Review: Religion and the Human Sciences

Daniel A. Helminiak

SUNY Press, 1998, 332 pages, PB $21.95

Reviewed by Toby Johnson

In this book and its companion The Human Core of Spirituality: Mind as Psyche and Spirit (reviewed in WCJ #35) Daniel Helminiak elaborates his extensive theory of spirituality as an academic discipline and science, indeed, a specialization, not in theology, but in psychology. Like the first book, Religion and the Human Sciences is demanding reading.

Helminiak, a former Dignity priest, now a college professor in Georgia, was a student of the Catholic logician Bernard Lonergan. From Longeran, he learned a rigorous style of argument and logic. Thus to make his point he distinguishes three factors in human existence: organism, psyche and spirit; and four viewpoints by which to observe and understand experience: positivist, philosophic, theist and theotic. The explanation of these viewpoints makes up the meat of the book. In the process of explaining terms, Helminiak presents his argument for spirituality as an aspect of psychology.

Central to the argument is the notion that "God" as the "Explanation of Everything about Everything" and God as the subject matter of religion is really irrelevant to the understanding of human spiritual development. The discussions of the meaning of "God" are some of the most interesting in the book. Particularly so is Helminiak's explanation of what Christianity is really about. One provocative conclusion he reaches is that modern day Fundamentalism, especially because of its lack of a theory of human deification, is not properly a Christian religion at all. (Perhaps for less rigorously argued reasons, most of us would agree with that!)

Helminiak says "authenicity" is the real goal of the spiritual life: "Be responsible, Be reasonable, Be intelligent, Be attentive." These found morality -- without any appeal to divine authority or Cosmic Judge -- while defining the goals of human spiritual maturity. These can be described according to empirical psychology better than by the various and conflicting opinions of religion.

The second half of the book is a comparison/contrast with two other efforts to devise a scientific model of spirituality, that of Don S. Browning in Religious Thought and the Modern Psychologies and of Ken Wilbur in Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm. Perhaps revealing a little too much the style of his Catholic theological training, Helminiak explains the other two models by refuting them, showing how his conceptualization is more inclusive and more explanatory. And I think he's right. Because I've been a fan of Ken Wilbur's for years, I found this part of the discussion the most interesting.

This is a book well worth reading (if only as an exercise of mental faculties -- it's bound to be a prophylactic for Alzheimer's Disease). Daniel Helminiak's understanding of the meaning of religion and spiritual concerns is profound. At the same time, I have to say I think he belabors the obvious. Of course, spirituality and ethics and the nature of mythology and the developmental patterns of human life are better understood as psychological phenomena. Institutionalized religion has done a terrible job of handling these issues. Now that modern anthropology and comparative religion have allowed us to understand what the religious impulse in consciousness is, we can figure out the meaning of its metaphors without all the baggage of the Church. You just can't help but question the moral legitimacy of an organization that until relatively recent times routinely tortured and gruesomely murdered its competitors. (If the Swiss banks are held to account for the Holocaust, then the Christian Church ought to be held to account for the Inquisition.)

But what seems obvious to me is apparently not so obvious to a huge body of traditional American Christians. And intelligent, well-argued explications, like Daniel Helminiak's, are very important in the evolution of thought. Daniel really does articulate a new paradigm.