David G. Benner’s books are read in Christian circles, including educational institutions, both colleges and seminaries. Benner is a Master Teacher at Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. Like Rohr, he is a Perennialist. The Perennial Philosophy, also known as Perennial Wisdom or the Perennial Tradition, holds that all religions share one core truth. Outward rituals and practices offer followers benefit in all religions. However, to discover the deeper meaning, one must awaken to the esoteric truth of one “divine reality” uniting all religions. A follower of Perennial Wisdom identifies with one religious path but is basing belief on the “inner” meaning of this core truth. Mysticism is seen as the bridge that unites the truth of all religions at their center.
Benner also runs the Cascadia School of Living Wisdom. “Wisdom” is a common Perennial buzz word. Another Rohr associate, Cynthia Bourgeault, for example, runs a School of Wisdom based on the teachings of Gnostic mystic George Gurdjieff, originator of the Enneagram (though without any types).
Benner and Carl Jung
The Gift of Being Yourself reads like a psychoanalysis of various people, including some in the Bible, infused with mystical and Perennial philosophy. Although Benner uses Christian terms and writes of Jesus, and though some statements appear sound, there is enough to raise serious questions about what Benner is teaching.
Benner is a Depth psychologist which means he uses Jungian concepts in analyzing human behavior. Rohr is also a fan of Carl Jung, a psychotherapist whose ideas were more spiritual than psychological. This could be why Benner is so skilled in combining his spirituality with his psychology.
Benner writes that we are not “a single, unified self,” but rather “a family of many part-selves.” Christian spirituality, according to Benner, is to “welcome these ignored parts as full members of the family of self” so that they can be “Integrated into the whole person we are becoming.” (51)
When I read that, the term “individuation” leaped to mind. Although Jung did not come up with the term, his use of it did influence its present use by Jungian psychologists. Individuation is:
In the broadest possible way, individuation can be defined as the achievement of self-actualization through a process of integrating the conscious and the unconscious. (From “Jung and His Individuation Process” in Journal Psyche at https://tinyurl.com/y94h3duf).
The Jungian view of self not based on objective data but on speculation and Jung’s ideas of the self. Integrating the conscious and unconscious is behind the idea of the “shadow self,” or what is sometimes called the “dark side” (an example is when Luke Skywalker learns Darth Vader is his father in “Star Wars.” George Lucas was influenced by Jung via Joseph Campbell). Opposed to this is the biblical truth that people are not made up of different selves but rather have one self which is corrupted by sin. Redemption through faith in Christ is the only answer to any problem of self.
The Enneagram, Jesus, and True Self
Benner’s theme is that you cannot know God until you know yourself (he quotes Augustine and John Calvin out of context to support this). Consequently, the book is filled with Benner’s psychoanalytical points about the self, hiding parts of the self one does not like, living according to a false image, uncovering the false self, realizing the true self, and other similar concepts.
Since the view of self is key to the title and theme of the book, what Benner means by “self” is of primary importance. Benner makes many assertions not supported in scripture and perhaps not even supported objectively, such as:
Our false self is built on an inordinate attachment to an image of our self that makes us think we are special. Richard Rohr suggests that the basic question we must ask is whether we are prepared to be other than our image of self. (70)
Since Benner teaches at Rohr’s Center and the two are closely aligned (Rohr has endorsed most of Benner’s books and wrote the Foreword to one; Benner quotes Rohr several times in this book), Benner naturally refers to Rohr here. One should be wary because Rohr is heretical on almost all essentials of the Christian faith. Rohr’s views of man, God, Jesus, sin, and salvation are at odds with a biblical one; therefore, Rohr’s advice on self is not biblical or helpful.
In chapter 4, Benner introduces the Enneagram as a wonderful tool to discover one’s main sin challenge and how to deal with it. He goes into some detail about it, even giving examples of biblical characters and what types they exemplify according to him. He draws from Rohr’s book on the Enneagram and even recommends The Wisdom of the Enneagram by New Agers Don Riso and Russ Hudson, founders of the New Age Enneagram Institute. This book is a thoroughly New Age book.
Rohr’s beliefs and the Jungian view have already obscured Benner’s concept of self. By recommending the Enneagram, an invalid tool from the New Age, Benner muddies the waters even further. His embrace of this tool as a Jungian psychotherapist oddly matches the fact that New Age psychologists, who are mostly Jungian, developed the Enneagram when it came into their hands from its occult origins.
Benner quotes the late M. Basil Pennington, who wrote the Foreword to this book, stating that the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness are “best understood as his struggles with three major potential false selves.” (72) Pennington was one of the three co-founders of the modern Centering Prayer Movement along with the late Thomas Keating and William Menninger.
Pennington writes of his admiration for “the great Yogi, Swami Satchidanandaji” and his (Pennington’s) approval of an American professor who, “in search of true wisdom,” had gone to India to study under a Hindu Swami. Pennington states that for “most Hindus, Jesus is just one of the many manifestations of the one God” but that “each person is entitled to have his or her own chosen deity or manifestation of God. Jesus is the manifestation for the West.” (From CANA article on Contemplative Prayer).
Benner expands on Jesus’ alleged struggle with the false self and how he moved into his identity “as he came to understand who he really was.” (72) While it is true Jesus is fully man, Jesus also is always fully God. Jesus knew who he was at age 12 when found by his parents at the Temple:
…sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. Luke 2:46b-47
There is no evidence in the biblical text that Jesus struggled with “false selves” or struggled to discover his identity.
Later in the book, Benner asserts that “even Jesus had to find his way, his self,” (85) and that:
Jesus’ understanding of his vocation came out of wrestling with God, himself, and the devil in the solitude of the wilderness. (91)
The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness echo the temptations of Israel in the wilderness when led by Moses. Unlike Israel, Jesus prevailed and did not give in. Satan tempted Jesus as an attack, and this testing revealed Jesus’ wisdom, holiness, and obedience to God the Father. But Benner psychoanalyzes Jesus as he does Peter and other biblical figures. He sees Jesus through the filter of Jungian psycho-drama and thereby projects false motivations and thoughts on Jesus that are not in the biblical text.
The Contemplative Dimension
The contemplative aspect of the book is very strong, with contemplative referring to mystical methods, not methods using the thinking mind. Benner offers contemplative-based directives such as reading a passage of the Bible and then one should “imaginatively enter” the scene to encounter Jesus and spend time “daydreaming the passage” (this advice is on several pages).
He advises one not to analyze the passage or its meaning, but to spend time being “present to Jesus” and “open to your own reactions.” (38). For the passage of Jesus at the Temple (Luke 2:41ff), Benner writes that one should hold
an imaginary conversation with Jesus, asking him where he found his clear sense of identity. Listen to him speak and watch him act. (97)
An imaginary conversation with Jesus will not reveal any words from the real Jesus, but only words from one’s own mind/imagination or worse, from a lying spirit. “Watching” Jesus will not elicit anything real from Jesus, either. Jesus is not going to be part of a private play in your head. Accessible to all is something far more precious: the very words of Jesus Christ in scripture as he spoke them, when he spoke them. Scripture should always be read in context and then pondered with a sober mind.
True to contemplative thinking, Benner also spiritualizes some passages, such as the “inner room” spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 6:6, calling it “our inner self” where we encounter God. This is similar to what Thomas Keating said in a lecture in 2005 when he stated that this room “is our inner self where we are to retreat or enter through Contemplative Prayer” (see CANA article on Keating).
A scan of the footnotes at the back of the book should give one pause. Quoted frequently are people like Thomas Merton (who came to love Buddhism), Richard Rohr, M. Basil Pennington, Henri Nouwen, James Finley, Thomas Keating, and Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier, author of “Becoming Human” (d. 2019, the same year an investigation was opened into accusations against him of sexual abuse; see https://tinyurl.com/vrmr2lc).
Pennington and Keating were two of the three Trappist monks who founded the Centering/Contemplative Prayer Movement.
James Finley is called a “Master teacher” who works at Richard Rohr’s Center. In a video at https://tinyurl.com/y34y8tt6, Finley recommends Rohr’s book, The Universal Christ, and at about 1:11, Finley states:
“Our Christian faith does not teach us that God became incarnate in someone named Jesus who lived 2,000 years ago. Rather our faith teaches that in the person of Jesus….it is revealed that God has become incarnate as us; that God’s life and our life are one life. And this one life is Christ’s life. It’s a unitive life, which in some sense, we in God are not dualistically other than each other.”
[at 5:20] “Just as this universal Christ principle is incarnate in Jesus, it needs to be incarnate in you, it needs to be incarnate in me.”
Finley, like Benner and Rohr is a Perennialist and Panentheist. Christ as principle takes importance over the historical Jesus. Most people reading this book would have no idea who Finley is and probably would not try to find out. This is one reason Benner slips under the radar.
Christ as Archetype and as True Self
As the book progresses, it only becomes more troubling. Benner writes that we “are called to be human beings” and “to be fully human.” (87) But we are created as human beings; we really cannot be anything other than human. It is what Benner means by “human” that makes the difference.
Benner claims we are to
recognize Christ as the deepest truth of our being. It is not just becoming like Christ but actualizing the Christ who is in us. It is a journey toward union with God. (99)
“Actualizing the Christ” is a concept foreign to the Bible. But if one is a Panentheist and a Jungian, it makes sense because Christ is contained everywhere in creation according to Panentheism. This is a major teaching of Richard Rohr which Benner shares. “Actualizing” the Christ who is part of our unconscious as an archetype is to awaken the true Self. This is what Benner means by being human.
Benner offers this:
…my deepest self is Christ-in-me….challenges the distinction between self and non-self that we all tend to live with. And it profoundly challenges the sense of separateness that typically forms the foundation of our identity. (101)
The footnote references Dr. Ekman Tann, Professor Emeritus of Spirituality and Psychotherapy and President Emeritus of the Christian Contemplative Spirituality Institute, from his article, “Message to the Wounded World: Unmask the True Self — Zen and Merton.”
The title suggests that Tann teaches that we can “unmask the True Self” with Merton’s and Zen Buddhist teachings (Merton wrote on Zen Buddhism). The term “True Self” is a red flag due to the context of the Christ archetype and principle.
A brief foray into Jung’s thinking on Christ as an archetype and symbol of Self is found in this excerpt:
Jung addresses Christianity’s central figure, Christ, and unpacks the meaning of Christ as a symbol of the Self. At the request of many of his readers who asked for a more comprehensive treatment of the Christ/ Self relationship, and apparently inspired by a dream during a temporary illness, Jung worked on the project for several years, completing it in 1951….[snip]…One of the most significant insights of the project, which will be the main thrust of this brief article, is the differentiation between Jesus, the historical figure from Nazareth, and the archetypal Christ, the Redeemer. This distinction between the historical and the symbolical is essential if the Christian symbols are to retain their power to touch the inner depths of the modern person. (From Jerry Wright, “Christ, A Symbol of the Self,” at https://tinyurl.com/pzoofk7).
A distinction is being made between the historical Jesus and the “archetypal Christ” as Redeemer. The article explains Jung’s idea that the “Redeemer myth” is an archetype and Jesus was “seized” by this “symbolic idea” and thus gave flesh to the Redeemer archetype. Archetypes, Jung believed, are in the collective consciousness of humanity, and humanity seeks those who live them out. The article states:
In this way, Jesus’ life exemplifies the archetype of the Christ, or in Jung’s psychological language, the Self, which is a more inclusive word for the inner image of god, the imago Dei, which resides in every person….[snip]…. It was the archetype of the Self in the psyche/soul which responded to the Christian message, with the result that the concrete Rabbi Jesus was rapidly assimilated by the constellated archetype. In this way, Jesus realized the idea of the Self.
This is what Benner is talking about when he speaks of “my deepest self is Christ-in-me” and “Christ as the deepest truth of our being.” Jung taught that one must withdraw attention from the historical Christ to make this unconscious inner archetypal Christ conscious and “wake up” the inner Christ and true Self.
Richard Rohr, who follows Jungian ideas, teaches that Christ is an archetypal figure so it comes as no surprise that Benner seems to express this. Rohr writes on his blog:
By “Self” with a capital “S,” Jung meant the deepest center of the psyche/soul that is in union with the Divine. And, if I understand him, it is shared! It is one and we are all participants, just as many mystics have asserted. I would call it the True Self, the Christ Self, or if you prefer, the Buddha Self, which has learned to consciously abide in union with the Presence within us (John 14:17). (From Rohr, “Becoming Who You Are,” at https://tinyurl.com/yy3v2gz9; also in “The True Self” at https://tinyurl.com/y3cfav36)
Simple faith in the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ is viewed as inferior to the “actualizing” of the Christ-in-me or Christ Self. Jung, Benner, and Rohr give new meaning to what “self” is and to what Benner means by “Christ as the deepest truth of our being” and the “Christ-in-me.”
These concepts are not only not Christian, they are anti-Christian.
Can reading this book be helpful for a discerning reader? Despite some statements that sound orthodox, the context is tainted deeply enough that I would not recommend this book for any edifying purpose.
Beyond the Book
When reading the word “Jesus” or “God” in this book, Christians will view it from the historic biblical Christian perspective and assume that is what Benner means. However, enough is there that should raise questions and is contrary to biblical principles.
Perennialists respect all religions and believe in adhering to one. They believe there are the outward, or exoteric, teachings versus the inward or esoteric teachings. Those following the outward teachings still benefit from them, no matter what the religion is.
Only those who seek and become aware of the core “divine reality” in all faiths can follow the Perennial path. Even then, a Perennialist still attaches to a certain religion which they often term as “wisdom” or “tradition.” So, Rohr is a Perennialist in the Christian tradition. Another might say he follows the Christian wisdom tradition. There are those who follow the Hindu tradition, the Jewish tradition, the Buddhist tradition, and so forth. So, they still identify with a religion and do not believe in blending the religions since they think the variety is good for different cultures.
This makes it more difficult to identify a covert Perennialist because the person still uses the language of that religion (although Richard Rohr is very open about being a follower of Perennial wisdom).
Benner is characterized in all his online book descriptions as a “cartographer of the soul.” No man can be a “cartographer of the soul.” God’s word tells man all he needs to know about the soul and complete knowledge of any soul is something only God possesses. This is making a claim to esoteric knowledge. Esoteric teachings are contrary to God’s word and to Christianity.
The Jesus in The Gift of Being Yourself is not the historic Jesus of the Bible.
Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret.” John 18:20