The Relational Soul, Richard Plass and James Cofield. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Summary: Our relational capacity is essential to being human but often hindered by the false self that struggles with trust, but may be transformed through God’s gracious intervention, often through other people, that allows us to receive the gift of discovering our true self.
It is too rare that I read a book that develops an idea with a succinct, logical flow that connects head, heart and human spirit, and does so with just enough explanation and illustration and nothing extra. This is such a book, and on a subject so basic to the nature of being human — our hunger and drive for meaningful relationships.
Plass and Cofield begin the book by contending that we were created for relationship, for enjoying meaningful connections with others. How we make, or fail to make attachments is formed very early in life and our “emotional thermostat” is set by our early attachment patterns–avoidant, ambivalent, scattered, or stable. Growing in our capacity begins with awareness of these patterns and our conscious and even unconscious memories and a receptivity of moving from distrust to trust.
They then turn to a construct others such as David Benner have discussed in formational work, the “false self”. These authors particularly focus on the mistrusting soul, that is both guarded in its trust of others and reliant upon oneself to project a self that we can control that we think will gain us affirmation while protecting ourselves from hurt. The breakthrough in relationships comes when Christ comes to us in grace, often through another person, and we experience relational connection as a gift rather than an achievement we control. This opens the door to discovery of our true selves, which comes through receptivity that begins to accept oneself with all our limits and losses, because we are accepted by Christ.
The second half of the book goes deeper into this journey of discovering true self in relationship by first of all exploring how our stories connect to God’s story and help connect head and heart. Community is crucial in deepening our relational connections–community that is particular, mysterious, and messy–in other words real rather than some idealized place. Plass and Cofield commend the four disciplines of silence, solitude, contemplative reading of scripture and contemplative prayer as disciplines that nurture the relational soul. They conclude by talking about the long, patient journey of love into relational wholeness, one that involves openness, curiosity, and acceptance of limits and loss.
The book includes a bibliography of further readings, helps in developing one’s life map, and a brief introduction to the Enneagram (probably the least helpful aspect of the book because of the lack of instruction in how to discern one’s personality style). Each chapter includes helpful reflection questions for personal or group discussion.
It seems to me that this is a good book to read in the context of working with a spiritual director or for individuals or groups wanting to go deeper in their understanding of relational alienation and relational disconnectedness. This seems especially important in this age of projected selves on social media where we may have many “friends” but rarely if ever experience deep connection with humans or God.