> When I consider your heavens and the work of your fingers,
The moon ad the stars, which you have set in place,
What is man that you are mindful of him
The son of man, that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
And crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
You put everything under his feet:
All flocks and herds, and beasts of the field,
The birds of the air and the fish of the sea
All that swim the paths of the sea.
This seemed as good a place to start an essay on the integration of theology and psychology as any.
Scripture tells us that Man was made to fill a very special role in creation. Created in the very image of God, he was intended to superintend (“have dominion” Gen. 1:28) over the earth, to reflect God’s goodness and authority over the earth and to reflect back to Him the glory of creation’s worship of the living God. Earth was to be a garden, and man the chief under-gardener.
It is fitting then, that God first placed man in a garden. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t stop there. Adam and Eve both sinned, turning away from their intended purpose, and directing their natures toward their own designs. Since then, Paul tells us, everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
And that’s how things got complicated. God’s ultimate purpose for man is the same as it ever was. Ephesians 1:10 tells us that ultimately everything in heaven and on earth will still be summed up in Christ. But now, everything has been distorted by sin. Where man’s purpose was merely to tend the earth, now it must be conformed. Instead of a garden, we face a wilderness. Worse still, man himself has become a wilderness, and bends away from God’s purposes for him (cf. Jer. 17:9).
It is my feeling that theology and psychology converge nicely at this point. Theology insists that there is a right way for man to be, a way called holiness. Psychology, while it doesn’t necessarily hold to a single “right way”, does recognize that a good number of people are not the way they want to be and sets about facilitating a change. Because it is a science concerned with the process of change in human thought and action, and since the Christian faith demands change, albeit on a more fundamental level, psychology can be a useful tool for Christians.
However, despite the fact that psychology was developed as a science, most (if not all) psychological methods have significant philosophical underpinnings, many of which are not consistent with the Christian faith. These underpinnings are probably unavoidable, since a concern for change begs the question of what the end result should be, and teleological questions must rely on some philosophical basis. So a Christian counselor needs to be cautious: The tools of psychology may be used, but it is the Christian faith that ultimately needs to determine what “psychological health” should look like. For a Christian, the goal must be to make men holy, not to make them happy about sin.
Fortunately, evaluating whether a method of psychology is consistent with a Christian worldview is not a binary proposition. Theories can be rated according to the degree with which they are consistent with orthodox theology. For instance: traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, which proposes that people have various urges that need to be released to ensure psychological health, seems to have little consistency with Christian thought, however Freud’s understanding of the id seems very similar to the Christian understanding of fallen man, and his description of the ego needing to find a balance between his urges and an externally acquired morality seems very useful. Similarly, the concept of unconditional positive regard from client-centered therapy seems to be a very useful construct for almost any kind of Christian encounter. However, in my limited reading, the methods which seem the most consistent with a Christian worldview are those which focus on facilitating discrete changes in thought and behavior, rather than a holistic transformation.
Two theories that seem particularly useful to Christian counseling are Reality Therapy and Cognitive-Behavioral therapy. Reality therapy, developed by William Glasser is probably the least well-known and seems to be unpopular among professional counselors. However the reason seems pretty simple: Glasser, though a well-educated and successful therapist, has only written about his methods in popular-level books. The primary construct is that all people choose their behavior, and that, in some way, dysfunctional behavior works for the person practicing it, at least better than anything else they’ve attempted. Reality Therapy then consists of working with the client to emphasize responsibility, discover how their behavior works for them, and help them find a different kind of behavior which is more constructive for all parties involved.
Reality Therapy in many ways is similar to Cognitive Therapy, which has given much more attention to theoretical and clinical development. Developed first by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, the main premise of Cognitive therapy is that people respond more to their perceptions of the world than to the actual world around them, and so it focuses on correcting beliefs and assumptions and adjusting distorted thought processes.
What is most appealing to me about these theories is how well they congeal with a scriptural understanding of change. John the Baptist and Jesus Christ both came preaching repentance, a word primarily associated today with a change in behavior. But the word in the Greek text, *metanoeō*, refers specifically to cognition, literally, to “after-think”. In Cognitive therapy, one of the primary steps is called metacognition, or thinking about thinking, in which the client reappraises their thoughts in order to see about changing them. Beyond the similarity of the words, Cognitive Therapy matches quite closely the process of cognitive adjustment modeled in scripture (2 Cor 10:5, for example).
Because Cognitive Therapy (and to a lesser extent, Reality Therapy) focuses on discrete changes and the mechanics of how thought relates to behavior instead of combining therapy with a distinct world-view, I think it stands the best chance of being easily integrated into a Christian worldview, lending tools to the Christian counselor to be guided by scripture and Holy Spirit.