Doing Theology in Dialogue with Psychology

By Watts, Fraser | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Doing Theology in Dialogue with Psychology


Watts, Fraser, Journal of Psychology and Theology


The dialogue between theology and psychology is part of the broader dialogue between theology and science, but more two-way. Theology operates with a broader conceptual framework, and points to approaches that psychology may neglect. One of the principal points of intersection between theology and psychology concerns human nature, though there is also a dialogue between theology and psychology about religion itself. Though the claims of the two disciplines are often seen as alternatives, it is argued that they are better seen as complementary perspectives. Issues also arise about the psychological significance of particular religious doctrines, It is argued that psychology is a methodological hybrid, part natural science, part human science, and this facilitates its dialogue with theology. Part of the resistance to psychological approaches to theology is that it is mistakenly thought to undercut the claimed objectivity of the claims made by theology.

My concern in this brief article will be with the dialogue between theology and psychology, something that I have explored previously in various places (Watts, 2002, 2007a, 2010, 2011b Watts et al., 2002). The dialogue between theology and psychology is, of course, different from both the practical application of psychology to pastoral care and the work of the church, and also different from the psychological study of religion. The dialogue between theology and psychology can be seen as a strand within the overall dialogue between theology and science. However, I will suggest that it has features that differentiate it from the dialogue of theology with the natural sciences.

Two-way Dialogue between Theology and Psychology

The dialogue between theology and science is notoriously one-sided. Theology is much more interested in science than science is in theology. (I am referring to science as such, not individual scientists.) I suggest that a two-way dialogue between theology and psychology is possible, even if it is not a fully mutual relationship. Psychology can learn important things from theology on topics of mutual interest.

Sometimes theology contributes a critical perspective on psychology, especially where psychology is tempted by strong reductionist (i.e., "nothing but") positions. Many theologians take a broader view of human nature. Christians, among others, want to argue, in response, that there is more to human nature than that. For example, neuropsychology is currently one of the most fruitful areas of psychology, and theology has no reason to be concerned about that. However, if it goes so far as to claim, with Francis Crick, that people are nothing but a "pack of neurones" (Crick, 1994, p. 3), Christians will want to object (Watts, 2002). Similarly, evolutionary psychology is a current area of interest. That is well and good, but if it goes so far as to claim that human beings are nothing but survival machines for their genes, Christians will want to object to that statement as well (Watts, 2002). To be fair, most psychologists are not strong reductionists.

There are also topics in psychology to which theology can make a constructive contribution. That is most likely to occur with topics that are a focus of interest for both disciplines. Forgiveness is clearly a central topic in Christian theology, but recently, there has been a significant development of psychological theory, research and practice concerned with forgiveness, so that forgiveness is now a topic that has migrated across from theology to psychology (Worthington, 2005). That raises interesting issues about the different emphases of theological and psychological approaches to forgiveness. Some aspects of what theology' has to say about forgiveness are more relevant to psychology than are others, and I will focus largely on theological perspectives on human forgiveness (sec Watts & Gulliford, 2004).

I suggest that theology has a better grasp than does psychology of the fact that forgiveness is often costly. …

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