May 10, 2006

Gestalt and some theological stuff

Gestalt is a German word literally meaning shape or form.

Gestalt may also refer to:
Gestalt psychology (or Gestalt theory), a theory of mind and brain.Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy, a method of psychotherapy based strictly on Gestalt psychology .Gestalt therapy, a form of psychotherapy built on the experiential ideal of "here and now" and relationships with others and the world. Gestalt entity, a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts.

The history of Gestalt therapy starts with the professional development of Fritz Perls and the zeitgeist in which he lived. After acquiring the M.D. degree, Perls went to Frankfurt-am-Main in 1926 as an assistant to Kurt Goldstein at the Institute for Brain Damaged Soldiers. Here he was exposed to Professors Goldstein and Adhemar Gelb and he met his future wife, Laura. At that time Frankfurt-am-Main was a center of intellectual ferment and Perls was directly and indirectly exposed to leading Gestalt psychologists, existential philosophers and psychoanalysts.

Laura Posner Perls was a cofounder of Gestalt therapy. Her influence on Perls was generally known, and she wrote a chapter in Ego, Hunger and Aggression. She had contact with and was influenced by the existential theologians Martin Buber and Paul Tillich. Much of the Gestalt, phenomenological and existential influences in Gestalt therapy are through her, although credit and influence were limited by how little she wrote under her name.

Martin Buber (1878 - 1965) was an Austrian-Jewish philosopher, translator, and educator, whose work centered around theistic ideals of religious consciousness, interpersonal relations, and community. Buber's evocative, sometimes poetic writing style have marked the major themes in his work: the retelling of Hasidic tales, Biblical commentary, and metaphysical dialogue.

Buber is famous for his synthetic thesis of dialogical existence, as he described in the book I and Thou. However his work dealt with a range of issues including religious consciousness, modernity, the concept of evil, ethics, education, and Biblical hermeneutics.

In I and Thou, Buber introduced his thesis on human existence. Inspired partly by Feuerbach's concept of ego in The Essence of Christianity and Kierkegaard's "Single One", Buber worked upon the premise of existence as encounter. He explained this philosophy using the word pairs of "I-Thou" and "I-It" to categorize the modes of consciousness, interaction, and being through which an individual engages with other individuals, inanimate objects, and all reality in general. Philosophically, these word pairs express complex ideas about modes of being - particularly how a person exists and actualizes that existence. As Buber argues in I and Thou, a person is at all times engaged with the world in one of these modes.

The generic motif Buber employs to describe the dual modes of being is one of dialogue (I-Thou) and monologue (I-It). The concept of communication, particularly language-oriented communication, is used both in describing dialogue/monologue through metaphors and expressing the interpersonal nature of human existence.

I-Thou is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is a concrete encounter, because these beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. Even imagination and ideas do not play a role in this relation. In an I-Thou encounter, infinity and universality are made actual (rather than being merely concepts).

Buber stressed that an I-Thou relationship lacks any composition (e.g. structure) and communicates no content (e.g. information). Despite the fact that I-Thou cannot be proven to happen as an event (e.g. it cannot be measured), Buber stressed that it is real and perceivable. A variety of examples are used to illustrate I-Thou relationships in daily life - two lovers, an observer and a cat, the author and a tree, and two strangers on a train. Common words Buber used for I-Thou include encounter, meeting, dialogue, mutuality, and exchange.

The I-It relationship is nearly the opposite of I-Thou. Whereas in I-Thou the two beings encounter one another, in an I-It relationship the beings do not actually meet. Instead, the "I" confronts and qualifies an idea, or conceptualization, of the being in its presence and treats that being as an object. All such objects are considered merely mental representations, created and sustained by the individual mind. This is similar to Levanis’t heory of totality), in that these objects reside in the cognitive agent’s mind, existing only as thoughts. Therefore, the I-It relationship is in fact a relationship with oneself; it is not a dialogue, but a monologue.
In the I-It relationship, an individual treats other things, people, etc., as objects to be used and experienced. Essentially, this form of objectivity relates to the world in terms of the self - how an object can serve the individual’s interest.

Buber did not consider the I-It relation better than the I-Thou relation; rather, he argued that they are both natural and necessary. Human life consists of an oscillation between I-Thou and I-It. However, in diagnosing modernity, Buber believed that the expansion of a purely analytic, material view of existence was at heart an advocation of I-It relations - even between human beings. Buber argued that this devalued not only individuals, but all of existence.

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886 – 1965) was a German-American theologian and Christian existentialist philosopher. Tillich was, along with contemporary Karl Barth, one of the more influential Protestant theologians of the twentieth century.

Tillich's approach to Protestant theology was highly systematic. He sought to correlate culture and faith such that "faith need not be unacceptable to contemporary culture and contemporary culture need not be unacceptable to faith". As a consequence, Tillich's orientation is highly apologetic, seeking to make concrete theological answers such that they become applicable to an ordinary day's course of events. This contributed to his popularity by the virtue of the fact that it made him highly accessible to lay readers. In a broader perspective, revelation is understood as the fountainhead of religion. Tillich sought to reconcile revelation and reason by arguing that revelation never runs counter to reason (affirming Thomas Aquinas when he said that faith is eminently rational), but both poles of the subjective human experience are complementary.

In his metaphysical approach, Tillich was a staunch existentialist, focusing on the nature of being. Nothingness is a major motif of existentialist philosophy and so Tillich included this concept as a means of reifying being itself. Tillich argued that anxiety of non-being (existential anguish) is inherent in the experience of being itself. Put simply, people are afraid of their own non-existence, i.e., their death. Following a line similar to Søren Kierkegaardand almost identical to that of Sigmund Freud, Tillich says that in our most introspective moments we face the terror of our own nothingness. That is, we "realize our mortality", that we are finite beings. The question which naturally arises in the mind of one in this introspective mood is what causes us to "be" in the first place. Tillich concludes that radically finite beings (which are, at least potentially, infinite in variation) cannot be sustained or caused by another finite or existing being. What can sustain finite beings is being itself, or the "ground of being". This Tillich identifies as God. Much of Tillich's phenomenological language with regard to being can be traced back to Martin Heidegger, with whom Tillich was in contact prior to 1933. Tillich also utilized some of the basic framework of Heidegger's fundamental ontology in the discussion on Being and God in the Systematic Theology.

Another name for the ground of being is essence. Essence is thought of as the power of being, and is forever unassailable by the conscious mind. As such it remains beyond the realm of thought, preserving the need for revelation in the Christian tradition.

Opposed to essence but dependent upon it is existence. Existence is that which is finite. Essence is the infinite. Since existence is being and essence is the ground of being, then essence is the ground or source of existence. But because the one is infinite and the other not, then existence (the finite) is fundamentally alienated from the essence. Man is alienated from God. This Tillich takes to be sin. To exist is to be alienated.

Tillich's radical departure from traditional Christian theology is his view of Christ. According to Tillich, Christ is the "New Being", who rectifies in himself the alienation between essence and existence. Essence fully shows itself within Christ, but Christ is also a finite man. This indicates, for Tillich, a revolution in the very nature of being. The gap is healed and essence can now be found within existence. Thus for Tillich, Christ is not God per se in himself, but Christ is the revelation of God. Whereas traditional Christianity regards Christ as wholly man and wholly God, Tillich believed that Christ was the emblem of the highest goal of man, what God wants men to become. Thus to be a Christian is to make oneself progressively "Christ-like", a very possible goal in Tillich's eyes. In other words, Christ is not God in the traditional sense, but reveals the essence inherent in all existence, including mine and your own. Thus Christ is not different than you or I except insofar as he fully reveals God within his own finitude, something you and I can also do in principle.

"God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him."

This statement of Tillich's summarizes his conception of God. We cannot think of God as a being which exists in time and space, because that constrains God, and makes God finite. But all beings are finite, and if God is the Creator of all beings, God cannot logically be finite since a finite thing cannot be the sustainer of an infinite variety of finite things. Thus we must think of God as beyond being, above finitude and limitation, the power or essence of being itself.

A final major point of Tillich's theology is this: since things in existence are corrupt and therefore ambiguous, no finite thing can be (by itself) that which is infinite. All that is possible is for the finite to be a vehicle for revealing the infinite, but the two can never be confused. This leaves religion itself in a place where it cannot be taken as too dogmatic, because of its conceptual and therefore finite and corrupt nature. True religion is that which correctly reveals the infinite, but no religion can ever do so in any way other than through metaphor and symbol. Thus the whole of the Bible must be understood symbolically, and all spiritual and theological knowledge cannot be other than symbol. This is often seized upon by theologians to utilize as an effective counterpoint to religious fundamentalism. More importantly, Tillich argued that symbols are immensely important to faith because "faith is the state of being ultimately concerned." Faith without symbols is a form of idolatry. It is faith in something finite, something that can be expressed without symbols, and something that is fundamentally less than the ultimate.

The Gestalt therapist works by engaging in dialogue rather than by manipulating the patient toward some therapeutic goal. Such contact is marked by straightforward caring, warmth, acceptance and self-responsibility. When therapists move patients toward some goal, the patients cannot be in charge of their own growth and self-support. Dialogue is based on experiencing the other person as he or she really is and showing the true self, sharing phenomenological awareness. The Gestalt therapist says what he or she means and encourages the patient to do the same. Gestalt dialogue embodies authenticity and responsibility.

The therapeutic relationship in Gestalt therapy emphasizes four characteristics of dialogue:

1. Inclusion. This is putting oneself as fully as possible into the experience of the other without judging, analyzing or interpreting while simultaneously retaining a sense of one's separate, autonomous presence. This is an existential and interpersonal application of the phenomenological trust in immediate experience. Inclusion provides an environment of safety for the patient's phenomenological work and, by communicating an understanding of the patient's experience, helps sharpen the patient's self-awareness.

2. Presence. The Gestalt therapist expresses herself to the patient. Regularly, judiciously, and with discrimination she expresses observations, preferences, feelings, personal experience and thoughts. Thus, the therapist shares her perspective by modeling phenomenological reporting, which aids the patient's learning about trust and use of immediate experience to raise awareness. If the therapist relies on theory-derived interpretation, rather than personal presence, she leads the patient into relying on phenomena not in his own immediate experience as the tool for raising awareness. In Gestalt therapy the therapist does not use presence to manipulate the patient to conform to preestablished goals, but rather encourages patients to regulate themselves autonomously.

3. Commitment to dialogue. Contact is more than something two people do to each other. Contact is something that happens between people, something that arises from the interaction between them. The Gestalt therapist surrenders herself to this interpersonal process. This is allowing contact to happen rather than manipulating, making contact, and controlling the outcome.

4. Dialogue is lived. Dialogue is something done rather than talked about. "Lived" emphasizes the excitement and immediacy of doing. The mode of dialogue can be dancing, song, words, or any modality that expresses and moves the energy between or among the participants. An important contribution of Gestalt therapy to phenomenological experimentation is enlarging the parameters to include explication of experience by nonverbal expressions. However, the interaction is limited by ethics, appropriateness, therapeutic task, and so on.

To summarize, a quote from Levitsky and Simkin (1972) seems appropriate:
If we were to choose one key idea to stand as a symbol for the Gestalt approach, it might well be the concept of authenticity, the quest for authenticity...If we regard therapy and the therapist in the pitiless light of authenticity, it becomes apparent that the therapist cannot teach what he does not know...A therapist with some experience really knows within himself that he is communicating to his patient his [the therapist's] own fears as well as his courage, his defensiveness as well as his openness, his confusion as well as his clarity. The therapist's awareness, acceptance, and sharing of these truths can be a highly persuasive demonstration of his own authenticity. Obviously such a position is not acquired overnight. It is to be learned and relearned ever more deeply not only throughout one's career but throughout one's entire life.

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