Why Secular Psychology Is Not Enough

William Kirk Kilpatrick
Boston College

William Kirk KilpatrickA professor of educational psychology at Boston College, William Kirk Kilpatrick is well known among psychologists and laymen for his clear and incisive arguments against secular psychology in numerous journals and in three of his own books: Identity and Intimacy (1975), The Emporer's New Clothes: The Naked Truth about the New Psychology (1985), and Psychological Seduction: The Failure of Modern Psychology (1983), the latter appearing in a French translation as well and awarded the Cornerstone Magazine Book of the Year Award in 1983. Dr. Kilpatrick joined five other psychologists and three philosophers during the CCA's fall seminar which posed the question, "Do psychologists generally regard a person's religious beliefs to be a determining factor in his psychological make up?" The results of this seminar will be available in an upcoming volume of The Christian Vision series, published by the Hillsdale College Press.

Editor's Preview: Sigmund Freud, B. F. Skinner, and others have made important discoveries in the field of psychological theory, but it is not clear whether they have done so at the expense of a spiritual view of human behavior. The tendency for many psychologists to write off faith and morality as unsophisticated, unscientific, and unprovable has been aggravated by the fact that we have lapsed into a self-help society, that we attempt to therapeutically treat our neuroses with faddish cures and books which offer "sanctions for selfishness" and which convey the message that it is healthy and even laudable to make one's self the center of all concern.

But have professional psychologists actually aided and abetted the rejection of Christian values as viable alternative treatment? Is it their common conclusion that religion does not provide an objective or intellectually sound basis for discussion of human motivation? In recent years many have come to realize that all theories of man are ultimately based on presupposition rather than experimentally testable ideas, i.e. empiricism. This has opened the doors for scholars like William Kirk Kilpatrick to offer a Christian theory of personality.

“Would you like to hear a story?”

It’s a question to which adults as well as children respond with anticipation. In this case, however, I’m afraid it’s only a hypothetical question because I’m not going to tell you a story, I’m going to give you a paper. But I suspect you’d rather hear the story. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I only ask the question to make a point. We love stories. We respond to them in a way we do not to papers or lectures. Stories speak to our hearts. You might even say we have an appetite for stories just as we do for food and drink. Certainly, a meal is much more enjoyable when there are good stories going round the table. And certainly we can all remember times when we were so engrossed in hearing and telling stories that we forgot about food altogether.

When we were younger we made up stories in our heads—daydreams. Needless to say, the heroes and heroines of these stories were always ourselves. The other day I was re-reading one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories in which the main character, a girl, daydreams about being a Christian thrown to the lions in the Coliseum. Quite to the surprise of the Romans, all of the lions lie down at her feet and lick her hand. Reading this triggered something in my mind, and I remembered that I used to have similar daydreams. But, of course, mine were the daydreams of a boy. My preference was to strangle the lions or rip their jaws apart. That would teach them to fool with Christians! The daydream didn’t always end there. Sometimes the emperor would be foolish enough to send a dozen armed gladiators after me to do what the lions couldn’t do. As a Christian I could not, of course, kill the gladiators. I merely disarmed them and knocked them out. After that, the emperor decided it was best to let all the Christians go free. Once, as I recall, one of these daydreams ended in the conversion of the entire Coliseum.

As we grow older, we tend to daydream less, but I’m not sure we ever get over wishing that our lives were more like stories and we more like heroes and heroines. Even grown ups still love stories of adventure and romance. And, surprisingly, even in this highly sophisticated and technological world, old-fashioned stories are still the popular favorites—stories in which there are elements of love and hate, good and evil, heroes and villains, and even the suggestion that there is some great force at work in the universe. That is why people flock to see Star Wars and Close EncountersE.T. and The Emerald ForestReturn of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. People have a need for stories. Without stories they become less human.

In this paper I am going to argue not only that we need stories in our lives, but also that our wishful instincts do not mislead us. A life is a story. That is the proper way to look at it. The best way to interpret and explain a life is in a narrative way. No other way will do.

But, of course, this is not the prevalent way of interpreting lives. The prevailing mindset is what Phillip Rieff calls the therapeutic mentality. Within the therapeutic framework, lives are explained in terms of theories or studies or observations. At best, a life amounts to a case history; at worst, we have, as Stanley Hauerwas would put it, the story that there is no story.

In what follows I want to make a case for a narrative interpretation of lives rather than a therapeutic interpretation. I want to suggest that secular psychology doesn’t understand the storied nature of our lives and that Christian psychology had better not forget it.

Let me begin by addressing the question of meaning. The Old Testament prophet says “Without a vision the people perish.” I do not think secular psychology offers a meaningful vision. I am not sure that it offers any vision. Whatever it offers, it is not enough. People are not flourishing. They still swallow bottles of pills and hold revolvers to their heads just as people did in the Depression when they didn’t know a tenth of the facts and theories we know today.

Why isn’t secular psychology enough? It offers plausible explanations, good insights, good techniques. It offers very good pills. But it doesn’t offer the one thing that people require most: a sense of meaning. Quite the contrary, we can even say that the psychological sciences tend to reduce meaning. One comes away from the psychology textbooks with the feeling that though life now seems more explainable, it somehow seems less meaningful. Everything we thought was of value gets explained away. Symphonies and paintings turn out to be sublimations of the sex drive or productions of the right brain hemisphere. Love turns out to be a matter of stimulus and response or a series of transactions conditioned by family patterns.

In thinking about love, for example, we are subtly encouraged to forget about Romeo and Juliet, and to think rather in terms of some new study of the sexual behavior of 2,000 couples in the Midwest, or some observations on the mating patterns of chimpanzees or to reorder our understanding along the lines of some such formula as, “She is the mother that he always wished to possess.”

And not only is the noble side of our nature reduced, so is the ignoble side. We are allowed to be neither saints nor sinners because, as it turns out, there is no sin; only synapses. I’m sure the day is not far off when some psychologically-minded committee of theologians will get together to rework the Lord’s Prayer along more scientific lines. The new version will no doubt read “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our synapses as we forgive those who synapse against us…”

What I am suggesting here is that though the social sciences are long on analysis they are very short on meaning. Tom Howard handles this matter nicely in his book Chance or the Dance? “The myth sovereign in the old age,” he writes, “was that everything means everything.” That is, everything pointed to something of vast significance standing behind it. But, he observes, “The myth sovereign in the new is that nothing means anything.” Howard continues: “the old myth said, ‘I have a father, and this is to be expected since there is, in fact, a Father who has set things up so that I will have some way of grasping this notion of fatherness which is the stuff of things…’ The new myth says, ‘You have projected your experience of your father onto the cosmos, so that the Father exists strictly as the extension of your own situation.'”

The upshot of our continual exposure to the new myth is the complete frustration of the human imagination, since the imagination is forever asking for significance, and it is forever being told by the keepers of the new myth not to ask that question. Let me quote once more from Chance or the Dance? This time it’s the imagination that is speaking: “Well, if this doesn’t mean anything then (the imagination replies), does this? No? Well then, let’s look over here. What about this? No? Well, here then? No again? Alas, the world is weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.”

I think we may be close here to the reason why the rise of psychology has not ushered in the reign of happiness. Try as it might to give us skills for living, psychology has never been able to give a reason for living. It offers no vision. And, as I have suggested, the reductionist nature of so much psychology often has the unintended effect of making life seem less important, less significant, less worth the struggle. Let me give an example. In one of his books, Victor Frankl quotes a psychoanalyst to the effect that values “are nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations, or rationalizations of instinctual drives.” Maybe so, replies Frankl, but in that case one would have to be a damn fool to care much about values. He writes, “I would not be willing to live for the sake of my ‘defense mechanisms’ much less to die for the sake of my ‘reaction formations.'”

Frankl’s point is that psychology can assign no significant meaning to human values, or for that matter, to any human activities. Everything is explained in terms of the lowest common denominator; everything that first appeared to carry meaning is explained away. Consequently, within its own terms, psychology has little to offer in the way of motivation. Why should we work on improving our lives? When you boil it down, the only answer that mechanistic and physiological models of psychology can offer is something in the order of “Do it for the sake of your synapses” or “You have a duty to your neuro-transmitters.” Well maybe, but to paraphrase Frankl, I’m not sure I want to live for the sake of my neurotransmitters. Even the much-touted motivation of self-actualization won’t do the trick. It may work for a while, but in the long run people yearn for a meaning outside themselves. Sooner or later (and it may be sooner for highly perceptive and sensitive adolescents) people ask, “What’s the point of becoming a self-actualized person in a meaningless world?”

Now admittedly, some secular therapists do employ higher aspirations and more noble considerations in trying to motivate their clients, They say things like: “You have so much to contribute” or “Have you thought about the effect this will have on your parents?” or “I know you don’t care about your own life anymore Mrs. Jones, but can’t you see how much your family needs you?” and so on.

I would only point out that when they say these things they are usually stepping outside of the limits of the psychological sciences and are making use of other traditions and belief systems. Where do these ideas come from? Where do we get the idea that individuals ought to put their families first, or that they ought to contribute to society, or that they ought to care how other people feel? Why should people love one another, or go out of their way, or act in any but purely utilitarian ways? These ideas did not originate in psychology.

Christopher Dawson once wrote “As liberalism did not create moral ideas, so too it cannot preserve them. It lives off the spiritual capital that it inherited from Christian civilization…” I think secular psychology is in an analogous position. It assumes in its clientele a fund of good will, love, and caring that it is incapable of creating. We can go further and say that it assumes the existence of meaning systems which give order and purpose to people’s lives but does nothing to sustain or preserve those meaning systems. It depends on those meaning systems at the same time that it is doing much to undermine and weaken those systems. In short, it is like a man sawing off the branch on which he sits.

Now, so far, my contention has been that secular psychology can assign no particular meaning to emotional distress and traumatic situations. It has no ultimate answer to the question that plagues us when we are distressed and broken by the circumstances of life. That question is: “Why me?” “Why is this happening to me?”

Secular psychology can only answer that question in one of two ways. It can answer that your suffering is pure chance, randomness, the result of a bad concatenation of genes or chemicals, family patterns, or environment. Or it can answer like the friends of Job and tell you in very subtle ways that perhaps you really brought this on your own head. If you had only done this or if you hadn’t done that; if you had only had a better understanding of family dynamics; if you had only given your children more freedom, or if you had only given them less. And so on. But such explanations, though they may be plausible, and though they may actually fit the facts of our lives, seem insufficient. They are explanations, but they are not meaningful explanations. They don’t answer the question, “Why me?” For we may be well aware of others—friends, neighbors, relatives—who have made just as many mistakes in life as we, who are perhaps less caring and more self-absorbed and who, nevertheless, go sailing through life. Why not them? Why me?

Moreover, the kind of explanations we get very often serve to trivialize our lives. Our struggles, sufferings, and triumphs when placed in the cool light of therapeutic analysis are made to seem much less significant than we feel them to be. And there’s the rub. We are forever searching for significance in our life and we are restless till we find it. To be told by a well-meaning therapist that the particular problem we suffer from is a typical reaction of mid-life or that this particular family situation is “something we see quite often in the people we work with”—that kind of response just doesn’t seem to do justice to the story of our lives.

The fact is we do look upon our lives as stories. However difficult to elucidate, we feel there is something like a point or purpose or plot to life. We are even audacious enough to want the story to have a nice sensible plot, preferably like a 19th-century novel. We decidedly do not want to think of our life as “a tale told by an idiot…signifying nothing”—although that seems to be the interpretation favored by the social sciences. This concept of life as story helps to explain why we like to tell stories, listen to stories, and read stories. As G.K. Chesterton put it, all life is an allegory and we can understand it only in parable.

I, for one, take that very seriously. I believe that if you are not looking at life poetically and dramatically then you are not looking at it properly. And this, it seems to me, is also the way Christianity instructs us to look at life. After all, Christianity has come to us as a story, not as a theory or a philosophy or a science. Or perhaps we might say that it is many stories that are part of one vast tale. There is the story of Creation, the story of Abraham, the story of Joseph and his brothers, the story of King David, the story of the Good Samaritan, the Christmas story, the Gospel stories. Moreover, we speak of God as the author of Creation and the author of our Salvation, and sometimes we refer to the drama of Salvation and the part we are meant to play in it.

It is a story of God’s goodness but, since it is a true story, it is not an idyllic fable. The Dark Lord plays his part as does the Good Lord. A good story will not exclude the unpleasant side of life. The characters will encounter humiliations, accidents, misfortunes, and sorrows but these calamities serve a purpose and are never without meaning. Indeed the calamity is very often the occasion for the growth or transformation of the story’s protagonist. For example, in one of Tolstoy’s short stories, a mortal sickness causes Ivan Illych to see his life as he has never seen it before. In Jane Austin’s Persuasion Louisa Musgrove is transformed into a better person by an accident and her subsequent convalescence. In Great Expectations, Pip is transformed by his illness. In Captains Courageous, a fall overboard transforms a spoiled child into a loyal friend. And, of course, in the Gospel story, we find that it is through suffering that we are redeemed and the world is saved.

In stories, and particularly in the Gospel story, hardships, setbacks, persecutions, rejection, sickness, and abandonment are not mere random events. They can be occasions of revelation, of seeing something for the first time or remembering something that had been forgotten. And they can be an occasion of transformation, of turning lives around or turning them back to the right path. And the interesting thing is that the events in a story may serve not only as occasions of revelation and transformation for the actors in a story but also for readers and hearers of the story as well. Augustine takes and reads and the pattern of his life is revealed to him, and perhaps a thousand years later another man picks up the Confessions and the miracle is repeated. And it still happens. Despite the spirit of the age, we feel there must be a point to our lives. One of the great services which a story may render then is to help us see what that point may be. Stories may help us to recognize a moral or spiritual meaning in a personal situation that might otherwise seem chaotic or pointless.

Now I’m not saying that the significance of events is always crystal clear either to the characters in a story or to the hearers or readers of a story. There is always much that cannot be articulated, much that remains mysterious. There is indeed a sense in which all good stories are mystery stories. And that’s because good stories are true to life and life is mysterious. You get the sense in reading Dickens or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky that they are not only propounding the great and solid facts of life but also the marvelous and uncanny nature of those facts, and the mysterious bonds that connect facts and events and people together. But to say that the events in a story or in a life are mysterious is not to say they are random or senseless. Mystery and meaning are not opposites. Rather, a mystery is something that has more meaning than we can comprehend.

The problems we encounter in life, however, do not usually follow from a sense that there is too much mystery or too much meaning in our lives but a complete absence of both. We can sometimes reach a point where we feel not only that life is meaningless but also that there seems nothing mysterious about the fact. We look at life clearly and unsentimentally (so we tell ourselves) and it seems quite obvious that it is meant to be meaningless; and as soon as we can get up the courage we will exit stage left and put up with it no more. With David Copperfield, we all set out to see whether we will turn out to be the hero of our own story. Along the way, however, some of us come to the conclusion that not only are we not the hero, but that there is no story. I have suggested that secular psychology unwittingly encourages that bleak view. Let me suggest now that one of the tasks of Christian psychology is to challenge the notion that there is no story.

But first, lest you think I’ve been reading too many stories and not paying enough attention to non-literary views of human nature, let me add that this view of life as story corresponds to some of the very best thought in contemporary psychology and philosophy. For example, the developmental scheme worked out by Erik Erikson is quite compatible with this view. For Erikson, the major element in ego identity is a sense of continuity over time. A healthy self, like a novel, requires a theme or narrative thread. And though this narrative thread may not tie up all the loose ends of one’s life, it still ought to give us a conviction that our life ties together.

In the field of philosophy one of the most important books in recent years is Alasdair Maclntyre’s After Virtue. Much of this book is devoted to the problem of defining personal identity. Although I can’t do justice here to Maclntyre’s full argument, I can give a rough summary. The best way to understand a person’s life, says Maclntyre, is to think of it as a story. Not as being like a story but as a story. He writes: “All attempts to elucidate the notion of personal identity independently of and in isolation from the notions of narrative intelligibility, and accountability are bound to fail.” Elsewhere he writes, “The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest.” And again, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”

MacIntyre also notes that “When someone complains—as do some of those who attempt or commit suicide—that his or her life is meaningless he or she is often and perhaps characteristically complaining that the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any point, any movement toward a climax or telos. Hence the point of doing any one thing rather than another at crucial junctures in their lives seems to such a person to have been lost.”

When a man comes to the point in his life when he begins to ask “What’s the use?” or “What’s the point?” or “What does it matter?” it’s a sign that he has lost the narrative thread of his life. One of the major tasks of Christian psychology is to help him find it again. Christian psychologists are in a much better position to do this than their secular counterparts because they are in touch with a tradition in which every individual life, no matter how desperate and seemingly pointless, can find a place. Christian psychology can encourage people to see their lives as stories within a larger story, to locate themselves within a tradition of people who have been similarly tested. Many life experiences which appear meaningless or accidental from secular perspectives are more properly viewed as points of testing or revelation or transformation from the perspective of the Christian drama. Christian psychology has the task of helping us go beyond the level of merely “working on our problems” or seeing our lives as clinical studies, and on to the level of discerning the distinctive part we are meant to play and the importance of playing it well.

In all of this the role of faith is crucial. So too is the role of imagination. The distressed person needs the power to imagine an interpretation other than the bleak one he has assigned to his life, In the words of the old hymn he must be able to say, “I was blind, but now I see.” “I looked at life that way, but I was wrong. Now I see it this way.” The imagination needs to be fed, of course, And it feeds, naturally enough, on images. What kind of images? Well, it will try to nourish itself with whatever images are available. But I would suggest the kind of images the dispirited man needs are not clinical images or psychological images or sociological images but images that will give him back his spirit. Inspirational images, if you will.

Now, I’m afraid the word “inspirational” has fallen on bad times, and has come to mean a sort of spiritual pep talk, as though the Holy Spirit were some variation on college spirit or team spirit. That view is a bit superficial. We’d do better perhaps to think of a commander rallying his soldiers at the darkest hour of battle, or of a family facing hard times, or natural disasters, or a serious illness with the attitude, “We’ve seen this before, we’ll come through it again, we’ll sustain each other with our love.” Better yet is to look at the actual images of our Faith: images which say “God is with us, He will see us through.”

What are some of these images, and how might they relate to the lives of those who seek help in counseling? Well, to someone who feels abandoned, desolate, without friends, it is no little thing to call forth the image of Christ in the Garden or on the cross. He, too, felt abandoned. To someone who is ashamed of his life but feels it is too late to start over, it makes a difference to know that Peter was a coward, Paul an accomplice to murder, and Augustine a libertine. When family life seems to have lost its point, when children seem only an occasion for heartbreak, it makes a difference to know that God, too, experienced the disobedience of his first children; and it helps to know that prodigal sons and daughters do come back. When someone’s life seems to have been reduced to simply waiting and hoping year after year, it makes a difference to recall that the Israelites wandered for forty years, or that Monica, Augustine’s mother, waited thirty years for an answer to her prayers. And finally, when someone can find no earthly explanation for his tribulations, it is no little thing to recall that we battle with principalities and powers, that we have an enemy who goes about seeking our destruction, and that in our sufferings we may help to destroy the power of the Dark Lord.

Does a narrative approach to understanding human lives explain everything? No. After all, mysteries are at the heart of our faith. And ordinary people are also mysteries. Christians are not called upon to understand everything but to believe and act. The power of narrative, however, is not limited to the power to explain. It also has the power to sustain. It can sustain us even when it does not explain everything. It sustains us by assuring us that we are part of something important even though the connections are not always visible, God does have a plan for each of us. Our gestures and struggles which may appear to lead nowhere or to bear no fruit may yet have great significance. As Christians we really do believe that there are other lines of connection than those the world sees, lines which may run in completely different directions. The logic of stories and of lives, then, is not the same as the logic of the logicians.

Nor is it the same as the logic of the social scientists. The logic of the social sciences can be characterized as a cause-and-effect logic: this happened, therefore this happened next. It’s a kind of rough mathematics of the psyche. Multiply three psychological factors by three environmental factors, and it works out to a psycho-social total of nine. For example, one prominent psychologist, in explaining the behavior of would-be assassin John Hinckley, points out that John’s older brother and sister had preempted all the positive identities held out as valuable by his parents. “Consequently,” the psychologists reasoned, “John adopted a negative identity—one of extremism, aloneness and social disruption—the negative of what his parents valued.”

Now this is a plausible application of the concept of “negative identity” and it happens to fit the facts of “the case” very nicely. It is a logical explanation, although I can’t imagine that for the Hinckley family it is a comforting explanation or a sustaining one. Somehow, it doesn’t answer the question “Why me?” And I’m not even sure it’s good mathematics. It seems to be one of those cases where three times three equals nine hundred ninety-nine instead of nine. To let the prominent psychologist off the hook, let me confess that in my own courses on psychology I have used the Hinckley example to illustrate the formation of a negative identity. I also offer neat and plausible psycho-social explanations of the reasons why some young people join cults, and some motorcycle gangs, and why some take drugs, and some take their lives. But I’m always conscious in doing so that these explanations are not nearly sufficient. And I know in my own case, when trouble strikes my life, such formulations seem beside the point.

I’m not saying that there is not an order to our lives or that there is not a coherence by which that connects with this. I would only suggest that this order is in a different order from what the social scientist supposes. It is better understood as a narrative order than a cause-and-effect order. The parts of our life story are not connected in a logical way but in a narrative way. In his book, Vision and Character, Craig Dykstra, in trying to characterize the progress of both lives and stories puts it this way: “What happens next cannot be deduced from what happened first, though what happens next must follow narratively from what happened first.” To illustrate what he means, pick up a literary classic with which you’re unfamiliar, read a few chapters, and try to figure out what will happen next. Reading War and Peace who could guess that Natasha would suddenly break off her engagement with Prince Andrew, and attempt to run off with the playboy Anatole Kuragin? Reading Anna Karenina who could guess that Alexey Karenin, the classic case of a mechanical man, would suddenly undergo an emotional conversion? Or that Vronsky would attempt to kill himself? Yet these things do happen. And when they do happen they seem like an inevitable part of the story. But these events proceed by a pattern which simply transcends the logic of cause-and-effect.

In this connection, it is worth noting that when social scientists get hold of great literature, or when literary critics employ a narrow social science analysis, the results are far from happy. Before we too readily adopt the social science explanation of lives we might consider what a failure the social science interpretation of literature has been. Even a naive reader realizes there is more at work in David Copperfield than sociology, more at work in The Brothers Karamazov than psychology, more at work in War and Peace than Tolstoy’s sex life, and more at work in Pride and Prejudice than proto-feminism. Such attempts at narrow analysis always end up as petty endeavors next to the thing they pretend to analyze. The characters and events in Tolstoy, Dickens, Homer and Shakespeare cannot be reduced to social science categories. They transcend such categories. And just as psychological criticism misses much of the significance of literature, psychological analysis can miss much of the significance of individual lives.

Again, it is a question of imagination. A human life can be imagined in strikingly different ways from different perspectives. Imagine, if you will, a game of connect-the-dots, the kind of game children play. Only this time, imagine that the dots are arranged in such a way that more than one picture can be formed from them. One person will connect them this way, another person that way depending perhaps on how they have been trained to look at things. Secular psychology will tend to connect the dots of our lives along certain lines and not others. They can make a picture, it is true, but you have to wonder if it’s the right picture. Now take it a step further and imagine a three dimensional game of connect-the-dots—a game where some of the most important dots to be connected may be completely missed by players who are conditioned to think only in terms of two dimensions.

Or think of that other children’s game in which you look for a hidden picture, perhaps a face in a tree. If you look at it one way all you see is the tree, but if you change your perspective in the right way it becomes apparent that the face was there all along.

Most introductory texts in psychology contain illustrations of such perceptual reversals. The idea seems to hold a certain fascination for secular psychologists. But they stop short of making the logical application to their own field. For it implies, of course, that there are other ways of looking at life than those employed by secular psychology. Christian psychologists, on the other hand, are in the fortunate position of looking at life’s vagaries in a dual perspective. They can see both the tree and the face. The Face was there all along, of course. The picture has never made sense without it.