Why Psychology Needs Theology: A Radical-Reformation Perspective
ed. Alvin Dueck and Cameron Lee. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 226 pages.
This book undertakes a humble goal. It does not seek to provide the model by which to integrate psychology and theology. Rather, it seeks to offer one integration model, drawing on the unique characteristics of the Radical-Reformation tradition. Even within this tradition, the book does not claim to offer the Radical-Reformation perspective, but only one Radical-Reformation perspective. The book also implies a secondary integration goal: it seeks to integrate the discipline of psychology and the philosophy of science.
The book is organized into three sections. The first, containing three chapters by Nancey Murphy, is a presentation of her integration model. The second section contains four chapters by various psychologists who seek to expand and balance her model. The final section contains two chapters by philosophers of science who express serious reservations with her approach.
Murphy’s model, in a nutshell, suggests that living a flourishing human life requires that we reject the humanist ideal of self-actualization and replace it with the virtue of self-renunciation. It is not so much that she describes a Christian way of thinking as that she encourages a Christian content area. We should, according to Murphy, be spending more time investigating topics that are consistent with self-renunciation and less time investigating those topics that are consistent with self-actualization. It is as if she is calling for a new area of Christian Positive Psychology.
Although I was not impressed with the critique of Murphy included in the last section of this book, I will be so bold as to offer my own critique. Murphy’s primary weakness was a failure to sufficiently set the context of her integration model. Her core construct of self-renunciation for the sake of the other person is clearly a component of Christ’s teaching. It is not uniquely Christian, however. Other religious traditions also proclaim the value of self-renunciation.
Murphy’s treatment of this virtue caused me, for three reasons, to think that she was presenting a model to integrate psychology and religion, rather than a model to integrate psychology and Christianity. First, her use of Gandhi as a primary illustration suggests this about her integration. Second, her definition of self-renunciation contains six different elements. It is only in the final element that she addresses submission to God. The first five all relate to human relationships and cognitions. I would have preferred that she list submission to God as her first descriptor rather than her last one.
A third observation displays my concern most clearly. In an earlier section she proclaimed that humans reach their highest goal in self-renunciation. I would argue that in Christ’s own words, the greatest commandment focuses on our relationship to God himself. It is in the second commandment that we deal with our relationship with our neighbors. Murphy gets this backwards, as she seems to place the second commandment on a higher plane that the first. I am not sure that she really means to do this, or if she simply failed to set the broader context of her model.
If I had to choose one “self-construct” as an integrating notion, I would chose self-control rather than self-renunciation. Self-control is listed as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) and avoids some of the cultural baggage and excesses in the notion of self-renunciation.
Such potential for excess made necessary the second section of the book, which sought to balance Murphy’s model. A good construct, taken to the extreme, becomes error. These four authors provide a warning that when the concept of self-renunciation is taken to the extreme, problems occur. For example, if some women already suffer from extreme understandings of submission and subsequent self-renunciation, how do we avoid the dangers of losing one’s voice—or even losing one’s cultural traditions? These four chapters asked useful questions about where a healthy self-renunciation becomes unhealthy. The one weakness in this second section was that it included some equivocation over the term “self.” The four authors had somewhat different constructs in mind when they used this term.
The third section of the book left me dissatisfied. In this section, the philosophers of science failed to communicate a clear understanding of psychological thinking. Although many of their arguments included valuable observations, in most cases I found them to be based on straw characters. They often missed the primary point being made by Murphy’s arguments. At other times I found them stereotyping psychology. Psychology is much more than just the humanistic approach, but they took up this approach and stereotyped the entire discipline. The last section was thus not able to effectively integrate Murphy’s two specialties of psychology and philosophy of science. Murphy accomplished this task much better.
My failure to agree with some of Murphy’s points, however, came after she forced me to consider some new twists in my habitual thinking. For this, I thank her. I found her work to be stimulating, and I appreciated reading her chapters.