Science in Christian Perspective



Psychology and the ChristianAN EDITORIAL

From: JASA 11 (September 1959):

Existing in the minds of many Christians is the notion that there is a widespread and fundamental conflict between the ideas and practices of psychology on the one hand, and Christian faith and practice on the other. Unfortunately this notion tends to get generalized over the whole area of relationships between psychology and Christianity so that for some Christians, psychology is suspect just because it is psychology!

It is not difficult to understand why many people gain an erroneous impression of what psychology is trying to say and do. The results of psychological study affect us in many ways, not all of them directly and to our conscious awareness. For example, probably few of us realize that the shape, size, color, shelf placement, etc. of packages of cake mix have been carefully worked out to "psychologically compel" us to buy. But we are not much ego-involved over cake mixes. How to raise children is quite a different story, and here ego-involved parents are quite apt to get a distorted view of what psychology has to say on the subject. To some a "psychological" approach is a soft and ineffective way to raise children. Parents, both Christian and non-Christian, have been heard to say that they have tried "psychology" on their children and it just didn't work, and therefore they have returned to the "tried and true" method of a little corporal punishment from time to time. And the Christian will often reinforce this by pointing out that the Bible states that sparing the rod will spoil the child! The erroneous belief is that psychologists don't believe in corporal punishment under any circumstances. But most child psychologists will insist that the establishment of reasonable behavioral limits is necessary for the healthy development and security of the child, and that the occasional application of physical punishment will be necessary and helpful in keeping these limits in force. What the psychologist will argue against is the use of corporal punishment by the parent as a way of expressing pent-up aggression to the obvious detriment and confusion of the child.

While it is evident that not all of psychology is in conflict with Christianity, it is equally evident that the other extreme is untenable. There are indeed areas of conflict. A fundamental philosophical difference, for example, lies in divergent views on the approach to be used in the study of man. Most "tough-minded" psychologists hold vigorously to the philosophical position of empirical determinism, the belief, as applied in psychology, that behavior follows certain natural laws, and that exceptions to these laws are more apparent than real. Irregularities in behavior are thought to reflect our present lack of complete understanding of the underlying behavioral laws. Pushed to its logical limit empirical determinism maintains that all of man's behavior is theoretically determinable by natural law, once one knows the basic equations and the parameters which should be plugged into this behavioral system. Insistence on this approach eliminates all religious and/or metaphysical considerations as irrelevant or inappropriate to the enterprise at hand. This approach is unacceptable to the Christian psychologist or psychiatrist who, though a determinist in the broad sense that he believes behavior is lawful, insists upon giving consideration to the nature and behavioral effects of relationships between God and man.

Articles in both this and the next issue will serve to focus attention on some aspects of the relationship between Christianity and the fields of psychology and related disciplines of psychiatry and social work. Many of these are papers given at the annual convention of the A.S.A. in St. Paul, Minnesota, in August, 1962. It is hoped that these will be seen as only introductory discussions of the topics dealt with. The reader will have certain reactions as he reads them. He is encouraged to write these reactions down in the form of a letter to the editor. Or he may wish to contribute by writing an article on a topic of relevance to Christianity and psychology not covered in the symposium of papers. All communications will be gratefully received.

This issue contains a varied group of papers. Mr. Van Eyl sets out to show that psychology is indeed a science. Undoubtedly this would be easier to demonstrate for some branches of psychology than for others. For example, probably few would dispute the claim of physiological psychology to being a science, but it would be very difficult to convince a "hard headed" scientist in one of the physical sciences that clinical and counseling psychology are sciences. To be sure, there are scientific elements in each, but to a large extent the practice of clinical and counseling psychology, like psychiatry, remains an art. With further developments in instrumentation and greater application of statistics to the problems of prediction, these fields will undoubtedly become more and more scientific. Whether all fields of psychology will or indeed can become fully scientific is an open question. Readers may like to share further observations on this matter.

Dr. Norstad draws our attention to the fairly recent development of clinical training for pastors. The getting together of the theologian and the psychologist in the development of pastoral psychology is an encouraging step in the recognition of the fact that the theologian

Mr. Fair is Counselor, Student Counseling Services, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and is currently on leave of absence working towards a doctorate in counseling psychology at the University of Minnesota. As a recently appointed Associate Editor of the JASA, he edited the articles in this issue.

does have an important contribution to make in the field of mental illness. However, this raises the interesting question of professional responsibility for the treatment and care of the mentally ill. Dr. Norstad suggests a team approach. What should be the respective roles and degree of participation of the various members of the team? No doubt this is being worked out in practice in hospitals and other institutions where pastoral counselors are functioning.

Dr. Grounds, too, sees the real potential of Christianity in the alleviation of the problem of mental illness, but he gives a timely warning that Christianity must not be seen as a panacea for curing these illnesses. His point is well taken. The Bible is not a textbook for any science, nor is it a guidebook on the cause, cure, and prevention of mental illness. Many related issues arise at this point. Often one hears the statement made that "God will solve all of your problems," or "all the answers to life's problems are found in the Bible." In what sense is this true, and to what extent do such statements possess operational usefulness? What about the problem of mental illness of the Christian? Some seem to think that it is a contradiction for a Christian to be mentally ill and a reflection of deficient faith on the part of the Christian involved. But, as Dr. Grounds points out, many evangelicals are afflicted with conflict, tension, fear, and guilt. It is also evident that many Christians are underdeveloped socially and inhibited to the point that normal social intercourse is a threatening and difficult experience. Then again, one sometimes hears it declared that it is sinful to worry or to be afraid. Is this really true? Are there no legitimate reasons for anxiety and fear? And is it not true that in non-debilitating degrees these are real motivational factors behind striving toward new goals in both religious and secular endeavors? Is the image of a relaxed, peaceful, conflict-free Christian really a desirable image? Dr. Grounds indicates that it is not. These and related questions are much in need of honest and frank answers.

Dr. Busby points out the important distinction between valid, objective, theological guilt and subjective psychological guilt-feelings. Like Dr. Norstad, he suggests a team approach might be used in dealing with problems of guilt, or the Christian psychiatrist himself may help the patient to realize the forgiveness that is available in Christ. As Dr. Busby notes, the term "guilt" means different things to different people. Unfortunately, this problem of semantics is a serious complicating factor in relations between Christianity and psychology. Though using the same language, the theologian and psychologist may find themselves talking about quite different things.

A host of other questions need to be asked and genuine attempts made to find answers for them. For example, the often neglected area of the philosophical underpinnings of psychology and their implications needs to be considered. To what extent are the philosophical presuppositions made in psychology in agreement with, or in conflict with, those made in Christianity? A basic difference in approaches to the study of man has been referred to above. What about other philosophical issues? How does the Christian psychologist resolve these issues? How can he prevent himself from going merrily on in his profession barely aware, if aware at all, that possible philosophical conflict exists? Of for that matter, how can the Christian professional in any field "decompartmentalize" so that his thinking on professional issues shades imperceptibly into that on spiritual and other matters? Papers in the March 1963 issue will deal with some of these questions.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is reported to have said: "A man's mind stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions." Through the medium of this journal let us engage in some mind-stretching! New insights and new perspectives are necessary to help us keep abreast of modern times.