International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Theology and Psychology

by Fraser N. Watts

Introductory Essay by Kevin Reimer

In this introductory textbook, Fraser Watts offers a template for amicable dialogue between psychology and Christian theology. The work considers “each discipline from the perspective of the other” [29]. Early chapters survey issues in psychology (i.e., artificial intelligence, consciousness, evolution, religious experience, self) from a theological vantage. Later chapters address theological concerns (i.e., Christ, divine action, eschatology, theodicy) from a psychological perspective. The discussion gravitates toward middle ground, seeking points of compatibility between opposing extremes. For example, Watts sketches scholarship on religious experience using a continuum anchored by social constructionism at one pole and personal religiousness at the other pole. The author identifies specific theorists for integrative critique, such as the consciousness studies of Francis Crick – work that provides opportunity for interaction with substance dualism and reductionism. Watts’ approach emphasizes convergence between disciplines, facilitating engagement between such old antagonists as evolution and theism.

Consistent with the survey textbook genre, difficult decisions must be made regarding topics selected for integrative exchange. Psychology and theology are large disciplines with diverse interests extending beyond the constraints of a single book. Watts demonstrates a preference for integrative issues associated with human nature, where nomenclature taken from each discipline (i.e., self/soul) is transparent and potentially commensurable. The anthropological predilection becomes evident with topics such as artificial intelligence (AI), which push readers deeper into human identity, purpose, and experience. An author of reflective moderation, Watts accepts the less audacious tenets of the AI agenda while using theology to raise thoughtful criticisms involving the relevance of embodiment to cognition. Audiences unfamiliar with interdisciplinary dialogue between psychology and theology will find the presentation useful in locating topics suitable for integration. Readers with more extensive background may find the work superficial where depth is sacrificed for the sake of breadth. Since the publication of Watts’ volume nearly a decade ago, scholarship bridging psychology and Christian theology/religion has flourished. The integrative field is endowed with a number of relevant publications. These might be generally categorized in terms of (a) effort to reconcile disciplines toward clinical outcomes, and (b) neuroscientific/cognitive study of religious experience.

The first category includes clinical texts written from a theologically informed perspective, such as McMinn & Campbell’s (2007) Integrative Psychotherapy. Other works target issues at the intersection of clinical psychology and theology such as spirituality (Shults & Sandage, 2006), or the importance of situating interdisciplinary exchange in historical and cross-cultural perspective (Dueck & Reimer, 2009). The second category embraces the recent advances of neuroscience on matters of psychological and theological significance, notably in Beauregard and O’Leary’s (2008) controversial work on brain, soul, and materialism. Growing interest in the cognitive science of religion includes the social context of religious experience, ritual symbolic representation, emotion, and gender (Atran, 2002). Taken together, these works extend Watts’ interest to find convergence between psychological and theological discourses on matters of real-world significance. In this respect his project serves as bellwether for interdisciplinary, bimodal interest in the human sciences and religion.