Theology, Philosophy, & Modern Psychology

Catholic Theology, Philosophy, & Modern PsychologyAccording to the textbook, Experience Psychology 3rd ed., there are 7 various approaches to the field of psychology. These are the biological approach, the behavioral approach, the psychodynamic approach, the humanistic approach, the cognitive approach, the sociocultural approach, and finally the evolutionary approach. Each approach has its areas of emphasis, understanding of the psychology of the human person, and how to heal mental illness.

This is how the textbook summarizes each of these approaches[1]:

  • Biological Approach – an examination of behavior and mental processes, which focus on the body, especially the brain and nervous system. Neuroscience is very important for the biological approach to psychology. Neuroscience is defined as the scientific study of the structure, function, development, genetics, and biochemistry of the nervous system. Moreover, neuroscience emphasizes that the brain and nervous system are central to understanding behavior, thought, and emotion.
  • Behavioral Approach – emphasizes the scientific study of observable behavioral responses and their environmental determinants. It focuses on the visible behaviors, not thoughts or feelings.
  • Psychodynamic Approach – emphasizes unconscious thought, the conflict between biological drives (such as the drive for sex) and society’s demand, and early childhood family experiences. Practitioners of this approach believe that sexual and aggressive impulses buried deep within the unconscious mind influence the way people think, feel, and behave.
  • Humanistic Approach – emphasizes a person’s positive qualities, the capacity for positive growth, and the freedom to choose one’s destiny. Humanistic psychologists stress that people have the ability to control their lives and are not simply controlled by the environment.
  • Cognitive Approach – emphasizes the mental processes involved in knowing: how we direct our attention, perceive, remember, think, and solve problems. From the cognitive perspective, an individual’s mental processes are in control of behavior through memories, perception, images, and thinking.
  • Sociocultural Approach – examines the influences of social and cultural environments on behavior. Socioculturalists argue that understanding a persons behavior requires knowing about the cultural context in which the behavior occurs.
  • Evolutionary Approach – is centered on evolutionary ideas, such as adaptation, reproduction, and natural selection as the basis for explaining specific human behaviors. Thus, evolutionary psychologists say, the way we are is traceable to problems of early humans faced in adapting to their environments. Moreover, evolutionary psychologists believe that their approach provides an umbrella that unifies the diverse fields of psychology.

To my knowledge, and especially in this particular textbook used at secular universities, none of these approaches has anything to say about the reality of the soul, the existence of God, the reality of Christ, and the human person’s relation to God through Christ.

The theoretical expanse of Christ-less approaches to the psychology of the human person would most likely seem obvious given the embedded context of metaphysical naturalism and epistemic scientism. This context, however, presumes itself to be true while suggestions of a view of reality cognizant of theological foundations to be false, or at the very least irrelevant for the field of psychology. A materialistic methodological sentiment of this sort is institutionalized confirmation bias rather than critical thinking in the pursuit of truth.

Additionally, the evolutionary approach to psychology is where most, if not all, aspects of modern psychology find its unifying theoretical apparatus. All the other approaches are branches of the neo-Darwinian evolutionary umbrella. To various degrees, then, modern psychology will ultimately place the human person within the metaphysical context of an anthropology that is laden by materialistic reductionism and/or random sociocultural circumstances. The humanistic approach attempts to recognize that the person possesses a will to choose higher ideals, but this can only begin to make sense if the prior naturalism is discarded for a theistic understanding of reality. If naturalism is true, and the neo-Darwinian theory supports said naturalism, then any humanistic approach is a practice of illusory self-importance.

A thoroughly Catholic understanding of human psychology must counteract the materialistic reductionism and sociocultural relativism of the modern field. I contend that this is where Catholic theology and philosophy can offer a powerful alternative to the errors of modernity and post-modernity. A thoroughly Catholic theory of psychology is better suited to deal with the human person because it better understands the entire reality the human person is participating. The Catholic worldview opens up reality into an imaginative expanse of infinite truth.

How do we come to understand human psychology from the perspective of Catholic orthodoxy? First and foremost, the reality of the existence of the Triune God and the Incarnate Christ would be the cornerstone for understanding the anthropology of the human person. We are created in the image and likeness of the one and true Triune God, fashioned by and for participation in the life of Christ.

Second, the Catholic approach is deeply Marian. The human person is not striving for an idolatrous Olympian ideal of perfection waiting to be actualized in future human achievement through evolutionary progressions. To the contrary, human perfection has been accomplished not only in Christ, but in the person of Mary, the Mother of God, by the grace of God in union with Christ. This is exemplified in two very simple, and yet profoundly important Marian acts. First is her statement, “I am the handmaid of the Lord”; second is her assertion to, “Do whatever he tells you.” These two acts of faith are where human perfection is found – submission to the will of God and following the commands of God in Jesus Christ.

These philosophical criticisms of the modern field of psychology should not be taken as a dismissal of every approach as entirely erroneous. This is not my aim at all. To be sure, the advancements in areas of cognitive psychology and neuroscience are profoundly important. What I am challenging is the anti-theological and anti-metaphysical interpretation of these approaches in the modern field.

A Catholic theological and philosophical approach to psychology recognizes the authentically valuable achievements in the field, while simultaneously seeking to free aspects of truth therein clouded by the fog of the naturalistic and scientistic fallacies.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] Each summary is taken from the textbook, Experience Psychology 3rd ed., Pg. 44 – 47

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