Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Two

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

A NUMBER OF PHILOSOPHERS of the Enlightenment began publishing their thoughts in the late 1600s to early 1700s, and detractors almost immediately took on the task of stating their objections. Public debate began in Europe and Western Civilization whose echoes can be heard today. Enlightenment was characterized by skepticism toward religious dogma and other forms of traditional authority. Consensus was that principles governing the universe were discoverable, and could be applied to the betterment of mankind. Some of the Enlightenment’s key philosophers include Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes; key natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution include Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

In contrast, Isaiah Berlin established a movement called Counter-Enlightenment. His theory became a movement in the late 18th- and early 19th-century. This school of thought stood against rationalism, universalism, and empiricism (typically associated with the Enlightenment). Berlin’s essay “The Counter-Enlightenment” was first published in 1973, and later reprinted in a collection of his works, Against the Current, in 1981. Much of Berlin’s thought was linked to his philosophy of “value pluralism” which holds that moral values can be equally valid and yet mutually incompatible, creating conflicts that can only be reconciled pragmatically. He is noted for stating, “Those who have ever valued liberty for its own sake believed that to be free to choose, and not to be chosen for, is an inalienable ingredient in what makes human beings human.”

Isaiah Berlin wrote, “Opposition to the central ideas of the French Enlightenment, and of its allies and disciples in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself. The proclamation of the autonomy of reason and the methods of the natural sciences, based on observation as the sole reliable method of knowledge, and the consequent rejection of the authority of revelation, sacred writings and their accepted interpreters, tradition, prescription, and every form of non-rational and transcendent source of knowledge, was naturally opposed by the churches and religious thinkers of many persuasions” (1).

Philosophies inherent in the Enlightenment (empiricism, sensationalism, and rationalism) depicted humans as complex machines; products of experience; highly rational beings operating in accordance with abstract principles. Leaders in romanticism emphasized inner experience, and distrusted both science and the philosophy which pictured humans as products of experience, as machines, or as totally rational beings. Obviously, no one can be 100 percent “rational.” Rational beings are capable of logical thought with the ability to reason toward sound conclusions based on facts and evidence, draw inferences from situations and circumstances, and make sound well-reasoned judgements based on factual information. Read that again, and notice it is missing a reference to man’s emotions. I do not know a single human who is capable of Spock-like reasoning: logical, not emotional (2).

Early Approaches to Psychology

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) opened the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1879. This was the first laboratory dedicated to psychology, and its opening is usually thought of as the beginning of modern psychology. Accordingly, Wundt is often regarded as the father of psychology. He believed that experimental psychology could be used to grasp an understanding of immediate consciousness, but said it was useless in attempting to understand higher cognitive function. Wundt stood in bold contradiction to Galileo, Comte, and Kant who claimed that psychology could never be a science. Wundt identified sensations (which occur whenever a sense organ is stimulated and the impulses reach the brain), adding that they are are always accompanied by feelings. He also developed the principle of contrasts. For example, if we taste something that is very bitter or sour, something sweet tastes even sweeter.

Early German psychology led to establishment of various clinics and experimental psychology labs. This era included the study of judging, recalling, expecting, inferring, doubting, loving, hating, and hoping. Looking at the previous listing, it is clear that experimental psychology was chasing mental abilities and processes at the same time it was seeking to explain emotion. Persistent questions in psychology over the centuries have included mind/body, mechanism versus vitalism, nativism versus empiricism, rationalism versus irrationalism, objective versus subjective reality, universalism versus relativism. Traditionally, “science” involves empirical observation, but the issues usually start with a problem that needs solving.

Not surprising, some aspects of psychology are scientific, and some are not. Nondeterminists assume that human behavior is “freely chosen,” and therefore not amendable to traditional scientific method. The indeterminist believes human behavior is determined, but say determinants of behavior cannot always be known. To what extent are humans free, and to what extent is their behavior determined by knowable causes? What is the nature of human nature? How are the mind and body related? And what of the spiritual element of human behavior? What is the origin of human knowledge? Is there a difference between what exists physically and what is experienced mentally? Are there knowable universal truths about the world in general, or just about people in particular? This is where psychology, philosophy, and theology began to ask similar questions.

I had intended to move on to David Entwistle (Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity), and the concept of worldview (David Sire, John Stonestreet, Nancy Pearcey, Lee Strobel). Instead, in Part Two I have presented an introduction to the history of psychology, and the many tough questions that come with exploring philosophy, psychology, and theology. Integration of these grand schemes is of vital importance. Naturally, some schools of thought overlap. Of course, others are diametrically opposed. In Part Three, we will explore the underpinnings of worldview from a secular and Christian perspective and show the overall importance of integrating psychology and Christian theology.

References
(1) “Archived Copy” (PDF). Archived from the original on Sept. 3, 2013. Retrieved 2013-08-03. URL
http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/counter-enlightenment.pdfi
(2) The character Spock is a character in television and movies as science officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise on Star Trek and related spinoffs.

Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part One

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.

I have heard it said that since the cultural revolution of the 1960s the emotional and mental needs of the American people have increased dramatically. When psychiatric epidemiology emerged in the early 20th century, social scientists rather than psychiatrists determined its basic character. This practice eventually led to the unfortunate trend today in addressing mental illness: psychiatrists schedule 15 minute exams for their patients, usually a mere 4 times a year (every three months). “Talk therapy” has been bifurcated from psychiatrists and placed under the umbrella of psychologists and social workers. Because most social scientists are not trained in medicine, they had little concern for the formidable problems posed by a nosology (scientific study and classification of diseases and disorders, both mental and physical) based on symptoms rather than etiology.

Psychiatry was defined and promulgated by a group of statistically oriented social scientists concerned with problems relating to poverty, dependency, and welfare. Certainly, this is an impetus for what is now called “social science.” But it also led to the advent of social justice issues, especially along the lines of “identity politics.” Psychologists and social workers realized that institutional populations were notoriously poor sources for epidemiological inquiry. Socioeconomic and environmental factors are key components of personality formation. At a more fundamental level, psychiatric nosologies (with few exceptions) rested on symptoms (“descriptive”) rather than cause (etiological) evaluation of the mental illness.

Additionally, philosophy and theology have found their way into medical and psychological diagnosis and treatment. St. Anselm (AD 1033-1109) argued in Faith Seeking Understanding that perception and reason can and should supplement Christian faith. This represents one of the earliest major departures from Christian tradition, which emphasized faith in God as the source of salvation, wisdom, knowledge, and physical and mental illness. St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God promoted using reason within theology. Simply stated, if we think of something then something must be causing that thought. In a sense, faith preceded efforts to understand. Frankly, the believer has nothing to fear from logic, reason, or even the direct study of nature. All truth is God’s truth. William of Occam (1285-1349) believed extraneous assumptions should always be kept as simple as possible. He said, “It is futile to do with many what can be done with fewer,” and “Plurality should not be assumed without necessity.” He said all miscellaneous details must be “shaved” from explanations or arguments. This has been affectionately labeled as Occam’s Razor.

Interestingly, William of Occam changed the question concerning the nature of knowledge (epistemology) from a metaphysical to a psychological problem. He rejected sole reliance on abstract reasoning or intense “introspection.” Instead, he placed emphasis on how the mind classifies experience; he said we habitually respond to similar objects in a similar way. Sensory experience provided information about the physical world only. Occam’s views are said to be the beginning of empiricism. Turning to St. Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274), we find a man of God furiously dedicated to Christian theology. He turned his back on family (and a life of wealth and power) to focus on theology. Aquinas, in the same vein as Aristotle, said that the senses would provide information only about particulars, not about so-called “universals.” His work in this regard made it possible to bifurcate reason and faith, making it possible to study the two separately. Plato’s Theory of Forms asserted that the physical realm is only a shadow, or image, of the true reality. Plato’s Forms are abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space.

Rene Descartes’ (1596-1650) search for ultimate truth showed him that nothing in philosophy is beyond doubt. He was, of course, an empiricist, who invented analytic geometry. In fact, he concluded that the only thing of which he could be certain was the fact that he was doubting; but we know doubting is thinking, and thinking necessitates a thinker. This is how Descartes arrived at his much-celebrated conclusion, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). He included among the innate ideas those of unity, infinity, perfection, the axioms of geometry, and God. His methodology consisted of intuition and deduction. Intuition is the process by which observation leads to analysis, before becoming a “theory.” Observation should be from an unbiased and attentive mind arriving at a clear and distinct idea; an idea whose validity cannot be doubted. Deduction starts with an idea, then observation is made before it is given the identity of theory or idea. Decartes’ psychology heralded a mechanistic explanation of bodily functions and of much behavior. His mechanistic analysis of reflexive behavior can be seen as the beginning of both stimulus-response and behavioristic theories.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) also supported empiricism, suggesting “evidence of the senses” as the primary data of all knowledge; that knowledge cannot exist unless evidence has first been gathered; and that all subsequent intellectual processes must use this evidence and only this evidence in framing valid propositions about the real world. After visiting with Galileo in 1635, Hobbes became convinced that the universe consisted only of matter and motion and that both could be understood in terms of mechanistic principles. He saw humans as machines functioning within a larger machine (the universe). Hobbes also believed humans were naturally aggressive, selfish, and greedy. Incidentally, Hobbes thought democracy was dangerous because it gives too much latitude to man’s negative natural tendencies. He said fear of death is what motivates humans to create social order. Civilization is created as a matter of self-defense; each of us must be discouraged from committing crimes against the other.

Alexander Bain (1818-1903) has been referred to at the first true psychologist. He published two seminal works: The Senses and the Intellect (1855) and Emotions and the Will (1859). These books are heralded by some as the first systematic textbooks on psychology. He followed with Mind and Body (1873). Bain was the first in his field to attempt relating real psychological processes to psychological phenomena. For Bain, the mind had three components (or “functions”): feeling, volition, and intellect. Many Christian theologians and pastors believe man is made of three components: body, soul, and spirit. The soul is said to be comprised of mind, will, and emotions. Yet, to say that humans are morally superior to non-human animals is to overlook (at least to some degree) the seamier human activities like cannibalism, infanticide, and wars. The mere aspect of “religion” has certainly not improved the human condition. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) rejected Descartes’ contention that God, matter, and mind were separate entities. Instead, Spinoza proposed that all three were simply aspects of the same substance, which formed the basis of his theory on life that was both ethically correct and personally satisfying. He believed God, nature, and the mind were inseparable. Spinoza said God was not relegated to the realm of monotheists; rather, He was in everything. This is pantheism.

The practice of establishing categories of thought was proffered by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He disagreed with Hume by demonstrating that some truths were certain, not based on subjective experience alone. He did not deny the importance of sensory data, but he believed the mind must add something to that data before knowledge could be attained. He said that “something” was provided by a priori (innate) categories of thought. He listed the following in his breakdown of pure concepts or categories of thought: unity, totality, time, space, cause and effect, reality, quantity, quality, negation, possibility/impossibility, and existence/nonexistence. For Kant, a mind without concepts would have no real capacity to think; however, it can also be said that a mind loaded with concepts, but with no sensory data to which they could be applied, would have nothing to think about!

Philosophers began to argue that humans consist of more than an intellect and ideas derived from experience. We possess a wide variety of irrational feelings (emotions) that cloud meaning and tantalize or betray us. We also operate on an intuitive and instinctual platform. Romanticism was a predictable challenge to empiricism. After all, empiricism reduced people to unfeeling machines. Theologians talk of us possessing the imago Dei (the image of God). This seems to be contrary to the believe that emotions are found on the pleasure/pain continuum. Spinoza taught that emotional experience is often destructive if not controlled by rational processes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) said, “Man is born free and yet we see him everywhere in chains.” Christian theology benefited, however, from Rousseau’s feelings vs. reason tenet because it supported the idea that God’s existence could be defended on the basis of individual feeling and did not depend on the dictates of the church.

I have decided to break this topic into a series. There is simply too much to cover in one blog post. Part One is designed to give you fairly deep background on how Christian theology interacted with philosophy. A great deal of psychology is built on the shoulders of early philosophers. Part Two will move a little faster, starting with David Entwistle’s thoughts on integrative approaches to Psychology and Christianity. Also, I will present the theology, philosophy, and worldview of David Sire, John Stonestreet, Nancy Pearcey, and Lee Strobel.

Why Must We Suffer?

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

MANY FACTORS TODAY IMPACT how we feel about ourselves and life. We wonder why bad things happen to good people. We question the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent God in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil and social unrest. America is embroiled in doubt and fear, depression and anxiety, hopelessness and a loss of meaning; caught in a national angst we have not seen since the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Great Depression. Some of us turn to psychology and psychiatry, hoping medication and talk therapy will cure our misery. Others turn to “religion.” Tragically, many Americans try booze and illicit drugs, and some choose to end their life. What is the answer?

How Could You?

I sat, alone, quietly, wondering what was about to happen. Misery had brought me to this place. I was so sick and tired of myself, yet I had no idea how to change me. And what if I cannot change? Would I be able to live, period? Perhaps you or someone you are close to has been at this point. My complaint, for lack of a better word, was simple: God, how could you? Why did you give me this life, this complete mess. I felt impotent and alone. Nothing thrilled me anymore. Not. One. Thing. I decided to find out why, or die. Why am I lost and alone, confused and burdened? I am so tired of hearing my own voice―especially the one in my head that never seemed to stop making excuses for my circumstances. It is quite unsettling to give one’s self an ultimatum. What happened to the hour I first believed? I saw the face of Jesus at age 13, and asked Him into my heart and my life. There was an unambiguous call on my life to serve as a pastor or teacher of the Word. Finally, my raison d être.

But things did not go “according to plan.” Life got complicated. I got lost on the way to my calling. I’d never really been happy in life, but at least I wasn’t a nihilist. My belief that something matters, no matter what that something is, seemed to propel me toward hope. A chance to see the horizon. Light. There has to be light, right? And doesn’t that light illuminate, reveal? Like that new GE light bulb, giving the best light, filtering dull yellow light to give incredible color contrast and whiter whites for exceptional clarity. That’s what I needed. Exceptional clarity. Let’s get real here. My life did not seem to be “exceptional” and I had absolutely no “clarity.” Instead, I was kneeling in my bedroom, alone, broke and broken, asking God, “How could you do this to me?” How could a Christian lose hope. Lose the horizon? Give up the reigns to a task master like substance abuse?

I didn’t stop there. I wanted to know why my grandmother and father got cancer. Why my father lost his dad when he was only 13 years old. Why he contracted COPD, emphysema, and chronic hypoxemia? When he eventually needed supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day, he said to me, “Well, this is the beginning of the end.” Shortness of breath robbed him of his many favorite activities: woodworking, painting, gardening, landscaping. No longer could he ride his lawn tractor without suffering compression fractures of lumbosacral vertebrae. He had stopped smoking after his heart attack at age 55, yet he still suffered the horrific medical consequences. He passed away in 2014 from pneumonia. Why God? He’d quit smoking decades ago. Why is he gone now that I finally have a life worth living? Why isn’t he here to see the amazing turnaround I’ve finally made? He’s not here to see me preparing for ministry. God, how could you? Thankfully, I am not prone to thinking this way any longer, but it took some exegetical research for me to determine the best way to address these issues without blaming God, my father, or others.

If God Loves Us, Why Must There Be Pain and Suffering?

If God loves us and is an omnipotent and benevolent God, why does He allows pain and suffering. These questions are not limited to skeptics and nonbelievers; they haunt many Christians as well. Surely, He can rid His creation of wars, murders, torture, sickness, tsunamis, earthquakes; He must be capable of arresting evil, right? This issue has stymied believers and non-believers for centuries. Richard Dawkins sees universal suffering as an indictment against the existence of a loving God. Further, he writes, “There is no good case to be made for our possession of a sense of right and wrong having any clear connection with the existence of a supernatural deity” (1). Dawkins believes theodicy (the “vindication” of divine providence in the face of the existence of evil) must keep theologians up at night. However, he provides no further evidence of this claim. Second, I and many other theologians and biblical scholars I know, are not suffering from insomnia over the conundrum of evil in the face of a “good” God.

Dawkins says it is “…childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god – such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don’t like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Dawkins’ detractors see the foregoing comment as a straw man fallacy, especially because Christian theologians and biblical scholars do not claim that the issue of evil is easily overcome, nor do they believe Satan is “a separate evil god,” responsible for the existence of evil in God’s creation. Designating one cosmic power “good” and the other “evil” presupposes a third element for making the evaluation, namely an objective standard (or “measuring stick”) of good and evil. For the terms of “good” and “evil” to be meaningful, they must be linked to some objective standard, but “…then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God” (2).

C.S. Lewis writes, “Each [entity] presumably thinks it is good and thinks the other bad. One of them likes hatred and cruelty, the other likes love and mercy… Now what do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? Either we are merely saying that we happen to prefer the one to the other, or else we are saying that one of them is actually wrong, actually mistaken, in regarding itself good” (3). Lewis argues that no created being can be intrinsically evil or love evil for evil’s sake. He contends that there is no way that an evil being can stand in the same relation to its evil that an ultimate good being can stand to its goodness. He adds, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. There must be something good first before it can be spoiled” (4). Augustine of Hippo postulated that evil has no existence of its own; instead, evil is the absence of good.

I understand this conclusion sounds a bit counterintuitive. So, let us take an exegetical approach to the origin of evil. When God created the heaven and the earth, He paused and saw that it was good (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On the sixth day, after surveying all He made, God said it was very good (1:31). When we read the account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, we see no mention of God creating anything bad, corrupt, malevolent, ugly, or wicked. Yet, in Genesis 3 we are introduced to the serpent tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent, which had not been previously mentioned, suddenly comes on the scene and becomes a major player in the fall of man and introduction of original sin. So, good is morally “prior to” evil such that evil is damaged goodness and love of evil is desiring evil as though it were good. Natural laws and libertarian free will are necessary conditions for a variety of valuable relational situations (within humanity and with God).

Lewis believed pain is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” emphasizing pain’s capacity to shatter our illusions of self-sufficiency. But this is not a dyed-in-the-wool formula; pain only sometimes shatters our false sense of self-sufficiency and at other times drives us farther from God, depending on our response. Further, Lewis did not make sweeping generalizations about the purpose of all pain, although some interpreters mistakenly represent him as doing so. Moreover, Lewis did not address “evils” such as natural catastrophes that wipe out hundreds of people without giving them a chance to reorient toward God; nor did he engage human wrongful acts like the torture and murder of children who cannot respond productively to the pain. To be sure, however, God can work redemptively with pain when it does occur. There is simply no guarantee that all persons, even when pain exposes their insufficiency, will choose relationship with God.

If the universe is as scientists say it is, then what scope remains for statements about good or bad, right or wrong? What are we to conclude about evil and wickedness? If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong. To admit this would force philosophers to admit that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality.

Created Selves and Reality

As a created self, a finite personal being possessing intelligence, will, and agency, Satan’s true good would have been realized by accepting his place (as Lucifer) in creation, which he refused to do. We human beings are also created selves who must either accept our nature and ultimate destiny in God or craft for ourselves a destiny apart from God, which Lewis sees as “a free choice.” Essentially, a series of accumulative moral choices in which “good and evil both increase at compound interest” (5). It is inevitable that left unchecked, bad temper, jealousy, narcissism, selfishness, and other spiritual or character defects, gradually get exponentially worse and become Hell when projected out over an eternal future. Finding our true selves, then, is a matter of letting God heal and transform us spiritually. But God will never force himself upon us. He will not ravish, He can only woo. As perfect love, God can do nothing less than will our true good. Lewis said, “He cannot bless us unless He has us” (6).

Concluding remarks

We all hear the question so many typically ask, “Why would a loving God send someone to hell?” Yet, the truth is, people send themselves there. If you see someone walking toward a cliff and you yell to them, “Wrong way! There is a cliff ahead. You’re going to fall off and die if you don’t go the other way.” But if the person foolishly responds with “I’ll take my chances”, “I don’t believe you”, or “All roads lead to safety,” then he or she ends up falling off the cliff and into the abyss, who sent them there? They did! I wrote a poem during my active addiction that looked at the excitement and the peril of living my life right up to the edge of the abyss. Certainly, God did not want me to push myself away from Him, coming closer and closer to the cliff. He wanted to rescue me from myself, but I had to make the first move.

Lewis said a “Cosmic Sadist” might hurt us, but he could not do positive things such as invent or create or govern a universe. To hurt us, the Cosmic Sadist might bait traps, “…but he’d never have thought of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn’t make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend” (7). It is goodness that is original and fundamental and evil that is derivative and parasitic. I, as Lewis, remain confident that the Christian worldview explains evil and suffering better than other worldviews explain it. Evil occurs within a total world context that includes other important phenomena that cannot be adequately explained by an evil source. The problem of evil itself, as Lewis indicated, can be credibly formulated only if these other realities are assumed. In the final analysis, when Lewis lost his wife Joy, he did not waiver one bit in his faith in God. His theory that pain is a catalyst for spiritual reorientation (a belief he articulated frequently and that many of his readers took as categorical) encountered the hard fact that sometimes we just have to endure pain that seems to serve no particular purpose.

Footnotes

(1) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: First Mariner Books, 2008), 135.
(2) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1952), 43.
(3) Ibid, 42-43.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid., 132.
(6) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London, UK: SCM Press, 2000).
(7) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1961), 65.

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.