Musings on the Integration of Psychology and Theology: Part 1, The Trainwreck Model

From time to time you may forget that I'm actually a psychologist and not a theologian or bible scholar. This blog is theology heavy, with psychology showing up from time to time.

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.
2. Get really good at theology.
3. Find an interesting question.
I'll have more to say this week about these three steps. For now, let me just say something about #1 and #2.

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.

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17 thoughts on “Musings on the Integration of Psychology and Theology: Part 1, The Trainwreck Model”

  1. This is an interesting and, clearly, successful approach for you. Do you feel that being an academic at ACU (primarily an undergraduate teaching university) provides a greater level of freedom to follow that research path, as compared to a research university? I am curious if there is presumably less pressure to secure extramural funding for your work, publish in more "select" journals, or have a "guiding project, system, or model" that might be more constraining? I ask to gain insight into how other fields operate. As a cellular neuroscientist dependent upon grant funding for a large part of my salary, there is very little integration with theology that could be done (at least as you are doing) that would be fundable and publishable in the journals where I'm expected to publish.

  2. I think you are right. The integration I do would be hard for someone at a research university. That said, given teaching loads at places like ACU it's hard to do any research of any kind at schools like mine. So it's a bit of a Catch 22. But one advantage, as you point out, at a teaching college is that any research is good research. Which gives you some freedom to be creative and pursue quirkier topics.

  3. You lost me early on but I love reading your blog so keep doing what you are doing now matter how you do it :)

  4. The posts this week are going to be a bit nichey, so please bear with me. The next three post this week should be more interesting and I think Thursdays will be very interesting.

    Well...I find it interesting. :-)

  5. Steven Sandage of Bethel has some really good thoughts and approaches on integration as well. At a lecture of his last year is where I was introduced to "Unclean" because he wouldn't stop talking about it. So I read it and now I'm sure all my friends say, "Greg won't stop talking about it."

  6. Great post. I have seen a few complaints that clinical/counseling psychologists aren't retaining enough experimental and foundational knowledge in psychology and this reinforces that (no pun intended). I have also seen the stereotype that people who combine two areas in academia are necessarily weak at both. It's probably a somewhat deserved stereotype but it doesn't have to be.

  7. It's really hard to do good cross-disciplinary work. As I tried to describe in the post, you really have to be intentional to be reading outside your area and to be reading good, quality stuff. For me, it's reading good theology if I want to reach over to that discipline.

  8. I'd say the one part of your model that I often see missing is to actually dialogue with people who are doing both. I think this blog, and other even more informal connections you have, stands you in good stead.

    Often I'll find that the "integration of X and the Bible/ theology" involves silly mistakes that actual theologians, or biblical scholars, will easily catch. I even find this happening within biblical scholarship--for example, a NT scholar makes an assumption about a Psalm, citing a book on the Psalms from the 1960s that EVERY OT scholar regards as outdated (at best).

    The problem with most interdisciplinary dialogue is that someone is too far along in a project (article/ book) before they ask others what they think. It's hard, at that stage, to tell the person that they need to start again, from scratch, with a more nuanced view of theology, or of the Biblical witness.

    That's where things like this blog come in. Despite your intelligence and your incredible breadth of reading, you sometimes make silly mistakes--but people on this blog can catch them. And they catch them before you've made a big project about it--at the early stages. You can then nuance your position, or even drop lines of inquiry, as needed--but also pour on the juice when you find that you've gotten hold of something that really "works" for both fields.

  9. I agree. A blog is a great place to float and sift through ideas, getting early feedback. The main skill, I think, is being willing to look the fool. To make silly mistakes in front of others.

  10. I receive your blog on kindle. I read your thoughts every morning. I find your ideas stimulating, generating a lot of my own thinking. Thanks for letting me walk with you. Milton Kliesch...retired pastor

  11. You're very welcome! I've had quite a few people tell me that they start their morning with coffee and this blog. It's one of the reasons I try to have the posts come out early in the morning.

  12. Looking forward to the rest of this series, Richard. Are you going to be considering the conditions of integration a little more? For example, I would add the need for a third area of knowledge - that of self - and reflective practice for starters if you hope to pull anything worth saving from the wreckage. Great photo, by the way.

  13. The intersection of psychology and theology is interesting, and there obviously should be areas of overlap and association.

    At a popular level and perhaps more related to counseling, I find the academic work of Brene Brown to have a great deal of theological implications.

    I am curious whether you've read this book by Fr. Alexis Trader, an Orthodox priest. It intrigues me and is on my Amazon wish list.

  14. This gets me excited! Read theology books, read psychology books, crash them together. I am SO excited about getting back into academics. =)

  15. I can appreciate what you've done here. With an M.Div and an MS in clinical psychology - working towards a PhD in spiritually integrative-psychotherapy I think this would be the best alternative. However, Carter and Narramore (1979) offer a few great insights into the method of how to two field can integrate. The parallel model seems to be the most accurate in depicting the scope and nature of the relationship. However, I find that John Cobb, and his model of process thought, can actually integrate the two fields of study.

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