects and education, but still correlated to something experiential. You could feel an energy coursing through their writings, even as it was slightly different for each one, but there is a spiritual power there that I was drawn to. And this emphasis on experience is what made them congenial interlocutors for a book that tried to hold experience as valuable to the questions at hand.

Amazingly enough, by the way, I never intended to use St. Maximus’ work but as I was conducting my original research, I somehow kept being ‘nudged’ towards his work and I finally gave in and started reading him. Within days I knew I would have to redo my entire framework in order to include his work, as the ‘meeting places’ I had been trying to intuit seemed to closely align with his theory of modes of being and tropes of being. Obviously he then became a pillar of my work and thinking.

AD: Some of my recent work with Freud has been in overlapping areas as yours, especially the questions of fantasy, desire, and illusion, and how our images of God are often distorted by various ways, some of them unconscious. Tell us a bit about your clinical pastoral experience in this regard, working in chaplaincy and seeing some of these issues in patients. This book is not just an academic exercise, but also born out of such experience you have had and your patients have also had, yes?

Yes absolutely. I think the basic notions of project and transference are so useful in the clinical pastoral world. I’ve worked with people, for example, who had no contact with their own feelings of anger, but were convinced God was going to rain down hellfire on the people who had hurt them. And of course, people who felt God was punishing them with whatever issue they were struggling with.  I think in particular, with my focus on psychology, I was upset at hearing from people of faith that they believed they were simply given this or that painful diagnosis as a cross to bear, when from a psychological standpoint, it seemed like something that could be worked with.

But our projections onto God are fierce and tenacious, because God draws our projections of what is ultimately true—even if at the end of the day we must come to see that it is only ultimately true in our psyche. But that work of recalling such projections is painful and earth-shaking. And then, as Orthodox, I also want to hold open the space for what IS ultimately true to come in, however God chooses to meet each person, but that of course is the work of a spiritual mother or father and not something I can do.

AD: In your experience do you find that Orthodox Christians, in general, are open to talking about these issues more freely today, or are questions of desire, of psychological and mental health, and of our struggles still rather shrouded in shame or embarrassment, as though being people of faith we should somehow be “immune” to, say, depression or disordered fantasizing?

I do find people of faith are easily taken aback when I talk about desire, and even more so when I say that some of what I learned I learned from a very wise spiritual father! There is a kind of Puritanical aspect to religion that pervades our thinking and makes us prone to Freudian super-ego driven religion at times.

I don’t know how many people are aware of the riches of the Fathers and the tradition we have of the interior life. I know what you mean about feeling that one ought not to be prone to depression or fantasy if one has the ‘correct’ faith, but this is also why I wanted to write this book. As much as Orthodoxy has centuries of wisdom about the person, I think the conversation between Orthodox Christianity and the best of the mental health field is imperative—and not just contemporary cognitive/neuroscientific but these analysts we are discussing who plumbed the depths of the person. To the degree a depression or what you term disordered fantasizing can be found to have a meaning (and I do not dismiss chemical imbalances here either), which Jung postulated they often did, they may open up a goldmine of new life for the person. Surely to go in search of that lost or hidden life is a work of faith as well?

AD: I found your discussion of the schizoid type, and of Guntrip’s work, which I have also read with great interest, a very helpful reminder that when it comes to being or feeling split between, as it were, our heads and our hearts, that we all can experience this at different points in time and along different spots of a spectrum. Christopher Bollas has also argued something similar about notions of “madness” and how it’s not an all-or-nothing experience but we dip into and out of it in milder and stronger versions from time to time. Is this a helpful reminder that Christians need to hear—that we can slip into, or out of, various states of health and disease, and that both Orthodox Christianity and therapy can be helpful here, offering us both discernment and ways of healing?

PSC: Such an interesting question! I think we do need to be reminded that we are human and prone to slipping into all kinds of things! And also, I think we need to be reminded of the importance of community in all aspects of our lives. Ann used to say that a ‘complex’ (Jungian term) comes up behind you and just throws a bag over your head, and suddenly you are acting completely unreasonably and don’t even know why. We can do the work, and hopefully get some ‘elbow room’ as she also used to say, between us and our patterns/complexes, but the big ones are rarely fully gone—we are just better able to see them coming and hopefully dodge their onslaught. It helps having people who know you and love you, both pastoral and therapeutic, as well as of course your Church community. And as a wise priest reminded me, for some things,  and maybe the most painful and traumatic things we experience, the only answer ultimately is the Cross.

AD: Tell us a bit about your hopes for the book, and who would benefit from reading it

As you mentioned above, it is both academic and, I hope, clinically and pastorally oriented. I hope that anyone with an interest in these two fields might find that there is something helpful in it. Again I think the closer I’ve drawn to the questions, the bigger the answers have become, so I don’t claim to have corralled any final or complete answers into my pages but just to bear witness to an exploration which I undertook and which hopefully others will also undertake in their own ways and we can keep sharing our findings. The goal is to contribute maximally to the field of healing with the best of what we know.

AD: Having finished such a book as this, what is next for you? What are you working on now?

I ended this book with a nod towards the importance of beauty. I have since started working more in this area, both professionally and also in my research. I find the aesthetic emphasis to be so important, especially these days when we are being daily conditioned by an aesthetic (all the computer and phone and tablet screens everywhere) which humans have never before experienced. I worry it is shaping our way of thinking and interacting and that we need to be thinking and writing about this, and naming the effects---especially on young people—from both theological and psychological perspectives.

I did an exploratory paper last year on the archetype of Aphrodite, and the philosophy of Byung Chul-Han (Saving Beauty, and The Agony of Eros) and attempted to connect it with St Maximus. It was just a nascent foray, but I hope to continue in this direction!

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