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Fri Jun 05, 2009

How do you view the incompatibility between psychology and Christianity?

It's a great question. To be honest, I don't see as much incompatibility with psychology and Christianity as others do. It is true that most of the prominent psychologists were atheists or non-Christians, so I certainly take their philosophies with a grain of salt. But if you look at existentialism, which is rife with atheists, you also have Kierkegaard who was Christian and who put forth that the person is not a "blank slate" at birth and that it is the person's life task to understand the inner blueprint and live according to it. If you look at humanism, you have Maslow who did research on the characteristics of fully functioning ("self actualized") individuals, and he concludes that they all tend to have a sense of spirituality and deep duty to serve others. These tenets to me are right in line with Christianity, though they don't go as far as we do as Christians by saying that the self-actualized human being looks like Jesus.

As far as the other schools of thought, I again feel that for the most part their theories are not incompatible with Christianity, but they just don't widen their lens enough to incorporate the spiritual aspects of things. Freud taught that people are basically unaware of the things that motivate them and that they tend to recreate their childhood hang-ups in adult life. The behaviorists emphasize how learning, punishment, and reward shape the personality. Cognitive psychologists look at how our lenses of logic are filled with distortion. Multiculturalism looks at how we need to consider cultural framework in understanding the psyche. All of these tenets to me are difficult to argue with and are all able to be assimilated into an overarching Christian framework. (I even think you find examples of all of these in Scripture, if you're looking for them.)

To me the most important thing to watch out for is the conflict between Christianity and empiricism. Empiricism by definition says that anything that cannot be materially measured is irrelevant. So as Christians, we understand that this philosophy can never fully capture the human being, because the human being is a spiritual being and there is a spiritual realm that affects us that is fundamentally non material. Now, I don't think that this means that empiricism has nothing to teach us. Quite the opposite, I think that it is critical to be able to demonstrate that psychological interventions are effective, and in practice everything I do as a psychologist is rooted in empiricism. But again, we need to understand that empiricism as a philosophy is able to catch only a limited slice of the truth.

posted at: 08:35 | path: /students | link

How do you deal with the stigma of Christian counseling?

In my experience, I think the word "stigma" is too strong. Now, because I identify as a Christian psychologist, I tend to interact with a biased sample - the majority of people that seek me out are Christians and are supportive of my perspective; and people that would be more likely to stigmatize may be less likely to seek me out (though I certainly welcome the opportunity to work with non-Chrisitians). Really, the only criticism I get is from fellow professionals who are trying to look out for me and who feel that I am significantly limiting my practice by targeting too narrow a population. I appreciate this input, but I have not found it to be the case. I think there is an increasing demand for faith-based work, and the field of psychology as part of the multicultural movement is increasingly supporting and embracing it. And even health insurance companies are recognizing it as a specialty, which to me says a lot.

posted at: 08:13 | path: /students | link

Do you know of any clinical programs that explicitly combine psychology and Christianity?

There are a couple of programs that I know about that explicitly incorporate the Christianity into the curriculum, and my sense is that there are increasingly more. The 2 I know of are at Franciscan University in Stubenville, OH and I believe Liberty University in VA. You might check those out and perhaps contact them for info on other similar programs. Also, the Association of Christian Counselors might be a good resource for you - www.aacc.net.

posted at: 08:13 | path: /students | link

Sat May 16, 2009

Can you tell me a little about what you do to help people both psychologcially and spiritually?

I'm a licensed psychologist, so I do everything a regular psychologist does. I focus a lot on people's emotions, helping them to express feelings that they may have but are in denial about, or that they have avoided because they are too painful. A lot of times, this helps people get "unstuck" and they are able to get closure on things from the past and move forward. I also encourage people to recognize the choices that they are making, to understand that they are responsible for those choices, and to evaluate whether they should be making changes.

From a spiritual point of view, I am basically providing an environment where people can feel free to explore the religious/spiritual aspects of their problems if they wish. A lot of times, if people are depressed, there is a deep-rooted anger at God that they have. If they're anxious, there is a lack of trust in God or a fear of God. So in order to really uproot the problem and resolve the depression/anxiety, they may need to address those issues. Also, I try to help them find ways that their faith can help them find a way out of the current struggle. For example, if someone is depressed because someone close to them has died, then I might help them articulate their own beliefs about what happens after death. I find that very often people have a certain set of religious beliefs but they don't use those beliefs to help them with the psychological problems.

Finally, I will often use imagery with people, which is probably the most "Christian" type of intervention that I do. A lot of times someone will have a memory of a painful event that they don't have closure on and still bothers them. So I will help them to picture the event, to feel the feelings associated with it, and then to imagine Jesus entering into the picture. This is often a very powerful way for people to experience a new ending to an old story - to be able to get over certain blocks and to now have a new image to think of when the bad stuff comes to mind.

posted at: 07:43 | path: /students | link

Do you think that Christian counseling is more helpful than, say, non-Christian counseling?

I think it depends on the individual. I try to have a very balanced view of the Christian aspect of the work. If someone comes to me depressed, I want them to leave not depressed. So, I want to get to the bottom of the issue. Sometimes this involves religious and spiritual issues and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes people just need to vent, sometimes they just need to cry, sometimes they need help with concrete problem-solving, sometimes they need medication. Those are all valid ways of helping that I consider, and if I can help someone effectively without the Christian piece, then I will. I'm just saying that sometimes the issues, particularly for someone who identifies as Christian, often involve their religious beliefs, so that sphere should be considered as well.

I certainly have had many experiences where I believe incorporating the Christian aspect into the work was a key ingredient in them getting better. And very often when I use the imagery technique I described, I find that people are able to access emotions that I would have a very hard time getting to in other ways, or it would take me much longer to do it. So I definitely feel that for some people it is very helpful and more helpful than a traditional secular approach.

posted at: 07:43 | path: /students | link

Do you use Scripture in helping people, or do you use other methods, or both?

Yes, I will refer to Scripture if the individual wants that. It is important to get a sense in the first couple of sessions what the person is looking for from me. Some people are aversed to referring to Scripture, and some people are aversed to not doing it. I am always careful to tell people, however, that I am a psychologist and not a priest or minister. So in that sense my beliefs or my interpretations of Scripture are no more valid than theirs, and I am not trying to push my beliefs on them. I more try to give their own beliefs back to them and maybe help them apply them to areas that they haven't.

posted at: 07:41 | path: /students | link

How have you changed as a counselor since you first started?

Well, to be honest, even though my faith was a major factor in my becoming a psychologist, I didn't really set out to be a Christian psychologist per se. But as I was working in secular positions, I began seeing a lot of people who wanted to talk about God and, for example, where God was when they were suffering. So I began asking myself, "Is it ok for me to be talking about this with them?" As I went on, I began getting more and more frustrated, feeling that if we could have an open discussion about these issues it would really help them, and in some cases that they would not really change if we didn't. So I felt kind of like a doctor who knew of a certain pill that that was just what the patient needed but was unable to prescribe it. So I got to the point where I felt that I needed to be in a situation where both the client and myself could be free to address these issues if needed. This is a main reason why I identify explicitly as a Christian psychologist. This way people have some sense of my value system and where I'm coming from up front and, while I still follow all the rules that psychologists follow, I am freer to incorporate the Christian aspect into treatment if the client wants.

posted at: 07:41 | path: /students | link

Fri Dec 28, 2007

What is a Christian psychologist?

It depends on who you talk to. First, let's take the "psychologist" part. Assuming we're talking about a clinical practitioner, in order for someone to call themselves a psychologist they must be licensed by their state as a psychologist. There are numerous steps to this which I'll address elsewhere.

Now for the "Christian." Currently, any psychologist can call himself a Christian psychologist if he wants. There is no kind of certification required. As a result, the meaning behind the term potentially varies widely. The American Association of Christian Counselors has taken important steps toward laying some groundwork and defining terms. They have even recently developed a credentialing process for Christian counselors, but again this is not a prerequisite for using the term. Their basic stance would be that a Christian psychologist can do everything a secular psychologist does, but in addition holistically integrates the Christian-based spiritual dimension into their work to some degree, which may or may not include using specific Christian-based spiritual interventions. The AACC views the "Christian" piece as an adjunctive specialty, an additional component to treatment, in the same way hypnotherapy or biofeedback imply an additional set of techniques for the standard psychologist toolbox.

posted at: 18:23 | path: /students | link

About the "For Students" Section

I'm starting this section in response to emails that I've been thrilled to receive from students asking me various questions about being a Christian psychologist. Sometimes students are doing research for school projects and other times it's for their own career planning. My hope is that this section will field the most common questions, serve as a useful resource for you, and also save me some typing. If you have any questions that you don't see listed here, please do not hesitate to email me and I will be glad to write you back as soon as I can.

My thanks to all of you who have taken time to contact me in this way; it has served as a good source of encouragement for me in my work.

posted at: 17:04 | path: /students | link

Thu Dec 13, 2007

The Road Less Traveled - M. Scott Peck

When I read this book in high school, I knew immediately that I would pursue psychology. This is an excellent introduction to key psychological concepts, including those of Freud and Jung, and is one of the first attempts at specifically integrating psychology and Christianity.

One of the ideas that I find invaluable is Peck's discussion of human beings needing to work against "entropy," the tendency of things toward greater disorder.

Although sometimes Peck's theology runs off the road, this remains a classic for fans of self-help and students of psychology.

posted at: 21:54 | path: /books | link