Is "Christian Psychologist" an Oxymoron?

Remember learning about an oxy-moron in Grade 10 English class? It may not have been that year, exactly, but we all remember hearing the terms ‘hot ice’ or ‘jumbo shrimp’ to describe this literary phenomenon (in light of a recent trip, “British cuisine” is another one that comes to mind). I never thought I’d hear that same phrase thrown back at me when I use the term “Christian psychologist”. But as it turns out, there are people out there who think these two things couldn’t be more incompatible. You might be one of them, or you might be like me and think – it makes perfect sense for these two things to fit together.

So, what is a Christian Psychologist, and how could people think, or not think, that those two words fit hand in hand? As a psychologist who serves many people of the Christian faith, I am sometimes queried about whether there is a distinctive “Christian” psychology, and whether Christian psychologists are indeed using practices that are not antithetical to the Christian faith. I am often asked by some skeptical Christians, “Are your methods biblical?” – the assumptions being (1) there is a clear, biblically sanctioned way to do counselling and (2) secular psychology/counselling methods are inherently diametrically opposed to Christian principles. Granted the vast majority of Christians are quite balanced and do not believe this, and so I am addressing only those who hold a dogmatic view that psychology and counselling methods hold nothing for a mentally and emotionally suffering person, who needs only to have faith in God to be healed.

With all things, including the realm of psychology, we’re reminded from 1 John 4:1 that we must “test the spirits”. This is an exhortation for Christians in the world to possess a natural scepticism. In Elliot’s commentary of the English Bible, these “spirits” are our human tendencies towards good and evil, particularly as they pertain to thought or opinion. An example of a spirit might be a person’s religious fervour, that though seeming quite religious on the outside, could be opposing the will of God. Another example of a spirit could be a person’s opinion of counselling that feels really “right”, and sound like lots of other ideas popular in culture (i.e. what’s ok for you is ok for me, or there are no real consequences for your actions, it’s all relative), but again are antithetical to Scripture and God’s will for us. One question that comes out of the exhortation in 1 John 4:1 as it relates to psychology is: “Does this work I’m doing cause me to desire God more, to seek intimacy with my heavenly Father, and to better see myself as God sees me?” Another example of this is: “Is there anything happening in our work together that gets in the way of me being closer to God, and seeing myself as He sees me?” These are good questions to ask yourself as you think about engaging a Christian psychologist or mental health professional.

Many who stand opposed to psychology on Christian grounds assume a dualistic position that matters of the body and mind are separate; it is acceptable for relief for physical ailments to be sought through physicians (only the most fundamentalist of Christians would insist that such healing come exclusively by faith without medical intervention). But at the same time that medical treatment can be readily accepted, there can be deep reservations about receiving counselling or psychological treatment for emotional, mental or psychosomatic problems. The problem is rooted in a dualism of the physical and non-physical, with non-physical issues somehow being attributed to spiritual causes and the remediation, therefore, being a spiritual one – more prayer, more holiness, trusting God more. The implication is that if someone remains depressed or anxious, that person is somehow not measuring up spiritually because a person who is walking closely with God should not be depressed or anxious. Yet we wouldn’t presume that of someone whose cancer isn’t healed despite persistent prayer.

Let’s begin with the proposition that all truth is God’s truth. The bible doesn’t address, for instance, the current state of knowledge in healing infectious diseases or other knowledge in the vast plethora of truths that have been revealed through scientific inquiry, yet we do not dismiss such truths simply because they are absent from Scripture. The mind and works of a divine Creator are evidenced in the wonders of the natural order and the miracles of science, completely apart from Scriptural revelation. For as Romans 1:18 declares: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”

A second proposition is that all sicknesses, physical or mental, are attributed to humankind’s sinful, fallen condition. Here, however, we have to be careful to clarify what we mean. It is not necessarily individual sin that causes one to have a mental health condition, though sin (as in original sin, as in Adam and Eve and the spiritual fall of humankind) is always at the root of it. At the same time, individual choices, including moral ones, do play a role in shaping mental and physical health. Yes, someone with cancer is stricken because original sin caused the propensity for sickness to begin with, but lifestyle factors of diet, exercise, stress and relational health do play a role as well in the onset, progression and healing of cancer. We are complex, biopsychosocial phenomena – fearfully and wonderfully made as Scripture declares (Psalm 139:14). Simple, linear relationships cannot explain our complexity as humans. Although physical and mental illness are made possible by humankind’s spiritual fall, these are embedded in a complex web of individual choices, social environments, upbringing, economic opportunities and a plethora of other factors that reciprocally interact with and reinforce one another to shape our conditions.

If mental health issues are so complex in their cause, then the solution lies neither in overspiritualizing nor over-psychologizing (sorry for the made-up word) the remedy, but in intelligently and critically integrating faith with the revelation of psychological science to find our answers, while trusting that both are facets of God’s truth. There is no Christian psychology just as there is no “Christian medicine”. But there are theological frames of understanding of what cause mental illness and physical disease. And there are many practitioners of psychology who think “Christianly” in their practice of psychology. To me, this is what makes one a Christian psychologist (or physician, or educator or artist). To possess a Christian anthropology and a Christian epistemology of suffering and disease means practicing within the knowledge parameters of science yet seeing no incompatibility with belief, and seeking to critically and responsibly interact belief with the extra-biblical revelations of science. It is from such a knowledge framework that I practice psychology as a Christian, and think of myself hence as a Christian psychologist in the most un-oxymoronic and genuine way.

Dr. Alex Kwee, R.Psych. with Hilary McBride, RCC

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