Doing Christian Psychology: An Example
[Our blogger for the month of November is Rick Sholette. Rick has graduate degrees in divinity and practical theology. He directs Paraclete Ministries in Evans, Georgia, where he counsels, trains, and researches. His interests include addiction recovery and theory development in Christian psychology.]
It is my observation and opinion that Christian Psychology, as envisioned by Eric Johnson and other leading proponents of this paradigm, is often misunderstood and misrepresented, even by some within the Christian Psychology camp who think they are portraying it accurately. (I am intentionally excluding references because I don’t want people to feel embarrassed.) How do they fall short? By failing to capture in their presentations the essential distinctive of Christian Psychology: answering psychological questions within a Christian worldview. What too often happens instead is that Christian Psychology is depicted as another effort at integration, only with more Christian references. I think leading Christian Psychology proponents have the burden and responsibility to correct such misunderstandings and misrepresentations by producing more—and wiser—work. Toward this end, let me try to briefly illustrate Christian Psychology in action.
It has been my observation that people, without exception, benefit from improved self-reflective and self-expressive skills. Self-awareness, self-understanding, and intimacy with others (including God) require mature self-knowledge. Whether prophylactic or remedial, people need to know themselves better. This need for self-awareness is at least a psychological need, for one cannot be psychologically healthy as an adult without this aptitude and skill. Now, notice that I have not yet referenced psychological “authorities” in my observation and theory regarding the advantages of self-knowledge. I made my observation and theoretical proposals as a Christian who notices something of psycho-social significance. How do I, as a Christian psychologist of the Kierkegaardian kind (I am not a psychologist by secular professional standards), proceed? First, I could cite psychological “authorities”, academics and practitioners, who write about the importance of self-knowledge for strong self-concepts, self-esteem, self-confidence, and communication. In doing so, I am engaging in the “integration” of psychological theory with my observations as a Christian. Alternatively, rather than referencing the work and thoughts of psychological scientists (including philosophers), I could conduct extensive original research to confirm or disconfirm the accuracy of my observation and related theories, citing other researchers and theorists before, during, or after this process. A third option is to support my observation and related theories by appeal to the observations and theories of others within the Church family. In doing so, I need not ignore the Bible or psychological science, but must place them in context—in relationship to a Christian worldview used to understand psycho-social matters. These three different approaches are not mutually exclusive; they are all legitimate in their place. So, I note Augustine in the fifth century who asked, “How can you draw close to God when you are far from yourself?” He prayed, “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know you.” And I consider Dorotheos of Gaza who, about a century later, urged those who would be conscientious in their walk with God to reflect on the “hidden things that happen inside us”, so we can be properly accountable. I could move on to Meister Eckhart in the 13th century who wrote, “No one can know God who does not first know himself.” Then there is Theresa of Avila who asserted that “almost all problems in the spiritual life stem from a lack of self-knowledge.” John Calvin, in the early pages of The Institutes, thought it important to express this opinion: “Our wisdom . . . consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Anthony (or Antony) the Great (251-356 AD) wrote: “For he who knows himself knows God. . . . My beloved in the Lord, know yourself.” I can reference Clement of Alexandria who expressed the view, “The greatest of all lessons is to know one’s self. For if one knows himself, he will know God; and knowing God, he will be made like God.” Isaac the Syrian urged Christians to “dive into” themselves, because in their souls they will find the rungs upon which to ascend to God.
It is now, it seems to me, that the Christian “psychologist” can properly reference Scripture and psychological science for supportive information. A psycho-social observation has been made, attending theories proposed and developed, ecclesiastical sources studied, and then biblical and psychological scientific perspectives considered—all within a Christian worldview. This approach need not be rigid, it is quite accommodative to “spiritual psychology,” and can entail biblical and psychological information without engaging in “integrationism” per se. Clearly, such an approach to psychological study and practice calls for new methods for conducting and assessing a wide range of issues related to psychology and counseling. How Christian researchers and practitioners deal with diagnosis, evidence-based theory, counseling ethics, training and education, licensing and professionalism, biopsychiatry and the APA, spiritual warfare, philosophy of science, treatment approaches, and many other matters must be carefully thought through. In my view, this has yet to happen. What do you think?