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Once upon a time, I was suspicious of psychology. It was an enemy of faith. Psychology purported that healthy, balanced people did not need religion. Psychology was an explainer-away of all things sacred. Religion was an illusion, wish fulfillment, the opiate of the people.

Over time, unintentionally, pretty much unaware, something changed. It now often feels like I look at everything through the lens of psychology. Honestly, I don’t quite know how to evaluate my unplanned transition. Have I become a gentle, mature, insightful pastor? Or have I succumbed to the elixir of our age?

What do I mean? And how, when, and why did this change happen?

Thinking about it, I believe the emphasis on story that we hear so much today, could be what has brought about my new awareness. Add in my appreciation for the enneagram, and I begin see why and how I have changed. Compared to many people, I’m not that into the enneagram. Nonetheless, I do find it helpful for understanding myself and others, especially the way it touches on the need or wound that drives us, which can also be our blessing, our gift.

As I encounter people and also as I look at myself, I am increasingly curious about their stories, their journey. Where did they come from? What have they experienced, especially what burdens, traumas, and tragedies are the carrying? What were their early experiences of love, God, and the church?

I am fond of this saying, but not sure I can really believe it. Don’t think it is actually Longfellow, either. Anyone know?

I hear it in myself when I say “It took me thirty years to silence the voices of sadistic high school PE teachers and experience exercise as fun, not miserable and humiliating.”

I hear it when a friend who struggles with procrastination shares that as she approaches tasks she asks herself things like “What am I afraid of? What is my shame voice trying to convince me of? What do I need from others?”

Most noticeably, I sense the predominance of psychological thinking in the way I look at my parishioners. Obviously, the characters below are amalgamations and airbrushed to guard their privacy.

  • An older woman who is outwardly friendly, but inwardly is unsure of me and my ministry. I hear backchannel that she can be rather critical of me in certain settings. I probably talk about “change” too much. There are times I am exasperated, even angry with her. But when I’m healthier (or so I tell myself), I think behind her suspicion and anger are really sorrow. She grieves for a church where she was once an influential leader, but now knows fewer and fewer people. She is not fully at home in a church that doesn’t live by her 1974 standards. She sorrows over her own physical diminishments. She is a nostalgic for a time that in retrospect is much rosier than it was in reality. When I see her this way, I no longer see her as an antagonist, but as someone needing love and deserving attention.
  • A father who, long before I arrived here, lost a teenager in a terrible accident—it was, I hear, a frazzled, tense relationship. Now, he scours the Bible as if it were a secret code book, and expects doctrine to fit as precisely as the all the moving parts of a twelve-speed transmission. I would say he is seeking answers to the loss of a child, while simultaneously wanting protection from the deep pain that is still there. I try to listen respectfully to his concerns, even as I try to nudge him to wonder what is behind his obsessions.
  • Or how about an early retiree? Relentlessly competitive. Everything is numbers, comparisons, rankings. He lives with a pretty big chip on shoulder. Resentful, gruff, but actually tender-hearted. Is “short-man syndrome” an actual diagnosis?

Why am I ill at ease with the way I use psychological categories and language?—although not enough to stop. I wonder if we don’t risk being inadvertently patronizing. We act as if we can see into others’ souls, and evaluate their deepest motives and dreadful scars. Obviously this needs to be done cautiously and humbly. Is it?

Even more, I am still somewhat reluctant because our psychological terms and categories are not terms of scripture or theology. Of course that doesn’t make them bad or wrong. But what of terms like justice, righteous, faithful, steadfast, hard-hearted, blind, good and evil, and many more? We don’t want to lose such terms.

Why can’t I shake the feeling that I may have traded Augustine and Barth for Doctor Phil and Oprah? Or am still just beholden to my musty, moth-eaten theology professors of days gone by?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

13 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I’m with you. (And I guess you’d know why if you knew the sources of my anxieties!) Partly it’s the paradigm that we converse in, I suspect. I remember my first ten years of preaching, when I preached in traditional Dutch RCA churches, how easy it was to preach, and to be valued for the preaching, because all you had to do was preach theology. Sixth Reformed of Paterson, Prospect Park Christian Reformed, Maranatha Reformed of Wainfleet, Ontario. Theology was the paradigm of their religious conversations. I haven’t been within that paradigm for thirty years now. If I were in the UCC, it would probably be the political paradigm. But among my folks, who are most interested in spirituality, health, and personal meaning, it ends up more psychological.

  • Lee Collins says:

    “We act as if we can see into others’ souls, and evaluate their deepest motives and dreadful scars” And we can’t even do this for ourselves, so why should we expect to be able to do it for others?

  • James Schaap says:

    If you want my two cents’ worth, you’re just fine.

  • Jessica Groen says:

    The words of the Bible and theology narrative are akin to the words of psychology: a people meant to thrive in secure bonds. They have experienced a deep loss or cutting of those bonds. The Life-Breath is at work in many ways throughout historical events to develop a return to and a reattachment of those bonds. The two languages and discourses enrich one one another. Religion as Re-ligamenting of right relationships.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I would posit that psychology is much closer to nothing than it is to everything.

    “I wonder if we don’t risk being inadvertently patronizing.” I don’t think there is anything inadvertent about it.

  • RLG says:

    Steve, it sounds to me that you have traded Augustine, Calvin, and Barth for Dr. Phil and Oprah. It sounds like more than a feeling. It sounds like Christianity has become a subjective theology that attaches primary importance to that of religious experience and feelings. Have you traded theology for psychology? Has psychology become the common denominator of all religions? What differentiates one religion from another if not theology?

    • Holly Teitsma says:

      Give Loder’s “The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development from a Theological Perspective” a try. I think you might like it.

  • Diana Walker says:

    Some things to say:
    Oprah has never claimed to be a Psychologist.
    Dr. Phil, a pop-pdychology person.
    As a recent graduate if a college whose roots were theologically based AND as a Psychology major, never once did I hear that psychology was an enemy of religion and/or vice versa. Never ever.
    To say or suppose that faith and psychology are mutually exclusive is a sad thing for me.
    Enough said. Today’s blog I probably should not have read. I am not defensive but I will defend the importance of psychology. There are healthy and faithful psychologists in our midst.
    I will stop! Promise!

    • Thank you, Diana. Yes, Dr. Phil no longer has a psychology license. The enneagram is not a psychological assessment. And there are no psychological diagnoses mentioned in this blog. At best, these are character descriptions and imaginations about the possible inner life of others. That said, the author is right about the early history of psychoanalysis and religion, though even Freud wrote some profoundly religious ideas in his day. But in this current era, as you eluded to, there are many of us who are both psychologists and seminary trained. In fact, the American Psychological Association has faith, spirituality, and religion divisions in its organization.

  • Marilyn says:

    I think Psychology and Theology help us understand ourselves, this is complex hard work.

  • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

    Thanks to all for engaging and responding. Apparently, some think I’ve totally capitulated to psychology at the expense of theology, and others think I’ve given psychology short-shrift and a black eye. And Jim Schaap thinks I’m okay. Thanks, Jim!
    Maybe it wasn’t obvious enough, but I respect and value both theology and psychology. I don’t think they are identical, or even need to be in competition. It often just feels that way. The connection between them can be mutually beneficial, if complicated.
    Psychologists, we know Oprah and Doctor Phil aren’t psychologists. But you sound a bit defensive, sort of like preachers when people associate us with Joel Osteen or Paula White or Benny Hinn.

    • Diana Walker says:

      You lost me with the first sentence. You didn’t have me at hello! But no matter.
      Today I am smiling. I love the dialogue. At the end of the day, this has been healthy.
      AND we all know you are not Benny Hinn!
      Keep up the good work.
      With my thanks.

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