Regarding Christian Theology and Psychology in Treating Mental Illness

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.           —Frederick Buechner

GOD CALLS PEOPLE. It might not be the calling of Abraham to leave the land of Ur and go forth into wilderness he knew nothing about, or the calling of Moses, confronted with the command of the burning bush, or the calling of Isaiah who encountered the glory of God, or the calling of the apostle Paul to bring the message of Christ to the Gentiles—but an awareness of “call” is both mysterious and powerful. And it is always a demonstration of love and an initiative from God.

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Certainly, it is helpful to understand that God calls the Christian in three distinct ways:

  • First, there is the call on your heart to be a Christian. The God  of creation invites us to respond to His love in numerous ways. This call comes through His Son Jesus, who invites us to be His disciples. This tends to open the door for our service to others in His name. Everything about us is understood in light of this primary call on our life. Every aspect of our lives flows out and finds meaning in light of the fact that we are a called people. The entire body of Christ is made up of the called.
  • Second, for each individual there is a specific call—a defining purpose or mission, a raison d’être. Every individual is called of God to respond through service in the world. Each person has a unique calling in this second sense. We cannot begin to understand this second calling except in the light of the first. In other words, when we fulfill our specific vocation, we are living out the full implications of what it means to follow Jesus.
  • Third, there is the call that we face each day in response to the multiple demands on our lives—our immediate duties and responsibilities: the call to be present to our children when they are in a high school musical, or to help our local church when they host a baseball camp featuring retired greats from professional baseball. Or to take a homeless veteran to Denny’s for a hot lunch and talk to him about the Gospel and options for getting him off the street. These activities represent the immediate tasks placed in front of us by God—our tasks for the day, if you will.

We are all called to work. We want that work to be meaningful, joyful, and significant. We want to know that the work we do is good; that in word and deed we are doing something that is fundamentally positive and worthwhile. Each person brings beauty, creativity, and significance to the table. We all add to the community. It does, indeed, take a village, but we speak here of a village of believers—the Body of Christ. And yet we must never lose sight of the inherent value and potential of the individual person who is loved, called, and empowered by God to do good work.

Older notions of vocation and career development assumed that people wrestled with matters of vocation as early as young adulthood. It has been commonly assumed that vocational counseling was provided in high school for those seeking to pick a career. But in a more accurate understanding of vocation, we learn that vocational questions follow us throughout the course of our lives—and that perhaps vocational counseling needs to be presented to us at each transition throughout our lives. The questions remain the same: Who am I? Who has God called me to be? What should I do next? Of course, our answers to these questions can change at different stages of our lives. We naturally think differently during adolescence than early adulthood; likewise during early-to-mid adulthood, and mid adulthood into our senior years.

ORIGINS OF PSYCHOLOGY

Clearly, psychology did not emerge directly as science. This presents a rather challenging problem: Where to start? Ancient civilizations surely studied one another to determine who was reliable and trustworthy, and evidence suggests they attempted to record and interpret dreams, mental illness, and emotions. Was this an early form of psychology? Or did psychology start with the first systematic explanations of human cognitive experience, which can be traced back to the early Greeks? Plato and Aristotle, for example, established elaborate theories that attempted to account for memory, perception, and learning. Maybe this was the starting point?

Early adherents understood it was difficult to consider psychology a hard science in the traditional sense given that experimenters cannot “observe” the workings of the mind or “measure” emotions. Many initially considered psychology to be a specialized branch of philosophy—a sentiment still held by some. They based their conclusion on several factors. First, they had a difficult time accepting subjective reports as evidence. Second, can unconscious inference be considered a coherent—logical and consistent—concept? Rene Descartes gave us the concept of dualism—the position that mind and body are in some categorical way separate from each other and that mental properties are in some respects non-physical in nature. Certainly, this concept plays at least a part in the idea of nature versus nurture.

Physiology and brain research led to applying scientific methodologies to the study of human thought and behavior. Wilhelm Wundt began applying experimental methods. Edward B. Titchener founded psychology’s first major school of thought, which he applied to studying human consciousness. William James outlined his theories in his classic textbook The Principles of Psychology. He focused on how we interact with one another in our everyday lives, using methods such as direct observation, feedback, impression management, and body language  to study the human mind and behavior.

Prior to the psychology of Sigmund Freud, early psychology stressed conscious human experience. Freud changed the face of psychology by proposing a theory of personality based upon the unconscious mind. Although Freud’s theory had a huge impact on psychology, social science, art, education, and business, skepticism eventually set in. Admittedly, it has many followers to this day. Psychology changed dramatically, however, with the advent of behaviorism, which rejected abject reliance on the conscious and unconscious mind. In a nutshell, behaviorism looked at classic conditioning and reward versus punishment.

 PSYCHOLOGY VERSUS THEOLOGY

Many are surprised to hear that Christian Theology and psychology are compatible. In his book God’s Psychiatry, Charles L. Allen notes that the word psychiatry comes from two Greek words: psyche and iatreia. The word psyche really means “the person,” and is translated as “breath,” “soul,” “mind,” “reason,” and the like. The word iatreia means “treatment,” “healing,” “restoration,” and so on. If we put the two words together, we get the term “the healing of the mind,” or, perhaps more specific to Allen’s intention, “the restoring of the soul.” This can mean medical treatment per se, or it can refer to ministering to the soul. Allen wrote, “…the very essence of religion is to adjust the mind and soul of man, and we have long ago learned this…”

Psychology and theology are both concerned with philosophical anthropology. It draws its name from the root psyche, a Greek word whose use can encompass the physical, the psychological, and the immaterial aspects of humanity. In both clinical and experimental expressions, the nature and functioning of human beings in the central concern of psychology. Theology is concerned with the nature of God and with God’s relationship to the world. Psychology may be able  to describe human beings as they are, but only Christian theology can describe them as they were intended to be—questions of ultimate concern, such as how did we come to be, what is our purpose, what is our destiny?

“The biopsychsocial model is both a philosophy of clinical care and a  practical clinical guide. Philosophically, it is a way of understanding how suffering, disease, and illness are affected by multiple levels of organization, from the societal to the molecular. At the practical level, it is a way of understanding the patient’s subjective experience as an essential contributor to accurate diagnosis, health outcomes, and humane care.” —Borrell-Carrio, Suchman, and Epstein

Sarah Rainer, PsyD (2014), said in an article for Christianity Today, “Pastors largely feel unequipped to address mental illness, and mental illness is still taboo in many ways.” Rainer further notes that in recent years psychologists have begun recognizing that our spirituality impacts our lives, but have yet to buy into the idea that it is imperative for life. Of course, not all secular psychology is wrong. We cannot just throw the baby out with the bath water. Indeed, there are many helpful and positive aspects of psychology to consider when diagnosing and treating a patient. This is precisely why there is a need for integrating psychology and Christian theology.

Entwistle (2015) notes that although psychology has much to teach us about human behavior, it cannot provide the larger context that gives meaning and direction for life itself. Pope Benedict XVI said, “Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is.” It is theological reflection that often sets the stage for poor self image that leads to malaise and self-doubt. Consider the many levels at which we exist: social, psychological, physical, systemic, economic, spiritual, sexual. It is through these many lenses that we ask ourselves Who am I? Does my life really matter? How can I change my circumstances when I feel stuck? What is the meaning of life? Where is God in all this mess?

ON INTEGRATING CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said,”We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Unless you’re an atheist, you probably believe the world we live in is not the only plane of existence. Accepting that reality is only temporal is paramount to understanding spirituality and how it relates to mental health. 2 Timothy 3:7 says man is “always learning but never able to come to a [full] knowledge of the truth” (NIV). Countless books have been written by psychologists over the years that attempt to describe our personalities, the boundaries within which we must operate, our dysfunctional development, interpersonal relationships and their inherent problems, how our children should be raised, and so on. This has caused an intellectual/spiritual crisis, causing believers—indeed our very clergy—to often treat human beings in a manner that differs from how we were instructed by Jesus through Scripture. To me, this is where integration of Christian theology and psychology may prove helpful.

Naturally, Christians have always been intrigued by God’s creation. We’re well-aware that as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways, and His thoughts higher than our thoughts (see Isaiah 55:9). We cannot begin to understand the intricacies of creation—from as far outward as we can see to as far inward as we can see—let alone the subtleties of brain chemistry and mood, or the machinations of memory and learning. And don’t get me started on quantum physics and black holes or old age versus young age earth.

What does fascinate me is how Christian interest in psychology has exploded over the past fifty years. Countless books have been written by Christians that describe how our brains have developed, what constitutes our fight or flight response, how we fall in love, why we become addicted to drugs or food or shopping, or why some of us isolate while others love to stand in front of a congregation and preach or sing. Most publications on psychology are secular in orientation, which makes for fascinating dinner conversation to say the least. Naturally, there are as many disagreements about psychology as there are schools of thought. Fundamentalism still speaks more often than not about “psychoheresey.” One of the reasons my first wife divorced me was my interest in psychology. Granted, at the time I began studying philosophy and psychology I was in the midst of an identity crisis as a believer. Today, I see the need for a healthy integration of the two schools of thought, and am pursuing a master’s degree in support of a faith-based counseling career.

“CHRISTIAN” PSYCHOLOGY?

The field of psychology has been retooling itself over the years. Initially, it was concerned solely with what makes people mentally ill. Today, much focus is on what makes people mentally healthy, positive, joyful, happy to be alive. Studies show that those who believe in life after death, for example, are happier than those who do not. Sociologist Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at Austin says, “Religion provides a unifying narrative that may be difficult to come by elsewhere in society.”

Christian psychologist Paul Vitz says the work of Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the catalyst for what he terms positive psychology by emphasizing mental health instead of mental illness. Seligman said, “What is needed to balance our understanding of the person is recognition of positive human characteristics that can both heal our pathologies and help to prevent psychological problems in one’s future life.” And what are these positive human characteristics? Virtues such as wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. These core virtues are quite similar to the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23).

I admit we need to stay alert as Christians to so-called “self-help”  or “self-potential” psychologies that often seem faddish and change with the wind. Any “psychology” that suggests we can only be happy, healthy, or spiritual when we forget the past and “live in the moment” must be avoided. The truth is “self-help” is an oxymoron because the individual who uses such an approach always arrives at a solution to his or her problem either with the help of a therapist or by following the formula of the self-help book.

Christians understand that for 2000 years there has been a relationship between an individual’s mental outlook , his or her belief about God, Christ, salvation, and how he or she fits in the whole scheme of things. I think Christian psychology has ample incentive to focus on core virtues and what it means to be a human being with a substantive center of soul, spirit, heart, mind, and consciousness—rather than on self-improvement—because of Christianity’s foundation on Scriptural principles. It is God who forgives our sins, heals our sinful human nature, and replaces our guilty conscience with the fruit of the Spirit—it is nothing that we do in our own strength. 

References

Entwistle, D. (2015). Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd Edition. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

Rainer, S. (September 25, 2014). “The Integration of Christianity and Psychology: A Guest Post by Sarah Rainer.” Christianity Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/september/concerning-psychology-and-christianity-guest-post-by-sarah-.html

Seligman, M. Ph.D. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.

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