As someone who has studied both theology and psychology, one of the questions that has bothered me over the years, is why the relationship between these two areas of thought and research isn’t more creative. It’s wrong to generalise, but I have often found there to be an unhealthy degree of competition between psychologists and theologians when it comes to discussing aspects of the human condition.
On the whole this is a competition that the psychologists believe themselves to be winning – and so they are the ones who most naturally and obviously carry an air of superiority. I am not myself entirely sure that the better eggs are in the psychological basket. After many years of studying psychology, I felt I was going up an intellectual gear or two when I embarked on theology. (But I shouldn’t say that and risk making the competitive spirit any worse than it is – and goodness knows, a pompous theologian isn’t exactly unheard of…)
In recent years, however, I have found a very constructive, positive and mutually respectful environment in which psychological and theological perspectives are brought into dialogue and rendered more creative than competitive – where the energy generated is more likely to be light than heat.
The environment of which I write is the ‘Trialogue’ conference, which meets every two years. Unlike many efforts to get the ‘psyches’ and the ‘theos’ together, this venture doesn’t just set the two off against each other, but introduces a third element into the conversation – literature. This doesn’t only mean that there is a work of modern literary fiction on the table, but that treating the work as literature is as important as regarding the characters and the plot psychologically and theologically.
Actually, the Trialogue doesn’t use the word ‘theology’ very much, preferring to use the more contemporary and inclusive word ‘spirituality’. My own perspective on this is what when people use the word ‘spirituality’ to create space for a broad and engaged theology it is very helpful – and this is more or less the way it works with the Trialogue.
I went to my first Trialogue when I was completing my book about forgiveness, ‘Healing Agony’. That year the conference was focussed on two books by Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’ and ‘Home’. I found it so stimulating that I needed to rethink and rewrite fundamental aspects of my own book, and publication was a little delayed. It was a much better book for the Trialogue, however, and I remain extremely grateful to those who made such a rich environment for thinking things through.
Next year the Trialogue is based on ‘The Quality of Mercy’ by Barry Unsworth. It is a remarkable historical novel which connects the end of the slave trade with the beginnings of the mining industry, and suggests a deeply subtle and thought-provoking critique of the profit motive. Or so say the reviewers and critics.
In my opinion it is a deeper book than that, and invites serious refection on the way in which people relate to both literal and metaphorical meanings of ‘cost’ and ‘profit’, and not only financially but also ethically. The central theme of the conference, ‘Paying for It’, is very well chosen. You could say it invites us to reflect on the spirituality of justice as well as the ethics of profit, wealth and exploitation.
I say, ‘you could say’ but in fact what I mean is, ‘I probably will say…’ because I am one of the speakers at the conference, which takes place next March.
If you would like to know anything more about the Trialogue do have a quick look at its new website http://www.thetrialogue.co.uk
And if you have a background in one of the psychological disciples, or religion, theology or spirituality or in literature (we have writers, translators, poets among us as well as academics and teachers) please consider joining. How to do so is all explained on the website.
Personally, I have found the Trialogue to be a rich environment for positive, serious and worthwhile thinking and imagining. Should this blog draw one or two more good people into its conversation I would be delighted.