Letters from the Fire3:
Integration – An Uneasy Alliance
When I graduated with a Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy in 2001,
I believed then in the integration of theology with psychology. After 10 years in the field, I have arrived at a much more critical and skeptical view of integration. What follows are my thoughts on the subject.
I think to begin it bears pointing out that there exists a clear distinction between how psychology and theology diagnose the problem of man (or what’s really wrong with mankind). It is important to remember that theologically speaking, man is incapable of an honest and accurate assessment of himself because he is sick with sin. Consequently, innate in any psychological thought is a bent propensity towards error. When I was in school, there existed nearly 500 psychological theories. Some of them contradicted each other. The sheer multiplicity of theories drove me crazy in school because they all seemed to have some kernel of truth to them. The existence of so many theories and the lack of any unifying one illustrates the point that in addition to it’s propensity for error, psychology is also more of an art that a science.
As you can imagine, such a multiplicity of theories postulate varying ideas regarding the problem of man. Nevertheless, certain themes predominate. Many theories postulate mankind’s problem without taking into account a person’s volition or will as contributing factor. Such a lack of responsibility and a tendency towards victimization run as themes through many theoretical orientations. Could it be that such thinking has eventually lead to people blaming their genetic predispositions for their behavior, and in effect blaming God? Additionally many theories suggest implicitly or explicitly that people have an inalienable right to feel happy and that there is no real place for suffering. Suffering and distress are viewed as abnormal and should be medicated away. Larry Crabb suggests that depression and other symptoms are indications of a need for God.
Theologically speaking, what’s wrong with mankind can usually be traced back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve first failed to believe that God had their best interest in mind. They decided they wanted to run their own lives. They could no longer be transparent and vulnerable with God, themselves, or each other. They reverted to blaming each other. Eve chose relationship over dominion. Adam chose dominion over relationship. Add to this the fact that Adam and Eve chose to cover themselves up before God. Man’s tendency to hide things and his lack of honesty with himself, with others, and with God are issues we face on a daily basis.
The bottom line is that theology has the cure for the problem of man and psychology doesn’t. If this is true we need to honestly ask ourselves why are we even trying to integrate theology with psychology? Is it because we find our Christianity powerless and irrelevant in a culture that has more faith in science than in God? Do we find the need to prop up our faith with psychology? Do we find nothing compelling about our Christianity, or have nothing to say to a world that is dying before our eyes? And yet if we toss out psychology are we giving up our chances of making Christianity relevant in our culture? Psychology and its terminology are deeply embedded in our language and our society. Culture is after all the fish bowl where we live our lives. Paul had no qualms about using cultural beliefs to make his point about the unknown God. Can we function as Paul did – not divorcing ourselves from our cultural beliefs or allowing them to dilute or merge with our message, but using them as a platform for discourse and dialogue. Yet, we still need to ask ourselves why our Christianity seems so powerless and irrelevant in our culture today. Paul Hiebert in his article “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle” talks about how in Western culture we have developed a two-tiered view of reality with religion on top (faith miracles, other worldly problems, sacred) and science below it (sight and experience, natural order, this worldly problems, secular). What is missing is what he calls the “excluded middle.” This is the gap between religion and science where there are “questions of the uncertainty of the future, the crises of present life and the unknowns of the past.” Perhaps it is because in our Western culture we have failed to present Christianity as relevant and compelling in this very area where people live their lives, that psychology has effectively filled in the gaps and answered the questions. Unless Christianity is compelling in our own lives we will lack the courage to offer the cure, even though in truth we possess it.