What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? Since Tertullian posed this question, it has become a short hand way to frame the relationship between philosophy and theology. But as this extended quote from the novel Mystical Paths illustrates, the better question for our age might be, what does Jerusalem have to do with Vienna? In other words, what is the relationship between theology and psychology?
“My father had long ago since grasped that the language of Christianity and psychology could form two ways of expressing one truth, but I longed for a detailed synthesis which would make Christianity blaze across the minds of unchurched mid-twentieth century masses and render its message meaningful. It’s no good performing the classic academic exercise of expressing Christianity in term of the latest fashionable philosophy. That appeals to no one outside the universities. For the mid-twentieth century you’ve got to express Christianity psychologically because even the average moron at a cocktail party has heard of the Oedipus complex. Or in other words, psychology’s the grass-roots intellectual language of our time, and if you can translate Christianity into that, everyone will finally understand what the preachers are whittering on about in the pulpit—and then with understanding will come spiritual enlightenment…”
Though the novel is set in the mid-1960’s, Nick’s insistence that “psychology’s the grass-roots intellectual language of our time” could be said for our day as well. In the context of pastoral ministry, I have seen that people have not only absorbed a lot of pop psychology and readily speak its language. They are also hungry to understand things in psychology terms. As an example, the explosion of interest in the Enneagram within Christian circles shows the deep hunger for both self-understanding and the ease with which people begin to speak a new language.
So on one level, I resonate with the quote and see the value in learning to speak in these terms and to look to psychology for resources in translating the faith within given context. I see this as related to the question of mission and contextualize, a topic I hope to pick up in earnest in the new year as I continue to work through David Kettle’s Western Culture in Gospel Context.
However, just as expressing Christianity in terms of a fashionable philosophy can have have a distorting effect, so that the theology comes to serve the philosophy rather than the other way around, so too can expressing Christianity in terms of psychology go awry. On the most basic level, psychological models change and certain models are uneasy bed fellows with classically Christian understandings of the human person. More fundamentally though, the great temptation in translating the faith into the language of psychology is that such translation becomes a reduction, so that the faith is reduced to nothing more than a kind of therapy. If faith is therapeutic then the driving question becomes how does this make me feel rather than is this true. If faith is merely therapeutic it is all the more easily abandoned for something else that “just works better.”
The deep irony, as Darrow himself comes to learn in the novel, is that the Christian tradition itself has deep reservoirs for psychological self-understanding. Augustine and The Confessions famously comes to mind, and one only needs to spend time reading John Cassian or almost any passage chosen at random from the Philokalia to see that Christianity has long had an interest in plumbing the depths of human motivation.