Science in Christian Perspective



The Nature of the Transitions of Growth
Atlanta Counselling Center
Atlanta, Georgia

From: JASA 34 (June 1982)

Biblical insights strongly suggest that the endpoint of human development should be conceptualized as a special capacity to relate to others in a paradoxical way-to be able to form a new union which respects the diversity of the individuals. This is likened to one body consisting of many members. The union is real, concrete and fundamental, but the diversity of the individuals, accomplished in the separation and individuation is not lost, but rather fulfilled.

The study of a human person as one who grows has always been one window on our understanding of ourselves which has let in a great deal of light. Psychologists particularly have long inquired into the development process, both to work with children and to better understand problems of the adult. In recent years this general interest has stimulated two specific lines of investigation. One of these, exploited largely by psychoanalysts, has been the depth exploration of early object relations in the mother-infant interaction. The other, by non-analysts for the most part, has involved prospective, longitudinal studies of the life course of the human from birth to death. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to bring some degree of synthesis to these lines of endeavor and in the process to extend our understanding of both. In order to do this some key biblical insights are elucidated that serve as the basis of this synthetic work.


The propositions to be submitted in this paper are as follows:

In essential nature a human person is a being-in-process and must be considered, at least in one dimension, as developmental.

Over the life span this development tends to proceed in steps, or progressive levels of maturity. Each of these develops the interpersonal life, extends one's understanding of the world, and more precisely defines one's sense of self or identity.

These steps can be understood as transitions that follow a characteristic form. This pattern is repeated again and again, though each level of maturity deals with different specific issues.

This standard transition proceeds through three phases. It begins on an initial platform of undifferentiation or fusion. Growth pressures then tend to break this up and there follows a separation and differentiation process in which the key issues of the particular developmental step involved are teased out. The third phase involves a re-approximation of these now discrete elements. This produces a new union, one which restores a relationship of the separated parts within the whole but maintains their integrity. This new condition, paradoxically a unity which consists of diversity, contains another undifferentiated issue and becomes the platform from which subsequent steps proceed in due time. As growth proceeds, each successive cycle undertaken further develops and refines the distinct elements previously separated out more maturely, but centers on the specific distinctives of that particular step.

In order to establish these propositions, current work on the early development of the infant on the one hand, and the life cycle on the other are reviewed to the extent that they are helpful to our immediate purposes. To this is then added a biblical view of human identity, and finally a pattern repeated in the transitions involved in human growth is defined and illustrated.

Pre-oedipal Development

In the last 30 years psychoanalytic thought and research has focused almost exclusively on the first 2-1/2 years of life, or the pre-oedipal developmental process. This thinking foundation was laid on insight contained in Freud's work (1895, 1941), and has been enriched from empathic observation of infants (A. Freud, 1937; Spitz, 1946), from Piaget's studies on cognitive development (Wolff, 1960), ethology (Harlow, 1974) and childhood pathology (Bowlby, 1969 and 1973).

This work has focused variously on the origins of the self, or identity (Jacobson, 1964), narcissism (Kohut, 197 1), ego adaptation and defense (Hartmann, 1958). It was stimulated and encouraged by the kinds of pathology that the psychoanalyst was seeing in his practice. Mahler's germinal work centered originally on psychotic children (1955), Kohut writes for the most part about the narcissistic personality disorders, Kernberg's fruitful studies have clarified our understanding of the borderline personality, splitting and narcissism (1975, 1976, 1980) and the insightful work of the Tavistock School in England (Kline, 1955; Winnicott, 1958; Fairbairn, 1954; Balint, 1968) explored the depressive position and pathological withdrawal during these same early years. While all of these authors were working largely with pathological conditions, they felt that they were also shedding light on the normal development of this period of life.

Mahler has greatly helped us pull this work together by clarifying what happens during these first three years of life from the intra-psychic view of the child. She describes this "hatching of the human infant" as a process of growing away from mother. It originates in a symbiosis or fusion and proceeds through separation from the mother and individuation, or the delineation of a sense of self separate from mother. The work of her group in New York has carefully defined phases and subphases of this process (1975) and given us the key terminology which is now generally used.

We now understand that early growth involves, in parallel, both the relationship of the infant to his or her own "self" as well as to the "object world" (Jacobson 1964). The mother serves as model, practicing object and catalyst along the way. What is learned with her is extended inwardly in self-awareness and outwardly to a world view. The end point of these developing "object relations" is seen as a separate and discrete individual with a distinct sense of self, a person with integrity and constancy who is free to invest in love and labor at his or her own discretion. All significant psychopathology is understood as a failure to break away cleanly from this initial fusion with the mother and the world. Ongoing fusion with others, splitting or object inconstancy, identity diffusion, or failures to test internal and external reality validly are conditions arising out of faults and breakdowns in this single process.

Life Cycle Research

Another field of investigation which has flourished in the last twenty years or so has been the long-term, prospective, developmental study of adulthood. Many excellent researchers are involved in this venture, but some particularly stand out. Levinson and his colleagues at Yale (1978) have studied the middle years and describe in detail how structures are developed in a series of life transitions. They were particularly interested in work and the interface of the self and significant others. George Vaillant published in Adaptations to Life (1977) the results of a long-term study of Harvard students. This picked them up when they were college sophomores and continued in great detail to age 45. He largely concerned himself with measurable criteria of adaptation to the interpersonal, cultural and economic challenges of this particular group.

The fact that both of these scholarly studies have been widely read and have joined two other popular studies on the best seller list (Sheehee, 1978; Gould, 1978), indicates that this interest in adult life is more wide-spread than among social scientists alone. All of these books see life as a series of steps, each of which involves both a transition and a level of consolidation. Eric Ericson whose famous Life Stages were used by both Vaillant and Levinson has also recently added a wide-ranging study of Adulthood (1978). He intentionally follows the pattern of Phillipe Aires' famous Centuries of Childhood (1960), by showing how other disciplines, other ages, other cultures and religions have defined maturity.

There have been objections to this somewhat rigid, lock step view of growth, though. Bernice Neugarten (1979), a  widely-respected researcher in her own right, sees the process more fluidly. She still defines development as going through transitions but conceives of these as each being  smaller in scale, but proceeding almost constantly.

Although there has been some feeling that these transitions might have some repetitive similarity in method if not their medium (van Gennep, 1960), this has not been defined in any generally accepted way.

Biblical Insights

Although the life cycle has been little dealt with in Scrip ture outside of the wisdom literature (Ecclesiastes 11 and 12), growth and development are very important recurring themes, dealing both with spiritual and psychological life. (See especially I Corinthians 3:1-4; 13:W-12; Galatians 4:1-6; Phillipians 3:12-16; Hebrews 5:12-15; 6:3.) New Testament thinking, in fact, suggests that God has created man in such a way that he is, in an important dimension, a developmental being, and this motif is played out in his physical, psychological and spiritual nature. This thought has been explored by the author in a different context else
where (Berry, 1980). It is mentioned here to call attention to another essential element underlying this growth process which involves an even more fundamental biblical motif. The Bible teaches in many different places that there is an undergirding unity between people that is both spiritual and psychological. It teaches at the same time that men are individuals distinct one from another and that there is a bond between them so concrete and fundamental that it is best described as oneness. It teaches that this oneness is at the same time an underlying fact, a process that is taking place and also a future promise.

The Bible teaches that there is an undergirding unity between people that is both spiritual and psychological

One great horn of this paradox, man's individuality, is a truth which has over the last several centuries become a central axiom of western culture. This development in philosophy and theology has come about laboriously and Christian thinkers have had a great deal to do with it. Niebuhr devotes a major section of his discussion on the Nature of Man to this (1941, Vol. I, Chap. 2-5). He also points out the difficulty that philosophers have had maintaining real individualism when it becomes an absolute isolated from the values of community.
The other horn of the paradox of human nature is less well appreciated in our culture. The Bible implies that a fundamental source of the definition of our human identity involves others. The human diad, group, the community, nation and society in general do not simply label from the outside but define the person centrally under and within his own being. The man and wife are called one flesh. We are said to be one with each other and the church or community is described in metaphor as one body composed of man~ members, or one temple constructed of many stones.

Mystics, both ancient and modern, have more perception of this unity than other thinkers. Teilhard de Chardin states succintly, "Fuller being is closer union" (1959, p. 31). But the great burden of man's experience and thought and particularly his artistic expression bear witness to this same truth-we are one with each other and with the rest of mankind.

We must define man's identity then as a paradox: a unity that consists of diverse individuals, or a diversity that shares a central invisible but very real unity. Without undertaking a major Bible study, a few important passages help to illuminate this principle.

Paul tends to emphasize the diversity of one's individual gifts but he characteristically reminds us that we are individuals within a community, rarely mentioning one without the other. He says we are one body, of many distinct members (I Cor. 12:12), but always of one body (Rom. 12:5). This diversity means that each has his or her own gifts and callings, functions and feelings and usually thinks and knows in an individual way. As such, each member is a vital essential to the whole. This principle implies two fundamental corollaries. A man never functions, experiences or knows completely all by himself-he must partake of the gift of others. Also, the effectiveness of the function, the breath of the experience and the completeness

Markham Berry received his M.D. and psychiatric training from Emory University School of Medicine where he now serves on the part-time faculty. He also teaches in the Psychological Studies Institute at Georgia State University. He serves as a therapist at the Atlanta Counseling Center and as consultant to the Community Care Team at Grady Hospital in Atlanta. Most of his publications have been in the area of the integration of Medicine, Psychology and Biblical Theology.

of the knowledge of the community depends upon the enthusiastic contribution of all members. individually we have the dual responsibility of being assertive of our own gifts and attentive and appreciative of those of others.

We, too, lean toward the individual side of this paradox. Perhaps because we experience ourselves through our senses as particulate, the blind, universal side of the paradox is hard for us to see. It may be because of this distortion of our perception that the Lord in His garden prayer places emphasis on our union. He asks "That they may be one ... that they all may be one ... that they may be one even as we are one ... that they may become perfectly one" (John 17:11, 20-22).

Within this conceptual model a mature relationship is one that discovers and depends upon this otherwise invisible unity in a way that both honors and defines the individuality of each member and enjoys the distinctive gifts of each individual and yet sees them as parts of a whole. The good marriage explores, develops and displays this paradox most elegantly in the psychological realm, where the church, being not only one with one another but one with the Lord Himself does so spiritually. This thought seems to be central to the Letter to the Ephesian church and we find these principles summarized in the passage beginning at 2: 11 and proceeding through 4:16. It clearly links the processes of growth with that of unifying a diversity into this particular complex. The fact that the section is followed by one of very simple, direct admonition to good behavior shows that this basic insight is a fundamental root of Pauline ethics as well (Reference Note 1).


When we bring together these three lines of research and thought, we can define maturity as the potential a person has to be a unique individual, knowing himself as such, who is able to form growing, effective relationships with significant others. These will be more unions of distinct individuals than simple associations or fusions. The mature person will discover his identity in the confluence of both his individuality and his community, defined by the interface or interaction of these two paradoxical elements. Development from this perspective will be the process by which this maturity comes about. The development process, or growth phases, will no longer be considered as ending with the individual in isolation but as being capable of effectively joining a community in a reunion.

To recapitulate our earliest development, the first three years of life, the process is now pictured in the following manner. It begins with an original undifferentiated state, in this case a fusion between the mother and infant. This exists unchallenged normally up to about six months of age. At this time, the pressure within the infant to grow begins to be felt as a command to separate. This initiates a series of new behaviors designed to clarify the boundaries between the mother and infant. Also associated with this separation is an individuation process that explores the primary identity of the newly defined, separate person. Simultaneously, with most of this second phase will be seen a series of interactions like playing, fighting, talking, playacting, and mimicking, which all serve to explore not only the defining margins of the two persons but how they fit into a dynamic reunion in such a way that the gains of this individuation are not lost. If we watch a child during the stage of his development that runs from about six months to thirty months, we see that each time individuation has been achieved he applies it in an interaction which is aimed at an effective interlocking reunion. Even though the separation process begins with anxiety and tension, once gained, the normal infant guards it jealously and refuses to allow himself to be pulled back into a fusion.

The achievement of success in this initial development transition is measured by the ability of the child to play with others, to communicate and to make a start at loving and working. Things can go wrong of course at any of these three levels.

Looking at development this way adds two new issues to those currently dealt with in developmental psychology. Maturity is not here defined in terms of separation and individuation only, but also the ability to reunite without losing these gains. Also, we can expect that some psychological problems will be better understood as failures in the capacity to make this reunion rather than in adequate separation. For example, struggles to re-fuse rather than unite are sometimes seen in excessively dependent personalities. Again, the kind of persisting isolated separateness seen in the narcissistic personality might be more clearly understood as a failure of reunion rather than of separation.

Good parenting also would encourage the process fully through to the end. The adequate mother will not only suffer the difficulty of separation patiently and philosophically but seek, from her side of the diad, to experience, enjoy and understand this new individual. Giving and receiving, working and playing together, and the ability to seek out and listen to the developing person within the infant as separate and distinct from her are all parts of this process.

In describing the child's awareness of this primary phase of development, Margaret Mahler says, "It's not a sense of who I am, but that I am. . ." But development proceeds beyond age two and a half. The "who I am" exploration proceeds in later years as a series of further stages of growth occurring the rest of the life, each stage proceeded by similar kinds of transition. In order to apply this transition form to later life growth, we briefly sketch in the traditionally defined seasons of life and show how these three steps apply in each.

Seasons of Life

Oedipal. The initial phase previously discussed is followed by one which is usually called the oedipal stage. From three to six, the child takes on the complex task of relating effectively to one parent who is like him and another who is different. This peculiar triangulation serves to establish those identity issues which are related to gender. The boy still maintains the source of his own person gained earlier but now must redefine this identity in a reunion with his father who models for him what maleness is. At the same time he also begins a peculiar kind of interlocking, appositional relationship of opposites with his mother. The successful completion of this stage is not just the definition of his maleness in isolation, but the capacity to experience this maleness as shared with his father and also as, a part of a loving interaction with his female mother. With the girl, of course, the process is similar but the persons are interchanged. Normally, these are not issues of genital sexuality but a more fundamental maleness and femaleness. Maturity at this level allows free, peaceful and edifying relationships to form with both men and women.

Latency. The onset of normal latency, the years from 5 or 6 to the onset of puberty, finds the child comfortable with his primary identity and his gender. Out of this state of undifferentiated, non-responsible dependency, growth pushes the latency child to function with others. Many activities serve to separate out fundamental, functional gifts and callings of the child within a larger community, whether it is a team, the family or the work world. Both tend to gravitate toward elders of the same sex during these years as coaches, teachers, and role models. The reunion process is successful when the child can work at an adult task effectively with others.

Adolescence. The middle years, from puberty to socioeconomic independence, see an extension of both the oedipal experience and that of latency into a larger arena. Gender identity becomes sexuality, and games gradually are replaced by the real work of a person in an adult world. Separation is now from the partial, undifferentiated arena of the home, family and neighborhood. Individuation produces a person who is self-supporting and ready to establish a family. Maturity is marked not only by success in these activities but by the capacity to establish a rewarding and mutual sexual relationship with one's mate, and a new, close but free relationship with parents and siblings. For some reason this dimension of maturity, the adult relationships within the family, seems rarely considered in our contemporary society. One reason for this may be that our excessive individualism has seen adolescence only as a process of separation in the individuation. The folk drama of our day from song to soap opera, and for that matter our serious teachings, almost never model for us the delightful experience of the interaction of parent with a child who is mature.

Successful adolescence produces in the woman the competence and confidence needed to be a wife and mother and in the man the same confidence and competence to be a husband and father. In both cases they are to some extent modeling or following the scripts demanded by their roles in life as they take on mature responsibilities in the world. This role-function quality of early adulthood is the undifferentiated state out of which the next step rises.

Midlife. Separation here is into a new appreciation of our unique identity, one which includes all of those facets that have been defined in earlier identity transitions. Now each is reconsidered in order to separate out and define more sharply what is unique to this person. The fundamental sense of self, maleness and femaleness, the functions in life are all reconsidered now without the role-playing demands that these have made up to this point. Each role is reconsidered as to how well one "fits" there and this sometimes causes a radical realignment of functions within the marriage and community. The midlife "crisis" or transition centers around these issues.

Successful maturity at midlife is marked by a new sense of our own peculiar identity, often experienced as a kind of destiny, or discovering "that for which I was created." It is specific enough to help us define our task and socially migrate toward some special community that will involve us

We can define maturity as the potential a person has to be a unique individual, knowing himself as such, who is able to form growing, effective relationships with significant others.

 for the second half of our lives. As always, destiny is ideally seen as a new union with diversity with this community not in isolation. Again, our particular culture tends to define our destiny in individualistic terms, but those who seem to have succeeded in this endeavor testify to a new appreciation of how much we are at one with those around us.

Old Age. The transitions of old age are less well defined but seem to involve issues of our place in passing generations, our gift of wisdom, and our task of casting some light and hope back down from the top of the stairs to those along the way. Both the disintegration which we see in elderly people who are isolated from general life and the family on the one hand, and the spiritual orientation and sense of history that seems to be rejuvenated in these years on the other, testify that the successful completion of this last stage of life is also a reunion-a community affair.


Maturity involves a sense of our unique separateness and at the same time a firm conviction that we are so much a part of others that, as Paul suggests, we function as a single organism: "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (I Cor. 12:26). The latter half of this paradox is one of the best kept secrets of our age. The responsibilities we have to our own personal development, the care and edification of those we serve, join with a deep burden of the teachings of Scripture to urge us to give more attention to our oneness, a community identity we can come to experience without losing the rich truths of individualism that have been handed to us by the thinkers of our immediate past.

a On the use of the metaphor "temple" cf. especially I Cor. 3:16; 11 Cor. 6:16. In Col. 1: 18, 24 as well as the various passages in Ephesians "body" is used in conjunction with "temple" and "church. " "Body" isa metaphor of psychological relationships in Eph. 4:1-7; 5:29. Itssocial implicationsare implied in Gal. 3:28 and Eph. 2:11-16.


1Berry, C.M. The Ethical Method of the Book of Ephesions. Unpublished paper, Atlanta Counseling Center, 1979.

2During the preparation of this paper, an interesting study was published that is similar in some ways to it (Talley, 1980). The author points out that the separation-individuation process as described by Mahler involves a "separation anxiety" that has many similarities to the "estrangement" and loneliness described by Tillich. He sees that in some ways the spiritual union of St. Paul and the reunion described by Tillich are a resolution of this developmental problem.


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