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Theology, Psychology and the Plural SelfReview - Theology, Psychology and the Plural Self
by Leon Turner
Ashgate, 2008
Review by Terry Burridge
Aug 18th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 34)

I remember a conversation I has with a friend some years ago. We were discussing Faith. He said that he had been thinking for a long time about his bottom line regarding his Christian faith. "I've reached the point where all that I know that I can really say is 'I believe in God'. I replied that that was a very solid place to have reached but that I wasn't sure that I could get beyond 'I'! Which parts of myself believed in God- which parts of myself did not want to believe in God. In Freudian terms, for example, were my ego; super ego and my id in any kind of agreement about their belief in God? This conversation is the essence of Leon turner's book. He raises a number of questions, some of which I found more relevant than others. He spends a great deal of time making an argument about the increasing fragmentation of both individuals and societies. Turner takes as his starting point the view that, within post modernism, there is no longer any single, unifying narrative-of anything. Of self; of right or wrong; of political ideas; of theological beliefs. This lack of a coherent story raises questions for him about how theology should respond. Indeed what purpose does theology play in such a world view and what impact does post modernism have on soteriology. He asks

"... if the concept of the true and unified self is replaced by a multiplicity of divergent self-images, who or what, exactly, bears God's image? If identities are transitory and fragmented, who or what is burdened by sin, and who is finally redeemed by Christ?"

He later tells us that his aim is "... to explore other ways of understanding the disunity of self and perhaps even other solutions to the existential trepidation that accompanies the post modern world."

He uses a number of thinkers and writers to illustrate the various points that he wishes to make. These are drawn widely from social theorists and more narrowly from theologians.

Turner goes slowly and builds his argument carefully, first attempting to demonstrate the idea that societies and individuals are becoming increasingly fragmented. (His chapter on Dissociative Identity Disorder and a sense of "self" is particularly interesting.) From here he looks at how this fragmented self can be connected to man being made in the image of God. To do this he uses the work of two modern theologians- Wolfhart Pannenberg and Alistair McFayden both of whom find ways of seeing God as "corporate". (If God is triune-three in one; one in three- then He has "multiple" selves. And by definition God's nature cannot be pathological. Thus, Turner argues, man's multiple selves are not necessarily pathological. This is his objection to much contemporary theology, that it pathologies Man rather than seeing something positive in his fragmented self. He quotes with approval Christoph Schwobel's view that

"There is no one clearly defined Christian understanding of personhood which is to be contrasted with clearly defined secular notions... Christian theology is therefore not only challenged to clarify what is distinctively  theological in its accounts of personhood but is also confronted with the task of finding criteria for what is authentically Christian in theological concepts of the person." (P.193)

This is one of the tasks which Turner sees as crucial for contemporary theological thinking.

The difficulty with Turner's book and the scholars whom he cites, is that it is only a question that exercises a very small group. For the great majority of people of any faith or of none, the question of how post-modern man's fractured sense of identity can be reconciled to his being in the image of God is not an issue. (There is also a prior question about whether or not we do feel ourselves to be fragmented. We are busy; we can at times feel overwhelmed by the pace of life; the speed with which technology introduces new products can be frightening. But this is not new. Every generation has to live with change and to find a way of keeping a sense of self intact. And theology, too, has had to find ways of responding. But it is not a new challenge.)

Turner is an academic theologian who is at home with this discipline's language. This reviewer struggled at times to understand what Turner was saying. Thus he writes
"Confusingly, the idea that a person might be constituted from many co-existing sub-personalities seems to carry many of the same implications for ideas of synchronic and diachronic experiential unity as the idea of a co-existence of alternate personalities." (P.96)

Or,  "It is through analogy to the perichoretic triune God, they believe, that personhood can be seen to be an intrinsically relational concept." (P.124) (Perichoretic is a theological term used to describe the ways in which the three people of the Trinity relate both to each other and themselves.)

This style of writing leaves me once again wondering about whom it is that academics write for. As some of the mental health texts that I have reviewed are way outside the reading habits of an "average" nurse, so I suspect that Turner's book is outside the reading habits of the "average" priest. Similarly, I doubt that the "average" Christian believer worries too much about whether his or her identity is singular or multiple; unified or fragmented. Nor how their sense of self might link to their being made in the image of God. So, one is left wondering who will buy and read Turner's book. Which is a shame because his core question about what constitutes "Self" is an extremely important question in my own field of mental health. But my interest is clinical and psychological, not theological. Moreover, St. Paul wrote about "... bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ". (1Corinthians10:5) Surely a contemporary version could be "... bringing into captivity every self to the obedience of Christ". This might provide an easy rule of thumb for a Christian believer who may not wish to read Turner's more erudite exposition of this problem.

© 2009 Terry Burridge



Terry Burridge is a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at Buckinghamshire New University. He has spent most of his professional life as a psychiatric nurse and now spends considerable time and energy trying to inspire future psychiatric nurses to be the best kinds of nurses that they can be! He is very much influenced by psychoanalytic thinking and sees analytic theory as offering a valuable critique to many other areas of human activity. He can be contacted at


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