Teaching kids how to be religious, part eight: The limits of psychology

Part one: Link

So far, we’ve been using insights drawn from the science of psychology to help us understand how to teach kids to be religious. But psychology only goes so far when it some to religion. Its insights are useful, but we also have to consider theological anthropology, that is, our deeply-felt religious understandings of who persons are and how persons relate to the divine, and/or to something larger than themselves.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I’m going to speak from within my own theological tradition. Specifically, I’ll speak as a Transcendentalist and as a Universalist.

As a Transcendentalist, I know that human beings have the potential to experience something larger than themselves. As a mystical tradition, Transcendentalism isn’t quite sure what to call that something larger than ourselves. You could call it “God,” but for many mystics and Transcendentalists, even that word is too limiting for the overwhelming experiences that can burst in on us unannounced. You could call it “the collective unconscious,” and there would be some truth to that name, but here again the name is far too limited. You might want to say it is that which is highest and best in humanity, but many of us find our transcendent experiences lead us far outside what might comfortably called human. Maybe it’s best just to leave it nameless.

Whatever you call it, that experience of the nameless something that is larger than you are cannot be adequately explained by psychology. Developmental psychology falls short because transcendent experiences can come to anyone of any age or developmental stage. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs falls short because transcendent experiences can come when you are starving to death. The theory of distributed cognition falls short because transcendent experiences can come to people who live in communities that do not value or accept transcendent experiences. From this theological viewpoint, in other words, there is more to human beings than that which is summed up in psychological models.

As a Universalist, I believe that all human beings will ultimately be saved; the corollary to that is that all human beings are of equal value, theologically speaking. Universalism offers a very strong critique of developmental psychology. Developmental psychology says that human beings have to develop over time, which implies that human beings who aren’t yet fully developed somehow aren’t fully human. Defenders of developmental psychology squirm when I say that, and try to deny it — but in order for their denials to be at all effective, they have to acknowledge that developmental psychology presents a very limited understanding of human beings, an understanding which cannot encompass the full range of what it means to be human.

Universalism as I understand it tends to be neutral when it comes to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or the theory of distributed cognition. These models are clearly valid — as far as they go — but they don’t go as far as the Universalist wants to go. The Universalist always winds up with the basic fact that all human beings contain that which is of equal value; the Universalist is likely to agree with George Fox when he said, “There is that of God in every person.”

If you come from another religious community, you’ll likely have your own theological understanding of human beings. I wager that if you think about it, you too will find that the insights of psychology are useful but not sufficient.

To be continued…

6 thoughts on “Teaching kids how to be religious, part eight: The limits of psychology

  1. Pingback: Friday Scribbler at Making Chutney

  2. Administrator

    Peregrinato — Yes. To be honest, I am more interested in family systems theory, which places the individual in the context of families and larger social systems, and in eco-psychology, a relatively new branch of psychology which has begun to explore the individual in the context of non-human beings. Regardless of my personal interests, my general thesis remains the same: “From this theological viewpoint, in other words, there is more to human beings than that which is summed up in psychological models.” Psychology is a useful tool, but religious education cannot be reduced to one psychological model.

  3. Peregrinato

    I would suggest that some transpersonal approaches agree with your thesis, and recognize –but do not summarize–this dimension traditionally unrecognized in psychology. In fact, the broader humanistic-existential approach would also recognizes this, but such approaches are often criticized by more linear models of psychology for being so open-ended and not having a structured model to rely on. So…I’m not saying you’re wrong in your assumption, by any means, but I am saying that there are many in psychology who agree with you!

  4. Administrator

    Pergrinato — I’m very comfortable with the humanistic psychologists — I especially rely on the work of Carl Rogers for doing pastoral counseling — but I haven’t found that they offer much that’s useful for teaching. They seem more focused on clinical work, and on psychopathology rather than on teaching/learning. If you can point me to humanistic/existentialist psychologist who wrote specifically on teaching/learning (prefereably basing their work on actual practice!), I’d be interested in doing some reading in this area. (Rogers did put a chapter on teaching in his book Client Centered Therapy, but it’s so limited it’s almost useless.)

  5. Peregrinato

    I will gladly dig through my notes, but I’m not sure what I can find. The key that I remembered was that the existential-humanistic understanding of the human–whether counseling or teaching–was that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and quantitive analysis has its limits. The more significant something is, the less one can measure it! (I’m thinking of Irv Yalom in this respect.) But as said, I’lll see what I can find and email you separately.

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