And this approach to theology is, I've discovered, a bit unique.
Theoretically, psychology is a diverse discipline. You have Freud and all the thinkers from the psychodynamic tradition, people like Jung and Adler. You also have humanistic approaches like Carl Rogers. Or existential orientations like Victor Frankl. To say nothing of the behaviorists. Or the cognitive approaches pioneered by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis.
There are so many theories in psychology that classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are devoted to surveying and investigating all these theories.
So when it comes to practice, then, counseling and clinical psychologists have to make some choices. Which theory--we call it a "therapeutic orientation"--will guide how you approach therapy? Because these various theories have very different thoughts about what ails us and what might be done about it. A psychodynamically orientated therapist will be very, very different from a behavioral therapist.
Some psychologists pick a particular orientation and get really good at that approach. But most psychologists describe themselves as eclectic in therapeutic orientation. Eclectic psychologists pick and choose among the various theories and techniques depending upon the presenting problem of the client. They might pick cognitive-behavioral techniques if the presenting issue is depression or opt for a psychodynamic approach it the issue is rooted in family dynamics or past trauma.
And even among those psychologists who specialize in a particular approach an eclectic and utilitarian sensibility reigns. Few psychologists are purists. Techniques are routinely borrowed from other orientations. You grab anything that might help a client. And given that clients are human beings and not machines you often have to experiment with techniques to see what works.
In short, as a psychologist I was trained to see theories as tools. I was trained to pick up theory, use it, drop it, and pick up another one. Psychologists don't get overly attached to theories. We treat theories the way a surgeon looks at a table of scalpels and surgical implements. You reach for the one you need at the moment. You reach for the tool that does the job.
As best I can tell, theological education is a bit different in this regard. Theological education appears to be more polemical, an identification with a school of thought which involves noting the various failures or problems of alternative or rival theological approaches. Standard putdowns of various theological thinkers or positions are practiced and repeated.
In contrast to psychological clinical training, theologians do not seem to be encouraged to pick up and drop theories--that is, the writings of a church father or theologian--in an eclectic, disinterested and utilitarian fashion, mixing and matching them to solve a problem. I've rarely seen, for example, Aquinas or Augustine or a church father picked up or, most diagnostically, dropped from a discussion in this way.
I'm generalizing of course. For example, graduate schools in psychology do lean toward certain approaches. And practicum supervisors may have a very distinctive approach. Still, in the course of your graduate education in psychology you'll get exposed to, trained in and experiment with a variety of therapeutic approaches. Which is why most practicing psychologists describe themselves as eclectic rather than as subscribing to a particular school of thought.
All this has affected how I approach theology. Theology, as I see it, is a collection of theories and I've been trained to handle theories in a pragmatic, utilitarian manner. I have a what'll-do-the-job approach. Theology is a tool. So if one theological approach isn't particularly good at something I set it down and reach for something that seems to work better.
For example, there are things that, say, a Tillich can do better than, say, a Hauerwas. And there are things a Hauerwas can do that Tillich cannot. For some things I think Augustine is a great tool. For other things I think liberal theology is a better tool. Sometimes I think Niebuhr is more helpful than Yoder while at other times I think the reverse. I'll reach for Barth if I need him but I'll also grab death of God theology. Sometimes I'll reach for a high Christology. Sometimes a low one. Today I might preach the doctrine of Original Sin. Tomorrow I might denounce it.
I'll use anything that'll do the job. Just like an eclectic psychologist will reach for any technique or approach that they think will be helpful.
All this explains why I can be so breathtakingly quick to dismiss certain theologians or theological systems that others deem sacrosanct. Let's say, for example, your theology is rooted in Thomas Aquinas and you love theologians like Herbert McCabe. Well, I'll be quick to drop McCabe and Aquinas when I don't find them useful in the same way I'm quick to drop Sigmund Freud. For lots and lots of things I think Freud and Aquinas are useful and helpful. But Freud and Aquinas are tools.
To be sure, treating someone like Aquinas as a tool will be shocking for some theologians. But that's how we treat the giants in my discipline. What I'm trying to describe here is that my quickness to drop someone like Aquinas (or any church father or theologian) isn't due to arrogance but is, rather, a disciplinary habit inculcated by my training in psychology where theories are picked up and dropped for pragmatic reasons with startling speed and regularity. I bring those social science habits to the work of theology.
Of course, I could be wrong about how I've characterized theological training. I'm an outsider looking in. Theologians may be trained to be as eclectic and utilitarian as psychologists. To be sure, in theological education budding theologians are exposed to theological history and the various theological systems. But I don't know if they are trained to mix and match theories in their work as indiscriminately as psychologists are trained to do.
Basically, I don't tend to think about a theological position as being "right or wrong." My focus is on usefulness. Every theological position has strengths and weaknesses, and noting the weaknesses doesn't mean the theological position is "wrong." It just means that it's useful for some things and not for others.
Which is right, penal substitutionary atonement or Rene Girard? Liberal theology or Barth? Yoder or Neibuhr? Thomas Aquinas or death of God theology?
Goodness gracious. I don't know.
But I find them all very useful.