by Daniel Coburn
The following is a brief outline of a psychology of Christianity. More specifically, it focuses on presenting a psychological interpretation of some major themes in Christian theology, spirituality, and symbolism.
I want to share a few things before getting into the outline by way of introduction. First, the following is not meant to be a reductionistic interpretation that excludes other levels of interpretation. It is simply meant to highlight some of the psychological significance I see in major themes of Christianity. I approach this as an exploratory exercise seeking consilience, not a reductionistic exercise seeking exclusive or final answers. So the following outline is not meant to suggest Christianity is “nothing but” something in your head or to “explain away” other levels of interpretation.
Second, the following outline assumes that analytical conceptualizations which view psychology, theology, spirituality, and mysticism as discrete domains that are completely separate are misleading and wrong. Rather, the following outline is based on the assumption that psychology, theology, spirituality, and mysticism are distinct yet overlapping, which is why I seek to explore areas of consilience.
Third, I want to stress my primary concern is not with addressing questions of theological or philosophical metaphysics given my limited focus. Readers can each decide their own metaphysics for themselves.
Overall, this essay suggests there is a psychological story of development running through the biblical narrative that includes a major problem and its solution. Following the emergence of humanity’s advanced intelligence, we observe our traumatic fall into enhanced self-awareness with the new burdens and evils that accompanied this event as the major problem, while the psychology of Christ’s love and self-transcendence renewing humanity and recreating the cosmos as the full realization of its solution.
A Psychology of the Creation & the Fall
The stories of creation and the fall of humankind are mythological origins stories of the emergence of human nature and distinct features of human psychology. They are mythological because they narrate perennially relevant truths about our human condition that still apply to our lives and circumstances today. The creation story of Genesis One is a mythological origins story of the progressive emergence of advanced human intelligence, language, and meaning-making by which the known world was creatively formed into a meaningfully organized cosmos, mediated by the language-based power of the divine Word.
Psychologically, this cosmos-making activity occurs by creative acts of analytically “separating” and differentiating parts of the created world into distinct identities, while also synthetically naming and “binding together” similar parts into common identities, which are two constituent processes of meaning-making and world(view) creation from which an ordered cosmos is dynamically formed out of nonorder and nonlanguage by the power of the divine Word. Moreover, humans are made in the likeness of the divine Word, infused with the divine Breath, endowed with unique capacities and responsibilities for participating in creatively cultivating and caring for the world, developing its potentials for good as agents of the Word.
The story of the fall of humankind is a mythological origins story of the dawning of self-awareness and, in particular, the painful emergence of the dark sides of enhanced self-consciousness with its new burdens and consequences for humans beings. More specifically, it is about how enhanced self-consciousness gave humankind new insights into our existential conditions of nakedness, vulnerability, and mortality, as well as new ethical insights, capacities, and responsibilities as a consequence of possessing enhanced self-consciousness which enables new knowledge of good and evil.
In other words, the first major consequence of the fall of humanity is a new overwhelming and painful sense of self-awareness. As the story goes, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened, they felt naked and ashamed, they were motivated to hide and cover themselves, they became acutely aware of their existential vulnerability and mortality, and they traumatically “fell” into an awareness of the harsh realities of history, suffering, and death. Enhanced self-consciousness also enabled the psychological development of a strengthened sense of a bounded individual ego-self, separate from non-ego realities, which introduced a new general sense of separation, disconnection, and isolation into the human psychological condition.
The second major consequence of the fall is the entrance of new knowledge of good and evil. But why is enhanced self-consciousness related with “consuming” new ethical knowledge of good and evil? Because by learning and knowing how “I” can be hurt and harmed as a result of enhanced self-consciousness, I know how others who are like me can be hurt and harmed, and I can use this ethical knowledge for good or evil based on my moral choices. As a result, the fall of humanity comes with new ethical knowledge, capacities, and responsibilities shared by human beings, which marks the loss of a prior state of innocence and the introduction of new existential and moral guilt. Subsequent biblical stories also highlight how new sins and evils corrupt the human world in various ways after the fall.
Hence why the biblical tradition teaches all humans are subsequently born into the same fallen nature of Adam and inherit the same legacy of our fallen humanity after this critical event. Which is to say that humans are born into the same human nature and inherit the same distinctive psychology and ethical capacities of human being.
Responding to the profound and devastating consequences of the fall of humanity is the central problem of the whole biblical narrative. Which raises the central question, how do we heal ourselves and our world from the legacy of the fall and overcome its harmful effects? Everything that follows in the biblical narrative with the coming of Christ and the final renewal of the world is about solving this essential problem.
A Psychology of the Christ & Satan
Christ and Satan are each representative figures of particular psychological, social, and ethical patterns of living in the world, which can manifest psychologically at the levels of “schema” types, “personality types,” and/or “archetypes.” The patterns of Christ and Satan represent contrary psychologies and ethics associated with absolute good and absolute evil that are respectively directed toward conflicting value-states and goal-states of Heaven and Hell. Their relationship is therefore characterized by ethical opposition, struggle, and conflict in which Christ is ultimately portrayed as the more powerful and victorious of the two ways of living.
The central conflict between Christ and Satan psychologically is a struggle for the self. On the one hand, the pattern of Satan is primarily organized around selfish, ego-centred pride combined with disregard for the wellbeing of others, which is understood to be a cause of various evils and a source of deep deception. The core lie and deception of this pattern of living is the central motivating belief that “I matter the most.” More specifically, the belief that I am the most valuable thing in existence, that I matter more than others, and that I am the most worthy object of the best of my love and devotion, which I should organize and orient my whole life around serving above all others and above all else.
On the other hand, the pattern of Christ is primarily organized around selfless, self-giving, self-sacrificing love oriented toward altruistically serving the wellbeing of others. Christ’s self-transcendence overcomes the narrower fixations of Satan’s prideful egoism by a greater, more encompassing and dynamic self primarily organized and motivated by love. Instead of placing himself above others, Christ descends downward in love and humility to serve others for the purpose of supporting the wellbeing and growth of all, which reveals Christ’s identity of love.
A Psychology of Christ’s Incarnation, Life, Suffering, Death & Resurrection
The victory of Christ’s love in the struggle for self is embodied and acted out by Christ in the whole journey of his incarnation, life, suffering, death, and resurrection. Through this journey, Christ is addressing and overcoming the problems of our fallen human nature. He is not offering a mere theoretical answer but is applying and embodying the solution to the problem through his whole way of living, while simultaneously modelling by example the Christian pathway of healing and transformation for others to follow.
In Christ’s incarnation and life, Christ fully identifies with humanity, descending from the highest heavenly place, “taking the very nature of a servant” who uses his power to love and care for others. Christ’s identification with humanity is taken to its most extreme end in his suffering and death. For a central issue of human living is how will I respond to my suffering and death? Will I attempt to avoid suffering and deny death, selfishly looking out for only myself and seeking my own comfort and preservation above all else? Or will I voluntarily accept life’s suffering and seek to love others in all circumstances, even in my suffering and death?
Christ’s answer is to fully identify with our human condition, accepting and responsibly bearing it all, even unto suffering and death. And by fully accepting the burden of humanity with unconditional love, Christ overcomes the powers of suffering, evil, and death to dominate and control humanity in fear. As a result, Christ transcends these powers and transforms human nature, showing a new way to be human defined by freedom and love.
Hence why Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I [ego] no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Our journey of transformation in Christ is dramatized in ritual acts of baptism where we identify ourselves with Christ, descending down into the waters in death and rising up from the waters to a new resurrected life. Psychologically, this is a journey of leaving behind our old personal ego-self for the purpose of embracing our new transpersonal self-in-Christ.
Through his journey, Christ overcomes the fallen nature and original psychology of Adam (humanity) by fully accepting and overcoming it through self-transcendence motivated by love, forming a new nature and new transformed humanity, which is the collective Body of Christ, guided and unified together by the same mind and ways of Christ. Thus, the old psychology of the “first Adam” is transformed by the greater psychology of the “second Adam” who is Christ. All who are “in Christ” and all who participate in the mind and embodying of Christ’s love are members of this renewed humanity, connected and unified together by the same life and love.
A Psychology of God
There are many theologies of God within Christianity and beyond Christianity in other religions. The following, however, is not primarily a theology of God but rather more of a focused and functional definition relevant to understanding a Christian psychology of God. Readers can decide on any other particulars of theology and metaphysics for themselves.
For the purposes of this outline, I would like to modestly suggest functionally defining God as reality. That God is the I Am-ness and realness of existence.
Usually I prefer avoiding using terms like “supernatural” when referring to God because these notions generally have a lot of misleading conceptual baggage attached to them. To clarify, God is not “supernatural” in the sense that God is separate from nature and reality. Rather, God is supernatural in the sense that God is super-nature and super-reality — the full unlimited superabundance of reality. Although theology is not the primary concern of this outline, it is worth pointing out that conceiving of God as anything separate from reality, other than reality, or less than reality are some of the most profound, misleading theological errors one could possibly make according to the understanding I am presenting.
Psychologically knowing and seeking God is therefore equivalent with knowing and seeking reality. These are two ways of saying the same thing. Likewise, seeking anything other than reality is a misdirected pursuit — traditionally known as idolatry — of devoting oneself to seeking anything less-than-reality or other-than-reality, which can include living by mistaken theological ideas about God or any other misconceptions about reality that limit one’s full engagement with reality. Moreover, seeking to know and love God with all of oneself is the same as seeking to know and love reality with all of oneself, which can require self-sacrifice and self-transcendence insofar as self-constructs are limiting and interfering with fully loving reality with one’s whole being.
The psychology of “theosis” (union with God) modelled by Christ, which is the true goal of Christian spirituality, involves overcoming the limited, isolated sense of a separate ego-self while gaining an expanded, open sense of one’s self-in-Christ motivated by love, which rediscovers a sense of loving connection, wholeness, and oneness with all reality, resulting in the healing and transformation of one’s self by fully identifying with Christ and reality.
A Psychology of Heaven & Hell
Heaven and Hell are representative models of ethical states of absolute good and absolute evil. Moreover, Heaven and Hell can be understood as macro heuristic models of ideal ethical states of existence that partly developed for guiding and motivating moral behaviours. The heuristic of Heaven developed for guiding “approach” behaviours motivated by seeking heavenly goods and rewards, while the heuristic of Hell developed for guiding “avoidance” behaviours motivated by fleeing hellish evils and punishments. Hence why it is taught to seek God and flee the Devil, to pursue heavenly rewards and avoid the punishments of Hell.
Interestingly, we use similar language of “place” and “states” to describe both fixed geographical locations and dynamic states of experience. I would suggest Heaven and Hell are not fixed geographies or static locations as sometimes imagined, but rather dynamic states of existence that emerge based on the quality of our ethical living.
With this perspective, the arrival of Kingdom of Heaven on earth proclaimed by Christ is about the progressive arrival of a dynamic state of existence that we may discover and participate in ourselves, here and now. Like a political kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven is an analogy for the sphere of influence organized and guided by the purposes of God as revealed in the example of Christ. We may discover the Kingdom of Heaven is among us, around us, and within us, right here and right now, as we each psychologically and socially align our way of living with the example of Christ’s love, sharing in Christ’s prayer that things may be “here on earth as in Heaven.”
A Psychology of Spiritual Conflict & Warfare
There are many foundational metaphors for modeling and understanding the nature of spirituality. Spiritual “warfare” and its variants are one common set of organizing metaphors in Christian theology and spirituality. It shows up in notions of spiritual battles, attacks, oppositions, strongholds, fighting, and struggling, in notions of heavenly hosts, armies, and legions, and in notions of how we struggle against spiritual forces, powers, principalities. And in the original historical contexts of the tradition, war was a regular feature of everyday life everyone could relate with.
Conflict models have been used in various schools of modern psychology and psychotherapy. Jeffrey Young’s following comments are an example of this in schema therapy: “Schema healing is the ultimate goal of schema therapy. Because a schema is a set of memories, emotions, bodily sensations, and cognitions, schema healing involves diminishing all of these… Schema healing requires willingness to face the schema and do battle with it. It demands discipline and frequent practice. [People] must systematically observe the schema and work everyday to change it. Unless it is corrected, the schema will perpetuate itself. Therapy is like waging war on the schema [emphasis added]. The therapist and the patient form an alliance in order to defeat the schema, with the goal of vanquishing it. The goal is usually an unrealizable ideal, however: Most schemas never completely heal, because we cannot eradicate the memories associated with them” (2006, 31–32).
Spiritual conflict and growth can likewise be understood at the psychological level in many similar ways. The overall goal of spiritual development in Christianity is overcoming one’s fallen, false self primarily organized around selfish pride and inflated egoism for the purpose of discovering and developing one’s self in Christ, which is one’s greater and truer identity organized by the power of love, and which is a source of profound healing and transformation.
A Psychology of Healing, Redemption & Hopes for Complete Future Renewal
A constellation of interrelated metaphors are used in Christian tradition and spirituality to describe the incredibly great changes and transformations that occur as we ourselves, individually and socially, become transformed by the psychology of Christ. These metaphors include redemption, freedom, liberation, victory, reconciliation, reunion, healing, justification, purification, regeneration, recreation, etc.
At the core is an understanding that we may experience our greatest change and transformation by embodying Christ’s love and learning to follow his example of self-transcendence, by which we may grow and discover a new identity organized by the psychology of Christ, which is the psychology of love, releasing us from our old identities and ways of living. This core understanding is also translated to the greatest possible scale of fulfilment, as the end of the Christian narrative of history is the recreation of a completely renewed cosmos, a vision of new heavens and new earth.
This teleological, goal-oriented, aspirational vision serves as an inspirational guide for our own journeys of discipleship as students of Christ. Understood psychologically, Christian discipleship is a journey of learning and adopting the schema and personality of Christ as one’s own true identity and way of living for the purpose of participating in bringing the state of heaven on earth. The hope is that as we transform ourselves, our relationships with one another, and our relationships with our world, the cosmos we live in will be progressively transformed into a state of peace, love, thriving, and flourishing, which is final Christian vision of a fully renewed world.
Daniel Coburn is completing his Masters degree in Social Work in Canada. He welcomes reader’s comments on this article: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is re-published from Medium by the author’s permission.