[C. Eric Jones, Ph.D., is the Director of Undergraduate Psychology and Associate Professor of Psychology at the Regent University School of Undergraduate Studies. Eric is our blogger for the month of February, and this is his third post.]
I can’t imagine there were too many people more excited to see the January 2000 volume of the American Psychologist that in the most formal and public way ushered in the positive psychology movement. Martin Seligman had made many public overtures about positive psychology or the need for it previous to this journal issue, but this was the first tangible, widely-public record for most of us. It was of personal interest to me because I attempted to pursue the study of a virtue when I was in graduate school only to be told, “that’s not social psychology.” I was confused that any social behavior was fair game for study within the field of social psychology; I quickly learned to “correct” that faulty thinking. Then several years later Martin Seligman became the APA president and it was not only ok to scientifically study positive behavior, but it was the cool thing to do so. I still remember flipping through the American Psychologist’s positive psychology issue and thinking, “not only can we now investigate a positive behavior, we can investigate them all! Surely this will swing the door open for more Christian influence in the research side of psychology.”
Twelve years later I look back on those thoughts and realize I was partly right and partly wrong. I was right in that the study of virtues and positive behaviors does help the experimental areas of psychology present a view of the person more consistent with a Christian view of the person. Almost all of the strengths and virtues described by positive psychology can be seen in the writings of the Church over many centuries. In this respect the Christian academy now has an opportunity to share well developed thought with the field of psychology, an opportunity that did not exist even twenty years ago. The arrival of the positive psychology movement may represent the most direct opening ever for Christianity to influence the research side of psychology. This development cannot be over emphasized.
As important as this door of influence was and still is, I quickly began to realize the limitations facing Christians attempting to influence the new movement in an explicitly Christian way. A number of issues can be addressed here, but for the sake of brevity I will mention only two. The most obvious obstacle is a bias among many in the APA against openly Christian expression in research and theory (Slife & Reber, 2009). Even though Christian thought can inform much of the virtue discussion, publications may never appear in APA journals if Christian thought is made explicit in the manuscripts. Eliminating Christian reference to key theological constructs with social effects is a significant impediment to Christian positive psychology.
A second difficulty for those working in positive psychology from an explicitly Christian perspective is that the field of psychology is not very open to the incorporation of knowledge from other fields of study. In other words, Christian positive psychologists are fighting against scientism to some degree if they attempt to make their work transdisciplinary and not restrict their discussions to empirical psychological work. The Society for Christian Psychology recognizes other epistemic sources beyond empirical psychology are necessary to fully explain the person. However, operating according to this principle may disqualify one’s scholarship from being considered for mainstream psychology publications. Without the use of theology and philosophy, just to name two important disciplines needed to explain the person, is a true Christian view of the positive attributes of the person possible?
Perhaps the way to look at this entire discussion positively is to recognize that positive psychology has paved the way for Christianity to influence psychology in two ways. Johnson (2011) has noted two distinct ways in which Christians can affect psychology, strategic integration and maximal integration. Strategic integration is defined as working “within the majority culture and use its rules of discourse in order to remain active communicative participants, but also to subtly advance a Christian agenda, as much as the majority secular culture will allow.” Worthington’s work on forgiveness and Emmons work on gratitude are good examples of strategic integration. Johnson describes maximal integration as “the unification of knowledge about human beings, but according to Christian rules of discourse. As a result, it is free to integrate all the sources of knowledge about human beings that are available.” He goes on to explain, “The full ideal of integration with respect to human beings lies outside the framework of any single contemporary discipline. The ultimate knowledge goal of maximal integration is an enormous ‘human science transdiscipline’ the most comprehensive synthetic description of human beings possible…that best corresponds to God’s understanding and appraisal.”
Perhaps it would be helpful to begin to outline different pursuits within positive psychology that may best fit each type of integration. I see both as critical components for Christianity influencing mainstream psychology. I’m sure everyone reading this blog would like to hear your thoughts if you have ideas about either type of investigation. Positive psychology offers exciting opportunities for the Christian academy and your contribution is needed. So please share what your idea is, which type of integration it falls under and why it fits with that type of integration.
In closing I would like to draw your attention to the Conference section of the Society’s web site. We will be holding a positive psychology conference October 18-20, 2012 at Regent University. I hope you will take a moment and review the many fine speakers already confirmed for this event. The quality of the speakers and the transdisciplinary nature of the talks will certainly make this a unique experience for those attending. We would love to have you join us in October.
Johnson, E. L. (2011). The three faces of integration. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 30, 339-355.
Slife, B. D., & Reber, J. S. (2009). Is there a pervasive bias against theism in psychology? Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 29, 69-79.