White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Great Psychological Shift

Published Wednesday, January 20, 2021 By Stephen Roberts

In the early-twentieth century, Europe underwent massive sociological and philosophical changes that drew the gaze of vast multitudes from the heavens into the heart, and—in a sense—from philosophy to psychology. Herman Bavinck thought this transition so significant that he considered engaging psychology part-and-parcel of engaging people. As a result, he wrote an entire book on psychology that was considered an extension of his great dogmatic work. In considering this era, C.S. Lewis remarked that nobody will care about Darwin, but the masses will be reckoning with Freud.

Plenty of ink has been spilt on how America underwent a similar shift in the last half-century. Optimism has been displaced by cynicism, deism by pantheism, the objective by the subjective. But perhaps the full effects of these changes have not been appreciated until now, as the Age of COVID wipes away the last vestiges of the old era—and civil niceties along with it.

Just as Bavinck altered his approach to apologetics and culture in his own time, I wish to contend that so we must with ours. Our apologetic approaches in the twentieth century—from classical to evidential to presuppositional—were all highly effective in God’s providence because they were aimed at the citadels and fallacies of autonomous human reason. The great contest of ideas is over—the battle for narratives is just beginning. It is time for a new apologetic.

Why a New Approach is Needed

Throughout Western history, we have cycled between an over-emphasis on objective reality and an over-emphasis on subjective interpretation. The former occurs when we rely on abstractions rather than concrete realities; truth claims apart from meaning. The latter occurs when we deal only with our interpretations of reality; meaning apart from truth. Neither of these emphases is consonant with a Christian worldview (though Christians have sometimes baptized them as such) because each emphasis is a half-truth. As Bavinck argues in Christian Worldview, there is objective reality and subjective interpretation of that reality—and both are held together, and can only be held together, by the Christian worldview. God has created a real world that can be really known by real people with real capacities for knowledge.

If we accept this cyclical pattern as self-evident, then we must acknowledge that the philosophical turn from the objective to the subjective in American society is not a religious shift, but a philosophical one. And these philosophies do not form the content of our message as Christians, but rather, the presuppositions we engage and the language by which we articulate the Gospel. Our approaches to apologetics in the twentieth century—whether classical, evidential, or presuppositional—often assumed a rational/philosophical frame of mind and a logical approach to ascertaining truth. They were conditioned by and directed by the culture of their time.

The shift that we have seen over the past fifty years, or so, in America is similar to that in the first half of the nineteenth century in Europe—from the optimistic, objective, and rational to the cynical, subjective, and experiential. As such, we need to make our biblical appeal using internal rather than external data. This is not a shift toward relativism or pragmatism. It is a shift from Romans 1 to Romans 2.

In God’s general revelation, He has revealed Himself in two ways: externally in the broader creation (Rom. 1) and internally by the light of nature in the human conscience (Rom. 2). That means that there is true knowledge about God in each of these realms and that we know that God exists in each of these realms, but we suppress that truth in unrighteousness. In the past, we have used the abstract, “airy” appeals to unmoved movers, witnesses to the resurrection, and reasoning that can only make sense when presupposing the Bible. In the present, we must make concrete, “earthy” appeals to personal narratives that reveal brokenness and to emotions that testify to the Creator. As we do so, we remember that God’s general revelation speaks internally as well as externally. It is here that we take felt needs captive and expose real needs as well as their remedy.

The Psychological Shift

When we think of psychology, we also do so with a number of latent and well-deserved prejudices. The field has largely been monopolized since the days of Bavinck with a worldview that at least feigned neutrality and often expressed outright hostility toward the Christian worldview. One Christian’s experience with a counselor in college in the early 1970s was emblematic of the time. The counselor asked the young man if he believed in original sin, to which he responded in the affirmative. “Then,” replied the counselor, “I cannot counsel you.” (Not that a counselor with such an overt hostility to such a vital doctrine for counseling would be particularly effective anyway.)

But the times are changing for the field of psychology as for the rest of culture. Dr. Lisa Miller at Columbia University—as well as a host of academic colleagues across the country—has published a host of peer-reviewed studies that show that every person has an innate spiritual core that can be wounded or developed and that this core is at the heart of mental health care. Her work has provided a great boon for the military chaplaincy, which can use her common grace evidence not only to justify its existence within the ranks but also claim justification for engaging that spiritual core in every service member.

As these shifts have occurred in the broader field of psychology, debates over the exact nature of psychology persists in many Christian circles. We often talk of the sufficiency of Scripture to meet human needs. While the doctrinal point is compelling, this point tends be distracting and counterproductive. It leads to intramural debates among Christians about how exactly the Bible categorizes and addresses psychiatric disorders. For non-Christians, it demonstrates a myopic focus on the needs of those who already have a Christian worldview and not on those who do not.

Instead, we should speak of the insufficiency of any psychiatric methodology to affect any sort of permanent healing or change in a person’s life. Perhaps the most useful method being employed right now, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), offers a refreshing reexamination of the human heart and our personal responsibility, but it does not give us anything transcendent or permanent with which to engage our brokenness. Even as Dr. Miller and others demonstrate the reality of an innate spiritual core, they cannot tell us where that core comes from, why it needs development, or how exactly to do so.

Bavinck tells us that true psychology is fundamentally about the human soul. At root, we are spiritual beings. This is not only a Christian postulation, but a reality that we all know by experience, as Dr. Miller’s research has shown. We cannot prove empirically that the abuse we suffered was morally wrong, nor can we use a syllogism to produce a personal identity of endurable value. Effective psychology must of necessity deal with the broken beliefs that are shaped by broken hearts in broken relationships in a broken world.

The Psychological Approach

We are at a unique point in history where a clear and obvious need can be met by a clear and obvious gifting of all believers. With the collapse of both the family and community in our culture, individuals are left isolated and bereft of love, robbed of the wisdom passed down through history through their forbears. A class of professional psychologists have helpfully risen up to meet this need, much as accountants come to our aid to deal with a complex and undecipherable tax code.

But professional counselors cannot disciple and heal the broken heart. In order to maintain neutrality and avoid the crushing burden of being mommy to the multitudes, they give you an hour a week and wish you well. This is not meant to insult our nation’s counseling class. Both my wife and I have benefited tremendously from their care and expertise over the years. Rather, it highlights a need greater than the care and expertise of these professionals. People need love more than they do care, and personal relationships more than professional connections. They need the love of Christ manifested through the forever-family of Christ—the church.

If you are a Christian, you are part of a family—whether you choose to recognize them in practice or not. And if you have consciously identified with a portion of the family in the local church, then you have consciously entered a new web of relationships bound by salvific rather than familial blood. As your identity in Christ grows, so does your love for your family in Christ. “Who is my family?” Jesus asks, and has us turn to those who share our body in the church. This changes the way we care in this world.

When I was forced to go to church as a rebellious pre-teen, I picked fights and interrupted Sunday School classes. It would be easy to just toss me out. A youth pastor named Dave looked at me the way I imagine Jesus looked on the rich young man and loved me. He dignified me in the way he spoke to me, with seriousness, gentleness, and patience. Years later, I was falling apart in the ministry. Our best friends packed their three little children into a car (including a baby) and drove 15 hours to spend the weekend with me and my family. They said with Ruth, “Where you go, we will go…even to the end.”

I give these examples (and could give countless more) to remind you of the type of love that permeates our relationships in Christ. We don’t care in order to be counselors; we counsel because we care. It comes naturally to those who are supernaturally being formed into the image of Christ. When a young woman suddenly loses her beloved husband, a counselor can only do so much; she needs her family in Christ to love her in sundry ways day and night.

Now, let’s take this penchant for goodness in the household of God and look beyond it. When newly bereaved unbelieving widow comes to you with tears, you wouldn’t respond with a tract or clever syllogism (which would be a form of spiritual malpractice). You would see the truth in her tears and validate that truth. She is not silly for grieving—hers is the response of a healthy heart to a broken world. Behind her cries, the blood of Abel cries up from the ground, calling for the God of Creation to restore the broken world and make all things right (Gen. 4).

She cries because this world is broken and her heart along with it, and she knows it. She cries because she was created in the image of God and made to enjoy His beauty and the beauty of His creation, and she know it. But Satan wills to use her sin to weaponize the bitter feelings against God and call herself “Mara,” for God’s hand is clearly against her (Ruth 1). The will of God is that more might repent before He comes again to judge the living and the dead. He calls you to prod this sweet woman to direct her fury at Satan, sin, and its effects—much as Jesus did at the tomb of Lazarus—and to find her rest in the God who alone can wipe the tears from her eyes and let her behold the glory of Christ above and on the horizon.

Hope in the Battle

Make no mistake—this is the best time in American history to be a Christian: Both the brokenness of mankind and our unobscured identity in Christ is being pressed down upon us. People more clearly recognize their need but not the remedy. They will fight you to the death if they see you coming as a partisan with an agenda rather than humility and hope. They will welcome you as a friend if they know they can share their heartache in safety.

Likewise, we—as Christians—are learning anew what it is to be in Christ. He has conquered the citadel of our hearts, loving us into laying down our arms, and reminding us that He brings peace through weakness. We don’t have time to be partisans because we are prostrate, longing not only for our own growth in grace but for the salvation of wayward sheep throughout the world.

Just as the family of Christ becomes increasingly alluring to the world, it also provides us comfort and confidence. Even as a mere servant, I am not sufficient to share the Gospel of grace. Only Christ is sufficient, and his strength is most commonly displayed in the weakness of the whole church—not just my own. He will stand, brothers and sisters, alongside you as you walk alongside the weak and helpless. He will comfort you like Ruth comforted Naomi—you are not alone. Indeed, He will be with you (often through the hands and feet of His people) even unto the end of the age.

Stephen Roberts is a US Army chaplain and has written for The Washington Times and The Federalist.

  • Stephen Roberts

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