The Christian Narrative and Psychology

-1The Christian Narrative and Psychology

The twentieth century marked the formalization of psychology as a way that the modern human could understand their own inner workings which had become important since the Enlightenment. It established itself as a discipline by applying what had developed into the “natural sciences” to humans as objects of inquiry. The ensuing developments created a very specific branch of discourse on human beings called psychology. Psychology and Christianity have had a past filled with various interactions, some positive, others negative.

This is a proposal towards a Christian psychology, which I hope to engage in more concretely as time passes. The reason for this proposal and not an inquiry on various possible integrations is that the Christian faith has a lot to learn but it also has a lot to offer and must remain distinctively itself. Because we believe that what modernity calls psychology will be inherently problematic at some points in its interaction with the Christian narrative, we must avoid syncretism and allow the tradition to speak to us from its own voice.

Contrary to some beliefs psychology did not start in the nineteenth century, it was and is an enterprise that is native to Christianity, and various thinkers in the ancient world. Augustine’s Confessions are a champion example of Christian thought regarding what could be considered psychology. Christianity has always been concerned with the human nature’s relation to God and the world and each other, and this has led to profound inquiries into human nature, and disposition. Furthermore, ours is a religion that has been challenged profoundly to answer questions about integrity, morality, development of persons, obstacles to that development, the structure of emotions, and behavior dispositions. The tradition has often found voices that were strongly concerned about the nature of persons, Augustine, in essence based his whole program of what human nature is on its call to worship God, and sought to define the moral life and the good within the context of that calling. Far from being non-psychological, Augustine’s work reflects some of the most profound inquiry into the human condition ever written.

Psychology as presented by the current establishment is at its heart an apologetic for modernity’s conception of human being. It has at least until very recently, been a way that modernists and secularists could make spiritual and ontological descriptions that we have been taught to implicitly accept as normative. “Psychology” can be a discursive formation among others when used to assert ideas against Christian truths. But Christianity must reject these assumptions and the limitations established in order to maintain her own assertions on what is human nature, and what constitutes a psychology. Psychology can be an instructive and beneficial science when used properly, and while the descriptions of the institution called psychology may be helpful, these are not things which are foreign to the Christian narrative.

So we can see that it is not the case that Christians do not already have a psychology, it is just that its discursive structure differs from the limitations that the current establishment of psychology has demarcated for itself, and it is very narrow in scope indeed. Ancient psychology had the freedom to ask ultimate questions and saw them as affective towards behavior and development, whereas most forms of psychology represented in the American psychological institution and major universities across the world tend to dismiss these questions as secondary to their own discourse, or of an unrelated field, or consider the questions objects of study, without asking the questions themselves. Christians believe that life is integrated and while there are many aspects of being human, the mind is not separable from the rest of life, because Christians believe that the mind is a gift from God. While it is helpful for psychology to have demarcations, it is only to show that a Christian psychology has a broader sweep, and is distinctive from modernity’s project. This distinction is always welcome.

What the twentieth century schools call psychology are not the only things that might have the ability to be justifiably called by that name. What this establishment has sought to claim as a new project unheard of before modernity is simply untrue. While we have to admit the exponential growth of data in the last 150 years, we do not have to assume that with this data comes the chronological superiority of the recent developments over against the past. Christians of all types have been concerned with Human nature, development, and behaviors, St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Gregory the Great, C.S. Lewis (in his Screwtape Letters), Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, and Leo Tolstoy are all Christian psychologists. The goal of a contemporary formation of Christian psychology seeks to retain their ideas our method will differ, at least mildly. I do not assert that Christian psychology only be an academic way of talking about Christian views on human nature, but that we remember that a lot of Christian psychology has been written as narrative. We should see these authors not as secondary to the main body of psychological work, but as Christians see their work through the lens of psychology and give them equal footing to the works of secular psychologists.

Notice how Christian psychology as cited above is narrative in character, it happens most often within the context of stories, it is the stories we tell and the overarching story that is our own that motivates us to inquiry and action as regards the human person. While we embrace empirical studies, we do not place on them a favor that dismisses as irrelevant the Christian tradition, or what its authors have said about the nature of humanity. We rather give preeminence to the tradition and propose questions that the tradition can answer on its own terms. We are not bound to empirical method, but rather use it as another tool among a multiplicity of others serving the purpose of the church which is to call all humans to recognize that their reality is only as intelligible as its worship to the God revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. Psychology does not have to be an apologetic for modernity’s definition of human kind. The Christian tradition has much to offer as its own discipline alternative to the secular modernist project especially in the areas of personality psychology and psychotherapy.

Christian psychology is an alternative type of psychology that starts with foundations based not in the “third language” of reason and universal perspectives, or individual autonomy, but within the assumptions of the Christian narrative. There are words and thought structures in the Christian story ready to answer, if not already answering the questions of psychology. These answers just need to be illuminated in the context of psychology though a certain hermeneutic lens and we shall see that all over the Christian narrative and history is a rich proliferation of material on various topics that could be grouped together as a Christian psychology.

It will be the task of a distinctively Christian psychology to read these texts for their answers that would be termed “psychological” and see these either presented in full quotations or reinterpreted so that they may form a body of work that could be recognized by our contemporaries as psychology. While we do not embrace their limitations on what constitutes a psychology, we should engage in psychology and its establishment as Christians.

We should seek to allow the Christian narrative to speak to psychological questions, but on it own terms and with its own particular answers. The tradition has many answers to offer about the nature of human persons, what the basic needs and tendencies of humans are, what their teleologies and directions are in regards to their psychic nature. Christian psychology is an alternative to the modern project and its assumptions that human beings are autonomous minds cut off from all other things, and living solely for themselves. The Christian alternative offers meaning in communion and community, development through acts of service, well being through being a peace maker, being willing to suffer for Jesus, and being poor in spirit.2 Modern psychology has proliferated the view that a human being is little more than a brain operating a body, or at best some sort of soul operated by a brain trapped within a body. In most psychological establishments, the mind and its health are detached from questions of being, and seen as programmable and purely physical. The Christian narrative offers another anthropology, and thus another psychology.

Our tradition has from the beginning had a stake in certain claims about human nature, development, motivations, character formations and how to go about achieving the proper character and correcting bad character, all things which modern psychology is about. It seems to me that it is not that Christian psychology does not as yet exist, it just does not exist in a form recognized by the current psychological establishment and many Christians as psychology. Yet it is there, waiting to be interacted with.

It is my concern that liberals, both political and theological will sell themselves short on what makes Christianity Christian in order to maintain a sense of being relevant to the outside world. However, the jettison of Christian convictions in favor of others is not only going against the tradition it is going against the very grain of the universe that Christians understand through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Christians have made a metaphysical claim about the universe, starting with the teachings of Jesus who said that to be blessed (makairos gr.) is to be among other things, poor in spirit, and to mourn, and to make peace. Doing well according to Jesus, and the New Testament witness is compatible with suffering. These claims are not only metaphysical, having a claim in the way we see reality, they are psychological. Jesus is claiming that the person who is well and doing well, is one who suffers for His sake and lives a life directed towards others, wellness according to Jesus is not a private affair, but one which is for the sake of others. People who are psychically whole can suffer, mourn, be meek, reviled, long for righteousness, be merciful, be pure in heart. These are all marks of the psychologically developed Christian.

The integration approach to Christian psychology seeks usually to marry one or another view of psychology with the established Christian tradition in a form of syncretism that leaves neither one the same. Some models are influencing the church towards assertiveness and personal empowerment. We reject this assertion, citing it as idolatry. Christians believe that the real power in the world is had not by people who carry crowns but crosses. Rather than agreeing with the world’s ideas we seek to read the tradition as it presents itself to us through the church and participation in the community, and ask questions that might help us answer the same questions being addressed by establishment psychology.

The only thing that integration between psychology and theology will do is establish a hybrid that is neither here nor there and is ultimately irrelevant because it is based in neither of the two traditions strong enough to maintain a historical presence. It will be modernity’s anthropology with questions about how to see Christians develop as such, which will render largely unintelligible work. This has already been the case in many places where Christianity has been used in the psychology of religion. It is not my aim to have Christians withdraw from psychology, but to engage in psychology as Christians, backed by the tradition to which they have sworn allegiance, informed by Christian anthropology and pastoral as well as spiritual considerations.

Christian psychology is not a matter of applying this or that theory offered by the establishment to the bible or Jesus or psychoanalyzing historical figures to get behind the text. Instead Christian psychology is a way of reading the text, a way of reading the bible the historical narrative and the church as answers to psychological questions. Christian psychology is at its heart a hermeneutic that will focus on reading Christian history, from Jesus through the saints to the world of today as part of a narrative, as part of a story able to answer our questions about ourselves and our development and nature from the convictions of our belief. Thus Christian psychology will look fundamentally different from the psychology offered to us from the establishment that has drawn its story from the Enlightenment.

There is a the question of what Christian psychology looks like in the 21st century, and I think that the answer lies in two fields. I think that Christian psychology should continue to be developed as narrative, in stories, plays, novels, and other forms of narrative that show to us the Christian life as a story we can participate in. These texts will continue to be inspirational to Christians of all levels if they are written as well told, well plotted, stories, not Christian books, but Christians writing books about everything else, including psychology. Dostoyevsky was a master of this, and I think that within the community, Christian psychology should continue to at least in part maintain itself as a storied discourse. If our theology is inherently narrative, then our psychology should be as well.

However, stories alone will not answer all possible questions and a body of work that looks like the psychology of the establishment should also be welcomed. A systematic formation of Christian answers to psychological questions is necessary. Yet this body of work might not be immediately recognizable as a psychology by established psychology because it is approaching with a different paradigm. It is a paradigm that says that The Triune God matters, it is also saying that the alternative psychology is devoid of true or ultimate meaning because it fails to realize this. We should welcome a systematic approach that would draw out a distinctive discourse we could call a psychology from our tradition and set the answers before us, and we should try to draft distinctively Christian answers to questions about behavior and development from within our anthropological commitments.

A Christian psychology must while rejecting the anthropology of the establishment continue to engage it, to assess questions about the two hemispheres of the brain, the cognitive abilities of newborns, the way in which eyewitnesses construct and reconstruct memories, the components of intelligence and many other things. The Christian story may not always have answers for these things nor do we seek proof texts of one or another part of the tradition, but that is why we have a narrative theology, it draws on developments, and sees our theology as developing towards a goal. There will be methodological conflicts, since assertions about the natural world will not lead the Christian psychology I am proposing to make judgments on the nature of God, since we see the created order as partially unknowable, since it is fallen, and mistrust natural theology as a way of reaching the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ.

A Christian psychology that rejects natural theology will be shaped very differently by these questions than a theology that makes every observable detail of ultimate importance in assessing the character and nature of God. We believe rather that only God reveals Himself to us, we cannot find Him, and He reveals Himself to us through the life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. To look at the world is to look at both a fallen order, and the birth of a new one, therefore a Christian psychology takes stock of the nature of things, but reserves ultimate judgment to her metaphysical claims, that the world in which we believe is a world where violence is passed, where disability, and personality fragmentation are at an end. A world where all things are made right. We reject the belief in inalienable rights, and the dignity of the human person, because we see these things not as inherent qualities of a person, but contingent upon the climax of our narrative, the cross. Thus our beliefs about the nature of disability, and suffering will differ greatly from those of our establishment counterparts, since our narrative shapes our interpretation of the evidence, as their narrative based in the Enlightenment shapes theirs.

Not only is a Christian psychology sourced differently from an academic perspective, drawing texts not normally considered psychology as sources, furthermore it is pastorally driven. The goal of a Christian psychology is not self-actualization or empowerment, nor is it personal autonomy, but is primarily concerned with the proper worship of God and pastoral developments towards that worship in the life of the individual and the community. Personal aims of a Christian psychology are solidarity with the poor, and the weak, a constructive correction of vices, and a mediation of the Christian narrative in intelligible ways as to make realizable by a wider audience the claims of the faith. For protestant churches, Christian psychology should function largely as catechesis does in Orthodox traditions. It is about the formation of Christians, and interactions with their teleological development, which stated exclusively is that human life is only as intelligible and proper as its worship of The Triune God revealed by Jesus of Nazareth, and all claims about the meaning of life and interpretations of data set forth are subject to inspection by this hermeneutic lens and required to be in coherence with it..

So, to be more specific, a Christian psychology should have a few key elements to make it a psychology in the first place.

I suppose this begins with an understanding of what we mean by human nature, and whether there is at all a human nature to be talked about. Karl Barth rejected the idea of human nature, saying that the only true human is Christ. I think Barth is right, but it does not answer the matter of we face as counselors, pastors and psychologists, so we can call it the fallen nature, or human tendency. But these questions are shaped by Christian teleological and eschatological beliefs, so that the goal is Christ, and human nature looks like Jesus himself. Christ is the source of human nature, and the true humanity, to be truly human one must be truly Christian. So, the goal of human nature is exemplifying what the church has claimed about Christ, historically, and at its heart, human nature is about the Christian virtue of charity. But we must ask specific questions within this framework about the motivations and needs of human persons, not only theologically, but theopragmatically, in terms of the Christian life, what are our needs, desires and behaviors? What in humans is necessary for them to function properly according to the purpose for which they were created?

A psychology should sketch if not at the very least make suggestions on what personality traits characterize a fully developed and mature person, keeping in mind a necessary gap between this side of the eschaton and the fullness of the resurrection. This question is really a development of the nature of pastoral care, by describing in detail what characterizes Christians as Christians in their behaviors. We recognize that modern psychologies have virtues as well, some of their virtues are merely incongruous with certain claims from within Christian orthodoxy. This is basically the work of the church anyways, describing person hood according to certain ideas that Jesus and the church have claimed, but maybe repopularizing them and presenting them in a way that liberal protestants as well as conservatives might understand. Seeing the Christian narrative and participation as part of that personhood, will help create not an autonomous individualized account, but help us ask the question, what sort of relations is a fully developed person engaged in?

When we ask that question a whole new set of ethics is being done that respects the communal nature of human being, and shares the Christian claim that all being is communal. Being itself is a type of communion, especially for Christians. So the propositions set forth should ask about what type of relations such a person is engaging in, and what type of virtues they show forth in those relations. This is the only way to undo modern psychology’s obsession with privatizing the individual. Further this leads to integrating questions about successful personhood with successful developments, especially if we open the bracket of relations to not only interpersonal ones, but questions of relation to their environment and agency.

I suppose the next thing necessary is what psychology calls neuroses, dysfunctions and disorders. In other words, a Christian psychology proposes vices or behaviors that are destructive towards the psychological formation and well being of the person and their relations. Again, this will map not only dysfunction but its effect on community life, studying the strain on relations as well as the strain on the individual, seeing both as in communion. Christian psychology maps dysfunctions and disorders carefully, developing a language about those destructive traits and relations. This again, is an exercise part theory, part pastoral care. It needs to develop a language within which to frame vices opposed to the Christian narrative and meet the needs of the individuals who suffer the vices. A Christian psychology can at this point be highly scientific by testing the responses of the tradition, or developing methods consistent with the Christian narrative and test them to see if they work. If we ever come to a place where a proposed solution does not work, or does not prove fruitful, we can reinterpret the tradition for other solutions, or innovate new methods that do so within the context of the overarching Christian narrative.

These things will help us create a psychotherapy, or in Christian terms, a set of relationships that will prevent or treat the unhealthy interactions and behaviors. Christian psychotherapy should develop itself as what the church is in its pastoral context. Thus Christian psychology will have effects on the way pastoral ministry is carried out, as well as ecclesiological considerations since, what we are talking about in discussing the behavior and well being of persons is really asking the church to consider the care and guidance she will provide to her members. It is grounded in the belief that the only thing that makes a real difference in these matters, is the incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Christian psychotherapy is at it’s heart reconciliation. This will take different forms on a case by case basis, but it should include the practices of confession, penance, and recognizing sin, while realizing the call of Jesus for us to conform to His call to be disciples as part of the solution to the problems we will face.

Christian psychotherapy does not ask us to face ourselves, it asks us to face Christ, and confront our sins with the call to being a disciple of Jesus. Christian psychology will be healing to us, but not by mediating us to ourselves, only in mediating Christ to us as the only possibility of a true self. A response to guilt will feature here, but the Christian task is the assumption of such guilt without having it mediated to us by conscience. It is acknowledging that we are judged not by ourselves, but by Christ. The only thing that conscience will give us is ourselves, and Christians must reject this since our teleology is shaped by our relation to Christ and participation in the people that He has called us to be. For Christians conscience is not the voice of virtue, but the voice of self-defense and excusability. For Christians our goal is not moral autonomy, but the recognition that all our wholeness and goodness comes from Christ and is mediated to us by the church. Conscience has no part in a Christian psychology, because it is a tool by which humans remove from themselves the responsibility of the voice of God by making themselves that voice, it is either self-righteousness or self-debasement neither of which recognizes the person of Christ as our judge and savior. For Christians the life that is whole and good is proper response to God’s commands, and necessarily include love of neighbor, proper methods of “treasuring” e.g. Matthew 6:19-24, and the necessity of communion, confession and prayer as ways in which the Christian life is lived truthfully.

In closing, Christian psychology is about living according to the life the church has seen exemplified in Christ and made possible by Him. Christian psychology is a pastoral endeavor shaped by sources outside those of 20th century considerations but should make these sources intelligible both to the outside world and ourselves as psychology through a hermeneutic lens. Christian psychology is a development from within Christianity that offers its own particular set of claims about what it means to be human, and Christian from the perspective that God matters. And Christian psychology must avoid most if not all of modernity’s concept of the human being since it is inherently opposed to the community that Christ has called to Himself. Christian psychology is at its heart a liturgical and pastoral act that is akin to a virtue ethics, but will place its pastoral emphasis on the proper worship of God, and the community which He has called to Himself as the final solutions to the problems persons face. There are methods and means of attaining these and the Christian psychologist is there mostly as an interpreter, showing the faith as a catechist, instructing pastorally, and mentoring with the truth that is Christ and His call in Love.


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