Sigmund's Last Laugh
Just how compatible are psychology and Christianity?
by Michael Spencer
There's this scene in the old movie, "A Guide For the Married Man," where Robert Morse tells Walter Matthau what to do if his wife ever catches him in bed with a mistress. The technique basically involved calmly getting dressed and letting the young lady out, all the while looking puzzled and asking the wife what she's so upset about. In other words, be so confident in your denial, so brash in your claim that nothing is going on, that the wife will begin to doubt her sanity. Confidence, that's the key.
I've been noticing for years that a variation on this routine works really well for the practitioners of psychology. There it sits, dignified among other academic disciplines. It has its research, its theories, its degrees, its founders, its vocabulary, even its stereotypical image of itself. Above all, it has confidence. The confidence that it has the answers. It can explain the inexplicable and shed light upon the mysteries of human behavior.
Occasionally, students will tell me they want to go to college and study psychology. I ask them why. Is it the big bucks? The useful work? The reason usually turns out to be something like this: Somewhere along the way, they met a counselor or saw one on television. The counselor was nice, and not judgmental like parents, preachers, or teachers. Most of all, the counselor talked confidently, as if he had real answers. He had a name--an impressive name--for any problem. He appeared to know a lot. Apparently, when you study psychology the professors tell you all about how to understand yourself and other people. Wouldn't it be great to go to school and come out like that?
This is certainly the image in the media. Most every talk show regularly has psychologists on the program as the resident experts. After the topic for the day has been illustrated with guests or interviews, then the psychologist, with his impressive titles, comes along and tells us all what is really going on. They look impressive. They sound confident. They tell us what to do. We all nod. It's almost religious. Maybe it is religious, just without the bothersome God business.
I know a lot of people who were psych majors. They are good people, most of them. In fact, I had enough hours to be a psych major in college (though I didn't structure the hours right to get the major.). I sat through all kinds of psych classes and learned as much as the next guy. I also came away with a persistent impression that I can't shake. The impression that I was being conned. Big time.
Now let's be careful here. I don't mean conned as in some maliciously fraudulent attempt to take my money, though that isn't entirely off the radar anymore. I don't mean conned as in the professors laughing behind our backs at what dupes we were to believe this mishmash. I mean conned as in conned into thinking we now really knew something new and important, when in fact, we were mostly just pretending we were smart based on what we were being told. Whether we were actually smarter as a result of putting all this stuff into our heads seemed to be taken for granted.
Let's just talk about basic concepts. For illustrative purposes, imagine you are taking your car to a mechanic. In judging the competence of the mechanic, you would apply the test of "meaningful terms." "The wiring of your fuel injector appears to be frayed," says your mechanic. Now even though you are a mechanical idiot, these terms mean something in the real world. Wiring. Fuel Injector. Frayed. Even if the terms were in Hungarian or Elvish, we know what is supposed to be going on.
Now, enter the world of psychological terminology, and ponder for a moment where, other than in the confidence game we are playing, these terms make any sense to a rational person, or correspond to anything. (Be serious here. At least as serious as one would be with a mechanic.)
Disorder. Self. Self-image. Needs. Complex. Projection. Schizophrenia. Syndrome. Phobia. Personality. Issues. Stress. I'm not asking if these are useful descriptions. I use lots of theological terms that are useful descriptions- to me. I don't see any difference here at all.
One of my jobs is to read psychological evaluations of students who want to enter our school. It can be really frightening to read about "Oppositional Defiant Disorder," "Mood disorder" and "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." If I really believed such things objectively existed, I'd really be worried. But I have to confess that I don't take these labels very seriously. The "ODD" kid turns out to be an obnoxious brat who regularly tells adults to get lost. The "ADHD" kid turns out to not have an attention span long enough to endure long lectures or the desire to organize his life according to the instructions. The mood disordered kid is....moody. Not quite as scary.
Houston....we have a problem.
I'm not adverse to believing some of this stuff, especially if psychology can convince me they aren't just making this all up to appear smart. Otherwise, I'm a doubter. Not a doubter that something is wrong with us, but a doubter that what is wrong with us are real "disorders" and such. My skepticism has been increased as the numbers of disorders increases, and especially with a few recent developments.
For years, homosexuality was a "disorder" according to official psychology. Then one day, with the assistance of a mob of very angry gay people, the APA decided that homosexuality wasn't a disorder after all. Wasn't that special?
Then lawyers started using psychological explanations for criminal behavior. Increasingly, people who did bad things were confessing them in court, but wanting us to know that their various psychological disorders were the culprits and they couldn't be held responsible. Uh.........riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.
And I hear, courtesy of some Berkley professors, that those of us who are politically and religiously conservative are about to be given our own syndromes to help others understand why we are attracted to authoritarianism and cruel, compassionless politics. I have a "fundamentalist-authoritarianism disorder." Impressive.
Am I supposed to take this seriously? I have more respect for the out and out kooks on the Art Bell Show than for this sort of nonsense.
It's not that there isn't ANY truth here. Far from it. Psychology often gets a lot of things right, but the reason isn't because it has a nifty inside track on explaining human behavior. It's because psychology usually gives a high regard to watching and listening to people. And that is a good thing.
Freud observed. He listened and asked questions. Rogers listened. The best psychologists were observers, interrogators and listeners. They saw patterns and began to organize that kind of knowledge into a discipline. That observational aspect of psychology--disciplined by hard research and a disregard for nonsense--can be immensely helpful. (I betray my bias for the behaviorists at this point. I admit it--I have a higher regard for a man who tells me what happens in common sense, real world terms than for a man who invents a vocabulary, disorders and cures.)
I think we need a world of disciplined listeners and inquirers out there helping us understand ourselves. I hope they can pass on their knowledge in cogent and understandable ways. I don't hesitate to use that kind of information to help people understand the human being. As a parent and a teacher, I think this sort of information is valuable.
But here comes the party pooper. Observation and listening aren't the whole story. Understanding and helping human beings takes place in a set of assumptions. Presuppositions. A worldview, if you wish. This context for observation and interpretation does more than influence the outcome. It influences the competence of the entire enterprise.
I remember being a college freshman in 1974, taking Psychology 101 at a Christian college. I knew nothing about psychology other than its public image. Being required to take psychology as part of the curriculum in a Christian school raised no red flags for me. I assumed that such an enterprise was safe.
The professor impressed me as a man who was genuine in his Christian faith, and he related each part of the class to the Bible. But he also failed to inform me of what I learned later--that the entire enterprise of modern psychology was created in the context of atheism and hostility to religion.
Freud was, perhaps, the most formidable atheist of the last century. His critique of religion was substantial and powerful, and remains to this day one of the most convincing broadsides ever aimed at religion. From his place as observer, philosopher, and anti-theologian, Freud concluded that God was simply a projection of the human need for a father. Humans sought to manipulate reality in a universe filled with the unknown and the uncontrollable. Projecting their own father-figure into that universe, they developed religion as a way to cope with the awfulness of an empty, unresponsive universe.
Freud's critique rings true to much human experience. It is frightening in its explanatory power of much that exists in the realm of human religion. It also, unfortunately for Freud, falls under its own ax.
Freud failed to come to terms with the honest possibility that the true God exists, and that his theories explain what believers call "idolatry," or the creation of a God-figure and religion for our own purposes. Freud did not consider that his atheism was, itself, quite possibly a projection of no-God out into a universe filled with the glory of God. Freud did not wrestle with the God of Job, who cannot be manipulated because He is sovereign, free, and wholly devoted to His own purposes and glory.
Yet modern psychology grew out of Freud's atheistic assumptions, and has always found it extremely easy to place religion, God-talk, spiritual experience and so forth under its microscope. Here is the confidence of a discipline that believes it can explain other worldviews as manifestations of the needs of the human personality. But to what worldview is it accountable? In what worldview do its terms make sense? How does a psychologist know that he and his discipline are not manifestations of a mental aberration inside his own delusions?
Does "Christian psychology" solve the problem? Well, to a certain extent, yes, if by "Christian psychology" we mean psychology operating in the boundaries of the Christian worldview and using Biblical concepts as the building blocks of understanding human beings. Such an effort is welcome and needed. Within the Biblical admonition to understand ourselves, minister to one another, and offer counsel and encouragement based on truth, there is a place for "a word about the psyche," though I think an humble place. Certainly an awareness of the worldview issues inherent in the history and development of psychology will be needed for the relationship to be meaningful.
If, however, "Christian psychology" means borrowing or buying whatever secular psychology is offering and bringing it into the church, then we have a problem of an altogether different sort. Sadly, this appears to be the more common approach.
I attended seminary during a time when our school had a large "pastoral counseling" program. In actual fact, what we had was a regular beachhead of hostility to Christianity and a bunch of professors totally sold out to secular psychology with an opening prayer. Rogers and Jung were the standards in this program, and anyone daring to talk about "Biblical counseling" would be laughed at openly...and I do not exaggerate. Degrees from the cathedrals of secular psychology were the currency in trade, and students openly lusted for the prestige of being a "counselor" rather than a pastor.
If one dared to talk in Biblical terms, you would have been found to be manifesting some kind of disorder or phobia, and further counseling would be recommended. (Fortunately, this tide was turned at my alma mater along with others of similar ilk, though not without considerable professional bloodshed and an abiding sense that the barbarians had invaded the halls of sanity and niceness.)
The New Gospel of Self-Esteem
For a case in point, note how Christians have swallowed whole and entire the language and worldview of the "self-esteem" movement. In any group of Christians, one can stand up and talk about "low self esteem" and that Johnny's problem is "self-esteem" with no one blinking an eye.
It was probably ten years ago that I bothered to look into the origins of the whole "Self-Esteem" movement. Imagine my surprise to discover the whole vat was cooked up by--yes, you guessed it, sports fans--a hostile atheist who hated religion in general and Christianity in particular. The problem with western civilization was "wormy" views of the self that talked about sin, hell, guilt, condemnation as such. Human beings were noble savages meant to feel good about themselves. Religion, particularly of the Biblical kind, stuck a finger in the face of the normal person and ordered him to hate himself in order to love God, be good, and avoid hell.
Along comes psychology and rescues us from such poison. As John Lennon said, wouldn't it be great if we could get rid of heaven and hell and just like ourselves? Awash in the liberation that comes from discovering there is nobody higher than yourself, you can now sing of "the greatest love of all": loving yourself just as you are. Like yourself. Treat yourself well. Be committed to yourself. Someone in Europe married himself. That may be going too far, but you get the idea.
(The New Age version of this is even better. As Oprah tells us, since we are all deep down really God, what's not to like? Loving yourself is really the best thing anyone can do! It's practically worship!)
Most of us tend to find truth in what appeals to us (even though the Bible warns us that this is often a wrong road.) Explaining human behavior as the result of feelings of worthlessness created by other people is an appealing approach to human behavior. It holds out the promise that one of my professors illustrated. We are all like empty glasses and what we need is to have our glasses filled with self-esteem. If that happens, we will like ourselves, do well, love others, be happy, stop kicking the dog, and voting Republican.
This was especially good news for educators, ministers, teachers, and others in the helping professions. What we really need to do in school, sports, and church is build up self-esteem. No losers! All winners! If you don't know what has come of this, I suggest you look at the last 25 years of cultural history. The self-esteem crowd has succeeded in making everything in education, ministry, and counseling about how we feel about ourselves. Our "salvation" is the "heaven" of self-worth and high self-esteem.
Now, lying right
there in the Bible was the statement that we should love God and love
our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Grabbing this verse in one hand and
all the jargon of self-esteem in the other, millions of American
Christians marched off to the playground. Self-esteem was OK! Loving
yourself was healthy! You couldn't love anyone else till you loved
yourself. Anything that lowered your self worth was evil. Schuller
proclaimed Self Esteem "the new reformation." While some conservatives
chided that claim, most evangelicals were far more interested in that
reformation than in the previous one.
How far did this go?
It's hard to say. We're still living through the flood and there is no
land in sight. For instance, ever heard this? "We are so valuable that
God sent His Son to die for us." The measurement of our personal worth
is the death of God's Son. If that smells like smoke, that's because it
came from the pit. It's blasphemy, or at least close. The giving of
Jesus for our salvation shows the worth of Jesus in making up for the
mess we created in rebelling against our Creator. Jesus isn't a price
tag on our worth. He's the price tag for our sin. He is the measurement
of the hell we deserved.
Ever heard a preacher
talk about how Jesus will save you from your bad feelings? How coming
to love yourself and accept yourself as lovable is the gospel? Ever
visited a Christian bookstore where "How to love yourself" and outright
discussions of self esteem are major interests? Ever talked with
Christians who believed the gospel is all about discovering you ought
to love yourself?
Is there a basis for
"self -esteem" in Biblical doctrines like creation and grace? Most
certainly, but I have a question. What's wrong with talking about
creation and grace? What's wrong with OUR vocabulary? Can't we
talk about human behavior without using the language of a discipline
that, in all honesty, is almost uniformly hostile to Christianity? And
in a day when the true Gospel is vanishing from pulpits in the name of
seeker sensitivity, isn't it of some concern that the replacement
gospel sounds more and more like something cooked up by psychologists?
Should this marriage be saved?
One of my favorite writers is Dr. Larry Crabb. Crabb is a Christian counselor. He has been instrumental in the development of the Biblical counseling movement. Less of a nouthetic type than Jay Adams or Wayne Mack, Crabb was an integrationist, with a strong bias toward allowing Biblical concepts to shape his counseling. But several years ago, Crabb began to change. He moved rapidly away from psychological approaches, and more and more toward outright Biblical approaches. His books began to advocate counseling within the community of believers, and as a ministry of Christians to Christians. The clinical, "psychological" aspect of helping one another live authentically human lives really had very little to do with psychology. Crabb found it was at the center of the Gospel.
Yes, the Gospel. It's the Gospel that tells us who we are and why we act the way we do. Does it delve to the depths of why Johnny hates mommy? No, but it tells us that Johnny hating mommy is a result of sin's perversion, and can only be cured by a renewal of the mind and a new approach to life under the Lordship of Christ.
Can psychology help us understand one another? Can it help the sexual sinner understand himself? Can it help the emotionally closed person understand himself? Can it help the anxious see why they worry? Yes, but these are only secondary manifestations of our deepest human issues. No matter what our human experience, the basic shape of our human experience is similar. We can understand one another, love one another, and help one another without extraordinary insights from Psychology.
By saying secondary issues, I do not mean insignificant issues. I am grateful for every life that has been made more full, every marriage that has found peace and every "disorder" that has been improved. Having a hierarchy of values that puts right relationship with God above mental health may seem cruel and useless, but Christian experience teaches that earth without heaven is not very pleasant, but that heaven, when given to us through Christ, brings the best of earth along with it.
[At this point I must make it very clear that I am not questioning the wisdom of a medical diagnosis that has its roots in bio-chemical or physical factors. I believe the psychiatric diagnosis of bi-polar disorder or depression is legitimate and there is no "compromise" inherent in seeking medical treatment. We should be grateful for treatments of what are, reasonably speaking, diseases. I do, however, question the general ethical direction of psychology in prescribing increasing kinds of behavior-altering medications as the primary way of treating individuals, often without counseling of any kind. The effects of these medications upon the brain and the body are not fully understood, and there are many questions to be answered about how chemical-influenced behavior enhances or detracts from our humanity. I think Christians have every reason to be cautious in their endorsement of many of these medications as the best response to behavior issues.]
I suspect that we are attracted to Psychology because it promises personal transformation. It pretends to know its way around the human condition. It speaks to the most "felt" concerns of human life. As a rule it doesn't berate and threaten, and it's not routinely stupid. In all these ways, it differs from what we hear out of the Bible down at the church.
But psychology is being oversold and scripture sold short. The powerlessness and inattentiveness of the church is not an endorsement of psychology, and the confident assertions of the psychologists are not the way of wisdom. Christ and his gospel are the light in our darkness. Psychology's truth is a reflected light. As a servant of the light, it may be useful and helpful. Allowing psychology to stand in the place of the Gospel, however, is a delusion we are going to soon regret.
In my own experience, it is the failure of psychology that leaves the most lasting impression. Every year I work with hundreds of students who have been diagnosed, labeled, counseled, and medicated. The overwhelming majority were not significantly or permanently helped. In many ways, the treatment of what appears to be simply growing up in a broken world as a series of disorders appears to take away some essential components of human dignity. I am not impressed with the overall track record of psychology with the students I work with. Some may be helped, but few feel helped.
On the other hand, I see many of these young people change in permanent and significant ways. They change with stable, predictable environments replacing chaos. They change as they receive dignity and respect through work and accomplishment. They change as they integrate boundaries and foundations into the personality. They change as they come to appreciate the love of God and experience it in human relationships. Taken off of the couch and placed in a community, I see hope, new beginnings, and change. By God's grace, many find a measure of wholeness and the gift of salvation. I note with irony that many psychologists and counselors send students to us that have not responded to psychiatric treatment.
Some of the insights and approaches of psychology are helpful to this process. I am grateful for those counselors and medications that helped these students be honest and healthy individuals. But the promise of psychology continues to ring hollow for me, not because I believe it is excluded from God's sovereignty--far from it--but because I do not see self-understanding or the treatment of behavior as addressing our deepest human dilemma.
Our problem is an unanchored self-ness; a determination to see ourselves without reference to the hands that made us and the heart that gives us meaning. Can psychology help us to see ourselves as creations of God and made for God? Can it help us find our answers to the glory of God and not to the glory of self-understanding? I am skeptical, but I am prepared to be hopeful if I have a reason to be.