Dear Theophilus: Christians in the Social Sciences

By Michael Gleghorn PhD, Faculty

Support group showing need for Christian psychology

Dear Faculty,

How should Christians in fields like psychology or human behavioral science do their work when the consensus in the field often assumes non-Christian views of the mind, spirituality, behavior and morality?

– Theophilus

Dear Theophilus,

What a great question. How should Christians involved in the human behavioral sciences do their work when non-Christian scholarly consensus often seems to be against them? The short answer is that they should do their work as Christians, taking the assumptions, doctrines and implications of the Christian faith with all due seriousness for their scholarly labors. If Christianity is true, as we certainly believe, it must not be left out. To do so may be to overlook important truths that might just lead to new insights and discoveries in the human sciences.

Advice to Christian Philosophers

The renowned Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, once published a book entitled, “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” In the book, he pleads with fellow Christian scholars to take their faith with greater seriousness in their scholarly work. This is done by adopting a more independent spirit toward the intellectual fads and fashions of the day.

He argues that we should demonstrate greater intellectual “integrity,” “Christian courage” and “trust in the Lord.”1 He talks about how most of the sciences, some ideas by intellectuals and some of the allegedly Christian theology, is done by a foreign spirit different to the one of Christian theism.1 Of course, if we are to be faithful to our calling as scholars, we certainly need to be familiar with the relevant scholarship in our field. Moreover, Plantinga is quite clear that we have much of great importance to learn from our non-Christian behavioral science colleagues.1 He is not contending for some sort of “Christian isolationism.”

On the contrary, he is simply trying to make the very legitimate and necessary point that Christian scholars should not always let non-Christian ideas and assumptions set the agenda for their own research projects — or the conclusions which they draw from them. We need to demonstrate a more independent cast of mind.

Daring to Think Like Christians

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” – Colossians 3:23-24, NIV

As Christians, we are servants first and foremost of the Lord, and secondly, of the Christian community.1 We need to have the courage of our convictions and set up research projects that are guided by Christian ideas, principles and assumptions. Doing so might lead to the next great discovery. At the very least, it might help us (and the scholarly community more generally) see that such ideas and assumptions fit nicely with other truths that we know.

The Importance of Christian Doctrine

Let’s recur to your original question and ask another: Does Christianity have anything important to say about the human mind, spirituality, behavior and morality? Indeed, it does. Christianity holds two fundamental doctrines about human nature, which we dare not neglect in our scholarship: (1) human beings bear the image of God; and (2) since the Fall, we possess a sinful nature.

Of course, these statements of doctrine raise yet more questions: What is God like? What does it mean that we bear God’s image? Moreover, what is sin? And what does it mean to say that human beings now possess a sinful nature? Finally, how should our reflection upon such questions influence the way in which we think (and write) about the human mind, spirituality, behavior and morality?

My purpose in raising such questions is not to answer them — at least, not here. Rather, I want to make clear just how deeply Christian doctrine speaks to so many of the most important questions that we can ask about human beings. If Christian scholars do not take the initiative to provide careful and sympathetic answers to such questions, who will?

Integrating Faith and Scholarship

Plantinga’s advice to Christian philosophers is good advice for Christians working in any academic discipline. He reminds us that we not only have much to learn from non-Christian colleagues, but we also have much to contribute.1

By taking the assumptions, doctrines and implications of Christianity seriously, scholars working in the human sciences can seek to develop increasingly thoughtful, well-researched and carefully formulated views of the mind, spirituality, behavior and morality that might rival (or even surpass) the views of non-Christian scholars. But in order to do this, Christians laboring in these areas must do their work with integrity, an independent spirit and true Christian courage.1

Have your own theology questions? Get your questions answered by emailing cotblog@gcu.edu using the subject line “Dear Theophilus.” If you would like to learn more about the College of Theology and our degree programs at Grand Canyon University click on the Request Info button at the top of your screen. 

Reference:

1 Plantinga, Alvin. (1984). Advice to Christian Philosophers. Faith and Philosophy, 1(3), 253-271. https://doi.org/10.5840/faithphil19841317

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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