Eclectic Theology

I approach theology as a psychologist. Which means that I approach theology eclectically. Theology, as I see it, is a tool. My main criterion for picking up a bit of theology is utilitarian and pragmatic in nature. The question I ask of theology is this: Will it do the job?

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. 

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18 thoughts on “Eclectic Theology”

  1. Thank you for this post. I found it very helpful.

    I noticed a few weeks back that as I started a re-gaining and re-building a faith, I was very anxious: I was and am open to new ideas (I desperately need them, in fact, given that my former approach failed me so completely) but I was anxious and hurrying to find the corpus or the entire corpus of this new belief. When I realized a few weeks ago that the idea of a "correct content of belief" was merely a legacy of my former approach, I calmed down.

    Reading this post today, I realize I truly only slowed down. I became less frantic in my search and more "trusting," but this post helps me realize that I've still been waiting for a new "correct" belief system to settle in.

    I guess that, assembled quickly or slowly, an idol is still an idol. What is so alarming is the way the temptation to cerainty/idolatry presented itself this time: I know to assemble my faith myself rather than give in to the dogmatic or partisan assertion of others, but I was still assuming a belief system was going to save me: a persistent temptation.

    This post is a great reminder to me that God is going to save me, not ideas about him. That I already (!) know what is required. (Micah 6:8). That how I live and walk is the only(? the most important?) priority, not what's inside my head. And if on some point I do think differently, that too God will make clear to me. Maybe even like he did this morning?

    In other words: thank you for the post..

  2. I found this interesting, and very much describes a lot of my own approach to theology. But it really prompts the question: Useful for what?

  3. Faith seeking understanding. I think understanding is a bit different than "true," "right," or "orthodox."

    Basically, I'm always trying to understand something. Something about a biblical text. Something about God. About the cross. About suffering in the world. About the relationship of the church to the world. About Christian ethics. To date, I've never encountered a theological system that handles all these issues in a completely satisfactory way. Each theory answers some things well, but less so with other things. That is why rival theological ideas rise up over time. They are always hitting prior systems in their weakest spots.

    So if no one theory gets at every issue when you're seeking understanding you have to dance around between these theories. You need them all. But you have to play them like a piano.

  4. This post makes so much sense to me. I don't know how much of this is formally done in theological education (I don't remember it making into many classes) but I know it's done all the time pastorally. So much of the work of pastoring people feels like trying to disarm a bomb, trying to figure out which wire to cut without doing further damage. Add to that the overwhelming amount of paradoxes that are a part of Christian theology and it makes sense that you would emphasize certain themes and diminish other ones at key moments in people's lives. An example that comes to mind, people who are grieving a death don't need to hear about the Christian doctrine of Hell, but Christians who are thinking about starting a Pay-day loan company might.

  5. Great approach here Dr. Beck. I completely resonate with your thoughts about 'theories as tools.' I think Williams James is on the money when he talks about pragmatism being a way to settle metaphysical disputes that are otherwise limitless. The pragmatic method is a great way to disambiguate problems (or show that they're not there at all) 😄

  6. That's exactly right. William James has been huge for me.

    BTW, for readers who want to explore William James, Robert Richardson's biography is spectaluar:

    And for a great historical overview of the intellectual history of pragmatism (with bios of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey) look at the Pultizer-Prize winning The Metaphyiscal Club:

  7. I appreciate your post. I think that it is not unrelated to, and is helpful in expanding and explaining an issue that was prompting my thinking this morning. That is, that guys like Luther and Calvin died on their way. To subscribe to the thoughts and propositions held by various thinkers as though they represent the final say in a matter presupposes that the person had arrived and that no further progress could be made. Such thinking, I believe, is depressing and discouraging. I, on the other hand, am a person who is pretty hopeful. For more than 40 years I felt my choice to major in anthropology in college was pretty foolish. Surely, that's what most people thought...thus I did too. More recently I've found that much of what I learned, including the need to choose and employ various "tools" to be very helpful in my theological journey.

  8. Is there a correlation here, that theologians who appreciate and cite that definition from Anselm are more likely to be more eclectic in approach? It is also (see Jonathan's comment above) more likely when the rubber hits the road in "practical theology".

  9. I think I have the same intellectual habits and I'm sure that's part of why I like your work. At the same time, I'm not sure how to understand this pragmatic approach, in a spiritual context. In clinical practice the criteria for usefulness are somewhat more clear and intersubjective. You say in one of your replies below that your criterion for usefulness is yielding "understanding"--is that a subjective psychological state, like a good feeling of some kind? Or by "understanding" do you mean something more like.... ability to synthesize, generalize... something more cognitive?

    I guess I sometimes worry, for my own part, that my taking this approach is narcissistic or even solipsistic somehow.

  10. What's maybe an example? In Germany you gave a hint of it, how for example the Pen-Sub model, as a tool, can be disastrous medicine for a Sunday School kid (who maybe needs Moral Influence theory) while for a convict--your words, who's done some really bad shit--it may be just the right tool. Are there other examples that come to you, and could you share?

  11. Sure thing. Original sin. There are times when I feel like my liberal, progressive, optimistic and utopian tendencies--we can make a better world or church!--needs a doctrine like Original Sin. I don't really like or use the doctrine of Original Sin, not a huge believer in total depravity, but I find the pessimism in the doctrine to be useful at times.

    Calvinism and God's Sovereignty. I'm huge into the lament psalms. But I had a friend whose son had brain cancer. And she didn't turn to the lament psalms. She did, rather, turn to the psalms where God is rightly ordering the world. It wasn't her experience that the world was going well, but she took comfort in the God's-eye-veiw, that God was working, had a plan, and was making good things out of bad. Again, not a huge fan of God determining the motion of every atom in the world, but I see the value at times in a vision of God's ultimate sovereignty.

    A high Christology. Again, my tendency is toward a low Christology, the human Jesus. But my beliefs about all things being reconciled in Christ resonates with a hugely cosmic high Christology. For example, Colossians 1.16-20:

    "For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."

    Ponder what it means, in light of this high Christology, that all who are "in Christ" will be reconciled, given that "all things" are are being held together. How could anyone be, as a created being, outside of the Logos?

  12. Hi thanks so much for this. Ive recently finished reading The Authenticity of Faith, which I loved, particularly because of your clarity with regards to the importance of the way that beliefs "function." Ive been itching to see these sorts of arguments pop up in more narrow ways within christianity. For example, "how does disallowing gay marriage, women in ministry, priestly marriage etc. etc. function?" But, perhaps most importantly, I think the world is itching for someone like you (with your hands in both pies - science and religion), to write a book that asks how the widespread beliefs in the traditional doctrines of Hell function. I think that the approach taken in recent years by the propositions of Rob Bell and others could be well supplemented by a functional argument. You seem like you are in a position to avoid the claim "This is about Truth! I don't care how this functions; souls are at stake!" because with your theological background, you could also pick up the tools to show how belief in Hell not only harms people, but also does not line up so well scripturally. Anyway, just a thought. Thanks for doing what you do.

  13. When I read the post and pause for an extra second, your witty reply actually has a lot of depth for me. Dr. Beck takes the unusual approach of viewing theological positions as tools and utilizing a wide variety of opposing tools to achieve the desired effects (e.g. better faithfulness, better understanding, better discipleship, etc...). If one tool doesn't work, then discard it and find the correct one for the job.

    In my experience, it seems that many preachers and other evangelicals take the exact opposite view. Their particular theological viewpoint (the tool) cannot be incorrect because that viewpoint clearly denotes what God said...(of course, everyone else has the incorrect view). Discarding a specific theological stance would be equivalent to blasphemy. Rather, WE are the objects/tools that God works through us to achieve His ends. The theology is the constant that cannot be changed. If we're not getting it right, it's because WE are the faulty tool and we don't know how to correctly utilize the appropriate tool. We are encouraged to change/transform ourselves into a better tool and align with the "correct" theology, even if logic would suggest something different.

  14. This reads very oddly to me, and I don't think that's because I'm an atheist. First, you appear to equate "psychology" with "clinical or counselling psychology" - and even within clinical psychology, I get the impression that you're not talking about problems with an identifiable organic basis. But many psychologists (cognitive psychologists, industrial psychologists, forensic psychologists, educational psychologists, psychoneurologists...) would have no use for any of the "tools" used in counselling. Second, whether these "tools" work, is an empirical question. For most of them - and certainly for psychodynamic approaches - there appears to be no evidence - beyond the anecdotes of practitioners - that they do. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the one with the best evidence base.

  15. Thank you Dr Beck for answering a question i've been floundering to articulate. This is life giving for me, having spent my 40 years as a Christian searching for the 'truth'...and frankly, going crazy as I studied theologians.
    But here's an example from my life to Jordan's question: teaching/ discipling a woman who gives her life sacrificially every day, to raising a family and who sees no legitimacy in her owns needs, to "take up the Cross and deny herself". It nearly literally killed me.
    Incidentally, I came to the conclusion myself that most men probably needed a theology of the Cross....and maybe Jesus wasn't giving me this message. But it needed a theologian validate my thoughts! Thank you.

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