Saturday, May 17, 2008

Athens and Jerusalem, part 2

I have received several emails regarding my interviews with the host of "Our Life in Christ," on Ancient Faith Radio ((you can download the interviews here
and here). Below is an edited version of the second email I wrote to one listener, T.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Dear T.,

Your comments about understanding the limits of science (in your case __________, in mine psychology) are right on target. Much of the resistance I think to psychology comes out of not simply a lack of awareness of what psychology does and doesn't offer, but a more fundamental lack of a sound philosophy of science. I hasten to add at this point, a deficient philosophy of science is not limited to non-scientists—very rarely do psychologists seem to understand the limits of our own discipline. Psychotherapy, to take but one example, does not deal in certainties, but probabilities that are always, and necessarily, subject to revision and even rejection. In this sense, my therapeutic work is rather limited in what it can accomplish.

But for all its limits, I think psychology offers us a useful anthropological vision. This is less so in particular and more in a general or foundational sense. When evaluating any psychological theory or practice I return again to the provisional nature of all science. To me at least this suggests that psychology offers us a dynamic view of the human person. So not only are our findings are always subject to revision, any psychological theory that neglects to take account of the dynamic character of human life is in need of correction.

Taken within its own limits as a science, psychology is a rather humble endeavor. We are not concerned with articulating a unified theory of life, the universe and everything. Or even for that matter of what it means to be human. Psychology is the science of human dynamism and as such a great partner to Christian anthropology's view of the inherent and transcendent openness of the human. It is interesting that when one reads personality theorists, they are generally rather dismissive of static thinking or rigid patterns of behavior. While this is often hinted at by the social and political liberalism of the psychologist, this is accidental to the science of psychology as such. In fact I would suggest that the liberalism of psychology—at least in an American context—reflects not simply the character of psychologists, but a certain tendency in some quarters of American society to a moralizing anthropological vision that is "allergic" to a dynamic and transcendent view of the person.

You observed, correctly I think, that many clergy adopt uncritically pop psychology. In recent weeks, for example, I have pointed out to clergy that the Myers-Briggs Personality Test is NOT a valid (in the sense of validated) psychological test. From the point of view of science, the Myers-Briggs tells us nothing about personality. Indeed personality theory is an area of great debate in psychology precisely because it does not lend itself to empirical verification. This does not mean we have to dismiss the Myers-Briggs or personality theory, but it does mean that we need to be clear that in using it we are in the realm not of quantitative but qualitative science.

Clergy, however, will often pick up pop psychology without every applying the same standards that they would apply to any other philosophical or theological vision. Or, and here my cynicism is clear for all to see, I suspect that they do evaluate pop psychology with the same rigor they apply to their philosophical and theological reflections—which is to say they aren't very rigorous at all. Observing over the years the use of psychology by clergy I have come to think that—for all the seriousness with which they may speak—there is often a rather painful lack of intellectual rigor in how most clergy approach their own theological and philosophical patrimony. Yes, certainly, they are very good about quoting Scripture or the Fathers. But for all their quotations and systems building, the intellectual rigor is simply not there. If it were, then I suspect they would not be so easily swayed by pop psychology.

In other words, psychology is in my view something of a test case. How rigorous and thoughtful are we about the content of the Christian tradition and its implications for the pastoral life of the Church? Too easily, and here I will conclude and invite your comments, we confuse anger with conviction, bullying with real authority and rigid and narrow thinking with fidelity to the living witness of the Holy Spirit not only in the past but in the present.

Again, thank you for your comments.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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