The author of this work is identified as a visiting associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, Boston College. The book is highly recommended by former priest Thomas H. Groome, well-known as a leading dissenter and controversial theorist in religious education and who is Director of the Institute at which Shea teaches. Groome writes:
"John Shea's book invites us to grow up and to bring God with us, to recognize that all our symbols and language for the Divine fall far short of the reality and yet to know more deeply the Ultimate Mystery who loves us. This book will sustain, renew, or jump-start again the reader's journey in faith."
Rev. Michel J. Himes, professor in the Theology Department, Boston College, also gives his warm endorsement:
"With wisdom and insight drawn from both theology and counseling, John Shea leads us from a 'God' who is a (more or less) benign despot to the living God who is the source of all our creativity and energy and capacity to love. This is a book that will be of importance for all spiritual directors, counselors, religious educators, and pastoral ministers."
Actually, the major problem with the book is that it has nothing or little to do with the Catholic Faith or Catholic spirituality. It is a strange book indeed that treats of "spirituality for adults", "spiritual transformation", God, and "faith" but has no explicit place for Christ and the Holy Spirit and Catholic doctrine. It totally ignores the spiritual sanctification of the human person by divinization wrought by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and the spiritual transformation resulting from participation in the sacramental life of the Church and consequent growth in virtue and holiness.
As the author himself notes,
"I have tried as much as possible to avoid the language of faith, belief, and theology, not to deny the importance of the specific faiths, beliefs, and theologies that you and I may have but to try instead to take seriously the more personal and yet more universal language of religious experience."
The teachings and doctrinal formulations of the Catholic Faith intended to foster personal union with God are summarily dismissed on the grounds that:
"the language of faith, belief, and theology often remains general and abstract, pointing to the way God ought to be thought about rather than to the way God actually is experienced... I have tried to avoid sexist language completely in this book... [and to be] gender inclusive."
In addition, our author rails against patriarchalism which is regarded as a specially obnoxious feature of "organized religion",
"Particularly insidious and destructive is the patriarchal structure of organized religion within the culture. Patriarchy attacked women in their adult selves and in their relating to God at the same time."
Such radical feminist authors as "God Is She" Elizabeth Johnson and spiritual director for radical nuns, Sandra M. Schneiders, give ready support to this thesis. To the reader of this volume, the "organized religion", which takes a sustained beating in the book, will invariably look suspiciously like the Catholic Church since in the view of the author an "abstract" Creed and any dogmatic religion cannot but interfere with the liberating power of private religious experience to bring the "adult self" into intimacy with the "Living God".
But who is this "God", "the Living God", whom Shea declares to be "at the center of adult religion"? He is not the "Superego God" who "blocks the way of adult religion" and prevents the human development of mature adults. He only "deserves to die" (p. x). This "Superego God" regarded as widespread in the belief system of all too many Christians is a "religious tragedy – the developmental equivalent of the worst idolatries and heresies in the history of Western religion" (p. xiii). It is the reflection of the false images of God which "fetter" and freeze "the self" in religious adolescence.
Our author draws on such important figures in developmental psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, as Freud, Jung, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Erik Erikson for an understanding of the "adolescing self". The "adolescing self's personality" is still in process, is not yet an integrated whole, and is still too dependent on others in imaging reality, thereby becoming captive to false images of the Ultimate Reality (God). Such false images (which can indeed hamper the spiritual development of those lacking proper catechesis in the Catholic Faith) culminate (in the judgment of our author) in a personality-crippling "Superego God" who will be considered by the immature:
- a "Supreme Being",
- a "God of Law and Obedience and Guilt",
- a "God of Belief and Orthodoxy",
- a "God of Dependency and Control and Domination",
- and a "God of the Group and Convention and Conformity" with "fixed moral laws and set beliefs" and setting the conditions for church membership.
This "Superego God" is invariably envisioned as a fearful, terrifying, and tyrannical Judge with immense power and authority leaving "little room to the adolescing self for any use of its own power and authority". It also stifles any exercise of personal freedom and autonomy in those seeking an experience of the real Living God.
Readers of modernist catechetical texts may recall their authors' reliance on Freud, Jung, Rogers, Maslow, Ericson, Kohlberg, and other gurus of modern psychiatry and psychology with their jaundiced views of organized religion and bias against the dogmatic character of Christianity. The result for millions of youngsters reading such texts was confusion concerning sin and guilt, the exact meaning of the primacy of conscience, and the entrapping of such youngsters in complete subjectivity in moral decision-making. For our author, it is psychotherapy and pastoral counseling directed at healing the false images of God fostered by the "Superego God" complex which will empower individuals to have a close and intimate relationship with the real Living God.
- No longer will the "Superego God" of men's fettered imagination deceive them to think God is an objective Being, external to man, "out there", "eternal" and "immutable".
- No longer will the real God be feared, with men and women frozen in "a sense of inadequacy, or guilt, or shame" (p. 34);
- No longer will the real God be misunderstood as "a God of rules, a God of the church, almighty, omnipotent, and distant." (p. 43)
- No longer will God be considered a "punishing God".
- The "divine presence" is rather encountered as "something very personal and private" and is not communicated by any "authoritarian" church which is "all about control".
- "God" is encountered in a "religious experiencing" which is an essentially "mystical knowing" in a personal "depth relationship" which "religion" cannot guarantee with its "logic of objective knowing".
Religion, the author declares:
"is not about God, and it is
not about the self. Religion is about 'the self and God together'" (p. 181)
"In religion, are not the self and God meant to develop together?" (p. ix)
However, those who underwent some kind of therapy and whom he interviewed do not always distinguish clearly between the voice of God and that of self regarding the authenticity of the "religious experiences" related.
The author relies uncritically on the personal testimonies of those he interviewed concerning their "personal experiences of God, about experiences of church or organized, and about what prayer and their relationship with God was like". He notes their spiritual transformation from belief in the "Superego God" of their childhood to the "Living God" encountered as a result of "counseling or psychotherapy... or some form of spiritual mentoring" (p.163). However, what is glaringly revealed in their stories is that the "God of Love, Mystery, Freedom and Community" they have apparently encountered to the satisfaction of the author – IS NOT THE GOD OF CATHOLICISM. Their new understanding of God has made them "comfortable" with themselves and it is a "non-judgmental" God who has brought them "peace and calm". Typical was the following testimony of an alcoholic rehabilitated in an Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) program expressing his new "spirituality":
"[My personal relationship with God] doesn't have to be the same as yours. My beliefs can be different, my attitudes can be different. And that creates a very comfortable situation in my mind, at least, I don't have to feel guilt over not necessarily accepting everything that the church taught, or, at least, what I thought the church taught."
Another in an AA program was enlightened to profess:
"We are all born loving and whole and connected... I find my religion in the rooms of AA – my connection and my remembering of God – and in the 'Course in Miracles'."
More could be said here of the book's sanctioning heterodox notions of God, Christ, the Church, and the spiritual life which stem from the replacement of dogmatic religion by an individualistic "spirituality" wherein God is experienced "through feelings" liberated by psychotherapy. That people going through secular techniques of counseling and therapy to bypass the supernatural virtue of faith are really experiencing God – is in itself highly questionable. God is to be known rather by supernatural faith informing the intellect, not feelings, and there can be no valid "mystical experience" of God and Christ that results in views contrary to Catholic doctrine and which disregard the voice of the Church's authority (regarding, for example, the reality of the effects of original sin). The desired goal of an intimate personal relationship with God is the result of grace and faithful recourse to the sacraments of the Church.
The "real Living God" presented in this book IS NOT the Holy Trinity and smacks more of the "God within" of New Age adepts and the false mysticism and exaggerated subjectivism of Theosophists.
John J. Shea's book "Finding God Again: Spirituality for Adults" bears no Imprimatur. It is not likely one would have been granted because of the author's depreciation of the intellect and objectivity and his disregarding the dangers of illuminism. Catholics should be wary of this volume's furthering a counterfeit spirituality.