A Call for More Dialogue between Christianity & Psychology

dialogue.jpgThe online edition of Science & Theology News archives contained a very timely and relevant “big picture” of the vigorous dialogue between theology and science. Even though it was written in 2001, it reads as though it was published yesterday. Dr Fraser Watts (see link: Psychology and Christianity Project – Cambridge) warns against reductionistic tendencies of ANY “nothing but” construct (biological, social or cognitive), but calls for a more robust, mutually enhancing interaction of ideas. How refreshing it is to hear a seasoned psychologist express humility about his own field of study:

“Psychology is still manifestly at an early stage of development, which makes it inappropriate for it to dictate too strongly what is and is not theologically plausible.”

I agree with Dr. Watts, that psychology can be used to elucidate the human side of theological issues. This does not imply subordination of either field to the other. Neither does it necessarily lead to a reductionist path, as Watts points out. I was sharing what I think is an example of this with my wife on the way home from the cafeteria this evening. When I ponder the essence of John’s concept of “abiding” (Cf John 15), I never feel like I’ve got it. But I can get closer when I look at Mary Ainsworth’s characteristics of “secure attachment” and apply them to my attachment to God. I think “abiding in Christ” sheds light on “secure attachment” as well as the other way around.

Dr. Watt’s commentary is well worth reading.

Fraser Watts on Psychology and Religion (January 1, 2001)

Though the dialogue between theology and science is currently a vigorous area, there are relatively few books on the dialogue with psychological science. Coming to the dialogue between theology and science from a background in psychological research, including 12 years in the U.K. Medical Research Council, it is naturally the field to which I have been drawn. I will try to set out here the key issues about psychology that are raised in the context of the dialogue with theology.

The psychological sciences embrace a variety of different approaches to the human person, but the three that are most important are biological, social, and cognitive psychology.

Within biological psychology, evolutionary biology and brain science are both currently in the ascendancy. They are inclined to be reductionistic, but I believe they do not need to be so. A moderate course needs to be steered that recognizes the interesting and far-reaching implications of these areas of science but resists what Dennett has called “greedy” reductionism. Contemporary theology often seems wary of acknowledging the biological aspects of human nature but there is no good theological justification for that. From a Judeo-Christian point of view, human beings are a psychosomatic unity, and their bodies are part of God’s creation.

At first glance, social psychology seems a more theologically congenial area of the subject, as theological views of personhood often place a strong emphasis on relationality. However, social approaches can also be reductionistic, especially in strong versions of social constructionism. I suggest that strong claims that religious categories are “nothing but” social constructs are as inappropriate as strong biological reductionism. Another key issue is how radically a social view of human nature to take. The current tendency is to emphasis the influence of society on the individual, but I suggest that there is a to-and-fro of influence between the two that makes strong claims for the primacy of either inappropriate.

In recent decades, cognition has provided a general integrative framework for psychology, and cognitive psychology has been a dominant approach to the subject. It does not necessarily assume that people are entirely rational. Indeed, the cognitive approach to emotion, a line of scientific work with which I have been closely associated, emphasizes the potential breadth of cognitive psychology. The cognitive approach is much influenced by the computer modeling of human nature, which has introduced a new theoretical rigor into psychology. The theological evaluation of “artificial intelligence” is thus a key task. I would suggest that computer modeling, rather than necessarily being reductionist, can provide a theoretical language that could emphasize the aspects of human nature that are theologically important.

In each of these three areas there are two key concerns. One is how far scientific research is committed to a theologically uncongenial form of reductionism, an issue that is better approached in terms of where to draw the line between strong and weak forms of reductionism than simply in terms of the pros and cons of reductionism. The other is the problem of how different approaches to the human person (from the biological to the social) can best be integrated, both in psychology and theology. The two disciplines can perhaps learn from one another in their attempts to tackle this recalcitrant problem.

There are also important issues about the limits of psychological explanation. The key question is how far the psychological sciences can explain those areas of psychological functioning that are especially characteristic of human beings. Three critical topics are consciousness, morality, and religion. I suggest that it is valuable to consider them in parallel, as the issues raised are similar. Consciousness is currently the focus of a vigorous and interesting debate about the scope of neuroscience; the limits of evolutionary explanation are best focused in the philosophical debate about how far evolution can explain ethics; and there is clearly considerable theological interest in how far it is possible to give a scientific explanation of religion. Unfortunately, the debate about the explanation of religion is often approached in a less sophisticated way than the other two and benefits from being considered in a broader context.

Psychological research involves an implicit metaphysics of the human person, and the dialogue between theology and science is bound to focus more on the broad views of the human person found in psychology than on detailed research findings. Though it is always scientifically fruitful to press a restricted view of the human person as far as it will go, I suggest that there are inexorable pressures in the human sciences towards an expanded one. Psychology is still manifestly at an early stage of development, which makes it inappropriate for it to dictate too strongly what is and is not theologically plausible. Improved dialogue between theology and the psychological sciences might lead to proposals for an enlarged scientific approach to the human person.

Of course, some use has already been made of psychology as a dialogue partner for theology. Tillich remains the most important systematic theologian to have made a sustained use of psychology though he used only a narrow range of psychology, and perhaps failed to keep the disciplines of theology and psychology sufficiently distinct. Among psychologists, W. W. Meissner and Paul Pruyser have probably been most fruitful in their dialogue with theology, though, again, they have used only a narrow psychological approach. The most rigorous and helpful general view of the relation between theology and psychology to have been formulated recently is the “Chalcedonian” pattern advocated by Hunsinger that relates the two disciplines without conflating them and adopts a hierarchical view of their relationship.

Historically, the contemporary scientific approach to psychology was born out of the development of secular thought in the 19th century. That does not mean that it is necessarily antagonistic to theology, though there may be points at which it will wish to critique specific assumptions of scientific psychology. Prior to that, Christian psychology, often conceived as a branch of natural theology, reached a considerable level of sophistication in the 19th century but was largely abandoned under the impact of growing secularism. It remains a good dialogue partner for contemporary scientific psychology and deserves more attention than it receives.

The dialogue between theology and psychology is also particularly important theologically because it can tackle issues about the nature and interpretation of religious life. The experiential approach to Christian doctrine has, of course, long been influential. Criticisms often focus on the implicit claim that theology an be reduced to a matter of experience. However, it is possible to use psychology to elucidate the human side of theological issues without taking a reductionist path. It may prove one of the most fruitful things to come out of the dialogue between theology and science.

Dr. Fraser Watts is the Starbridge Lecturer on theology and natural science at the University of Cambridge, and fellow and director of studies in theology at Queens’ College. A graduate of the University of Oxford where he studied psychology and philosophy, he then trained as a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry in the University of London. He is the past head of the department of clinical psychology at King’s College Hospital and senior scientist at the Medical Research Council’s Applied Psychology Unit at Cambridge. His scientific books include Cognitive Psychology and Emotional Disorders with Mark Williams, Andrew Mathews and Colin MacLeod. He is past president of the British Psychological Society. Ordained in the Church of England 1990 after studying at Westcott House and the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge, he is now Vicar-Chaplain of St Edward King and Martyr, Cambridge. In 1994, he took up the Starbridge Lectureship in the Faculty of Divinity. His research has focused particularly on psychology. He is director of the psychology and Christianity project in the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies.


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