Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Comments on Articles by Nelson, Slife, Reber, and Richardson

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Comments on Articles by Nelson, Slife, Reber, and Richardson

Article excerpt

I have only tried to deepen our understanding of the issues surrounding the secular assumptions of much current psychology by doing four things: One, pointing out how the drive toward secularism or naturalism in psychological method is supported upon much broader assumptions about cognitive authority in our intellectual culture; Two, explaining a concept of knowledge that does not start from biases about possible subject matters or methods; Three, discussing some ways in which a "hermeneutical" approach in psychological method needs to be strengthened; Four, clarifying some ways in which misunderstandings and ambiguities of "objective" and "subjective" can lead to confusions about the possibilities of a psychological method that does not assume secularism. My intent is to be supportive of the intellectual thrusts developed in the articles.


I am glad to have had the opportunity to study and comment on these articles. I think they constitute a genuine contribution to an important discussion. After studying them I have concluded that I could not contribute very much to the details of research and exposition which they present. But I will try to cast some light upon a number of underlying issues which seem to me to require emphasis.

The question of how far a strictly secular approach to Psychology can do justice--or indeed injustice--to the subject matter of the field, is certainly an important one that immediately opens up fundamental issues about methodology and the exact nature of the subject matter. This puts great pressure on practitioners who have convictions about God, or at least religion, and about God's relationships to the life of the individual. It is hard to imagine that human life and experience could be understood or directed to any significant degree from a secular viewpoint if the human being is built to live in relationship to God. But, on the other hand, if that is how human life and experience is, how could psychology be a field of inquiry open to people in general, and especially those who reject or do not believe in the existence of God. Other issues like freedom of will and the reality of objective values poses similar problems. So there is a distinctive problem here for the field of psychology.

But far from being focused upon a topic confined to a field of specialization, these articles are actually dealing with an issue that reaches across almost all academic and professional fields today and out into political and social life. That is the issue of cognitive authority: The issue of who has the right to claim to know and to exercise power based upon that claim. Knowledge confers the right and even the responsibility to act, to direct, and to set policy. That is just how it is and always has been in human affairs. So, who can successfully claim to know has vast implications for life generally and for who leads or is supported in their actions. Within the learned professions this takes on special emphasis. For there it becomes a matter of standing in the field: Who is supposedly qualified and who is not. It also impacts adequacy of treatment of the relevant subject matter. If those who hold cognitive authority in an area have adopted a methodological stance that does not actually come to grips with important aspects of the subject matter, that will hinder a proper understanding of that subject matter, and will make practice in fields dependent upon it unsuccessful or even harmful. Remember the Bishop who refused to look through Galileo's telescope because he already knew Jupiter had no moons? Or the extensive use of bloodletting and "physic" in treating all kinds of health problems?

The articles in this set raise the fundamental question of whether the dominant methodologies of contemporary psychology are adequate to the subject matter of the field. They strongly suggest that they are not adequate, and that they are not adequate because the naturalistic/secular assumptions of the methods omit vital factors in the lives of clients and of practitioners: Those having to do with morality, spirituality and God. …

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