Sunday, January 07, 2007

The intersection of religion and psychology

יום ראשון י"ז בטבת תשס"ז

I’ve been reading Jack H Bloom’s The Rabbi as a Symbolic Exemplar (one of the most influential books in recent decades on the training of rabbis in professional skills), and have been wrestling with how much I both agree and disagree with much of what he says.

One of the main aspects of Bloom’s work (not surprisingly as he is both a rabbi and a psychotherapist) is his view that religion and psychology are complimentary to one another (see, Neil Gillman’s foreword, pg. x).

I, on the other hand, have long viewed them as being almost complete opposites -- ones that are often in conflict with one another. But this view has been deeply challenged ever since I started to get serious about chaplaincy and, especially Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), which is, at its core, profoundly committed to the complimentary use of the insights that both religion and psychology give us.

So, here is my current attempt to resolve/understand the conflict – it all centers on a fundamental cornerstone of my theology: on the Bible’s declaration that mankind was created in the image of God (בצלם אלוהים/btzelem elohim).

I can only begin to explain the very profound and complex meaning בצלם has for me. But, one part of it is the belief that every human is unique and is inherently beautiful in that uniqueness.

So, I think I now see psychology as doing two things that are in tension with one another -- 1) doing violence to בצלם, and 2) aiding in our understanding of it:

  • Violence – that is, when psychology takes us away from understanding the individual as unique (and thus beautiful). Psychology does this by its very nature because it routinely has us categorizing and labeling people.
    • One very common case of this that I have seen many times is when a psychotherapist diagnoses a person as a borderline. Usually, that is the end of the psychotherapist having any desire to further work with the person – the diagnosis essentially means the person is untreatable. . . . As a chaplain – someone motivated out of a religious tradition (with בצלם deeply within it) -- I am not so quick to give up on people in this way.
  • Aiding – that is, aiding in our understanding of the uniqueness and beauty of each individual. Or put another way, psychology is useful to me when it (as does religion for me) fits in with the search for truth. . . . that is, the truth of what life, humanity and existence are all about. . . . The tools and theories of psychology help open my eyes to things about the (holy!) individual before me that I could not have seen without it.

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