Since Jay Adams and no doubt earlier, the Christian world has been arguing amongst itself over the relationship between its faith and the modern science of psychology. And this is not only a disciplinary division issue, for the modern field of inquiry has experienced a history of its own, with influential luminaries who not only searched for answers, but promulgated ones they thought they found. Many of those answers were not in agreement with the Christian faith, though some were. So the church finds itself needing to do critical and correlational work with the situation.
Beyond this question, Christianity makes claims about the human soul and its experience. And since the religion is doctrinally diverse, with pluriformity and even famous disagreement, its not surprising to find that specific Christians and Christian traditions make very different claims about the human condition. This is done both in a catechetical context and in apologetic, or evangelistic ones. Yet, we think that as ever, all our communication, even catechetical and apologetic, needs to be examined in light of reality and of scripture, and that not every past or contemporary commonplace can survive that scrutiny. Below we discuss both of these issues in brief.
Assuming a natural law and biblical approach to ethics, a fundamental axiom would be that the right and the good are identical, and that in principle we are directed toward what is good for us, with good being understood at base as “that which is desirable.” Yet, these traditions also acknowledge that it is possible for our desires to be twisted, such that we anticipate and receive pleasure in things that are ultimately not good for us in the objective sense. When Christians interact on issues of ethics, we sometimes don’t acknowledge this point, or if we do, we don’t do it very clearly. Sometimes we can switch into a kind of Kantian mode, where we simply issue prohibitions toward behaviour that people find pleasure in, without any acknowledgement or sense that the right is supposed to be ultimately the most pleasurable thing to do (at least, if things are functioning properly). A big scandal of Christian moral teaching is the secret Kantianism (what’s fun is bad) of much of it, which shrewd unbelievers are very quick to discern and understandably reject.
But the Christian claim is not simply that refraining from sin in the face of strong desires will bring more joy than engaging in sin. It is rather more specific: it’s that if one is regenerate, and if one is living out that regeneration with a fundamental psychological desire for God, and if one is walking with Christ in such a way that that desire is stoked (and by God’s grace, satisfied), then one would be happier in refraining from sin than in practicing it. But we’re not required to make a definitive claim about what would make people happier apart from those conditions being met.
While virtue really does “feel” better, the complexity of any given person means that this will rarely be a simply demonstrable equation at every point. Plenty of unbelievers are pretty well integrated in many respects, and that integration on those other levels carries, as it were, the weight of the sin, which itself is often a complicated affair. Telling these people that they are “really” miserable and just faking their cobbled-together adjustment and sense of relative well-being is bound to make one look a fool, and understandably so.
Thus it is wisest in conversation and counselling with relatively unknown people to focus on the basic human misery, as a datum of life which the unbeliever’s precarious but real attempts to ameliorate, with the help of common grace, are a response to. We can acknowledge that they have done so, but say that God has already responded to this condition Himself sovereignly and wonderfully. Precisely because actual people are so complex, you can’t really guess what their inner world “feels” like aside from the general facts of what it is to be a son of Adam, and in any case the Gospel is addressed to man as son of Adam, not primarily to any particular configuration of personal makeup.
It may be appropriate to state very generally that any given sin will decrease the happiness of the person who practices it over the long run and on average, regardless of their regeneracy. But when you add in other variables, such as individual history, trauma, social/cultural/economic/political context, and common grace, etc., and you’re speaking of more particular groups or even individuals, basically almost anything is psychologically possible for an unregenerate person, or a regenerate person who is simultaneously justified and still subject to indwelling sin. There are various constellations of psychological and/or physical defects which make human psychology near inscrutable.
Modern psychology is generally, though not entirely, under the spell of the “hard” sciences, which means, mechanistic figuration. This means that much of modern psychology will tend toward an impersonalist, materialist account of human behavior- not just abnormal behavior, but normal behavior too. There are in fact basic physical injuries or imbalances which lead to behavioral abnormality, and for which the person is not culpable. And there are in fact conscious decisions which, however sneakily or self-deceivingly executed, are the person’s full responsibility. But then there is a vast range of things which are neither one nor the other exactly, and many of these are impressions and habits of soul which predate age of reason or full moral agency, that is, date from childhood exposure to traumatic circumstances when the person is still very plastic and impressionable, and deforming responses developed to such trauma can be very compelling and experienced almost as “nature”, rather than habit. Too, even in adulthood, certain kinds of trauma can strike a person’s heart so profoundly that pre-conscious deformative responses are developed in reaction. And these deformations can create certain specific dispositions to sin, though, barring real insanity, we have to assert that the person is not compellingly determined to sin by these complexes. The truth is that “neurotic” responses are in fact responses of the whole person, though we cannot identify the whole person with the fully “conscious” ego which we habitually regard, in reflection, as the “self.”
What then is the specifically Christian difference? There must be one, by Brunner’s Law, because this has to do with the image of God and his God-ordained path to blessedness. The problem with many “Christian” approaches is that, they work with a picture of a “spiritual” man who is basically an angel in flesh, but ahistoric and simple. Thus, there is a tendency to want to reduce all psychotherapy to either a) exorcism, or b) church discipline. This is an enormously stupid mistake. In reaction, we now have Christian counseling which, although it might be fine philosophically (meaning, personalist and non-materialist), is hardly Christian at all, though in a secularist and materialist age, philosophical rectitude is already so different from the prevalent model that Christians can mistake it for being specifically Christian.
The real difference in part lies in pointing out the sinful nature of deformative responses even if they aren’t per se sin or conscious sin. The old distinction between original and actual sin is useful here. If I’m bullied badly as a kid, and no adult steps in to restore justice, I might develop some really ugly wrath-responses which, although quite intelligible as self-defense maneuvers, derive from my fallen heart’s supposition of scarce, merely general, or even nonexistent Providence (not knowing truly that God is my Father), and ignorance of unity of man and the divine law of charity. And most specifically, the fallen heart is ignorant of the fact that God’s Son has absorbed and quenched in His flesh all sin, not just of man against God, but of man against man. Or I might develop fear-introversion responses; but the roots would be the same- original sin, by which I am totally depraved. Merely philosophical psychology runs aground here precisely on questions of constitutional depravity, and also of theodicy, and here, it has to be informed by Christian revelation in order to be of final use to people.
We cannot bypass the specific personal history and habituation of persons and reduce their problems, if they are genuine, to abstract “sin” categories, though those categories are certainly relevant to the consideration. The complexity and depth of original sin is, as it were, transpersonal; and grasping the historicity of persons is essential in getting to the cure of them. But we must also insist that life in Christ, although not a magical abolition of problematic history, is indeed redemptive of it, and not just in the abstract. The concrete ways it is so can be shown in particular cases. And for this reason there’s value in emphasizing that the Christian ethical and psychological vision is one where what is right is ultimately what God designed us to feel happy doing. While this may not be true for a given individual at a given moment, that’s not because God’s commands are ultimately arbitrarily related to human happiness. The Gospel follows the track of his natural law, so to speak, by perfecting it in us, and his natural law is aimed at our flourishing, which includes our true happiness.