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Psychiatry, Psychology, and Christianity — What’s Going On?

The Washington Post featured a very interesting opinion column in its Sunday Outlook section this week. Henry Brinton, pastor of Virginia’s Fairfax Presbyterian Church [Presbyterian Church (USA)] presented a case for the conjoining of “faith” and “science” in A Meeting in the Mind.
“Faith and science have always had an uneasy relationship, but they seem to be moving apart in a number of critical areas today, from research on embryonic stem cells to teaching evolution in the schools,” he remarked. “The one area where I see some reason for optimism is in the convergence of faith and science in the treatment of mental illness.”
Here’s how he set out his case: “The two fields have not always been so close. Although psychiatrists are literally “soul physicians,” their work has focused more on medical concerns than on spiritual issues over the past hundred years. This is understandable, given advances in the knowledge of brain chemistry and mental illness, but it has led many doctors to neglect the positive role religion can play in shaping emotions and motivations. From the spiritual side, clergy have resisted the scientific tendency to reduce well-being to the proper balance of chemicals, and have concentrated on providing people with spiritual guidance instead. While many ministers appreciate the value of medicine in treating psychiatric problems, they insist that a person’s relationship with God and neighbor is going to affect mental health as well.”
He celebrates the fact that Christians increasingly embrace psychotherapy. “A growing number of Christians, across the theological spectrum, are receptive to psychotherapy and medication.” There are hold-outs, of course. He singles out Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in suburban Los Angeles, labeling him a “fundamentalist” and castigating him for refusing to “refer troubled people to psychologists or psychiatrists.” MacArthur and others like him reject what Brinton identifies as “scientific advances.”
Brinton adds that many seminaries now offer courses and programs in psychology, “and pastors are more likely than ever to refer congregation members to professional therapists.”
Brinton is certainly right about one thing — many evangelicals are joining with more liberal churches in trying to combine theology and secular psychology. Why would some of us refuse to join that bandwagon? The first reason is deeply theological. We do not believe that a humanistically-based therapeutic approach is compatible with biblical Christianity. The second reason is more pragmatic and observational. The mental health professions cannot even agree on a definition or basic concept of “normal” human behavior. They call this science?
Take a good look at Benedict Carey’s important article in Tuesday’s edition of The New York Times. In Snake Phobias, Moodiness and a Battle in Psychiatry, Carey takes us into a fascinating and revealing debate within the psychiatric profession.
Look closely: “In a report released last week, researchers estimated that more than half of Americans would develop mental disorders in their lives, raising questions about where mental health ends and illness begins. In fact, psychiatrists have no good answer, and the boundary between mental illness and normal mental struggle has become a battle line dividing the profession into two viscerally opposed camps. On one side are doctors who say that the definition of mental illness should be broad enough to include mild conditions, which can make people miserable and often lead to more severe problems later. On the other are experts who say that the current definitions should be tightened to ensure that limited resources go to those who need them the most and to preserve the profession’s credibility with a public that often scoffs at claims that large numbers of Americans have mental disorders.”
If more than half of all Americans will experience what these professionals classify as mental illness, what’s normal? Carey explains that the psychiatrists cannot even agree on whether an experience like mild moodiness is a mental disorder. Mental health pracitioners and researchers throw around numbers and statistics indicating that enormous numbers of persons are mentally ill and need therapy, medication, or both. “You can see why people have a hard time believing these numbers because they change so much depending on how you look at the data,” commented Dr. David Mechanic of Rutgers University.
Carey sees a larger picture: “After a prolonged controversy last year over the use of antidepressants in children, most experts say the last thing psychiatry needs now is for this process to turn into a public fight over who is sick and who is not. But this fight may be hard to avoid. The two sides are far apart, debates over the diagnostic manual are traditionally contentious, and despite increasing openness about mental illness the public tends to be skeptical of any prevalence numbers over a few percent.”
Keep this in mind the next time someone tells you that today’s therapeutic culture is based on science. This science is in desparate need of therapy.
SOURCES:  Henry Brinton, A Meeting in the Mind, The Washington Post, Sunday, June 12, 2005; Benedict Carey, Snake Phobias, Moodiness and a Battle in Psychiatry, The New York Times, Tuesday, June 14, 2005.
Note carefully this passage from John MacArthur: “Only God knows what’s in a person’s heart. Only His Spirit working through His Word can penetrate one’s deepest thoughts and motives to transform the heart and renew the mind (Heb. 4:12; Rom. 12:2). Professional psychologists are no substitute for spiritually gifted people who know the Word, possess godly wisdom, are full of goodness, and available to help others apply divine truth to their lives (Rom. 15:14). When people come to you for counsel, the best thing you can do is show them what God’s Word says about their problem and how it applies to their situation. But you can’t do that unless you know the Word and are allowing it to do its work in you first. Then you’ll be in a position to counsel others more effectively.” See Giving Godly Counsel at the Web site of Grace to You.