Redeeming Psychology means recovering the Christian history of psychology's past

Our future psychological work will depend on how we narrate our past.

Appears in Summer 2009 Issue: Responding
June 1 st 2009

I often play a game of "trivial pursuit" with my students at Redeemer University College, asking them which North American university has the following motto: "All Things Cohere in Christ." It's such a fabulously Reformed-sounding slogan that you might expect it at a Calvin College or a Dordt or a Redeemer.

Then I lay on them the shocker: that the university just down the street from our own, in Hamilton, Ontario—McMaster University—is the institution of which I speak. Since "Mac" (like other publicly-funded Canadian universities) is known for its secularism, the revelation usually comes as some surprise.

This exercise is a useful way to drive home a fact that is widely understood among historians although perhaps not so well known among Christian undergraduates—that the North American academy has Christian origins.

More to the point, it was in these Christian universities that psychology emerged as an independent discipline. Indeed, when psychology came into its own in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, these institutions were still committed to some form of the Christian faith. It would seem, then, that one aspect of redeeming psychology would be to take a look at the history of psychology from the vantage point of its institutionally Christian past.

Historiography and the history of the psychology course

About 85% of psychology departments at institutions affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities offer a course in the history of psychology (compared to about 76% of all American undergraduate colleges and 84% of American comprehensive universities).

The question is: how should the course be taught?

Like most courses, there are a variety of good ways to teach the history of psychology. But there is one common mistake that we ought to avoid—a methodological one (and, of all people, psychologists know the importance of method!). I say the mistake is "common" because it to some extent characterizes just about every history of psychology textbook available on the market. The mistake is often called "presentism."

Presentism (also known as "Whig historiography"), according to the classic definition by historian Herbert Butterfield (1931), is a tendency "to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present." From Butterfield's perspective, the historian's "chief aim" ought to be the "elucidation of the unlikenesses between past and present" and their "chief function" is to serve as a "mediator between other generations and our own." A presentist historian, in contrast, vigilantly searches "for likenesses between past and present," and this bias leads them to imagine that they have "discovered a 'root' or an 'anticipation'" of the present.

The historical writing of scientists (including psychologists) is notorious for its presentist bias. Such a bias comes naturally—immersed in their own discipline, scientists understandably look at the past from the perspective of the discipline as currently constituted. And when scientists write textbooks—like history of psychology textbooks—the emphasis, inevitably, is on how the discipline took its current scientific form.

While such an approach has its merits, it misses a lot. It misses, as Butterfield put it, the "unlikenesses" between past and present. When we consider psychology's "secular" present and its Christian past, the unlikenesses become interesting indeed.

What is to be gained?

So what would we gain if we taught history of psychology from the vantage point of psychology's institutionally Christian past? What would we learn?

We would learn about a new set of heroes. Names like William Ames, Jonathan Edwards, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Upham, James McCosh and Noah Porter, would become as familiar as John Locke, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. And we would discover, as Robert Roberts has argued, that there are psychological riches to be unearthed as we "retrieve the Christian psychology of the past."

We would discover that some of these thinkers (especially those writing after the American Civil War) could see the writing on the wall. They realized, for example, that the positivistic and naturalistic psychology emerging in Europe did in certain ways pose a threat to traditionally Christian ways of thinking about the mind. We would discover that these thinkers shared many of our concerns, and attempted faithfully to engage (rather than hide from or ignore) those challenges.

We would discover that some of the old Christian psychologists meshed psychology with apologetics, arguing that a careful and systematic study of the mind provided evidence for the Christian faith.

Most importantly, we would discover that our predecessors in the Christian academy never quite got it right. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the methods of the English and Scottish Enlightenment were widely and enthusiastically embraced as providing a more adequate (that is, supposedly neutral and objective) public foundation for morality and knowledge than the Bible itself. With Scripture and theology thereby effectively marginalized, our intellectual forbears never forged a satisfactory "faith-learning integration." They never developed an adequate understanding of "the relation of the Bible to learning," as H. Evan Runner put it.

Not surprisingly, then, by the time the new scientific psychology arrived in North America in the final decades of the 19th century, the Christianity of the Christian university had become moralistic, and intellectually irrelevant—safely contained, for example, in (increasingly voluntary) chapel services. The failure to construct an integrally Christian approach to learning was a major aspect of the secularization of the North American university.

New visions, new narratives

Histories of psychology are inevitably guided by a vision of what the discipline ought to be. The best-known example of this phenomenon is E.G. Boring's work A History of Experimental Psychology, which reflected the author's concern that psychology remain a "pure" (as opposed to an "applied") science. Today, history of psychology textbooks tend to assume that psychology is pretty much okay as it is in its current "secular" form. The historical stories they tell, then, reflect this vision.

Presumably, those teaching psychology at Christ-centered colleges and universities, while fully affirming all the merits of the discipline, do not think that mainstream psychology is pretty much okay as it is. A Bible-less psychology is a psychology without an adequate ultimate norm. A Christ-less psychology is—to borrow William James's phrase—"Hamlet with the prince's part left out." What we need, then, is a new vision, and a new historical narrative. Perhaps the greatest benefit of studying the institutionally Christian history of psychology's past is that it provides rich material for both.


Dr. Russ Kosits is an associate professor of psychology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, ON.