Soulful Spirituality

This book examines the way in which Christian spirituality, or any other spirituality, either undermines or nurtures the fullest development and expression of our humanity. It also explains why many people feel frustrated by the fact that beliefs do not automatically translate into authentic experience. It is organized around distinctions that I make between soulful and soulless spirituality, deep and shallow religion, and healthy and unhealthy relationships with God.  It provides detailed discussion of six spiritual practices that ground the spiritual journey in the human journey and help us become more deeply human and fully alive. Read it soulfully and be prepared to become more than you are.



Metaphors are not just for those of a literary inclination.  We all employ metaphors in our speech, but more importantly, we all use those same metaphors to structure our perception and organize our understanding.  Our personal metaphors both reflect and shape our experience of ourselves, others and the world.  For this reason I would suggest that metaphors form a deep part of our spirituality.

Take, for example, the life-as-journey metaphor.  Although this has become quite popular in spiritual discourse, it is far from the only available metaphor for life.  For some people, life feels much more like a crapshoot, while for others the metaphor that suggests itself may be a battle, a prison, a garden, a roller-coaster, a river, or a mission.  I am aware that my own fondness for the life-as-journey metaphor reflects a good deal of my own spirituality.  It accommodates my restlessness and interminable seeking and reflects my tendency to view things in dynamic rather than static terms.  More importantly, it fits well with my emphasis on becoming, as well as the closely related theme of transformation.  These things made it hard for me to settle into any Christian identity that was based on having arrived or possessing the truth.  Being a Christian has been very important to me for most of my life but it has always meant being a seeker, not simply a finder.  My identity as a Christian has always had more to do with becoming than simply being.  And what I have always wanted to become has been fully alive and deeply human.

Life is a journey of becoming.  In Christian terms we might speak of this as becoming our true self in God, becoming like Christ, or possibly becoming our hidden self-in-Christ.  In other spiritual traditions it has sometimes be presented in terms of becoming enlightened or becoming one with all that is, while in more psychological language it might be framed as becoming increasingly integrated, becoming free, or becoming all we can be.  Becoming is an important meeting point of psychology and spirituality.  It is an essential characteristic of anything deserving to be called spirituality and is certainly right at the very core of Christian spirituality.

It might strike you as odd, however, to speak of this journey as becoming fully human.  Perhaps you have assumed that we are born fully human, or, if not, that this is something that simply requires passage of time.  As we shall see, neither of these is true.  The fulfillment of our humanity never happens automatically.  Nor does it ever occur apart from certain core spiritual ways of living.  However, not all spiritual paths – nor even all expressions of Christian spirituality – lead us in this direction.   Even though spirituality has an indispensable role to play in this human developmental journey, it is important to realize that our spirituality can make us less, not more, authentically human.

It is this contribution of spirituality to the human journey that we will be examining.  Our focus will be on ways of living that I will be describing as soulful.  Soulful spirituality is not a spiritual path but a spiritual way of walking the human path.  As we shall see, the practices of soulful spirituality are deeply Christian even though none are distinctively Christian.  These practices represent, however, spiritual ways of living that support the journey of becoming deeply and authentically human.

Sometimes our approach to an understanding of these spiritual ways of living will be from a specifically Christian perspective while at other times it will be from a broader spiritual one – this not primarily to show common ground between Christianity and other spiritual traditions but more importantly to help us understand the spiritual dynamics we are considering by placing them in a larger context.  At other points we will examine the role of spirituality in the human journey from the perspective of psychology since, of all the human sciences, it has the most to contribute to our understanding of the inner dimensions of the human journey.  But regardless of the vantage point, our focus will be the process of becoming fully alive and deeply human, and the spiritual practices that support this.

If this is of interest to you, then you have picked up the right book.  I have written it for seekers.  My primary audience is Christian seekers.  This includes those who have been frustrated by what you have found in the Church, yet – thankfully – still seek.  But it also includes those whose involvement with the Church may have been casual enough to have not left you frustrated, simply unfulfilled.  Both groups are often surprised to discover how rich a resource authentic Christian spirituality is for the human developmental journey and I suspect you will also find this to be true.

I have also written this for an even broader group of seekers.  Increasingly I encounter people for whom religion was never a significant enough component of their life to provide a meaningful reference point when they first begin to notice their spiritual seeking.   Many turn to therapeutic psychology, often finding forms of non-religious spirituality in the depth or humanistic psychologies that allow them to start their spiritual journey.  Often this will be a journey that is well grounded psychologically but may be lacking spiritual self-transcendence.  Others draw the form of their spiritual journey from contemporary culture, friends, or personal readings in other spiritual traditions.  Once again, I expect that you will be surprised to discover how much a more religious spirituality can contribute to your spiritual practices, and particularly, how much Christian spirituality is unlike what you assumed and instead, richly enhancing of both your human and your spiritual journey.

One final audience has also had a representative on the corner of my desk in dialogue with me as I have been writing.  People in this group will have a personal interest in spirituality but they will also have a professional one.  They may be students preparing to be teachers, pastors, counselors or psychotherapists, spiritual directors, coaches, mentors or to work in any of a number of fields of Christian ministry, or they may already be working as professionals in these fields.  What they need is a psychologically grounded understanding of spirituality that firmly connects the spiritual journey to the human journey so they can accompany and guide others in their development.  Their needs and interests should fit well with those of the other groups for whom I have written.

But, having referred repeatedly to the spiritual and human journeys I should also clearly state that while I understand these developmental pathways to be distinguishable I consider them to be inextricably interrelated.  Exploring that relationship will be right at the center of what we will be undertaking in what follows.  While we will begin in the first two sections of the book with an understanding of how these threads come together – in ways that either compromise or facilitate human development – the last section will be much more practical.  There our focus will be on spiritual practices that support our becoming fully alive and deeply human.

And so, let us begin our journey together.  I think we will find it to be an experience that will engage our minds and hearts and have profound implications for our bodies, spirits and souls.  I am convinced it has the potential to help us become more whole, more fully alive, and more deeply human.


“Soulful Spirituality is quickly becoming the manifesto to the rest of my life. I suspect this will go down as one of the best integrations of psychology and spiritual formation in a long time. Benner has helped connect and clarify the most important aspects of my life that I have been working on, struggling to understand and to practice for the last fifteen plus years. He brings a profound and comprehensive view of human nature and one I find quite reliable. I love the clear distinctions he provides throughout. like between soul and spirit, reason and wonder, ego and self, and many more.

~ J. Goldstein (Amazon.com)

“Soulful Spirituality is a brilliant work. Benner takes his experience in psychology and spirituality and clearly lays out the categories we need for understanding how to grow and become fully alive. As with many of his other books, I’ve found Benner’s words to be a mentor’s voice as I am going through a much needed paradigm change in how I view ministry and life as a spiritual person. Soulful Spirituality is different from his other recent books in that it does require some time in thinking through and rereading the definitions and metaphors that he lays out in the earlier chapters. But I found that it was worth the effort! Benner clarifies essential psychological and spiritual terminology that has been muddled and complicated over the years and lays out basic principles and practices for living life in a way that is fruitful, joyful and fulfilling.

~ Kelley Howsare (Amazon.com)

Once again Benner delivers on making the obscure and mysterious into a cogent articulation of prose without removing the essence of the mystery and the awe of this foundational element of our being – that element within every one that connects us to both God and fellow man. Anyone seeking an understanding of the part of their being that intuitively informs them of the longing or “something more” in their expression of their spirituality will find insight here. Teacher or student, preferably both, will readily see the value in what Benner offers up in this book.

~ Pedagogue (Amazon.com)

A balanced, but deep view of the necessary blend of being totally human as a part of being a spiritual being. Written from a Christian and psychological viewpoint, it does not discount or put down any non-Christian views but describes our commonality of being both spiritual and human beings. It calls the reader to spiritual and psychological growth with grace, compassion and practical exercises. This book has spread fast through word-of-mouth through my friends and they pass it onto others enthusiastically.

~ Unclermarkeric (Amazon.com)

David Benner offers us a masterpiece of understanding and guidance for mature, fully alive human living. The profound and fiercely honest human and spiritual wisdom found here will leave the reader more in touch with both the impediments to full human aliveness and the possibilities of such aliveness, which are aided by the many concrete spiritual practices that he offers. He challenges our settling for a narrow, repressed way of life and spirituality and calls us to become more truly alive in every dimension of our being: body, soul, and spirit.

~ Tilden Edwards, founder and senior fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation

David Benner has done it again! In this profound, highly readable book that plumbs the depths, he integrates his impressive gifts in psychology and theology with his own lived spirituality as a lifelong seeker. To immerse oneself in Soulful Spirituality is the next best thing to sitting down with him for a transforming, intimate, and enlivening conversation.

~ Margaret Guenther, professor emerita of ascetical theology & former director,
The Center for Christian Spirituality, General Theological Seminary

“Soulful Spirituality is a feast of encouraging wisdom that nourishes soul and spirit. In inviting language, images, and narratives, David Benner describes a way of living that is integrating and inspiring—a hearty blend of psychology, theology, and spirituality for all of us who seek to mature and thrive.

~ Susan S. Phillips, executive director and professor of Sociology and Christianity, New College Berkeley

Soulful Spirituality needs to be read, dialogued with, and then used to overhaul our weak and anemic engagement with the real world. In a culture full of escape-this-world spiritualities on the one hand and narcissistic spiritualities on the other, David Benner says, ‘absolutely not!’ and then loudly and powerfully links our spirituality to the exciting lifelong task of becoming more fully and deeply human. David’s identification of things like toxic spirituality will provide welcome hope to the growing number of people in ‘religious recovery’ who are on the spiritual and human journey but are simply worn out with the narrow approaches so common today. He has a deep commitment to us as embodied beings and as such helps us attend to an embodied spirituality. He gets at tough concepts like desire, longing, and restlessness, and few have dealt with the issue of ego, its role, and its limits as well as he does in this book. If you are ready to dig in, ready to really change and experience transformation, then by all means get this book. And then buy nine more copies to pass out to friends for a dialogue group!

~ Ron Martoia

This book will appeal to a Christian audience, but Benner’s scope is universal enough that people of any spiritual tradition will benefit from the insights included in these pages. . . His suggestions in the section on surrender alone are worth the price of the book. ‘Watch for the next small, un-chosen, and instinctively unwelcome event that enters your life. Notice your initial response to this event. Notice the emotions that quickly arise, and notice the way you experience these in your body. Don’t try to change anything. Just stay with those feelings and body reactions until they are clearly in your focus. Name them. Welcome them. And then release them.’ Serious study of this book has the potential to deeply renew our practice of the spiritual life. Study of this book by groups could contribute profoundly to the vitality and vision of any parish.

~ The Venerable Christopher Page, Rector, author and contemplative retreat leader