Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Four

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology

Since the birth of psychoanalysis, there has been a disconnect between psychology/psychiatry and theology. Freud’s worldview was that belief in God was nothing short of neurotic.

I HAVE BEEN ASTONISHED for years about the human condition. Too much violence, sadness, depression, anxiety, and angst among the population. For several years now, I have been studying the integration of psychology and Christian theology. Actually, my interest in psychology began with a need to understand my mess of a life. Today, I am embarking on a ministry of reconciliation, determined to help the downtrodden and the oppressed rise above their struggles with mental illness and addiction. From a personal perspective, these two concerns ruled in my life for decades: mental illness triggered substance abuse over and over; active addiction prolonged my mental illness. Although I received insight regarding my behavior, secular counseling failed to provide the right vision and tools I needed to break free. A three-year stint in state prison did not curb my appetite for drugs and alcohol; I continued getting high in prison. I was beginning to see the Groundhog Day quality of my life.

Integrating Psychology and Theology, one of my classes at Colorado Christian University, peaked my interest. Fittingly, I had arrived at the point in recovery when I realized only Jesus could break the chains of drug abuse and mental disease. Moreover, I came to believe (at least for the Christian in crisis) that counseling alone often is not enough. I subscribe today to the adage, Counseling must always include discipling; and discipling must always include counseling. I noticed the fact that many Christians are embroiled in substance abuse, but this does not mean he or she is not saved or does not love God. During a 21-day stay at a rehab, I met a man who was the lead pastor of a church somewhere in the region. He was clean from drugs for 9 years. He relapsed on his drug of choice (crack cocaine) and lost everything. Whenever he shared he would say, “My name is Bill and I am a Christian in recovery.” He led some amazing late evening Bible studies which were well-attended by 5 others, including me.

A Legal Implication

In Nally vs. John MacArthur and Grace Community Church (1), 24-year-old Kenneth Nally committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. His parents filed a wrongful death action against Grace Community Church of the Valley, a Protestant Christian congregation located in Sun Valley, California, and four Church pastors, MacArthur, Thomson, Cory and Rea, alleging “clergyman malpractice,” specifically negligence and outrageous conduct in failing to prevent Nally’s suicide. A member of the Church since 1974, Nally participated in pastoral counseling at GCC prior to his death. The pastors vehemently discouraged him from receiving psychological or psychiatric care (despite a prior attempt at taking his own life by intentional drug overdose), failing to meet a standard of care for pastors, failure to secure proper psychological counseling training, and failure to disclose Nally’s true psychiatric condition to his treating psychiatrist and his parents.

The intent of this lawsuit was to define “duty of care” regarding pastors and their clients. The same dilemma presents itself in addictions counseling. Christian and secular counselors share the same desire—helping people overcome mental illness. Christian counseling is distinct from secular counseling in that it specifically incorporates the spiritual dimension when providing therapy. By using biblical concepts, Christian counselors can provide specific direction and accountability in accordance with core Christian principles. When, however, must a Christian counselor refer a church member to secular treatment? At the heart of most efforts to understand secular versus faith-based counseling is the essential theological and philosophical foundation, the unity of truth. This is often expressed as all truth is God’s truth. Although the unity of truth has been affirmed since the time of the early Christian church, this specific relationship has been classically applied to psychology.

A Persistent Disconnect

Since the birth of psychology, there has been a disconnect between psychology/psychiatry and theology. Freud thought belief in God was nothing short of neurotic. Yet he was curious, warm, and respectful of several clergy, and enjoyed having them as house guests. Entwistle quotes several entries from the private journals of Abraham Maslow that I found upsetting. Since my initial exposure to his Hierarchy of Needs, I have agreed with his theory. I learned later in life that my physiological needs were not consistently met by my then fifteen-year-old mother. There were serious frustrations of my safety and security needs, as well as esteem related matters. I believe much of my trouble was rooted in the frustration of critical elementary needs. Regarding Maslow, I was shocked to read his private bashing of religion. Entwistle warns it is dangerous when someone deliberately conceals his or her anti-religious bias (2). Not surprisingly, the issue of secular versus faith-based counseling falls on a continuum, with “extreme” beliefs at polar opposite. John MacArthur can be found at the very end of the scale toward biblical counseling, with virtually no room for compromise. What of psychology’s roots in philosophy and theology?

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) began his career in psychology with experimental studies, hoping to understand the elements of thought and the mental elements that govern thought processes. According to Wundt, thought is comprised of sensations and feelings. “Sensations” come to us through the senses. In other words, our initial perception is the cause to our effect. All sensations are accompanied by feelings. He viewed the mind as active, creative, dynamic, and volitional. This gives us insight into similarities between psychology and theology. For example, ours is a “speaking” God, and we must be His “hearing” church. God is the cause and our response is the effect. Importantly, there is much that can keep us from hearing God: physical pain, anger, depressed mood, anxiety, selfishness, and so on. It is worth noting that successful ideas, no matter what their source, survive; unsuccessful ideas are cast aside. Even today, we see “schools of thought” labeled behavioristic, cognitive, psychobiological, humanist, etc.

René Descartes began with philosophy, focusing on the mind-body interaction. He noted that only humans possess a mind that provided consciousness, free choice, and rationality. He wrote, “Thus it follows that this ego, this soul, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body and is easier to know than the latter, and that even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be all that it now is” (3). An aspect of theology presents itself in Descartes’ philosophy; our will can and should control our passions, so that virtuous conduct results. Such control, however, is far from perfect. He attempted to formulate a completely mechanistic explanation of man’s bodily functions. This was the dawn of both stimulus-response and behavioristic psychology. But his comparative study of the instincts of man and animal pulled his theory away from metaphysical and spiritual concepts. Regardless, Descartes is considered to be the father of modern philosophy in general and modern psychology in particular.

Søren Kierkegaard attempted to explain the meaning of human existence, freedom of choice, and the uniqueness of each individual. This is rudimentary existentialism identifies the most important aspects of humans—their personal, subjective interpretations of life and the choices they make in light of those interpretations. To me, this seems like a precursor to understanding worldview. No doubt Descartes’ exposure to his father’s theological teachings provided a foundation. His formal education included theology, literature, and philosophy. Hubben relates Descartes’ interpretation of man’s relationship to God to a lover’s experience. It is “…at once painful and happy, passionate but unfulfilled, lived in time yet infinite”(4). Renaissance humanism had four major themes: a belief in the potential of the individual, an insistence that religion be more personal and less institutionalized, an intense interest in the classics, and a negative attitude toward Aristotle’s philosophy.

Frederick Nietszche took an interesting view of human nature. His Apollonian aspect represents our rational side, our desire for tranquility, predictability, and orderliness. His Dionysian aspect represents our irrational side, our attraction to creative chaos, and to passionate, dynamic experiences. At first blush, these aspects line up with the duality of man’s behavior. Do not “just live” but live with passion; be willing to take chances. Nietzsche considered himself primarily a psychologist. To some degree, he, like Sigmund Freud, wanted to help individuals gain control of their powerful, irrational tendencies in order to live more creative, healthy lives. Nietzsche explored repression, which is a large part of Freud’s psychoanalysis. Nietzsche provided an example: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory.’ ‘I can’t have done that,’ says my pride'” (5). After much wrangling, memory wins out. Of course, Nietzsche gave absolutely no room for God in his theories. He said, “Is man just one of God’s mistakes? Or is God just one of man’s” (6). He famously said, “God is dead.” Perhaps today’s rejection of God and theology has more to do with the current atmosphere of moral relativism, secularism, and atheism than the grassroots relationship between theology and psychology.

In Part Five, I will present the major theories of personality development, comparing them to biblical theories of human behavior, the capacity to care for one another, free will, guilt and shame, and the concept of original sin. Also, I will discuss the similarities and differences between psychology and theology regarding human behavior. Christian theology is, after all, a branch of inquiry that—among other things—seeks to understand what it means to be human. But psychology, for the Christian, is infused with theological beliefs about our place in God’s world. I believe we can gain a more complete view of human behavior by drawing on both Christian theology and contemporary psychology. Yet, the caveat is that our theological and psychological perspectives can easily be hijacked, taking us down a troublesome path. Integration of Christian theology and psychology must be done in the interest of seeking God’s truth, recognizing His sovereignty over all that we do, and determine how best to relate Christianity and psychology.

References

(1) Nally v. Grace Community Church (1988) 47 Cal.3d 278, 763 P.2 948; 254 Cal.Rptr 97.
(2) David N. Entwhisle, Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd. ed. (Eugene, OR: 2015), 198.
(3) René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 2nd. ed. (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 21.
(4) William Hubben, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Kafka (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1952), 24.
(5) Frederick Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1886, 1998), 58.
(6) Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 5.

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