Friday, November 22, 2013

These Essays: The Authority of Scripture in Psychology and Other Disciplines

The Bible was written, across the board, by humans with psychologies. So Scripture will per force touch upon topics represented by, but hardly limited to, the human psyche. The transformation of the mind which Paul refers to in Romans certainly includes what we would today name psychological concerns. But it also refers to the transformation of one’s virtue or character, concern for one’s body, and the orientation of one’s entire life toward God in peaceable service to the neighbor.

So the Pauline transformation of the mind must surely be as holistic as the Pauline notion of putting away childish things. And as life passage, the newness of Christ concerns all of us, from head to toe and heart to mind. Such holism is precisely what some Christian and Hebrew scholars have considered when interpreting the Scriptures as a valid therapeutic partner.

So when I speak of the psychological contents of Scripture, I mean to address a very specific thing: Scripture’s “sacramental” power to address psychological experience. The word of God possesses its own merits, and these certainly extend to all the concerns addressed by contemporary psychology. Scripture’s psychological content powerfully expresses, explains, and directs all the varying phenomena of the human psyche.  

So if we are to hear Scripture’s healing voice, it clearly will not suffice to only export our own understanding of psychology into biblical texts. The best scholars of faith understand Scripture as the word of God, and listen to it as one would listen to a loving authority. They import Scripture’s understanding of psychology and allow it to speak to our more contemporary concerns. They assume, along with myself and other readers of ancient literature, that while human culture may have changed considerably in some few thousand years, human nature may not have changed nearly so much as that. The Scriptures that once addressed the ancients may now address themselves to us.

Yet, owing to their cultural distance, as well as the nature of their composition, the Scriptures will speak to us with authority that sounds manifestly different from our own. One will find few university researchers in the Bible, and fewer double-blind studies. So the authority of the Bible to speak to psychological concerns may take a somewhat different shape than we might expect.

We may be surprised, for example, to find that Scripture is so multi-faceted. On one level, Christians of faith who read the Scriptures ultimately understand and trust them as words flowing from the authorship of the one and only loving God who created all the universe, and wants us to be well. But, on another level, Christians of faith who read the Scriptures can also understand them as the intermediary work of a seeming cacophony of authors with diverse goals and sometimes contradictory perspectives and agendas. 

Such texts do not espouse a unifying theory, nor a cohesive synthesis of varying perspectives on what it means to be human. What they do offer is a composite portrait of the human psyche that, owing to its varying elements, exists in constant tension with both itself and our final understanding of it. And that tension provides Scripture with an explicatory power that both visits us anew, speaking freshly to our changing concerns and shifting understandings, and resists a certain death in our hands as either abstraction or dogmatic theorization.

So far from portraying a masterful unity, the inter-textual tension of the Bible’s various books can serve as a comprehensive critique of all human cultures, perhaps particularly the ones that wrote it. As such, Scripture can become a dialogue that offers us a more complex, nuanced, and holistic view of the human mind than any one culture or author could provide alone. In very modern terms, we might say that it offers us the wisdom of the crowd rather than the solitary expert, and a plurality of tools rather than one prescription for a lone remedy. 

Such resistance to homogenization maybe even be descriptive of the power or authority of Scripture as a whole. It circumscribes, for the purposes of aiding our understanding, broad swaths of human experience and then structurally implies that this understanding is not sufficient. As we will see, not only will one psychology of origin not suffice; Scripture circumscribes and, by doing so, critiques, many cultures of composition. Not only will one religious or human experience not suffice; Scripture includes, and explores in theological terms, a vast array of psychic events, maladies, and cures both conscious and unconscious. 

And not only will one psychological theory not suffice; Scripture, in its focus on personalities, particularities, and passages in context assures that all psychological theories fail to delimit or describe the ongoing work of God. Psychology itself will not suffice, as Scripture intends transformations of character and virtue, of ethics, as well as the healing of emotional well-being. Yet even morality will not suffice, for the healing Scripture would speak to concerns ontological reality beyond the ethical. Made in the image of God, Christians of faith would be re-made in the image of Christ. Always, at every level, our best understanding regarding Scripture seems both helpful and insufficient. But that is just the shape of the authority of Scripture.

1 comment:

Shelly Mann said...

The nature of man and the rational mind is indeed a consistent part of what it means for us to be made through the Word in the image of God. Scripture is given to us by God's grace so that we might know and see God, so that we might experience healing through learning to be a better reflection of God's grace and justice and learn what it means to achieve an Anselmian rectitude of the will. Keep up the good conversation. I look forward to hearing your voice on Scripture and healing. Peace be upon your reflections.