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).
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.
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 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).