The Idea of a Christian Psychology

By Roberts, Robert C. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Idea of a Christian Psychology


Roberts, Robert C., Journal of Psychology and Theology


In response to Paul Vitz's evaluation of three divisions of psychology as: a) neuroscience and cognitive science; b) tests and measurements; c) psychotherapy and personality theory, I offer four reflections: First; neuroscience and cognitive science and the kind of activity that has gone into the production of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual are shot through with contestable assumptions of a generally philosophical kind, at least as neuroscience and tests and measurements are often practiced. Second, I contend that what Vitz calls psychology is more subject to scientific information and evaluation than he suggests in some parts of his article. Third, I argue that psychology is inherently more plural and contestable than is suggested by his rather blanket approval of the program of positive psychology. Finally, I suggest that Vitz exaggerates the difference between positive psychology and the negative psychology it is reacting against. The goal of this article is to illustrate and defend these claims, and to sketch what a Christian psychology is.

In an article titled "Psychology in Recovery" Vitz (2005) divides the broad psychological field into three areas, (a) neuroscience and cognitive science; (b) tests and measurements; (c) psychotherapy and personality theory. He says that this emerging division represents a progress of self-understanding on the part of psychologists. The first area realizes the early aspirations of psychology to be scientific, and does so by pursuing physiological and biological aspects, but has now ceased to call itself psychology. The second area is also scientific, but seems to be veering away from psychology proper to "become part of a general social science measurement program, or possibly part of the field of statistics" (p. 18). The third area has retained the title of psychology, but has become aware that it belongs with the humanities and is not scientific; psychologists increasingly realize that psychology is a branch of philosophy or theology or the humanities more generally.

With this provocatively simple schema Vitz means to suggest, I think, that the first two areas of inquiry are not infected (or blessed?) with anything non-scientific such as world-view, values, contestable assumptions, religious commitments, and the like; and (presumably) that the claims of psychology proper are not subject to scientific examination (though he says that "there is still a certain amount of genuinely scientific observation and a modest proportion of important experimental research present in today's field of psychotherapy" [pp. 18-19], and he seems to agree with Seligman that positive psychology is scientific). He also seems to downplay the implication that psychology, as a branch of philosophy or theology, is pluralistic in its outlooks and interminably contestable in its claims, and in this too he and Seligman are on the same page.

I think Vitz is right in claiming a difference between personality theory and psychotherapy, on the one side, and the more scientific kinds of psychology on the other, and the difference is pretty well characterized by assimilating the former to philosophy and theology and seeing this branch of psychology as going way back in history, far beyond Wundt's laboratory in the late 19th century, back to Plato--and Aristotle and the Stoics and to Christianity. But I think he is wrong or overly simple on some other points. (a) I think that neuroscience and cognitive science and the kind of activity that has gone into the production of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual are also shot through with contestable assumptions of a generally philosophical kind, at least as neuroscience and tests and measurements are often practiced (see Griffiths, 1997 and Roberts & Watson, 2010). (b) I think that what Vitz calls psychology is more subject to scientific information and evaluation than he suggests in some parts of his article. (c) I think that psychology is inherently more plural and contestable than is suggested by his rather blanket approval of the program of positive psychology.

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