Thriving Humans or Happy Pagans?: The Limits of Psychology - James Houston and Bruce Hindmarsh
James Houston and Bruce Hindmarsh, both professors of spiritual theology at Regent College, suggest that psychology cannot, by itself, explain our humanity. In short, there’s no anthropology without theology. Moderated by Steve Porter (CCT Associate Director).
One of the things that we’re discussing at the Center for Christian Thought this semester, or really our overall theme, is what role does contemporary psychology, and I know that’s a broad, that encompasses a lot, but when you think about things that are going on in psychology today and in the last century and a half since psychology’s been with us, what do we have to learn from psychological theory and practice when it comes to understanding life with Christ and growing in life with Christ? What do you see as fruitful or potentially beneficial?
Well there’s of course tremendous, tremendous insight in empirical psychology. And many, many areas of psychology provide insight into the human condition, insight into self-deception, insight into the pathologies of the human mind, insight into healing, and so on. But I think my concern is that you cannot derive an anthropology from simply sort of clinical observation and a close, close attention to people. That we need more than that to develop a true anthropology and develop our deeper convictions about the human condition, about human nature. And so I think my concern is just, it’s a matter of foreground and background, and that we be able to nest the insights of psychology within a much, much larger frame. And the tendency always in the modern period, as Charles Taylor says, is we’ve occluded our moral sources, that we tend to always reduce the good and our sense of the good, to what he calls, nicely, production and reproduction. As our goods are intimate, companionate pair bonding, you want to be intimate with someone, and economic prosperity. And if we do not historicize psychology, I think the danger is we’ll simply use it as a way to sort of achieve those kinds of moral ends. How can a person be more happy, more content, be more functional, and so on. So there’s tremendous insight, it’s [speaks indistinctly], it’s a way of noticing details and being attentive to the human condition. But I think my concern is that we’re able still to understand the human person in terms of being made for transcendence, and in terms of our origin in God, our destiny in God, and in terms of that the human psyche is not imminent, it is not enclosed, it is porous, and so I think we need a larger framework.
And I wholly agree with what you’re saying, Bruce, about that, and would suggest that the pulse-beat of the Christian should be, whether psychologists or otherwise, is the double knowledge of Augustine, “Let me know thee, O God, let me know myself.” That there’s no anthropology without theology. And the people that scare me to death are Christian psychologists who, as motivational psychologists, perhaps, in their business, are able to provide happy pagans with a therapeutically joyous, happy life, that doesn’t need God. I mean, that is outrageous to think that Christians in psychology can be so focused on their profession as psychologists, that they’re actually enabling pagans to be happy, healthy, secure pagans.