Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Psychological Good or 'Psychoheresy'?

As a psych minor in college, I naturally saw a value to the broad discipline of psychology for my future ministerial work. However, even being within one of the synodical schools, I felt a 'void' in my academic pursuits. Two areas troubled me. One was the plethora of competing 'theories,' which demonstrated to me early on that this field was anything but a unified discipline (as I soon discovered later in life also applies even to the so-called "hard" sciences.) The other was the seeming unwillingness of my professors to let theology inform, or at least, dialogue, with this discipline. It wasn't until I came to the sem that the two areas converged, and I was allowed the freedom to view matters through both lenses.

Since those days I have been aware of an ongoing debate in the church on the issue of psychology and theology. Again the views and theories abound, and some are simply in complete opposition to each other. There is the view, for example, that asserts that psychology in any form is incompatible with the Holy Scriptures. Authors such as Bodgan and Jay Adams are the vanguard of this position. Thus, alternate 'schools' within counseling have arisen, such as the so-called "nouthetic" school of Adams.

On the opposite side of the chart are those who have made psychology a substitute for theology. Counselors and psychiatrists become the new 'priests' to guide the people. Pastors are essentially deemed inadequate to deal with the interpersonal problems of the masses. This polarization has infected much of the church over the years, and we still feel its effects. I sometimes wonder if our educational institutions and districts rely too much on psychology in determining the health and worthiness of future church workers.

Then, in the middle there is an attempt to find a way to integrate legitimate findings or theories from psychology, while maintaining the integrity of one's theological position. I suspect that many Lutheran pastors may find themselves here somewhere along the continuum.

Occasionally, when I contemplate possible graduate work, my mind wanders back to my early goals of a degree in counseling, and the debate rages in my mind all over again. I find myself unwilling to reject all of modern psychology simply because of some parts that are incompatible with my faith. Psychology is not a 'pure' science. Sometimes it is referred to as one of the 'soft' sciences, obviously aware that the absolutes of other disciplines are noticeably missing here. Also, there are many 'theories' that are under girded by a philosophical basis more than a scientific one. Still, can one ignore the decades of credible research and its legitimate application to the treatment of the troubles that plague the mind?

I do think that the pastoral ministry has been often robbed of its former position in the "soul care," and that clergy occasionally abdicate their responsibility in this area because we have been taught to refer whenever a psychological problems presents itself. Certainly a balance can be found again.

In recent years I have been encouraged by another stream of study that should contribute greatly to the study of 'soul care.' As in biblical exegesis, there has also been a return to patristic studies to find a voice of ancient experience and knowledge to inform our sometimes infatuation with all things new. Although my library now possesses several fine volumes in this area, I have yet to embark on a solid schedule of reading. Perhaps this will be the year.

So, what do you think of the debate? Should we reject one for the other? Or should we find the best in psychology and be discerning as we apply it? Can theology find a partner here in dialogue, or are they from two realms, where "never the twain shall meet"?


isabella said...

My daughter is graduating this year as a psych major from a secular college, but one know for being a bastion of right wing politics and the religious values that go with it. Granted, institutions do not have a soul, but if they did, like the typical American, it's care would be marginalized to a few hours on Sunday mornings, and never associate any unhappiness or problems of day to day living with that invisible part of themselves that needs to be reconciled with their Creator.
The day by day, hour by hour work of reconciliation has been replaced with the a weekly therapist session, a 12 step meeting, or a daily medication.
In conversations with my daughter over the last several years, I don't think she has ever mentioned that a professor, textbook, or class has even hinted that there is any connection between the soul, the part of being that is not definable, but so obviously touches everything that psychology is supposed to address.

I have worked in the medical field many years, and also have had occasion to seek some psychological counseling myself. I have also had experience with what some would call "christian counseling". It's either the exact same thing done by every other counselor, but the therapist has a personal belief in God. An even more harmful version, is one that is nothing more than glorified pietism; it promises healing with the practice of clean living, discipline, and demands avoidance of whatever they think is a vice. If it works, it is only because there is a strong prayer and contemplation, component, backed up by orthodox theology.
If it doesn't work, it poisons the well for any future spiritual direction. At it's very worst, it can break the bruised reed with tragic consequences that can destroy the faith not only of the patient, but also the faith of those that love him.
To sum up what I have seen, and also personally experienced, if the soul is sick, no amount of treatment is going to make anything but temporary, superficial changes in a persons life. I see very little difference in outcomes between biological cognitive, or combination therapy, with or without a "christian" flavor.
Pastor, don't worry about stepping on any toes, and don't surrender any turf to these guys, no matter how confident they sound, throwing around their ten-dollar words, and expounding on the latest research, or pharmacology. They have only made your job harder over the years by convincing people that sin is nothing more than the product of an unhappy childhood, or that there is no such thing as sin, just bad choices.
You accomplish more pronouncing the words of absolution to one making a sincere confession and repentance, than years of therapy, drugs, and 12 step programs could ever hope to do.

D. Engebretson said...

Thank you, Isabella, for your insights. You are very right that the capitulation to psychology has made the work of ministry more difficult, yet not less needed. Sometimes it is good for pastors such as myself to hear what you just said. We need to be reminded that the work of ministry is never in vain, and should not be looked down upon simply because the outside world may not value its services. Thank you again.