Science in Christian Perspective



Integrating Psychology and Christianity.
A Biographical Sketch of Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

D. Russell Bishop

The University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa

From: PSCF 40 (December 1988): 229-231.

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is a woman who has made pointed scholarly contributions to the field of psychology for over fifteen years. Her work is aimed particularly at a Christian readership. Nevertheless, her major contributions have been received with skepticism by this audience (e.g., Foster, 1984), and for the most part have had little impact on the mainstream of scientific psychology. This lack of acceptance had yielded unfortunate consequences as Christian psychologists have much to learn from the direction and quality of Van Leeuwen's professional contributions; that is, the thoughtful integration of psychology and Christianity.

K.E. Farnsworth (1985) provides a unique contribution to current understanding of the integration of psychology and Christianity. Two basic methodologies compose the integration proces's for Farnsworth: (a) critical integration, or evaluating issues from a perspective placing Christian values as predominating standards, and (b) embodied integration, or evaluating issues from a perspective that allows for a balanced input from a variety of disciplines. The purposes of these methodologies are, respectively: (a) orthodoxy (right knowing), and (b) orthopraxy (right doing). The thesis proposed by Farnsworth is that integration takes place from a carefully balanced application of the above methodologies. At a final stage in the process of integration, the application of critical and embodied integration at a personal level results in a personal conviction and commitment to action. This final stage is what Farnsworth refers to as the beginning point of wholehearted integration; a commitment to living the balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

What Farnsworth has proposed is a simple and straightforward challenge to Christian psychologists, calling them to a balanced and committed lifestyle of right knowing and right doing; however, wholehearted integration is a difficult process at the least. Fortunately, this task is not impossible as there are those who have been successful within the field of psychology. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is a psychologist who has met Farnsworth's challenge with vigor, serving as a role model for other Christian psychologists.

This paper is an effort to highlight the professional contributions of a living, productive psychologist; allowing the reader to be better able to appreciate the significance of Van Leeuwen's work. The purpose of this paper is best supported through providing the reader with: (a) a sketch of significant biographical information; and (b) a brief review of Van Leeuwen's contributions as an academic psychologist, noting several important criticisms of her work.

The biographical information presented here will help the reader to become better acquainted with the person of Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. The reader will then be able to evaluate her work in light of her personal history-that is, a professional lifestyle of wholehearted integration. The review presented here is not comprehensive, and is intended only to highlight what Van Leeuwen and her critics view as the most salient issues presented in her work. It is hoped that as a result of this snapshot of Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen and her work that the reader will be challenged to become more familiar with her writing, and to imitate her example as a psychologist committed to the wholehearted integration of psychology and Christianity.

Brief Biography

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen was born in London, Ontario, Canada on May 29, 1943.1 Being born and raised in Canada provided the opportunity for her to speak and write fluently in both French and English. In 1965, she earned a bachelor of arts degree, with honors in psychology, at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Subsequently, she served as a secondary school teacher of French and English at Chikankata Secondary School, Mazabuka, Zambia; under the auspices of the Canadian University Service Overseas.

Feeling the need for further education, she entered Northwestern University to study psychology. In 1970, she obtained a Master of Arts degree in social psychology. She went on to complete her Ph.D. in social and cross-cultural psychology at Northwestern in 1971; the dissertation was titled: "A Cross-Cultural Test of the 'Carpentered World' Hypothesis using Three Geometric Illusions in Zambia."

From 1971 through 1985, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen served as an assistant and associate professor in psychology at York University, Toronto, Canada. Since 1985 she has been a professor of interdisciplinary studies in the department of philosophy at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Significant professional opportunities that Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen has had throughout her academic career include consulting and contributing editorial positions with the Journal of Psychology and Theology, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Reformed Journal, The Banner Radix, and Christianity Today. Other activities have included positions as a grant evaluator for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and as a manuscript consultant for the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Further, she has given numerous presentations at professional conferences, as well as invited lectures at a variety of colleges and universities in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Although she was a member of the American Psychological Association while a student at Northwestern, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen has not been a member of APA during her later professional career. She has suggested that APA did not meet her needs as a professional. Nevertheless, she has been a member of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, and a fellow of the American Scientiric Affiliation.

Being a productive scholar has not meant a sacrifice in the area of family. In 1975, Mary Stewart was married to Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, a professor of Old Testament. She suggested that her husband has been a valuable resource for her writing by providing timely and sensitive feedback, and challenging her to resist lapses into shoddy biblical hermeneutics. The Van Leeuwens have two sons, Dirk and Neil.

Professional Influences

As is evidenced by her writing, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen has had interests in the areas of social and cross-cultural psychology, the psychology of gender differences, philosophy of science, theology, and psychological research methodology. Her most recent work includes a longitudinal study of the cognitive style of gender in subsistence lifestyles in West Africa, and a book in preparation: Gender, Sex, and Christian Freedom. Although she received formal training as a social psychologist, she has described herself as 1/3 psychologist, 1/3 theologian, and 1/3 philosopher of science, at heart; a moderate postmodern philosopher of science in the Kuhnian tradition .2

Further, she has generally characterized her work as an attempt to challenge academic psychologists in their conceptions of the science of psychology and the nature of persons, within a theological context. A general thesis of several writings (Van Leeuwen, 1982a, 1982b) has implicated modern psychology's buying into the scientific methodology of empiricism as a disastrous apprenticeship that has not served psychology well.

Psychology is a relatively young discipline, yet its historical roots are quite extensive. Though psychology has largely benefited positively from such a broad heritage, the discipline has also been faced with a difficult struggle to establish an identity that is unique among its parent disciplines. For the most part, psychology has taken on desirable and/or useful aspects of its parent disciplines, and discarded other aspects.

In general, psychology operates from an empirical perspective-that knowledge or an understanding of truth comes only through the investigation of observable events. Psychology has taken as its own this methodology of scientific inquiry used by the more traditional sciences such as physics and chemistry. Though the use of this methodology was necessary in helping the discipline in early identity establishment, psychological methodology has met with criticism. Van Leeuwen (1982a) writes:

In so becoming a "sorcerer's apprentice," North American psychology has implicitly, if not explicitly, affirmed its faith that "expanded empiricism" is transferable to its own subject matter. That assumption, I believe, has turned out to be largely unjustified. The magician's tools have not produced very much reliable knowledge about the laws of human behavior, and what is worse, they have introduced into human science a manner of treating human subjects which is (at best) morally dubious not only to Christians but to non-Christian humanists. (pp. 291-292)

Here, Van Leeuwen has not demanded that psychology cease to be an empirical discipline, but rather she has waged an attack on psychology's carelessness in becoming an empiricistic discipline.

In her subsequent major contribution to the field of psychology (Van Leeuwen, 1985), Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen made an effort to suggest an alternative approach for psychology-humanizing the methodology:

Human actions ... cannot be understood merely by observation and description from an outsider's point of view.... consequently methods are needed that will enable the scientist to understand, in active cooperation with the subjects, how the subjects see their particular situation. (pp. 73-74)

The contributions of several philosophers have been important in influencing her writing in this area: C. Stephen Evans, Thomas Kuhn and Ernan McMullin; social psychologists Rom Harre and Kenneth Gergen; and British neuroscientist Donald MacKay (cf., Evans, 1977; Gergen, 1982; Harre, 1980; Harre & Secord, 1972; Kuhn, 1971; MacKay, 1982; McMullin, 1978).

In Perspective

Critics of Van Leeuwen's (1982a, 1982b) manuscripts have generally suggested that she has presented a much needed exploration of the current state of psychology. Hayton (1983) wrote: "The issues that she outlines are at the "Heart of psychology" (p. 362). Nevertheless, Foster (1984; cf., Hodges, 1985) represents those who have suggested that she has presented an overly negativistic picture of psychology:

Psychologists are not slaves to a method who blindly apply the experimental approach to any problem that comes their way; rather, most psychologists have a clear sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the scientific method when applied to humans and continue to use it because of the unique perspective it affords. (p. 242)

More recent research has attempted to further champion Foster's notion of the psychologist as one who uses rather than who is used by method; nevertheless, this research too has relied on traditional methodologies. Van Leeuwen's (1985) wrote: "Every vital science should constantly strive to develop new conceptual and methodological perspectives in order to better understand its subject matter" (p. 1249). However, they applied the traditional factorial design methodology to their innovative hypotheses. Can psychology ever apply new methods?

Critiques of Van Leeuwen's (1985) manuscript have continued earlier skepticism. Vunderlink (1986) and Foster and Ledbetter (1987) have suggested, and rightly so, that Van Leeuwen's arguments for humanizing psychology fall short of providing a worthwhile alternative to current methodological approaches. Further, Vunderlink accuses Van Leeuwen of going too far in her humanization, making the same mistake as reductionist-extremism. Nevertheless, new theory and research in the feminist tradition is making a quite concerted effort to establish appropriate alternative methodologies for the study of women's issues. Gilligan (1982), and others (cf., McHugh, Koeske, & Frieze, 1986) suggest an emphasis on humanistic and relational elements in the implementation of psychological research methodologies. This trend in recent feminist theory and research apears to support the practicality of applying Van Leeuwen's innovations. It appears to be in the psychology of gender and women's issues that Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen's continued writings may be most readily accepted: as noted earlier, her current writing efforts are centered in a manuscript that addresses gender issues.3


Obviously, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen has made significant contributions to the field of psychology. Her continued contributions would appear to show promise as they speak to the importance of gender issues in relation to humanizing psychology. Regardless of whether her work is widely accepted, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen has presented Christian psychologists with a unique challenge; that is, to successfully engage in wholehearted integration.

Wholehearted integration is a difficult process. Nevertheless, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen has proven to be a positive role model for female and male psychologists interested in integrating their Christian commitment with their profession (cf., Van Leeuwen, 1976). The content of her writing has conveyed the need for and contributed to orthodoxy in psychology, while she has demonstrated orthopraxy through the process of her writing. She has seen the need for change within psychology and has tried to effect such change; a valuable strategy for other Christian professionals no matter what their discipline may be. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen has clearly applied her convictions with committed action: a commitment to living the balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.



The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the help of Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen who provided telephone interview data as well as written biographical information necessary for the completion of this manuscript.


1Unless otherwise noted, all biographical information was provided by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen through a telephone interview with the author on October 11, 1987, and subsequent written correspondence of December 8, 1987.

2The reader is reminded that much of Kuhn's work has been a reaction to the traditional sterile perspective of empirical scientific investigation-that the scientist can be "divinely" objective toward, and having no effective influence on, the phenomena under investigation (cf., Mahoney, 1976).

3 Her latest book, Gender, Sex and Christian Freedom (Wheaton, IL: InterVarsity Press), is to be finished in Fall/Winter 1988.


Evans, C.S. (1977). Preservng the Person: A Look at the Human Sciences. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Farnsworth, K.E. (1985). Wholehearted Integration: Harmonizing Psychology and Christianity Through Word and Deed. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Foster, J.D. & Ledbetter, M.F. (1987). "Christian anti-psychology and the scientific method." Journal of Psychology and Theology 15,10-18.

Gergen, K.J. (1982). Toward Transformum in Social Knowledge. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Gilligan, C. (1982).In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Harre, R. (1980). Social Being. A Theory for Social Psychology. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

Harre, R. & Secord, P. (1972). The Explanation of Social Behavior. Oxford; Basil Blackwell.

Hayton, B.P. (1983). "Changing face of psychology." Journal of Psychology and Theology 11, 361-362.

Hodges, B. H. (1985). Book review. Christian Scholars Review 14(3),284-288.

Howard, G.S. & Conway, C.G. (1986). "Can there be an empirical science of volitional action?" American Psychologist 41,1241-1251.

Kuhn, T. (1971). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (revised edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mahoney, M.J. (1976). Scientist as Subject: The Psychological Imperative. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.

MacKay, D.M. (1982). Brains, Machines, and Persons. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

McHugh, M.C., Koeske, R.D. & Frieze, I.H. (1986). "Issues to consider in conducting nonsexist psychological research." American Psychologist 41, 879-890.

McMullin, E. (1978). "Philosophy of science and its rational reconstructions." In, G. Radnitzky and C. Anderson (eds.), Progress and Rationality In Science, Cordrecht, Holland: Ruedel Publishers, pp. 201-232.

Van Leeuwen, M.S. (1976). "The view from the lions den: Integrating psychology and Christianity in the smular university classroom. " Christian Scholar's Review 5, 364-373.

Van Leeuwen, M.S. (1982a). "The unfulfilled apprenticeship of North American psychology." Christian Scholar's Review 11, 291-315.

Van Leeuwen, M.S. (1982b). The Sorcerer's Apprentice: A Christian Looks at the Changing Face of Psychology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press

Van Leeuwen, M.S. (1985). The Person in Psychology: A Contemporary Christian Appraisal. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Vunderlink, R.W. (1986). Book review. Chrisrian Scholar's Review 15, 405407.