Health and Social Care Chaplaincy, Vol 4, No 2 (2016)

The Psychology of Christian Character Formation

https://doi.org/10.1558/hscc.v4i2.31313

Review

Joanna Collicutt, The Psychology of Christian Character Formation. London: SCM Press, 2015, 275 pp. (Pbk). ISBN: 978-0-33405-179-4. £15.66.

Reviewed by: Revd Dr Geoff Morgan, Head of Spiritual Care – Chaplaincy, North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust.

Email: [email protected]

Joanna Collicutt is a chartered psychologist, Anglican priest and Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, the ministerial training college in Oxford, England. The book is a fine combination of theology and psychology based on her lecture series for her students. I read this book after hearing Dr Collicutt speak at an Anglican Diocese of London clergy training day. She addressed us knowledgeably and with humour and, with the dual qualifications of research psychologist and New Testament theologian, enthused us with confidence and insight. What appealed then is mirrored in the apprehension of the pages of this work where she fearlessly plumbs secular psychological depths and integrates these with the currents of Christian biblical explanation in a winning way. For people of Christian faith, it is edifying, taking in Ignatius (p. 25), and worship songs (p. 70); for those of non-Christian or humanist belief, the text is packed with the didactic diagrams from her battery of cross-disciplinary resources, and skilfully weaves psychological truths with philosophical or religious persuasion. You can turn to any page of the book and be immediately drawn in.

For example, positive psychology is strongly represented because Collicutt was personally involved in this vanguard of influence within the wider discipline. In this vein, Peterson’s and Seligman’s “catalogue of human strengths” was aimed as a rebuttal of the the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) which is often perceived as a blunt instrument in that they playfully dubbed their gloss the “Un-DSM-I”. This was published by Peterson and Seligman as Character Strengths and Virtues (2004) although, as Collicutt avers, this should not be confused with the moral philosophical “virtues” of virtue ethics (Macintyre 2007 etc.). Representative writings from diverse philosophical and religious, including African traditions were sifted to produce a set of valued human attributes across cultures. The research identified 24 in all, e.g. creativity, bravery, forgiveness, gratitude, spirituality etc., which were then grouped according to “virtues”, such as wisdom, courage, transcendence etc. This is a useful analysis for all spiritual care professionals, and for the Christian reader, this can relate to Christlike principles (pp. 56–59).

A reservation from the non-Christian reader may be that the text is unrelated to other perspectives. This book should not be ignored on this account because although most of the text seems to be given to Christian theological interpretation rather than psychology, for the discerning reader, the constant meta-reflection makes particular points which are relevant universally. For example, the theme of “the wounded healer” is sometimes upheld as desirable to justify an approach to pastoral care whereby the practitioner’s dubious impact may be excused: he may be actually an “unhealed wounder”. Against this, Collicutt evokes “post-traumatic growth” as a psychological concept which does not deny suffering, or contradict spiritual discernment, but is supportive of truly healing the wounded (pp. 236–37).

Another example is how she undertakes a rehabilitation of the concept of mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches, commonplace in the UK NHS and other healthcare systems, but which may be more cautiously or suspiciously viewed by Christians of a more conservative caste of mind. Countering this, Collicutt locates mindfulness principles firmly in the Christian tradition, with Jesus’ instructions not to worry or rush to judgement (Mt. 7.1; Lk 6.37; Mt. 13.24-30), or the Orthodox hesychasm. This denotes “cultivation of a deep inner stillness… achieved by considering thoughts feelings and bodily sensations in a detached manner” combined with adoption of postures, such as often “the foetal position”. The purpose, with slow deep breathing, is to anchor attention and reduce arousal, thus performing a ground clearing process for “the birth of prayer”, in keeping with the 7th century, John of Damascus. This neutral meditative practice can nevertheless be fulfilled with worshipful meaning through the incorporation of the Jesus Prayer into the process of breathing (pp. 137–38).

This profound and multi-faceted book which astutely integrates advanced psychology and current theological thought also contains very human examples and humorous asides. Accessibly and meticulously put together, it would be a valuable resource for theological, psychological, health and social care professionals, educators, and for chaplaincy and spiritual care professionals.

References

American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association Publishing.

Peterson, C., and M. E. P. Seligman (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington, DC and New York: American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press.

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