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A black perspective on interdisciplinary work.

In the mid-1980s Pete Pero and I taught a course together on the integration of theology and psychology. Our sense was that theology needed psychological insights in order for it to address the human situation with any integrity and that pastoral care needed to be more closely aligned with theology than with psychology if it sought to honor its desire to care for the soul. Neither of us had done anything like this before. But each of us liked and wanted to learn from one another. Even more important, we felt that our students needed to be engaged in this examination of the two different disciplines so that their knowledge of theology and of pastoral care did not suffer because of the absence of such a conversation.

The course was a great success and a lot of fun. We looked at the ways in which any theological understanding of the nature of human beings necessarily carried within it an understanding of human psychology. We struggled with why pastoral care in the middle of the twentieth century turned toward psychology rather than theology as its primary theoretical partner. We wrestled with whether or not Paul Tillich's correlational model was adequate for the cross-disciplinary work we were doing. (1) And we even looked at whether or not denominational theological perspectives (Lutheran and Reformed) influenced the way in which theology and psychology could be examined together. Needless to say, we ended with more questions unanswered than answered.

One of the questions that was not even asked by us was, What implications did the fact that we both were black have on our investigation? The postmodern concern for and interest in social location had not yet come into full flower. And, while it was on the horizon, we had not grasped it as a primary concern for our investigation. Yes, we were aware of our blackness, and that probably had some influence on our work, but the fact that we were both black did not emerge as a primary element in the course. Rather, we were two colleagues who enjoyed each another's company and wanted to experiment with an interdisciplinary course where we both felt safe and comfortable. (That, in and of itself, could be identified as reflective of our social locations).

On the occasion of this Festschrift in honor of Pete Pero I want to return to that class, some twenty years later, and examine this issue of black perspective related to interdisciplinary work that was not a part of our original investigation. Developments over the past twenty years in the fields of both theology and pastoral care suggest that careful attention must be paid to interdisciplinary work so as to understand where it is we are today in each of the fields; and to better understand what possibilities exist for future collaboration between the fields in the future.

From systematic to contextual theology

When Pete and I taught our course we borrowed predominantly from the historical theologies of Luther and Calvin, the then more recent systematic theologies of Tillich and Karl Barth, and the emerging postmodern theologies of Langdon Gilkey and David Tracey. (2) Deconstruction was occurring all around us. In theology Gilkey was trying to name the whirlwind of postmodern theology. In the field of religion and psychological studies Peter Homans was pointing out the destabilizing blow that Freud had applied to modern theology. (3) In our own way Pete and I were trying to make sense of two disciplines whose recent integration in the modern age was in flux. Our motivation was not to deconstruct premodern and modern theologies but to make connections between what one might call classic theology and modern psychology in ways that were not too reductionistic to either discipline.

We had observed that pastoral theology had been so coopted by modern psychology that pastoral-care practitioners were suspicious of the church and its groupthink. We also had observed theology's rejection of the work of black theologians such as James Cone, whose theologizing from the psyche and lived experience of black America was unacceptable to many prominent theologians of the day, both black and white. (4) What Pete and I were observing but were not able to name with clarity and certainty was the shift from systematic theology to contextual theology.

Contextual theology, which I view as part of the decentering process associated with postmodernity, is rooted in the lived experience of the persons trying to make sense of and give meaning to their daily struggle. As John Patton has suggested, the context of contextual theology can be described by any number of different elements because any given context might be dominated by a particular social construct. (5) For example, the most influential element in a given context might be gender, or race, or power. To best understand a given situation theologically requires that the dominant contextual theme be addressed. The pastoral theology of Patton suggests that pastoral care with African Americans is most effective when the contextual issues of race and power are taken into account.

Robert Schreiter applies the insights of contextual theology to whole groups. (6) From his experience communities of faith develop (construct) local theologies that give meaning and understanding to their lived experience and their relationship with God. As communities of faith construct their local theologies they perform two acts: (1) they give particular description to their experience of God in their lives, and (2) they critique systematic theological constructs that indirectly, but falsely, claim universal application to all believers.

One can see why Pete and I had a difficult but exciting time trying to make the connection between psychology and theology when the field of theology was so much in flux. If we were to teach the course today we certainly would be much more influenced by the postmodern emphasis on difference. We would probably avoid the singular nomenclature of theology or psychology; instead we would talk about theologies or psychologies, recognizing that a theology or a psychology is rooted in a particular social location. Thus we might more properly talk about "a theology of" or "a psychology of." Any reference to theology or psychology would be preceded by a descriptive adjective such as Black Theology or Womanist Theology. Similarly we might talk about Black Psychology or Asian/Pacific Islander Psychology.

What difference would shifting from a singular, hegemonic systematic theology to contextual theologies make in teaching an interdisciplinary course examining theology and psychology? One of the big differences would be the linking of social location (context) with theology. Another would be the identification of the particular methodological approach that would apply to that context's relationship to the cognate discipline. For example, what has been the experience of African Americans (or a given racial ethnic group) with psychology as a field of practice and study? For example, the black experience includes a history of too-frequent diagnoses of schizophrenia and hyperactivity. Moreover, there has been a reluctance to seek professional counseling because of the stigma and shame associated with needing professional mental health services.

In thinking about the methodological approach to interdisciplinary study that we might take today, we would begin with some aspect of the African American experience rather than with the disciplines of theology or psychology. Instead of looking at African American experience through the lens of theology or psychology (as if these disciplinary lenses were free of any social-location distortion) we would attempt to discern theological and psychological insights through the lens of African American experience.

We might begin, as do many Womanist scholars, with the depiction of Black women's experience such as found in the work of Toni Morrison or Alice Walker or bell hooks. Utilizing these texts, we would examine what they reveal about the place faith, religion, and/or theology play in the lives of the main characters. Similarly, we would examine the psychological dynamics revealed in the intrapsychic and interpersonal lives of the chief protagonists.

Another approach would be to look at an issue in the black community that has been lifted up by an author. For example, the class might look at Edward Wimberly's Relational Refugees, which talks about the increasing alienation that exists among African Americans, or examine Emilie Townes's In a Blaze of Glory, which addresses crucial survival concerns confronting African Americans. (7) In both of these works there are theological and psychological insights that speak to the African American struggle as well as provide insight about theology and psychology. In other words, the center of our investigation would reside not in the abstract disciplines but in the real lived experience of African American people. The attempt would be not to marginalize theology and psychology as important disciplines for defining the human/divine experience but to root the work of theology and psychology in the lived experience of people so as to legitimatize theology and psychology as viable instruments in the increased understanding we all seek about God, human beings, and the world.

The blurring of discipline boundaries

When Pete and I taught our course we operated under the assumption that the disciplines of theology and psychology possessed clearly defined properties that allowed them to claim discrete and distinct areas of investigation. Our task was to examine in what ways these two separate disciplines might be able to cross discipline boundaries so as to have fruitful conversation. In the twenty years since our class the boundaries between areas of study and practice have either dissolved or merged. A significant example of such merged investigation is the Lutheran School of Theology's "Epic of Creation" Seminars. These seminars, which are a part of the international conversation between religion and science, examine the theology and physics of creation with astonishing ease and mutual appreciation. But one does not have to look only to the academic treatment of interdisciplinary conversation to see the possibilities for interdisciplinary dialogue. Such dialogue has existed in the African American community for a long time.

The historical role of the black pastor is a prime example. The black pastor has often played multiple roles in the black community. In addition to being a spiritual leader the black pastor has acted as a clinical counselor, attorney, financial advisor, community organizer, neighborhood developer, social worker, politician, and on and on. In assuming many of these roles in the same person the black pastor embodies the melding of the bodies of knowledge that are associated with these different professional roles. Adam Clayton Powell (pastor and politician) in New York and Horace Smith (pastor and physician) in Chicago are but two examples. For these pastors there is no hard and fast line that separates the disciplines they combine within themselves. Rather, it is precisely because of their identity as spiritual leaders that they have adopted additional professional identities so as to more effectively live out their role as spiritual leaders. When the task is to blur boundaries between disciplines rather than maintain their conceptual integrity, what difference does that make in the process of interdisciplinary dialogue?


Perhaps part of the unconscious motivation that Pete and I had for teaching the course was our understanding that a too rigid distinction between theology and psychology could harm rather than help African Americans in particular and the people of God in general. It is the kind of blending of perspectives that moved Archie Smith to suggest that true and full liberation for African Americans does not rest exclusively in social transformation or exclusively in personal transformation. (8) Rather, true and full liberation for African Americans rests in the combination of social and personal transformation.

Another example of disciplinary melding in service of accurate understanding of the African experience is the work of Linda Thomas in Under the Canopy. (9) Thomas joins the fields of theology and anthropology to investigate the faith experience of South African women.

Recently I was asked to make a presentation at the Easter Seals Foundation. The presentation was intended to look at the various dimensions of life experience associated with caring for a child with muscular dystrophy. The dimensions to be explored were the psychological, spiritual, emotional, and social. As the planner of the seminar and I talked it was difficult for us to circumscribe each topic so that it did not infringe upon the other topics. The interrelatedness of these areas for African American caregivers was such that to separate them was to do an injustice to the effort to provide support and nurture to these parents. Insight and knowledge from the fields of psychology, theology, physiology, and social work bundled together seemed to best provide what these caregivers needed.

From a black perspective the blurring of the boundaries between disciplines can lead to a powerful synthesis that gives greater insight and potential for creative application. Whether embodied in one person or combined in programmatic activity, the joining of disciplines in conceptualization and operation make for an enhanced dynamic in the life of the black church and ministries with African Americans.

The evangelical interest in the integration of psychology and theology

At the time that Pete and I taught our course there was a heightened interest in the integration of psychology and theology. This concern for integration was occurring primarily within the evangelical church. Some in the evangelical church believed that psychology presented an implicit threat to the church and the authority of Scripture. They feared that instead of relying on the church and the Bible for guidance believers would be tempted to follow the latest psychological theory or craze.

There was another group of evangelicals at the time who welcomed the potential integration of psychology and theology. They were what I would call "progressive" evangelicals, evangelicals who were more open to truth revealed outside of the Bible and who desired to adopt science as a welcome partner in the practice of ministry. They had observed that psychology was becoming more and more a part of North American society and felt that psychology could be a beneficial partner in understanding human behavior as it pertained to faith and religious practice. In their sacred integrationist model all truth is from God, but not confined to scripture alone.
The sacred version of the Integrates model is rooted in the assumption
that God is the author of all truth. Reason, revelation, and the
scientific method all are seen as playing a valid role in the search for
truth. Since the human being is created in the image of God and since
God has revealed Himself in a special way through Scripture and in a
general way through creation, we expect to find congruence between
Scripture and the findings of psychology. (10)

Psychology was viewed as a helpful resource in understanding human behavior and the ways in which humans lived out their religious impulses. In the effort to bring persons to a new and different relationship with God, others, and themselves it was important to know what underlying drives and instincts operated within the human psyche. Drawing upon psychology's insight into human behavior, evangelicals could better understand how to design and promote worship, ministry, and appeals to the individual for personal transformation. Where other scientific disciplines and theories such as creationism had little to no success in appealing to evangelical sensibilities, psychology was more easily adopted as an ally in the battle to win souls. In the course we examined some of the arguments and work of these progressive evangelicals as they wrestled with the interface between psychology and theology. However, a question that we did not attempt to answer at the time was why the science of psychology could have success in linking with evangelical thought and belief where other scientific theories did not.

Reflecting on this question nearly twenty years later, two explanations come to mind. Psychology does not directly refute "facts" that are found in the Bible. That is, the discipline of psychology does not stand in stark conflict with recorded events in the Bible. Rather, psychology can be an aid in better understanding the events and stories in the Bible. Psychology helps us better understand the jealousy of Joseph's brothers, the fear of Jonah, the devotion of Ruth, the impulsivity of Peter, and the zeal of Paul. Second, psychology is a user-friendly science. There are no huge experiments or gigantic apparatuses that are required in order to apply psychology to ministry with a congregation. Moreover, psychological insights can be applied easily, directly, and immediately to the work of the church. For example, object-relations theory can be applied in the life of a congregation with little if any need for alteration or translation. The ready applicability of psychology to evangelical belief and ministry can be seen in the growing importance that psychology plays today in the counseling ministries of evangelicals. The Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University publishes a journal of psychology and theology, and the Christian Association for Psychological Studies publishes a journal of psychology and Christianity. Both of these journals represent the growing interest that evangelicals have in the melding of evangelical faith and psychology.

What, if anything, might this mean for ministry in the African American context? In the past African Americans have been suspicious of the role that science has played in their lives as a people. From the early blatantly and unscientific "scientific" conclusions that African Americans were less intelligent and morally inferior than whites, to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments that relegated some African American men to needless and painful deaths, to the more recent Bell curve theories of African American intellectual inadequacy, African American diminishment through the use of science has a long history. As mentioned above, the fact that African Americans are disproportionately diagnosed as schizophrenic or with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder also raises suspicion about the psychological sciences.

On the other hand, African Americans are generally more conservative in their Christian faith. The fact that some evangelical faith traditions are more comfortable with the use of the science of psychology may provide an inroad for the more comfortable use of psychological insights in the lives of African Americans. In my own pastoral counseling practice I have seen more African Americans seeking my help in the past twenty years. The desire to avail themselves of mental-health services is very often linked with the clear perception that I am a "Christian" counselor. What this means is that they are open to the painful process of looking within their own psyches for healing but do not want to do so at the cost of their faith. Moreover, they hope that their faith will be a part of the healing process. They look to me to be both a sustainer of faith and a utilizer of faith for their growth and well-being.


One of the big disappointments in my teaching career is that Pete and I never had a chance to teach that course again. If we were to do it again it is obvious that there are many more issues and questions that we could address since the first time we taught the course. Recent work in theology on the Trinity and in psychology on the brain would make for a fascinating revisit to the topic of the integration of theology and integration. I am close behind Pete in retirement. So perhaps there will be other theologians and pastoral care providers who will pick up the conversation in the future. I, and I believe Pete also, hope this will be the case.

1. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

2. Tillich, Systematic Theology; Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Richmond: John Knox, 1960); Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969); The Challenge of Psychology to Faith, ed. David Tracy and Stephen Kepnes (New York: Seabury, 1982).

3. Peter Homans, Theology After Freud (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970).

4. James Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury, 1975).

5. John Patton, Pastoral Care in Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993).

6. Robert Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985).

7. Edward Wimberly, Relational Refugees (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000); Emilie Townes, In a Blaze of Glory (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).

8. Archie Smith, The Relational Self (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982).

9. Linda Thomas, Under the Canopy (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999).

10. John D. Carter and Bruce Narramore, The Integration of Psychology and Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981).

Homer U. Ashby, Jr.

McCormick Theological Seminary

Chicago, Illinois
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Author:Ashby, Homer U., Jr.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Previous Article:"My Soul Looks Back": a personal tribute to Albert P. Pero, Jr.
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