Book Review: Part 2 — A Catholic Review of Altogether You by Jenna Riemersma

Jan 3, 2024

Dear Souls and Hearts Member,

Happy New Year to you!  In 2024, I am happy to share that we are continuing our series of book reviews on internal parts and systems from a Christian perspective, and this is the second of three parts of Catholic psychologist Peter Martin’s series on Jenna Reimersma’s (2020) book—Altogether You: Experiencing Personal and Spiritual Transformation with Internal Family Systems Therapy. Last week, Dr. Martin shared with us the parts of Riemersma’s book that are conformable to our Catholic Faith in this reflection.  Today, he addresses parts of the book that are problematic for faithful Catholics, either because they are unclear or because they do not support a Catholic understanding of the human person.  Bear in mind that Jenna Reimersma is not Catholic and is not writing for a specifically Catholic audience so this is not meant to be a criticism of her; rather, Dr. Martin and I are offering you this anthropological perspective to help you draw the best from this important work, while avoiding the parts that are discordant with what we know to be true by the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church.

Part 2 — A Catholic Review of Altogether You by Jenna Riemersma

By Dr. Peter Martin

Who is responsible? – IFS, sin, and culpability

A significant challenge when integrating IFS with a Catholic vision of what it means to be human is how to address the reality of sin. Here I will focus on both Original Sin as well as personal, actual sin. Schwartz does not adequately address sin, though states that all parts are good. As a number of you know, he wrote a book in 2021 with the title No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model.  There is also a tendency for Christians interested in IFS to say something like “Then my [insert Firefighter part name here] did this or that.” This at least implies that the burdened and blended part is the free agent who committed the act, rather than the human person. So, in a Christian-integrated IFS, is there room conceptually for such a thing as sin? And who (person, self, part, other) committed it?

Riemersma tends to avoid this critical discussion. Let’s turn toward this topic below since it is essential for an orthodox Christian integration with IFS.

Consider someone who willfully chooses to steal a shirt from a clothing store. Assume for the sake of this discussion that this person had a rough upbringing, including parents who when blended with manager parts were hypercritical of him when he stepped out of line. However, when the same parents were blended with firefighter parts they proceeded to lie, cheat, and/or steal without paying much attention to whether or not the children were watching them.

In adulthood, this individual has less inhibition than most at being light-handed while shopping. This could be influenced by a blended Rebel part that is in a burdened protector role in reaction to his parents’ harsh criticism. It could also be conditioned by another firefighter part of his that seemed to ally with the firefighter part of the parents. Or it could be both of his protector parts blending simultaneously. The result is a weakened will to live justly in this area, to be fair to those who own the store and actually pay for the merchandise. Thus, in a blended state he smuggles an item out of the store without paying. No stranger to IFS parts’ language, at some point during the effort he shrugs his shoulders and says to himself, “Meh, my Rebel part made me do it.

There is validity to saying the parts played a role in the level of culpability the person has when committing this sin. Few reading this article would claim that one’s troubled, wounded, and even traumatized past has zero influence on the internal struggle people face when confronted with a moral issue. IFS simply uses the language of “self” and “parts” and “burdens” to describe the weight or push-pull of one’s history on current functioning and decision-making, including moral choices.

The question naturally arises: Who or what is to blame for this illegal and sinful act? Is it the self and/or one or both parts? Is it his parents? Possibly no one? Is it simply the effect of random forces at play that suggest no one or thing is morally culpable for the disordered act?

Catholic moral teaching would state that if a personal sin occurs, it is the person, the acting agent, who deliberately committed the sin, not the part. It is the person (who has substantial existence) not the part (who has accidental existence) who is “managing,” “firefighting,” feeling, morally choosing, etc. (I thank Monty De La Torre for the articulation here). Substantial and accidental existence will be described later.

However, if one or multiple burdened parts blend with the self then it is most likely the case that the person who committed the sin is less culpable for it. Consider a person who struggles severely with alcohol: IFS theory would say that he or she likely has a significantly burdened firefighter part that can bring about severe cravings and urges to drink. From a Catholic moral standpoint, this would likely mitigate guilt for a subsequent sin. However, if there is enough freedom to deliberately commit a sin, it is the person, the acting agent, who is morally culpable for it. Since parts are not persons, they don’t have moral freedom, strictly speaking. Thus, sin cannot be imputed as guilt to parts any more than one would say sin is imputed as guilt to one’s intellect, or one’s passions, etc.

Riemersma does not necessarily tackle the sin question head-on, but her relevant discussions need some clarification on this crucial topic. On page 30, she writes:

The parts of us that are holding sin are not part of our God Image. They can’t be. Our God Image is the very image of God, who is by definition unbroken. But wait. Aren’t we sinners at our core and fundamentally depraved? What I’m saying is, yes. And no. Our God image is not distorted, but our burdened parts are.”

And on page 31:

Then sin entered the picture and immediately some parts became burdened…. Sin is the burden that some of our parts carry, but sin does not change our God-Image core. … They are our parts that carry the effects of sin and the fallen world, and they hijack our inner system.

Though some of what Riemersma describes enters the sphere of theological speculation—since the Church has no teaching that I am aware of that says parts (as described in IFS) carry burdens and sin is the “burden that some of our parts carry.” If Riemersma’s assertion that self equates with Imago Dei is valid (and there is some truth to this, though there is in some ways more and some ways less to the Imago Dei than Schwartz’s notion of self), then she is astute in saying that self remains despite sin (both original sin and its consequences as well as personal sin and its consequences).

Fundamental depravity

In response to the question of whether we are “sinners at our core and fundamentally depraved,” Riemersma asserts, “What I am saying is, yes. And no. Our God image is not distorted, but our burdened parts are” (p. 30).

A response that seems to be more philosophically consistent and doctrinally valid (again, this is speculative) would be to instead respond with “no. And no.” Though fallen, the God image remains, thus we are not totally depraved at our core.

Besides, Riemersma didn’t really answer the question, but in some ways tried not to answer it by equivocating terms. Instead of keeping the same term in her response as used in the question, i.e., “fundamentally depraved,” she responds by saying that the God image is not “distorted” but the parts are. But fundamentally depraved is not equal to distorted. Indeed, fundamentally depraved is much more severe than distorted. Something can be distorted and not fundamentally depraved, but if something is fundamentally depraved it is likely to be distorted.

But are parts “totally depraved?” The Catholic answer is, in short, no. Consider section 405 of the Catechism: “[Original Sin] is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’”

Though it is reasonable to say that parts can carry the burdens of sin (e.g., a consequence of Original Sin is the “burden” of concupiscence), parts are not persons. As Monty De La Torre helped me to see, in Thomistic terms parts seem to have accidental not substantial existence. Parts are like powers (i.e., potencies) of the rational soul that do not exist exclusively on their own but exist in each of us who are embodied persons. They are aspects of how the rational soul operates in a person who is a body-soul composite.

The intellect is “darkened,” and the will is “weakened.” Even our passions are disordered. But the powers of the soul are not “totally depraved.” The intellect is darkened but not pitch black. The will is weakened but not entirely paralyzed. And the passions are disordered, but not fundamentally chaotic and beyond the scope of being regulated and ordered toward right reason. Parts as well as the powers of the soul are still basically good, though not fully operative or functional. They are not perfected and will not be fully perfected in this life.

Does the Trinity have parts?

Riemersma states, “The God of Scripture manifests himself to the world in parts as well” (p. 24). This seems misleading, in part due to the founder of IFS, Dick Schwartz’s, belief that parts are literally actual persons inside of us. As mentioned above, parts are not persons, but they have accidental form and are more like the powers of the soul. Persons have substantial form and have God’s image.

Riemersma’s claim says too much and too little. To say that the all-loving, omnipotent and omniscient divine Persons of the Trinity are parts is to greatly, if not infinitely, overvalue parts. It also greatly, if not infinitely, undervalues divine Persons. It also seems to give way too much credit to Schwartz and not enough to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I suspect Riemersma was merely attempting to bridge the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to the IFS notion of parts in a catchy and memorable way by employing a term frequently used in IFS literature (i.e., parts). In short, our Trinitarian God is three divine Persons, not three divine parts.

Not-so-good points

This section considers statements in the book that diverge with Catholic teaching, and in one instance, seem to distort Christian history.

Walking by the Spirit

Riemersma (possibly inadvertently) conflates or at least does not sufficiently differentiate when one lives in-self (from God image) as compared with living in the Spirit (from both God image and likeness, which requires sanctifying grace). She notes the 8 Cs or qualities of self that emerge when parts are unblended (calm, courage, compassion, etc.) sound similar to the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.). She proceeds to interpret a biblical verse through an IFS lens:

This spiritual fruit is accessed, Galatians 5:16 tells us, when we ‘walk by the Spirit.’ In other words, when our parts have stepped back and we ‘walk by the God Image’ (not walking Over There to get to the Spirit) these qualities will spontaneously emerge, just as Schwartz discovered with his clients.”

Here she gives too much credit to the self, to “Walking by the God image.” Walking only by the God image (to use IFS language, the person is “in self” or “self-led”) can be understood as living rationally, according to the natural light of right reason, which can include the 8 Cs of self. This type of “walking” can be done by everyone: Nonbelievers and believers, atheists and theists, nonbaptized and baptized alike. Each and every person, regardless of their belief system, can know truths, do remarkable and giving things, and demonstrate love toward their neighbor.

However, a natural cause cannot bring about a supernatural effect. If there is no supernatural fuel in the tank, one cannot go to a supernatural place or do supernatural things. Thus, without sanctifying grace, these efforts cannot be done with supernatural charity, which requires being filled with the Holy Spirit through baptism. Baptism is the sacramental conduit of supernatural and sanctifying grace. Indeed, baptism is the “basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit” that frees us from sin to be “reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ” (Catechism 1213). Moreover, “entry into Christian life gives access to true freedom” (Catechism 1282).

Contra Riemersma, walking by the Spirit is qualitatively different and greater than simply walking by the God Image. Christians are called to do more than walk by the God image, they are called to walk by the Spirit and bear supernatural fruit. IFS “self-leadership” is not enough. Christians are called to not merely be self-led, but Spirit-led. Fruits of the Spirit are supernatural fruits, and only those who have received supernatural and sanctifying grace through baptism can bear them. A person who unblends from parts and is in self (i.e., “walking by the God image”) but does not have the assistance of sanctifying grace cannot bear fruits of the Spirit. In a word, being “in self” or “self-led” is insufficient to walk by the Spirit. If not baptized, a person can have natural level self-leadership, but the person does not have the full capacity for true freedom in Christ.

“Holy tape measurer”

On page 152, Riemersma states that to claim there is such a thing as a “hierarchy of sin” it must be an unhealthy conclusion developed by a burdened type of spiritualizer part. She calls it the “Holy Tape Measurer” rather than, in her view, orthodox moral teaching. She writes: “For a Spiritualizer, a tape measure is essential, because a ruler of some sort is needed to quantify ‘badness’… So it builds a hierarchy of Not-so-Bad, Badder, and Baddest” (p. 152).

To give her some credit, a person with a severe Scrupulous part may go to great lengths to categorize and over-analyze the moral life in a very neurotic and toxically shaming way. They may “see” differences and hierarchies that do not exist.

But Catholic teaching asserts there is variation among sins. Some are worse than others. Specifically, some are mortal and some are venial.

The Catechism states, “Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity,” such that mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart of man,” whereas venial sin “allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it” (sections 1854-1855). The difference in outcomes between mortal and venial sin is that mortal sin causes the death of the soul, but venial sin does not. That is a pretty big, qualitative difference, confirmed by scripture (cf. 1 John 5:16-17). In short, there is a hierarchy of sin.

Namaste

Riemersma, without including a reference and likely trying to bridge different spiritual and cultural practices, seems to go too far when she states: “Did you know that the yoga term ‘Namaste’ means ‘I bow to/honor the God Image within you.” Actually, it means something else. According to an article called Namasté – It means more than just a “HI” on the sanskritimagazine.com website, the term Namaste is one of the five forms of traditional greeting mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Hindu religious scriptures. This greeting could be a “casual or formal greeting, a cultural convention, or an act of worship.” The article contends that in its deeper spiritual meaning: “It recognizes the belief that the life force, the divinity, the Self or the God in me is the same in all. . . . We honor the god in the person we meet.” According to an article on learnreligions.com called The Real Meaning and Significance of ‘Namaste’  at learnreligions.com, in general “Namaste” tends to be defined as some derivation of ‘The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”

As mentioned above, the God image is not the same as God himself. A human person is neither a god nor God. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, there is an “infinite distance” between a baptized person and God (cf. Ott, p. 256). Also, I was unable to find an article via google search that specifically stated Namaste means to “bow to/honor the God image.” Just about every article I read stated it meant something like the divine in me bows to the divine in you.

Crusades burden

Also, Riemersma, in one sentence on page 183 includes both the Crusades and the Holocaust as examples of “burdened parts within the church” sanctioning violence against humans. Including the protective response known as the Crusades and Hitler’s heinous and sadistic acts, literally in the same sentence, seems misinformed and quite problematic.

As Crusade historian, Thomas Madden, describes in his article The Real History Of The Crusades, today much is certain about the Crusades. He states: “For starters, the Crusades to the East were in every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression—an attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.” There certainly were atrocities inflicted by Crusaders during these battles. This is a great problem found in most any war, including current wars, by soldiers and/or leaders from both sides. All of these evil choices and actions should be acknowledged as evil and impermissible. But there is a clear difference between the Nazi genocide versus a defensive and just war (or wars) that included military atrocities.

Riemersma’s brief critical statement of the Crusades carries with it the implication that any use of force as a defensive maneuver by the Church or a country after an attack by invaders is the result of burdened protectors. On the contrary, the just use of force to protect one’s people, religion, and land can be a self-led, healthy, even virtuous strategy. This is in stark contrast to Nazi genocidal efforts, which were evil from beginning to end.

Summary

In this first two parts of a three-part series of reviews on Riemersma’s book, Altogether You, I focused on key Catholic anthropological issues. In addition to her style of writing, her emphasis on walking by the God image rather than from blended parts, discussion of healthy love of God, neighbor and self, and various other strengths were engaging and informative.

However, I noted numerous areas in her attempt to integrate IFS with Christianity that need some or much clarification. This is quite understandable, because making sense of, for instance, sin from a Christian-integrated IFS standpoint is no small task.

However, Riemersma in some parts of the book contradicted orthodox Catholic doctrine in key areas. For instance, her attempt to compare the IFS notion of self with the Imago Dei was in many ways a worthwhile effort. However, a key limitation of her effort is that she did not make the necessary set of distinctions to clarify how the Christian doctrine of the Image of God is similar to but distinct and different from Schwartz’s notion of self. The paradoxical sum effect of her faith integration effort is to be “secular psychology heavy” and to do a disservice to orthodox Christian teaching.

Overall, my sense is that Riemersma tried to do too much. She attempted to describe a general Christianity that apparently does not endorse anything at odds with IFS principles. She made no critique of IFS in the text itself, leading one to assume it would be okay for Christians to simply follow where it leads. To not acknowledge the differences between two distinct things one tries to integrate together is to do a disservice to at least one of the sides and to the integration project itself. Something has to give. One side is likely to be too highly favored without sufficient critique and the other loses out. Much too often in faith integration efforts, the side that loses out the most is the orthodox Christian side.

That said, despite these limitations, it is one of the better books on Christian-integrated IFS I have read.

Please stay tuned for next week’s third part of the 3-part series, which will review the practical applications of Riemersma’s book that are helpful and those that may be missing or in need of improvement.

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Interior Integration for Catholics, new episode

Check out the latest IIC episode, the finale in the five-part series, titled Relating Well with “Borderline” Family Members with Dr. Gerry Crete. In this 89-minute episode, my guest, licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. Gerry Crete and I discuss how best to engage with borderline dynamics within your family. People with “borderline personalities” have surprisingly intense internal experiences that are rarely handled well by the people around them. Dr. Gerry suggests avoiding both expressing too much frustration and invalidation.  Instead, he recommends trying to view situations from their perspective and looking for the kernel of truth in their reactions. Acceptance of borderline emotions and perspectives can create the opening a person needs to engage more collaboratively.   Learn how to avoid one little dangerous word and use another, much better little word in conversation with those with borderline traits.  Dr. Gerry also responds to these questions (among others) from our live audience

  1. How do you deal with blazing rage and other extreme emotions?
  2. How do you navigate narcissism and borderline within a marriage and the battle between the integrity needs of both?
  3. How do you learn to love people with borderline tendencies?
  4. Where is the balance between sacrificial love and self-care?
  5. Will people with borderline ever be capable of developing an awareness of other people’s feelings and perspectives?
  6. What is the healing and forgiveness process between a mother with borderline and her daughter?
  7. How do you deal with the guilt, shame, and anxiety caused by borderline?
  8. How do you stop the cycle of borderline tendencies from being passed from parent to child?

Save the date!

Speaking of the IIC podcast, Dr. Gerry and I will release episode 130 on April 15, in which he shares so much of the backstory behind his new book his book Litanies of the Heart: Relieving Post-Traumatic Stress and Calming Anxiety through Healing Our Parts.  That book is available for pre-order now, and will ship starting on its formal release date on Tuesday, April 16.

What’s even better is that Dr. Gerry will return to be with you live for IIC podcast episode 132 on Tuesday, February 13, 2024 from 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM Eastern time to field questions from you on the book – share with us your questions, comments, reactions, feedback, anything you would like to bring up with him.  Registration is required but free, and we have space for 100 participants.  If you can’t make it to the live recording, you can leave me a voicemail of your question at 317.567.9594 or email it to me at crisis@soulsandhearts.com.

The call to be a Porn-Free Man

The Porn Free Man is a free online conference for Christian men coordinated by Drew Boa of Husband Material  PFM is all about outgrowing pornography and other unwanted sexual behavior.  In this conference, you’ll be guided through powerful exercises by experts who lead you into curiosity, compassion, and kindness.

On Saturday, January 6, 2024 from 3:00 PM to 4:30 PM Eastern time, I will share my presentation titled Working with Parts that Want Porn (IFS), and I will lead three extended experiential exercises to help the men get in touch with their parts that are in conflict about porn use.  I’ll also be a part of the Panel Discussion where the five presenters will answer your questions live, from 5:00 PM to 6:00 PM Eastern time on January 6.

Please spread the word to the men who might benefit (with discretion, of course).  Find out much more in this downloadable PDF handout and find out even more and register here; recordings of the Porn Free Man retreat will be available after it ends.

The Resilient Catholics Community

We are excited to announce that 106 people applied to the RCC for the St. Francis Xavier cohort before registration closed on December 31, and I am so excited that they have begun a journey, a pilgrimage to greater human formation with us.  The interest list for the next cohort, the St. Gertrude the Great cohort is now up on our RCC landing page – sign up there if you’re interested.  Also, sometimes we need a few more men and women to fast-track to fill up the companies at specific times, so there is still a chance to join the St. Francis Xavier cohort; we look for candidates from the interest list for that.

Be With the Word for the Epiphany of the Lord

In this 19-minute episode, Dr. Gerry explores the character of Herod, he discusses how our negative behaviors can be adaptive and self-protective. Dr. Gerry ties in the 2019 Wonder Woman movie (minimal spoilers) as well as the Eastern Catholic concept of epiphany and “theoria” as he discusses how to challenge our own motivations and adapt in new ways through union with and worship of God.  You can hear Dr. Gerry read and offer a mediation on the Mass readings here.

Pray for us…

I don’t tire of asking you for prayers.  Our whole endeavor, our whole outreach at Souls and Hearts is fueled by prayer.  Please pray for us, often, and in many ways.  We are praying for you as well.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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