Psychological Science and Christian Faith: Insights and Enrichments from Constructive Dialogue

Malcolm Jeeves and Thomas Ludwig
Published by Templeton Press in 2018

In Psychological Science and Christian Faith, we have another excellent addition to the literature addressing the relationship of psychology to the Christian faith. Malcolm Jeeves, Emeritus Professor at the University of St. Andrews, and Thomas Ludwig, recently retired professor at Hope College (with one chapter by David G. Myers, also of Hope College), offer an exploration of what the subtitle states are “insights and enrichments from constructive dialogue” between science and Christian faith.

Drawing from recent research, the authors describe findings in psychology “that emerge from a cordial working relationship between psychology and theology.” In describing the fruits of this working relationship, the authors seek to “show the inaccuracy and inadequacy of the conflict motif and the dangers of premature concordism.” In contrast to these mistaken approaches, Jeeves and Ludwig advocate what in previous publications they have described by various terms as a “levels of explanation” approach or “complementary perspectives” strategy. Rather than articulate and defend a distinct model for the relationship of science and faith, Jeeves and Ludwig boldly assert the time has come to end efforts aimed toward the “integration” of psychology and theology or the attempt to construct a distinctive “Christian psychology.” For Jeeves and Ludwig, Christian psychologists who seek an “integration of psychology and theology” or the development of a “Christian psychology” represent scholarship outside the mainstream of psychological science. As a result, the important findings of innovative research are often ignored, misrepresented, or at worst falsely rejected by committed Christians. Jeeves and Ludwig seek to remedy that tendency to neglect basic research in psychology with this volume.

To accomplish this goal, the authors offer a text with essentially two parts. In the first section, they engage the broader question of what might be a “constructive relationship” between psychological science and Christian faith through a review of historical examples, terminology, and current approaches representing a range of options for relating psychology and Christianity. The contemporary dialogue partners here are drawn largely from the widely discussed text Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, in which David G. Myers represented the “Levels of Explanation” approach.1 Although neither Jeeves nor Ludwig were chief authors in the Five Views text, the “Levels of Explanation” approach advocated by David Myers is clearly congruent with, and often cited as similar to, the approach defended by Jeeves and Ludwig in Psychological Science and Christian Faith. As such, the reader is invited into a debate with a history familiar to most Christian psychologists who have followed the “integration” literature over the past several decades. Readers unfamiliar with this ongoing discussion would do well to consult the Five Views text to understand more fully the particulars of the approaches under critique by Jeeves and Ludwig.

In Psychological Science and Christian Faith, Jeeves and Ludwig go beyond the “dialogue” between various models in which each approach may have equal standing. Rather than continued dialogue, Jeeves and Ludwig assert it is time to end discussions around the theme of “integration” as well as the effort to develop a “Christian” psychology. For Jeeves and Ludwig, these approaches offer little benefit to progress in psychological science and may be ultimately counterproductive detours to the constructive exchange of “insights” and “mutual enrichments” between psychology and theology. Jeeves and Ludwig highlight examples from the history of science that demonstrate two persistent errors: the false claim of a persistent and enduring conflict between psychology and Christianity and the tendency to develop false “concordisms” in which scientific concepts and research are merged with Christian belief or cited as evidence for the absolute truth of Christian doctrine. Jeeves and Ludwig point to church opposition to Galileo as an example of false conflict and to the endorsement of phrenology by Christians as an example of false concordism.

Of particular interest is the reference at the beginning of chapter 5 to the “Differences Between the U.S. and U.K. Approaches to Integration.” Jeeves and Ludwig point to the important role cultural and historical differences play in how the relationship between science and faith is conceived in theory and practice. This is an important theme which merits greater attention and deeper analysis than the passing reference it receives in the text. Jeeves and Ludwig, in proposing a “cordial” relationship between psychology and theology, may reflect the ideals of an academic culture in which vigorous discussion can occur within an atmosphere of respect and collegiality. The reader may be left to wonder whether the close historical connections between Christianity and British culture may offer the possibility of a comfortable alliance between Christianity and science not as achievable in the United States, not to mention cultures largely outside the orbit of Western Christianity.

This may be asking something beyond the scope of the book since its focus is largely upon the Christian academic community in the Anglo-American setting. However, there remains a significant opportunity for exploration of what the “integration of psychology and theology might mean outside the Anglo-American cultural orbit.” For example, the experience of American Christians living in a culture that historically has erected a “wall of separation” between religion and public institutions, including academia, sets a much greater likelihood of separation between religion and mainstream academic culture. If evangelical Christians in the U.S. represent a minority within academic culture and therefore experience themselves as “outsiders,” it is not surprising that the same language used to describe relationships between majority and minority sub-cultures emerges in Christian academic settings. In the U.S., subcultures typically struggle with whether to “integrate” with the dominant culture or remain largely separate in order to preserve their distinctive identities. Evangelical scholars in the U.S. may find greater difficulty in establishing mutually enriching relationships of the “cordial” sort proposed by Jeeves and Ludwig.

The second part of Psychological Science and Christian Faith aims to address areas of psychological research suffering from “regrettable omissions” in contemporary reflection on the psychology and Christianity relationship. Three areas of psychological research are explicitly mentioned: neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology. These themes represent research domains from which the authors are knowledgeable contributors and can therefore identify relevant insights and mutual enrichments for Chris- tian faith. Other chapters focus on human motivation and social psychological issues, but seem less connected to the central themes identified by the authors. Curiously, and without explanation, David G. Myers offers a chapter on social psychological research. In addition to this chapter, Myers is frequently quoted at various points in the book, but is not listed as a co-author.

In offering a corrective to the omission of specific research in psychology, the authors survey a variety of topics with the goal of demonstrating their relevance to our understand- ing of human behavior, mental processes, and possible implications for Christian theology. For example, in chapter 7, the authors describe recent research demonstrating the influence of brain activity on our understanding of spirituality. Spirituality from the perspective of neuropsychology must be understood as embodied and “embrained.” Consequently, theological accounts of the “spiritual” must recognize the material basis of the soul and the unity of human personhood. In a particularly poignant passage, “impaired spirituality” is described in the context of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy. Subsequent chapters review important research findings on a diversity of topics including conversion, morality, human uniqueness, motivation, and faith. These discussions are excellent and informative summaries in keeping with the “complementary perspectives” approach, offering insights for theological reflection rather than conflict- eliciting critique. The assessment of both the psychological research and theological implications is transactional, in the contemporary sense that no final judgements regarding truth are offered. Instead the authors are careful to point to the ongoing evolution of both psychological and theological inquiry.

Each of the chapters, while raising significant issues based on psychological research, stops short of encroachment across disciplinary boundaries or endorsement of specific theological positions. In keeping with their basic framework, Jeeves and Ludwig seek to avoid falling prey to the error of promoting new “concordisms.” The authors maintain a firm respect for disciplinary sovereignty between psychology and theology. The strength of the “complementary perspectives” approach lies in its commitment to freedom and independence of both psychology and theology. By adhering to a disciplinary version of Robert Frost’s adage that “good fences make good neighbors,” Jeeves and Ludwig are able to highlight insights and enrichments from research in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology, and thereby encourage productive dialogue across the fences set by disciplinary boundaries.

There is much to recommend in this book, and it clearly fulfills much of what the authors intended. Yet, despite its wide-ranging and articulate exposition of the historical context and ongoing value of the “complementary perspectives” approach and its insightful accounts of research topics omitted in other approaches to psychology and Christian faith, the book does have its shortcomings. What might be its chief limitation is the somewhat “whiggish” tone (to borrow an expression from Herbert Butterfield) adopted by the authors. At various points, Jeeves and Ludwig seem all too ready to dismiss real conflicts between psychology and theology as false narratives or myths. Attempts to resolve legitimate tensions between developments in psychology and Christian faith are deemed misguided “concordisms.” Opposing viewpoints seem to be marginalized as simply outside the mainstream or lacking in relevance to the prevailing scientific establishment. The authors seem quite willing to maintain an uncritical acceptance of the “progressive” march toward ever better versions of reality traditionally ascribed to scientific research in older, and now largely discredited, positivistic accounts of science. The past tensions arising between psychology and theology, or more broadly between science and religion, might seem unnecessary or misguided to the authors from the perspective of the present, but they likely have meaning and authenticity in the historical context in which they emerge.

This same point can be made regarding the diversity of models emerging in the context of American culture with its highly diverse and polarized academic landscape. The cultural factors briefly alluded to by the authors point to the unacknowledged possibility that the variety of strategies for relating psychology and Christianity may be authentic responses to real tensions in the contemporary settings inhabited by particular Christian scholars. While it may be possible in the context of British culture to engage in a “cordial relationship” between psychology and Christian faith, things may not be quite as simple in other cultural settings. Like actual military wars which seem in retrospect to be unnecessary wastes of life and resources, the conflicts and tensions between psychology and Christian faith—while unnecessary in the abstract—are real and critically important within the historical contexts and communities when and where they occur. Rather than seeking to end discussion utilizing conceptual frameworks such as “integration” and “Christian psychology,” Jeeves and Ludwig might do well to pursue insights and mutual enrichments found through constructive dialogue across ideological, cultural, and communal differences among committed Christians.

This objection however is not intended to diminish the valuable contribution contained in the book. Psychological Science and Christian Faith offers an expanded account of the long-standing collaboration of Jeeves, Myers, and now Ludwig in defense of traditional “mainstream” psychology and its compatibility with aspects of Christian faith. As such, it will appeal to readers seeking to understand recent developments within psychological science and possible implications for theological reflection. On this basis, the book is a valuable—if not outstanding—addition to the effort to encourage committed Christians to participate actively in psychological research as a legitimate avenue of service to the human community and as a worthy calling from God.

Cite this article
Michael DeVries, “Psychological Science and Christian Faith: Insights and Enrichments from Constructive Dialogue”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:4 , 417–419

Footnotes

  1. Eric L. Johnson, Psychology and Christianity: Five Views, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010).

Michael DeVries

North Park University
Michael DeVries is a professor of psychology at North Park University.