Regardless, what I do here as an academic person is often an attempt to engage in what is called "the integration of psychology and theology." Lots of Christian professors engage in this sort of "integrative" work, exploring the intersections of their disciplines with their faith commitments. Sometimes it's called "the integration of faith and learning."
You wouldn't believe how many words have been written about this sort of thing. Thousands of words and discussions about how best to integrate faith and insert name of discipline here. Thousands of words and discussions about if the word "integration" is really even the best word. Thousands of words and discussions about various models and paradigms of integration.
Here's a confession. I've read practically zero percent of this literature. I just don't find it interesting or enlightening.
Still, given what I do here and that much of my published work would be considered a form of "integration," I thought I'd try to share a few thoughts this week about "the integration of psychology and theology."
Today I'd like to share some thoughts about my own research process.
Obviously, I do "integration" here and in my published work. But it's all very haphazard and weird. I don't have a guiding project, system or model. What I have, simply, is stuff that interests me.
For example, profanity interests me. Why are most of our curse words about genitalia, excrement, or sex? When I look for answers to that question I'm coming at it with both psychological and theological sensibilities and interests. And sometimes the two converge (integrate?) in interesting ways. And so I publish a paper in the Journal of Psychology and Theology on profanity (this research is discussed in Chapter 10 of Unclean). I'm sure this research is an example of an integrative approach. I'm sure it can get classified as being an exemplar of one type of integration model or another. But I've no idea about any of that. Again, I don't even know what the relevant models are. It's just nothing I'm paying attention to. I just had a theological and psychological interest in profanity.
I'm describing all this because I'm becoming aware of more and more graduate students in the discipline of psychology who follow my work, notice a difference, and want to do similar sorts of things. Perhaps not for their dissertation, but later, when when have more freedom to take up quirkier research projects. So for these graduate students, what is my integrative strategy, process or model?
It's a three step process:
1. Get really good at psychology.I'll have more to say this week about these three steps. For now, let me just say something about #1 and #2.
2. Get really good at theology.
3. Find an interesting question.
What do I mean "get really good at psychology"? Well, all the faith-based graduate schools have their PhDs or PsyDs in psychology focused on mental health, in either counseling or clinical psychology. That has a homogenizing and narrowing effect. "Christian psychology" becomes focused on psychopathology and the practice of counseling.
So when I mean "get really good at psychology" I mean get really good at psychology, generally speaking. Not really good at clinical or counseling psychology, but good at psychology. All of it.
What this means, from a practical standpoint, is that while your doctoral education in psychology focuses more and more on therapy as it progresses you'll need to be very intentional in reading independently to grow and keep up your expertize in areas like personality, social, cognitive and developmental psychology. So when I say "get really good at psychology" I mean read outside the areas of clinical and counseling. Because as I'll discuss tomorrow, I think most of the fresher ideas for integration are found in places like social psychology than in clinical or counseling psychology. For example: profanity research.
Next, what do I mean by "get really good at theology"? For a graduate student in psychology this is going to be really hard. Most of this expertise is, again, going to have to be acquired by outside reading. And I don't have a really good strategy for how to go about this, no list of books to read. My advice is just to read a lot of good theology.
For example, at the start of each semester I'll go to our bookstore and look at all the books assigned for the graduate theology classes. What are those theologians talking about this semester? I'll find books that interest me and read them. I know they are of good quality and relevant because, well, they are required texts in our theology classes. And reading these books keeps me educated and up to speed, albeit in a spotty way, with what's going on in theology.
And the key here is to follow your interests. Yes, if a book looks like it's directly relevant to some psychological topic I'll likely read it. But more often than not I'm reading for my own benefit because, professional issues aside, my faith journey is driven by a host of personal questions for which I'm searching for some answers. I read theology for myself primarily.
But what you'll find in all this is that if you read a lot of psychology and theology you'll often stumble onto interesting questions, associations, and convergences. Perhaps you'll find a theological view of the self that doesn't jibe with psychological science. Or maybe they do jibe. Perhaps you'll find theological ideas that recast findings in psychology. Or perhaps you'll find vast areas of difference that have no bridges connecting them, a chasm the mere existence of which is cause for reflection.
Regardless, the process here is this: read widely in both fields, mainly driven by curiosity, and keep an eye out for interesting connections. That last is the real trick. Having a nose for interesting questions is, I think, a talent rather than a skill. But insofar as it is a skill I'll give, tomorrow, my best guess on how to develop it.
So that's my model of integration. I'll call it "the trainwreck model." Read a lot of psychology (especially outside the areas of counseling and clinical psychology). Read a lot of theology. Crash them together. Pick up the interesting pieces.