Psychotherapy Works | Psychology Based on Science | Psychology Based on Worldview | An Integrated Christian Psychology | Christian Psychology Today | Christian Philosophical Assumptions | Pragmatic Concerns | References
There is an ideological war raging today with psychology as the main battlefield. This war is being fought on two fronts:
The key question is whether or not psychology is based on a world view which opposes the essentials of the Christian faith. This includes the assumptions of psychology of materialism, rationalism, determinism and relativism, and that humans are not self-aware, responsible and free moral agents. Christians cannot accept these philosophical assumptions and at the same time remain true to their faith.
Within Christianity there is a wide variety of opinions concerning the validity of psychology in general and psychotherapy in particular. One extreme camp believes that only the Bible can be used in determining truth and that science cannot be trusted. At the other extreme are those who are willing to accept truth as determined by science even when it clearly contradicts Biblical interpretation. And there is every possible viewpoint in between. Johnson and Jones (2000) express the issue succinctly: "Christians have taken different positions regarding the extent to which they should have anything to do with modern psychology, some embracing it wholeheartedly, others rejecting it just as vigorously, and many others falling somewhere between" (p. 9).
In this article I explore the issue of integrating psychology and Christianity. I first describe the key issues in understanding this controversy. Then I provide an overview of the work already done by Christian psychologists in developing a "Christian Psychology." I also give some helpful hints along the way that will be useful to Christian psychotherapists as well as Christians in general as they struggle with this complex issue.
The sources I researched for the most part agree that psychotherapy works — at least in certain contexts. A few examples will illustrate the point. Dawes (1994) who is critical of psychology states that:
Psychotherapy works. The magnitude of its positive effects is greater than the magnitude of many physical treatments, deleterious lifestyles, [sic] and changes in those lifestyles. Those who believe they have problems are encouraged to try it — especially if they have been unable to change their behavior by simply "willing" a change (p. 73).
Smith, Glass and Miller conclude: "Scientific studies show that participation in psychotherapy is better than no psychotherapy at all for most individuals with a wide variety of problems, and that the general effect is 'significant'" (Jones, 1991, p. 384). And McMinn (1996) questions: "Can biblical counselors continue to say that psychotherapy and counseling don't work when there is so much evidence to the contrary?" (p. 5) The significance of this is that many Christians who oppose psychology do so in part because they claim it is ineffective. But rather than rejecting psychology out of hand, we should instead consider the problem domain within which psychotherapy is valid and effective.
What exactly is the purpose of psychotherapy and what is mental health? "George Vaillant defines mental health in terms of adaptation to problems (which he distinguishes from 'adjustment'), and hence he sees forms of mental illness as forms of failure to adapt" (Dawes, 1994, p. 66). Psychologists distinguish between people who are normal and those who are abnormal. But the concept of normalcy has changed over the decades under the influence of psychological thinking. "The original concept of 'normal' as average has been replaced by the psychological one involving pathology" (Dineen, 2000, p. 55). So if we all agree that psychotherapy works, we must be careful not to use it except in genuine cases of psychological need.
Dineen (2000), although critical of the excesses of the "psychology industry" (as she calls it), provides a list from the American Psychological Association (APA) of various "empirically validated treatments, including such approaches as":
But Dineen (2000) observes that "one thing that is noticeable is the absence of the 'talking cures' that focus on emotions and memories, which are used with the majority of Psychology Industry clients" (p. 119). This was a common trend in the references I analyzed. Certain therapies were considered provably effective while others were in doubt. But the point I wish to make is that certain psychotherapies are provably effective and that they, therefore, should be used.
Jones and Butman (1991) give examples of the specific benefits of particular therapies. The use of "contemporary psychodynamic therapy approaches . . . as a treatment of depression . . . are producing positive results" (p. 387). "Family therapies . . . do have a positive effect on clients compared to no treatment, but were only slightly more effective than some alternative treatment strategies" (p. 387). "Behavior modification has been shown to be effective with a variety of problems. . . . These methods must be seen as the treatment of choice for such problems as childhood autism, developmental disabilities (retardation), . . . and so forth" (p. 388).
Christians and other opponents of psychology often claim that psychology is not based on sound scientific methods of study. Vitz (1994) nicely sums up the issue: "Large numbers of therapists accept the notion that psychotherapy is not scientific and never will be" (p. 41). One approach that opponents use to invalidate psychology is to disallow clinical studies as a valid scientific method. But there is no compelling reason to do so. Clinical studies provide a wealth of useful data as Vitz (1994) describes well (even though he doesn't himself believe it): "The clinical setting . . . is a rich source of evidence that cannot be denied just because it does not fit the traditional rigid requirements for standard scientific experiments" (pp. 39-40).
Many of the facts of psychology simply cannot be proven in the same manner as in the hard sciences. We must rely instead on more subjective data. Freud articulated this viewpoint and it is commonly accepted today. Dineen (2000) expresses this view: "Freud argued against scientific evaluation of psychoanalysis, stating that only the patient could accurately assess its effectiveness, a view that was restated more recently in the American Handbook of Psychiatry." (p. 119)
It is incorrect to state that psychology is not scientific. Gary Collins notes that "psychology has accumulated and continues to gather a mountain of useful information about how people live, think, struggle, interact, and act" (Johnson, 2000, p. 110). But this is not to say that it is an easy matter to obtain accurate observations and data and to interpret them correctly.
One of the difficulties with accessing the validity of any particular system of psychotherapy is that "beneath every technique is a counseling theory, and beneath every theory is a worldview." (McMinn, 1996, p. 16). In fact, the distinguishing factor of each of the varied models of psychology is that they are each based on differing (and often contradictory) philosophical assumptions or worldviews. We might be tempted to say that the contradictions invalidate all the models, or at least all but one, but this is not a good approach. Yet this is just what many Christian psychologists suggest in their zeal to preserve the truth. The downside to this is that "we can become so intent on avoiding a 'secular' worldview that we end up rejecting all that psychology and counseling theory have to offer." (McMinn, 1996, p. 21).
Another problem that arises out of differing worldviews occurs when we consider psychology from a Christian perspective. The philosophical worldview of Christianity is no more arbitrary than that of psychology in particular and of science in general and yet secular scientists are horrified by what they often consider to be the irrational and fuzzy thinking of Christians. Johnson and Jones (2000) state it well in saying that "secular thinkers and Christian fundamentalists often share a core conviction that . . . 'natural knowledge' (knowledge coming from sources other than the Bible, including scientific knowledge) is the enemy of faith" (p. 20). But it is not correct to say that Christians in general have a disdain for science, although some do. Gary Collins notes "that carefully produced scientific data and the Christian worldview are complementary; there is no contradiction between good science and good theology" (Johnson, 2000, p. 187).
How are we to reconcile these diverse worldviews? The problem is not as bad as it first seems. There is evidence that the philosophical assumptions used by the various views of psychology are somehow mutually-compatible, even though they appear contradictory. "There must be some explanation for why so many different therapies seem to work well at least some of the time" (Jones, 1991, p. 392). Either the different varieties of therapy are not tightly linked to the theories that underlie them or else the contradictory models do not really contradict as they superficially seem to do.
Perhaps the answer is in the way in which the assumptions are stated. For example, Radical Behaviorism is based on the assumption of determinism and behavior therapies are very effective for certain symptoms. But instead of insisting that determinism is true as Behaviorists do, perhaps it would be more accurate to instead state something like the following: "In Radical Behaviorism we ignore the issue of free will and come to our conclusions as if there were not free will." The problem is that things which cannot be proven as true are dogmatically stated as being true. Johnson (2000) addresses this issue by introducing the idea of Metasystemic thought which "synthesizes the truths of multiple systems that are apparently contradictory (at the level of systemic thought)" (p. 254). This analysis is key to solving the problem of apparent contradictions. "What we reject in our metasystemic thinking are the exclusionary claims of the more extreme proponents who argue that their model is absolutely true to the exclusion of the views of their competitors" (pp. 258-9).
One of the assumptions of modern science is naturalism or materialism in which all phenomena outside of matter, energy and the natural laws are dogmatically declared not to exist. This assertion cannot be proved; it is merely assumed. But when we look at human beings from the perspective of psychology and consider such issues as mind, consciousness, awareness, emotions, morality, etc. it is difficult to be so certain that these phenomena can be explained purely by naturalism. Jones and Butman (1991) express the issue well:
Naturalism assumes that the universe is composed exclusively of matter and energy. . . . The human qualities that supposedly distinguish us from the rest of the universe (especially "the mind"), . . . are in this view presumed either not to exist or to be understandable by the same physical laws that explain the rest of existence (p. 146).
Christians who study psychology are immediately confronted with truth claims that conflict with the Bible and which are opposed to Christian theology and doctrines. Thoughtful and honest Christians must determine how to resolve the conflicts in order to integrate psychology and Christianity. Here are three options that Christians can adopt:
These are not very satisfying solutions for most Christians.
There is another possibility — that of integration. Christians can accept those aspects of psychology which are harmonious with biblical truth and reject those which are not. But this process must be implemented in a systematic manner so that the results are comprehensive and complete. In the remainder of this paper I explore aspects of the process of integrating psychology and Christianity in the formulation of a synthesized "Christian Psychology." The basis for this synthesis is the tension between truth claims and philosophical assumptions. Psychology and Christianity both contain valid truth claims which can be verified using the scientific method and both are based on unprovable philosophical assumptions. Since all philosophical assumptions are by definition beyond the scope of scientific inquiry there is no compelling reason to choose one over another except for a rather arbitrary personal preference. But Christians believe that their philosophical assumptions are "true" and that they are therefore justified in preferring them over the philosophical assumptions commonly made in secular psychology. This is the source of the conflict between psychology and Christianity.
In formulating the process for integrating psychology and Christianity three factors must be given primary importance.
Some Christian Psychologists might be temped to ignore the necessity of developing a synthesized "Christian Psychology" since they can merely adopt in an eclectic manner those therapies which seem to be valuable to their patients. If they merely focus on the results with no concern for the underlying scientific process that generated the therapies they will be able to have the best of both worlds. They can:
But if the therapies are effective it must be because they are based at least in part on a valid and true understanding of psychological processes within humans so we cannot so easily discard psychological theory. The process of integrating psychology and Christianity consists of two steps:
Robert Roberts defines a process for integrating psychology and Christianity (but he doesn't embrace this process himself):
We start from a Christian standpoint and attempt to assess various pieces of establishment psychology so as to discriminate what is consistent with our faith from what is not, to adopt what is consistent with it, and to adapt what has potential but is not originally consistent with the faith (Johnson, 2000, p. 172).
Using this process we can gather a body of knowledge which is compatible with Christianity and fully supported by the results of scientific study. This is the process we must use to integrate psychology and Christianity.
The process of integrating psychology and Christianity is currently an active area for discussion among Christian psychologists as evidenced by the variety of opinions on the topic. For example, in an observation that certainly applies to the process of integration, Gary Collins comments that "few who believe in the integration of faith and learning would absorb and integrate these secular worldviews without weeding out the values, assumptions and methods that are at odds with biblical truth" (Johnson, 2000, p. 187). And Powlison observes that common attempts to integrate psychology and Christianity "treat biblical thinking as a screen, filter, or boundary through which a Christian sifts psychology's claims to knowledge and efficacy, attempting to weed out the bad from the good" (Johnson, 2000, p. 192). The common theme is to take the good and exclude the bad. "Each model picks up certain elements of understanding of the human person that either is explicitly present in or at least fits with (i.e., is not genuinely logically contradictory with) the scriptural revelation we have from God [i.e., the Bible]" (Johnson, 2000, p. 259).
I will briefly discuss two approaches to the issue as examples of the kind of thinking that is being done. For example, Jones and Butman report the analysis of another writer, also named Jones, who suggests three main approaches to integrating psychology and Christianity:
(1) Ethical integration, the application of religious moral principles to the practice of science . . . ; (2) perspectival integration, the view that scientific and religious views of any aspect of reality are independent . . . ; or (3) humanizer or Christianizer of science integration, an approach that involves the explicit incorporation of religiously based beliefs as the control beliefs that shape the perceptions of facts, theories and methods in social science (p. 20).
Jones and Butman favor the third approach. But they have also formulated their own ideas about the process of integration and they list three methods for integrating psychology and the Christian faith: Pragmatic eclecticism, metatheoretical or transtheoretical eclecticism, and theoretical integration:
1. "Pragmatic eclecticism" uses "the methods that comparative outcome research has shown to work best with the problems manifested by the clients" (p. 384).
2. "Metatheoretical or transtheoretical eclecticism . . . . . suggests that proponents of psychotherapy may simply be wrong about how 'what they do' works and that the best chance for the advancement of the effectiveness of the profession is the empirical or phenomenological study of what differentiates effective person helpers from those who are less effective, regardless of the 'theories' that they think differentiate them from others" (p. 390).
3. "Theoretical integration . . . attempts to overcome the limitations of a single preferred theory by using it as one's foundation or 'home base' while reaching out beyond that theory to one or two other models" (p. 393).
Although Jones and Butman (1991) prefer the third approach they highlight the dangers in applying it. In examining the various models of psychology they see both the strengths and weaknesses from a Christian perspective:
Each of the models has several compatibilities with the faith [Christianity], as well as many insights, strengths, uses and points of attractiveness. . . . Each model has both incompatibilities with biblical faith and other flaws, inconsistencies, weaknesses and problems. None of the theories can be rejected out of hand, but none can be wholeheartedly endorsed by the Christian counselor (pp. 379-80).
Jones and Butman (1991) suggest two views of psychology which "come closest to true comprehensiveness." These are the two that they recommend for use in formulating the third method of integrating psychology and Christianity as described above, that is, the "theoretical integration" method. They are
1. The "newer and broader psychodynamic approaches" (p. 395), and
2. "Cognitive-behavioral therapy" (p. 396).
Jones and Butman (1991) discuss what "the Christian Scriptures [the Bible] assert about human beings" (p. 39), and list the biblical "control beliefs" — the assumptions that must be used to control or shape a distinctive Christian theory of personality. They are:
1. That human beings have meaning, purpose and value because we were created by an all-knowing, sovereign and intelligent God who planned it this way (p. 42);
2. That human beings have an immaterial, spiritual soul (pp. 43-4);
3. That human beings possess the God-given capacity for rationality and morality (p. 44);
4. That human beings have at least a degree of free will with the corresponding responsibility (p. 47);
5. That "human beings are intrinsically relational and social beings" (p. 49);
6. That human beings have a sin nature which results in our tendency to (a) violate God's law (p. 50), (b) evade responsibility (p. 51), and (c) chose to act in a manner which is morally evil (p. 52); and
7. That there is higher spiritual goal which transcends psychological health and growth (pp. 57-8).
Certainly the process of developing an integrated Christian Psychology is an enormous task. It involves the following activities:
1. Identify philosophical assumptions in psychology that contradict the Christian faith.
2. Identify distinctively Christian philosophical assumptions.
3. Identify scientific philosophical assumptions that are neutral to the Christian faith and that can be embraced by Christians.
4. Build a theoretically based model of psychology from these Christian assumptions.
5. Incorporate all the scientific data accumulated to date in this model.
6. Identify therapy techniques that work.
7. Explain from a theoretical basis why these therapies work.
8. Discover additional therapies that work.
9. Train Christian psychotherapists and counselors in these Christian-friendly therapies and the underlying theoretical basis for them.
Although this task seems daunting there is hope because much of psychology can be accepted as is by Christians. "Most Christian psychologists and counselors don't dispute the more basic observations of psychology (e.g., brain structure, visual perception, or animal learning . . .). Most of the disagreement concerns the more complex aspects of human nature: motivation, personality, psychopathology, psychotherapy, and social relations" (Johnson, 2000, p. 43).
From a pragmatic perspective, Christian psychotherapists cannot simply wait the several decades or more it will take to develop an agreed-upon Christian Psychology. They need to be helping hurting people now. And since the current areas of effectiveness in psychotherapy involve a variety of very different psychological models it would be difficult for any one psychotherapist to master them all. It is "unrealistic to expect that most counselors can know so many theories well that [sic] they can be a cognitive therapist one hour, a behavior therapist the next, . . . and so forth" (Jones, 1991, p. 390). Christian therapists would be wise to form referral networks so that they could refer patients with problems outside their area of expertise and training to others who are able to more effectively provide help.
Dawes, Robyn M. (1994). House of cards: Psychology and psychotherapy built on myth. New York: Free Press.
Dineen, Tana (2000). Manufacturing victims: What the psychology industry is doing to people. New York: Robert Davis Multimedia Publishing.
Johnson, Eric L. & Jones, Stanton L. (Eds.) (with Collins, Gary. R., Myers, David G., Powlison, David & Roberts, Robert C.) (2000). Psychology & Christianity: Four views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Jones, Stanton L. & Butman, Richard E. (1991). Modern psychotherapies: A comprehensive Christian appraisal. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
McMinn, Mark R. (1996). Psychology, theology, and spirituality in Christian counseling. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.
Vitz, Paul C. (1994). Psychology as religion: The cult of self-worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.