Through Eyes of Faith – 3

David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves tackle the question, Should there be a Christian psychology? in the next chapter from Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith. (The timing is interesting; I just posted below a conference notice for the Society for Christian Psychology, and that organization in particular answers the question with a resounding “Yes.”)

The authors seem to concede that to the extent that psychology is focused on human nature, then a Christian psychology is warranted. However, since psychology is “much more modest and restricted” in its aims and scope, the authors suggest that it is no more necessary to speak of a Christian psychology than to speak of “Christian physics or a Christian chemistry” [p. 12]. In their words: “Psychology is morally and ethically neutral” [p. 12].

What is interesting to me is that the authors then go on to acknowledge the “hidden values and assumptions” in any scientific discipline, including psychology. They acknowledge the reality and impact of worldviews and note that psychologists are “among the most irreligious academics” in America [p. 13]. It makes one wonder where the gaps may be for academics developing an applied psychology that is relevant to an American public that has retained its regard for religion and spirituality.

In any case, Myers and Jeeves discuss two answers to the central question of a Christian psychology. No, there should not be, and Yes, there should be. According to the authors, those who answer “No” place more emphasis on being “faithful to reality” through the study of nature [p. 15]. Myers and Jeeves see themselves as in this group. Those who answer “Yes” place greater emphasis on the role of “prior beliefs and prejudices” [p. 17] on everything that is studied in psychology. (I should note that this group is given very limited space in this chapter; one paragraph or 5 sentences by my count.)

For reflection: How would others answer this question? Should there by a Christian psychology?

SCP Conference

The Society for Christian Psychology annual conference is being held September 18-20 just outside of Chicago. The organization was launched a few years ago and was founded by Eric L. Johnson, PhD, author of the weighty book, Foundations for Soul Care. (I’m told the editors just about had a coronary when they received the final manuscript, which came in at 716 pages.) I had a chance to speak last year at the SCP conference in Nashville and enjoyed interacting with folks there. There are several good speakers slated to speak, including Robert C. Roberts (Baylor), author of Taking the Word to Heart and co-editor of Limning the Psyche, from which this blog gets its name.

Through Eyes of Faith – 2

The second chapter from Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith by David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves is titled “Levels of Explanation.” The essential argument here is that there are many “levels” or “modes” of explanation that simply reflect different “levels of analysis.” The example the supply is that of memory:

neuropsycholgists study the neural networks that store information and the function of particular brain regions for particular kinds of memory. Cognitive psychologists study memory in nonphysical terms, as a partly automatic and partly effortful process of encoding, storing, and retrieving informatoin. Social psychologists study the effects of our moods and social experiences upon our recall. [p. 7]

No one level sufficiently explains all of what we can know about memory or whatever topic we are studying in psychology. Myers and Jeeves share a “partial hierarchy of disciplines” (see Figure 2 on p. 10) that ranges from physics (elemental explanation) to theology (integrative explanation). I appreciate what they say here: “For convenience, we necessarily view it is multilayered, but it is actually a seamless unity” [p. 10]. There is something artificial about separating out explanations by discipline if one affirms the unity of truth. However, it can be helpful to do so if we recognize the limits of the discipline we use to discuss a topic.

Their conclusion? “Different levels of explanation can be complementary” [p. 11]. They acknowledge, too, that the fact that there can be complementarity “does not mean there is never conflict or that any unsupported idea is to be welcomed as truth.”

Also, as was mentioned above, this levels of explanation approach reminds us to be humble about what psychology can do: it can provide a psychological account of a particular topic, but that account is neither the final word nor the most authoritative account of that topic. 

Finally, we are beginning to hint at a challenge we will want to consider. What makes a meaningful dialogue between theology (or Christianity?) and psychology so difficult may be tied to the question of how one determines the relative weight one gives to one ‘level’ or another if one is committed to a levels of explanation approach.

Off Topic: Pizza Bread

There has a been a lot of anticipation building up to today’s lunch “event.” It involved a trip to a local bakery for Pizza Bread – a favorite of a student in our doctoral program. (Please note that the image here is a very close approximation of what I had, but it is not the actual bread.) Let’s get down to it: it was amazing, and this was the case even without the much heralded dipping sauce. My host felt bad about the missing sauce, but not having it today provides a reason to go back even sooner.  

You get in on the ground floor with pepperoni. That’s the staple. That’s the building block of Pizza Bread. That’s what I had for my first visit. Then you can add green peppers, onion, mushroom, sausage, and so on. It is very reasonably priced. Filling. Tasty. ‘Nuf said.

Through Eyes of Faith – 1

This year I am coordinating a seminar on the integration of faith and learning for new faculty. One of the two books we are reviewing is the well-known book by David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves, Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith. This is the revised and updated version that was published by HarperCollins in 2003.

The first chapter is titled “Lessons from the Past: Science and the Christian Faith.” It closes with “Two things [that] are clear”:

First, the birth of science in the seventtenth century was significantly and profoundly influenced by theological concerns. Second, there is an ever-present danger of seeking to use the history of science selectively, so that it is hijacked for apologetic purposes. [pp. 4-5]

The first concern is important to the extent that people forget the profound effect of Christianity on ‘the birth of science’ and the place of a Christian worldview on the development of science. Concerning the second summary concern, the authors indicate that our reliance upon God (and our “allegiance to God”) frees us to investigate human nature. This liberates the Christian from “old superstitious bonds” and “idolatry.” As they state:

Our liberation implies also a new obedience by which we must be willing to submit all our prejudices and all our prior criteria of reasonableness to the test of divine revelation, including the reality of the universe around us. [p. 5]

Pub Club


The Pub Club met today. Gary Collins was back in town for our faculty retreat, and he brought us up to date on trends in publishing. He’s published something like 50+ books, so this was definitely familiar territory for him. But a lot has changed since he first got into writing books, and he was able to share with us many of the changes he’s come across and what he’s learned from extensive discussions with editors. We also had a panel discussion that addressed traditional approaches to publishing and changes in the field that will impact academia. It was amazing to hear about the changes on the horizon. For example, it was interesting to learn how many traditional publishers are recreating themselves as places that distribute ideas and messages rather than books as such, and they do so in using increasingly diverse avenues of communication and distribution (e.g., multimedia resources, ‘chunking’ books, ‘virtual’ bookstores, etc.).

In any case, the Pub Club extended the discussion into specific works that each of us is doing. One colleagues discussed an edited book of narratives of Christian psychologists and events that have shaped their lives and professional identities. Another colleague is working on a proposal for a book on marriage. I discussed the book project I am working on with Bill Hathaway titled Integration of Psychology and Christianity.

Biblical Literalism

Last year A. J. Jacobs wrote a book on his attempt to live biblically for a year. By this he means trying to identify as many rules in the Bible as possible and then obey those rules. The inspiration for the book apparently came from a relative, Uncle Gil, who did this to a certain extent in his own spiritual journey. On his web site, Jacobs notes several dimensions of the year that are discussed in the book:

-An exploration of some of the Bible’s startlingly relevant rules. I tried not to covet, gossip, or lie for a year. I’m a journalist in New York. This was not easy.

-An investigation of the rules that baffle the 21st century brain. How to justify the laws about stoning homosexuals? Or smashing idols? Or sacrificing oxen? And how do you follow those in modern-day Manhattan?

-A look at various fascinating religious groups. I embedded myself among several groups that take the Bible literally in their own way, from creationists to snake handlers, Hasidim to the Amish.

-A critique of fundamentalism. I became the ultra-fundamentalist. I found that fundamentalists may claim to take the Bible literally, but they actually just pick and choose certain rules to follow. By taking fundamentalism extreme, I found that literalism is not the best way to interpret the Bible.

-A spiritual journey. As an agnostic, I’d never seriously explored such things as sacredness and revelation.

-A memoir of my family’s eccentric religious history, including my ex-uncle Gil, who has been, among other things, a Hindu cult leader, an evangelical Christian and an Orthodox Jew.

I read this book over vacation at the recommendation of a good friend who found it to be hilarious. It is a funny read. You will find yourself laughing out loud at some points, and it is important to remember that it is categorized in the Humor section, so it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

It was interesting to read how people responded to Jacobs when he announced he was going to do the project. For example, friends and coworkers thought he would “go native” (i.e., get religion). A family member told him he couldn’t just follow the law literally, but that he had to draw upon the interpretation of those who went before. In Judaism, that would entail reading resources like the Talmud. Several Christians pointed out that the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross meant many of the rules he was going to follow did not need to be followed. For those who follow methodology, this would be the greatest disappointment: Jacobs followed his model with the Old Testment for the first 9 months but then couldn’t bring himself to follow his model in terms of the New Testament for the last 3 months (attempt to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior). Here’s what he says about it:

For the bona fide literal New Testament experience, I should accept Jesus as Lord. But I just can’t do it. I’ve read the New Testament several times, and although I think of Jesus as a great man, I don’t come away from the experience accepting him as savior…. [p. 255]

What he did with God was assume God existed until he grew to a sense of the sacred, a sense of the divine. He refers to this as his “cognitive-dissonance strategy.” He thought about it with Jesus:

If I act like Jesus is God, eventually maybe I will start to believe that Jesus is God. That’s been my tactic with the God of the Hebrew Bible, and it’s actually started to work. But there’s a difference. When I do it with the Hebre God, I feel like I’m trying on my forefathers’ robes and sandles. There’s a family connection. Dongin it with Jesus would feel uncomfortable. I’ve come to value my heritage enough that it’s feel disloyal to convert. [p. 256]

So the book isn’t just humorous. Jacobs does end up struggling with some decisions, and he talks about his own growth in terms of valuing the sacred. This is particularly true in relation to God and to his son, and there are several poignant moments in that regard.

Throughout the book, though, one thing stood out to me: Jacobs interviewed representatives of Judaism and Christianity like he was going to a buffet that had equal amounts of fish, beef, and pasta. This approach was funny because he seemed to be able to find people who actually practiced some of the ritual laws or otherwise extraordianary behaviors mentioned in Scripture (e.g., snake handling). Jacobs seemed to realize this at times, like when he interviewed Ralph Blair, a self-identified gay evangelical Christian; Jacobs seemed to see that as an implausible combination that stretches the plain reading of Scripture. In any case, this approach gives the reader the impression that the rules, laws, or behaviors are equally likely to be followed or practiced within that religion without offering the reader a sense for the core or central elements of that faith.

This approach of talking to “outliers,” if you will, contributed significantly to the author’s conclusions: that everyone is guilty of practicing “cafeteria religion” [p. 328], by which he means everyone is inconsistent because everyone picks and chooses among Bible verses they follow. I’m not sure how seriously to take Jacobs on this point, but I think he is serious about it. It’s an intuitively attractive conclusion to draw, but it is one that is hard to advance without any substantive discussion of hermeneutics. He mentions the Talmud and implies some awareness of Talmudical hermeneutics.

As a Christian, however, I am more interested in how Christians have developed biblical hermeneutics specifically for the purpose of learning to interpret Scripture accurately and consistently. Perhaps a more accurate conclusion is that everyone practices biblical hermeneutics rather than everyone picks and chooses. But this discussion is probably too much to ask of a book in the Humor section. In the end, I recommend the book for it’s humor regarding biblical literalism but not for it’s attempt to draw meaningful conclusions about biblical literalism.