I fondly remember one of the interviews I had when I trying to be placed in a pre-doctoral clinical internship. Toward the end of this particular interview, evidently noticing my interests in religion and spirituality on my curriculum vita, someone asked me, “Would you consider yourself a Christian psychologist?” Strangely enough, I had never really seriously considered that question. So, on the spot, I said, “Well, I am a Christian and a psychologist, so, yes, I guess I’m a Christian psychologist.”
The notion of a Christian psychology has been on my mind lately. I wonder whether Christian Psychology might transcend the simple understanding I had a few years ago to become a distinct subspeciality within Psychology, similar to what Christian Philosophy apparently has been able to do. If this is possible, I wonder what would constitute such a subspeciality.
I haven’t rigorously pursued this topic yet, but I hope this will begin an occasional series reflecting on what a Christian psychology might be. Today, I will begin with some preliminary thoughts that I hope to flesh out at some point in the future.
Semantically, what is “Christian Psychology?” Let me tackle the easy part of this first. Psychology can be defined as that science that seeks to understand behavior. The key part of this definition is that Psychology is first and foremost a science. Of course, there is an applied segment of the discipline, but this is intended to be largely based on basic scientific findings. Of this, I am sure. This raises an interesting point. How much of what is identified as “Christian Psychology” is based on science? Like I said, I haven’t done too much systematic investigation into this yet, but my gut sense is that the answser is “not much.”
Now, to the harder question. What is meant by a “Christian” Psychology? I don’t think “Christian” here should be taken to mean “nice” or “virtuous.” In other words, I don’t think it’s a style of relating. Rather, I think a Christian psychology tries to incorporate the central truths of Christianity into its understanding of the world. What these central truths are, as it relates to human behavior, is another topic that I hope to address in a future post at some point.
For some, this discussion will raise the issue of the relationship between science and religion. Many people seem to assume that science and religion are inherently in conflict, but I don’t see this to be the case at all. Put simply, truth is truth. If Christianity is true and if reality can be effectively summarized in theoretical form, based on research, then there should be no conflict. If there is apparent conflict, then either (1) Christian truths have been arrived in error or (2) the science is flawed.
Ideally, Christian Psychology should mutually benefit both Christianity and Psychology. I have to think more about how this is possible. One example that comes to mind, though, is how Psychology could help Christianity.
Returning to the idea that there are central truths in Chrisitanity that are emphasized, such as the goals to love God and love others as oneself, or the desire to manifest the “fruit of the spirit,” which includes “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)”, the question next becomes how to do so. More specifically, let’s say that there is a good Christian who sincerely wants to be more self-controlled. Of course, according to Galatians, self-control is a “fruit of the Spirit,” but I wonder sometimes whether psychological processes can, shall we say, prevent the Spirit from acting to its full effect. Perhaps Psychology could help Christianity by shedding light on the psychological processes that facilitate or undermine the development of self-control and other important desired outcomes that are not clearly shown how to be accomplished within Christian teachings.
There also are domains of interest to Christian teachings that Christians might benefit from. For instance, materialism, greed, lust, and pride are rampant. Marriage, parenting, deep friendships, and wise decision-making are of interest to many Christians. There is a lot of psychological research available on these topics, but if one walks down the aisles of a Christian bookstore, very little of this research appears to be known or emphasized. It might be helpful to Christians to somehow integrate the best of Christian teachings with the best contemporary research on such topics.