By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.T.S.
IN PART ONE OF THIS SERIES we discussed the advent of social science, whose practitioners slowly changed the face of mental health counseling. Psychiatry stood as the primary specialty for treating psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. Psychiatrists typically do not engage in meaningful long-term clinical dialog. Instead, they prescribe psychotropic medications. Today, social workers, psychologists, and their ancillary workers, provide the majority of “talk therapy.” Notwithstanding the above, it was psychiatrists who were tasked with compiling data and establish a universal “code” for quantification, research, and billing purposes. Part Two showed the impact of the Enlightenment on virtually all aspects of life, characterized by skepticism toward religious dogma and other forms of traditional authority. Secularism and relativism began to creep into the discussion. Isaiah Berlin established an alternative movement in the late 1800s which he labeled Counter-Enlightenment. He attempted to challenge rationalism, universalism, and empiricism, objecting to these and other isms, saying they identify man as “mere machine” whose quest for reality is drastically limited to empirical interaction with nature.
Early practitioners thought experimental psychology was the best tool for getting at the basics of consciousness, but they believed “laboratory psychiatry” was useless for grasping the aspect of higher cognitive function. Wilhelm Wundt proposed that “sensations” (which occur when a sense organ is stimulated and impulses reach the brain) are are always accompanied by feelings. Arguably, attempting to isolate, grasp, understand, and write about “feelings” has always been a difficult task. Clinics and laboratories for the study of cognition flourished throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, psychology is a discipline rich in historical and philosophical roots. Many evangelical and fundamental pastors have disparaging thoughts regarding psychiatric and psychological treatment modalities. Although many people keep “faith” carefully segregated from the rest of their lives, I believe it is possible to establish and maintain productive links between psychology and Christian theology.
It helps to remember that “worldview” is a fundamental orientation of the heart, which is laid bare by our words and actions. Scripture notes that our heart is the central defining element of us as a person. Jesus said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45, NRSV). What we hide in our hearts, what we have sown in its soil, eventually comes to the surface. Essentially, worldview provides a home for our philosophy on life. In its simplistic definition, worldview is a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world. We all have a worldview—the window through which we view the world, framed by the assumptions and beliefs that impact what what we experience on a daily basis. Without a doubt, our worldview shapes our philosophy of life.
“One of the most influential myths of the modern period has been the belief that it is impossible to locate and occupy a non-ideological vantage point, from which reality may be surveyed and interpreted. The social sciences have been among the chief and most strident claimants to such space, arguing that they offer a neutral and objective reading of reality; in which the ultimate spurious truth claims of religious groupings may be deflated and deconstructed in terms of unacknowledged, yet ultimately determinative, social factors” (2).
A Kaleidoscope of Views
Worldview brings with it many implications, which can admittedly muddy the waters regarding integration of psychology and Christian theology. When modernism failed to provide a beneficial philosophy of life in the face of war, poverty, famine, sickness, and unresolved racial tension, postmodernism attempted to replace knowledge with opinion or conviction. However, postmodernism had no advice on how to determine whether any given conviction is in some way better or more accurate than another. Again, our families, religious beliefs, academic experience, and media (especially social media) continue to influence us in ways of which we are unaware. It seems the key to unlocking our assumptions is having the humility and willingness to see them for what they are: that which we accept as true or as certain to happen, without proof. By definition, this “pursuit” of truth is a matter of epistemology (the theory of knowledge, especially how it is obtained). As we move forward in this series, we will explore how sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology are crucial to integrating treatment modalities and Christian theology.
Saint Anselm of Canterbury said, “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I believe—that unless I believe, I should not understand.” It was thought that we could essentially become our own authority, knowing with absolute certainty (as God) the definition of right and wrong; in other words, the knowledge of good and evil. This is the very essence of our First Parents’ disobedience in the Garden of Eden (see Gen. 3:1-5). A hallmark of modernism is belief in the human capacity to function as an independent authority. This orientation gave rise to another aspect of modernism: the myth of progress. Man became convinced that we can know things with God-like certainty (3). The brash disobedience of Adam and Eve caused a cosmic ripple effect for all of mankind. This “fallout” has shown itself in countless vain philosophies, which prove how we all thirst for what went wrong, whose fault it is, and how to fix it.
The philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard plays an important role in our quest to establish a viable integration of psychology and Christian theology. His “existentialism” stresses meaning, accompanied by freedom of choice and the uniqueness of each individual. He likened a proper relationship with God to a love affair, saying, “It is at once painful and happy, passionate but unfulfilled, lived in time yet infinite”(Hubben, 1952, p. 24). Kierkegaard initially rejected Christianity while in college, but changed his mind some time later. However, the Christianity he accepted was well outside the walls of the institutional church. He had no patience for dogma. The ultimate state of being for Kierkegaard was arrived at when we decide to embrace God and take His existence on faith, without needing a logical, rational, or scientific explanation of why or how one makes such choice. He was a proponent of the “leap of faith” approach to religion: the moment Abraham lifted the knife to kill his son on Mount Moriah captures what he meant by religious faith. He advised reading the Bible as we would read a love letter, letting the words touch us personally and emotionally.
These excursions into philosophy are meant to help us discover the roots of psychology. Friedrich Nietzsche considered himself a psychologist. His approach was comparable to Sigmund Freud. In fact, Freudian and Nietzschian psychology shared the goal of helping their patients gain control of their powerful, irrational impulses in order to live more creative and healthy lives. Nietzsche identified urges as das es, which is Latin for the id. He often discussed repression (a later cornerstone of Freudian psychoanalysis). For Nietzsche, internalizing the external standards of others was problematic. Likely, he saw this as counter to being authentic. So-called religious “followers” in his eyes become slaves to the one they follow. I will admit that this is an acceptable tenet of Christianity (see Rom. 6:20-22), but the focus is more on “dedicated follower” than slave. Nietzsche’s remark, “God is dead,” has been misunderstood and misused for generations. Actually, he believed God was dead because “we have killed him.” By we, he meant the philosophers and scientists of his day who stubbornly held on to empiricism, giving no credence to the metaphysical or spiritual realm. This left mankind with nowhere to turn for answers to the four great questions: (1) Where did we come from? (2) What is the meaning of life? (3) What is the basis for morality (right vs. wrong), and (4) Where do we go when we die? With the so-called death of God came the death of His shadow (metaphysics) as well.
This seems to leave mankind in a cosmic tabula rasa devoid of transcendental or spiritual forces to guide us. Yet, amazingly, Nietzsche said conviction is “belief in the possession of absolute truth on any matter of knowledge” (4). But it was his opinion that rationalistic philosophy, science, and the organized church discourage us from having a deep, personal relationship with God. Logic and facts have nothing to do with such a relationship, which must be based on faith alone. In this manner, Nietzsche believed we killed God, at least philosophically. Ultimately, when we accept God on faith, God becomes (for us and our encounter with Him) a living, emotional reality in our subjective experience. Although I believe in the ontological existence of God, I believe it is critical we understand that a “speaking God” needs a “hearing church.” It is our individual faith that quickens our spirit and allows us to experience God.
The Fork in the Road
David Entwistle notes that every branch of learning provides a unique view of God’s world and allows glimpses of His mystery. For the evangelical, fundamental Christian, psychology must be infused with a theological belief about our place in God’s world. Christianity is much more than theology; it is predicated upon a personal relationship with Christ as Lord, as rabbi, as redeemer. Of course, Christianity holds very specific beliefs as to the cause of human suffering. Admittedly, this causes Christian counselors to come to the table with certain assumptions. Pastors and church elders shepherd church members toward a maturity in Christ, as they should. Elders tend the flock in such a way that believers develop from spiritual infancy to full-grown Christ-likeness. Paul wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:2-3a, ESV). The word “milk” (Gr. gala) in the above Scripture passage means the basic, elemental teachings of Christianity first learned by new believers; the word “meat” (Gr. broma) denotes a deeper, more complete understanding and application of God’s Word.
What does reason have to do with faith? What does the intellectual have to do with the spiritual? What does philosophy have to do with Christianity? Tertullian summed up these questions when he asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?”(5). Entwhistle noted “individuals who espouse a sacred/secular split in an attempt to preserve theological supremacy actually minimize the scope of God’s sovereignty” (6). This makes perfect sense. We cannot bifurcate God from His creation, or from our everyday existence. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to encounter fundamentalist or evangelical pastors and teachers who claim that Christians must reject in total the “false doctrine” of psychology, and run from all manner of secularism in order to find health and healing in Christ. It is critical to understand the difference between “secular” life issues and secularism. As human beings, we need to avoid an “ivory tower” existence. We cannot deny non-religious, “lay,” or temporal orientations while we remain in an earthly body. Secularism is a worldview that is hostile to Christian theology. Entwhistle helps put this matter into perspective: “To think secularly is to think within a frame of reference bounded by the limits of our life on earth… to think Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God” (7) (italics mine).
In Part Four I will show how counseling provided to Christian believers in crisis by Christian practitioners and clergy must include discipling; and inversely, Christian discipling must include counseling. Further, I will introduce the concept that extremism regarding this continuum is destructive. So-called secular combatants see religion as incompatible with mental health and intellectual discourse. Christian combatants see psychology as an enemy which is opposed by sound doctrine, and they see the use of psychotherapy (and psychotropic medication) as incompatible with, if not unnecessary for, those who live victorious Christian lives. I will provide insight on the theory of “nouthetic counseling” (Gr. noutheteo, “to admonish”), which is a form of evangelical Protestant pastoral counseling based solely upon the Bible and focused on Christ. It repudiates mainstream psychology and psychiatry as humanistic, fundamentally opposed to Christianity, and radically secular.
I will present the case of Nally vs. John MacArthur and Grace Community Church. The case presents a variety of issues concerning a lawsuit for wrongful death by the parents of a suicide victim against Grace Community Church’s pastoral counselors. On April 1, 1979, 24-year-old Kenneth Nally committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. His parents filed a wrongful death action against Grace Community Church of the Valley, a Protestant Christian congregation located in Sun Valley, California, and four Church pastors, MacArthur, Thomson, Cory and Rea, alleging “clergyman malpractice,” specifically negligence and outrageous conduct in failing to prevent Nally’s suicide. A member of the Church since 1974, Nally participated in pastoral counseling at GCC prior to his death. The pastors vehemently discouraged Nally from receiving psychological or psychiatric care (despite a prior attempt at taking his own life by intentional drug overdose), failing to meet a standard of care for pastors, failure to secure proper psychological counseling training, and failure to disclose Nally’s true psychiatric condition to his treating psychiatrist and his parents.
The case of Nally vs. Grace Community Church puts at our feet the issue of integrating Christian theology and psychology. Pastors at GCC told Nally that his attempted suicide by overdose was a sign that God was punishing him. MacArthur and his pastoral staff told Nally his problems were rooted in sin, and that his mental illness could be properly treated by relying solely on biblical principles. The irony is not lost on me that psychology literally means “the study of the soul.” I will present the argument that psychiatric care must never be dogmatically withheld from a church member who is contemplating, or who has attempted, suicide.
Footnotes and References
(1) James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 20.
(2) Alister E. McGrath, A Scientific Theory: Nature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009), 17.
(3) David N. Entwistle, Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd. ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books), 2015.
(4) Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (Germany: 1878).
(5) Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 7 (New York, NY: London Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1914), 45.
(6) Entwhistle, Ibid., fn3, 8.
(7) Ibid., 9.