Tag Archives: Everett Worthington

Coming to Peace with Psychology 6


After a long hiatus I return to my summary/review of Everett Worthington’s Coming to Peace with Psychology (IVP, 2010). If you are new here just search his last name in the search bar on my blog and you can quickly catch up.

Chapter 10 is the second chapter in the last section of the book (“What Psychological Science has to Offer Theology”). This chapter covers the limitations of psychological science. Up to this point he has been lauding the value of psychological science as a marriage partner with theology. In fact, the purpose of the book is to argue for such a relationship over those who he sees as being overly critical of psychological science (due mostly, in his mind, to the anecdotal nature of psychological theory).

What does he point to as the limits of his science?

  • Despite amazing advances in psychological science, counseling hasn’t changed much (hmmm, does he consider this a limit of science or is this a complaint about practitioners?)
  • Psychological science must focus on general truths and so may not be as applicable to any one person
  • Scientists are not without bias (but then he goes on to say that given the review process, truth is a lot more likely than not)
  • Science can’t reveal the eternal (but it can reveal things of eternal value)
  • Inability to precisely predict behavior
  • No ultimate “proof” (but, probability is possible)
  • Scientist biases include “heuristics” (picking answers from an “available” list), confirmation biases, etc. which reveal our human self-serving nature.
  • Emotional experiences tend to make us more certain of our perceptions and beliefs.
  • human limitations on what we can remember, understand, perceive, do.

Notice from his list that he focuses on common human limits of knowing. This is a good start but insufficient. It treats science biases in an individualistic manner. I find this ironic given that I believe he has much awareness of family systems. In fact, systems add an additional bias–group think as example number one. Funny too that he gave very few illustrations from science of these various biases. For the most part, he illustrated them from everyday life or from theology. So, we are left with a chapter that admits to some general limits on how far psychological science can take us but no clear acknowledgment of systematic biases in the world of psychological science.

Now, let me be clear. I am not one who believes that psychological science is always biased all the time. And even when it is, there can be much to be learned from it. Nor do I believe that those within biblical studies or theology are unbiased either. But, I do think we need to recognize how specifically these biases send psychological science in some wrong directions.

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Coming to Peace with Psychology 5


We turn to the last section of Everett Worthington’s Coming to Peace with Psychology (IVP, 2010) entitled, “What Psychological Science has to Offer Theology”.

Chapter nine has the goal of exploring psychological tools and what they can do. Worthington rightly points out that all sciences derive from philosophy. They are an attempt to conceptualize reality “by observing, measuring and quantifying life experiences.” (p. 149). He then summarizes Thomas Kuhn’s work on the concept of scientific revolutions–that is most of science is an effort to support existing hypotheses until the current paradigms no longer work at which point a revolution occurs in thinking. Then Worthington points out another way of looking at scientific progress–the creation (happenstance or not) of new tools results in massive new data that may change our perspective on reality.

Worthington seems to prefer this model and wants to explore the “new tool” of psychological science. In his mind psychological science is a new theological tool. Wait, you might say, how is it a theological tool? He would argue that it helps us understand humanity better thus it teaches us something about the God who created us.

Here are two of the “tools” he mentions for looking into the mind: Peripheral nervous system measures that get at subtle experiences of stress; face twitch recording that get at highly subtle psychological reactions. Both may help us understand reactions/behaviors that cannot be easily verbalized.

The remaining portion of the chapter defends the value of science in spite of its shortcomings. Yes, science is flawed, but to Worthington it is “still useful.” He wants to remind readers that science isn’t as cold and impersonal as it is often portrayed. It can teach about development of children,  about religious behavior, about human strengths, etc.

If there is a problem, says Worthington, it is that “we [scientific tool users] do not often refer back to the purposes of psychological science–to think the thoughts of God, to know the Creator by learning about the creation.” (p. 166)

I think it is helpful to remember that tools like these do produce data–data worth looking at and learning from. However, it appears we don’t do well with our approach to this data. Either we are too enamored with its glittering images as if it were spoken from the mouth of God or we reject it because it must be biased and a waste of time. Careful critical evaluation of self and data are necessary. What are our blind spots? Are we too enamored with data? Or do we think we already know all we need to know?

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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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