The Reciprocating Self
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The Reciprocating Self

Human Development in Theological Perspective

Jack O. Balswick, Pamela Ebstyne King, Kevin S. Reimer

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The Reciprocating Self

Human Development in Theological Perspective

Jack O. Balswick, Pamela Ebstyne King, Kevin S. Reimer

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About This Book

On the basis of a theologically grounded understanding of the nature of persons and the self, Jack O. Balswick, Pamela Ebstyne King and Kevin S. Reimer present a model of human development that ranges across all of life's stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood and elder adulthood. They do this by drawing on a biblical model of relationality, where the created goal or purpose of human development is to become a reciprocating self —fully and securely related to others and to God.Along the way, they provide a context for understanding individual development issues—concerns, tensions, worries or crises encountered by the self in the context of change. Awareness of these issues is most pronounced at developmental transitional points: learning to talk and walk, beginning to eat unassisted, going to school, developing secondary sexual physical features, leaving home, obtaining full-time employment, becoming engaged and then married, having a child for the first time, parenting an adolescent, watching children move away from home, retiring, experiencing decline in physical and mental health, and, finally, facing imminent death. The authors contend throughout that, since God has created human beings for relationship, to be a self in reciprocating relationships is of major importance in negotiating these developmental issues.Critically engaging social science research and theory, The Reciprocating Self offers an integrated approach that provides insight helpful to college and seminary students as well as those serving in the helping professions. Those in Christian ministry will be especially rewarded by the in-depth discussion of the implications for moral and faith development nurtured in the context of the life of the church.In this revised and expanded second edition, Balswick, King and Reimer have added research from developmental neuroscience and neuropsychology, which connects transitional behavior to a changing brain. They have also included a wealth of research on the moral, spiritual and religious dimensions of human development, in which they introduce the notion of reciprocating spirituality. In addition the authors engage with the burgeoning fields of positive and evolutionary psychology.

Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS) Books explore how Christianity relates to mental health and behavioral sciences including psychology, counseling, social work, and marriage and family therapy in order to equip Christian clinicians to support the well-being of their clients.

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IVP Academic


Toward an Integrated Model of Human Development

AN INTEGRATED MODEL OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT is stymied by a developmental dilemma—the fact that existing developmental theory lacks a guiding teleology. Developmental teleology refers to developmental completeness or a theologically informed understanding of the goal of development. Our goal in part one is to define and develop a working teleology that can usefully be used as a basis to understand and discuss human development and stages of human development. The developmental dilemma is important to acknowledge because it rears its nasty head in the face of the student of psychology who is looking for a coherent Christian perspective of development or who hopes for an integration between theology and psychology. Chapter one seeks to address this developmental dilemma as a necessary basis for developing a guiding teleology of human development.
In the second chapter we provide the theological rationale behind the use of the concept of the reciprocating self. A trinitarian analogy of being and becoming will serve as our model for understanding the goal of human development as the capacity of being a reciprocating self.
Developmental theories give an understanding of how development takes place, but as we indicated previously, they tend to be limited in providing a teleological focus capable of pointing to the type of relational context in which human development ideally takes place. Chapter three seeks to provide a biblical basis for such an ideal relational context. The biblical depiction of God’s relationship to human beings is used as a model for how God desires human beings to be in relationship with each other. We argue that a reciprocating self can develop best in a relational context that is characterized by unconditional love commitment, gracing, empowering and intimacy. The developing person is not only affected by but also affects the social context in which development takes place. Thus our model of human development is also one of reciprocal influence—of mutual influence between the person and the external social structure or the environment.
Whereas no human developmental theory spells out the desired relational context as specifically as Scripture, there are significant aspects within each developmental theory that correspond to the biblical model we present. Thus chapters four and five provide a selected overview of developmental theories in light of their correspondence with our model. Chapter four focuses on the major developmental theories that conceptualize human development in terms of a developing self—psychoanalytic, object relations, social learning, symbolic interaction and cognitive-development theories. Chapter four concludes by giving a comparative overview of the capacity of developmental theories to handle such human phenomena as choice and agency, sin and internal conflict, and communal aspects of personhood. In chapter five we give an overview of the relational development systems (RDS) paradigm, together with a neurobiological and two sociocultural models (Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory and generational analysis) of human development. While each of these three views of human development is encompassed within the RDS paradigm, we believe a deeper understanding of each would enhance an understanding of lifespan development.


The Developmental Dilemma

OUR PURPOSE IN WRITING THIS BOOKis to address what we call the developmental dilemma—the fact that existing developmental theory lacks a guiding teleology. Developmental teleology refers to developmental completeness or a theologically informed understanding of the goal of development. Our goal in this book is to define and develop a working teleology and discuss it in regard to developmental stages. The developmental dilemma is important to acknowledge because it rears its nasty head in the face of the student of psychology who is looking for a coherent Christian perspective of development or who hopes for integration between theology and psychology.
Developmental theories, whether they bend toward a biological, sociocultural or psychodynamic emphasis, all share a common commitment to a naturalistic worldview. The methodology of developmental psychology is to compare and contrast within cultural differences and crosscultural ­ethnographic evidence in order to determine what is normative or possible in terms of human development.
At one level it might be argued that all developmental theories inherently possess either an explicit or implicit teleology. Thus, for example, adaptation might be proposed as the key teleological concept for Piaget’s cognitive development theory, pleasure seeking and ego integrity in Freud’s and Erikson’s developmental theories respectively, and complexity in neurological models of human development. Perhaps the closest to our theological understanding of teleology is given within the relational developmental systems paradigm. Lerner states, “Adaptive developmental regulation results in the emergence among young people of an orientation to transcend self-interest and place value on and commitments to actions supportive of their social system” (Lerner, Dowling & Anderson, 2003, p. 176). Although actions that support a specific social system will vary by culture and era, Lerner proposes that optimal development entails the capacity to reciprocate with one’s self, family, community and society (Lerner, 2004; Lerner, Lerner, Bowers & Geldhof, 2015). In short, from a RDS (relational developmental systems) perspective, the goal of development might be considered a reciprocating self.
Although these theories suggest a teleology, in each case the teleology is limited by the possibilities provided by naturalistic assumptions. The question raised in the song made popular by the singer Peggy Lee was “Is That All There Is?” Are we to be content with a teleology of human development that is limited to the bounds of a naturalistic worldview? In understanding the purpose or goal of human development—is that all there is?
Before answering this question we suggest that two additional factors have also contributed to the current developmental dilemma.
The first barrier to the emergence of a more comprehensive theory of development is the presence of cultural and psychological therapies promoting the existence of an empty self. In Constructing the Self, Constructing America, Philip Cushman (1995) identifies the empty self as a result of the lack of a developmental teleology that would offer a solution other than self-focused therapies. He articulates how the development of modern psychotherapy is intertwined with the evolution of American consumerism and how both affect the way we perceive and experience the self. He describes how current theories and therapeutic practices promote a sense of self with an insatiable need to consume in the interminable human quest for self-fulfillment and for self-realization. The American values of independence and self-fulfillment have led to the American psychotherapeutic culture that nurtures individuals who are focused on self-care and personal fulfillment. He critiques the American therapeutic community for promoting individuals who are preoccupied and in perpetual need of filling and fulfilling themselves. Despite Cushman’s harangue, he gives no alternative, no teleology to cure this empty self.
In addition to the perpetuating empty self, modern philosophies’ view of the human condition is the second factor contributing to the developmental dilemma. This empty self is a product of the modern project—the pursuit of truth, universals, freedom and control. The modern project has become the modern predicament, resulting in an era of fragmented, lonely, isolated people. One of the main moves of modernity has been to displace God from the transcendent to the immanent sphere, shifting the locus of the divine from a God who is Other to impersonal forces within the human mind and will—into human subjectivity. Playing a major role in this shift, Kant posits that the will is absolutely self-determining and infinite. By doing so he displaces the infinite divine will from the universe and makes the will a matter of a subjective, self-reflective process. The Creator is replaced by the created. Theologian-philosopher Colin Gunton describes the loss of sense of self as the result of self-reflection. He writes, “When individual self-contemplation becomes the basis of self, rather than the relation to the divine and human others on which our reality actually depends, the self begins to disappear” (Gunton, 1993, p. 118, italics added).
Perpetuating the image of humans as empty selves in need of filling is neither helpful nor healthful. And we contend it is not theologically accurate either.
It would be easy to address the teleological question strictly in theological terms. Thus the Westminster Shorter Catechism states that the goal of humanity is to know God and enjoy him forever. A more relevant answer for understanding the purpose or goal of development might be found in ­Gunton’s quote above: the goal is found in a person’s “relation to the divine and human other.” Christian theology and social science theory converge to suggest that the self does not need to be viewed from the perspective of being empty but rather as a reciprocating self. In this book we turn to theological anthropology as a source for understanding both the process and goals of human development.
In the first edition of our book we listed a third factor that contributed to the developmental dilemma: the limited nature and fragmented scope of existing developmental theories.
The enormous scope of material on human development can serve as a barrier to the emergence of a metatheory explaining development in its entirety. Consequently, existing theories describe aspects and portions of the developmental process—whether cognition in infants, identity development in adolescents or generativity in adulthood. As a result developmental theory lacks an organizing principle through which to understand and evaluate these theories. Psychological and sociological contributions may offer insights into developmental processes, but they do not provide a framework for understanding the goals or ends of development. (Balswick, King & Reimer, 2005, p. 18).
Since then, this barrier has been greatly reduced, if not eliminated, with the 2015 publication of the four-volume Handbook of Child Development and Developmental Science. In well over four thousand pages, a host of experts contributed over one hundred chapters that detail the evidence for the relational developmental systems (RDS) paradigm. The RDS model seeks to incorporate all developmental theories with their accumulated research evidence into one unique whole, and thus the claim to paradigmatic status, a concept that is used to identify a dominant scientific view of a phenomena—in this, case human development. The key unifying concept of RDS is relationality, which is the exact conceptual basis for the Reciprocating Self. Parenthetically, we should add that in our first edition we included a significant explanation of developmental systems theory, which contains the core elements of what Lerner, Overton and others have developed and refined into relational developmental systems.

The Turn to Relationality

It is worth noting that in his book The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (2010), the eminent Oxford University physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne leads a number of scholars in applying the concept of trinitarian relationality to understanding the workings of the entire universe. In wanting to better understand a small but important part of that universe, we propose that a theological understanding of development will provide a lens through which to view and understand human development as revealed by the scientific approach. This book seeks to provide a Christian response to the empty self by drawing on theological anthropology and RDS in order to provide an alternative view of selfhood—the reciprocating self.
In his book Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality, F. LeRon Shults (2003) documents a paradigm shift in how social scientists, philosophers and theologians alike think about human nature. From Aristotle to Kant, the substance of particular things—such as an individual person—was of primary importance. Since Kant, relationality has become the key focus. Shults states,
The philosophical turn to relationality has shaped not only the way we think about knowing and being, but also our understandings of human acting. In the early modern period human (free) agency had been dualistically separated from (mechanistically determined) nature, and this split registered its effect on anthropological theories. In contemporary psychology . . . humans and communities are more often described in ways that recognize that their relations are constitutive. A person is no longer defined as an “individual substance of a rational nature” (Boethius) or as a “punctual self” (Locke). Instead of autonomous subjects that stand over against the natural world and other subjects, today human self-consciousness is understood as always and already embedded in relations between self, other, and world. (p. 31)
Another example of the move to relationality within theological anthropology can be seen in Stanley Grenz’s book The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (2001). Like Shults, Grenz develops his theological anthropology by focusing on relationality as the key aspect of being human. As the subtitle to his book suggests, Grenz anchors his understanding of the human self in trinitarian theology. Grenz states, “Theological insights regarding the manner in which the three Trinitarian persons are persons-in-relation and gain their personal identity by means of their interrelationality hold promise for understanding what it means to be human persons in the wake of the demise of the centered self and the advent of the Global Soul” (p. 9).
As Grenz points out, the call to extend trinitarian theology to the understanding of the self is not new. It can be seen in Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans (1918) and in the writings of such eminent theologians as Emil Brunner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Buber, John Macmurry and James Torrance. Torrance (1989) argues, “What we need today is a better understanding of the person not just as an individual but as someone who finds his or her true being-in-communion with God and with others, the counter­part of a Trinitarian doctrine of God” (p. 15). The call to extend a trinitarian understanding of the self continues in the current writings of such theologians as JĂŒrgen Moltmann (1996), Colin Gunton (1993), Miroslav Volf (1998), Ray Anderson (1982) and Gary Deddo (1999).
Following the turn to relationality that began in philosophical thought, there has been a near parallel focus on relationality in the thought of social scientists as well as theologians. Shults (2003) observes, “In psychology proper, the turn is most obvious in ‘object relations’ theory where the agential relation of a person to objects is essential to his or her development identity” (p. 31). The view of the self that was seen in terms of its substance h...

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Citation styles for The Reciprocating Self
APA 6 Citation
Balswick, J., King, P. E., & Reimer, K. (2016). The Reciprocating Self (2nd ed.). InterVarsity Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Balswick, Jack, Pamela Ebstyne King, and Kevin Reimer. (2016) 2016. The Reciprocating Self. 2nd ed. InterVarsity Press.
Harvard Citation
Balswick, J., King, P. E. and Reimer, K. (2016) The Reciprocating Self. 2nd edn. InterVarsity Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Balswick, Jack, Pamela Ebstyne King, and Kevin Reimer. The Reciprocating Self. 2nd ed. InterVarsity Press, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.