A Community Psychology Perspective on Spirituality

J. R. Newbrough
with Robert T. O'Gorman & Paul R. Dokecki
The Reflective Practice Group
Box 512 Peabody College
Nashville, Tennessee 37203

This paper argues that spirituality is integral to human science, and that community psychology as a human science approaches spirituality as a transcendant human experience.

The "problematique," in critical theory terms, is that people find themselves to be, and experience themselves to be, more isolated and separate than they wish. Life is a process of managing oneself in a material world characterized by shortages. This is called "fragmentation" or "atomization" and names a condition of missing or broken relationships. Nisbit (1990) described the reaction to this situation as a "quest for community."

In 1988, Paul Dokecki, Bob O'Gorman and I began discussions about the problematique and the need for a new theory of community. We began by looking into community development as a field; the approach of particular interest to all three of us was liberation theology in Latin America. How could social action could be organized and sustained so effectively within the religous context of the Catholic church? As a social institution, it has 2000 years of experience creating community by organizing action within a coherent meaning system, and as such has become a bureaucracy. Liberation theology, building on that tradition, is a contemporary critique of the church as institution, and thus offered us the hope of finding a new footing for a theory of community.

Early in our discussions, we decided that we had to move beyond talking, and into a project so that we could participate in the process of community building. In 1989, we began the St. Robert Project. The first three years were a consultation of the three of us and two parishioners with the pastor on the matter of leadership for community. In 1992, the pastor established a steering committee, called the Core Team, that began the design work to establish small basic communities (SBCs) in a parish of over 400 families. The SBCs were started in February 1993 with a formal ceremony in the church. In 1996, the Core Team carried out an intervention designed to crystallize the identities of the 13 SBCs and to highlight their relationships with the parish as a whole.

We came to the project having read Donald Schön's (1983), The Reflective Practitioner. His work was based on John Dewey's formulation of learning as reflection on action. We saw reflection as characterizing the learning process, but wanted to add it the "goal directedness" of human action. We took Erikson's (1967) concept of "generativity" (with the goal of leaving the world a better place) and made it part of the concept, "reflective-generative practice." Schön gave it the meaning of a work style that was mutual and collaborative (where the other is strengthened by the work) in contrast to professional work as expert diagnosis and prescription (where the person may be relieved of the problem but has not been able to learn from the encounter what to do next time). Working within the reflective practice tradition with the pastor, he came to see that the goal of effective leadership is the creation of processes in a particular context where there is improvement of the people and the community. He named his style as "organic" (or emergent) rather than managerial. Our reflection on this process led us to formulate a set of seven leadership principles for creating community in a Catholic parish (Dokecki, Newbrough & O'Gorman, 199x).

Our 1996 paper (Newbrough, O'Gorman & Dokecki, 1996) was inspired by a trip earlier in the summer to Perth, Western Australia to present the St. Robert work at a community psychology conference. In preparation for that trip, we read a lot about the indigenous aboriginal population and were impressed with the presence of spiritual matters in their daily lives. During the course of the trip, a Roman Catholic clergyman remarked to us, "You know, there really is no sprituality in the Catholic Church. In fact, there is no spirituality in the Mass." The paper oriented toward the question, "Can there be spirituality at St. Robert?"

We told the story and used the six parameters of community from Descriptive to analyze it: Members, Worlds, Statuses, Choice Principles, Social Practices and Language. We distinguished two types of spirituality that were named "religious spirituality" and "secular spirituality" and argued that they represented two different Worlds, the World of Religion and the World of Human Sciences. We concluded that there was some spirituality of both kinds at St. Robert and that there could be a lot more. We also speculated that increases in secular spirituality such as sense of community in the small groups would increase the liklihood of increased religious spirituality, for it would lead to more participation in the life of the parish.

Mary Shideler (1997) was commenter on the paper, and took strong exception to our distinction. She wished to reserve "spiritual" to refer to a worldview that included not only the natural reality, but also a transcendent reality. For her, the small groups were not spiritual unless they led to or expressed the members participation in that transcendent reality. We maintained an interest in the distinction and have gone back to work on the matter of sprituality, trying to clarify our own thinking.

Toward a Model of Spirituality

Reflecting on our ten years of work at St. Roberts and the reading that we have done to elaborate it, we have formulated 9 principles. The first three are foundational, stating basic assumptions about professional practice, people and the social setting. Principles 4 and 5 deal with spirituality. Principle 6 addresses the dynamics of development by stating a balance principle. Principle 7 and 8 postulates that persons make meaning in their lives through formulating a lifestory. Principle 9 brings personal and social development together by postulating that the function of the community is to foster reflective-generative stories. The principles build on each other, leading to the idea of creating and living a reflective-generative story.

Principle 1: The role for reflective-generative practitioners is to engage in social practices that are designed to improve the community as a generative organization and to improve people within it as effective participants (civic members).

Reflective Practice was formulated by Donald Schön (1983) as a way of understanding how to evaluate the curriculum for training architects at Yale. He described the modern approach to professional training as developing an expert problem solver, one who takes the problem from the client, fixes the malfunction and returns it--much like a TV repairman or auto mechanic. This he called Model I. He contrasted that with an approach where the professional serves as a consultant to the client, who brings knowledge and expertise to the problem, but does not take it over from the client. The process of dealing with the problem together is a mutual learning experience and leaves the client better able to cope. He called this Model II.

The concept of "generativity" was taken initially from Erikson (1967), and was applied to the matter of daycare policy by Hobbs, et al (1983). They used the concept "the competent and caring community" for what we mean when we use "generative organization" or "generative community.

Principle 2: People become human when they are integrally connected to their contexts and are not treated as atomized objects. Their behavior is motivated by strivings for self-transcendance and guided by their meaning systems.

This principle is based on a systems principle of holism. Dewey and Bentley (1949) described people are "environed organisms" who learn through social participation to become human. How they are encounter the world makes an incredible difference. Fear and distrust lead people to be passive or withdraw, making it impossible for them to learn. People are motivated to engage in social relationships, and are able to develop their curiousity into interests only when they can be active participants. Respect and dignity are requisite to the development of a strong ego (executive function) which in turn uses the meaning system to decide on courses of action.

Principle 3: Contexts are complex organizations of levels and relationships. Human systems contain relationships between persons, their significant others, their day-to-day living and working groups, strangers, formal organizations (including local, state, national, and global), and the cosmos.

Everyday life is carried out in environments, which are zones of different activities. Norton Long (1958) has described the community as organizing all this into "a local ecology of games." The person is directly connected through a web of relationships to each of the environments. There are also indirect relationships to the more distant zones; neighborhood, formal organizations, city, st ate, nation, globe, cosmos, and, for some, the Utimate Other. She/he is expected to become an active player in a number of the games and through them to become more integrated into the community.

Loder and Neidhardt in The Knight's Move (1992) offered us the formulation that spirit is located in relations. We focussed on social relations as the place to begin to work on community. Liberation theology, as with community development, assumes that where there is a lack of community, it could be best developed through small groups that work together to improve things. Liberation theology provided a tradition of meaning for the work and a facilitated process of learning to work together to take to take initiatives to break out of a repetitive cycle of oppression and loss of community.

The pastor prepared a community development theory drawing on three processes from the traditional church; communion, reflection and service. Communion is the group process of sharing sacred practices in order to receive the spirit of God. Reflection refers to the consideration of one's current experiences in the light of the Holy Scripture. Service is called "ministry" in the church and is action to improve some aspect of daily life. The three were seen to be core aspects of the experiences that the Small Basic Communities were to provide their members. Through these experiences, the pastor expected the parishioners to increase their sense of belonging to the parish, their sense of understanding the Bible as being relevant to daily life, and their sense of contribution to the betterment of the parish and the community (ministry).

From a personal retreat, O'Gorman brought to our work the creation theology of Thomas Berry (Swimme & Berry, 1992). Swimme and Berry have a theory of cosmology called "cosmogenesis," that has three basic principles: communion, autopoeisis and differentiation. Communion is the coming together aspects of the cosmos, autopoeisis refers to the identity of each element in the cosmos, and differentiation refers to a constant separation of elements into new identities. We saw parallels between these three principles and those of the pastor, and began to formulate a theory of community development calling it Communiogenesis. To make it easy to grasp, we formulated it into the metaphors of heart, head and hands.

At St. Robert, the realm of the heart (communion) entails the creation and maintenance of experiences of togetherness that are bonding, both in the SBCs and in the parish as a community of communities. The realm of the head (autopoeisis) entailed reflection and interpretation of history, traditions and founding texts in the light of present experience and a future horizon. The realm of the hands (differentiation) refers to the primary service for persons is to generate and develop community life.

Principle 4: Spirit is to be found in any of the foregoing relationships; it connects and unifies. Spirit imanifests in three ways: Spirit, Spiritual, Spirituality.

Spirit, the root word of spirituality, has many meanings. To sample those, I went to my dictionary and my thesaurus for some help. Webster's New World Dictionary had 5 nouns and 2 verbs. Spiritus is the Latin noun meaning "breath, courage, vigor, the soul, life." Spirare is the Latin verb meaning "to blow, to breathe." Roget's International Thesaurus had 27 nouns and 2 verbs. Nouns were: animation, content, courage, deity, eagerness, eloquence, enterprise, essence, extract, fervor, gaity, genius, inner force, life force, liveliness, meaning, milieu, mood, nature, occultism, pluch, psyche, seat of affections, shadow, spector, theosophy, zeal. Verbs were: To abduct, to inspire. I picked "inspire" and looked up the quotation( 648.20). It read: "Those who have spirit tend to have inspiration." I then looked "inspire" in the thesaurus and got: "inspirit, spirit, spirit up, fire, fire one's imagination, animate, exhilarate, enliven." Animation and exhilaration seemed to capture much of what we mean by "spirit.".

Principle 4.1: Spirit is the Communal experience of being together, sharing meaningful events and sentiments.

Spirit being a concept of energy and motivation, we located it in Communion. Spirit is at the heart of all religious experience; a realm of ultimate human concerns. Religion derives from the Latin re-ligio that refers to ligaments that bond people together and to a supreme being. Spirit can also be described as the experiential "glue" that holds systems together in relationship.

Principle 4.2: Spirituality is Reflection on ones ultimate concerns.

Spirituality is the the method of recognizing, analyzing and interpreting experience that comes from the relationships in one's life in the light of ultimate concerns; that is, spirituality is reflection on relationality.

Principle 4.3: Spiritual refers to practices enabling people to live in pursuit of their ultimate concerns.

Spiritual is tied to courses of action that people engage in that are motivated by feelings (Spirit) and guided by reflection (Spirituality). The chairperson of the Core Team told a story of his company being taken over by another company, which then began the process of downsizing. He was instructed to fire several of his top staff. That was so morally repugnant to him that he refused, knowing that he would be fired. He was, and he reported that the faith experience in a small group in the parish gave him the courage and determination to stand for what he believed to be right.

Principle 5: There are two approaches to ultimate concerns; perhaps best considered as separate Worlds.

Principle 5.1: Theistic Spirituality includes all realms including the Ultimate Other/Divine. We have referred to this as "religious spirituality."

Members of the St. Robert parish share a world of American Catholicism within the Universal Roman Catholic Church and others that are particular to the parish and to their small group. All of these worlds include relationships with the Ultimate Other.

Principle 5.2: Non-Theistic Spirituality includes all realms except the Ultimate Other/Divine. We have referred to this as "secular spirituality."

We came this this distinction through the work of Sandra Schneiders (1989). She defined spirituality as: "The experience of consciously striving to integrate one's life in terms not of isolation and self-absorbtion but of self-transcendance toward the ultimate value one perceives. ... Spirituality as lived experience is, by definition, determined by the particular ultimate value within the horizon of which the life project is pursued." (p. 684) She described religious spirituality as falling within a dogmatic tradition that defines spiritual as coming from above. The task of the parish is to prepare the member to receive a spiritual experience as a gift to a receptive person from the Holy Spirit, a gift that may or may not be forthcoming.

She described an anthropological spirituality that comes from below. Vatican II offered the parish the opportunity to create conditions in which the person is able to actively engage with ultimate concerns. With the term "ultimate concerns" standing for "Absolute," we saw it to be possible to have a spirituality of the human spirit that did not require the Ultimate Other to be self-transcendent. An example from American history would be the Transcendentalist movement. More mundane examples of Human Sprituality would be "team spirit," "school spirit," and "psychological sense of community." The transcendental goal is "the common good" or the "generative community."

Principle 6: As a normative ideal, integrated persons and communities manifest balance among the three processes.

Balance is a normative ideal in most systems of thought; the Golden Rule is the best known formulation of that. Paraphrasing O'Gorman (personal communication): "...the consultation process had, in effect, moved in search of a balance--more precisely, a fitting to the demands of a changing situation--among the three elements of ..." service, reflection and communion, "...as in a tripod being adjusted to fit the nature of different terrains."

We were somewhat uncomfortable with the metaphor of "tripod" for it denotes balance as a passive point or location. We prefer the constant change image from cosmogenesis, where there are differentiation and communion processes going on all at the same time, and balance is movement about an imaginary future optimal location. Sprituality is then the balanced movement toward the better life.

Principle 7: People reflect on the experience of the relationships that constitute daily life and organize this reflection into stories that provide meaning to the relationships.

Each person has a particular life story, usually in narrative form, that includes the past, present and future. Ultimate concerns typically provide direction and meaning. Community should offer the opportunity for these life narratives to grow and evolve across time with retelling. The isolated person may have almost no possibility to tell his/her story and thus be deprived of the self-reflection that should be their right.

Communities derive their meaning from narratives that members tell themselves and others about the history, traditions, current fucntioning, future goals and aspirations.

Principle 8: The normative ideal for meaningful human action is the development and enactment of a generative narrative, a story that both provides meaning for the ultimate concerns and direction for actions to improve the situation.

O'Gorman, in his study of St. Robert Parish, interviewed 50 parishioners about their perceptions of the parish, its needs and its future direction. One of the interviewers used these words: "We are a long suffering parish." In putting the interviews together into a composite story to feedback to the congregation, O'Gorman assembled a view of the history in the stages of Young Middle Class Families, The Triumphal Building, The Flight into The Suburbs, The Fortress Church, and Renew. From this, he came to see that "long-suffering" did not mean that people felt defeated; rather they were in it for the long pull. There was great commitment to a process of revitalization and renewal that the arrival of the new pastor had brought.

Principle 9: Human Development comes about in particular forms of community that give rise to relational/spiritual generative narratives through the processes of communion, reflection and service.

As noted above, the Core Team introduced, in the fall of 1995, a plan for two plenary sessions. All of the 13 groups were to meet together to address (one in each of two meetings) two questions. For the first plenary, the question was "What can the parish do to help your group?" For the second plenary, the question was "What can the group do to help the parish?" In preparation for the first convocation, each of the 13 groups was asked to do three tasks: (1) Name themselves, (2) prepare a banner, and (3) introduce the group to the others through a story lasting five minutes. Although some approached these tasks reluctantly, all reported at the plenary that they really enjoyed it when they actually did it. There were stories of support, crisis, death, spiritual inspiration, pleasure, and joy. At the end, after mixed discussion groups discussed the first question, the most frequent request of the parish was to provide them with means for doing service to others. The pastor remarked, at a subsequent Core Team meeting, that this was the most spiritual experience of church that he had ever had.


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