May 19, 2012
Psychology Today – and Yesterday
Last Saturday I was buying coffee at the supermarket and purchased a copy of Psychology Today on a random impulse. Ok. Ok. Maybe it was a subconscious urge.
Though I currently enjoy psychology a great deal (as evidenced by the fact that I’m Simon Baker’s no.1 fan), it was not always so. Back in my infamous Bible school daze, which I love to tell juicy stories about, I was very unhappy with the field. I remember quite vividly throwing my Christian Psychology textbook across the room out of sheer frustration. Let me clarify, just so I don’t get on the book lending black list with a marginal notation that reads, “throws books he disagrees with,” that this was the only time I ever threw a book in a fit of exasperation. Today I am of course much more mature and would never allow the world of ideas to explode in such a violent manner into the the material world.
So what upset me so much as to produce this explosive singularity? It’s just that I had read yet again (was it the 20th time?) an irritatingly fallacious argument which seemed have been the foundation of the entire course I was taking. When you are young and you are surrounded by messages that you find artificial and unconvincing but which everyone else seems to find perfectly sensible it can be overwhelming.
The argument was something to the effect that while the Bible teaches us about spiritual matters, it does not teach us about psychology. Therefore, Christians must recourse to psychology in order to understand the principles that govern human behavior. In one class our professor presented an example to corroborate this notion: If you were a cabinet maker, he posited, you would not go to the Bible to find out how to make a drawer, would you? Of course not! (silly you) The Bible has nothing to say about carpentry. The Bible is about God, Jesus and being spiritual; not about carpentry. In the same way, the argument went, the Bible does not say anything about psychology and the principles of human behavior. You have to go outside the Bible for that.
In a sense this is true. The Bible is not a behavioral science text book. But the “the Bible does not talk about psychology” approach does not factor in that, unlike psychology and carpentry, psychology and religion share a great deal in common. They both have something to say about behavioral norms, about intense experiences such as guilt and love, about life change, and particularly about the meaning of personal fulfillment and its pursuit. So it’s just a poor argument to present them as distinct in such a simplistic manner.
At that time I felt like a door was being opened though which non-religious, non-biblical norms could be brought in to basic Christian teaching. That’s why I found it so frustrating.
My qualms led me to a set of recorded lectures by John McArthur in which he railed against “christian counseling” as a dangerous and non-biblical practice. He was particularly fond of 1 Peter1:3, which states that “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life”. Thus, why would we need to consult “worldly authorities” on matters of behavior change or emotional healing? Is not change in behavior the specific purview of the Bible itself? And aren’t the categories already established as repentance, prayer, sin, righteousness, etc. (not “counseling“)? We don’t need no stinkin’ counselors, was the idea.
But McArthur and I made the same mistake. It’s a very common one. It’s the mistake of accepting the categories given by the opposition. The affirmation was made that we had to add psychology to the Bible. To this we reacted with simple negation. But what if the error was more complex? What if psychology can be a useful tool when it is allowed to operate in the context of a commitment to biblical thinking and living? The overly simplistic rejection of anything that appears to challenge “the Bible” which characterizes many of the reactions of conservative Christians is the result of precisely this mistake. We fail to make distinctions, we lump everything together in a paranoid impulse of self-protection, we replace reasonable assessment with guilt by association and sloganeering.
Another related problem which affects many areas of the Christianity and culture divide is what amounts to a negation of the Lordship of Jesus over all things. When new discoveries are made or when new branches of science are formed Christians often react, again, by shutting them out or vilifying them rather than seeing that they are insights into what God has made. The way forward is to assess them in the light of a biblical worldview. Often this results, not in a negation of the ideas or discoveries, but an orientation about their appropriate use.
These days I think of psychology as a kind of wisdom based on observation. There are common patterns to our behaviors and thinking which, when understood, can provide us with great tools for personal relationships and useful insights for helping those who are emotionally burdened. But they will only be useful to us as Christians if we approach them with biblical premises. So if we are to do psychology as Christians there will be a point at which we will tell the discipline, “Ok buddy. That’s as far as you go. You don’t get to come past that line.” Psychology is a tool. Our values, priorities and ethical orientation determine how that tool is used – and for Christians those come from the Bible. Even people who aren’t Christians know that psychology is a tool that can be used for good or for ill. Take child psychology. What a blessing it can be when it is used to help children grow into balanced, happy adults. But what happens when child psychologists sell out to the dark side and use their wisdom to market products to children? The orientation has changed from helping to manipulating.
It seems to me that the most urgent need in this field, as in many others, is for Christians to provide examples of how the ethical orientation provided by the Bible results in a healthy use of its tools and methods.