Christian Psychology – Back to Theology and Philosophy
According to Time, the field of psychology is rethinking and retooling. Instead of constantly dwelling on what makes people mentally ill, the shift is toward what makes people mentally healthy, positive, joyful, and happy to be alive. “Studies show that those who believe in life after death, for example, are happier than those who do not. ‘Religion provides a unifying narrative that may be difficult to come by elsewhere in society,’ says sociologist Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at Austin.”1
Further, reports Time, “It’s not just what religion gives but what it takes away. ‘The “thou shalt nots”—no adultery, no drugs and so on—keep people from getting addicted or otherwise increasing their level of stress,’ says Koenig (that is, if they follow the rules). The strictures of religion may simplify life for adherents, and that can be a huge relief.”2
Christian psychologist Paul Vitz says the work of Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the catalyst for what he terms “positive psychology” i.e., emphasizing mental health instead of mental illness. “What is needed to balance our understanding of the person is recognition of positive human characteristics that can both heal many of our pathologies and help to prevent psychological problems in one’s future life.”3 And what are these positive human characteristics? Virtues that include “wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.”4
Christian Psychology – Six Core Virtues
Comments Vitz, “Peterson and Seligman list six core virtues, and it is not hard to provide the familiar Christian [fruit of the Spirit—Galatians 5:22,23] or Greco-Roman names for them. Their explanation of wisdom and knowledge is very close to the traditional virtue of prudence; humanity is close to charity; courage, justice, and temperance have not changed their names; and their sixth core virtue, transcendence, is not far from hope and faith.”5
Vitz sees this move as hopeful for Christian psychology because the emphasis could be returning “to theology and philosophy” instead of toward a more secular ideal that he feels is withering on the vine along with secularism itself.
However, as Christians, we need to stay alert to so-called self-help psychologies that change often and that insist that to be happy, healthy, and spiritual we must forget the past, live in the present moment, abolish morality, or rearrange the marriage ceremony. For example, M. Scott Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, “My work with couples has led me to the stark conclusion that open marriage is the only kind of mature marriage that is healthy and not seriously destructive to the spiritual health and growth of the individual partners.”6 The truth is that self-help is itself an oxymoron because the individual who arrives at his or her real self alone, but always in conjunction with the therapist or the author of the self-help guide.
Christians understand that for 2000 years there has been a relationship between an individual’s mental outlook (worldview) and his or her belief about God, Christ, salvation, and eternal life. We believe Christian psychology has ample incentive to focus on core virtues and what it means to be a human being with a substantive center of soul, spirit, heart, mind, and consciousness—rather than on self-improvement—because of Christianity’s foundation on Scriptural principles. It is God who forgives our sins, heals our sinful human nature, and replaces our guilty consciences with the fruit of the Spirit—it is nothing that we do in our own strength. This echoes the view of Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
Rendered with permission from the book, Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews (Rev. 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.
1 President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association, Julia Annas (University of Arizona) gave an address entitled, “Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing.” She notes that the Virtues Project (www.virtuesproject.com) lists fifty-two virtues that have been found to be “character traits respected in seven world spiritual traditions,” all of which are found in the Bible. See Proceedings & Addresses of The American Philo¬sophical Association, Volume 78:2, November 2004. See also, Ibid., A47-48.
2 Ibid., A48.
3 Paul C. Vitz, “Psychology in Recovery,” First Things (March 2005): 19.
5 Ibid., 20.
6 Stewart Justman, Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2005), 151. Fool’s Paradise is a serious study of the self-help psychologies presently on the market such as M. Scott Peck, Phil McGraw, Charles Reich, Sidney Simon, Thomas Harris, John Gray, Marilyn Ferguson, Stephen Covey, and Theodore Rubin.
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