Often times, faith and science are presented as being at odds, impossible to reconcile because of competing truths. Personally, I have never thought this was the case, especially when I consider the relationship between Christianity and Psychology. In fact, increasingly I wonder how these two pillars of wisdom might be integrated to form a more complete picture of human nature and to obtain a fuller understanding of how to live well.
One area in which I think Christianity and Psychology may be particularly likely to benefit each other concerns the topic of virtue. Here, Christianity (and other religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions) offer insights into what constitutes virtue (and vice). However, rarely are details elaborated or specific advice made possible.
For example, a central virtue in Christianity (as well as many other religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions) is forgiveness. We often are encouraged to forgive, sometimes for spiritual enlightenment, other times for personal well-being. However, rarely in religious, spiritual, or philosophical contexts is it clear what even is meant by the term forgiveness or what processes might be helpful or hurtful to encourage meaningful forgiveness. This is where Psychology may be particularly helpful. Psychology as a scientific discipline needs to be very clear about definitional issues and often is very concerned about the causes and consequences of various traits and behaviors, such as forgiveness.
In this context, then, perhaps it would be helpful to realize that unforgiveness typically seems to involve the desire for revenge or the wish to avoid a person that has hurt us. A lot of research suggests that this kind of unforgiveness negatively influences the hurt person physically, emotionally, and relationally. Forgiveness, in contrast, involves letting go of the urges for revenge and avoidance. This can be extremely difficult work and one wonders what facilitates this process. Further posts may elaborate more on this, but for now it may be helpful to note that the key psychological process that often seems to encourage forgiveness is empathy, that is, an emotional understanding of what biological, psychological, or social factors that may have contributed to the original hurtful actions. Frequently, if someone can appreciate why someone did something hurtful, surrendering the desires for revenge and avoidance becomes easier.
Of course, this raises other questions about forgiveness. Given how difficult it can be to “let go,” what motivates someone to want to forgive in the first place? Perhaps this is where commitment to a religious, spiritual, or philosophical tradition can be helpful, as it guides people to virtues that really are wise. Christianity, in particular, goes even further in providing the ultimate role model for forgiveness in Jesus, who forgave his murderers on the cross and who extends grace to anybody willing to accept it. (I’ve also thought that the key movement in Christianity is to accept grace for one’s various limitations and then to realize that, since it was granted to us, it only would be fair to grant it to others.) It also raises questions about whether the forgiveness process means that one is condoning hurtful actions or requires reconciliation (maybe a topic for another day). I don’t see how either of these possibilities is true. It is very possible to let go of an offense, but not endorse it as acceptable or to say that you want to be in a relationship with the offender.
This kind of detail often does not accompany religious, spiritual, or philosophical instruction. I can imagine similar benefit coming into play when considering the meaning and psychological contributors to other virtues (such as faith, love, hope, humility, patience, mindfulness, and gratitude) or vices (such as any of the seven deadly sins). This seems to be an area ripe for consideration.