Psychology and Theology: Part 2

Last time I spoke about two problems which cause tension between the disciplines of Theology and Psychology. We spoke firstly about the subjective nature of Psychological claims and the objective nature of theological claims. We then briefly looked at the second issue with Psychologists focus on immediate reality and practice, while theologians tend to focus on objective reality. Today I want to highlight the third tension between Theology and Psychology.

It could best be called disciplinary asymmetry. This is a covert and divisive problem at the very heart of relating psychology and theology. Put simply, Theology and Psychology do not neatly align in their concern or proportion.

  1. Asymmetry of disciplinary concern

Think about it like this, Theologians spend roughly 10% of their time considering anthropology out of all the fields that concern them. Psychologists have one field; they spend 100% of their time studying human beings. What this means is that there are simply not enough verses in the Bible to speak meaningfully into every single situation in Psychology. That is not to say that the Bible does not speak into deep conversations, but rather that the Bible and Theology does not spend enough time teasing out the mechanics of human personality and experience to supply a dogmatic answer to a psychological question.

For example, Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” That statement only goes so far in conversation with a quarter of a million peer reviewed studies in psychology every year. Even if you include other topics in theology to increase the percentage, say maybe including the topics of Christian living and progressive sanctification, to broaden the spoke that speaks to anthropology, but even then the asymmetry is still stark. There is just significantly less Scripture speaking to issues that Psychology speaks to.

2. Asymmetry of Disciplinary proportions

This is actually the main issue. Let’s argue that Theology spends 25% of its content addressing concerns of psychology, even then what we gain in the overlap is lost along the lines of proportionality.

The largest sub-disciplines in psychology is the study of behaviour and cognition: how people act and why; how people think and why. We might think the Bible speaks at length to these issues, but it doesn’t do so in the way that psychology does. The Bible makes ultimate grand objective claims about how humans work because God chose to speak exactly about what he wanted to speak about, that’s how revelation works. The Bible makes metaphysical, ultimate, ontological claims, which while they are true, they are far from human experience. It does speak to human experience like the psalms, but Psalms are not there for us to conform ourselves to David’s psychology, his prayers are opportunities for us to join him in the greater themes of the spiritual life. It’s a hermeneutical mistake to think that what scripture commends to us as worthy of our practise is not that David or a protagonist themselves are template for our psychology (when God shows us their psychology). That is not in the text, there is no license for it, and it’s just as assumption that people make.

The Bible makes claims about how human beings work and even though they are true, psychology describes more proximate causes and mechanism for human behaviour and cognition. Go read an article in the journal of experimental psychology and forensic neuroscience and cognition and you will see a level of detail and proximity to human experience that just doesn’t exist in the Bible.

For example, additions, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “no temptation….” That is an ultimate theological description of one aspect of addition. Psychology has found there is a very strong correlation between childhood abuse trauma and addiction, and the Bible doesn’t speak directly to the proximate mechanism of that correlation. So a theologian could give a theological account of that correlation through the lens of Scripture, but the theologian would need to  do exegetical gymnastics to claim that the Bible actually explains the proximate mechanism and gives a sufficient account of it. Not saying that the Bible doesn’t  say anything true or relevant to the addictions of adults who were abused as children, but whatever meagre collection of Bible verses speak directly and straightforwardly to this issues, whatever they may be, is far out  of proportion to the understanding of this phenomenon that we can acquire from the discipline of psychology which  offers 1000s of volumes  of journal articles unpacking every angle of this phenomenon, from the cause to the remedy. This assertion disproves no truly Christian claim, steals not anthropological real estate from the theologian.

In summary for this one problem, relating these two disciplines is difficult because of their disciplinary asymmetry. The concern of respective projects and source material and also in proportion to each other’s topics, which impedes the straight forwardness of the task of relating these two disciplines.

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