What would it mean to redeem psychology?

A special Comment symposium.

Appears in Summer 2009 Issue: Responding
June 1 st 2009

The December print issue of Comment featured a symposium entitled "Signs of Hope," in which regular contributors wrote briefly about those cultural developments which they found most encouraging.

One widely-recognized sign of hope has been the "evangelical intellectual renaissance" of the last few decades. In their book Protestantism in America, Randall Balmer and Lauren Winner point to the following signs of revival: evangelical believers are being trained at the best universities; they are assuming academic positions at the world's best universities; most importantly, entire disciplines (philosophy and history are often cited) seem to undergoing "a Christian intellectual revival."

One figure who has contributed powerfully to this intellectual renaissance is a hero of mine—George Marsden.

It's been more than ten years since Marsden wrote The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship—already a classic—in which he advised Christians in higher education to play by "the rules of the academic game." "In the corridors of the pragmatic academy," Marsden argued, "Christians and non-Christians can readily share basic standards of evidence and argument." Although specific research agendas and ideas may have religious origins, they still may legitimately "be introduced into the mainstream academy" as long as they are "defended with arguments and evidence that are publicly accessible." This advice has served graduate students and professors well, encouraging them to create faith-informed scholarship that would still be considered "top notch" in their own respective disciplines. Marsden's own historical scholarship—gorgeous stuff—illustrates the point beautifully. The work typically cited as evidence of the evangelical intellectual revival tends to follow Marsden's approach.

Nevertheless, I must confess that Marsden's advice has never seemed entirely adequate to me as a faculty member at a Christian university (and by "Christian university" I mean the type of institutions—such as the members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities—that self-consciously attempt to pursue teaching and scholarship in a manner consistent with the historic Christian faith). While many of the rules of the academic game are certainly worth preserving and cultivating, there are some (for example, a continuing unspoken bias towards positivism) that actually impede faithful Christian disciplinary reflection in psychology.

Certainly, Christians in mainstream institutions have no choice but to play by the rules of the academic game. But faculty and students at Christian universities have been blessed with a unique environment in which they not only have an opportunity to cultivate the best in contemporary disciplinary practice, but also the opportunity to creatively develop approaches that may well open up our understanding of that which we study in ways not possible in mainstream institutions. In this sense, the Christian university is a place of heightened academic freedom—and of heightened academic responsibility.

To be fair, I should also add that Marsden never intended that this advice suffice for those serving in the Christian university. His advice, as he repeats again and again, was for those serving in the "mainstream" and "pluralistic" academy. Speaking from personal experience (he served for years on the Calvin College faculty), Marsden affirms the special role of Christian universities as "invaluable" communities that "can sustain a depth of sophistication regarding the implications of faith and scholarship that is unattainable in diverse [mainstream] settings."

I couldn't agree more! My hope, then, is that this special segment of Comment will prove useful in both settings. The first three essays in this symposium will explore the extensive redemptive possibilities available when playing by the rules of the mainstream academic game as Christians. The last four essays, however, wander a bit further off that beaten track. How might those in Christian institutions bend (or even break) the rules of the academic game so as to move the discipline of psychology closer to a biblical understanding of what it is to be human?

Redeeming Psychology

What would it mean to "redeem" psychology? The very question—shot through with Christian presuppositions and significance—is likely one that would bend the rules of the academic mainstream to their breaking point. But, in the freer corridors of the Christian academy at least, the question provides a useful and suggestive orientation for our common task.

Let's first define our terms.

By "psychology" I mean that academic discipline that takes for its subject matter the human soul or mind (recognizing that such constructs are already somewhat contentious). In 1868, Yale psychologist Noah Porter defined the field as "the science of the human soul." For a variety of reasons, contemporary definitions of the field favour the term "mind," and inevitably include the idea of "behaviour." So a fairly standard definition of the field today would be "the scientific study of mind and behaviour." The major areas of investigation in the discipline are represented by the table of contents of any introductory psychology textbook—sensation and perception, learning, cognition, emotion, motivation, and personality, to provide a few examples.

When considered from this vantage point, therapy or counseling represent only a small piece of the psychological pie—only a chapter or two in the introduction to psychology textbook. Since this clinical side of the discipline has over the last forty years attracted a disproportional amount of Christian attention, this issue of Comment will attempt to focus primarily on the rest of the discipline.

What about "redemption"? In Christian theology, words like "restoration," "liberation," and "deliverance" are often associated with the concept. The word has to do with God's saving activity on behalf of that blessed assembly of sinners called the church. As God redeems his people, he also—potentially—redeems culture through them. God created us to be culture makers (to borrow Andy Crouch's term). Our sin distorts the culture we make. Redemption, in liberating humans from sin, also has the potential to slowly liberate human culture from the effects of sin. Psychology is one small part of human culture making that can benefit from God's redemptive activity in Christ. As people are freed from the epistemological and moral effects of sin, so too can their psychological work be freed.

Notice that redemption, as discussed above, implies two things. First, redemption implies that that which is redeemed is worth rescuing. Just as human beings as the image of God are worth saving, so too is human culture—including psychology. So the well-intentioned rejection of psychology by some (usually conservative) Christians seems inconsistent with biblical teaching.

Second, redemption implies that that which is rescued needs rescuing. Sometimes well-intentioned Christian psychologists fail to recognize how fundamentally our sin has distorted the discipline. They fail to see that psychology needs to be restored just as much as individual human beings. This too seems inconsistent with biblical teaching.

The Structure of the Symposium

Christian reflection on psychology is sometimes a contentious affair. Though it is an oversimplification to say that Christians are either for it or against it, it sometimes feels that way.

In this issue of Comment we try and do something a little unusual. Instead of simply affirming psychology as it exists, or rejecting psychology wholesale, we sketch out an agenda for the Christian transformation of the discipline of psychology. The participants are a diverse group of Christian psychologists, philosophers and theologians. The differences between some of the participants are great indeed. An author's participation in this symposium therefore does not imply agreement with the other essays in the symposium, nor with the symposium's chosen metaphor of redemption.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, each participant has something important to contribute to the discussion. If psychology is a house, the contributions offered in these essays represent some of the materials out of which this house might be built. Intentionally lacking, however, is a blueprint—that is, specific instructions regarding what type or shape of house to build. The ways in which the building materials are combined can—and will—vary. But I do think that each type of material described in these essays (not to mention important others not described) ought to be used in the construction of the house.

Again, the essays may be understood as belonging to two categories. In the first category, we explore the theme of redeeming psychology from the vantage point of what can be accomplished when we play by the rules of the mainstream academic game as Christians. I invited three people to speak to this issue. David Myers of Hope College, a great Christian advocate for psychological science, was asked to write an essay on the importance of taking the science of psychology seriously—we can't, after all, redeem psychology if we don't engage it. Everett Worthington of Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the pioneers of forgiveness research, was asked to speak to the importance of Christian involvement in psychological science, a principle his own career in psychology exemplifies. Finally, the future of Christian involvement in psychological science requires that university students catch the bug. Richard Lopez, a psychology major and graduating senior at Princeton University, has certainly caught the bug and is sure to pass it on in his beautiful piece. These three essays wonderfully illustrate how much Christians can contribute to—and learn from—mainstream psychological science.

In the second category, we explore a handful of the several possibilities that are available to us if we transgress the rules of the mainstream academic game. In all likelihood, this sort of "radical" activity in the discipline will be possible only in self-consciously Christian universities. In order to move closer toward our goal as Christian psychologists, we need to grow in our ability to use the Bible in our psychological work. I asked David Powlison of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, a leading advocate for contemporary biblical counseling, to speak to this issue. Next, redeeming psychology will also include paying close attention to the great Christian thinkers of the past. Nobody has made this case more powerfully than philosopher Robert Roberts of Baylor University, who has also contributed to the issue. On a related note, Christians in psychology have much to gain if we would reflect deeply upon the Christian history of their own discipline, instead of re-telling the same "de-Christianized" historical stories that we receive from the mainstream. Finally, redeeming psychology means developing a prophetic and bold witness to the truth of the Christian gospel and worldview. A Christian psychology will have an apologetical edge. My own contribution to the symposium is to speak to this Christian history and apologetical edge.

 

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

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