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Keith Haartman, Watching and Praying: Personality Transformation in Eighteenth Century British Methodism



Watching and Praying: Personality Transformation in Eighteenth Century British Methodism

Keith Haartman

Amsterdam , NY : Rodopi, 2004. xii, 241


This book is the fourth volume in the series, “Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies”. Not surprisingly, then, the book aims passim at a psychoanalytic exploration, amplification and assessment of the personality transformations of those who were the immediate beneficiaries of the eighteenth century Methodist movement spawned and sustained by John Wesley.   Unlike most psychoanalytic attempts at explanation (the book insists on explaining religious development, not merely describing it), Haartman’s doesn’t regard religious experience as inherently pathological.

Haartman’s debt to two notable psychologists, Melanie Klein and Abraham Maslow, is evident and acknowledged.         Klein’s psychoanalytic work with children figures significantly throughout Watching, while Maslow’s concept of self-actualization is melded with such traditional aspects of psychoanalysis as the relation of superego to ego-ideal and the nature of ego reaction.

Drawing on Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions (150 sermons in four volumes) and his movement’s journal, Arminian Magazine (published first in 1778, and as Methodist Magazine after 1798), Haartman consistently relates the normative function of the former to the anecdotal function of the latter.         Perceptively he grasps Wesley’s insistence on “salvation” as a present reality (rather than a post-mortem occurrence), and relates it to the psychoanalytic agenda of unconscious-conflict resolution and intrapsychic integration. In all of this Haartman indicates how psychoanalysis provides a tool for understanding the process of the doctrinal tenets that early-day Methodists embodied.

Foundational to Haartman’s entire exposition, and according to him the first stage of religious development, is the unconscious conflict pertaining to childhood stresses: parental punishment, unresolved grief and separation anxiety. (In the 1700s parents were urged not to “spare the rod”; the infant/childhood death rate was higher than 50% in many areas of Britain ; and children were frequently traumatized on account of the untimely loss of parents through sickness and accident.)

The second stage, “justification”, is a form of displacement of ordinary consciousness. Here the accumulation of grief, guilt and anxiety issues in a crisis religiously labelled “repentance”, which crisis ought then to be resolved as the penitent is flooded with an awareness of God’s pervasive pardon, free acceptance, and ubiquitous mercy.         In psychoanalytic terms, the crisis is defused as it proceeds to a punitive ecstasy where new-born believers, rejoicing in their deliverance, apprehend themselves and the entire creation as unfolding within the sphere of God’s omnipresent love.         Concomitantly with this unitive ecstasy, believers recognize and surrender to God’s claim upon them for “inward and outward holiness” (a favourite expression of Wesley’s whereby he means transformation of disposition and conduct alike) – or, once again, unconscious moral insights or ego-ideals can be said to be brought to consciousness.

The third and final stage consists of “watching and praying”.         Ever “watching” believers introspect so as to become increasingly aware of threats to their integration that might precipitate “backsliding”, a regression to the pre-justification stage of development. Ever “praying”, they “practise the presence” (of God), therein conforming to the ego-ideal that the Christian tradition has named “sanctification”.

While Haartman insists that religious ecstasies and unitive experiences pertain to the core of Methodist spirituality, they are not (or at least not necessarily) manic denials of the reality principle.         Notwithstanding the psychological assessment, there remains an ontological assessment that the book appears to overlook; namely, what do psychoanalysis and Wesley (the Methodist movement) affirm to be ultimately real? The ontology of the former is natural; the latter’s is supernatural, the presence and significance of Spirit, that reality which cannot be reduced to the natural world nor to any aspect or dimension of it.         While the book renounces naturalistic reduction, many passages in it suggest the opposite. For instance, in speaking of justification (the Christian affirmation that those “in the wrong” before God are rendered “rightly related” to God), Haartman writes, “In the optimal outcome of the desolation crisis, the lifting of repression allows the ego to regain access to intrapsychic representations of the good parent.”(p.114)         Elsewhere he writes, “…psychic integration, what Wesley deemed ‘growth in grace’”. (p173)         For Wesley these two developments were ontically dissimilar: one could be growing in grace while lacking psychic integration.

Irrespective of the foregoing, Watching displays a thorough grasp of the classical and contemporary psychoanalytic literature. It is replete with helpful insights concerning the Methodist tradition.         It is cogently argued. It is a worthy contribution to the psycho-religious discussion and will foster much fruitful discussion.

Keith Haartman currently teaches at the Institute of Communication and Culture, University of Toronto at Mississauga .



Victor Shepherd

Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology

Tyndale University College & Seminary