Visions of Daniel

Rejoinder and Clarifications on Helminiak's (2001) "Treating Spiritual Issues in Secular Psychotherapy"


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Note: This article is reprinted with permission from Counseling & Values, Volume 45, Number 3, pages 237-251, copyrighted by the American Counseling Association. No further reproduction of any kind is authorized without written permission from the American Counseling Association. That same issue of Counseling & Values included three full-length response articles to which this present article responds. The original article was Treating Spiritual Issues in Secular Psychotherapy. Scroll down to view specific responses to Watts (2001), Slife and Richards (2001), or Marquis, Holden, and Warren (2001), in this order.



This article responds to three response articles and, discerning fundamental and deeply felt differences of opinion, notes in the articles (a) insistence on importing religion into psychotherapy, (b) serious misunderstanding about the proposed psychology of spirituality, (c) argument primarily by appeal to authority, and (d) a remarkable amount of imprecision and ad hominem comments. Specifically, R. E. Watts confounds religion and spirituality in championing clients' spirituality; B. D. Slife and P. S. Richards curiously argue that all psychotherapy is theological and, to this extent, is immune to criticism; and A. Marquis, J. M. Holden, and E. S. Warren uncritically embrace Eastern metaphysics, which ultimately disqualifies Western psychological concern for evidence and conceptual coherence. Offering clarifications, this article suggests that the target article deserves further consideration.


I am grateful to Marquis, Holden, and Warren , Slife and Richards, and Watts for their efforts in responding to my “Treating Spiritual Issues in Secular Psychotherapy.” Each response takes a different tack, so each will receive specific attention below. At the outset I address a number of common themes.

Four Consistent Reactions

First, a striking fact: writing in the name of psychology and addressing secular psychotherapy, all respondents are adamant about keeping religion and/or God explicit and integral to the matter. Watts (2001) advocates bringing religion into psychotherapy and more of it. Marquis et al. (2001) uncritically import unfalsifiable tenets of Asian religion under the guise of “the perennial philosophy.” And insisting that everything human, including secular psychotherapy, is actually theological or at least has theological implications (they are unclear about the difference), Slife and Richards (2001) turn all therapy ultimately into pastoral counseling and want all therapists to study theology. All seem content to avoid clarifying this matter and fault the attempt to do so.

Second, and to wit, all miss the thrust of my presentation and seriously misrepresent it. In light of my tightly constructed and highly nuanced article, processed through four rewrites over three years under two editors, and in light also of my other volumes on this topic, to which none of the respondents makes a single reference, I take no responsibility for this outcome. I provide another statement of my position: Openness to and respect for a range of clients' religions does not solve the problem of determining which beliefs are correct and which values are wholesome. When psychotherapeutic expertise and religious commitment conflict, dialogue will not resolve the differences in the absence of some commonly accepted and arguably universally valid criteria. To propose such criteria is the challenge for psychology when it finally admits that, in treating real people, it is dealing in spiritual matters and cannot avoid doing so. In response to this challenge, on the basis of what I called “the human spirit,” defined according to Bernard Lonergan's analyses, I proposed a psychological account of the human dimensions of spirituality. This account does have supposedly universally valid norms for truth (epistemology) and value (ethics) built into it. Furthermore, it is open to matters of God (theology), especially but not solely in the form of classical Western theism (and Christianity, which none of these articles addresses). Thus, I proposed a basis for the inclusion of spirituality in non-religiously affiliated psychotherapy. However, I suggested that, in addressing spirituality, psychology must undergo a profound self-transformation and the very meaning of spirituality must also be refined, for an adequate response to the current challenge will allow that in important ways psychology and spirituality coincide, especially in psychotherapeutic practice.

In contrast, Holden, for example, dismisses a core aspect of my proposal, Lonergan's transcendental precepts, in favor of “the old ‘1, 2, 3' National Association of Mental Health criteria” (Marquis et al., 2001, p. 233). Similarly, “following the common factor model,” Watts (2001) proposes a four-point summary of advice for “spiritually sensitive counselors” (p. 215). However, the matter is not one of opting for this or that set of guidelines, because obviously in this case, the three more or less accord. But why do they? The matter is one of providing theoretical justification for these or whatever criteria therapists are to adopt. In our pluralistic society the very value of human life and of fulfilling relationships are, themselves, in question and prominently for religious reasons -- regarding life, consider abortion and the bombing of abortion clinics, “ethnic cleansing,” doctor-assisted suicide, and “barebacking” (a fringe movement in the gay community that advocates deliberately chosen unprotected anal sex with known HIV-infected people); and regarding relationships, consider the subjugation of women, child abuse in the name of discipline, and debate over homosexual unions. Accordingly, this call for theoretical justification of criteria is a far cry from congenially being open to everybody's value system or, when differences of opinion occur, from referring clients to their religious leaders or to a more sympathetic therapist. These latter, standard moves, although perhaps the best we can do for the present, ultimately represent an abdication of responsibility for a psychology and psychotherapy that claim to be committed to human well-being and to know in important ways what it entails. These standard moves are tantamount to admitting that every position is as good as any other and that people just need to take their pick. Slife and Richards (2001) come closest to actually saying so; and verbally, at least, Marquis et al. (2001) reject such “pluralistic relativism” (p. 218).

Likewise, Slife and Richards (2001) are mistaken when they write that “Helminiak asserts the universality and normativity of these [certain] values, but provides no demonstration or justification of this assertion (p. 203).” How could they miss my appeal to Lonergan's four-level analysis of intentional consciousness (or spirit) that is the source of the transcendental precepts? Moreover, they fault my advocating a humanist position rather than supporting theological criteria (which they never specify); or alternatively, they claim I base my criteria on societal agreement. But in either case, their very criticism of these supposed bases belies their own assertion that I indicate no grounding for the criteria I offer. As still other examples below demonstrate, the misrepresentation of my position in the responses and the oversights are consistently egregious.

Third, all the respondents buttress their criticism by appeal to authority. Watts (2001) amasses citations from the psychological literature. Slife and Richards (2001) do as well, although more than the others, they also mount an argument. However, in the same mode of appeal to authority, they fuzzily project their personal “theological” opinions and then use these private beliefs to reject my position. Similarly, Marquis et al. (2001) use Wilber's theory as the ultimate litmus test, and they appeal to what must be a highly selective use of “the collective wisdom of the world's saints and sages” (p. 233). Yet, because I was challenging current thinking and intending to supplement the present literature, argument from authority carries no weight here. Nothing but engagement of the argument addresses the issues. Still, the respondents recognized this claim to novelty even while dismissing my argument because it differs from their chosen authorities or because, in other cases, it agrees with their authorities and thus, supposedly, adds nothing new.

Fourth, and related to all the aforementioned arguments, the responses exhibit a remarkable amount of selective and misleading quotation, oversight of nuance, overgeneralization, misrepresentation, speculative attribution, backhanded complements, and pointed personal asides. What was going on?

Regarding Watts (2001)

Despite my carefully nuanced elaboration of spirituality as one distinguishable, if not always separable, facet of religion, Watts (2001) consistently speaks globally of “religion and spirituality” (p. 209) or the “religious and/or spiritual” (p. 209). From the start and consistent with much of the psychological literature, his response confounds the discussion by portraying religion and spirituality as the same thing. Therefore, much of his response is irrelevant to the discussion. Similarly, again citing the literature, his argument collapses beliefs and values into culture and ethnicity. So, supposedly, one should be as accepting of different values as one should of different races. But the analogy is false. In different ways an array of cultures may express the same values; and certain values, despite cultural support, are always reprobate. As for psychological research, Watts wrote, “Helminiak argues that useful empirical research on the psychology of spirituality cannot be done because no definitive explanation or unified definition exists” (p. 214). Where did Watts find this alleged assertion? Without doubt, current research has been useful as psychology gropingly makes progress in a very difficult area. Nonetheless, in the end cumulative research-results depend on adequate theory. I say, “The better the theory, the better the research.” I do not say, “No research until we have a perfect theory.” The development of theory depends on research.

I have proposed an approach that might lead to a more adequate theory. In contrast, Watts (2001) would seemingly settle for the incoherence that currently befuddles the study of personality. He continues, “It is questionable whether there will ever be a unified theory or definition for either personality or spirituality” (p. 214). There certainly never will be if the possibility is dismissed a priori. And within the literature such dismissal is widespread. Examples are Wilber's insistence on the inevitability of “paradox” (Helminiak, 1998, pp. 249-264), not to say contradiction, in the treatment of spirituality and, in their last paragraph, Slife and Richards's (2001) appeal to the “paradox” that secular therapists need to be theologians.

Watts (2001) states that my offering “specific examples to show how a secular psychotherapist may legitimately respond to spiritual issues in counseling” (Helminiak, 2001, p. 164) implies that counselors currently working “from within the framework of their clients' chosen spiritual perspective are illegitimately responding to spiritual issues in counseling” (p. 207). This statement misrepresents my point. The intent of my statement, read in context, squares with my article's overall purpose, namely, to show why it is that secular therapists may, indeed, address spiritual issues. However, the nuances I highlight do suggest that, if these secular therapists are working specifically within someone's religious tradition and without religious credentials, they overstep the bounds of their own competence. At stake here is the difference between religion and spirituality, which Watts obscures. On my understanding, secular therapists may deal with spirituality because it is a psychological phenomenon, and I suggest how and why and to what extent; but they are not credentialed to deal with religion.

Watt's (2001) suggestion effectively makes the secular therapist a pastoral counselor, as I argued in my article. Ordained and long experienced as a Catholic priest, holding a Ph.D. in systematic theology (as well as a Ph.D. in psychology), and certified as a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, I certainly object to amateurs propounding religious conclusions. Likewise, many a pastor legitimately objects to secular therapists usurping the role of pastoral counselors. Watt's approach, with all due respect to the literature, does not adequately address these matters. They are not yet sorted out, and suggesting that they are is a disservice.

Watts (2001) claims, “Helminiak's position on spirituality in counseling and psychotherapy, as presented in his article, disagrees with a burgeoning body of literature encouraging all counselors to include clients' religious and spiritual [sic] beliefs, values, and issues as a focus of clinical work” (p. 207), and he accuses my position of “ignoring” and “discounting” “a client's religious and spiritual [sic] framework” (p. 211). Ever confounding religion and spirituality, he supports these assertions by egregiously selective citations. In Watts's first and fourth long quotes from my paper regarding this very issue, his ellipses exclude these statements, respectively: Spiritual matters “are central to people's lives and cannot be artificially excluded from the effective counseling session” (Helminiak, 2001, p. 165), and “More important is a psychological understanding of spirituality in which to situate the specifics of the client's religion” (Helminiak, 2001, p. 182). Moreover, in my fifth last paragraph, I wrote, “Good psychotherapy includes spirituality at its core”; my last sentence reads, “Psychotherapy cannot be effective unless it attends to spiritual matters”; and my abstract speaks of “an understanding of spirituality…that is essentially independent of, yet open to, matters of personal religion and belief in God.” Far from excluding spiritual matters from counseling or merely insisting on including them, my nuanced article argues how and why they can and must fit in as an intrinsic aspect of a person's psychology. Indeed, more forcefully than Watts, I insisted, “Psychotherapeutic training must, therefore, include what the religious traditions have called ‘spiritual formation'” (Helminiak, 2001, p. 183) (which is not the same as Slife and Richards's, 2001, call for training in theology, i.e., as they use the term in this case, systems of religious belief). Watts 's portrayal of my article is inaccurate.

Watts (2001) says I “'pathologize' the religious and spiritual [sic] beliefs of clients” (p. 215). With this statement, he objects to my insistence that some religious beliefs and values are humanly destructive and must be countered -- carefully, shrewdly, respectfully, to be sure, but countered, nonetheless. Similarly, while faulting me for “discount[ing] openness to diverse values of clients in favor of his ‘normative' values'” (Watts, 2001, p. 210), Watts nevertheless says, “If some of a client's beliefs or values appear to be self-destructive, they should be challenged” (p. 210); furthermore, Watts speaks of “how this specific challenging can be done while remaining more generally [italics added] open to understanding and using a client's perspective on spirituality” (p. 210; regarding this matter, I actually gave an example of this process regarding suicide, Judas, and Peter); again, Watts's concern is “to respectfully work primarily [italics added] from within clients' framework of spirituality” (p. 215). Evidently, Watts also believes that a therapist cannot uncritically endorse all religious beliefs and values, but he obscures the issue in qualifiers like “primarily” and “more generally.” It is precisely the area of these qualifiers that my article attempts to clarify. Denying the existence of this area of ambiguity is not helpful.

Watts (2001) argues for openness to all people's religious beliefs and values. This openness is a normative value; thus, Watts is also proposing normative values but without acknowledging or justifying them. Normative values are unavoidable, so, rather than just acknowledging one's own and being open to all others, it is imperative to determine which are truly wholesome.

Watts insists, “One can be both ‘open to a range of client values' and ‘foster the human good'; they are not mutually exclusive categories” (p. 210). But sometimes they are! Watts downplays this fact. I would want to highlight it and account for it, for precisely it is the devil in the details of this discussion that needs to be exorcised.

Watts (2001) disparages the suggestion that there is anything of note “unique and original” (p. 212) in my model. First, for the record, attentive reading of my article shows that I attributed to Bernard Lonergan, not to myself, the possible breakthrough to which I referred in two places and upon which I build my psychology of spirituality. Second, Watts usefully shows that much of what I present is similar to the humanistic psychologies of Maslow and Rogers. (For a more elaborate and, be it noted, a critical treatment of the similarities in question, see Helminiak, 1996, pp. 108-109, 190, 217-218; 1998, pp. 250-251). Third, my seventh last and fourth last paragraphs (Helminiak, 2001) spell out what I believe actually to be original in my presentation, and elsewhere (Helminiak, 1998, pp. 294-295) I provide a more complete accounting, attributing virtually all of it to Lonergan. Watts 's contribution is to emphasize again how central spiritual matters are to psychotherapy.

Regarding Slife and Richards (2001)

Their article presents the reader with a conceptual tangle. Sorting it out, I will note both their misrepresentations of my position and shortcomings of their own. In their second paragraph, Slife and Richards (2001) make a glaring error that controls their argument to its last page. They write, “[Helminiak] contends that his notion of secular spirituality is universal and thus non-partisan or neutral [italics added] to all forms of spirituality” (p. 190) and “supposedly non-partisan or neutral to and, thus, useable by anyone…with any theology” (p. 191). First, I wrote that my psychology of spirituality entails a deliberate and specific normativity (Helminiak, 2001, pp. 167-169), “necessitates an understanding of academic psychology very different from the standard notion of a ‘neutral' or ‘objective' (that is, noncommittal) science” (p. 170), “raises questions for an applied psychology that requires non-judgmental openness to every person's religion” (p. 170-171), and “provides a basis for criticism of religion and religion's appeal to God” (p. 173). Obviously, I do not advocate a “strategy of impartiality and neutrality” (Slife & Richards, 2001, p. 205). On the other hand, Slife and Richards criticize the particular values I advocate and thus belie their own attribution of neutrality. Second, I specified that my theory is open to God “at least insofar as Western theism understands God” (Helminiak, 2001, p. 172). I did not say my theory was neutral to any theology. Third, universal applicability is not the same as neutrality. That the laws of nature are universal does not mean that they are tolerant of violation. Rather, they evince their universality precisely in being pertinent even to violations. The same applies to the laws or norms of spirituality that I propose. In the face of these norms, not everything called “religion” or “theology” ipso facto passes muster as valid spirituality. So, Slife and Richards's argument that my theory is mistaken because it is not congenial to their theology is specious. The more likely possibility, I argue, is that their theology is mistaken. Much of Slife and Richards's article depends on this conceptual slight of hand and is, thus, irrelevant to the discussion.

In a similar vein, Slife and Richards (2001) confound two different notions of neutrality: one, “the exclusion of various values and biases” (p. 191; as used in this case, biases, distortive prejudices, correctly clarifies values, and this exclusion expresses a valid aspect of scientific objectivity); and two, “excluding those aspects…that differ and retaining those aspects held in common” (p. 191) or “attempting to find common ground” (p. 192). The latter political move -- appeal to compromise or social consensus, the only supposed basis of “truth” that Slife and Richards seem to acknowledge apart from “theology" -- is very different from the scientific concern to achieve correct understanding by avoiding bias.

Slife and Richards (2001) believe that everything is theological, so they also confound philosophical or methodological issues with theology. To wit, they speak of the methodological assumptions of science as “philosophically (or theologically) derived” (p. 196), and “philosophical axes to grind” (p. 196) at the beginning of a paragraph becomes “theological biases of science” (p. 196) at the paragraph's end.

Thus, confounding methodology and theology and collapsing unbiased objectivity into politically expedient consensus, Slife and Richards (2001) reject open-mindedness as a fundamental requirement of wholesome human living. They argue that “helping such [fundamentalist] clients to become open-minded is asking them to accept a theology they reject” (p. 194), but “certain theological issues are closed because they are the foundation of other beliefs” (p. 194-195), that is, Slife and Richards argue that people may hold their fundamental position because people need it to prevent their whole system from collapsing, and, supposedly, this need objectively justifies the position. Slife and Richards defend this close-mindedness by appeal to the widely acknowledged axiom that, within a logical system, a first principle cannot be rationalized but is chosen and it, itself, determines the logical context in which other reasoning may proceed. However, their discussion ignores the commonly accepted corollary of this axiom, namely, that the choice of a first principle must be reasonable (Helminiak, 1986, pp. 29-36). Otherwise, every nonsense would be acceptable as long as it is called “religious.” Second, although demeaning commonly accepted scientific method, Slife and Richards do appeal to evidence to justify foundational theological beliefs. They suggest that, in addition to those of "naturalistic theologians," there are "other sources of evidence (e.g., revelation)" (p. 199). However, again they omit the corollary that our pluralistic world has imposed: claims to revelation no longer stand ispo facto; they must, themselves, be justified. Belief in a religion as “revealed” is ultimately attributable only to a human choice to accept some supposed revelation as divine. In these matters today, humanist meta-criteria of some kind are unavoidable. Third, and most profoundly, Slife and Richards confound the reasonableness of a first principle with the "logic and rationality" (p. 195) that can follow only after a first principle is in place -- as if reasonableness were not a given of the human cognitive make-up. They “mistake the rules of logic for the laws of thought” (Lonergan, 1957, p. 573). This confusion allows Slife and Richards dangerously to claim that foundational premises are immune from the criteria of reasonableness, that foundational "theological beliefs cannot be judged as 'rational' or 'reasonable'" (p. 195). But Lonergan's analysis points to a different kind of foundation, that which is the generative source of all logical first principles, namely, consciousness or human spirit, itself. His articulation of human spirit in terms of (a) experience, (b) understanding, (c) judgment, and (d) decision is merely an attempt to formulate that primordial foundation that is operative in all thought and, as such, transcends the constraints of Gödel's theorem about closed logical systems (Lonergan, 1957, pp. xxv-xxvi), which Slife and Richards inappropriately invoke. In question is the self-aware and intelligent human subject, not merely a logical system. Besides, without denying that the human mind is created and sustained in existence by God, Lonergan's analysis has nothing to do with theology. So Slife and Richards completely miss the point when they say that his analysis "has no better claim to legitimacy and correctness than any other theology" (p. 244) -- or logical first principle.

The latter point can be approached otherwise. Lonergan (1957, pp. 72, 243), too, allows for another source of evidence beyond that of narrow (sensible) empiricism when he advocates a "generalized empirical method," which credits the data of inner experience as well as that of the senses. Accordingly, Slife and Richards's (2001) polemic against reductionistic science or "naturalistic theology" is completely off base. Whereas, they insist they do not recognize "their spirituality reflected in Helminiak's conception" (p. 196) and propose such recognition as a criterion of validity for a theory of spirituality, I see them (a) collecting data on my position, (b) proposing interpretations of the data, (c) judging the invalidity of my position on the basis of their interpretations, and (d) deciding to reject my position. That is, the unfolding of the four levels of Lonergan's (1957, 1972) account of human spirit is obvious in their work. Despite their verbal rejections, the mental processes evinced by their verbal behavior square with Lonergan's account. This peculiar situation is the meaning of the claim that Lonergan's (1972, p. xii; see also 1957, p. xxvi) four-level account of the human spirit is "not open to radical revision," and one cannot argue against it without in practice providing evidence that will support it. Slife and Richards misreport this matter when they write that Helminiak made the droll claims that "disagreement actually proves his values' validity" (p. 203) and that "any disagreement with him is ipso facto an agreement" (p. 205).

Slife and Richards (2001) emphasize the supposed universality of theology and its inextricable link to spirituality. One wonders, then, what they make of Taoism and Buddhism, non-theist spiritual traditions. Their argument about theology depends on more homogenization of terminology. Regarding the most basic of concepts, they treat theology, religion, spirituality, ethics, and philosophy, and perhaps even empirical science, as versions of one and the same reality. But in these intricate matters, even further distinctions, operative in my article, are required: distinctions among theism, agnosticism, non-theism, and atheism; between the fact of the ontological existence of God and theism as belief in that existence; correlatively, between God as God actually is in Godself and “God” as conceived in human theories, myths, metaphors, or images; between theology as any religious discussion of any topic (as Slife and Richards sometimes use the term) and theology specifically as treatment only of God and God's relationship to creation (as Slife and Richards define the term and as I always use it); and between reasoned, critical, and coherent theory (theology) about God and pious or popular beliefs about God. When Slife and Richards ignore these distinctions and speak simply of "theology," it is no wonder that they could posit so stark a divide between “a world without a god and a world with a god” (p. 197). When one reads Slife and Richards's article and then goes back to reread mine (Helminiak, 2001) --especially the latter half, which notes with carefully nuanced approval “belief in a loving and caring God…, participation in moving and reassuring rituals, practice of devotions and meditative exercises” (pp. 173-174), “prayer of petition” (p. 174), “support [of] prayer as therapeutic” (p. 175), “God…as the fullness of truth and goodness” (p. 176), “one's relationship with God” (p. 178), “religious commitment to honesty before God” (p. 178), “no real conflict between God's truth and human truth” (p. 178), “new meanings in valid beliefs” (p. 179), and earlier, deliberately nuanced reference to “the mode of Western theism” and “God…understood to be a distinct existing being characterized as Creator, imminent as well as transcendent” (p. 171), as understood by Thomas Aquinas (pp. 172) -- one wonders what Slife and Richards were smoking when they fulminated against “Helminiak's secular and thus, god-less world” (p. 205) and denounced his pitting “one's own will (inner experience)” against “God's will (external authority)” (p. 204; see also p. 199).

Slife and Richards (2001) wonder what "particular school of thought [I follow] to frame a particular version of spirituality" (p. 193), and they reason that I am "humanistic" (p. 194). I move almost completely within the Lonergan school, which includes Lonergan-studies centers in Boston, Dublin, Los Angeles, Manila, Melbourne, Montreal, Naples, Sidney, and Toronto and the academic quarterly Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies, the quarterly Lonergan Studies Newsletter, and the publication of Lonergan's collected works by the University of Toronto Press. Newsweek (anonymous, 1970) extolled Lonergan in the 20th century over Thomas Aquinas in the 13th. Admittedly, most of the emphasis in the Lonergan school is theological and might not be familiar to psychologists, but theology is what Slife and Richards claim to know and champion. Furthermore, my treatment of spirituality is in large part an application of standard Roman Catholic teaching about natural law (regarding ethics knowable apart from divine revelation), natural theology (regarding what can be known of God by reason alone), and the medieval natural-supernatural distinction (regarding what is known only through Christian revelation; see Helminiak, 1986, 1987, 1998). I refer to my account of spirituality as "humanist" simply to describe its non-theological core but not to identify it strictly with Humanistic Psychology.

Slife and Richards (2001) correctly say that my psychology of spirituality has theological implications, but they are wrong to suggest that I am “without [any] awareness of [my] own theological stance” (p. 201). I am quite explicit about my position. My core understanding of God is Creator, which, according to traditional Western theism (Helminiak, 1987), includes the functions of creation (bringing things into existence), conservation (maintaining that existence at every moment), and concurrence (enabling created beings to function according to their proper natures). I hardly project "a world without a god" (Slife & Richards, 2001, p. 197) or "postulate cognitive mechanisms that work without God's aid" (p. 197). My understanding certainly supposes something of Slife and Richards's "God that is real and constantly involved" (pp. 200). But what do Slife and Richards mean by “aid” and "involved" or by "an active and intervening God" (p. 198)? My reading of their guarded intimations is that they believe in a God who routinely performs miracles in the strict sense, that is, regularly intervenes to suspend or contravene the God-given laws of the universe; a God who also stipulates moral/ethical requirements, “the qualities of a good life” (p. 201; see also p. 199), that would otherwise be completely indeterminate, unrelated to any humanly discernable rationale; and a God of "personal and communal revelation " (p. 200), that is, as Slife and Richards seem to suggest, a God who obviously and regularly speaks words of instruction and information to certain or many or all human beings. My overall theory (Helminiak, 1987, 1998) does allow for revelation that can be reasonably claimed. My theory disallows that God would ethically require behaviors that have no intrinsic and humanly discernable rationale (regarding the Euthyphro problem, I believe that God says certain actions are wrong because they are, and not that these actions are wrong simply because God says so). And my theory acknowledges that God can work miracles, but I insist that many extraordinary occurrences, like parapsychological phenomena or unexpected healing, are not strictly miracles but rather matters that we do not yet understand; that one not grant the occurrence of miracles without the most convincing of evidence; that, if miracles do occur, by definition, they transcend the bounds of human/scientific understanding and ipso facto stand outside any theory of spirituality; and that to build one's life around the expectation of miracles is utterly irresponsible, wrong, and, according to Jesus' example: "You shall not tempt the Lord your God" (Matthew 4:7; Luke 4:12), to be denounced as blasphemous.

Overall, nurtured by the Judeo-Christian tradition, my position allows for some coincidence of the human and the divine (human deification) and for the consistency of reason and religious faith. My overall understanding, expressed in careful distinctions that imply correlative interrelationships, is not the atomism that Slife and Richards (2001) project but represents a coherent and differentiated whole. Apart from such intelligible coherence (that is, nominalism), if one is to be ultimately consistent, one must abandon the effort to understand anything and, without any criteria of adjudication, surrender oneself in blind faith to whatever beliefs, all supposedly equally valid, might dominate one's rearing or later capture one's fancy -- even as Slife and Richards's position would suggest, as noted above. The fact that some people reify myth and take metaphor literally is not reason for others to abandon or be restricted in the task of insightfully integrating religion and psychology. Rather, myth, metaphor, and popular religion should be acknowledged and respected for what they are; and critical scholarship and science, being what they are, should follow their intrepid path of knowledge expansion to the eventual benefit of popular belief. I would expect that competent psychotherapists would be part of the latter enterprise.

Slife and Richards (2001) would “encourage clients to seek counsel from their religious leaders if they have theological questions or concerns” (p. 201) because of differences with their therapist. Thus, for Slife and Richards, spirituality has a place in secular psychotherapy only within the boundaries of societal consensus, only so long as there are no non-negotiable differences of opinion. When such differences arise, Slife and Richards seem to hold that all religious/theological/spiritual opinions must be respected as valid; that there is no way finally to adjudicate such foundational differences of opinion (by implication, although I doubt Slife and Richards would want to say so, all “theological” belief would be but mere opinion); and that all psychotherapeutic treatment of spiritual matters must ultimately become explicitly religious or pastoral. Indeed, either covertly theological, consensually theological, or explicitly theological, for Slife and Richards all psychotherapy is theological. I propose a way in which even secular psychotherapy is spiritual, whereas for Slife and Richards none is truly secular. Ever confounding spirituality with religion and theology and, thus, rejecting the very problematic of my article and of modernity, Slife and Richards's ultimate suggestion is that spirituality cannot be treated in secular psychotherapy simply because there is no such thing. Then, must all therapy be done by theologians in their respective, restricted enclaves, every tribe to its own witch doctor? Apart from the hegemony of one of them, does irreconcilable fragmentation of the human family become the norm?

Regarding Marquis, Holden, and Warren (2001)

Marquis et al. (2001) take this occasion to provide a very useful summary of Wilber's “integral psychology” and, in light of it, to criticize my theory. Is it fair that they compare my paper to their list of nine books and three articles by Wilber and then make the criticism that my one article does not cover points that it never intended to cover and never could? I have published other writings that do address many of those points.

Like the other respondents, they misrepresent or misinterpret what I did write. I called Wilber the “archguru of transpersonal psychology” (Helminiak, 2001, p. 172) merely to describe his current status, to which the tenor and substance of Marquis et al.'s response bear witness. I meant no pejorative reference.

They fault my theory for being limited to the existential and not addressing the transpersonal. First, the existential emphasis they attribute to me is their own fabrication. I used the term existential only once, to characterize one, only one, aspect of spiritual functioning (Helminiak, 2001, p. 167). And the list of "existentialist" questions in my first paragraph portrayed an overly narrow conception of spirituality, even as I (Helminiak, 2001) wrote there: "Such an understanding risks limiting spirituality." Second, faulting my statement that “the spiritual dimension…is nothing esoteric or unusual,” they ignore the rest of that short paragraph: “Yet [it] opens onto the universe of being…as well as extraordinary experiences that could be called ‘religious' or ‘mystical'” (p. 167). Third, they ignore other statements about “extraordinary experiences associated with enlightenment and mysticism” (p. 166), “a self-transcending dynamism that is geared toward the universe of being” (p. 168), “becom[ing] one with all that is” (p. 167), and “an ultimate coincidence of subjectivity and objectivity, unity with all that is” (p. 169). My theory, as explictily phrased in that article, hardly leaves out the transpersonal.

Although even Freud knew of regression in the service of the ego and Helminiak (1996) treated this matter extensively, regarding “spiritual translation” and “spiritual transformation,” Marquis et al. (2001) claim that I “not only failed to discriminate between the two processes but actually entangled them” (p. 232). Again they overlook my (Helminiak, 2001) comments: “Psyche and spirit cohere in a dynamic and shifting balance…” (p. 169), and spirit “fosters transformation [italics added]…through continual adjustment…[toward] unity with all that is” (p. 169). Besides, psychotherapeutically, spiritual translation and transformation are not simply sequential. Marquis et al.'s criticism is ungrounded.

Again, Marquis et al. (2001) fault my making “'intelligence'” and “'rationality'” “central to spirituality” (p. 232). In fact, my article never uses the nouns intelligence or rationality, which they present as quotations. My article does use the adjectives to describe two, but only two, facets of spiritual functioning. My references to human spirit as “a self-transcending…dynamism …characterized by wonder, marvel, awe” (Helminiak, 2001, p. 167), to mystical experience, and to Lonergan's study of Insight indicate that Lonergan's analysis of intentional consciousness or spirit is not to be reduced to narrow instrumental reason and logical deductive processes. Moreover, Marquis et al.'s assertion that the transcendental precepts and matters of rational discourse “are not inherently spiritual” (p. 232) completely misses the questions my theory raises about the nature of spirit, evinces ignorance of the Western philosophical tradition since Plato, and dismisses the matter out of hand.

Like Slife and Richards (2001), Marquis et al. (2001) do not keep straight related but different issues when they attribute to Lonergan the ludicrous notion that “to critique [the transcendental precepts] is to invoke them” (p. 232). Similarly, attentive reading shows that, apart from Marquis et al.'s metaphysical presuppositions, my statement about “loving all that is loveable” (Helminiak, 2001, p. 167) is virtually synonymous with their phrase about things “inherently deserving of love and compassion though not necessarily deserving equal acceptance” (Marquis, et al, 2001, p. 233). They attack straw figures. My point thus far is that Marquis et al.'s analysis of my theory is superficial, at best. My further point will be that there are also major theoretical problems in Wilber's theory, which they endorse uncritically.

Helminiak (1998) presented an 80-page critique of Wilber's “perennial philosophy.” Here I merely note some key issues. Wilber conflates Western theism about God as Creator and Eastern philosophy about consciousness or spirit or The Ultimate as “the ground of all ” (Marquis, et al., 2001, p 231). Following Wilber, then, Marquis et al. import theology into psychology when they identify human mind as “a part [sic] of spirit” (p.231) and mean that “the innermost consciousness of humans is identical to the absolute and ultimate reality of the universe” (p. 233). On this matter, despite their repeated claim to “the collective assertion of contemplatives across history and cultures” (p 233), their chosen position excludes Jewish, Christian, and Muslim orthodoxy about God as a being distinct (but not separate) from the created universe. Already, then, it is clear that Wilber's model does not coherently "integrate perspectives on Western psychology with those of both Western and Eastern comtemplative traditions" (Marquis et al., 2001, p. 226). Wilber achieves his synthesis by ignoring important differences.

However, at stake are neither petty differences over religious opinion nor ever questionable appeals to authority, as Marquis et al. (2001) credulously claim: "For people who have not directly realized the Absolute, this issue becomes a question of authority" (p. 233). Rather, at stake are fundamental methodological issues that can be adjudicated -- unless one casts the matter into some fuzzily described realm that supposedly somehow transcends all categories of rational discourse. Explaining the matter, Marquis et al. point to the "transrational" that "involves direct and immediate apprehension without sensory or mental mediation" (p. 223). But what does this mean? Marquis et al. do not address this question but add a disclaimer: "Readers…may have difficulty fully grasping the…description of the transpersonal realm that they have not directly experienced" (p. 223). They appeal to esoteric knowledge: those who know will assent to this thinking, and those who do not assent simply do not know. The knowing that this privileged experience supposedly entails is clearly of a different kind from knowing in what Marquis et al. call the phenomenal world. Indeed, they state outright, "The highest levels of transpersonal development are independent of knowledge of the phenomenal world" (p. 232). So, with Wilber, Marquis et al. maintain that there are (at least) two different realms and two kinds of knowing, that they are incommensurate, and that the Ultimate trumps the phenomenal. It would follow that knowledge claims in this phenomenal world carry no ultimate validity, which is to say, conceptual knowledge in this phenomenal world is discredited. Yet this assertion about the "transrational" is proposed through rational discourse in the phenomenal world. Patently, these claims are incoherent. Still, this position deems incoherence irrelevant: one can benignly name it "paradox" and insist that it is inevitable when one deals with spirituality; or one can say outright that logic, consistency, and rationality ultimately do not matter. At different points Wilber's theory does both. In either case, the knowledge in question is incompatible with current psychology and, indeed, with all academic or professional theory. What results is not the integration of psychology and spirituality but their reconceptualization as incommensurate disciplines.

In no way does this criticism mean to deny the reality of unitive spiritual experiences. It merely suggests that Wilber's theory does not coherently interpret these data. Helminiak (1998, pp. 257-260, 265-272) proposed another account that might. Whether or not such a feat is even possible is the question at stake in this discussion: Can there be a science of spirituality? With Wilber, Marquis et al. answer, "No, not in any ordinary sense of the term." Helminiak (1987, 1996, 1998, 2001) answers, "Yes." Then, apart from some "transrational" realm where contradictions do not matter, Marquis et al. are simply wrong to suggest that "Wilber's (1999c) integral perspective encompasses, clarifies, and affirms Helminiak's views" (p. 219). In fact, on foundational epistemological matters the two views are incompatible.

Without a coherent epistemology, Wilber's theory cannot supply criteria for judging the validity of people's religious beliefs. As Marquis et al. (2001) say, "Once one crosses into the mystical domain of the transpersonal, criteria such as [Lonergan's transcendental precepts] remain valuable only to a point" (p. 234). The unexplained words only to a point flag the fudge factor in this theory. In the last analysis, the projection of different realms of experience and knowledge with their disparate epistemologies makes talk of normative criteria a free-for-all.

One final comment regards the ten-wave axis of the upper left quadrant of Wilber's integral vision. The waves are supposedly hierarchical, building one upon the other. But the "transrational" waves represent degrees of meditative achievement or mystical awareness, whereas some of the former ones are Piaget's stages of cognitive development. Wilber has strung apples and oranges together in one series. Appropriate assessment of these two different cognitive matters goes a long way to sorting out the confounds in Wilber's overall theory; but such assessment also breaks the axis, and the quadrants fall asunder. Other critics of Wilber make the same point.

To be sure, Wilber's conjoining of personal, behavioral, cultural, and societal considerations as all impinging on human experience and development and his treatment of advanced contemplative states constitute a rich and helpful approach; but the theory undergirding it is not coherent. It would be important for psychologists and counselors interested in spirituality to recognize the difference.


The topic of this discussion has been the attempt to coherently integrate psychology and spirituality without violating disciplinary or professional boundaries. This exchange of articles reveals that there are fundamental and deeply felt differences of opinion on these matters and much confusion regarding them. I have proposed a suggestion that I believe offers some clarification. I would welcome further good-willed consideration of it. I am grateful to Dr. Dennis Engels, Editor of Counseling and Values, for sponsoring this written forum and to the other participants in it. Hopefully, this exchange has shed some light, focused significant issues, and inched us closer to a much-needed consensus.



Anonymous (1970, April 20). A great Christian mind. Newsweek, 75 .

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Helminiak, D. A. (1987). Spiritual development: An interdisciplinary study. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

Helminiak, D. A. (1996). The human core of spirituality: Mind as psyche and spirit. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Helminiak, D. A. (1998). Religion and the human sciences: An approach via spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Lonergan, B. J. F. (1957). Insight: A study of human understanding. New York: Philosophical Library.

Lonergan, B. J. F. (1972). Method in theology. New York: Herder & Herder.

Marquis, A., Holden, J. M., & Warren, E. S. (2001). An integral psychology response to Helminiak's (2001) “Treating Spiritual Issues in Secular Psychotherapy.” Counseling and Values, 45, 218-136.

Slife, B. D., & Richards, P. S. (2001). How separable are spirituality and theology in psychotherapy? Counseling and Values, 45, 190-206.

Watts , R. E. (2001). Addressing spiritual issues in secular counseling and psychotherapy: Response to Helminiak's (2001) views. Counseling and Values, 45, 207-217.