Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Psychology and Religion: Hermeneutic Reflections

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Psychology and Religion: Hermeneutic Reflections

Article excerpt

Brent Slife (this issue) contends that classic social science methods quite naively and rather presumptuously have claimed to be value-neutral when, in fact, they are anything but. First, they tend to presuppose a tendentious philosophical naturalism and objectivism that paints a picture of the world and its workings having little if any place in it for spiritual realities or religious meanings, except possibly as whimsical or even dysfunctional fantasies that need not be taken seriously. Second, they seem uncritically to presuppose certain moral ideals about how we ought to regard this world and each other and how we should properly relate to them (Reber, this issue).

Clearly, those of us who take religious meanings and spiritual life seriously stand in need of a revised ontology of the human realm and the wider world. This is especially true for those of us who are committed in our work to drawing on the best insights from both religion and psychology. For us, the prevailing naturalistic outlook affords us no fruitful way of interrelating ideas from these two fields. As serious and open-minded investigators, we probably would wish to incorporate psychological theory or research findings in our pursuit of understanding. However, it simply is not possible to do this in any straightforward manner. Such theory and findings are significantly colored by rarely acknowledged and examined assumptions about fundamental matters, like the nature of the world, knowledge, and the good life. We can't accurately or honestly ponder psychological notions or explanations until we have teased out these assumptions, detected what we can of their influence, and begun critically to assess them. Moreover, when we do this, we find that rather than aiding us in blending perspectives from religion and psychology, the naturalist outlook that pervades much psychology either blots out religious realities altogether or distorts them by reducing them largely to playing a role in a drama of a fundamentally alien sort.

For example, the tacit naturalism of much social science views the "objective" world as a vast collection of material objects and forces to be mapped by empirical observation or explained by causal models or laws. Some versions of naturalism contend that absolutely nothing other than matter exists. However, as Huston Smith (1989) puts it, it is exceptionally hard to expunge mind, will, and spirit entirely from our picture of the world because "our thoughts and feelings are, on the one hand, too conspicuous to be denied, and on the other hand too different from what we experience matter to be to be [entirely] reduced to it" (p. 197). The solution usually is to allow for the reality of a separate mental or "subjective" sphere in which individuals experience the impact of outward events and harbor various attitudes and feelings toward them. But any such subjective realm remains a metaphysically subordinate and morally denuded one. The naturalistic outlook affords few conceptual resources for construing relationships among events in this realm, or between them and the outer world, except as links modeled on what are taken to be efficient causal connections in the "objective" world. Moreover, in a naturalistic social science, any subjective elements can enter into our accounts only if they are indexed or "operationally defined" by things such as physical movements or even marks on paper and pencil tests that have unmistakable existence in the material realm (Taylor, 1985a). This gives the greater accent of reality as well as causal predominance to brute material forces. In this view, for example, scientific knowledge is about facts, not values, and values, including moral and spiritual values, are viewed as only subjective, preferential sentiments about objective states of affairs--ones very likely shaped willy-nilly by impersonal physical or social forces. In Smith's words, "naturalism [is] the view that (a) nothing that lacks a material component exists, and (b) in what does exist the physical component has the final say" (p. …

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