Pastoral Theology/Practice and Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology


Pastoral theology, unlike theoretical theology, is rooted in the existential understanding of the contemporary Christian. Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology, an existential philosophy, is a useful psychoanalytic approach to pastoral practice. Individual Psychology is a non-theoretical understanding of life which provides a basis for an holistic pastoral practice.

Pastoral theology, being a theology of the church's practice rather than a theology of the church's doctrine, is set within the context of self-reflection as an existential philosophy. Pastoral theology is unlike the theoretical theology of interpretation of the church's beliefs. In theoretical philosophy, which grounds traditional Western theology, reality is considered as fixed and unchanging and lived experience is somehow a shadow of this reality. Theoretical philosophy has its roots in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler is an existential philosophy which criticises the theoretical way of thinking: "The human spirit is only too well accustomed to reduce everything that is in flux to a form, to consider it not as movement but as frozen movement--movement that has become form." [1] While "form" is a useful concept for interpretation in a theoretical school of thought, it is not a useful concept for understanding within a philosophy rooted in experience.

There are many psychoanalytic theories useful to pastoral practice. Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology is one of them. Because of his sympathetic attitude toward religious belief his Individual Psychology affirms the person within a Christian understanding of human development. Adler's Individual Psychology is set out in his theory of Community Feeling which is useful in developing Christian understanding. Community Feeling refers to a feeling of belonging, of being accepted within a community. The German term for Community Feeling is Gemeinschaftsgefuehl. Community Feeling is more than an attitude of civil interest or association. Community Feeling enters into a transcendental understanding in its more developed stages. Thus, Community Feeling is an aspect of an holistic pastoral psychology. Adler believed that the ultimate purpose of psychotherapy was to improve the human social condition. In light of this goal Muller developed a religious humanism based on Adlerian Individual Psychology. [2] According to O'Connell, "In Adler's theory the Christian movement represented one of the finest forces directing the movement of mankind. Its end was the search for perfection and the elevation of the family and mankind." [3]

The theoretical philosophy used by theologians to interpret Christian theological understanding is no longer as effective. A new understanding is needed. Pioneers in the search for a new way of understanding Christian theological development are Leslie Dewart and Gregory Baum. Dewart explores an existential philosophical foundation for belief and Baum offers a Christian apologetic of depth experiences. [4] Their insights suggest that an holistic pastoral psychology is needed to replace theoretical philosophy in contemporary pastoral practice.

Ellison and Smith state that "holistic conceptions of healthy personality and functioning are an integral part of the personality theories of Adler, Allport, Maslow, and Rogers." [5] Holistic understanding is a non-theoretical theory which states that a living organism "has a reality other and greater than the sum of its constituent parts." [6] Gladson and Lucas suggest that since Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung seem overworked with respect to psychological and religious themes, new ground might be explored in the psychologies of Viktor Frankl and Alfred Adler. [7] In modern times psychological principles have been integrated into theological understanding. Adler's Community Feeling is shaped through participation in life and not merely by the observation of life. Therefore, it is an existential psychology. Adler's existential psychology is among those non-theoretical holistic interpretive systems that can assist Christian development of the person. Adler's ideas can be successfully integrated into pastoral practice but psychologists are loathe to discuss them. [8] Adler's Community Feeling, through an holistic approach, provides the Christian pastor with new insights into pastoral practice. It also provides the pastor with a new way of understanding his/her own gifts.

Alfred Adler, Jewish born, converted to Protestantism in later life but not out of religious conviction. Even so, Hoffman notes that Adler collaborated with the Lutheran pastor, Ernest Jahn, in a religious work entitled, Religion and Individual Psychology. However, Adler himself remained independent and neutral "as towards the efforts of Catholic or Protestant psychologists to combine [his] views with religious doctrine." [9] Experience shows, however, that Adler's views are acceptable to pastoral theology for a number of reasons.

1st Reason:

Adler's Individual Psychology is a positive approach to life. In secular (humanist) psychologies, particularly dominant in the United States, religious understanding of life is often seen to require corrective intervention by psychologists. All too often, in the dominant secular culture of the West, to account in psychological terms for a religious understanding of life is seen as something negative, as a crisis to be overcome or solved in one's life. But this is changing. [10] Adler's understanding of Community Feeling is a highly effective tool at the "level of preventive rather than corrective intervention" which makes it useful to pastoral practice. [11]

To a great degree this understanding of preventive intervention is in reaction to Freud's understanding in The Future of an Illusion. An alternative understanding given by Sorenson counters Freud's negative position. [12] In Sorenson's view the struggle to express a religious understanding of life in psychological terms is understood as a positive experience, that is to say, as preventive intervention, not corrective intervention. Preventive intervention comprises part of the normal stages of holistic growth and development of each individual. [13]

The purpose of a pastoral theology is to understand important tasks in life from a Christian perspective for the betterment of the individual and society. Or, as Adler phrases it: "We approach the problem from a different angle but the goal is the same--to increase interest in others." [14] Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology stresses the importance of positive nurturing within the environment. Stein and Edwards explain that the goal of therapy is to increase the feeling of community, to promote a feeling of equality and, as well, to replace an egocentric self- protection and self-indulgence with a self-transcending, courageous and social contribution. [15] In this way an individual attains health and becomes useful within a community and society. This positive approach can be integrated into a contemporary pastoral practice.

2nd Reason:

Individual Psychology understands contemporary experience. Contemporary western Christians do not live in a theoretical world. Theoretical philosophy is often of little value to individuals in coping with their day to day tasks. I am not the first, nor indeed the last, to recognize that theoretical philosophy is no longer adequate for the contemporary context. William James came to that conclusion. In an attempt to show the contrary, that theoretical understanding was indeed adequate for contemporary understanding, James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience. What resulted, however, was the realization on his part that an existential psychology was better suited to interpret religious understanding in modern times than a theoretical philosophy. James concludes:

Philosophy in this sphere [of religious experience] is thus a secondary function, unable to warrant faith's veracity....In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless. [16]

Adler discusses the truth of religious experiences in Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind. "The best conception hitherto gained for the elevation of humanity is the idea of God....The primal energy which was so effective in establishing regulative religious goals was none other than that of social feeling" [my italics]. [17] "Regulative religious goals" is the beginning of an Adlerian understanding for an holistic pastoral practice. By accepting regulative religious goals the pastor guides others to a new and healthy understanding in keeping with contemporary Christian experience.

3rd Reason:

Adler's psychological viewpoint is a novel understanding of individuality and one's relationship to community. His understanding supports the Christian notion of community and the search for Christian perfection. In Individual Psychology, individuality is not to be confused with individualism. The latter is concerned with a distinct theory or doctrinal system which reflects a theoretical way of thinking; whereas the former is concerned with one's state, condition or quality of life which reflects a phenomenological way of thinking. O'Connell, an Adlerian interpreter, speaks of Adler's psychology as promoting the individuated person rather than the individual person. He states that "individuated psychology is in need of a deep eternal Self, as well as broad social concerns." [18] The "deep eternal Self and its broad social concerns" finds a home in the Christian community. The individual is able to cooperate with God in building a contemporary Christian community.

In Summary:

That all important life problems are social and that health is attained by the individual in a set of harmonious social relationships are concerns proper to pastoral theology. Individual Psychology consists of basic orientations which are supportive of a Christian perspective on social life and the development of a pastoral practice. The Christian life style, which seeks health and seeks to prevent illness (physical and spiritual), is lived out in community. And, since Christians often understand their churches and fellowship groups as communities of holistic health and well- being, Adler's Community Feeling is useful in understanding a dimension of the Christian community.


[1] A. Adler, Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind. (London: Faber & Faber, 1943), p. 269.

[2] A. Muller, You Shall Be a Blessing: Main Traits of a Religious Humanism, (San Francisco, Alfred Adler Institute, 1992).

[3] W. E. O'Connell, 'Individual Psychology', New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, p. 473 (Washington, Catholic University of America Press, 1967).

[4] L. Dewart. The Foundations of Belief. (New York, Herder and Herder, 1969) pp. 209-346 and G. Baum. Faith and Doctrine: A Contemporary View. (New York, Newman Press, 1969) pp. 51-90.

[5] C. Ellison and J. Smith, 'Toward an Integrative Measure of Health and Well-being', Journal of Psychology and Theology 19 (1991), p. 35.

[6] Funk and Wagnalls Canadian College Dictionary, s. v. 'holism' (Toronto, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1989).

[7] J. Gladson and R. Lucas, 'Hebrew Wisdom and Psychotheological Dialogue', Zygon 24 (1989), 357-376.

[8] H. Mosak and R. Dreikurs, 'The Life Tasks III: The Fifth Life Task', The Individual Psychologist 5 (1967), 16-22.

[9] E. Hoffman, The Drive for Self: Alfred Adler and the Founding of Individual Psychology (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994), p. 194.

[10] An historian of American political thought, Gregory S. Butler, notes a shift in this understanding. He writes: 'Over the past several decades, our understanding of modernity has been profoundly changed. This change has occurred as a result of a body of critical scholarship that challenges the widely-held notion that the modern world is characterized primarily by the triumph of secular rationalism and the steadily declining influence of religion and spirituality'. G. Butler, 'Visions of a Nation Transformed: Modernity and Ideology in Wilson's Political Thought', Journal of Church and State 39 (1997), 37-1.

Further, Michael McAteer, writing in the newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada, quotes Gregory Baum: 'We are witnessing a worldwide return of religion to the public sphere, both on the right and on the left'. M. McAteer, 'Don't Write Religion's Obit Yet', Anglican Journal (10 December 1995).

[11] D. Bishop, 'Psychology and the Pastoral Ministry: Help or Hindrance?', Journal of Psychology and Theology 17 (1989), p.155.

[12] A. Sorenson, 'Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Religion: The Illusion has a Future', Journal of Psychology and Theology 18 (1990), 209-217.

[13] M. McMinn and C. Lebold, 'Collaborative Efforts in Cognitive Therapy with Religious Clients', Journal of Psychology and Theology 17 (1989), 101-109.

[14] A. Adler, What Life Should Mean to You (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1931), p. 12.

[15] H. Stein and M Edwards, 'Alfred Adler: Classical Theory and Practice' in P. Marcus and A. Rosenberg (eds), Psychoanalytic Versions of the Human Condition: Philosophies of Life and Their Practice (New York, New York University Press, 1998).

[16] W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (London, Longmans Green, 1908), 455.

[17] A. Adler, Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind (London, Faber & Faber, 1943), p. 272.

[18] W. O'Connell, 'Introduction to Natural High Theory and Practice', Canadian Journal of Adlerian Psychology 27 (1997), p. 114.

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