Monday, April 4, 2011

Psychology in the Spirit: A Book Review

This book review can be found in the "Christian Apologetics Journal" as well.

Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology. Coe, John H., & Todd W. Hall. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010. 446 pages. (Paperback), $30.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-2813-5.

I recall taking Psychology in the Spirit off of the shelf of our seminary library and thinking “Excellent, another work on psychology from Christian thinkers who are well-acquainted with psychology, theology, and philosophy!” I thought that it would be a book that lays out different theoretical models of how to integrate the above mentioned disciplines. Additionally, I expected to see a book that sketches the author’s theoretical ideas and how those ideas are practically worked out in a clinical setting. Psychology in the Spirit does these things, but it wasn’t as technical as I expected. On the contrary, it was surprisingly accessible.

While different views of integration are presented, an in-depth analysis of these models is not the primary thrust of the book. Rather than debating the fine points of each conceptual model, Dr. Coe and Dr. Hall present their breed of a “transformational psychology” in a holistic fashion, emphasizing the person, process, and product of their model of psychology.
Thus the authors divide the content of the book according to three basic questions:

1. What would a person (psychologist) who is transformational look like?

2. What would the process (method) of doing psychology look like for a transformational psychologist?

3. What would the product (content) of a transformation psychology look like?

The authors ordered the book to reflect the most important things first. Dr. Hall and Dr. Coe believe that the most important factor in coming up with a fully orbed psychology is the development of a healthy and godly person. Second in importance is the development of a process or method of doing psychology. Finally, after both of these things are in place, the product or content of a Christian psychology naturally comes together. The authors do not view their method as a formula that simply and easily produces a distinctively Christian psychology. Rather, this work presents the general contours of their thinking about what is required, holistically, for a proper psychology.

First, as the title suggests, the person doing the integration of psychology and theology must be guided by the Holy Spirit. The individual must practice spiritual disciplines that place him in a better epistemic position to embark on his or her intellectual task. However, the task for the integrationist is not simply intellectual. More broadly put, the task of the integrationist is to be a person who is operating in the Spirit on every level of his being (intellectually, volitionally, emotionally, etc.). The point of the authors appears to be that good people produce good methods and good products.

Second, the method of inquiry must (1) not be unduly restrictive and (2) it must work from the basic axioms of a “classical realist” methodology. The authors reject the modernist approach to science which intrinsically restricts the scientific inquiry to that which is quantifiable (see chapter 6). In place of the modernist approach, the authors maintain that “science begins with a causal acquaintance of the object, for the purpose of learning more about the nature of the object, which allows the object of investigation to determine the best way to further investigate it, resulting in the development of a method of study best suited to the object.” In other words, the authors think that the scientist should begin with his normal experience of the world and allow his informed grasp of the object in question to form the way in which he study’s that object. This is a classical realist approach which I am happy to see employed in this context.

Third, the authors offer a glimpse of their psychology by revealing their view of human attachments, psychopathology, sin, the role of the demonic, and the role of parents in the development of the human psyche. The authors present a brief theological anthropology that entails the Christian view of the creation and fall of man.

Finally, the authors offer advice on how to effectively apply their approach in a clinical setting. Example situations are given and instructions, by way of example and commentary, are given on how to deal with a client. The final chapter is a call for Christians to take up the task of bringing about a distinctively Christian psychology. The authors would like to see the church, the universities, and the culture at large transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and by those who are open to the formation of the Spirit.

I genuinely appreciated the first section of this book. It is good to remind academics (or anyone for that matter) of the importance of godly character in the pursuit of knowledge. The pre-requisites for a sound Christian thinker include: (1) a disposition towards intellectual honesty and (2) an openness to the immaterial realities described in the Scriptures. Additionally, Dr. Coe and Dr. Hall do an exceptional job of emphasizing the importance of the practice of spiritual disciplines.

Also, it was refreshing to see Christian academics, who are versed in the field of psychology, do a proper prolegomena. This had to be done because these thinkers, in many cases, attempted to put themselves behind a veil of ignorance. Rather than explicitly drawing on the principles of traditional secular psychological theoreticians, the authors presented their position from the ground up. This is not to say that they didn’t borrow from other thinkers. I simply mean that they avoided, as much as possible, getting bogged down in the details of specific secular psychologies.

My primary objection to this book has to do with the way it attempts to integrate psychology, philosophy, and theology. The authors present a “classical realist” approach to science; however, I fail to see how their attempt at integration is faithful to that approach. The classical realist delineates the sciences according to a formal and a material object of study. For example, the aesthetician and the mathematician both have the same material object, namely being, but their respective disciplines are distinguished by the way in which they study being. Aesthetics is the study of being insofar as it pleases the observer. Mathematics is the study of being insofar as it is quantifiable.

Dr. Coe and Dr. Hall do very little to delineate between the sciences. As a result, they end up doing a theology of man rather than genuinely integrating knowledge from philosophy, theology, and psychology into a single coherent whole.

The authors speak of their own model in the following way: “This psychology will include the Scriptures as a legitimate datum of science, along with values, sin and our capacity to be indwelt by God as within the boundaries of psychological theory, research and therapy. In that case, the task of the transformational psychology is less about the relationship between two distinct fields of study (science-psychology and theology) and more about doing a science or psychology of these Christian realities.”

We already have a “science” (science in the broad use of the term) which deals with the Christian realities of values, sin, and the indwelling of the Spirit. The discipline of theology typically handles these issues. Knowingly or unknowingly, the authors amalgamate theology, philosophy, and psychology into a single “science”, and then give it the label of “psychology”.

It is one thing to draw from different disciplines in your formulation of a new psychology; it is another thing to put multiple sciences together and then claim that the collection of disciplines is, in fact, a single science. The authors of this book appear to be doing the latter. Thus I think they betray the classical realist approach which they claim to advocate.

On a more positive note, I think this book has some very good contributions. The great strength of Psychology in the Spirit is found in the practical advice it offers practitioners. The chapter on ancient and modern soul care (chapter 17) is a very good summary of the history of Christian spirituality or “soul care”. In that chapter, the authors compare and contrast the Christian tradition with the tradition of secular psychology. The best part of this chapter is found in its attempt to develop clinical techniques that draw from the best of both traditions.

I would recommend this book, especially to undergraduates interested in the topic and to practitioners looking for practical ways to incorporate their Christian beliefs in a clinical setting. I also think this book is a valuable contribution to the discussion of Christian integration, even though I respectfully disagree with how it is done in this book.

Matt Graham
Southern Evangelical Seminary Alumni (M.A.R.)

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