As a person who has experienced years of training from religious and non-religious or secular perspectives and one who in that course of time scene a dramatic increase of therapies influenced by eastern religious perspectives. The question naturally arises can a good fit take place between religion and psychology and if so how does it work? The late Gregory Bateson seem to indicated this in his analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous. Listen to what he says from his article The Cybernetic "Self": A Theory of Alcoholism: "In its first conception, this essay was planned to be a systems-theoretic study of alcoholic addiction,...It soon became evident, however, that the religious views and the organizational structure of AA presented points of great interest to systems theory, and that the scope of my study should include not only the premise of alcoholism but also the premises of the AA system of treating it and the premises of AA organization."
The following is an attempt to reflect and to enter into dialogue, on how two aspects of the Christian view of redemption, otherwise known as justification and sanctification, intersect with the process of the application of intervention and the development of psychological health. In other words is there a good fit between the essential components of the Christian religion and development of psychological health and if so what does it look like.
SIN and FUSION
We must first begin by understanding how the concept of "sin" and the concept of dysfunctional behavior are related. From a Christian perspective all sinful behavior is dysfunctional. This though is not to say that all dysfunctional behavior is immoral or evil. "Sin" though can be conceived of as dysfunction in that "sin" ultimately is behavior that is organized around the purpose of relying upon one's own natural tendency to enhance, survive, or would otherwise strive toward self protection that establishes an agenda that is purposely and knowingly in conflict wth another or independent of an awareness of its impact on others or both. To the degree from which this act is utilized will determine the level of dysfunction. From a Christian perspective this concept includes an additional component where the individual expresses an independence or resistance to the reliance upon or the acknowledgement of God's power. Jesus put it in positive terms in describing the requirements of the Torah summing up the Mosaic law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37, 39 ESV). It goes with out saying that any deviation from this rule of love would indicate a level of dysfunction and the greater the deviation the greater the dysfunction. In other words the greater the reliance upon one's own power in full awareness, ignorance, or neglect of this rule will determine the level of dysfunctional behavior that is exhibited.
How then does this concept of sin relate to therapeutic concepts in counseling? To use terminology from a Bowenian Family Systems perspective one might say that the above definition of sin could correlate to a term he used in describing what causes family dysfunction; what he called fusion; the loss of identity or individuality because of a person's dependence upon another's feelings, thoughts, or actions. While there is a difference in the starting points between Bowen's concept of fusion and a Christian concept of sin, in that Bowen's definition is rooted in biology and the relative activation of the autonomic nervous system produced by a families emotional process that seemingly have nothing to do with the morality play that is conceived in the scriptures. The concept of "sin" though, like the Bowenian concept of fusion is driven by anxiety and incorporates behavior designed as an attempt to cope with the internal level of distress in an individual(s) that is produced by stressful events. From the eating of the forbidden fruit, to the murder of Able, to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, are just a few among a plethora of examples that included behavior organized to cope with distress which resulted in behavior organized around an agenda of self protection. Creating what Bowen has described as the "togetherness force" which exposes fusion.
As stated above an important point to remember is that even though "sin" is dysfunctional all "sin" is not necessarily evil or immoral. In fact sin can be expressed in ways that are highly moral, highly ethical and can appear to be highly functional and even sacrificial. This feature can be seen to corresponds neatly into the Bowenian concept of the over-functioner under-functioner dynamic as well as Ivan Borszormengi-Nagy's concept of "destructive entitlement" that comes from the "revolving slate" of victimization. In the New Testament letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul put it this way; "neither those who are circumcised nor those who are uncircumcised have any value". For those unfamiliar with the apostle's letter his analysis of the religious requirement of circumcision can fit neatly into the Bowen concept of over- functioner and under- functioner dynamic. A wonderful example of the over- functioner / circumcised mentality is illustrated by the character Javert in the book Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Javert's need to pursue and impose unrealistically harsh laws upon Valjean, who stands as a metaphor of the under-functioning aspect of French society, ultimately found its genesis in the fact that Javert's father was a thief and his mother a prostitute. In other words Javert's ultimate purpose as a police officer, from a family of origin perspective, was an unconscious attempt to rid himself (fusion) of the stain of his parents behavior by creating a society free from the same kind of social stains. Yet, though Javert was a law keeper to its letter, his relentless projection of the law to provide a "good" nevertheless violated Jesus' principle of love, something Valjean emulated and something which Victor Hugo found lacking in French society as a whole and in need of embracing.
REDEMPTION and PSYCHOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT
Secondly, what are the similarities and differences between the Christian concept of redemption and psychological development. Among other things a psychological intervention is a tool to help alleviate or reduce internal stress, or anxiety a person experiences. Seen from a Christian theological perspective, this expression of healing can be conceived as a release from the "bondage" of sin. This is not redemption with a big "R". That is, this kind of healing or help is not what scripture talks about in the formal sense of redemption. It is an aspect of the broader concept of redemption but not redemption which includes the theological components of justification and sanctification. No more than the mere act of Jesus healing a man from blindness is redemption in that since of the word. Though it is I think an aspect of the application of the broader view of redemption through the expression of God's "common grace" which therefore can be classified as redemption with a small "r". Thus we see Jesus performing healing acts intervening in people's lives to release them from both their physical as well as their relational struggles. The latter is illustrated by the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 where we find Jesus responding to her accusers who are ready to kill her by throwing rocks at her. Jesus elegantly confronts the mob with these words "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" placing both the woman and her accusers paradoxically in the position of forcing them to confront their respective behaviors at the same time evoking a way of addressing problems through the means of love and grace. As the mob (like Javert above) seeks to bring their over-functioning behavior to bear on this obviously under-functioning woman. Jesus' response immediately reduces their reactivity and creates a high degree of self focus causing them to see themselves for who they were. The accusers begin to trail off the oldest first to the youngest and the woman is found standing without a scratch free to go where ever she wishes with the injunction "go and sin no more".
JUSTIFICATION and PSYCHOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT
The Christian concept of justification is an essential component of redemption with a big "r" and is in my estimation the ultimate pathway to psychological health in that it single handedly creates "third order" change by exposing our dysfunctional behavior and our attempt to rely upon our own power to save ourselves at multiple levels, as well as points us to our need to live out of God's love through His grace. The application of the experience of justification then, could be experienced as a psychological intervention in order to bring about change in dysfunctional behavior. But it must be understood that the experience of justification is more than a psychological intervention in that it is an essential part of the experience of the Great Exchange.
At this point we will turn to the work of Victor Hugo for an illustration. In Les Miserables the protagonist Jean Valjean experiences a radical transformation which could be described as a third order change. After stealing the silver from the priest Valjean is firmly fixed with the mind of a criminal, he is caught by the police and brought back to be confronted by his victim and face condemnation. Instead the priest turns the table on Valjean by rebuking him for leaving with out taking the silver candle sticks and he whispers in his ear "Jean Valjean, my brother you no longer belong to evil, but for good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God." Valjean convicted by the generosity of the priest, returns to his benefactor to learn how to live a life where the dispensing of grace and the application of generosity was central to his character. The reader then follows Valjean's life journey where he is repeatedly challenged to do just that.
The experience of justification through the process of God's redemptive grace through faith in Jesus I believe does and should be personally and powerfully transformative. What might be confusing to some is that this process of transformation occurring through the application of psychological intervention can look very similar to the process of justification. One major difference is that in justification, personal relationship development has occurred between the infinite and the finite. Thus the experience of justification can resemble psychological health but more has taken place because of our existential union with Christ. In other words when justification occurs relationship development has happened because the transcendent act of the Great Exchange has taken place.
Thus the use of a psychological intervention to reduce anxiety and increase ones level of differentiation can mimic the experience of justification for obvious reasons yet it is to be conceived as redemption with a small "r". It is not justification in the theological sense. The purpose of the psychological intervention therefore is not to evoke a relationship between the finite and the infinite.
SANCTIFICATION and PSYCHOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT
The Sanctification process can be even more confusing to a person untrained in the work of theological integration because it mimics even more closely the track of healthy psychological development. Where as justification is more closely related to a single act in time like a gestalt, an "Aha" moment, sanctification is primarily process oriented and as far as I can determine always tied too continual behavioral change. Because of this aspect it can easily be confused as an example of psychological transformation. Essentially, sanctification is the ongoing transformation process where by the person who has experienced redemption puts into application the act of justification in daily life. Practically speaking this means that one endeavors to live out of grace and to see all of life from the perspective of the Great Exchange. Viewed from a psychological perspective this experience of transformation would resemble in Bowenian Systems Theory what would be described as the development of differentiation. This is where an individual transforms into greater degrees of self development and becomes less reactive emotionally to events that would have previously caused anxiety and dysfunctional behavior. Again while the experience of the sanctification process is similar to and can resemble psychological intervention it is nevertheless different in that with sanctification one is continuing to activate that relationship component between the finite and the infinite.
Finally, One must remember that even though psychology and the Christian religious experience are similar in many respects it would be a mistake to confuse them. It just so happens that healthy human behavior functions in a certain way that also reflects the same kind of behavior that occurs when the human experiences the personal grace of the Infinite. The mistake that many may make is to say that the two are the same or that the two are antithetical to one another and should be applied in two distinct spheres of influence. In order to discriminate accurately one must do the hard work in understanding how they are different and how they are the same.