The world of psychology and Christian faith
Werner May, IGNIS-academy for Christian psychology, Germany
1. The field of conflicts between psychology, truth and faith
2. The relation between philosophy and faith - some remarkable positions in
3. Christian psychology is a reconstructive psychology
4. Knowledge of finding instead of knowledge of repairing
5. Final observation
In 1986, the IGNIS-academy started to develop and to introduce Christian Psychology
in theory and practice as a Christian alternative to the dominant psychological concepts.
This article will first introduce our starting point of this challenge and our answer that
Christian psychology is meant to be a reconstructive psychology, being developed on
the basis of a personal and relational anthropological understanding of the human being
(which reproduces the biblical view of the human being and the world in the most
central way). Next I will give you a sketch of a fundamental principle in Christian
psychology, which questions the human attitude of being capable to produce or control
results of psychological interventions.
After so many years of work this sketch might seem quite modest, but it outlines some
of the knowledge and understanding that has been found more and more clearly in the
years of discussion and that applies as standard for further theoretical development and
1. The field of conflicts between psychology, truth and faith
In the western world the relation between psychology, truth and faith has changed in the
last 50 years, parallel to the dominant ways of thinking (the modern period – transition
– post-modern period). I want to shortly sketch this change by an overview of western
psychology and its attitudes towards truth concepts and Christian faith (see Graupner
o The modern period, that is meant to have started with the beginning of natural
sciences, is based on the faith that reality is researchable and that there is
absolute truth – only one main concept can be true – and this absolute truth has
to be found! Psychology as a science accepted this basic attitude as soon as it
started (the hour of birth is said to be the foundation of the first psychological
laboratory by Wundt in Leipzig in 1879). However, right from the beginning
and during more than 100 years of psychology, a contradictory situation has
developed: searching for objective facts, searching for the true understanding of
the human being, of human experience and behaviour, different schools
appeared offering quite controversial ideas. Up to now we can identify five main
(1) deep psychology (S. Freud),
(2) behaviour theory (Pawlow, Skinner, Bandura, Kanfer),
(3) empirical psychology (starting as memory- and perception psychology, then
personality-, motivation- and developmental-psychology)
(4) physiological psychology (now having a modern continuation in the
(5) humanistic psycholgy (Allport, Maslow, Rogers), which already belongs to
the period of transition
(6) systemic psychology (which quite lately appeared as a fifth paradigm, rather
in the transition and after the modern period).
Valuations against religion were common in all paradigms. Religion, no matter
which, was either treated as neurosis (Freud: “God as a projection”) or excluded.
It was ignored as part of metaphysics, that wasn’t to be looked at by experience-
sciences and further more didn’t seem to have anything to do with the object of
research, e.g. the research of intelligence.
Generally the rejecting attitude of the psychoanalysis remained stamping for the
relation between psychology and religion in this period and scientists were
searching for the ultimate world concept by means of natural science.
o The transition, leaving the modern period, was started by humanistic psychology
(Allport, Maslow, Rogers) at about the middle of the 20th century: relativism
and subjectivism, partly grown on the background of existential world
interpretation, dominated the truth-question.
The subjective aspect of truth was accented.
At the same time metaphysical questions about sense, free will, self-realization
were asked, religious experiencing was taken serious again (e.g. as experience of
the peak or as upper levels in Maslow’s famous pyramid of motivation). It was
C.G. Jung, an early collaborator of Freud, who developed his own concept of
deep psychology and intentionally put religious experiencing back in the centre
of psychology, as a religious mix of all world- and nature-religions.
Since about 1970 religion has more and more been accepted as a human basic
need, but this acceptance is combined with a hostile attitude against the Gospel,
saying: All religions have a common truth (parable of the elephant), the
differences are irrelevant, only dividing.
o Since about 1980 the so-called post-modern period has superseded the modern
period (Lyotard 1979). Post-modern thinking is characterized by the conviction:
Every truth is true, mine and yours, even if they contradict each other! Theories
of communication and constructivistic concepts offered a scientific basis for
these new ways of understanding which have spread to different fields of
research, psychology included (Watzlawik, Maturana).
Post-modern thinking radically shows the limits of human knowledge. Isn’t that
an affirmation of the bible? We know in part? Concerning religious believes the
post-modern attitude is: Christianity is true for Christians, but other truths have
to be accepted and tolerated as equally true. This again is a message hostile to
At last, where is Christian psychology to be placed concerning the truth?
Close to Jesus Christ, who says about himself that he himself is the truth. One person
instead of any knowledge is true. We only find truth with and inside of HIM.
This idea of personal truth should be explained more precisely, what I can’t do here. I
just want to outline the main consequence: In Christian psychology the question about
truth primarly turns into a question about confidence: Whom do I believe? In whom do I
trust? In God, who has revealed himself in his word? In persons, who seem to be
In fact, the aspect of confidence is evident in every area of human life and can well be
proved in psychology: Regarding the different positions as psycho-analysis or behavior
therapy or … why should one choose and support any of them, as there are obviously
scientific arguments for and against? One has to trust (at least some of) the
representatives, because there are not any absolutely convincing reasons for this or that
Besides these conflicts between psychology and faith - reservation to the Christian faith
and a significant difference between secular psychology and Christian psychology in
their understanding of truth – we find more conflicts in the more practical field.
Psychology isn’t only a science that gives academic orientation or influences from top
down – like philosophical world views - but it mainly refers to human life, to life-style,
to therapy. Therefore, besides the academic dimension and dispute, it has for example
gained a social mandate in the health and social system of the western society. As this is
at the same time an original task of Christian charity, psychology and Christian faith
came and come in touch with oneanother not only on an ideological, theoretical level,
but also on a pragmatic, practical one.
Here psychology of any paradigm seems to convince by differentiated concepts and
claimes broad acceptance based on the common faith in science in western society and
politics. It also claimes acceptance for its abilities in helping and healing (therapy),
although this claim never has satisfactorily and honestly been fulfilled (see: research of
psychotherapy, research of evaluation).
Up to now, psychological thinking is in every teaching schedule of social professions,
and, further more, psychologists have taken over the places of theologians and pastoral
counselers in different sectors, e.g. most recently in emergency care and debriefing.
Therefore, Christians are directly challenged to respond to the practical offers of
psychology in their charity ministry, their ministry to suffering, sick and weak persons.
They had and have to take position to psychology.
The theoretical and pragmatic discussion has led to different positions of Christians
located between complete refusing and complete acceptance of psychological theories
and interventions. As the challenge to prove and take a stand in a field of conflicts
within the secular surroundings has never been unknown in church history, I will
outline some important positions already given in the early centuries.
2. The relation between philosophy and faith - some remarkable positions in
church history (see also Graupner 1999b)
In modern times psychology and science in general have questioned Christian faith and,
on the other hand, Christians have questioned psychology. In church history the same
happened between philosophy and Christian faith.
Some argued that philosophy had to be treated as an independent discipline which is not
in touch with faith, which covers a different field of life and different questions. Maybe,
they can complement each other or they have to be completely independent. Others
insisted that it should be possible to learn from one another. Instead of complete
rejection they suggested different ways of integrating philosophy and faith.
As some of the ideas can help us for our actual discussion between psychology and
faith, I will introduce four of them before I start to explain our own way of
2.1. The bible only
Let us have Tertullian (died after 220) start the discussion. He says: “What does Athens
have to do with Jerusalem? What the academy with the church?”
“Stay away from all the writings of the pagans … whatever helpful knowledge writings
may offer for education is already to be found in the Holy Scripture. Studying the Holy
Scripture is more than enough.”
In fact the Holy Scripture is full of treasures that Christian psychology has to discover
and hasn’t yet discovered. For example, one of these treasures is forgiveness. For years,
we have been trying to illustrate the process of forgiving as an original dominion of
Christian faith. We want to understand what happens in a relationship before, while and
after forgiving in a psychological and therapeutic meaning, not only using cognitive
theories of guilt and conscious.
How intensively have we been looking for this biblical treasure - and what about many
2.2. Integration: “Plundering the Egyptians”
To continue the discussion, we consider the well-known argument: “Should knowledge
only be a Christian privilege? Are there no treasures to be found in the rest of the
world?” Ideas, how to include secular thoughts concretely, how to integrate them, have
their historical route in a position of father Origines (died around 254), who, referring to
Exodus 3, 21-22, recommends to “ plunder the Egyptians”, that means, to use the best
of worldly thinking for one’s own use.
“And I will make the Egyptians favourably disposed towards this people, so that when
you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbour and any
women living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you
will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.” (Ex 3,
If God himself gave this order, that the Israels should steal pagan treasures, the
jewellery of the Egyptians, than the treasure itself was obviously not “pagan”, unclean
This means, transferred to philosophy (or psychology), that Christians can take secular
ideas out of their original context, the old, pagan context, and put it under the mastery of
Christ. They thus “baptize” it (in analogy to the change of masters when someone turns
from pagan to “saint”) and thereafter can use the baptized material in a happy and free
way, without hesitating. Because “all the good and true things are coming from God;
they just have to be freed from their imperfect, dark figure, in which they occur in pagan
In principle, we can find all secular psychological concepts being christianised like this,
not only in a theological context, that makes biblical thinking relative or reduces
biblical authority, but also in biblical based positions.
(Here it has to be added, that the question about psychology and Christian faith has two
fields of diverse discussion: the field of different psychological theories as well as the
field of different Christian confessions and denominations with their many different
theologies. It ist important to bear this in mind, although I won’t say any more about
2.3. Integration: “Cutting hair and nails”
To verify secular models within a biblical framework
The second, most common way of integrating psychology and faith, of looking for
Christian-psychological models, criticizes a simple “plundering-the-Egyptians”, which
will often end in some kind of a “ stew-model”. One demands carefulness, to avoid the
danger of “getting sick from the stew”, if it is a mixture of biblical ideas and
undiscovered contraire psychological concepts.
But still one believes that secular science could manage to find right and helpful results
when they do research in God’s creation, and therefore many of the secular models will
include at least some truth.
However, we can’t take them 1:1, but have to prove carefully whether they show
compatibility with the biblical framework. Wherever we find parts contradicting the
bible, it’s clear, that “psychology has to submit itself to the authority of the Holy
The historic model for this way of intergration is from Father Hieronymus (died
Hieronymus also takes his basic idea from a quite metaphorical interpretation of
scripture. Deuteronomy 21, 10ff says: “When you go to war against your enemies and
the Lord, your God, delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice
among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your
wife. Bring her into your home and make her shave her head, trim her nails…”
Before a pagan woman was allowed to marry an Israelite, before she could become a
part of the Israelitish community, her hair and nails had to be cut. That was a special
symbolic act with a deeper meaning, because in this time especially long nails were a
sign for certain cults, for certain idolatrous rites. Cutting them should symbolize a
breaking with the pagan past.
Translated to Christianity and pagan thinking, this means, that ideological thinking has
to be cut off like the hair and nails of pagan women. Philosophical (or psychological)
concepts have to be proved carefully before including them, they have to go through an
intensive process of cleaning to be sure, that no unwanted, unconcious mixing would
What will such a cleaning process look like?
You may think of a kind of “selection-filter”, secular models will be send through, to
discover and take out those parts of the model, which either contradict directly to the
Gospel, or to different basic biblical principles or to biblical orientated ethics in general.
So the task is to “screen the secular concepts through the biblical filter”.
If there don’t appear any conflicts with basic biblical principles, the model will pass the
filter and will be completely taken over into the Christian-psychological model.
If there do appear contradictions, it has to be changed, has to be adapted to the demands
of biblical principles. Sometimes concepts cannot pass the filter at all, what means that
they are absolutely of no use in a biblical frame-concept.
The “filter-process” obviously will be a great help to identify acceptable secular ideas
for Christian psychology. However, we still have the challenge, to set up standards for a
true Christian filter.
Hieronymus himself once had a famous dream, which questioned his own way of
integrating philosophy. He dreamt he was standing in front of a judge, telling him that
he was Christian. But the judge responded: “You are lying, you are a Ciceronian, but
not a Christian. Where your treasure is, there is your heart.” Shocked Hieronymus
turned away from all philosophy.
Where is your heart? Is it widely open for God’s love and His word – or is it mainly
excited about secular ideas? This question has to be asked again and again. Whom do
you trust more, science or God? Do you use psychology, or do you put your trust in it,
do you get justification from it?
2.4. Reconstructing secular concepts
How can we use secular concepts with our hearts deeply dedicated to God? How can we
establish a filtering process, that neither cuts off the essential things nor allows to pass
any of the probably hidden anti-biblical implications?
Again, the picture of a Father can help us to understand how to do it. Basilius the Great
(died 379) suggested, we should act like the bees. They freely and fearless fly to certain
flours, choose the best nectar and transform it into something new, into honey.
In the same way, we should fearlessly walk towards the ideological concepts, but just
take their nectar, their ideas, as an impulse, an impulse to think, which we then
transform into something really new, like honey. This means, that we get through the
impulse on the background of a biblical basis, to find its value, its meaning in this
Christian psychology, as we understand it, calls this process reconstruction and our
position is to build up a reconstructive psychology.
3. Christian psychology is reconstructed psychology
(see Graupner 1999b)
Honey production, reconstruction, as we say, presupposes to work on a biblical
Christian view of the human being and the world. And it needs Christian psychologists,
men and women, who enter into relationship with truth as a person, who live with HIM,
in front of HIM and for HIM, in the theoretical and practical field of psychology.
I will firstly say a bit more about the Christian view of the human being and the world.
3.1 Corner pillars of a Christian view of the human being and the world
3.1.1. The personal basic level of reality
God is a person, and so is the human being as an image of God. Although this image is
damaged by sin, it still can be realized and has to be gained back through salvation. In
its core the image of God is love, love as a Trinitarian present.
The human being is a person, person as a process, as we say. Referring to Andrej
Lorgus (Lorgus 2002) we become a person through processes of freedom, creativity,
spirituality, knowledge and autocracy. “… responsibility for his behaviour only starts,
when a human being is aware of the fact, that an act was done by himself, in freedom.”
(Lorgus, p.8) “Only a mature person knows, that effort and self-victory is needed, why,
in which direction and for what. A human being as a person accepts his existence
creatively, that means in a critical, constructive, and axiological way. His being is
transmitted by values…” (Lorgus, p.9).
Christian psychology understands personal freedom as the possibility to love, the
possibility to pass the frontiers of one’s own being and to belong to the OTHER.
According to the philosophy of Emanuel Lévinas, we talk about an ethical identity
instead of an ontical.
Radically expressed, a main characteristic of a personal basic level is, that this world is
constituted and held by acts of the will of God and of human beings, by intentional
decisions and not by blindly running material processes according to natural laws.
3.1.2. The relational basic level of reality
Belonging to the Other and to the others, as characteristic of a person, provides – as we
think - the condition to understand reality as relational (nowadays, the quantum physics
suggests to understand even the material world as produced, and so as a relational
“For the understanding of human reality, the category of relation is more essential than
the category of substance.” (Schmiedlinger according to Graupner, 1999b, p.142)
God spoke and all came into existence. Even today HE is still carrying everything by
his strong word.” (Hebr 1, 3a)
The human being is not, but is standing in relationships. Relationships to God, to people
and to himself determine his reality and any reality at all. (Dialogical concept of
As I said, a reconstructive psychology needs Christian psychologists, men and women,
who enter into relationship with truth as a person and live with HIM, in front of HIM
and for HIM.
Knowledge, especially psychological knowledge, is knowledge of persons and not of
things. This kind of knowledge happens on the one hand by being engaged with one’s
object of knowledge, what once again is a personal process - we call it intimate
knowledge – and on the other hand by the relation to God, the personal truth.
And this is not about doctrines, but about love. Truth turns into performing truth, it
Our challenge is:
We have to rebuild the results of psychology, achieved until now, on the basis of
our understanding of personal existence and relation.
We have to gain new knowledge by intimacy with God and with certain people.
A high demand.
4. Knowledge of finding instead of knowledge of repairing
(see Graupner 1999b)
Spiritual-mental things are not causal, but personal, they are creative! That’s the main
thesis of Christian psychology.
That’s why spiritual-mental things don’t submit to causal laws like material things. If at
all, we can dare to make some statements of probability, which don’t tell anything
certain about the individual case.
This means, that psychology actually can’t, as it intended and still intends, formulate
causal statements about human life.
However, the more of the personal falls apart and the more of the material gains
influence, the more regularity will increase in human life, see e.g. the development of
addiction. Therefore, knowledge about regularities is also relevant for every individual
case, but not as knowledge of repairing (regarding the human being as an object, as a
machine, that I can reconstruct following an instruction plan), but as knowledge of
finding, as we call it.
In my opinion, the variety of models of disorder in the field of psychopathology also
shows, that definite causal explanations are impossible (of course they are all based on
different paradigmes, too).
E.g. to explain and describe symptoms of depression we know mere physically
orientated models, cognitive concepts or spiritual ones. It’s helpful to know all of them,
but not in order to pick out, what subjectively seems to be more true and helpful to
create my own integrative model. They are to be understood as different perspectives or
as glasses to look at reality, which will support an increase of knowledge by circling,
The German theologian v. Rad, a specialist on the Old Testament, writes about the
Hebrew understanding of reality and about biblical-Hebrew thinking: “Maybe this
thinking is more unfamiliar than imperfect; because even we can still recognize, that
here questions are more circled in a plain area, and that in this way a deepness and
wideness of the problematic is adjured, which couldn’t have been viewed like this by
using a linear movement towards a solution. Anyway, the view! It’s much more about it
than about gaining an abstract formulated knowledge, which could be told in one
sentence.” (von Rad, 1992, p.76)
What we call knowledge of finding has two functions:
It increases our understanding of the other one, thus enabling us for more intensive
relations. And it prepares the ground of knowledge, so that I can find out the unique
way of healing with the other one. In the perspective of Christian psychology this may
happen with the help of the Holy Spirit.
5. Final observation
Christian psychology isn’t anything finished and will never be anything finished, but is
more the process and the results of a way, that come up, when we as psychologists,
seized by the Christian faith, start to follow the just outlined way.
I will illustrate this by using one of my personal experiences:
Christian psychology, as we have been trying to develop it at IGNIS for more than 18
years, started as a joint way of seven psychologists. We had two common starting
points, one was our academic education, our training in psychology, and the other one
were our personal religious experiences as Christians, our relationship with God, which
had fundamentally changed our lifes as former atheists.
So at beginning we asked the question: How can these personal experiences of faith
influence our psychological thinking and acting? That’s how we started our way, which
I want to describe now as influenced by five factors:
1. Our psychological education, which was quite different, because psychology is
not a uniform structure. There are not only different psychological schools, but
also different tasks for psychologists, working with drug addicts or counseling
parents, just to name two examples.
2. Our personal experiences of faith, which were not only individually formed, but
also determined by different church backgrounds.
3. The revelation of the Holy Scripture. The bible reveals us the will of God, but
each of us understands and interprets it a somewhat different way.
4. Experiences in spiritual life and ministering to people within the worldwide and
local church from the first days until today.
5. Our own ministry to completely different persons, who have come to us with
their questions and problems.
In this way, Christian psychology has come alive as results on our way, while we were
ministering to certain persons, reflecting our psychological knowledge and practical
experiences, our religious experiences, biblical knowledge and experiences of church
history. I think I should add two more remarks:
For every individual psychologist at IGNIS, these five factors are, of course, differently
and incompletely marked - e.g. I only have a small knowledge of church history - and
they are always part of a personal developmental and changing process – my
relationship with God nowadays is different from what it was 20 years ago.
When we think of ministering to people, we do not only think of therapy, but also of all
the other fields of psychology, like e.g. education, communication or scientific research.
So every Christian psychologist starts doing his work and he gets results and with them
he enters into a dialogue with other Christian psychologists with their own results.
This dialogue is the centre of every scientific process, and for me this also seems to be
typical for Christian psychology as I experience it in Germany, in Europe, but also
worldwide at the moment: There is not one single great personality that develops a
Christian psychology, but there are more personalities, 10, 20 or maybe more, who
share their results. Out of this dialogue Christian psychology will develop in the future.
Right now we just see some first fruit of only a few years.
I think that this is God’s character, that we create something comon.
As already said, Christian psychology, like every human science, needs its own
anthropology, needs to outline the basic characteristics of the human being. An
important step to do this and help together on an Europeen level, was the foundation of
the European Movement for Christian Psychology and Anthropology (EMCPA) in
Warsaw in 2003. Thus we have a platform to discuss anthropological basic questions
What is truth, what is health, what is a person?
Of course, we are not the first ones to ask these questions, but we have in common, that
they come out of our direct perplexity as psychologists and Christians serving others. So
we can share our experiences, combined with our different traditions, also church
traditions of the orthodox, the catholic and the protestant theology.
Another task of Christian psychology, as I already mentioned, is finding proper
models and interventions for different practical tasks. In this we have to regard the
status of the actual scientific research, but still think “from God” originally – and I am
aware of our human limits of knowledge, which won’t allow us to develop much better
models or find much better interventions than other psychological schools. But in
addition to our human competence we can rely on the blessing and the mercy of God.
Maybe somebody might ask: Do we really need special Christian models to get God´s
blessing? Aren’t the common secular models enough, which can also count on the
mercy of God?
When I consider the size of God’s mercy and what it’s able to affect, than I would even
answer with Yes. This also means, that I respect everybody who has choosen an
But developing a Christian psychology is about more, is also about giving honour to
God in our models. Speaking about the human being, I want us to speak about his
creator and saviour. That’s an expression of our love to God, how little it may be.
Unfortunately, many people in our western countries do not only relate personal growth,
freedom, life fulfilment and health with the Christian faith (although this side of
religiousness is noticed more and more in psychological research). So they fear that
Christian psychology will also only present the negative sides of Christian faith. There I
see a special calling, that we as Christian psychologists should be able to understand
such processes in a better way than others, and that we can jointly be with those, who
are disappointed of God and the church!
In this lecture I tried to introduce some of the basic ideas of Christian psychology, as we
see them at the IGNIS-academy for Christian psychology at the moment (see more
about it: Graupner 1999a, 1999b, May 2002a, 2002b): reconstructive psychology and
knowledge of finding, personal and relational basic level of reality, personal truth as a
truth hapenning in love, and Christian psychology as a shared process of brothers and
sisters. All this was meant to invite us to produce (more) honey, busy like the bees, to
work together on a Christian psychology, where there still is a lot to be done.
- Graupner, Kathrin (1999a): Das Wirklichkeitsverständnis der Psychologie.
IGNIS-Fernkurs: Die Grundlagen Christlicher Psychologie, Heft 1,
- Graupner, Kathrin (1999b): Das Wirklichkeitsverständnis der Christlichen
Psychologie. IGNIS-Fernkurs: Die Grundlagen Christlicher Psychologie,
Heft 2, Kitzingen
- Lorgus, Fr. Andrej (2002): Die orthodoxe Lehre von der Person.
Unveröffentlichter Vortrag Wien, übersetzt von Johann Krammer
- May, Agnes (2002): Der Mensch als bedürftige Person- Störung und
Heilung. IGNIS-Fernkurs: Die Grundlagen Christlicher Psychologie, Heft
4a, Kitzingen 2002ª
- May, Agnes (2002): Der Mensch als bedürftige Person -
Psychotherapeutische und seelsorgerliche Konzepte. IGNIS-Fernkurs: Die
Grundlagen Christlicher Psychologie, Heft 4b, Kitzingen 2002b
- Rad, Gerhard von (1992): Weisheit in Israel. Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd
- Soldan, Wolfram (2005): "Empirische Evaluation von Vergebung: Nutzen
und Grenzen dargestellt anhand eines Fragebogens und eines Models aus
der IGNIS-Akademie", Vortrag in Rom ..