Care of Souls

I wrote this book to help me think through the implications of a shift in my understanding and practice of psychotherapy.  My practice was moving beyond the technical ways I was trained in psychoanalytic psychotherapy to more holistic ways that were emerging as I came to understanding how fundamental spirituality is to our humanity. But it was never intended as simply a book for mental health professionals, nor has it turned out to be.  It is a book about how the spiritual and psychological dimensions of human existence go together and in that regard, it is an extension of ideas first expanded in Psychotherapy and the Spiritual Quest a decade earlier.  Originally published in 1998, this book remains in print with strong sales that suggest that there is something timeless about anything that focuses on our humanity and assists our understanding of how to relate to others in ways that support both spiritual and psychological dimensions of being.



The rediscovery of soul and the recovery of its care

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept of the soul was a mainstay in the understanding of persons advanced by theologians and philosophers and accepted by most people who took the time to reflect on the matter.  All this changed quite rapidly in the early twentieth century.  Suddenly, the soul became unfashionable.  The reasons for this are complex and a careful exploration of them lies beyond the scope and focus of this book.  However, two are particularly noteworthy, the reaction of theologians against the prevailing Platonic view of soul and the rise of modern psychology.

Plato’s view of the soul had been singularly influential among both philosophers and theologians for two millennia.  Corrupting the earlier Hebraic understanding of the nature of persons, the Platonic view emphasized an immortal soul which was imprisoned in a mortal body and yearned for release at death.  The rediscovery by theologians of the more holistic Old Testament view of persons led to the discrediting of the Platonic soul and a rejection of the body-soul dualism associated with it.  Tainted by its Platonic associations, the concept of soul receded to a back burner in the theological kitchen.

Any conception of soul whatsoever was anathema to modern psychology.  This was quite paradoxical since the word “psychology” literally means “the science of the soul”.  However, under the over riding influence of philosophical positivism the science of the soul was about to become the science without a soul as psychologists avoided anything unobservable, taking behaviour as their focus of study. Seeking to align itself with science and distance itself from religion, the soul was viewed as baggage from its past that modern psychology sought at all costs to avoid.  Quickly, it became equally irrelevant to most other people in an increasingly materialistic, secular, and psychological culture.

What a surprise, therefore, when suddenly in the last decade the soul once again made a reappearance.  Led by Thomas Moore’s multi-year best seller, Care of the Soul, publishers quickly recognized a new market and followed with a spate of other titles on the subject.  Even of more surprise is the fact that this renewed interest in the soul and its care occurs within a context of renewed interest in spirituality.  Interest in souls has been accompanied by interest in angels, channeling, meditation, and Gregorian chant.  The soul which was rediscovered was, therefore, not some ethereal, immortal, Platonic essence of being, but a very vital, embodied, spiritual core of personality.

The significance of this re-emergence of the soul and the corresponding interest in spirituality is hard to overestimate.  On the one hand it seems to represent a reaction against materialism.  Whatever else the soul is, it is unseen and non-material.  As such, it simply was not supposed to exist in a culture that gave primacy to the pursuit of things that could be seen, felt, and put into bank accounts.

But on the other hand, the spirituality that has been associated with the rise of interest in the soul in the past decade is also a reaction against religion, particularly Christianity.  For many of those who are interested in the recovery of the spiritual, the last place they would look to find guidance in this quest would be the church.  The rise of spirituality appears to be a response not only to the bankruptcy of materialism but also to the perceived irrelevance of the traditional religions of the West.

Sensing this, Christians have often viewed these developments with suspicion and animosity.   Dismissively calling these spiritualities New Age and pouncing on the obvious points of divergence from historic Christian visions of the spiritual life, we have often failed to appreciate the spiritual hunger that is reflected in those who embrace the non-Christian spiritualities of the late twentieth century.  And we have failed to understand the shift in dominant world view that is associated with the current demise of modernity.  As noted by many observers of this shift, the West is no longer simply post-Christian; it is now also post-modern.  The recovery of the soul and the rise of interest in the spiritual both form a fundamental part of this development.

But without minimizing the important challenges that these developments represent to Christianity, the two groups of people who from the primary audiences of this book – pastors and Christian mental health professionals – should also recognize the tremendously important opportunities that they present.  The inner life of persons that is part of the domain of the soul is the meeting point of the psychological and the spiritual.  This means that soul care which draws on both the best insights of modern therapeutic psychology as well as the pre-modern understandings and practices of historic Christian approaches to the care and cure of persons will never again be able to accept the artificial distinction of the psychological and spiritual.  A proper understanding of the soul reunites the psychological and the spiritual and directs the activities of those who care for the souls of others in such a way that their care touches the deepest levels of people’s inner lives.

For Christian clergy this holds the possibility of reversing their marginalization from the affairs of the soul.  The acceptance of the distinction between the psychologi­cal and spiritual aspects of persons that was suggested by the rise of modern therapeutic psychology resulted in the church being judged to be relevant to only the spiritual part of persons.  With the interior world now fragmented and God thought to be primarily interested in religious matters, the church largely abandoned efforts to chart or offer guidance regarding matters of the inner life in its totality.  This ultimately led to the displacement of clergy by psychotherapists as curates of the soul.  If clergy are to be restored to their rightful place of responsibility for the care and cure of souls, it is essential that the psychospiritual nature of the soul be clearly understood.

Christian mental health professionals may be in even greater need of recovering an understanding of the soul and its care. Typically offering a form of care that draws its energy and direction solely from modern psychotherapeutic visions of healing, Christian mental health professionals have often been left groping for ways to integrate their personal Christian faith into their practice.  But one of the flaws of this integra­tion metaphor is that it assumes that two things which are basically separate can, by creativity and effort, be connected.  This misses the point that they are already con­nected.  The soul is the meeting point of the psychological and the spiritual.  Its care must, by necessity, include both spiritual and psychological aspects.  Christian mental health professionals who dare to embrace the paradigm shift that is involved in repositioning counseling and psychotherapy as soul care are offered the possibility of a care and cure of souls that is more vital, spiritual, and distinctively Christian.

For both Christian clergy and mental health professionals, the re-emergence of the soul and recovery of interest in its care offers the possibility for a more holistic Christian ministry. Christian soul care that succeeds in reunifying the psychological and spiritual aspects of persons holds the promise of relevance and potency that has often been lacking in the ministrations of both Christian clergy and mental health pro­fessionals.

A proper understanding of the soul also holds the promise of revitalizing Christian spirituality.  Another consequence of the acceptance of the artificial distinction between the psychological and spiritual aspects of persons has been a practice of Christian spirituality that emphasized knowing God but failed to emphasize knowing self.  Tragically, this has often led to a spirituality that is neither grounded nor vitally integrated within the fabric of total personhood.  Not only does this fail to transform us in the depths of our being, it also leads to all the dangers associated with a lack of integrity.  A spirituality that fails to involve the totality of our being is inevitably a spirituality that furthers our fragmentation.  An understanding of Christian spirituality that affirms the interdependence of the deep knowing of God and self is a spirituality that integrates us in our depths and makes us both whole and holy.

The key to these possibilities is the recovery of the rich tradition of historic Christian soul care and the renewal of this by the best insights of modern therapeutic psychology.  Even if it were possible to reverse history, it is never desirable. Vital Christian soul care is not to be found by attempting to recover the past.  The Christian life is to be redemptive, not regressive.  The challenge is to recover the good from the past and then allow this good to be informed by the best insights of the present.

Churches seeking relevance to the lives of men and women living on one side or the other of the shadow of the third millennium desperately need to understand the dynamics of the soul and its care.  Clinical mental health professionals who have assumed so much of the responsibility for this care in recent decades need to understand how the psychological concerns people bring to them mask underlying spiritual concerns.  But beyond this, all who seek to help others grow as humans and as Chris­tians need to better understand that which is involved in such growth.  Parents, teachers, friends, as well as counselors, pastors, and spiritual guides all need maps of the terrain that we traverse when we walk with others on their journey as humans who seek to follow Christ.  This is what we shall seek to describe.

Before doing so it is important to recognize that the nature of the soul defies precise cartography.  If maps of the soul eliminate mystery, they also eliminate the soul.  We will need to be prepared, therefore, for definitions that may seem vague and boundaries that appear hazy.  As we shall discover, spirit and mystery are closely connected.  While not everything that is mysterious is spiritual, the genuinely spiritual always retains an element of mystery.  Maps of the soul should not, therefore, be expected to eliminate the mystery that is inevitably a part of the psychospiritual nature of persons.

Our journey toward an understanding of the soul and its care will begin with an exploration of the inner world of persons.  This will be followed by a review of the history of Christian soul care, identifying the major elements of a Christian understand­ing of the soul and the essential components of its care.  We will then explore the reasons for the twentieth century decline of religious and rise of therapeutic soul care, noting some of the gains and losses associated with this development.  This will lead us to an examination of the relationship between the psychological and spiritual aspects of persons and the way in which both are involved the distinctive form of spirituality associated with Christ following.  An exploration of the psychospiritual focus of relationships of Christian soul care will then conclude this first section of the book.

Part Two of the book moves from theory to practice, beginning with an explora­tion of dialogue as the core of soul care.  Here we will reflect on the lessons to be learned from both therapeutic and pastoral dialogue, identifying the ideals and chal­lenges of this demanding form of interpersonal engagement.  We will then examine the role of the unconscious in Christian spirituality and growth toward wholeness, paying particular attention to ways of working with dreams that aid such growth.  This will be followed by a consideration of the various forms of Christian soul care and the ways in which each can best support the other.  We will then conclude with an examination of the practical challenges involved in both giving and receiving soul care.

The organizing theme of what follows is the relationships between the psycho­logical and spiritual.  We will discover this relationship in the history of Christian soul care are as well as at the very heart of Christian spirituality.  Following this lead we will find the psychological and spiritual to be inextricably interconnected in the uncon­scious, in our dreams and symptoms, and in health and pathology.  This, in turn, will lead to what we will call the psychospiritual focus of soul care dialogue.

Guiding our journey will be the goal of making a contribution to the recovery of distinctively Christian soul care by developing an understanding of such care that can be of practical help to those involved in providing it to others.  As we shall see, this includes a much larger group of people than pastors and mental health professionals.  Parents, educators, friends, those involved in Christian ministry of any sort, health care professionals, lay counselors, and all who seek to provide Christian nurture, care or healing of persons are in the business of offering soul care.  All these and more can benefit from an understanding of what is involved in soul care and all have crucial roles to play in its recovery as an essential component of the church’s ministry.  It is to this end that this book is written.


Provides brilliant insight into the strengths and weaknesses of clinical psychology within the framework of Care of Souls. As a practicing psychiatrist I find Benner helpful and insightful as a guide to how to do psychotherapy in a soulful way.

~ Jeffrey H. Boyd, MD

A wide-ranging, intelligent and useful map of that territory where Christian spirituality and therapeutic psychology intersect.

~ Robert C. Roberts

If psychology has lost its soul, I believe David Benner has found it. His Care of Souls is a remarkable achievement.

~ Gary W. Moon

I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to go deeper in their relationship with God, and for those who want to help other people to do the same.

~ Venita M. Doughty (