Is Psychology Religious?

Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, by Paul C. Vitz (Eerdmans, 135 pp., $4.95 pb), is reviewed by Allan R. Andrews, assistant professor of psychology, North Shore Community College, Beverly, Massachusetts.

With the zealous intensity of a Luther-like reformer, Paul C. Vitz has hammered his theses to the cathedral door of contemporary psychology. Vitz attacks the modern psychological institution, which, he argues, has become a religion in the form of secular humanism preaching the gospel according to Selfism.

Specifically, Vitz levels five charges: it exists as a religion in great strength throughout the United States; it can be criticized on grounds independent of religion; it is hostile to most religions, especially Christianity; it raises “grave political and legal issues” because it is financed by tax dollars supporting the schools, universities, and social programs that promote it; and it has been systematically destroying individuals, families, and communities.

Vitz is no ill-informed, street-corner prophet of doom. He speaks as a personality and motivation theorist trained at Michigan and Stanford universities. He currently is an associate professor of psychology at New York University.

Four major theorists of the “self” draw Vitz’s most critical words: Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Erich Fromm, and Rollo May. Rogers appears as the chief offender for Vitz because he, more so than the others, has actively popularized his viewpoint in public seminars and less academic publications.

Vitz also scores selfist worship as he sees it expressed in the popular religious writings of Harry Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale, making careful note of the influence of religious liberalism on self theory in psychology.

It becomes clear on careful reading that Vitz has singled out the human potential movement for special criticism. Vitz defends the doctrine of sin as being localized in the will of the individual, and not, as selfist psychology suggests, primarily in

the products of social organization. The problem of individual sin challenges the selfist notions of actualization, Vitz argues: “… the relentless and single-minded search for and glorification of the self is at direct cross-purposes with the Christian injunction to lose the self. Certainly Jesus Christ neither lived nor advocated a life that would qualify by today’s standards as ‘self-actualized.’ For the Christian the self is the problem, not the potential paradise. Understanding this problem involves an awareness of sin, especially the sin of pride: correcting this condition requires the practice of such un-self-actualized states as contrition and penitence, humility, obedience, and trust in God” (p. 91).

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Despite some weaknesses in his quick analyses of the four theorists, the notion that psychology is generally hostile to Christianity is Vitz’s strongest thesis. The struggle to define the field of the psychology of religion in the twentieth century and the general reluctance of research psychologists to explore religious phenomena lends support to Vitz’s argument. A perusal of so-called “growth psychology” textbooks also lends credence to Vitz’s argument; these books do ignore the growth potential in religious commitment. Even the late Gordon Allport, in somewhat milder terms than Vitz’s, suggested that religion has become a contemporary taboo-topic much as the topic of human sexuality was taboo in the Vienna of Sigmund Freud.

In the major thesis of his book—that psychology has become a secular religion—Vitz is not precise enough in his depiction of psychology. I think Vitz has unguardedly assailed the whole corpus of humanistic psychology and hence failed to recognize much that is allied with a religious orientation in the discipline.

Vitz’s myopic criticism can be traced to his failure to distinguish narcissistic self-worship from a person-oriented phenomenology. Maslow, for example, has been extremely careful to avoid the implication of selfishness in elaborating the concept of self-actualization. (See his preface to Toward A Psychology of Being.) It appears, on this point at least, that Vitz has neglected his homework and rushed to blanket judgment on carefully articulated self- or person-oriented psychologies.

Psychology as Religion touches some very sensitive nerves. Its weakness lies in what appears a hurried attempt to cover too much ground in a short exposition. Nevertheless, the excesses and shortcomings within psychology he notes do indeed exist. We may perhaps now look for an Erasmus-like reformer who will coolly sharpen our focus on these crucial issues and begin to clarify where psychology stands vis-a-vis religion.

The Apocalypse On Its Own Terms

Revelations on Revelation: New Sounds for Old Symbols by Douglas Ezell (Word, 124 pp., $5.95), is reviewed by Robert G. Campbell, pastor, Northwest Baptist Church, Ardmore, Oklahoma.

With so many books and commentaries in recent years on Revelation I wondered what possible new contribution this small book could make. But the reader is in for a delightful surprise. Ezell, who is professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist seminary, introduces to both layman and scholar a wealth of new insights. Using the background he gained from his doctoral dissertation on Revelation, he instructs the reader to interpret the Apocalypse from the viewpoint of “the cross-resurrection event” and not “by the process of event substitution.”

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He defines “event substitution” as that obsession by some writers to see rockets, nuclear bombs, helicopters, tanks, the European Common Market, and so forth, as the focal point of interpreting Revelation. Instead, Ezell’s premise is that the language and images that John used are found in the “old biblical tradition,” i.e., apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament and other Jewish writings.

The author believes that John was a prophet, but not one who suddenly had been transported to the twentieth century. Instead, guided by the Holy Spirit, John drew on a common stock of symbols and images with standard meanings used by all apocalyptic authors. These symbols had well-established meanings for a first-century audience. The proper method of interpreting the Apocalypse would be to uncover the meaning of each symbol for its day. Only by doing this kind of background study can you arrive at what John’s message would be for all Christians in every century.

After having established this premise, Ezell proceeds to interpret many of the difficult passages in Revelation. Under the chapter headings of The Seals, Trumpets and Bowls; The 144,000; Time, and Times, and Half a Time; The 1,000 Year Reign; The New Heaven and the New Earth; and others, he deals with many of the obscure symbols of Revelation.

He uses simple language and includes “study questions” at the end of each chapter, which make this book ideal to use in small groups. Terms that often baffle the average church member are omitted and more familiar terms are substituted.

I welcome this book. It is much needed to push aside so many of the more bizarre approaches. It is another of the more responsible and sensible books on the subject.

Recent Books On How To Pray

This evaluation of six books is by Cecil Murphey, pastor, Riverdale Presbyterian Church, Riverdale, Georgia.

Arnold Prater’s You Can Pray As You Ought (Nelson, 128 pp., $2.95 pb) earns my four-star rating. The author writes excitingly. He is thoroughly honest about himself and does not try to sneak by with glib assertions of quickie answers. Prater handles the subject on a practical level, dealing with problems like public praying, praying for other people; yet all the time asserting in a positive voice, we can pray the way we feel we should.

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So many of the chapters stand out, that it is hard to comment on one or two. But for me, the chapter on the five kinds of healing miracles offers a balanced and helpful look at praying for the sick.

Prater also includes an excellent section of questions with clear, biblical, and nondogmatic answers. His questions are the kind people ask all the time: How can I keep my mind from wandering? If God cannot violate free will, why pray for the salvation of another? To whom should I pray—Jesus, Father, or the Holy Spirit?

Lewis Maclachlan’s 21 Steps to Positive Prayer (Judson, 94 pp., $2.95 pb), gives a theology of prayer in simple language. Machlachlan leads the readers through twenty-one chapters that involve varied aspects. High marks for his short, to-the-point approach. People struggling to enrich their devotional life might find this helpful. It could easily be used as a three-week devotional starter. He also attempts to teach people how to pray, as he says in the preface. Maclachlan is not as successful here, at least in terms of specific directives, but the book is still worth reading.

The Exploding Mystery of Prayer (Seabury, 119 pp., $3.95 pb) will surprise you. While Maclachlan is more formal, Helen Shoemaker’s book encompasses a broader view of prayer. She nicely balances the God-and-me-alone relationship with the we-do-it-together-as-a-community concept of prayer. She writes from an evangelical stance about praying for our world, and especially for other nations. And there is—can you believe?—a chapter on prayer and Christian citizenship.

Shoemaker has lived through most of this century, but remains vitally alive and still searches for a deeper commitment to Christ. She writes with a warmth that makes you feel as though she is saying, “This is written especially for you.” Of all the Shoemaker books I have read, I rate this as her best.

If you are looking for something new, you will be disappointed in Prayer Power Unlimited (Moody, 177 pp., $5.95). In fact, the things J. Oswald Sanders writes about are very elemental in the area of prayer. But he writes with a direct and easily read style. He has an engaging way of communicating what other books on prayer have been saying for thirty years, and yet says it in modern setting. He quotes freely from the standard books on prayer. Sanders’ approach is to take a person who is just beginning or hesitates to begin learning about prayer. Here is a good primer on the devotional life.

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Tired of reading all the subjective, experienced-oriented books on the inner life? In David Willis’ Daring Prayer (John Knox, 157 pp., $6.95), he writes for those who cannot play the prayer game anymore but still want to look at prayer again. He is not trying to psyche people up. He is opposed to making prayer purely utilitarian (i.e., those who testify, “I believe in prayer because it works” or “Prayer will make you rich”).

Willis states: “The identity of being new in Christ is based on a relationship which has already been established and in which we have already been included. We can only accept and grow in that identity, but we cannot ‘get’ it by any of our works even—or perhaps, especially—by prayer” (p. 31).

Using the Lord’s prayer as context, Daring Prayer presents theological reflections which Willis ably documents from church history, alongside his rationale for prayer. It is a well thought out book with the author reaffirming the significance of prayer in the Christian life.

I loved the title of Silvio Fittipaldi’s How to Pray Always Without Always Praying (Fides/Claretian, 110 pp., $2.95 pb). However, that light-touch title may lead astray. This is not a quick, grab-and-read-for-five-minutes-book. Of all the authors reviewed, probably only David Willis’ Daring Prayer demands as much serious thought for a theology of prayer.

For most people, prayer consists of words in quotation marks. Fittipaldi contends that such a narrow definition limits prayer. He begins with Paul’s exhortation “Pray always” but broadens the concept so that “the reality of prayer may be more fully recognized” (vii). He views prayer not so much as something that is done, but rather as an orientation in life.

On Suffering, By A Paralytic

A Step Further, by Joni Eareckson and Steve Estes (Zondervan, 192 pp., $6.95) is reviewed by Raymond Fisher, Elverson, Pennsylvania.

Writing simply about suffering is what the authors set out to do. They have done it very well. They also wanted to answer some questions that arose from Joni’s first book and they wanted to attack the contemporary attitude that holds that God exists for the benefit of Christians. Every generation of the church is prone to excess in one or more directions. At one time legalism had been dominant. Today, it is the belief that Christians must lead comfortable lives.

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Joni (pronounced Johnny, not Joanie) became acquainted with Steve when a friend brought him over to help her counter the depression and bitterness following an accident that paralyzed her from the neck down. How Steve helped her learn to live a joyful life and how, as a result of that, she turned to drawing works of art with a pencil held between her teeth are described in her first book, Joni (also from Zondervan).

This new book is a fusion of the ideas of such writers as C. S. Lewis and Edith Schaeffer as well as principles the authors have learned from experience, illustrasted by events from Joni’s life. In this respect it is very different from her first book. This is a book of concepts made more readable by being combined with examples from life.

The book was written on an eighth-grade reading level, which, the authors believe, is where the average adult Christian is. Moreover, they learned that Joni was being read by many more children than they had expected. They wanted A Step Further to reach the same audience. For example, one section describes a time she fell off her wheelchair:

“I felt my face strike the asphalt.… My body seemed to bounce on the surface and rolled near the front of our Ford wagon.

“Oh, no!” I heard Sherry exclaim.… People began to crowd around, … but I had to tightly shut my eyes to keep out the blood. I remember moving my neck slightly to make sure it hadn’t been broken (and) running my tongue over my teeth to check if any had been knocked out.…

Immediately someone knelt near me and cradled my head in her hands on her lap. It was Julie. “Are you okay?” she managed. I opened my eyes just long enough to see her brush the hair out of my face; her hands were wet with blood. She kept asking me if I was okay, and I just nodded. Stifled sobs made me aware that she was trying to hide her crying from me. In spite of her tears, she felt it her responsibility to keep calm and stable.

It was just then that I began struggling with my own responsibility. Earlier that week … I had tried to explain that we are to face our trials without complaining.… Now I was being given the chance.… How was I going to respond? (pp. 28–29).

Of the five sections of the book, the one on healing will doubtless arouse the most discussion and controversy. Joni and Steve spent nearly half of the fourteen months they worked on the book just on this originally unplanned section. They maintain that though God can bring glory to himself in our modern world through healing, he often chooses to honor himself by showing the world how well Christians can face trials. One might still have a few questions after reading the section, such as, “How can one pray in faith when he is uncertain of the end result?” Basically, however, they defend their position very well. Most important, they acknowledge that in such a controversial issue no one has the final word.

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The ideas are not always presented in logical order, and awkward wording and faulty grammar occasionally disrupt the smoothness of the book.

It is important, however, not to overemphasize these weaknesses. If this book is as widely read as was its predecessor, Joni and Steve’s goal of presenting important ideas about suffering to the average Christian will definitely be accomplished.

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