Whole-Hearted Living: Psychology and Christianity in Paul Tournier’s A Place for You

If you’re like me, when it comes to counseling, you’re aware of a certain stigma related to folks who receive counseling services. This phenomenon is especially present in the church, as it seems that many in the church curate a certain suspicion for, or an ambivalence to, the field of psychology. With this in mind, I must tell you of the book I’ve finished reading. It’s by a French-speaking Swiss psychiatrist who was trained as a physician but later turned to counseling as a profession. Practicing in Geneva, Paul Tournier wrote prolifically on the intersection of psychology and spirituality. Tournier, who was a devout Christian, wrote works that received overwhelming reception due to their pastoral nature, and many of his books were translated into English and German.

First published in French in 1966, his book A Place for You attempts to bring together the seemingly separate worlds of psychology and Christianity. He explains how nonbelievers and Christians alike (while they may not have language to express it) seem to “know” the Two Gospels of both worlds, which seem in opposition to each other. The gospel of psychology, as he calls it, is one of “self-fulfillment” and “self-assertion,” while the Biblical gospel is “self-denial” and “renunciation.” (Tournier is careful to point out that this particular conception of the Biblical gospel is just that: a (g)ospel, not the Gospel, but it is nevertheless a gospel which Christian communities immediately recognize.) If, then, we recognize the strain between these two seemingly separate entities, we must ask the question: is there any “place” in which they merge?

Tournier argues that there is. He contends that both movements are necessary for whole-hearted living, but that they must be enacted in a particular progression. He sees the necessity for self-actualization and self-fulfillment to come before renunciation, and the former movement can only occur when children experience attachment in their family of origin – when they have a sense of place within their family. It is out of this sense of place that attachment forms, which is the starting point for young people to develop a healthy sense of self and self-assertion. It is this personhood, this self, which then interacts with a spiritual movement as an adult, when they, as fully formed adults, make true commitments of faith and willingly give themselves up to appropriate renunciation and self-denial.

We are all aware of Christian communities that legislate conformity in behavior and attitude (and dare I say, dress). Further, we are all familiar with Christian communities that deem unacceptable such language as “self-assertion” and “self-fulfillment.” Yet Tournier argues that untold damage is done in Christian communities by curating “premature renunciation” before the member has experienced the appropriate “free expansion” of self, which occurs mostly after having experienced attachment love in the home, when the person felt a place in their family of origin. Without this sense of place, the church’s language of renunciation, to “deny oneself,” becomes painful and confusing. Tournier narrates the progression of a child who does not experience a sense of place in the family, how he begins to imagine that he is not accepted, and he becomes prey to a martyr complex (whether real or imagined), and how he can drift from place to place as an adult, always seeking something he never had, torn by a nostalgia for a place he never knew. It is to this person that the church says, “Give yourself to the service of others, for in the service of others you will find yourself.” Tournier responds in a resounding, “No!” for he understands that since the client “has not been loved, or not loved well, he can neither love nor believe in and accept love.” 

This is the place where psychologists and the Church can work together, if they can understand their respective roles – that is, the psychologist and the counselor attending to the needs for a sense of place (in the consulting room), and the Church rightly interacting with whole-hearted adults who understand the call of Jesus, who says, “Come, follow me.” It is interesting, Tournier notes, the type of person it was who God “called” in Scripture; Tournier notes that those who were called demonstrated a well-formed sense of place. Abraham was well-established in Ur of the Chaldees when God called him. Moses was asked to leave Midian, where he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks. Jesus called Simon and Andrew to leave their well-established fishing profession. The rich young ruler was just that: a rich young ruler, seemingly self-actualized and well-situated in society. Yet we note that perhaps the Church preaches this self-denial a bit too hastily to all persons before (as Tournier argues) the necessary self-assertion movement occurs.

The actual three best quotes from Tournier’s book:

“We have all seen so many of those men and women who have never grown up because they have been repressed by a religious upbringing, and have been trained since infancy in systemic renunciation.”

“To how many generations of miserable exploited people has the Church preached resignation, acceptance of one’s lot, surrender, and submission?”

“How many mediocre personalities are there in our churches – people who have not the courage to live full lives, to assert themselves and make the most of themselves, and who look upon this stifling of themselves as a Christian virtue, whereas faith ought to create powerful personalities?”

It is astonishing how accurate Tournier’s vision of the church is, considering he lived in French-speaking Switzerland (and over fifty years ago!).

I must tell you that reading Tournier was as worldview-shifting for me as reading N.T. Wright, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. There is something in the writing that rings so true. I’m most struck by the stories of his clients who struggled to fit in as young children, along with his clear vision of the way that the church is experienced in almost a heartless way by its many calls for renunciation. (Interestingly, he has many comments about single women and their journey to detaching from their parents, whether in healthy or unhealthy ways. In one chapter about “place,” he indicates that he could not stress enough how important it is for a woman to move out and have her own home.) I appreciate how he clearly highlights the distinctions between the work of psychologists and the work of pastors, and how he offers a Biblical framework for understanding a sense of place and a sense of self in the context of mature Christianity (hence the title, A Place for You).

A bit more personally, his work is teaching me to have grace with myself as I attend to the Two Movements, perhaps at rates different from my peers. Additionally, I’m learning to have grace with others who use language of attachment with God that I used to think was unbelievably hypocritical or even ignorant, for I boasted, “You cannot possibly feel that way about God,” when in fact, perhaps I did not feel that way about God, but yet somehow, by some grace, those persons had experienced some sort of spiritual ascension which I had not yet found. There is a sense, then, in which reading the book improves your own self-knowledge.  

Like Tournier, I, too, am Swiss!

Indeed, I developed my own little attachment to Tournier because I, too, am Swiss, but more than that, there is something about reading his work which makes one feel seen. And that is one of the best feelings in the world.

If you’re curious to read countless stories of his clients from years in the consulting room (to include single women learning to detach and self-actualize in healthy ways), you simply must read this book. A word to the wise: the book is out of print, so scrounging around Amazon is the best way to go. A few copies show up on Amazon for $20 every few weeks; other than that, original copies sit around $600 for sale (!).

Fun fact: I begged three friends to buy their own dusty copies, made them read it, and forced them to attend my own little book club. I cooked Herbed Artichoke Cheese Tortellini and baked (what I call) somewhat edible gluten-free garlic muffins, and we discussed the following book club questions (written by yours truly) for three hours! Let me know if you want to come next time. 😊  

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1. How do you interact with Tournier’s discussion of children knowing a sense of place? Did you experience a strong sense of place within your family as a child? Why or why not? (See p. 12.) If you struggled with attachment as a child, do you connect with the “increasing and unsatisfied nostalgia” he mentions? Further, did that lack of attachment produce in you “real and imagined persecutions” (18)?

2. Choose one of the following quotes and discuss it:

  • “It is readily understandable that to be denied a place is to suffer a serious moral trauma. It is a sort of denial of one’s humanity” (26).
  • “It is true that [man] has a remarkable capacity for adaptation… Nevertheless his capacity to adapt himself has its limits, and if the evolution in his environment becomes too rapid, it may demand a rate of transformation in man which is beyond his capabilities” (53).
  • [many quotes from 55-57 about how our sense of place as humans is being majorly disrupted by advances in science, travel, communication, etc.] “Time was when each man lived shut up in his own little garden. How the world is swept by one tidal wave after another. How can you ask young people to hammer out a personal spiritual place for themselves in the midst of such a maelstrom?” (57)
  • “[The woman] feels more strongly than the man the importance of places… Having a home of her own is particularly important for a woman… it means she has become a person… what a difference it made in their lives. They could have visitors, they had a place of their own” (59).
  • “It is often very difficult for a patient who has been cured, or at least undergone an improvement in his condition, to feel at home in the Church, even if he wants to. He finds it so impersonal, so cold and conventional, after the stirring experiences he has had in the psychotherapist’s consulting-room” (79).

3. Tournier’s argument begins with his concept of the Two Gospels. Define each gospel, and describe how premature renunciation is problematic (91-93).

4. Explain Tournier’s concept of the Two Movements, and give examples of hindrances to this linear movement (98, 101, 108).

5. Father Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Develop yourself first” (100). Do you agree or disagree? Where might some disagree theologically?

6. Why does Tournier takes issue with the following statement: “Give yourself to the service of others. It is in giving oneself that one finds oneself” (105)?

7. Delineate the movement of Tournier’s female client that begins with a silent girl with quarreling parents and ends with parents shocked by the adult woman literally “coming to blows” with them (109-110). Discuss the “religious blackmail” in the life of this client, and also in the context of, oh I don’t know, Mennonite women everywhere.

8. Do you feel that your own parents in any way inhibited your “free expansion of youth” (115)? Do you, or do you not, agree that there is a tendency by Christian parents to dampen ambition?

9. Discuss premature renunciation. For example, Tournier writes, “The great risk, if one tries to urge someone to be loving and forgiving is that he will pretend to love and forgive” (120). Note, too, the example of the young married man on 129 & 130. With this as a context, how comfortable are you with waiting “to urge self denial on a man” (141)? Discuss your own experience of “false forgiveness, false loves, and false renunciations” (142).

10a. In section III “Supports,” Tournier discusses a kind of anxiety that clients must overcome as they leave the first movement of self-actualization (and its accompanying supports) and enter authentic renunciation. (This anxiety may also be experienced in a preliminary stage of self-actualization, wherein a client may realize their false renunciations and exchange them for authentic self-actualization). Situate yourself within these movements, especially in the context of this comment by Tournier: “The person who has had the benefit of a solid support in childhood from which to launch out into life, will have no difficulty in letting go of that support, and in finding fresh support somewhere else” (163).

10b. Lastly, let’s discuss “infantile regression,” this tendency in both psychology and Christianity for people to remain satisfied right at the point when they should be marching forward (186). Where have you seen folks “fossilized in their satisfaction”? And how does Tournier see this phenomenon in relation to the impulse for basically all of his work (see p 222)?

7 thoughts on “Whole-Hearted Living: Psychology and Christianity in Paul Tournier’s A Place for You”

  1. I want to read this book! Your writing (Tournier’s words) have put words to what I’ve wrestled with for so long. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Yes! There is nothing like someone finally explaining, in clear language, something you have always felt to be true. Tournier’s writing is like that from cover to cover.

  2. I find this post intriguing – it resonates with me.

    About a child bonding with his/her parents I have noticed how the OT law stipulated that when a woman gives birth to a male or a female the times of uncleanness afterwards is different. As I consider this and its implications I am in awe with the insight of how God was working to enhance this bonding between mother and child. With a daughter the mother was to remain unclean for 80 days vs with a son it was 41 days (Leviticus 12). I do not think this uncleanness was so much of a mother’s body healing (although I am sure it helped) as it was with bonding with the child.

    Plan to buy this book…

  3. As a Christian who is in counselling because of childhood trauma and later trauma in the church because they failed to understand the effects of my childhood, I would endorse so much of this and am now on my way to try and find the book.

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