Psychology and Theology Need Each Other

By Ciarrocchi, Joseph W. | National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000 | Go to article overview

Psychology and Theology Need Each Other


Ciarrocchi, Joseph W., National Catholic Reporter


Psychology has gotten religion. Judging by the explosion of publications on religion and spirituality by the American Psychological Association, psychologists can't seem to read enough on the topic. Furthermore, this interest cuts across psychology's many subdisciplines from the scientific psychology of religion to applied clinical psychology. The prestigious and highly empirical Journal of Personality devoted its most recent issue to psychology, religion and spirituality.

At a time when many psychologists are familiarizing themselves with theological writings to broaden their conceptual basis for understanding people, it seems opportune to invite theologians into this dialogue. Ever since modern theology used human experience as a valid starting point, theologians have welcomed psychological insights. However, this work depends mostly on models such as Freudian, Jungian or humanistic psychology that lack a strong empirical base. It ignores or is unfamiliar with empirical psychology and its potential insights. This validates Andrew Greeley's observation that American theology relies too heavily on European intellectual traditions to the neglect of traditions in its backyard.

Research on images of God represents one example of this neglect. Contemporary theologians have written extensively on images of God with special emphasis on gender issues. When Elizabeth Johnson in her superb book She Who Is asserts that, "The symbol of God ... is of the highest importance for personal and common weal or woe," she is stating a quite testable hypothesis. So is Kathleen Fischer, who wrote in NCR's recent supplement on spirituality that masculine images of God are precursors to men engaging in domestic violence.

Reading the image-of-God theological literature leads to the conclusion that (a) theologians do not cite relevant empirical literature on this subject, and (b) theologians make incautious statements about matters that are empirical questions. Scientific psychology could contribute to understanding images of God in at least two ways. First, by understanding the components of images of God, we could discover what personal experiences lead people to their images. Second, by investigating along with Elizabeth Johnson how these images function, we could learn whether they are for good or for ill. Theologians, religious educators and spiritual directors would each have an investment in these findings.

For the past five years, faculty and students at Loyola College in Maryland's Institute for Psychological and Religious Research have investigated these and related questions. What follows represents a brief summary of the findings for this ongoing project:

* Standard personality instruments can consistently measure people's perceptions of God. …

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