Redeeming Psychology means getting excited about the discipline
Understanding the "tangle" of God's image-bearers.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Fred Zinneman's A Man for All Seasons, starring the late Paul Scofield as the enigmatic but inspiring Sir Thomas More. At one point in the film, Thomas More boldly declares that God made man "to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind." Although I saw this film long after I decided to study psychology, More's quote here well captures my love and passion for my empirical pursuits of the brain, mind and behaviour. I have a deep sense of joy and excitement for psychology, because in my freedom as one of God's beloved creatures, I can approach and ponder the "tangle." And strangely, I think my excitement for the discipline is so strong precisely because there exists such a tangle.
First, it's important to note that that our minds are rational and creative on account of our shared imago Dei—we are made in the image of God. The mind has the stunning potential to "bring things into being," not ex nihilo as God does, but with the stuff and resources of God's creation—whether that stuff is material or mental. We can build cars, bridges and skyscrapers, but we can also develop theories, project ourselves into future events that haven't occurred, and reflect on our past to understand our present selves. All of these processes, rooted in our mental capacities, help us to "wittily" serve and relate to our Creator.
Sadly, this is not the whole picture; what of the "tangledness" of the "tangle?" While our mental life is rich and potent on one level, it is also palpably affected by the taint of sin on another level. Much of the seminal research in psychology showcases the extent to which we misremember (Roediger & McDermott, 1995), misperceive others (Ross, 1978), and systematically err in our decision-making (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974).
When I consider these findings, I am reminded of a wise remark from America's first prominent psychologist—and everyman philosopher—William James: "Compared to what we ought to be, we are half awake." As a Christian, I feel that I can play my part in redeeming psychology by first studying and sharing with others all of human beings' "half-asleep" cognitive and behavioral tendencies. That is half the battle, because a careful understanding of our minds' inefficiencies and blunders can clue us into how we ought to think and reason. This is where dialogue between psychology and moral philosophy must begin happening more frequently and rigorously.
To complicate things further, it might be disconcerting to learn that much of our cognition is susceptible to powerful automatic processes (Bargh, 1997). Some psychologists have gone as far as to say that mental automaticity is so prevalent that any perception of free will is effectively an illusion.
I cannot bring myself to such a fatalistic conclusion. If the reality of God's all encompassing grace is of any encouragement to us, then even in the face of our fallible mental life there is the sweet potential of renewal and transformation of mind (as suggested in Romans 12). Of course, this is not to ignore the chronic features of serious mental illness. However, it is possible to redeem the error-prone ways of thinking that should not needlessly affect us.
I also want to clear the air of any misperceptions of psychology as being a tragically God-less discipline. My sincere hope is that students who share my Christian worldview will plunge into psychology head first, with open hearts and inquisitive minds—nurturing a core motivation to understand the nature of God's image bearers. After all, we're not studying mere bodies and brains, as the physicalists would like to have us think. We're studying souls (Greek: psyche-) with brains and bodies. To understand how a soul "incarnates" itself through cognition and behaviour might very well move us closer to understanding what it means to be human. By grasping the psychological complexities of the "imago" in imago Dei, we might very well get at the "Dei." In this way, I cannot help but think that psychology opens a back door into theology, and arguably, maybe even into doxology.
I know that I am not in this alone. I am excited by the prospect of more people of faith engaging psychology in secular academic contexts, in order to understand and improve the mental lives of others. But this will not, and maybe it should not, come easy. As in all other realms of fallen creation, there certainly is a "tangle" in our psychology. Jon Foreman of Switchfoot rephrases this when he says in the song Dare You to Move, "The tension is here."
But we need not keep that tension. We would do well to loosen it, even just a little bit. And, if possible, let us strive to do so "wittily" and with love—all for the honour and glory of our Creator and Redeemer, who is in the business of untangling things.