Hermeneutics and Dialogue as Tools toward Integration: Babies and Bathwater, Problems and Solutions

By Nelson, James M. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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Hermeneutics and Dialogue as Tools toward Integration: Babies and Bathwater, Problems and Solutions


Nelson, James M., Journal of Psychology and Theology


In this short essay it will be my privilege to extend the dialogue of this issue by responding to the comments of Siang Yang Tan (this issue), and then reflecting on some implications of his article and those of the other contributors.

Comments on Babies and Bathwater

Tan's essay is a statement by a scholar who is committed to the very best standards of scientific inquiry and thus represents a view from "inside" the scientific study of psychology and religion. Given the position from which he speaks, it is highly significant that he adds his voice to the authors of this special issue who express concerns about the presuppositions of modern psychological science and the effect they may have on the integration enterprise. He obviously recognizes the presence of logical positivism, scientism and a reductionistic naturalism in much of what goes on in our field.

Tan raises two important criticisms of the articles in this special issue. First, he makes the excellent point that new ways of doing things should not lead us to "throw out the baby with the bathwater," as current quantitative methodologies have much to contribute. This is a good point not sufficiently emphasized in the articles. While the exclusive use of quantitative methods is to be avoided (Nelson, this issue), they are ideal for testing the role of specific variables in limited contexts across many individuals. Fortunately as Tan notes, the hermeneutic approach advanced by Richardson (this issue) allows for the inclusion of the helpful aspects of current practice while broadening our methods beyond the positivist approach.

Second, Tan argues that authors such as Slife and Whoolery overstate their case and don't sufficiently acknowledge that some work is informed by religious ideas or values. In essence, Tan is pointing out that some investigators already make conscious, intentional use of their personal religious preunder-standings and thus are operating within the interpretive, dialogical, hermeneutic framework advocated by the authors of this special issue. This is undeniably true and a very positive development. However, it is also the case that these individuals don't represent the mainstream of thought and method within the field of psychology, or even perhaps with the psychology of religion community. For instance, the work by Murphy (e.g. 2002) on nonreductive physicalism presents a highly interesting alternative to a reductive materialist position, but it is not widely accepted. In most of the academy, reductive materialism continues to reign as a mostly unexamined assumption (Nelson, this issue; Slife, this issue).

Overall, it would seem that Tan and I are in agreement. A new methodological paradigm needs to be widely applied, one that employs qualitative and other methodologies along with the traditional quantitative methods we have applied to questions in the field (Nelson, Klein & Sexton, 2005).

Problems and Solutions

At this point, however, some key problems come up. First, why should psychologists--including those interested in religion--do things differently? The move to a more open, dialogical model has obvious advantages for religious communities, who gain an equal voice in the conversation with psychology. What's in it for psychologists, though? This is a crucial question, because change is unlikely unless researchers see that it is to their advantage to reexamine their presuppositions and consider different approaches to problems. Second, how might a dialogical model address the relationship between science and ethics, which has been problematic since the time of Bacon (Nelson, this issue)? Third, how might we find a way to follow the suggestion of Slife and Whoolery (this issue) and do a kind of integration that would allow us to embrace theistic ideas and values? Fourth, can our integration paradigm find a role for the voice of religious communities as Tan (this issue) has urged?

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