Exploring Psychology and Christian Faith
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Exploring Psychology and Christian Faith

An Introductory Guide

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eBook - ePub

Exploring Psychology and Christian Faith

An Introductory Guide

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Introductory psychology courses can raise significant questions about the nature of being human. Christianity, with its emphasis on humans made in the image of God, has a clear perspective. Psychology offers answers too, but they are often subtly implied. This introductory guide, drawn from more than fifty years of classroom experience, provides students with a coherent framework for considering psychology from a Christian perspective. The authors explore biblical themes of human nature in relation to all major areas of psychology, showing how a Christian understanding of humans can inform the study of psychology. Brief, accessible chapters correspond to standard introductory psychology textbooks, making this an excellent supplemental text. End-of-chapter questions are included. A test bank for professors is available through Baker Academic's Textbook eSources.

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Baker Academic

Who Am I?

Themes of Human Nature
Chapter Summary: This chapter describes major themes that address the basic questions and dilemmas raised in the introduction. We have based these themes on scriptural principles about human nature that are relevant for addressing pressing issues in psychology. In the remaining chapters in this book we seek to apply each of these themes to various areas of study within the field of psychology. Our approach with this chapter is to assume that doing psychology from a Christian perspective requires that we start with a biblical foundation to answer the question, Who am I?
What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet.
Psalm 8:4–6
If you’re a college student, you are used to being asked, Where do you go to school? or What’s your major? These questions are attempts to get a sense of your identity—who you are and who you want to be.1 While these are common questions, it’s interesting that the Bible focuses on who God thinks you are rather than who you or other people think you are. Starting with the first words of Scripture, “In the beginning, God created,”2 we can see that the Bible describes humans as creatures, made “in his own image.” Through the early chapters of Genesis, we can also see that humans are called to bear God’s image by acting on his behalf and being his agents in the world he made.
Although the Bible says we are creatures, humans have a unique status in God’s creation and are placed into a unique relationship with him. The quotation from Psalm 8 opening this chapter asks and answers why God cares so much for us. While Psalm 8 makes obvious that we’re not God, nevertheless God “cares for” and is “mindful of” us. We are “crowned” with “glory and honor.” So we are creatures, but creatures with whom God chooses to have a particular relationship. In addition, humans have unique work to do as responsible “rulers” over God’s creation.
The introduction to this book presented many of the dilemmas we face when trying to explain behavior. Various psychological theories, religions, and worldviews provide different answers to these questions, so we believe persons of faith need to start by exploring basic themes about human nature found in Scripture. While even Christians do not agree completely on how to understand these basic themes, there are consistent principles about our nature and our condition that can help us address many of our dilemmas.
Throughout the rest of this book, we will come back to these themes to explore the relationship between Christian faith and psychology’s perspectives on persons, including addressing the basic dilemmas outlined in the introduction. These themes suggest that humans are (1) relational persons; (2) broken, in need of redemption; (3) embodied; (4) responsible limited agents (our free will is limited); and (5) meaning seekers. While not every aspect of human nature is captured by these five themes, they cover many of the key aspects of human nature that are relevant to psychology. Keep in mind that each of these characteristics is distinct, but they are also interrelated, as we will discuss later. The remainder of this chapter is devoted to describing these five characteristics with brief discussions of how each is addressed in psychology. The rest of the book explores in greater depth how these characteristics are addressed in the major topic areas of psychology.
Theme 1: Humans Are Relational Persons
While Scripture clearly speaks of our individual nature, uniqueness, and responsibilities, it also makes clear that we cannot be understood apart from our relationships. In the book of Genesis, God says, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. . . . It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”3 The phrase, “Let us make mankind in our image” reveals the relationality within the very nature of God. God’s essence is relational, shown in the interrelatedness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That quality has also been imprinted on humans. God extends this relatedness to humans as seen in the Genesis story. God created Eve for Adam because “it is not good for the man to be alone.” In addition, just as God creates things, humans are called to the task of being fruitful and caring for God’s handiwork.4 Humanity has creative work to do within and as a part of creation. As one theologian puts it, humanity is tasked by God to be his “authorized representatives on earth,”5 bearing God’s image as a collection of people, not just individually. Humans were given God’s approval to do the work God intended to be done on earth, as the crown of creation. In so doing, humans would have a thoroughly interrelated existence with God and others (Adam with Eve, and all who would follow).
Being made in God’s image has traditionally implied that we are made for at least three kinds of relationships.6 These relationships are described by Christian psychologists David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves, who write, “The biblical account is a God-centered view and is preoccupied with relationships—first and foremost the relationship of God to humanity, but also of person to person, and of humankind to the created order, of which it is both a part and a steward.”7 Let’s explore the implications of each of these three relationships.
First, we are made to be in relationship with God, not as equals but dependent on God as his treasured creation. God made us for himself, out of his love and for his glory, to be in fellowship with him.8 Our very existence depends on God’s ongoing activity.9 As theologian Philip Hefner states, “God does not deal with us only impersonally through deterministic processes, or treat us as things, but rather carriers on a history with us.”10
Second, rather than focusing on individual differences between persons, the Bible strongly emphasizes that humans are part of something much larger—the human family11—and, for Christians, the body of Christ, which is the church.12 This church is much bigger than an individual congregation, as it includes all Christians, both now and throughout all history—the “holy catholic” (“universal”) church.13
The apostle Paul uses the analogy of a body to describe how Christians are to live and work within creation: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.”14 He goes on to say that one part of the body cannot live without the other parts. Being just a head or just a foot is useless. Paul implies that our fundamental relationality leaves us unable to go it alone. Those parts need to work together, and when they do, the body of Christ (the church) can function as it was meant to do. Being in relationship with each other as well as with God is fundamental to being a full person—what theologians and Christian psychologists call personhood.15 The Christian position is that fully being what God intended for each human to be only comes in the context of the body of Christ where we collectively bear God’s image and fully love each other in each other’s personal uniqueness.16
The Bible, chronicling the interactions between God and his people, also shows that God’s relationship with humans is both personal and communal. There are times in Scripture when God blesses families, tribes, or nations. For example, God establishes a promise or covenant with Abraham and all of his descendants, to make them a “great nation.”17 God says of that group, which later becomes known as Israel, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”18 There are also times when people are condemned as groups or nations. In the case of Israel once again, the prophet Ezekiel proclaims, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”19 Although the city of Sodom may be most associated with its sexual sins,20 it is the collective indifference to the poor and needy that is condemned here. Likewise in the New Testament, members of the early church are treated as a unified body. Even though the apostle Paul names specific persons when writing to the churches,21 his letters are addressed to groups of Christians: he praises the Philippians as a group (e.g., “I thank my God every time I remember you”)22 and condemns the Corinthian church as a group (e.g., “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit”).23 God calls out particular persons to fill specific roles, but God’s interactions with humans emphasize the fundamental interrelatedness of humanity.
The third core relationship implies that just as God created and sustains the creation, people are also to be creative and care for creation.24 Humans are created creatures with a particular role to rule over creation as creative caretakers, which includes each person as well as the environment. This caretaking includes our development of science and social institutions that allow us to better care for each other and the world. To sum up, being made in God’s image “represents God as commanding us to love him with all our heart, our neighbor as ourselves, and to be faithful stewards of the creation.”25
Relationality and Psychology
Relationality is also a central topic of psychology. Ethan from the introduction to this book is in a series of relationships with others, including friends and family, and all of these relationships doubtless influence him as he has influenced them. Many areas of psychology explore how we interact with, influence, and are influenced by our environment (people as well as things). The way we learn from others, the ways our brain recognizes another person’s face, why we laugh, and why individuals suffering from anxiety may fear others all reveal an interest in relationships. The biblical emphasis on relationships is very compatible with many ideas and research findings in psychology. There are, however, at least two emphases of relationality that differ between psychology and the Bible. First, by allowing only natural explanations of behavior (supernatural explanations are not allowed in science), psychology does not directly study how God relates to people. Psychologists sometimes study religious behaviors and thoughts of people, but they do not explore the behaviors and thoughts of God toward us. Second, psychology places a great deal of emphasis on a type of relationality barely mentioned in the Bible: relationship to oneself. The fact that the Bible says little about how we relate to ourselves may surprise you—it surprised us when we were doing our research for this book. Terms like self-concept and self-esteem are common in psychology, and therapy emphasizes self-awareness and self-fulfillment. The Bible seems far less concerned about these notions than is psychology, and although some think the phrase “know thyself” is found in the Bible, it’s not.26
Despite an increased emphasis on relationality in recent years, research has shown that psychological science that has come out of Western cultures has tended to emphasize individuality over relationality.27 The Bible, however, encourages us to recognize that people cannot be understood outside of the context of their relationships. As one theologian remarked, “If an individual has no relationships, then he also has no characteristics and no name. He is unrecognizable, and does not even know himself.”28 Does this Christian emphasis on interrelatedness have any impact on how one approaches psychology? Knowing that we hold a unique place within creation as collective image bearers of God might influence how we study group behavior, worker motivation, gender differences, and how to conduct therapy—to name just a few.
Theme 2: Humans Are Broken, in Need of Redemption
God designed us to thrive in the three core relationships we just described.29 God calls h...

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