Redeeming Psychology means Christian involvement in mainstream research

To be salt and light in science, we must first play by its rules.

Appears in Summer 2009 Issue: Responding
June 1 st 2009

Long ago, I heard a comedy routine by Steve Martin. He told of his excitement in going to Paris. He said that he understood how Parisians love it when foreigners speak French when in France. When he arrived Charles de Gaulle airport, he rushed outside, jumped in a taxi and said, "Take-a me-a tuu the hotel." He then became very frustrated and infuriated because the Parisian cabdriver did not respond to his request.

Being a Christian in mainstream psychology does not mean that we take Reformed theology and bless it with a few psychological experiments and citations. Nor does it mean that we take Reformed theology and bless it with a few classic counseling theories, such as those by Freud, Rogers or Maslow.

My first point is this. If we wish to be understood in psychology (and even in mainstream culture), we must speak the language that psychology speaks—not the scientific equivalent of the fake French-adjusted English in the Steve Martin anecdote. That is, we must speak a language of data and current psychological theory, in every area of psychology. Furthermore, I believe that we are strengthened in our communication to the extent that we couch our work in basic research, and what is often called applied positive psychology, rather than strictly in therapeutic psychology.

Christians can have enormous influence in psychology and in the common culture. But this involves speaking the language of psychology powerfully. That means that first we must play by the rules of science. That is, we must address topics that are relevant to psychology or we must persuade psychologists that Christian topics are relevant. We must collect data using the most current experimental and correlational methods. We must analyze data using the statistical techniques at the highest level of sophistication. We must theorize elegantly to make sense of the data. And we must disseminate the findings in top-flight scientific journals and in public forums as public intellectuals—not merely in Christian publication sources (which are important but will not gain the respect of the general population or the academy).

Second, we must use our Christian theology to generate questions that need to be asked in psychology. For example, in 1985 there were virtually zero studies investigating forgiveness. Forgiveness is absolutely central to Christianity. So, it seems reasonable to seek to study it scientifically. In 1997 there were only 58 empirical studies on forgiveness. However, by 2005 there were over 950 studies of forgiveness. There are no journals devoted to publishing research on forgiveness. Therefore, all of these studies occurred in mainstream journals in psychology, not in journals that relegated the study of forgiveness to the margins of psychology. How did this remarkable growth take place? This leads us to a third point.

Find a vacuum and seek to fill it. As scientists, and as inquiring Christians, we are looking for interesting questions that are informed by theology, but ones about which psychology has said little thus far. Forgiveness was one of those questions. Others among the Christian virtues form other questions of interest these days.

Mike McCullough and Bob Emmons began the study of gratitude in earnest. They wrote a conceptual review paper, created a measure and did studies to employ the theory and measure to investigate interesting questions. The study of gratitude has caught on.

Steven Post has spearheaded a study of altruistic love. Altruistic love may be the fundamental Christian virtue—even more so than forgiveness.

The study of humility is another area that has seen little research. Humility is hard to measure. If one creates a self-report measure of humility asking one how humble he or she is, the self-report is hard to interpret. Is a person who says "I am the most humble person ever" to be believed? Or is such an answer grounds for eliminating the person from the ranks of the humble? However, the study of humility is ripe for new conceptualization that is consistent with Christian principles coupled with a method for measuring it, plus the application of the theory and the method of measurement to interesting problems.

In 2000, there was virtually no organized field of positive psychology. Now, however, the study of human strengths and virtues has flourished with the articulation of grounds for a field of positive psychology by Marty Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Christianity is certainly consistent with the study of eudaemonic virtue—seeking good for self and others. This is a vacuum that Christians are just now beginning to fill.

The study of spirituality is yet another vacuum. Psychology is less enamoured today with the study of religion than it has been in the past. Everyone wants to study spirituality, yet no one has a good definition of spirituality nor an idea of its makeup. Nor are there good ways of measuring spirituality. This is a vacuum that is just waiting for Christians to step in and fill it.

Thus, the principles of redeeming psychology through participation in empirical scientific research are these: to use our theology to generate interesting and important questions, look for the vacuum in psychology, then expand the vacuum into a larger body of knowledge through developing theory and measuring instruments and applying them to collect and interpret data. In doing so, we are salt and light.

Of course, we will not be able to redeem psychology as Christ redeems fallen people or will ultimately redeem society. But we are doing what Christians are supposed to do by infiltrating the majority culture, speaking the language that the culture can understand (and not some religious language that the culture cannot understand) and acting as salt and light to change the culture.


Everett L. Worthington, Jr. is Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia's largest state university. He is in the Counseling Psychology (APA-accredited) program, is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, and is affiliated with the Social and Developmental Psychology programs. He studies forgiveness, Hope-Focused Marriage Enrichment, and religion and spirituality in family and counseling. In his spare time he plays tournament (age-group) tennis and enjoys ballroom dancing.