Spirituality as a Cultural Competence in Psychotherapy

Spirituality as a Cultural Competence in Psychotherapy: A Call to Action for Psychologists and Psychotherapists
By Dr. Garrett Woods, Licensed Psychologist  


The OLOGY Symposium will provide an important opportunity for psychologists and psychotherapists to explore and discuss what it actually means to address and integrate spirituality within psychotherapy.  Our keynote speaker, Dr. Mark McMinn, is a licensed psychologist in Oregon, a fellow and former president of APA's Division 36, Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, and author of various trade and professional books, journal articles, and chapters. His current research interests include the integration of psychology and Christianity, positive psychology (especially pertaining to food), and technology in psychology practice. 

The Center has a 50-year tradition of integrating spirituality, theology, psychotherapy, and psychology. 

While it is true that at least for a time the practice of psychology was skeptical of faith, that is not the whole story. In fact, while we consider Freud to be the father of modern psychology, many have argued that Soren Kierkegaard (a quasi-Lutheran philosopher) would have earned that title had he only published his writing in German instead of Danish (Vardy, 2008).

Kierkegaard writes in his essay, entitled “The Concept of Anxiety:”

Anxiety is a qualification of the dreaming spirit, and as such it has its place in psychology. Awake, the difference between myself and my other is posited; sleeping, it is suspended; dreaming, it is an intimated nothing. The actuality of the spirit constantly shows itself as a form that tempts its possibility but disappears as soon as it seeks to grasp for it, and it is a nothing that can only bring anxiety. More it cannot do as long as it merely shows itself. The Concept of anxiety is almost never treated in psychology.  Therefore, I must point out that it is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite, whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.  For this reason, anxiety in not found in the beast, precisely because by nature the beast is not qualified as spirit. (p. 139)

There is a lot that can be unpacked here, but essentially Kierkegaard is suggesting that anxiety is a uniquely human problem, because in his view humans are uniquely spirited.

And yet it is with great irony that Freud (for all his strengths) posits man as nothing more than beast, and religion as an illusion or grand defense mechanism.  Despite the voices of Jung, Adler, and James to the contrary, Freud’s voice is what predominately carried through the field of psychology for some time. 

In turn, many of us grew up in religious traditions that, because of this, saw the practice of psychology as a threat rather than a help.  And at times our faith communities minimized—if not scandalized—the experience of mental illness, considering it merely a problem of faith. 

This polarization created a vacuum that has placed many in a perilous position.  As early as 1932, Carl Jung, in speaking of this vacuum, states: 

There are, however, persons who while well aware of the psychic nature of their complaint, nevertheless refuse to turn to the clergyman.  They do not believe that he can really help them. Such persons distrust the doctor for the same reason, and they are justified by the fact that both doctor and clergyman stand before them with empty hands, if not—what is even worse—with empty words. (p. 227) 

He goes on to say that “we can hardly expect the doctor to have anything to say about the ultimate questions of the soul.”  And yet he also goes on to say that, at present, the clergy seem unable to give to “modern man” what he is looking for. 

Now this word integrate is the keyword.  The word integrate means “to combine (one thing) with another so that they become a whole.” 

It is not enough for us to practice a secular psychology and to merely sprinkle some scripture or holy words on top of it—nor is it complete to give out biblical/religious/spiritual advice and to throw in some ideas from pop-psychology along with it. 

To practice integrative psychotherapy requires us to practice a discipline that is awkwardly positioned between the sciences and the humanities.   

There are those amongst our field who would like to push us all to one side or to the other—to make us a pure science or medical model, or to be an alternative path to self-expression, devoid of any science—but we must resist, as human nature is not so easily compartmentalized. 

No matter your theoretical orientation or faith tradition, integrative psychotherapy is a discipline, a profession, a way of being in the world that honors and, if need be, challenges the core assumptions of what it means to be human—what it means to be in relationship with oneself, their family, their friends, their environment, even their God.  Simultaneously, it also incorporates our scientific understanding of the brain, human behavior, and effective and validated paths to change in such a way that two cannot be separated from each other.  

To emphasize it again—integrative psychotherapy is a unique discipline. 

To make an analogy, I have heard on many occasions how police officers, firefighters, or other first responders describe their training as fundamentally changing who they are.   

Whether it be a fire, or gunshots, or a natural disaster—without thinking, they run towards what others are running from. 

Sure, they have some tools and strategies and know how to deal with these situations, but their discipline is running towards the danger, not away. 

And maybe this is me seeking to make my job sound sexier that it is, but our discipline is very similar. We orient ourselves to the feelings and interpersonal situations that others run from, avoid, or flat out deny. We create space for the feeling of despair rather than hide it, we sit with grief without giving pat answers, we acknowledge the humanity in those whom others are uncomfortable being around. 

And yes, we also search for joy—but not a hollow joy to be confused with mere happiness—but one that comes after an arduous pursuit for wholeness.  

And it is this commitment to the pursuit of wholeness that I think makes the Center unique.  We are not a center where some topics are off limits. We are not a center that emphasizes just symptom reduction.    

Since 1968, we have sought to be a place where faith and spirituality are honored. 

It is with this commitment that we host OLOGY for psychotherapists and psychologists interested in understanding how addressing spirituality is a cultural competence important to the care they provide and how they can responsibly and effectively integrate this into the therapeutic process. 

Kierkegaard, S., Hong, H. V., & Hong, E. H. (2000). The essential Kierkegaard.Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. 

Jung, C. G. (1950). Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harcourt. 

Vardy, P. (2008). An introduction to Kierkegaard (Rev. and expanded ed.). Peabody, Mass.: Hendrick Publishers.


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Read more about Dr. Garrett Woods here.

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Research indicates the need for a dialogue between the disciplines of psychology and theology. People often go to ministers first when they face a challenge and many clients want to be able to include their faith and spirituality in therapy. The Center is convening psychotherapists, psychologists, ministers, church leaders, congregational care volunteers, and medical professionals to learn about the latest research and thought on the intersection of mental health and spirituality.

Please mark your calendars, plan to join us, and spread the word.

Thursday, October 4th
8:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Ministry Center,
First United Methodist Church Richardson