In 1980, when Murray Bowen began to introduce a ninth concept at the fall symposium, a number of clergy, reportedly, became “over-excited” that Dr. Bowen was now drawing a clear connection between Family Systems Theory and the realm of “spirituality”. Arguably, it is not a coincidence that a significant number of clergy have been drawn to systems thinking, and the introduction of a ninth concept appeared to be the ‘glue’ that would effect this happening. The clergy, however, were mistaken. Bowen was neither validating nor challenging spirituality as an important human phenomenon. In a word, he was suggesting that systems thinking provided a framework in which we can approach what is arguably a mysterious phenomenon, and actually make new contributions to the science of human behavior.
My own hypothesis is that a number of clergy remain excited today about the ninth concept wanting to discern this positive link between systems thinking and the spiritual realm; however, they will not find it in this incomplete ninth concept. Further, I believe that I have discerned the link between the sacred and the secular, yet this link does not reside in the mysterious ‘heavens above’, but in the biology of the human brain. Before I present this link, I think it necessary to make it clear why ‘salvation’ is not to found in the unfinished ninth concept, but in a very different perspective. Upon making this clear, in a part one presentation, I will present the link to be further explored in part two of this presentation.
At a recent seminar two participants, who happen to be ordained clergy (myself being one), expressed their disdain for popular interest in “supernatural phenomena.” Despite their critique of this phrase, both remain intrigued by the larger subject; namely, the interface between Bowen theory and religious practice. Their disdain “supernatural phenomena” is by no means peculiar. In fact, there is a large school of theologians who are aghast at the way that the term ‘supernatural’ in being used in our modern era. They see this term as a human construct, largely fashioned by the West, which reflects a poor, almost childlike understanding of the Abrahamic tradition. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are not about ‘supernaturalism’. This ‘truth’, embedded in biblical exegesis, needs to be understood before we proceed in discerning a proper link between Bowen theory and the realm of religious practice.
In 1980, following his presentation at the fall symposium, Bowen had an interview with Michael Kerr entitled Towards a Systems Concept of Supernatural Phenomena. Notice how quickly we see a shift from ‘spirituality’ to ‘supernatural phenomena’. Interestingly, Bowen noted that part of the reaction at the symposium was an “over-positive” sentiment, offered by clergy who were excited that Dr. Bowen was finally integrating spirituality into natural systems theory. In contrast, many listeners came to opposite conclusion believing that Bowen had now entered full senility by including spirituality into family systems theory. Interestingly, both were wrong. Neither side understood that Bowen was not making any kind a statement about the validity of “spiritual ideas”, or the ‘truth’ of religious beliefs, but was suggesting instead a pathway whereby we can learn from a field of interest that appears to be more subjective, and therefore seems to be beyond objective study.
It is interesting to note that in his interview with Mike Kerr, regarding supernatural phenomena, Bowen actually spoke more about cancer and schizophrenia than supernatural phenomena. Why would this be the case? At the opening of the interview, Kerr invited Bowen to discuss his thinking on the subject, and Bowen responded that his interest had to with this issue of “why”; that is, this human drive to be constantly asking, “Why”. The addiction(?) of asking “why” is part of our determination to live in a more subjective world where objective thinking, sticking to facts, is just too hard and too complicated. It is so much easier to find the ‘causal factor’ that generates a particular outcome – then we ‘know’ why something happens. Bowen discusses cancer and schizophrenia because these relevant conditions persist beyond any simple cause and effect thinking. There are far too many variables to reduce cancer or schizophrenia to a simple formula explaining ‘why’.
As I see it, Bowen’s interest in supernatural phenomena came from a keen interest in exploring a subject that appears to be highly subjective as there was an uptick in conversations around faith and healing. In particular, Bowen was aware of numerous reports that associated ‘belief’ about the ‘supernatural’ with favorable outcomes. The ‘power of prayer’, the ‘power of positive thinking’, the ‘truth of religious healings’, and the more recent ‘law of attraction’ are examples of how many people connect subjective ‘beliefs’ to positive personal and relationship outcomes. Bowen was not interested in an endless debate about the ‘truth’ of such beliefs, but he did think that such ‘supernatural phenomena’ could be evaluated by the facts of human functioning, which will eventually help us to gain a scientific, objective understanding of these positive outcomes. Said another way, supernatural phenomena can be studied the same way we study cancer or schizophrenia.
Making a shift now, why would clergy be concerned that Harvard Medical School or the Mayo Clinic is studying the “effectiveness of prayer”? Why such disdain for the term “supernatural phenomena”? Unquestionably, our culture has keen interest in a connecting ‘how we think about life’ and human well-being; proto-typical cause and effect thinking. Many people want to believe that “if only I believe the right things, then life may still turn on a dime and bring me unimaginable good fortune”. How so? By way of ‘supernatural phenomena’ interceding on my behalf. However, what if the language of ‘supernatural phenomena’ is actually a function of higher levels of chronic anxiety? What if ‘supernatural phenomena’ is a fabrication of anxious leaders playing on the fears of people, and using those fears to inhibit the individuality by which persons take responsibility for standing on their own two feet? What if ‘supernatural phenomena’ actually has nothing to do with the evolution of religious practice?
I make the case that curiosity in “beliefs” regarding the “supernatural”, has little to do with 70,000 years of human evolution in which our ancestors matured in shaping religious practices that might enhance their adaptation to the natural world. Some 10,000 years ago, with an agricultural revolution, some of our ancestors, especially those in positions of authority, developed a dualistic framework in which they depicted a ‘natural world’ over against a ‘supernatural world’. The ‘supernatural world’ was in stark contrast with the natural world, but could significantly alter the everyday life of common people, and therefore required their “beliefs” in the “supernatural”. This dualistic construct had little to do with cortical thinking, but was instead a function of emotional process in which class conflict incited those at the top of the social structure to develop a cosmology that would protect their favored position over the ruling masses. In essence, rulers or emperors needed a stratified cosmology in the ‘heavens’ that would resemble and justify the stratified economy below.
This thesis is well stated in Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Our more distant ancestors, reasoned Armstrong, had their unique challenges in securing a culture marked by cooperation, however they found a way when there was no way. Religious practice matured, perhaps around 70,000 years ago, as a way of life, a broad constellation of human behaviors that would protect a new, complex relationship system. Sacred text, in its various forms across the globe, focuses not on inner thoughts (beliefs) whereby individuals might entice an all-powerful God, dwelling outside the natural world, to alter the destiny of troubled personal believers. Instead, sacred text conveys a way of life that, if adopted by the community, would help to generate right relationships through a dynamic connection with Spirit; that mystery which is entwined within and throughout the natural world.
A dualism separating the natural from the supernatural, along with ‘belief’ from ‘practice’, and the secular from the sacred reached its climax during the Enlightenment in which ‘reason’ became a needed tool to overcome the speculative authority of ‘revelation’. Increasingly, faith became identified as subjective ideas about God, as opposed to a way of life pertaining to how we relate to the known and unknown of life. Increasingly, in the midst of religious wars and persecution, orthodoxy as ‘right thinking’ was promoted over orthopraxis, right relating. What people said about God was more important than how people chose to relate to neighbor and the more than human world.
In Towards a Systems Concept of Supernatural Phenomena, Bowen comments on the importance of “love and hate” in the human equation, and yet how can we begin to study such subjective ideas without getting hopelessly lost in the weeds of emotionality? Systems theory, however, with its focus on the facts of human functioning, offers a structure in which we can explore such topics that would normally be left out of a scientific effort to understand human behavior. The ninth concept invited all practitioners of systems theory to study all fields of human endeavor, including those fields that seem on the surface to be more subjective or mysterious. Nevertheless, it remains unfortunate that “supernatural phenomena” is at the top of this list.
Interest in “supernatural phenomena”, not unlike the popular interest in the Marvel Avengers, DC comic Superheroes, and a broader search for charismatic experts, gurus, and sages reflects more accurately the level of anxiety in the larger culture as we have lost ‘faith’ in our own ability to ‘find a way when there is no way’. Essentially, we project our helplessness ‘into the heavens above’. At the end of the day, cancer and schizophrenia are worthy of study from a framework of systems thinking; after all, they are quite real phenomena. Further, we can study the neural mechanisms that are in place when a Norman Cousins is ‘cured’ from ankylosing spondylitis (which he was not), but there remains a danger in referring to this process as “supernatural”. Adopting the misguided language and fantasies of the culture because they are popular (affirming the ‘supernatural’) is not helpful. The real intent of the ninth concept, to study what appears to be more subjective, is helpful.
While the ninth concept makes no effort to suggest a link between systems thinking and religious practice, I am convinced that there is an inextricable link between the sacred and the secular, between what higher education refers to as the arts and the sciences. This link unfolds from the evolution of mammalian life. A science of human behavior is lacking if we do not understand this link, which I will summarize in part two of this presentation.
Armstrong, Karen Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Bodley Head. 2014.
Kerr, Michael Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families W.W, Norton and Company, 2019
Bowen-Kerr Interview Series #11 – Towards a Systems Concept of Supernatural Phenomena, available on https://www.thebowencenter.org/videos/bowen-theory