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Should Christianity Listen to Psychology?

Written by: on April 5, 2018

I have often struggled with the implication made in Matthew 5:9, which showed Jesus teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God;” mainly because the same Jesus also said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword[1]. For this reason, when I read “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt, which seemed to promote a need for understanding of psychology so that those divided by religion and politics could better get along, I cringed. To be honest, the concept of ‘meeting in the middle’ has never worked well for me when Christianity was at stake; I remember another warning by Jesus found in Revelation 3:15-16; “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. 16 So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.”

Do not misunderstand my sentiment here; I do believe we need better understanding with the world in order to reach them with the gospel, but I am not sure that his book is the answer to that. Though political reviews of Haidt’s work seems to be more than positive according to posts on his own website[2] and that of Bruce Gibbs’[3], it seems that Christians are not uniting behind it with as much support. So why the difference of opinion? I believe there were two primary factors that kept me a non-supporter of the perceived goal of this author; first, all of his principles are based in Psychology and not in Christianity; and second, we were never meant to meet the principles of worldly morality halfway.

“A fascinating new book comes along that, to a liberal like myself, helps demystify the right — and illuminates the  kind of messaging that might connect with voters of all stripes.[4]” —Nick Kristof, New York Times.

My own perception of psychological reasoning is that it falls in line with philosophical reasoning; though both seem to have rationale on a worldly level, it must be noted that Christianity is not worldly. All through this work, there are some incredible antidotes that successfully captivate the reader; however many of the comparison fail to take into consideration the bible-based reasoning that Christians go through. For example, early in the reading the author gives an illustration regarding a moral-based question from one of his studies involving a family that ate their dog after it was killed by a car, and a man that has intercourse with a store-bought chicken carcass[5]. Though the point was to derive a social image of both inappropriate behaviors…the chicken scenario could actually be tied to a sin mentioned in the bible regarding sex with animals. The point being, many of his surveys seemed to have biblical implications that the author failed to connect to, but a Christian would not be able to avoid. Later Haidt seemed to suggest that, “so many subjects tried to invent victims[6],” in order to justify their prejudices regarding what was right or wrong in a situation. However, Christians do not need a “victim” to believe that it is in conflict with God’s Word. Even in the introduction, he works to redefine the word “righteous” as though it is a new concept that religious types have only tried to tie to the bible. In the effort to try and bring the religious to the world-perspective, I fear the author as failed to do the same for religion.

Second, Christianity was never intended to meet the world halfway. I have included a 7 minute youtube video with this post, because in it the viewer sees that the motives of the author are to bring both sides to a point somewhere in the middle…for a more peaceful union. With the political imagery pitting the “liberals” against the “conservatives” at every turn, I find the analogy lost on the religious argument. Christianity was never formed so that the world view could work with the Christian view and then everyone would just get along; in fact, Scripture teaches the exact opposite:

Romans 8:5-9 (NKJV)
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. 8 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.

James 4:4 (NKJV)
4 Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

My fear for the modern church is that there are too many people trying to accommodate worldly thinking, and then expecting the church to justify or excuse it. This is not what the church is supposed to be. I am so perplexed by non-Christian focused people who perceive they have a right to explain to religious types how they should share their message with the world; they misquote and misuse Scripture all in an effort to soften the implications that it has on the world.

Ironically, I found the book fascinating to read, and yet offensive on a number of levels. It was very interesting to see the psychological conclusions on the mind and methods of humankind, as well as see the studies on decision-making and opinion. However, I could not find that many of his conclusions actually gave regard to religion or Christianity…only politics. It cannot be argued that we should not understand the way humans communicate and rationalize, but we must not compromise our message of Jesus Christ in the process.

 

Bibliography

Gibb, B. L. (2012, June). JonathanHaidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Retrieved April 7, 2018, from IntegralLeadershipreview.com: http://integralleadershipreview.com/7180-johnathan-haidt-the-righteous-mind-why-good-people-are-divided-by-politics-and-religion/

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Reviews. (2018). Retrieved April 7, 2018, from Righteousmind.com: http://righteousmind.com/about-the-book/reviews/

 

[1] Matthew 10:34.

[2] Reviews. (2018). Retrieved April 7, 2018, from Righteousmind.com: http://righteousmind.com/about-the-book/reviews/

[3] Gibb, B. L. (2012, June). JonathanHaidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Retrieved April 7, 2018, from IntegralLeadershipreview.com: http://integralleadershipreview.com/7180-johnathan-haidt-the-righteous-mind-why-good-people-are-divided-by-politics-and-religion/

 

[4] Reviews. (2018).

[5] Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books. P 3.

[6] Ibid, p 27.

About the Author

Shawn Hart

13 responses to “Should Christianity Listen to Psychology?”

  1. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Shawn, I hear your concerns. However, I had a different reaction. I think Haidt’s research is pretty sound and quite helpful for me, as a Christian, to understand how the human brain arrives at moral (and other) decisions. Haidt is not taking the intervening work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit into consideration in his analysis, so of course, I found myself saying, “but by the grace of God…there go I.” In other words, my Elephant (basic human intuition) has not only a tiny rider (my intellect) but also a mighty GOD (the Holy Spirit) sitting on his back. Where I humanly would fail to influence my sin nature, Christ, by His Spirit, can intervene. In this way, I accept and appreciate the findings of this social researcher, though he has an admittedly humanist perspective. At the same time, I can see how and why the Gospel is so critical to my ability to reconcile my beliefs (or morals) with my actions.

    • Shawn Hart says:

      No doubt Jennifer. My problem was not so much with his psychology, but rather his interpretation of religion and his use of scripture. From the psychological viewpoint, I know I am a better equipped minister when I have the most information concerning those who I am teaching/counseling. To see their life with proper spectacles helps we the insight to help them more effectively.

  2. mm M Webb says:

    Shawn,
    Excellent introduction to your post and use of scripture to set your position. I struggled with Haidt too, mostly because he is trying to write in the Christian realm but has no personal relationship with Christ and lacks the inspiration, wisdom, and discernment he would have received from the Holy Spirit on a work such as he tried to present. I know Christian psychologists who would have had a much better bias than atheist turned Buddhist author Haidt brought to the theological argument about why the world does not “get along.”
    I agree with your “perplexed” statement about non-Christian’s pushing their messages to the world. I see it as just “another” well calculated scheme of the devil to further confuse the lost, divide the saved, and ruin the witness and testimony of many. Just like in other forms of classic types of mass media TV, Magazines, Movies, the same lack of “censorship” that allows sex, violence, and a multitude of confusing values, morals, and principles has invaded the Books we try to engage with our critical reading senses. Did you tie this post to your research? I did, but it was more to show how the author and book were filled with well devises schemes to highlight the divisions between religion-politics while offering solutions that do not line up with God’s plan.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Shawn Hart says:

      Yes Mike, thanks for asking. I realized after I had posted that I failed to mention how it would tie in with my own dissertation. The fact is that in spite of my dislike for some of Haidt’s views, I still found the psychology helpful. I am working on demonstrating the need for diversity in the church, and in this regard, Haidt enforced that suggestion. A church does not need all preachers, or all elders, or all singers; it needs, preacher, elders, youth workers, youth, men, women, various colors, various cultures, various walks of life, etc. However, once you bring all of those together, unity can only be formed when people can learn to deal with each other accordingly. Under those precepts, Haidt is a helpful source of guidance.

      However, when probing the topic of religion or spiritual growth, I truly hope people never turn to him.

  3. Chris Pritchett says:

    I appreciated your critique, Shawn. While there are definitely nuggets of insight in his research, and helpful to understanding the psychological differences between people in America, he seemed to have overstated his case, and I even wonder if his categories only further the problem. No way would Jesus fall into either of Haidt’s “categories.”

    • Shawn Hart says:

      Amen Chris. I believe the very principle Haidt was trying to convince the reader to do…understand others, he explicitly failed at in regards to the religious groups he referenced. His use of scripture only further demonstrated his ignorance. It truly seems that the world keeps expecting the church to understand and accommodate them, and yet, no one seeks to know and accommodate the church. That is okay, after all, we expect it; however, do not write a book telling the church that they need to work harder to understand.

  4. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Shawn
    You hit the nail on the head, I kept feeling as if Haidt only believed that religion was just about having a group that felt the same as you and the benefits one derives from that, and the video in the first few moments underscored that directly. This is what happens when a person without the holy spirit starts preaching at those who follow Christ, it sounds good but misses the mark. I will say this I thought the book gave good insights psychologically into how we as Christians can engage the world around us.

    Jason

    • Shawn Hart says:

      I agree. There are some insightful guidelines we all could use in our ministry outreach…sadly, I am not sure the author has entirely learned his own lesson though.

  5. Hi Shawn,

    I know this book is deeply offensive to many believers, yet Haidt’s journey is compelling.

    I believe we can find truth being proclaimed everywhere, even outside the church and beyond those who profess the name of Christ. I believe science is compatible with religion (for truth is truth), but the fact we haven’t gotten there yet doesn’t mean it’s not true. So when Haidt, as a peer-reviewed, tenured psychologist makes statements, we do well to give him heed, and struggle in the ambiguity that follows.

    One of the jewels he offers is that the conservative mindset has greater moral bandwidth than the liberal one. I think Haidt took a great leap of faith with publishing this book, and he has shown significant evolution as a scientist to abandon a purely liberal agenda.

    • Shawn Hart says:

      Mark, I am not saying there is not merit in the “science”, I am just saying that his science does not understand the true nature of Christianity. How do you try and explain something when you have not even tried to fully understand it in the first place. He uses Scripture without understanding and pretends to have a grasp on what religions do and how they operate. He literally seems to fail to learn the very lesson he is working so hard to evoke.

  6. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Shawn,

    This Haidt seems to me like the Howard Stern of our readings, a shock jock who tries to offend to make a point. I too was bothered by the ridiculous imagery he used including sex with a chicken. There had to be another way to get the point across, but then again, it would not sell as many books.

    Thanks for not compromising!

  7. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Shawn, this book evoked strong reaction from many! Do you see the value in understanding the world view in order to disciple others to a relationship with Christ?

    • Shawn Hart says:

      Absolutely Jean. As I mentioned with others, I seem some strong lessons in this reading that truly can help ministerial outreach. However, there is a point when you realize the author only knows half of what he/she is talking about that you question how much credibility you really want to give them. I believe this book would have evoked less criticism had Haidt just wrote a psychological perspective on understanding the ways people make decisions; however, he brought religion into. From that perspective, he proved his own ignorance in that department.

      As to the value of this reading though, I can appreciate the need to understand one’s perspective on their own life as a means of better connecting with them when it comes time for evangelism. Very important lesson to learn.

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