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Psychology and theology need each other


Psychology has gotten religion. Judging by the explosion of publications on religion and spirituality by the American Psychological Association, psychologists can’t seem to read enough on the topic. Furthermore, this interest cuts across psychology’s many subdisciplines from the scientific psychology of religion to applied clinical psychology. The prestigious and highly empirical Journal of Personality devoted its most recent issue to psychology, religion and spirituality.

At a time when many psychologists are familiarizing themselves with theological writings to broaden their conceptual basis for understanding people, it seems opportune to invite theologians into this dialogue. Ever since modern theology used human experience as a valid starting point, theologians have welcomed psychological insights. However, this work depends mostly on models such as Freudian, Jungian or humanistic psychology that lack a strong empirical base. It ignores or is unfamiliar with empirical psychology and its potential insights. This validates Andrew Greeley’s observation that American theology relies too heavily on European intellectual traditions to the neglect of traditions in its backyard.

Research on images of God represents one example of this neglect. Contemporary theologians have written extensively on images of God with special emphasis on gender issues. When Elizabeth Johnson in her superb book She Who Is asserts that, “The symbol of God … is of the highest importance for personal and common weal or woe,” she is stating a quite testable hypothesis. So is Kathleen Fischer, who wrote in NCR’s recent supplement on spirituality that masculine images of God are precursors to men engaging in domestic violence.

Reading the image-of-God theological literature leads to the conclusion that (a) theologians do not cite relevant empirical literature on this subject, and (b) theologians make incautious statements about matters that are empirical questions. Scientific psychology could contribute to understanding images of God in at least two ways. First, by understanding the components of images of God, we could discover what personal experiences lead people to their images. Second, by investigating along with Elizabeth Johnson how these images function, we could learn whether they are for good or for ill. Theologians, religious educators and spiritual directors would each have an investment in these findings.

For the past five years, faculty and students at Loyola College in Maryland’s Institute for Psychological and Religious Research have investigated these and related questions. What follows represents a brief summary of the findings for this ongoing project:

  • Standard personality instruments can consistently measure people’s perceptions of God.
  • Women see God as more emotionally stable and interpersonally adjusted.
  • Women combine traits in God and Jesus related both to dominance/achievement and relationships more so than men.
  • Men tend to rate God with more negative features (such as aggression and emotional neediness).
  • Negative images of God in women are related to childhood abuse and adult domestic abuse.
  • Images of God for women, but not for men, predict emotional well-being.
  • Male perpetrators of domestic violence have less “masculine” images of God than their nonviolent peers.
  • Women put more of their own personality into their images of God and Jesus than do men.
  • Men put more of their preferred parent’s traits into God images than do women.

These findings support, contradict or nuance much that exists in the theological literature. Theology, then, might benefit from the prudence that the scientific method engenders. For example, as a scientist it is important to qualify all of these findings because the exact nature of the relationships is unclear. Are images of God the cause or product of various human experiences? If the product, of which ones? Although one’s own personality, parents, emotional state and family environment all make some contribution to images of God, statistically together they account for a small portion of the total picture.

Should theology refrain from speculation in these areas? Not at all; but assertions that are amenable to scientific analysis need not be accepted on faith.

Psychology requires cross-fertilization with theology beyond images of God. Research on forgiveness, guilt, self-regulation, meaning and transcendence, to name a few topics, has advanced significantly in the past decade. Yet each is unexplored by contemporary moral or spiritual theology.

Although remnants of the ancient suspicion between psychology and religion will exist, this battle is fought much less today on the field of methodology. Religion once rightly feared psychology’s tendency toward reductionism, to see God as “nothing but” the projection of the idealized father. Philosophy of science, however, now recognizes the validity of various methods for understanding human experience.

With staunch empiricists suggesting examining theology for testable hypotheses, the time is overripe for dialogue. It would be sad and ironic if theology remains unaware of the invitation.

Joseph W. Ciarrocchi is professor and director of doctoral clinical education in the graduate programs in pastoral counseling, Loyola College in Maryland. His most recent book is Psychotherapy with Priests, Protestant Ministers and Catholic Religious, co-authored with Robert Wicks.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000