The Integration of Modern Psychology and the Philosophical Virtues in the Christian Worldview

To Be Free Indeed: The Integration of Modern Psychology and the Philosophical Virtues in the Christian Worldview

The client, a middle-aged woman, sat across from her therapist, clearly uncomfortable with the idea that her every word and movement was being picked apart and analyzed by a man she had just met. The therapist was portrayed as a man consistent in his apparent sympathy for the woman in her current psychological distress. The essence of her plight was something like this: she had lied to her young daughter about details regarding her own behavior and thus had been plagued by feelings of guilt ever since. Over the course of the session, the therapist frequently nodded in understanding, often affirmed her experience, and rarely said anything that might seem to encourage or discourage future behaviors in any way. As one of my classmates said after watching this scene, it was much like watching a woman “speak to a wall.” At least the wall was unconditionally affirming.

This scenario was a feature of my experience in a psychology course offered here in Vanderbilt’s School of Arts and Sciences. While many students in that large Wilson lecture hall seemed to think that the scene we observed via online video was confusing and a bit humorous, the observed interaction between the therapist and his client was a typical presentation of a well-studied method of psychotherapy known as unconditional positive regard in which a therapist listens intently and takes care not to display overtly emotional reactions. Our professor presented this video so that we might better understand humanistic approaches in the clinical setting. The educational value of the film was much appreciated and, clearly, left an impression on students like myself; however, the real point of interest for me was our professor’s brief commentary on the therapist-client interaction. In a few words, he suggested that a valid course of action for the therapist was to help the woman rationalize her behavior or otherwise bypass the burden of guilt she was carrying. That is, he presented psychotherapy as a tool to overcome the very experience of guilt.

Now, this caught my attention for a couple of reasons. First, I had never heard the phenomenon of guilt be given a place similar to that of neuroses that might be encountered in the clinical setting. Second, I had never considered the possible use of psychotherapy as a tool to suppress or relieve moral reactions such as guilt. My professor’s suggestion that a therapist assist a client in getting over a seemingly reasonable emotional reaction unnerved me a bit, and I was unsatisfied with the prospect that psychotherapy can do no better than cover up failures and ease wounded egos. A psychological professional who is truly concerned for an individual’s well-being ought to awaken them to a sense of their human dignity, to help them recognize disorders in their lives, and to accompany them along the path of healing and self-discovery. To be clear, I offer the above experience not as an indictment of any particular therapist, instructor, or academic program. Rather, the experience primed my sense of awareness about trends within the world of psychological study as a whole, and I hope to pass on the fruits of my exploration for your own consideration of where psychology has been, where it is going, and why we should care. If you are a student of psychology such as myself, this discussion is certainly desirous of your consideration and contribution. If you are a student of any sort here at Vanderbilt, likewise for you. If you have a heart for mental health, you as well. Indeed, if you have any interest at all in what makes humans human, you are a part of this discourse. Now, allow me to offer an end-goal as a guide for our discussion: liberation. Specifically, a liberation that frees us from the psychological bonds that deprive us of a sense of agency and the ability to live a life of virtue. We will trace the pathway to a coherent model of psychology, passing through philosophical foundations, principles of academic integrity, the contributions of positive psychology, and considerations for practice along the way. The application of these four areas of concern can lead us to a psychological model that is able to encounter individuals and provide them with the resources to move towards a state of freedom rather than artificially veiling their state of bondage to a disordered way of thinking and being.

Becoming the “Human Person”

As you can imagine, the historical development of psychology, and psychotherapy in particular, is a vast saga of pivotal players, great advances, woeful missteps, and strange therapeutic apparatuses. However, one must first turn to the forum of philosophical discourse in order to understand the assumptions and prevailing viewpoints that informed such developments. Throughout history, figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, and Kant have plumbed the depths of the question “what is the human person?”. In formulating their answers, each contributed to modes of thought that would alter perceptions about the mind, the body, the interaction between the two, and the nature of knowledge itself. Their views on each of these points can be detected to various degrees within modern philosophy and thereby within modern psychology. Our responsibility is to be aware of how these trends inform our approach to questions regarding the psychological workings of humanity.

In our quest for a psychological model that will enable humans to move towards a life of freedom, we must carefully regard two dangers within modern philosophy that have deconstructed humans to less than they are: reductionism and dualism. In brief, reductionism refers to the view that empirical evidence is the sole foundation for everything that a person can think or intellectually embrace. Strict reductionism takes this view so far as to reject the idea that there is any kind of immaterial, and therefore spiritual, component to the human person. Meanwhile, dualism holds that human beings are indeed comprised of two parts: the body and the mind. However, a dualist will maintain that these components are two distinct substances. In other words, the body and the mind are not integrated and only engage one another in a limited way while they sustain the life of the human.[1]

Now, the above philosophical frameworks are not without their merits, but they can be developed upon. Recognizing the need for a philosophical model that synthesizes the good and reconsiders the potentially problematic, Benedict Ashley, O.P., a former emeritus professor of moral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology, St. Louis, applies to psychology the instrumentalist model of the human person that was proposed by Aristotle and developed by Thomas Aquinas. The instrumentalist model holds that what a human person knows certainly has its beginnings with the empirical. In other words, our knowledge begins with the things that are most certain, such as what we can see, feel, and hear, and proceeds to things that are less certain, such as intangible ideas related to love, justice, and the nature of a transcendent God. This view is in accord with the idea that natural law as encountered by our sense experiences and rational minds can direct us towards higher truths not immediately revealed to us by our senses. So, the instrumentalist model takes the reductionist concept of beginning with the empirical but does away with the strict reductionist tenet that relying on the empirical requires a rejection of openness to the existence and influence of the immaterial. In dealing with dualism, the instrumentalist model affirms that the human person is composed of both body and mind, but asserts that these components constitute a single complete substance rather than two distinct substances. From this viewpoint we get the idea that the human person is a “spirit-animated body” or “embodied spirit” whose mind-body unity allows for an interaction with both the material and immaterial.[2]

A model which affirms that empirical evidence is the ordinary beginning of knowledge and that the human person is more than just material has significant implications for the way in which we study and practice psychology. Perhaps most important is the implication that human beings are not subject to physical stimuli and bodily impulses alone but are also governed by an intellect that can guide responses to these material phenomena. In other words, a student of psychology can appreciate that human beings, while undoubtedly formed by both their biological makeup and environmental surroundings (a concept popularized by the “nature-nurture” tag-line), are not determined to behave or think in a certain way just because of those factors. This frees the psychologist from viewing the person as a fleshy yet advanced robot that has been programmed by “nature” and responds to “nurturing” in the way that a machine responds to having its buttons pushed. Likewise, if this view of the human person is adopted by an individual, they begin to realize their agency and are empowered to use their will, guided by the intellect, to make decisions that will lead to their flourishing. In other words, they realize and embrace the fact that they are free agents indeed, perhaps temporarily restricted by environmental and biological factors in a limited way, but no less capable of recognizing what is conducive to their wellbeing and moving towards it by exercising their will. Our discussion of free will requires a caveat about the role of divine assistance in the pursuit of human flourishing. The instrumentalist model’s allowance for an interaction between the material and immaterial opens it up to the inclusion of this divine assistance, or grace, as it is termed in Christianity. Grace, loosely speaking, is freely given divine help that enables a person to live a life of virtue and to become deeply transformed into a being characterized by uninhibited love for God and other human persons. In the Christian worldview, one does not grow by their own strength of will alone, rather they depend on aid from a higher being, namely, God. While this interaction is unique to Christian theology, it can inform a sound psychological model by gesturing towards the reality that humans rely on the assistance of other persons, both human and divine, for survival and thriving.

A Matter of Integration

Now that we have established that the human person is a free agent that can exercise their will to move towards that which will help them thrive, let us reflect briefly on our academic experiences. What have said experiences suggested about the nature of truth and our ability to contemplate it? “Truth”, in this context, refers to knowledge that accurately reflects reality and leads to a more coherent understanding of what things are in their essence. The answer to the stated question has a direct bearing on the manner in which we study and apply psychology because it can reveal to us how other disciplines have the potential to illuminate psychological principles and vice versa. Psychology is not an isolated area of study, but certain tendencies in academia often preclude academic domains from meaningfully informing other domains, thereby robbing both of insights that can contribute to an intellectually coherent worldview. The greatest threat to the development of such an integrated lens is the seemingly omnipresent specter of relativism, that is, the point of view that holds that there is no common ground of goodness upon which human beings are able to fix themselves and no common truth to which they can collectively aspire. This worldview is often accompanied by a spirit of undue skepticism that likewise prevents individuals from intentionally seeking out meaning by convincing them that there is no meaning to be found.

The insidious effects of this worldview on our ability to move towards goals with the common good in mind crop up in our universities, and Vanderbilt is certainly no exception. Relativism in the university, what we might call an “intellectual relativism”, prevents students of different disciplines from having meaningful and mutually enriching discourse related to their areas of study. To be clear, I am not suggesting that these people literally do not converse, but rather that they are unable to converse on a level which displays how deeply intertwined their levels of speculation are and how they can help each other arrive at a more foundational truths. For instance, many students at Vanderbilt, attempting to fulfill liberal core or AXLE requirements, have experienced at different times a course schedule that is an eclectic mix of studies from different departments. Perhaps Biology, Anthropology, Art History, and Mathematics courses are all being tackled at once. Within this seemingly scattered array of disciplines, students are encouraged to “explore something new” or to celebrate the opportunity to intellectually “broaden their horizons.” These are positive encouragements to be sure! However, in all of our talk about broadening our minds and being open to other viewpoints, we somehow become closed off to the reality that all of these disciplines are connected and point towards deeper realities; that is, these disciplines all point to foundational truths about who we are, why we are, what nature is, and why we care, but we are left wondering how they connect and how they can help us reach those truths.

Recognizing this trend in American universities, Joseph White, O.P. responds with a Thomistic approach, that is, one informed by the 13th century philosopher Thomas Aquinas. White presents an eclectic course list like the one above as an example, and, using Thomism as a lens for understanding how academic disciplines relate, presents the following:

One of the strengths of St. Thomas’s view, which is applicable in a very contemporary way, is that different scientific forms of understanding (broadly speaking) help you penetrate reality at different levels. There is a particular expertise, but there is also a deeper unity present in our knowledge of things. So, there’s a way that the mathematician should be able to speak to the philosopher or the poet. And there’s a way that the philosopher or the poet should be able to speak to the theologian…. All that exists- all that is real- can be known even if it is known in different ways.[3]

We can see how an academic approach that fails to emphasize the interconnectedness of domains can lead us away from developments that reveal increasingly more about deeper truths such as who the human person is and what the human person was made for. An individual informed by Thomistic insights would say that the human person is indeed a free agent that is ultimately made for happiness. Now, “happiness” here does not refer to a fleeting emotional state but to a much fuller actualization of one’s capacity to experience joy in relationships and offer oneself in love to others. So, a coherent intellectual model is not some construct simply intended to organize our studies or help with the reform of university systems, rather it is concerned with the ability of humans to perceive what is true and thereby be increasingly free and happy, in the fullest sense of the word.

Returning to our discussion on psychological study and practice in particular, perhaps we can now appreciate the necessity of informing psychological insights with the insights of philosophy, the natural sciences, and yes, even theology. Again, there is truth to behold; may we not be distracted by worldviews that lead us despairingly to conclude that the search for meaning is essentially meaningless. Rather, let us pursue our studies with the knowledge that truth exists, regardless of our failure to acknowledge it, and that an eager pursuit of that truth is integral to our growth in knowledge and our experience of an intellectual liberation that frees us to delve ever deeper into the mysteries of both the natural and the metaphysical.

Virtuosic Psychology

With a proper foundation and philosophical North Star in place, that is, the Thomistic approach to integrated knowledge discussed above, we can proceed on our path to a psychological model that fulfills the end of empowering individuals in the midst of their psychological distress. The following distinctions and pathways for the development of psychology as a field have been promoted most notably by Dr. Paul C. Vitz, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at New York University. In his work, Vitz notes that the majority of psychology is primarily concerned with disorders and compulsions that affect mental health and the ability of human beings to act in accord with what is considered normative behavior. In other words, the majority of psychology might be considered “negative” in its orientation towards mental health. Here we do not mean “negative” in the sense of deficient or sinister, rather, a negative psychology is one that speaks about mental health primarily in terms of disordered behavior and thinking rather than ordered behavior and thinking.[4] For instance, we might speak about an individual experiencing depression in terms of how the disorder affects their outlook on life and primarily focus on the way that their attitudes towards themselves and others contribute to this outlook. This orientation can lead to a therapeutic approach that attempts to treat a disorder in the same way that a medical physician would treat a disease by zeroing in on primary causes and addressing them. While a thorough understanding of disorders and their foundations is indispensable, diagnostics often change from decade to decade with the development of new theories and the research of new generations of thinkers. In the midst of constantly reforming diagnostics and often inadequate measurements, it becomes clear that more stable factors, such as human nature and universal character values, are needed for consideration. Here is where positive psychology comes in.

Positive psychology differs from the more long-standing approach to psychology in that it emphasizes positive behaviors and ways of thinking rather than the disordered. Vitz refers to the developments made by positive psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman to provide models of advancement in this field. Peterson and Seligman have conducted research that has resulted in the development of a robust systematic categorization of human characteristics. The characteristics in this system are derived from a review of character traits that have been regarded as positive by communities of peoples of different cultures, religions, and geographic locations over the course of human history. Through this method the authors have developed a list of consistently observed virtues including characteristics such as justice, humanity, temperance, and courage. The authors state the following as grounding for their proposed model of virtue:

We argue that these are universal, perhaps grounded in biology through an evolutionary process that selected for these aspects of excellence as means of solving the important tasks necessary for survival of the species. We speculate that all these virtues must be present at above-threshold values for an individual to be deemed of good character.[5]

They go on to describe how the development of such virtues can become the cornerstone of a positive psychology that emphasizes the goodness of humanity and thereby addresses the disordered aspects, perhaps in a more effective manner than addressing neuroses directly and without regard for character strengths. Developments in the area of positive psychology that are informed by a sound understanding of what has made men and women virtuous throughout history is a promising new direction for the field as a whole. If one of our objectives is assisting others in becoming free, we need to consider what characteristics are evidence of a person who is not bounded by disordered ways of being. Positive psychology and its contributions can be joined with our aforementioned instrumentalist model of the human person and our Thomistic approach to the cooperation of different modes of speculation, bringing us to a place where theory, inquiry, and practice work in harmony. Positive psychology agrees with the instrumentalist model by acknowledging that humans are informed by the tangible; however, it does not necessarily discard spiritual experiences as disordered thinking and thereby reject the possibility of an immaterial aspect of humanity’s relationship with reality. Further, positive psychology lends itself well to our Thomistic understanding of knowledge by integrating what is known by philosophy, history, sociology, and psychology into a coherent theoretical model of understanding how humans can use their free agency to thrive.

The Ministry of the Wounded Psychological Healer

In order to bring our theoretical considerations into the realm of the practical, let us consider how a ministry of psychological healing brings these ideas into encounter with human persons in the midst of actual experiences of suffering. In his popular work on ministry in contemporary society, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen presents a rabbinical story about the arrival of the Messiah, the liberator of the Jewish people about whom the prophets of the Hebrew Bible preach. In it, a man seeks out the Messiah, hoping to converse with him. During his journey, he is told that he can find the Messiah sitting among the lepers outside of the city gate and taking on the appearance of a leper himself. He is distinguished from the other lepers by one factor only: the manner in which he cleans his bandages and tends to the many sores on his leprous body. While the other members of the afflicted community spend their days unwrapping all of their bandages at once before wrapping themselves all up again, the Messiah unwraps a single bandage at a time. Why does he carry out this task in such a delicate manner? So that he may be available to tend to those who might need him at exactly the time at which they need him. Rather than being constricted by a laborious process of treating each of his wounds from head to foot, he has the freedom to quickly affix a single bandage and respond to distress in an instant.[6] When this story is considered through a Christian lens, one can uncover a message about the life of Jesus Christ, the answer to the Hebrew Bible’s promise of a Redeemer. Like the Messianic figure of the story, Jesus assumed the nature of those he came to serve and engaged in a life of radical love and self-denial, forgoing his own health and reputation to the point of a humiliating and undeserved death.

What does the example of the Messianic figure of the story and the life of Jesus Christ convey to us about the practice of psychotherapy and exploration of psychological principles? We have to recognize that attaining perfection in mind and body is not a prerequisite for helping others. That is, we should not shy away from tending the wounds of others out of fear that our own wounds are still too tender or that we will experience rejection. In fact, by taking a good look at our own failings and weaknesses, we can develop a healthy sense of empathy for those who are suffering through the difficulties of the human condition along with us. Unlike the lepers who would obsess over treating every wound and cleaning every bandage, making themselves unable to minister to others, we can emulate the Messiah who made his life a gift to others through self-sacrificial service. Indeed, as is passed on by the teaching document of the Catholic Church titled Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), humanity’s status as free agents that are able to wound, to be wounded, to heal, and to be healed is derived from man and woman being rational and relational beings created “in [God’s] image.”[7] The documents states, “This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”[8] We must not shy away from seeking a life that frees us to give ourselves completely to others and to help them achieve a similar freedom to love and be loved. Such a life does not ignore our wounds, but rather uses them as a point of encounter between persons, just as Jesus of Nazareth opened himself to all of humanity through his own voluntary wounded-ness. With these ideas in mind, and sound foundations in philosophy supporting us, perhaps we can offer the community something better than a psychology that only serves to dull the conscience and suffocate guilt. Perhaps we can propose a manner of living that heightens the conscience, uproots guilt at its source, establishes a culture of accompaniment, and provides individuals with the means to become ever more human and ever more free. The advent of a psychological revival may be upon us if we but take notice of the dignity due to the human person and amend our practices in conformity with that dignified image. And, as we have just begun to explore, a worldview informed by the intersections of sound philosophy, the best practices in psychology, and the treasures of the Christian tradition can shed much light on the darkness of our understanding in these areas.


1 Ashley, Benedict M. (2013). Healing for Freedom: A Christian Perspective on Personhood and Psychotherapy. Arlington, VA: Institute for the Psychological Sciences Press.

2 Ashley, Benedict M. (2013).

3 White, Thomas J. (2016). Thomism for the New Evangelization. Washington, D.C.: Thomistic Institute at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception.

4 Vitz, Paul C. (2005). Psychology in Recovery. First Things. /2005/03/psychology-in-recovery.

5 Peterson, Christopher and Martin E.P. Seligman. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

6 Nouwen, Henri J.M. (1972). The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Random House, Inc.

7 Genesis 1:27. New American Bible.

8 Pope Paul VI. (1965). Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World- Gaudium et Spes. Vatican: the Holy See. Rome. Web. 3 November 2016.

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