Coming to Peace with Psychology 4

Worthington’s Relational Model of Integration

**In case you are tempted to snooze through this long post or get bored by the endless attempt to construct a relationship between psychology and christian faith, skip to the last paragraph!**

In the conceptual world of integrating psychology and Christianity, there are four common depictions: Christian faith trumps psychology, psychological science trumps Christian faith, dialogical model, and parallel but separate levels of explanation. In Coming to Peace with Psychology (IVP, 2010), we have seen in the previous two posts that Everett Worthington wants to argue that psychological science (a) has something to offer beyond theory, (b) can teach us something about ourselves and God that Scripture does  not reveal, and (c) can interact with, influence, and be influenced by Christian faith. In sum, he argues for a relational, interactive levels of explanation view of integration.

Beginning in chapter six, he lays out a relational model, akin to a deepening love relationship,

…the fields of Christian theology and psychological science will become more committed to each other to the degree that we are satisfied with the union, invest in the union and don’t play around with alternatives (such as a conflict model). I believe that, in fact, psychological science and Christian theology are already married. In some ways it is like an arranged marriage. Because God reveals the divine character through both special and general revelations, the two disciplines are joined together. The question we face is, how committed will each discipline be to this arranged marriage? (p. 101)

In chapter seven and eight, Dr. Worthington digs deeper into the proposed relationship partners (psychological science and theology) and illustrates each domain’s way of collecting “data” and subsequent conflicts between the two. Psychological science deals in the realm of material.

Scientists can believe in many nonmaterial causes within reality but simply exclude them from the “map” of a particular science. They do so because, by convention, that science aims to explain materialistic relationships among variables. By analogy, an aerial photograph will not reveal the presence of an underground river…even though the photographer knows [it exists] (p. 107).

This material (data) is best collected using observational, correlational, and experimental methods. He acknowledges (ever so briefly) limits to these kinds of studies, especially alluding to the biases inherent in psychological hypotheses. Moving on, he reviews the nature of theology, its subsets (biblical, exegetical, historical, etc.), and methods reading its “data.” Finally, he reviews the relationship between the two. “At their root there is no conflict between God’s truths as revealed in Scripture and nature” (p. 115). However, both disciplines suffer from human error (e.g., errors in scientific conclusions, errors in translating or interpreting Scripture) and so he does not want to prioritize theology over psychology (the primary reason for this book—to correct what he sees as a mistake within some in Christian psychology).

What is the real problem between psychology and theology? In chapter eight, Dr. Worthington points out three problems that lead to unnecessary perception of conflict between the two disciplines:

  • trying to integrate clinical psychology and theology (rather than psychological science)
  • using a filter approach that presupposes a higher authority given to theology
  • denial that one can learn about God through nature by some Christian thinkers

While not devaluing clinical psychology, Dr. Worthington does not believe it to be “apt relational partner” to theology (though maybe more helpful to practical theology). Why? He lists a couple of reasons: clinical psychology is anecdotal, experiential and therefore not objective; clinicians may be more prone to having less theological training while pastoral counselors may have less than adequate knowledge of empirically supported treatments; therapists view people through their models rather than seek to construct data informed models.

Next he goes after Eric Johnson for his views on Scripture. Worthington wants to take Johnson to task for failing (his perception) to admit the weaknesses within human activities of theology and the interpretation of Scripture. While Johnson wants to argue for the uniqueness of biblical authority in Christian psychology, Worthington wants to argue for the ability (albeit limited) of general revelation to reveal surprising information about the nature of persons—even to those who reject Christian faith. I suspect that both agree with the other but see an imbalance (not enough credit given to Scripture re: human nature vs. too much credit given to Scriptural interpretation and not enough acknowledgment of disagreement amongst Christians).

Finally, Worthington concludes this chapter by summarizing his view of the impact of sin on science. His main point is that he is opposed to a Dutch Reformed emphasis on the noetic effects of sin. He quotes passages that state that nature communicates about God and the humans are therefore responsible for knowing God. He does not believe, however, that nature is sufficient in telling us about God and so we need Special Revelation for salvation. In the end, he wants mutual respect and humility to reign between experts of each domain in order to promote harmonious dialogue and learning.

A Challenge

In the remainder of the book Dr. Worthington intends to illustrate what psychological science has to offer the “marriage” between the two. Books like this are written to try to bring balance to what is perceived to be imbalanced. Here, Worthington thinks too little credit is given to researchers’ ability to perceive human nature in ways that might reveal new things about the nature of God and humanity—things beyond Scripture. In another book, you might find more criticism of the biases of psychological research and the failure to acknowledge the impact of belief systems on data collection and analysis. Notice both sides are reacting against a perception of bias and control.

Here’s the challenge. Whether you lean toward Worthington’s arguments or those that give priority to Scripture and the Christian faith, consider where your views might be shaped by (a) experiences of being mis-represented by someone on the other side, and (b) too easy use of an obvious error on the other side (e.g., Worthington seems to brush over the problem of presuppositional biases in science or gives general revelation too much credit when Rom 1 tells us that humans deny its message well; Johnson seems to brush over numerous biblical interpretation conflicts, fails to interact deeply with current psychological research). Instead, see if you can build your view by first detailing the weaknesses (or mis-uses) of your discipline or view and then construct a proposed relationship from a positive framework that accounts for the aforementioned weaknesses rather than builds off of the mistakes of your epistemological opponent.

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Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology

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