This just dawned on me

Psychoanalysis:Empirical Sciences::Theology:Biblical Studies

Updated: OK now I’m going to flesh this out.

First off let me say that theology and psychoanalysis are my two favorite subjects. The contrarian streak in me probably gravitates to the controversial status of both disciplines. Psychoanalysis is far from popular (or even credible) in the US, and Deleuze probably said it best that theology is the science of non-existing entities.

Here are some common parallels:

A) Psychoanalysis has an awkward relationship with the empirical sciences, a term I am using to describe both neuroscience and psychology. Specifically clinical psychology is an empirical science interested in generating support for certain thereapuetic modalities to test the efficacy of different interventions. In the US from the 30s to the 80s psychoanalysis dominated not only clinical psychology but also psychiatry. With the increasing emphasis on empirical research and an attachment to produce evidence-based treatment psychoanalysis soon lost favor in the States to the highly researched and effective treatment known as cognitive-behavioral therapy. Initially analysts turned a blind eye to research denigrating it and claiming that analysis did not need to demonstrate its utility. Unfortunately, psychoanalysis realized too late in the game that insurance companies would no longer be covering long-term therapy when a shorter-term treatment could just as easily get the job done. Now psychoanalysis has tried to develop an empirically supported treatment known as psychodynamic therapy, but the amount of credible research demonstrating its usefulness is still slim.

Likewise since the 19th century theology has had to contend with the historical-critical method. Liberal Protestantism completely embraced the method of discerning how the Biblical texts were composed. This method helps us analyze the origin of these texts and the changes made to these texts throughout history. One example of this method is various constructions of the historical Jesus. This of course has generated the split between the famous Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Although there are certainly other methods of interpreting scripture (feminist, Marxist, etc), the historical-critical method is one of the most useful. I find that certain types of theology are weakened by their refusal to engage with this method. Barth likely over-reacted against his liberal teachers, and his Dogmatics-in my opinion-is weakened by his failure to take into account historical criticism. Of course literalists are the most resolute in opposing this type of criticism holding fast to their unwavering belief in the absolute truth of the Bible despite the mass amount of evidence in opposition to this claim. Theology would be greatly strengthened by at least taking into account this method and applying it to develop a historical and responsible theology. The refusal to acknowledge the importance of Biblical studies often weakens the value and import of theology as a credible discipline.

B) Psychoanalysis and (orthodox) theology often do have scholars doing work in these different fields. My chief complaint is that these scholars only tend to seek research that serves to confirm what these fields already believe. Hence, it comes as no surprise that orthodox theologians adore N.T. Wright who basically finds that the Gospels are an accurate record of first century Palestine (I’m not saying that a confirmation of orthodoxy is proof that his research his by definition fallacious, but it is telling that other Biblical scholars who pose a threat to orthodoxy are generally dismissed). Likewise, a new field of psychoanalysis has been in conversation with neuroscience (neuroanalysis) and is seeking confirmation of Freud’s meta-psychology. However, the problem is that most (but not all) still only seek research that corroborates Freud’s model of the mind (although I must point out that neuroscience has done wonders in confirming some of Freud’s ideas). Again the relationships of psychoanalysis to neuroscience and of theology to Biblical studies is still a hierarchical one in which analysts and theologians turn a deaf ear to any of the latest research that might serve to dis-confirm their cherished doctrines.

C) Finally one finds that both analysts and theologians often resort to the same smear tactics when conversing with scholars from those respected fields. Specifically, when clinical psychology research exposes that a certain method of intervention (e.g. challenging defenses) is non-efficacious, analysts hurl insults such as ‘positivistic’ or ‘reductionist’ at these researchers. Similarly, theologians have resorted to similar methods to suppress the often embarrassing findings of historical critical method (e.g. Jesus and Paul’s false belief in an imminent apocalypse).

I think the future of both fields depend on the establishment of a more egalitarian relationship with these related fields. Otherwise, both disciplines run the risk of becoming increasingly irrelevant (i.e. scientifically untenable or historically inaccurate). I do not think theology should completely capitulate to the historical-critical method insofar as theology has always recognized that creative work is needed to accurately generate orthodox faith (e.g. developing the Christological and Trinitarian positions). Also, it is true that the amount one can actually know from the historical-critical method is not robust enough to develop a full-fledged theology, which is why the historical Jesus research often takes as much imagination as it does scholarship. I would suggest that the boundaries separating theology from Biblical studies and psychoanalysis from empiricals sciences should be selectively permeable. There should still be a separation, but the membrane separating the two should be porous lest both disciplines end up completely suffocating from a rigid orthodoxy that cannot adapt to current scholarship.


2 Responses to “Analogy”

  1. Blake Huggins Says:

    Nice. Now, if they would only put something like this on the damned GRE.

  2. A.J. Smith Says:

    “I would suggest that the boundaries separating theology from Biblical studies and psychoanalysis from empiricals sciences should be selectively permeable. There should still be a separation, but the membrane separating the two should be porous lest both disciplines end up completely suffocating from a rigid orthodoxy that cannot adapt to current scholarship.”

    Definitely, although it’s mostly theologians than needs to listen to biblical scholarship. It seems to me that the historical-critical method is requisite for good exegesis.

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