Science in Christian Perspective


Christianity and Psychology: 
Contradictory or Complementary?
Westmont College
Santa Barbara California 93103

From: JASA 24 (December 1972):  131-134.

Psychology has grown into a giant during the 20th century. No other age has witnessed such intense concentration upon the nature and functioning of homosapiens. Psychological terminology has become an integral part of the common vernacular and psychological concepts strongly influence contemporary thought.
Both psychology and Christianity deal intimately with the phenomenon of man. Psychology attempts to gather data inductively, formulate theories, and arrive at a probablistic and naturalistically based understanding of the human being. Christianity, as revealed in the coherent whole of the Scriptures, proceeds deductively from the supernatural a priori of special creation in God's image. The psychologist generally concentrates upon man's attitudes and behavior as they relate to each other as empirical phenomenon, while Christianity roots these behaviors and attitudes in the framework of man's inherent relationship and responsibility to God.

Psychology has challenged contemporary Christianity to a more involved understanding of men as human beings, while debunking or ignoring much of the basic Christian system in the process. Comp lementarity be tween psychology and Christianity is  an honest investigation of the common subject matter, man, while conflict is implied in the necessary embrace of (antithetical) philosophical positions prior to the accumulation of data and during interpretation of that data.

We would like to consider briefly some of these areas of conflict as well as some dimensions of potential complementarity.


Content Domain

Although the root word for psychology, psuche, originally meant "soul", modern psychology generally rejects consideration of any dimension except the scientifically verifiable. This is particularly true for the American psychological tradition. Strict adherence to the scientific methodology of the physical sciences has characterized the approaches of bio-chemical reductionists and behaviorists like John Watson and B. F. Skinner.1 While the full impact of bio-chemical reductionism is yet to be felt, the behavioristic approach has widely influenced contemporary theory and therapy.

The basic behavioristic assumption is that man is the product of environmental reinforcement patterns. Consequently, there is no need to talk about internal psychic or spiritual realities except as a convenient intermediate construct which is to be considered only as a temporary equation. An increasing number of therapists, such as J. Wolpe2 are using behavior therapy which is based primarily upon conditioning techniques and ignores the consideration of internal dynamics as valid data per se. One has only to consider derogatory attitudes toward the para-psychological (ESP, telepathy, etc.) to realize that even psychologists who are not strict behaviorists are firm adherents to naturalistic explanation of the solely empirical domain.

Complementarity between psychology and Christianity is implicit in an honest investigation of the common subject matter, man.

Adoption of this system can he criticized as potentially inadequate because it is a closed system which precludes information from human experience that may he metaphysically real and psychically meaningful but not empirically testable. A further problem is that the atmosphere created is one of despair. Man becomes hollow, the fated victim of impersonal environmental forces. His values, hopes, concept of responsibility and purpose, self awareness, and wishes become debunked and are treated as irrelevant except as they are the product of environmental input. Man, as we have known him historically, and as we still experience awareness of ourselves, disappears in dutiful compliance to the method.

The essential conflict with Christianity, then, stems from an over-emphasis on  empirically-oriented methodology which may result in the rejection of valid content because it doesn't fit the method. Such naturalistic disregard for man's spiritual dimension, if it really is an integral part of man's nature, produces a truncated understanding of man's nature. Such an approach might be expected to he long on analysis and short on solutions.

On the other hand,Christianoity contributes unnecessarily to the conflict over acceptable data if information, which complementarily fills in the Scriptural framework, is rejected. Ignorance of man's basic psychic and biological character presents us with an unrealistic picture of ourselves, which does not quite match our experience of daily living. Such data need to be retained in a more harmonious interpretative framework, and not be rejected because they aren't strictly spiritual. For example, the Christian must basically accept the fact of sin as the cause of personal and interpersonal disruption. Given man's fallen state, one of imperfection even after redemption, he must seek to employ all truths at his disposal in the correction of his condition. To suggest that everything would be corrected if the whole world were simply saved overlooks our need for sanctification. Consequently, we must bring spiritual truths to bear on the personal and social conditions we face as fallen men, while at the same time helping to meet those very real needs of incarnate humanity. Failure to acknowledge the interrelated needs of the whole man leaves us bewildered and frustrated as we try to understand and help ourselves and others as parts of God's creation.

The Christian simply suggests that when all of truth is known, that is, when and if all information about man (including the non-empirical) is validly gathered, accurately interpreted and integrated, man will be seen as a creature fundamentally related to God the Creator. Incorporated in that complete perspective is an interrelationship of psychological and spiritual realities which makes man so unique. The burden of the proof, at this point, is upon psychological theories and hypotheses being presented as part of an incomplete, inductive system. Attempts to discredit the "open" Christian system (one which incorporates both empirical and non-empirical dimensions in the understanding of man) must he based on a priori philosophical differences because such conclusive attacks cannot be made purely on the basis of probabilistic, incomplete evidence.

Philosophical Assumptions

Twentieth-century man must stand in awe at the physical and technological achievements produced through the application of scientific methodology. For many however this awe has been extended into worship of scientific objectivity. The result has been the debunking of any "nonobjective" experience as
valid, irrational or irrelevant.

This decision to admit only the objective, or empirically obtained data, as meaningful and valid knowledge is a philosophical choice which reflects a naturalistic value system. All psychological conclusions, particularly those about man's essential nature, are drawn on the basis of subjective presuppositions. Even the choice of areas and techniques for experimentation reflect subjective preferences, non-scientific value judgements, arid philosophical assumptions of the experimenter. The point is that science cannot be totally objective as long as man is in the picture, and should not he represented as such. It is more objective than any other system man has devised, and should be used with an awareness of initial assumptions.

To begin one's investigation of man with acceptance of his spiritually-rooted orgins becomes, then, an equally valid starting point.3 The test of these initial value preferences is in their ability to describe adequately the essential experiences of men, and to prescribe effective avenues for enduring personal and interpersonal 

One basic assumption which permeates contemporary social science and conflicts with the Scriptural view of man is that man is a passive, environmentally determined being. While there is strong evidence which supports the influence of genetic and environmental input upon our development as persons, complete acceptance of this viewpoint, within the naturalistic system, forces us into despairing fatalism. Without the reality of the choosing self and its correlate of personal responsibility, we might just as well authenticate ourselves by commiting suicide because it conceivably is the only act of freedom available (cf. Jaspers). In effect, decisionless man is man without responsibility, Hollow Man.

To suggest that everything would be corrected if the whole world were simply saved overlooks our need for sanctification.

Popularization of the deterministic motif has led to increasing personal and social irresponsibility. Indeed, William Glasser5 suggests that the basic pathology is a failure to take responsibility; that psychological health and interpersonal relatedness can only come as we choose and accept our momentary responsibilities. Viktor Frankl5 argues that meaning in life is gained only as one fulfills his unique tasks in life. The Christian position adds that those tasks stem from our fundamental relationship of creature to Creator.

Failure to accept our positions as active agents capable of producing changes as we act responsibly has resulted in increased feelings of despair and alienation, in which the main effort becomes an attempt to blame others for our condition. Such projective defenses breed conflict, and the pathology of chronic bitterness. Certainly other people and conditions are to blame some of the time, but we are responsible for how we accept and creatively utilize those conditions.

The hope of man is in the possibility of making decisions, and in the supreme decision of establishing and maintaining a relationship with God. Indeed, the very act of salvation necessitates complementary responses and responsibilities on the part of both God and man. Living the Christian life necessitates a responsible, active process of "living life with a due sense of purpose, understanding what the will of the Lord is" (Eph. 5:1517.) In this view, cause and effect relationships-including prior choices-influence man but do not irrevocably and impersonally determine him. Irresponsibility becomes a choice, not a necessary condition.

In this conception of man as an active,responsible and whole being, we find complementarity between the Scriptures and psychology. This is particularly so with more humanistically-oriented schools of psychology represented by such figures as Gordon Allport,6 Viktor Frankl,7 Rollo May,8 Erich Fromm9 and Abraham Maslow10.Complementarity of course, does no imply agreement. 


Three areas in which psychology and Christianity are potentially complementary are the necessity of transparency for personal and inter-personal growth, the necessity to transcend a mechanical existence through the experience of Love in I-Thou relatedness, and the necessity for a sense of significance or positive self-esteem. These concepts, while distinct, are so interrelated that they will be treated as a whole.
The recent rise of encounter or T-groups indicates a growing concern for honest and genuine relationships with one's self and with others. Although such groups have been criticized as to their long-range effects outside of the encounter group, their positive emphasis has been upon the establishment of transparent relationships. Such transparency represents the peak of psychological growth. It necessitates painful honesty with one's self and the courage to brave the potential pain of non-defensive interpersonal relationships.4
Christianity both adheres to and supplements this basic concept, differing to some extent in the method of achievement. The foundation of transparency, according to Christianity, is the willingness to open ourselves to God, in all of our personhood, and to maintain that genuine relatedness through daily response to God's Spirit and precepts in the written Word. Openness to God leads in turn to transparent, caring relationships with others. If such interpersonal relationships do not exist we have decided ourselves as to our being open to and knowing God (I John 4:7-12).

These relationships of transparency are primarily maintainable as we replace inadequate and debilitating emotional defenses by self-acceptance rooted in God's unconditional love and acceptance of us as persons (though perhaps still unregenerate), because we are made in his image (Psalm 139:13-16). Use of these ego-defenses lead only to self-deception, hence sin, and disrupts our relationships with both God and our fellow man. According to God's Word we are to root our self-significance in the Love and Relationships which God has directed to man as His special Creation.

One of the ego-defensive tactics which modern man seems to employ frequently and which also seems to be a reflection of responsibility-relieving determinism, is the attempt to deny the responsibility for negative (moral) actions by blaming the guilt on others or on one's background. Such techniques of repression and projection rob men of the opportunity to grow, and are ultimately psychically and societally destructive

The hope of man is in the possibility of making decisions, and in the supreme decision of establishing and maintaining a relationship with God.

Any notion of responsibility must grapple with the experience of guilt. It seems that man was not made to live with guilt. It causes disintegration and alienation. Blaming others or denying its existence do not remove real guilt, but simply prevents an honest acceptance of one's self with resultant transparency. Guilt, therefore, should be a signal for confession and restitution. It should not he lugged around unresolved . . . indeed it cannot he if one is to experience the freedom of transparency.

Some psychologists have severely criticized Christianity for the concept of sin and guilt.12 They state that these notions are psychologically disintegrative which they are-while ignoring the complementary concept of
the restorative power of horizontal and vertical confession. It might he nice if we could abolish gui1t, and act as we please, but if man is a moral creature, as Christianity states and history seems to support, we might better deal with the abolition of guilt through appropriate prevention and restitution.

Clearly, there is imagined guilt, as Freud suggested, which is the product of manipulative and narrow subcultural interests. This guilt is definitely destructive and unnecessarily hinds persons. There is also real guilt, with real moral culpability, which is the product of the destructive transgression of God's commandments, according to Christianity. Thus, there should be the experience of guilt, it seems, if one murders another or commits adultery. These actions are basically disintegrative, egocentric, arid destructive breaches of God's lawful and harmonious relationships. Indeed, persons who have no such moral sensitivity and do not experience the feeling of guilt for obviously destructive actions are designated as sociopaths by the psychologist.

Guilt, of course, does not refer solely to some heinous act of murder, but seems to apply to any intentional act which would alienate us from God and from one another. If we try to embezzle or cattily criticize another, or don't engage in an act of compassion when given the opportunity, we are choosing actions which in their egocentricity alienate us from loving, caring, growth relationships with God and fellow men. God calls such actions sin, and the experience of anyone indicates the kinds of interpersonal barriers and personal callouses which form if proper responsibility is not assumed.

God has provided us with a remarkable set of restorative tools in the respective acts of forgiving and confessing sin (guilt). In our increasingly mechanical world where man can seemingly escape becoming a hollow machine only by his loving and transparent embrace of personal I-Thou relationships, these acts are essential. The Illinois psychologist, 0. Hobart Mowrer, has written extensively about the need for confession between human beings as the way to intra and inter-personal wholeness.13

In the Sermon on the Mount, we read that we are not to offer gifts of worship to God if we remember that we have wronged our brother, until we ask his forgiveness. By this cathartic act of humility we restore both our horizontal and vertical relationships. By removing the barrier of pride we become transparent and whole again.

The other side of the coin, given in Matthew 6, is that God will 'forgive our trespasses (breaches of our relationship to God) as we forgive those who trespass against us." Such forgiveness is granted with the awareness that we are not better than our brother (Phil. 2:3). Such an attitude and action again prevents the establishment of disintegrative barriers which rob us of our wholeness and ability to be open. According to this verse, the implication is that if we don't voluntarily forgive those who have sinned against us we become as morally guilty as they are, because we prevent continued growth between ourselves as persons and God.

The refusal to ask for or to grant forgiveness also underlines a basically unhealthy ego-defense of a person who is not willing to see himself as he is, or must use manipulation to relate to others. In order to defend himself from exposure this nontransparent person usually engages in chronic criticism of others, verbally "murder ing" 

Three areas of complementarity between psychology and Christianity: (1) necessity of transparency for personal and interpersonal growth; (2) necessity to transcend a mechanical existence through
the experience of Love in I-Thou relatedness; and (3) necessity for a sense of significance or positive self-esteem

them. The irony, of course, is that the faults he sees in others are his own in disguise. The result is a person constantly in internal and external conflict who is unable to relate in a positively intimate, growth-pro-ducing manner to either other human beings or God. Such a person is indeed isolated, and even a profession of belief in Cod becomes questionable as to its reality (1 John 4:7-8).

The tragedy of this defensive posture is that such self-deception and non-transparency is an attempt to preserve one's integrity and establish himself as a significant, worthwhile human being . . . something which God has already assured us of unconditionally by his willingness to love us through the personal relationship of Christ.

This search for a base of self-significance or esteem, so critical to each individual and recognized as such by both Christianity and psychology, 14 becomes increasingly crucial in an impersonal and mechanistic world. Material accumulation and the ability to exercise power through manipulation or productivity have become major secular indices of personal worth-whileness. The result is an ever-spiralling pressure for the individual to produce and obtain material goods. The standard of self-significance has increasingly become what one has or does, rather than who one is as a person, apart from power and position.

When modem man's reference point becomes the mechanical, material world, and he is also told by naturalistic philosophy that he is simply a chance product of impersonal forces, he begins to lose the capacity to relate to other human beings in a growth-giving manner.1 Indeed, through such object fixation, as divorce statistics seem to corroborate, other people are transformed into objects, satisfiers of immediate need which can be thrown away or traded in. The endurance needed to develop accepting and meaningful relationships with others seems archaic in a society devoted to the economy of planned obsolescence and object satisfaction.

Some men, however, have begun to sense that their fixation on superficial I-It relations is an embrace of death, leading only to alienation and loss of personhood. They have begun to suspect such a foundation can be neither satisfying or enduring because it is an attempt to gain significance by not facing ones human dilemma honestly. It is understandable that apart from a significant relationship to God, unable to find a reason for significance in a mechanical world, men begin to identify subtly with that which seems most significant and powerful. In the psychic frenzy of the search for some reassurance that he is, in fact, alive and worthwhile modern man proceeds to destroy himself in object relationships or in reaction to I-It relationships through equally non-growth oriented alternatives, such as the apparently autistic use of drugs, which ironically are also impersonal forces. Both of these instances are attempts to escape the psychic boredom and spiritual
hollowness of secular man isolated in God.

If, indeed, man's significance is foundationally related to an honest appraisal of his identity stemming from the context of being made in the image of God, these alternatives will not provide lasting worth. Nor will other reactive attempts at affirming Life, the natural 'response to recognition of the slow death inherent in the embrace of materialism. The natural response to the recognition that one is inwardly dying in this mechanical world is to affirm his aliveness through intense passion, demonstrated in acts of violence or in sexual preoccupation. Both acts seem to confer personal meaning, but each precludes the formation of intimate and enduring relatedness due to their manipulative and autistic character. They further alienate searching secular man from his only permanent source of Life and significance, because they are not founded upon the acceptance of an unconditional Love and personal relatedness. To many modern men, God seems dead but it is only because they have embraced alternatives of death in their separation from God and alienation from men.

Into this desperate search of modern man for significance, wholeness, and Life must come Christians as persons (not statistic counters), who are willing to accept and relate to their unsaved counterparts as persons, in a manner which is reflective of God's caring love. According to Christianity the base of each person's significance is rooted in the purpose and relationship engendered in each person's special creaturehood and released in the Personal Encounter of Salvation through the person of Christ. Each Christian must function, then, as a bridge, as an involved friend introducing an even more Involved Friend.

The contemporary Christian then must be aware of some of the psychic needs and motivations of his secular counterpart. He must try to understand others as persons and relate Christ to their whole person, through his own involvement as a transparent individual. Evangelism from a distance will not meet the desperate cry of modern man for his personhood.


l B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1972.
2J. Wolpe, The Conditioning Therapies, Holt, and Winston, 1964.
3William Glasser, Reality Therapy, New Row, 1965.
4Vietnr Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul, Books, 1969.
5Cordnn Allport, The Individual and His Religion MacMillian Co., 1960.
6Victnr Frankl, Man's Search For Meaning, New York: Washington Square Press, 1963.
7Brollo May, Love and Will, New York: 'N. W. Norton & Co., 1969.
8F.ric Fromm, The Revolution of Hope, New York: Bantam Books, 1968.
9Ahraharn Maslow, The Psychology of Science, Chicago: Begnery Co., 1969.
10Sidney Jnnrard, The Transparent Self, Princeton: Van Nostrand Co., 1964.
11Albert EtIi.,'There is No Place for the Concept of Sin in Psychotherapy", J. Counsel. Psych., 1960, 7, 188-192.
120. H. Mowrer, The New Group Therapy, Princeton: Van Nostrand 1964.
l3Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, New York: Bantam Books, 1971.
i4Ericls Frnmm, The Art of Loving, New York: Harper and Bow, 1962.
l5C. C. Jung, The Undiscovered Self, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1958.
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