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.

Integrating Christian Theology and Psychology: Part Three

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

IN PART ONE OF THIS SERIES we discussed the advent of social science, whose practitioners slowly changed the face of mental health counseling. Psychiatry stood as the primary specialty for treating psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. Psychiatrists typically do not engage in meaningful long-term clinical dialog. Instead, they prescribe psychotropic medications. Today, social workers, psychologists, and their ancillary workers, provide the majority of “talk therapy.” Notwithstanding the above, it was psychiatrists who were tasked with compiling data and establish a universal “code” for quantification, research, and billing purposes. Part Two showed the impact of the Enlightenment on virtually all aspects of life, characterized by skepticism toward religious dogma and other forms of traditional authority. Secularism and relativism began to creep into the discussion. Isaiah Berlin established an alternative movement in the late 1800s which he labeled Counter-Enlightenment. He attempted to challenge rationalism, universalism, and empiricism, objecting to these and other isms, saying they identify man as “mere machine” whose quest for reality is drastically limited to empirical interaction with nature.

Early practitioners thought experimental psychology was the best tool for getting at the basics of consciousness, but they believed “laboratory psychiatry” was useless for grasping the aspect of higher cognitive function. Wilhelm Wundt proposed that “sensations” (which occur when a sense organ is stimulated and impulses reach the brain) are are always accompanied by feelings. Arguably, attempting to isolate, grasp, understand, and write about “feelings” has always been a difficult task. Clinics and laboratories for the study of cognition flourished throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, psychology is a discipline rich in historical and philosophical roots. Many evangelical and fundamental pastors have disparaging thoughts regarding psychiatric and psychological treatment modalities. Although many people keep “faith” carefully segregated from the rest of their lives, I believe it is possible to establish and maintain productive links between psychology and Christian theology.

It helps to remember that “worldview” is a fundamental orientation of the heart, which is laid bare by our words and actions. Scripture notes that our heart is the central defining element of us as a person. Jesus said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45, NRSV). What we hide in our hearts, what we have sown in its soil, eventually comes to the surface. Essentially, worldview provides a home for our philosophy on life. In its simplistic definition, worldview is a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world. We all have a worldview—the window through which we view the world, framed by the assumptions and beliefs that impact what what we experience on a daily basis. Without a doubt, our worldview shapes our philosophy of life.

One of the most influential myths of the modern period has been the belief that it is impossible to locate and occupy a non-ideological vantage point, from which reality may be surveyed and interpreted. The social sciences have been among the chief and most strident claimants to such space, arguing that they offer a neutral and objective reading of reality; in which the ultimate spurious truth claims of religious groupings may be deflated and deconstructed in terms of unacknowledged, yet ultimately determinative, social factors” (2).

A Kaleidoscope of Views

Worldview brings with it many implications, which can admittedly muddy the waters regarding integration of psychology and Christian theology. When modernism failed to provide a beneficial philosophy of life in the face of war, poverty, famine, sickness, and unresolved racial tension, postmodernism attempted to replace knowledge with opinion or conviction. However, postmodernism had no advice on how to determine whether any given conviction is in some way better or more accurate than another. Again, our families, religious beliefs, academic experience, and media (especially social media) continue to influence us in ways of which we are unaware. It seems the key to unlocking our assumptions is having the humility and willingness to see them for what they are: that which we accept as true or as certain to happen, without proof. By definition, this “pursuit” of truth is a matter of epistemology (the theory of knowledge, especially how it is obtained). As we move forward in this series, we will explore how sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology are crucial to integrating treatment modalities and Christian theology.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury said, “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I believe—that unless I believe, I should not understand.” It was thought that we could essentially become our own authority, knowing with absolute certainty (as God) the definition of right and wrong; in other words, the knowledge of good and evil. This is the very essence of our First Parents’ disobedience in the Garden of Eden (see Gen. 3:1-5). A hallmark of modernism is belief in the human capacity to function as an independent authority. This orientation gave rise to another aspect of modernism: the myth of progress. Man became convinced that we can know things with God-like certainty (3). The brash disobedience of Adam and Eve caused a cosmic ripple effect for all of mankind. This “fallout” has shown itself in countless vain philosophies, which prove how we all thirst for what went wrong, whose fault it is, and how to fix it.

The philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard plays an important role in our quest to establish a viable integration of psychology and Christian theology. His “existentialism” stresses meaning, accompanied by freedom of choice and the uniqueness of each individual. He likened a proper relationship with God to a love affair, saying, “It is at once painful and happy, passionate but unfulfilled, lived in time yet infinite”(Hubben, 1952, p. 24). Kierkegaard initially rejected Christianity while in college, but changed his mind some time later. However, the Christianity he accepted was well outside the walls of the institutional church. He had no patience for dogma. The ultimate state of being for Kierkegaard was arrived at when we decide to embrace God and take His existence on faith, without needing a logical, rational, or scientific explanation of why or how one makes such choice. He was a proponent of the “leap of faith” approach to religion: the moment Abraham lifted the knife to kill his son on Mount Moriah captures what he meant by religious faith. He advised reading the Bible as we would read a love letter, letting the words touch us personally and emotionally.

These excursions into philosophy are meant to help us discover the roots of psychology. Friedrich Nietzsche considered himself a psychologist. His approach was comparable to Sigmund Freud. In fact, Freudian and Nietzschian psychology shared the goal of helping their patients gain control of their powerful, irrational impulses in order to live more creative and healthy lives. Nietzsche identified urges as das es, which is Latin for the id. He often discussed repression (a later cornerstone of Freudian psychoanalysis). For Nietzsche, internalizing the external standards of others was problematic. Likely, he saw this as counter to being authentic. So-called religious “followers” in his eyes become slaves to the one they follow. I will admit that this is an acceptable tenet of Christianity (see Rom. 6:20-22), but the focus is more on “dedicated follower” than slave. Nietzsche’s remark, “God is dead,” has been misunderstood and misused for generations. Actually, he believed God was dead because “we have killed him.” By we, he meant the philosophers and scientists of his day who stubbornly held on to empiricism, giving no credence to the metaphysical or spiritual realm. This left mankind with nowhere to turn for answers to the four great questions: (1) Where did we come from? (2) What is the meaning of life? (3) What is the basis for morality (right vs. wrong), and (4) Where do we go when we die? With the so-called death of God came the death of His shadow (metaphysics) as well.

This seems to leave mankind in a cosmic tabula rasa devoid of transcendental or spiritual forces to guide us. Yet, amazingly, Nietzsche said conviction is “belief in the possession of absolute truth on any matter of knowledge” (4). But it was his opinion that rationalistic philosophy, science, and the organized church discourage us from having a deep, personal relationship with God. Logic and facts have nothing to do with such a relationship, which must be based on faith alone. In this manner, Nietzsche believed we killed God, at least philosophically. Ultimately, when we accept God on faith, God becomes (for us and our encounter with Him) a living, emotional reality in our subjective experience. Although I believe in the ontological existence of God, I believe it is critical we understand that a “speaking God” needs a “hearing church.” It is our individual faith that quickens our spirit and allows us to experience God.

The Fork in the Road

David Entwistle notes that every branch of learning provides a unique view of God’s world and allows glimpses of His mystery. For the evangelical, fundamental Christian, psychology must be infused with a theological belief about our place in God’s world. Christianity is much more than theology; it is predicated upon a personal relationship with Christ as Lord, as rabbi, as redeemer. Of course, Christianity holds very specific beliefs as to the cause of human suffering. Admittedly, this causes Christian counselors to come to the table with certain assumptions. Pastors and church elders shepherd church members toward a maturity in Christ, as they should. Elders tend the flock in such a way that believers develop from spiritual infancy to full-grown Christ-likeness. Paul wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:2-3a, ESV). The word “milk” (Gr. gala) in the above Scripture passage means the basic, elemental teachings of Christianity first learned by new believers; the word “meat” (Gr. broma) denotes a deeper, more complete understanding and application of God’s Word.

What does reason have to do with faith? What does the intellectual have to do with the spiritual? What does philosophy have to do with Christianity? Tertullian summed up these questions when he asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?”(5). Entwhistle noted “individuals who espouse a sacred/secular split in an attempt to preserve theological supremacy actually minimize the scope of God’s sovereignty” (6). This makes perfect sense. We cannot bifurcate God from His creation, or from our everyday existence. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to encounter fundamentalist or evangelical pastors and teachers who claim that Christians must reject in total the “false doctrine” of psychology, and run from all manner of secularism in order to find health and healing in Christ. It is critical to understand the difference between “secular” life issues and secularism. As human beings, we need to avoid an “ivory tower” existence. We cannot deny non-religious, “lay,” or temporal orientations while we remain in an earthly body. Secularism is a worldview that is hostile to Christian theology. Entwhistle helps put this matter into perspective: “To think secularly is to think within a frame of reference bounded by the limits of our life on earth… to think Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God” (7) (italics mine).

In Part Four I will show how counseling provided to Christian believers in crisis by Christian practitioners and clergy must include discipling; and inversely, Christian discipling must include counseling. Further, I will introduce the concept that extremism regarding this continuum is destructive. So-called secular combatants see religion as incompatible with mental health and intellectual discourse. Christian combatants see psychology as an enemy which is opposed by sound doctrine, and they see the use of psychotherapy (and psychotropic medication) as incompatible with, if not unnecessary for, those who live victorious Christian lives. I will provide insight on the theory of “nouthetic counseling” (Gr. noutheteo, “to admonish”), which is a form of evangelical Protestant pastoral counseling based solely upon the Bible and focused on Christ. It repudiates mainstream psychology and psychiatry as humanistic, fundamentally opposed to Christianity, and radically secular.

I will present the case of Nally vs. John MacArthur and Grace Community Church. The case presents a variety of issues concerning a lawsuit for wrongful death by the parents of a suicide victim against Grace Community Church’s pastoral counselors. On April 1, 1979, 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 Nally 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 case of Nally vs. Grace Community Church puts at our feet the issue of integrating Christian theology and psychology. Pastors at GCC told Nally that his attempted suicide by overdose was a sign that God was punishing him. MacArthur and his pastoral staff told Nally his problems were rooted in sin, and that his mental illness could be properly treated by relying solely on biblical principles. The irony is not lost on me that psychology literally means “the study of the soul.” I will present the argument that psychiatric care must never be dogmatically withheld from a church member who is contemplating, or who has attempted, suicide.

Footnotes and References

(1) James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 20.
(2) Alister E. McGrath, A Scientific Theory: Nature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009), 17.
(3) David N. Entwistle, Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd. ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books), 2015.
(4) Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (Germany: 1878).
(5) Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 7 (New York, NY: London Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1914), 45.
(6) Entwhistle, Ibid., fn3, 8.
(7) Ibid., 9.

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.

god banner

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.