Psychology and Christianity: Friends or Foes?

One area in which the “war” between science and faith is manifest is the study of human mental processes and behaviour – commonly known as psychology. Mind or Spirit Some psychologists view Christianity as a “crutch” for weak people, or something that is obsolete given our advanced understanding of neuroscience. Some Christians view psychology as unnecessary – all we need to know about human minds is found in the Bible. And some Christians who are also psychologists compartmentalize their work and their faith. Yet, as with other areas of science, there is no need for conflict or separation. There are many areas of compatibility and much can be gained from responsible dialogue and mutual respect.

The study of psychology, although not always labelled as such, is ancient. Much wisdom about human behaviour and motivations is found in the proverbs and prophetic writings. Jesus’ admonition to love and forgive others is seldom disputed. Theological masters, like Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin, wrote about the nature of the soul and mind, and spiritual direction has long been practised in the church. It is only in the past century that psychology has developed as a science. There are two primary areas: experimental psychology, which can be viewed like other sciences in terms of describing God’s creation (and therefore little disputed, although the interpretation of the data is often disputed), and clinical or counseling psychology, which is the source of much potential conflict with Christianity, and the focus of this discussion.

The Church has sometimes either denied the findings of clinical psychological science or uncritically appropriated its beliefs. However, the past few decades have seen much helpful discussion on responsible integration of Christian theology and psychology. Both psychology and theology have an underlying metaphysic (what we are) and ethic (how we should be), and recognize that these are complex. Both seek to understand and help improve the myriad mental and emotional problems which people experience, and thus have similar aims. Integration is a difficult task, partly because there are multiple variations and interpretations within both disciplines. I suggest an approach which considers similarities between theology and psychology within the biblical drama of creation, fall and redemption.

Both psychologists and Christian theologians affirm the intrinsic value and worth of human beings (theologians believe this is because we are created in the image of God and loved by him). Both recognize that humans are innately spiritual, and more than a random collection of neurons. People are also innately relational: psychologists use the therapeutic relationship itself as a means of healing, and Christians emphasize the importance of community, especially the church. Humans are rational beings, and psychology and theology draw on this capacity for reason. People are also innately moral, with an understanding of right and wrong. Finally, theology teaches that humans have free will, and psychologists know that the ability to choose is essential to any counseling process.

However, both psychologists and Christian theologians recognize that something is very wrong with humanity, evidenced in destructive behaviours as well as tormented mental lives. There is a profound alienation from self and other. Christians would include alienation from God, and would label this as sin, whereas psychologists would label it most often as illness. They would agree that the essence of the problem is relational; wounding occurs in relationship and causes guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, disordered perceptions, and poor self-esteem, for example. Problems occur as a consequence of living in a disrupted and disordered world (due to sin according to theology; due to neurochemical disease, poor parenting, or societal trauma according to psychology).

Both psychologists and Christian theologians attempt to help people by addressing and healing what is wrong. They recognize there is good in the world – “common grace” in theological terms. They stress the importance of loving relationships (Christianity stresses loving God first) both in the process and the content of psychotherapy. Both affirm the virtues of honesty, humility, respect, self-control, patience, courage, commitment, forgiveness, mercy and compassion. The so-called Golden rule (treat others as you would like to be treated) is used by both Christian and secular counselors. Alcoholics Anonymous is an excellent example of similarities between psychology and theology: they suggest belief in a power greater than themselves, encourage taking a moral inventory, admitting wrongs and making amends. Psychology and theology also have similar goals and processes. They aim to bring the unconscious into conscious awareness, or the darkness into the light; they work towards healing and wholeness, reorientation and reconciliation; they consider therapeutic/spiritual growth as a journey.

My focus on broad similarities does not mean I am unaware of differences between psychology and theology. However, I believe these disciplines can learn from each other. Christians are right to be concerned that perhaps the therapist has replaced the confessional priest, and that group therapy has replaced Christian community. Theologians can appropriate psychological research regarding human behaviour and psychotherapeutic techniques. Psychologists can mine theology with respect to human spirituality and the relationship between body, mind, and soul. I respect both disciplines and encourage each to think broadly and carefully consider the many potential areas of dialogue.


Janet Warren is VP of the CSCA. She will be teaching a summer course on the integration of theology and psychology at McMaster Divinity College:

Also see the September 2013 issue of PSCF for helpful articles on psychology and Christianity. That special issue was triggered by this essay posted on our website.

The Matter of Mathematics

Russell Howell has co-authored the textbook Complex Analysis for Mathematics and Engineering which is in its sixth edition, and is the co-editor of the HarperOne book Mathematics Through the Eyes of Faith. His essay here describes the latest challenges for mathematics and Christian faith. The essay is intended as an invitation. Readers are encouraged to take up one of the insights or challenges, or maybe a related one that was not mentioned, and draft an article (typically about 5,000-8,000 words) that contributes to the conversation. These can be sent to Dr. Howell. He will send the best essays on to peer review and then we will select from those for publication in a mathematics theme issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. The lead editorial in the December 2013 issue of PSCF outlines what the journal looks for in article contributions. For full consideration for inclusion in the theme issue, manuscripts should be received electronically before 30 June 2014.

For those readers who prefer to take a literary approach in sharing their ideas, please submit essays (up to 3,000 words), poetry, fiction, or humour inspired by the invitational essay to Emily Ruppel for possible publication in God and Nature magazine.

Looking forward to hearing your perspectives,

James C. Peterson
Editor of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Unique Storms, Unique Discoveries

As some of you are aware, most of England has been inundated with rain and lashed by gale force winds for the better part of the last two months. Although there has been widespread flooding and thousands of homes left without power, from a scientific point of view, there have also been some very interesting discoveries resulting from these storms. A couple of weeks ago I went down to Lyme Regis: the place where fossil hunting began. The storms had brought down several new portions of the fossil-filled cliffs onto the beach. At some personal risk (after all, one is standing under quickly eroding cliffs!), you can walk along and find amazing specimens of Jurassic era fossils, many of which are small enough to take home.

But a much more exciting find was recently made at Happisburgh in Norfolk. Unusually vicious tides exposed footprints from a tribe of early human ancestors that date between 850,000-950,000 years old. They are more than twice the age of the previous oldest European tracks, and show that people were already present at this early age at the boundaries of Europe.

Yet, scientists had less than two weeks to record this unique find, before the same forces that exposed the tracks also destroyed them. It is an event to make vivid the theme of Ecclesiastes: that all is fleeting. These precious traces of long-extinct life were revealed for just a moment before disappearing forever: all memory of them erased by the ever-lapping sea. I wonder what legacy––culturally, ecologically, and spiritually––we will leave for those who will someday find the traces of our culture?

Written by Bethany Sollereder, Student and Early Career Member of the CSCA Executive Council

From Cosmos to Psyche: Call for Abstracts

FROM COSMOS TO PSYCHE “All things hold together in Christ” (Colossians 1:17)

ASA CSCA CiS 2014 Annual Meeting
McMaster University, Hamilton, ON
July 25–28, 2014

A Message from Program Chair Robert Mann

“All things hold together in Christ” is a phrase that speaks to the integration of God’s love, justice, and intelligibility in the person of Jesus. At this annual meeting, we want to explore how the various scientific disciplines hold together with both scientific and theological integrity. Our goal at this annual meeting is to explore this across the breadth of the sciences, from cosmos to psyche.

Our topical areas for parallel oral sessions are as follows:

  • Physical Sciences: Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy – Chair: Colin Humphreys
    • Exploring the latest results in the relationship between the physical sciences and Christian theology.
  • Life Sciences: Biology, Medicine, Bioethics – Chair: Patricia Fitzgerald-Bocarsly
    • Going beyond the traditional creation/evolution dialogue to examine how current research informs and is informed by Christian faith.
  • Mind Sciences: Psychology, Neuroscience, Psychiatry – Chair: Heather Looy
    • How do these sciences enable us to understand the renewal of our minds with the mind of Christ?
  • Environmental Sciences: Ecology, Geology, Meteorology/Climate – Chair: Don Morton
    • What are appropriate ways for these disciplines to facilitate our roles as stewards of the earth?
  • Christian Women in Science and EngineeringChair: Gayle Ermer
    • Considering methods for increasing the participation of Christian women in STEM fields and that describe means by which that participation benefits society and brings glory to God.
  • Emergence: Information Theory, Complexity, Theology – Chair: Arnold Sikkema
    • Bringing together the broad range of scientific disciplines to understand how higher-level phenomena emerge.
  • Science and Technology in Service of the PoorChair: Michael Clifford
    • Appropriate technology and economic development; health and medical care in developing countries; response to natural disasters.
  • Other Topics
    • Any issue relevant to science and Christian faith including experiences in education or dialog, communication of ideas, biblical interpretation, theological implications, etc.

ABSTRACT SUBMISSION IS NOW CLOSED (as of 28 February 2014).

CONFIRMED PLENARY SPEAKERS
Confirmed Plenary Speakers: Best, Coles, Netterfield, Page, Schloss

  • Megan Best, MD (Bioethicist, Palliative Care Physician, Australia): “Brave New World” (Friday evening lecture open to the public)
  • Rev Alasdair Coles, PhD, Dept. of Clinical Neurosciences, Cambridge University, UK: “Brain, Soul and Psyche: Embodied and in Christ”
  • Barth Netterfield, PhD (Director of Balloon Astrophysics Research Group, Depts. of Astronomy and of Physics, University of Toronto, Canada): title TBA
  • Don Page, PhD (Dept. of Physics, University of Alberta, Canada): “The Optimal Argument for the Existence of God”
  • Jeffrey Schloss, PhD (Distinguished Professor and T.B. Walker Chair of Biology, Westmont College, USA): “Evolution, Moral Cognition, and the Question of Human Exceptionalism”

New Findings in Environmental Science and Their Implications for Christians

Science is constantly moving. Dr. Dorothy Boorse, professor and chair of biology at Gordon College and co-author of the textbook Environmental Science now in its 12th edition, has written an intriguing description of the latest developments in environmental science along with insights and challenges it raises for Christian faith. The essay is provided here and is intended as an invitation. Readers are encouraged to take up one of the insights or challenges, or maybe a related one that was not mentioned, and draft an article (typically about 5,000-8,000 words) that contributes to the conversation. These can be sent to Dr. Boorse at Dorothy.Boorse@gordon.edu. She will send the best essays on to peer review and then we will select from those for publication in an environmental science theme issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. The lead editorial in the December 2013 issue of PSCF outlines what the journal looks for in article contributions. For full consideration for inclusion in the theme issue, manuscripts should be received electronically before 30 March 2014.

For those readers who prefer to take a literary approach in sharing their ideas, please submit essays (up to 3,000 words), poetry, fiction, or humour inspired by Boorse’s invitational essay to emily@asa3.org for possible publication in God and Nature magazine.

Looking forward to hearing your perspectives,
James C. Peterson
Past President of CSCA & Editor of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Dorothy Boorse and two of her students, Jenna Gustavson and Linnea Harrold,  investigate pond lilies in a pond at Gordon College, Wenham, MA.

Dorothy Boorse and two of her students, Jenna Gustavson and Linnea Harrold, investigate pond lilies in a pond at Gordon College, Wenham, MA.

40th Anniversary!

Forty years. A biblical generation. That is long enough to be clear that no one individual has carried the CSCA. The only persons that have been at the centre all the way through have been the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For our Lord’s calling, work, and encouragement we are thankful.

To mark the occasion of our 40th anniversary, the CSCA Executive Council has produced a special newsletter. As we reflect in this newsletter on those forty years, we have the privilege of hearing from Dan Osmond, one of our three signing founders. He served ably on the Council for over thirty years. In his piece he describes the milieu when CSCA was founded. It was a time when Canada celebrated its centennial, hosted Expo 67, and repatriated its constitution from Britain. There was a sense of “coming of age” and taking responsibility as a country. That impetus was spurred further by new income tax laws that donations would only be recognized if they were to a Canadian organization. It was time to form the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation from the American Scientific Affiliation as a voice along side the ASA. ASA could not have been more gracious over the years in sharing expertise and resources with its continental ally. In his contribution to this newsletter, the executive director of ASA, Randy Isaac, reminds us of that continued close teamwork.

Our 40th anniversary newsletter, edited by Bob Geddes, includes a foreword by James Peterson, a historical piece Don McNally, brief book reviews by Bob Geddes and Arnold Sikkema, notices of books recently published by two CSCA membes, a contribution from Bethany Sollereder, and preview of the 2014 annual meeting of the ASA, CiS, and CSCA.

Forty years. We are still here and as our Lord tarries, we can look forward to the next forty. May they be as collegial, fruitful, and enduring as the last!

Read the newsletter here! Or click on the “40th Anniversary” tab or icon above.

Peter Kirkby Memorial Medal for Outstanding Service to Canadian Physics awarded to CSCA member David Chettle

The Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) and the Canadian Organization of Medical Physicists (COMP) are pleased to announce that the 2013 CAP-COMP Peter Kirkby Memorial Medal for Outstanding Service to Canadian Physics is awarded to David Chettle, McMaster University, for his dedicated service to the Canadian physics community which has strengthened and raised the profile of physics as a profession. He has enthusiastically mentored a generation of medical, health and radiation physics students and has made physics an attractive career option for many. His development, maintenance and expansion of vital multi-disciplinary programs and infrastructure raised the profile of Canadian physics internationally; he played a key role in the DMBP; and his leadership has led to active participation by many in the physics community.

Continue reading

A Manual for Leading a Research Group

Photo from http://dailynews.mcmaster.ca/article/research-opens-doors-to-great-possibilities/

David Chettle, Professor of Medical Physics & Applied Radiation Sciences at McMaster University

In September 2012, James Peterson hosted a CSCA student and faculty reception at McMaster that was centred on a discussion of the article “What I Wish My Pastor Knew About…The Life of a Scientist”, by Andy Crouch. At one point, Andy Crouch writes, “With the collaborative practice of science come the joys as well as the challenges of managing many people’s priorities, expectations, egos, abilities, and limitations” (page 4, column 2). This reminded me of my long held opinion that Paul wrote the best manual for leading a research group, that is 1 Corinthians 12.

Paraphrasing: “A research group should work together as a team, although it comprises disparate individuals, each with her/his own needs, desires, talents and sources of motivation.” (Loosely derived from 1 Corinthians 12:12.) The task of the group leader is to recognise these different talents and types of motivation and seek to engineer the situation in which each person is operating in the realm of her/his strengths, while continuing to acknowledge the importance of those individual desires and needs.

This requires that the group leader has a clear idea of where the research group is headed and why, which is nevertheless sufficiently loosely held to be adjusted in response to new ideas and insights contributed by research group members. Equally, the research group leader must be adept at listening, discerning and affirming those strengths and recognising those often unexpressed needs and desires.

In my experience in secular universities, it doesn’t help to acknowledge Paul as the author of this manual or to make it explicit that the research group leader should immerse her/his efforts in watchful prayer for the enterprise of the research group as a whole and particularly for the individual members.

When I voiced something like this opinion, one senior and experienced colleague pointed out that research groups don’t usually work like this. That’s true; perhaps Paul should be read more widely and more prayer certainly wouldn’t go amiss!

Finally, for research group, one can equally well read Department, Faculty … Also, I wonder could we be sufficiently radical as to run a church along the lines of this sort of research group?!


Contributed by CSCA member David Chettle, Professor of Medical Physics & Applied Radiation Sciences at McMaster University

Psychology at the Theological Frontiers

Heather LooyScience is constantly moving. Dr. Heather Looy, professor of psychology at The King’s University College, has written an intriguing description of the latest developments in psychology with insights and challenges that they may raise for Christian faith. The essay is provided here and is intended as an invitation. Readers are encouraged to take up one of the insights or challenges, or maybe a related one that was not mentioned, and draft an article (typically about 5,000 words) that contributes to the conversation. These can be sent to Dr. Looy at Heather.Looy@KingsU.ca. She will send the best essays on to peer review and then we will select from those for publication in a psychology theme issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. For full consideration for inclusion in the theme issue, manuscripts should be received electronically before 28 February 2013.

For those readers who prefer to take a literary approach in sharing their ideas, please submit essays (up to 3,000 words), poetry, fiction, or humour inspired by Looy’s invitational essay to emily@asa3.org for possible publication in God and Nature magazine.

Looking forward to hearing your perspectives,
James C. Peterson
President of CSCA & Editor of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

P.S. Please note that this past June, we posted an invitational essay for physics. That opportunity is still open.

Building Local Networks

Any organisation with an online presence benefits significantly from face-to-face networking among its members and holding local events. The same is true of the CSCA. We have members spread widely across Canada, working in public and Christian higher education as well as in industry, medicine, government, and other contexts. As the summer wraps up and we enter a new season of activity, whether it’s the new academic year 2012-13 or re-connecting with co-workers after some scattering for refreshment and rejuvenation of travel and family time, let us find ways to meet together for fellowship, scholarship, and encouragement as Christians in the sciences.

The CSCA has established a number of local groups and contacts in various key regions. Local groups have been able to:

  • host local, national, or international speakers on science & Christianity
  • have fellowship meals and times of worship and prayer
  • network local scientists who were unaware of each other as Christians
  • develop courses and outreach activities

As CSCA members are also automatically members of the American Scientific Affiliation, we have the opportunity to tap into the ASA’s resources for local groups, which are called “chapters”. See the ASA web page under “Chapters and Groups” for a listing of chapters and on how to form a new chapter. No Canadian groups are officially ASA chapters at the time of this writing. However, the ASA is currently offering a $1000 credit (toward speaker expenses) for the formation of new chapters, and $500 for whenever a local group recruits six new members. In addition, there is (through September) a 25% discount on new memberships! So…what’s holding you back?

Over the summer we have collected contact information in various local regions. Please see if there is one in your area. In the above menu bar, click on “Contact Us” and then “Local Contacts” for a listing. If you are in a locale that is not yet represented, please consider becoming a local contact for your region, and use the ASA membership directory (available for CSCA and ASA members only) to establish further connections locally.

We are also working to ensure that all local events show up in the event listing on our web page (see under “Events” in the menu bar). This includes events organised and/or sponsored by CSCA or its members as well as other local events relevant to science and Christianity.

We hope that our new website can be a place where you will be able to connect with others in your area and hear about nearby events where you can be challenged and encouraged in your Christian faith and your scientific endeavours!

Arnold E. Sikkema
Vice President of CSCA