Orthodoxy Today
Orthodoxy and the Science of Psychology

When psychology conforms to the scientific method, it can complement Orthodox teaching.

Many people sympathetic to religion have inherited a deep mistrust towards psychology. This suspicion is partly a reaction to the cultural bias brought forward from the last century when the scientific academy viewed religious faith as the wellspring of non-quantifiable and thus unverifiable assertions; an outlook wholly dependent on the philosophical materialism that informed it. However, as the decades passed and it became apparent that the materialist outlook was unable to provide answers about the deeper questions of human existence like morals and meaning for example, religion once again took on greater cultural relevance. Today we see a resurgence of religion unexpected even three short decades ago.

Despite this cultural shift, religiously minded people still react to psychology defensively, as if the shift never took place. They see psychology as the enemy of religion. This attitude is held by such prominent scholars as Paul Vitz in his book Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self Worship. Vitz considers contemporary psychology as a "form of secular humanism based on the rejection of God and the worship of self." Vitz believes an unbridgeable chasm exists between religion and psychology. It works from the other direction as well. Psychologists are as suspicious of Christianity as Christians are of psychology.

Is Vitz correct? When psychologists insist that morality is relative or eschew moral values altogether in theory and practice then, yes, the suspicion is deserved. However, Vitz is wrong in concluding that because the suspicion exists, no common ground can be found between religion and psychology. Both can serve each other provided each is responsibly practiced. From the religious side it requires a working knowledge of the Orthodox Christian spiritual and intellectual tradition. From the psychological side it requires the proper application of scientific principles.

In this paper I will describe in theological terms why the Orthodox tradition holds the Church as a place of psychological healing. Then I will discuss psychology and science with special emphasis on the necessity of submitting psychological inquiry and practice to the scientific method. I will conclude with an examination of how religion and psychology can complement each other and are not de facto incompatible.

It is my contention that psychology has too often overstepped its scientific boundaries and employed a relativistic value system that that leads to critiques such as Vitz's above. On the other hand, there is significant criticism with the psychological establishment with exactly the same complaints. Vitz's criticisms need to be heard but so do the voices of reform.

The Mind of the Church

As an Orthodox Christian priest and licensed psychologist, I draw from both the Orthodox tradition and the findings of contemporary psychological research in my practice. My views on religion and psychology agree in large part with Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos outlined in his small but impressive book, The Mind of the Orthodox Church. In it he defines the Church as a place of healing for mind, soul, and body, and by extension, the Orthodox spiritual disciplines as tools by which this healing can be appropriated. Bp. Vlachos writes:

...(T)here is a burning topic and a great contemporary need...to acquire the mind of the Church. Our mind should be permeated by the mind of the Church. Our thought, life, mode of living, our desire, our will should...be effected by the life of the Church.

Bishop Hierotheos explains that the "mind of the Church" involves authentic communion with the living God in the context of the Church so that the knowledge contained within the tradition of Orthodox Christianity can be experientially appropriated and applied. Three points explain his thesis:

  • Salvation comes through Christ. In the Old Testament men heard the words and saw the signs of the "unincarnate (or preincarnate) word." This means that every revelation of God in the Old Testament times was actually a revelation of Christ ("no one comes to the Father but by me ...") although this Trinitarian dimension was not evident until the Word "became flesh and dwelt among us," that is, when the Word became incarnate.

    In the New Testament, the incarnation of the Word revealed that the God of Abraham is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This formulation is expressed most properly in a doxological setting ("God is a spirit, and those who worship him must worship Him in Spirit and Truth") exemplified in the Orthodox blessing, "the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all."

  • The Church is a Divine-Human Organism. God constitutes and reconstitutes the Church through the preaching of the Gospel. The Church is not a social service agency but the agency of salvation through which the grace of Christ is mediated, primarily through the sacraments but also by teaching, service, and other means. This makes the Church something more than a sociological entity; a mere aggregate of like minded believers. Rather, the Church partakes of life that flows from God Himself and thus can embody the presence of God on earth, provided its members share authenticate communion with God and all that this implies and requires.

    Morever, the establishment of the Church as the community of those being saved by God conforms to the will of God. Bishop Hierotheos quotes St. Clement of Alexandria who wrote, " ... for just as it is a work of His Will and is called the world, so also the salvation of men is His will and is called the Church."

    The "gifts of the Holy Spirit" like love, joy, peace, patience (what the Fathers call the "virtues") are the "essential energies of God" according to Bp. Hierotheos and can only be properly understood, appropriated, and applied in the Church. This claim does not reference an abstract ideology but rather testifies of concrete communion with God in the presence of angels and men. "The Church" writes Bp. Hierotheos, "is a meeting of heaven and earth" when the people of God properly seek Him in spirit and truth.

  • The Church is the Body of Christ, with Christ at its head. The members of the Church include not only the worshippers but also the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), angels, prophets, the Holy Fathers, martyrs, confessors of the faith, the saints living and dead, "all who have a share in the purifying, illuminating and defying uncreated energy of God." This gift of the Church, this "great family," is to be valued and we should be "deeply moved and struggle to remain in her."

Bp. Hierotheos offers more insight in his last chapter. He refers to the Synodikon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy) which states: "As the Prophets saw, as the Apostles taught, as the Church received, as the Teachers laid down as doctrine, as the World has agreed, as grace has shown ... " to show both the depth of wisdom possessed in the Church and how the purposes of God are accomplished within her.

He concludes with a practical twist. "Thus if we do not have our own experience in these matters, we must nevertheless follow the teaching of those who see God, (i.e.) the deified and experienced saints. It is only in this way that we have the mind of the Church" he writes. I would expand Bishop Hierotheos' advice by emphasizing that all Christians should have a spiritual father. The necessity of a spiritual father was crystal clear in the early Church and both the Church Fathers and Monastic Fathers encourage every Christian to find one (Philokalia I-IV).

It is only within this definition of the mind of the Church that psychology can become a proper instrument of healing. From the other direction, psychology must reference the mind of the Church, which is to say it must conform to the aggregate knowledge of the interior life of the person that is revealed to the Church through authenticate communion with the Savior to whom all knowledge points and from whom all knowledge is received (Ephesians 1:15-22).

Mankind: Made in God's Image, Called to be Like Him

Genesis records that God made man in His image. "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion...over all the earth ..." (Genesis 1:26). McGuckin (2004) notes that several Greek Fathers defined the term "image" by relating it to Adam's naming of the animals, thereby linking an attribute of the image of God in man to "mankind's dominion over the created order." In other words, the patristic exegesis highlights the different characteristics that man possesses over the animals such as understanding, rationality, and intelligence to conclude that these characteristics define in some measure the term "image of God."

Blessed Augustine drew another distinction that reached the same conclusion about the intellect as the Greek Fathers. He taught that man's soul displayed the image of the three persons of the Holy Trinity in a three-part function of memory, understanding and will.

Evagrios the Solitary also, albeit indirectly, affirmed that the intellect reflects the image of God in man. When examining the causes of sin he asked, "Is it the intellect?" only to answer the query with another question, "But then how can the intellect be the image of God?" (Philokalia I). (Later he answered his question that sin is a "freely chosen noxious pleasure.")

St. Maximus the Confessor too elevates intellect as an attribute of the image of God in man. "Naturally endowed with the holiness of the Divine Image, the intelligence urges the soul to conform itself by its own free choice to the divine likeness" (Philokalia II).

Of all the Church Fathers however, St. John of Damascus is the most clear:

As a golden seal to this plain homily, we will add a brief account of the way in which that is most precious of all that God has created -- the noetic and intelligent creature, man -- has been made, alone among created beings, in God's image and likeness (cf. Genese 1:26). First, everyman is said to be made in the image of God as regards the dignity of his intellect and soul ... and endowed with free will ...

Further, St. John of Damascus taught that the gift of the intellect carries with it a particular responsibility:

Every man possesses that which is according to the image of God, "for the gifts of God are irrevocable" (cf. Romans 11:29). But only a few -- those who are virtuous and holy and have imitated the goodness of God to the limit of human powers -- possess that which is according to the likenesses of God" (Philokalia III).

St. Nikitas Stithatos discussed how the responsibility is met only by living in conformity with God's will:

God is ... intellect, beyond every intellect ... He is light and the source of blessed light. He is wisdom, intelligence and spiritual knowledge. If on account of your purity these qualities have been bestowed on you and are richly present in you, then that within you which accords with the image of God has been safely preserved and you are now a son of God guided by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14) (Philokalia IV).

Clearly, the Church Fathers teach that the intellect is a characteristic of the highest value that a person can possess. It is important to note that intellect does not mean high intelligence necessarily, but the faculty of intellect, namely, the ability to reason, distinguish, create, and all the qualities associated with it. Further, there is a moral imperative implied in their assessment. Since the intellect is a gift from God, we must exercise the intellect to the best of our ability. Neglecting the power of the intellect means we are not conforming to the will of God. Consequently, we must use the full measure of our intellects in the theory and practice of psychology.

God's Creation and His Laws

One area where the intellect must be applied is in the contemplation of life around us. Where does the ultimate meaning of the creation and our place in it come from: science or God? Science is empirical, it measures material objects and defines material processes. It describes the workings of creation but it can say nothing about the meaning of creation. Materiality and meaning are two different things.

The constituents that contribute to meaning such as beauty, love, purpose, and the like however, are by nature non-material and intangible, but nevertheless very real. They elude the tools of the scientist. They are revealed and conceptualized through declaration such as the one recorded in scripture: The heavens declare the Glory of God and the firmament proclaims His handiwork ... (Psalm 18:1). This declaration is not "proof" in any empirical sense, but it nonetheless reveals a way of knowing that the tools of science are powerless to penetrate.

What is Science?

Since the rules that govern the world are written into the very fabric of creation and discerned by the intellect, the atheist, agnostic, or believer can discover what they are. Uncovering them is not dependent on whether or not one believes in God.

What is termed the "scientific method" is the procedure by which scientific inquiry takes place. The scientific method is not static, but dynamic and ever changing that is refined as scientists get better at doing the "work of science." In psychology for example, as recent as thirty years ago only individual research studies were done. In the last few years researchers have been able to take the results of many individual studies to analyze the effects as a single study in a statistical procedure called "meta-analysis" Advances like this frequently occur.

The scientific method generally agreed upon today includes the following procedures:

  • Observations. Observations are defined by the procedures used in measuring or assessing a subject; e.g. the intelligence of an individual is defined operationally by the score on a valid and reliable intelligence test.

  • Hypothesis. These are assumptions or guesses as to how observations are related to each other to predict observable and measurable outcomes.

  • Falsifiability: A hypothesis must be falsifiable. A "good hypothesis" can be falsified while a "bad outcome" cannot be falsified.

    Usually a non-falsifiable hypothesis predicts all outcomes. For example, say a weather theory was developed based on the hypothesis that predicted a temperature range of -500 to +500 degrees, a wind speed of 0 to 600 mph, and humidity ranging from zero to 100 percent. Obviously every place on earth fits these parameters. The hypothesis is always correct; it cannot be falsified. (Ask yourself, who would fly an airline that projected a weather forecast from such a model?) Alternately, if the hypothesis predicts, say, a wind speed of 20 to 25 mph, then any number below 19 or above 26 falsifies it. This is a good hypothesis because it is falsifiable.

  • Data Collection. Individuals chosen to be subjects in studies should be randomly selected. Subjects need informed consent but should be unbiased so as not to influence the outcome of a study. Researchers also have to be unbiased.

    Further, extra factors (variables) have to be eliminated in the studies. For example, say a researcher is studying whether a new vitamin promotes growth and designs a study so that only males makeup the vitamin group (the group taking the vitamin) while females makeup the control group (the group taking a placebo). The study is biased because an equal number of both sexes should makeup both groups.

  • Data Analysis and Reporting. Measurements are analyzed, interpreted, and reported by accepted statistical methods. If the predicted outcome occurs this is considered support for the hypothesis.

  • Special Studies. Strictly speaking, case studies, correlation investigations, naturalistic observations, questionnaires, and surveys are not experiments. They are the source of the hypotheses that lead to experimental investigations.

Psychology as Science

Unfortunately, some psychological theory ignores scientific discipline; a glaring error highly criticized by other psychologists. Albert Bandura (1986) is a vociferous critic of models of behavior that purport to be sound psychology but in fact fail to meet the scientific standard. He discusses the standards that defined psychology as a scientific discipline. "The value of a theory is ultimately judged by its usefulness as evidenced by the power of the methods it yields to effect psychological changes," Bandera argues.

For example, in psychoanalytic (psychodynamic) theories, it is assumed that behavior is governed by inferred constructs motivating individuals from inner determinants such as needs, drives, impulses, and instincts. The problem with this approach is that the reasoning becomes circular. According to Bandura:

Theories of this sort are criticized on both conceptual and empirical ground. The inner determinants are often inferred from the very behavior they supposedly caused, creating interpretive circularities in which description becomes the causal explanation. A hostile impulse, for example, is deduced from a person's irascible behavior, which is then attributed to the action of an underlying impulse.

When I taught psychology graduate students and seminarians I pointed to television reporters to illustrate Bandura's thesis about circular reasoning. Say a reporter is describing a grisly murder. He makes the off-handed comment, "Someone has to be crazy to commit a crime like that." When asked how he knew anything about the perpetrator's sanity, the reporter points to the gravity of the crime to conclude, "Only somebody crazy would do something like that." Unfortunately many well-meaning people (and even some psychologists) think this way.

Bandura cites an example by Marmor (1962) that illustrates this problem in terms of the psychodynamic approach. The psychodynamic researcher has a list of inner causes and insights that ostensibly define the determinants of a particular behavior. These "presupposed determinants" are often validated by researchers making "suggestive interpretations and reacting favorably whenever [patient] accounts are consistent with the therapist's beliefs" (Murray, 1956; Truax, 1966). Here the circular reasoning is so subtle that not even the therapist or patient sees it. Bandura asserts that these types of psychodynamic practices are so flawed that they lie outside the realm of science.

The technical term that applies to these flawed practices is reification. The word reify derives from the Latin word res or "thing." To reify means to treat an abstract concept as if it had material existence. The id, ego, superego, the unconscious, the collective unconscious (these are common psychoanalytic terms) are reifications. They are used to explain a particular behavior and then, in turn, the behavior is used to ostensibly prove that the concept has material existence. Such circularity violates the rules of the scientific method.

Unfortunately, these illogical practices are what many people have in mind when they think about psychology. Their reaction to it is visceral; an intuitive rejection against the soul stunting confusion of illogical circularity. There is no inherent discipline in this psychodynamic approach. Further, no transcendent ground exists upon which the morality of a particular behavior can be ascertained with any clarity. Perhaps this explains Vitz's implicit criticism above that psychology is inextricably bound to a narcissistic impulse.

When psychology is submitted to the rigor of the scientific method however, circular reasoning is broken because conclusions are referenced to standards that exist outside and apart from the theory. As a result, objective (that is, independent) data is uncovered. Real knowledge can be obtained. Here is where the Christian intellectual tradition becomes relevant.

The Fathers of the Church taught that there at two types of knowing that for our purposes can be called reason and noetic. Reason is the ground of scientific knowledge. It builds systems and processes, and possesses an integrity that conforms to man's intellect. Noetic knowledge is the knowledge comprehended through concrete encounter with God, referred to by the Fathers as a [pouring] of grace into the heart (Vlachos, 1994).

These two ways of knowing are not to be confused. To clarify, the rational mind is described by the Church Fathers as a constellation of the stars and moon. Looking into the sky, the stars and moon give light, but this light is only reflective. The noetic mind on the other hand, is described as the source and illumination of all knowledge, just as the sun is the source of light in the universe. If the noetic mind of a person is illuminated (an illumination that occurs by God through the Holy Spirit), then the light of reason will burn more brightly as well. If the noetic mind is darkened (by drawing away from God), reasoning is darkened.

In English, this distinction is largely lost because the English language conflates the Greek terms psyche (rational mind) and nous (noetic mind) into the single term "mind." If you look at the scriptures and the writing of the Church Fathers in the original Greek however, the distinction is so clear it is almost assumed. For example, take St. Paul's injunction to " ... be transformed by the renewing of your mind ... " (Romans 12:2). An English reader assumes mind refers to the rational mind (reason). In the original Greek however, St. Paul refers to the nous or noetic mind.

It is unethical, negligent, immoral, and sinful to use non-scientific psychological methods for the treatment of mental disorders, educational purposes, family and social functioning, pastoral care and other efforts toward behavior change. Only when psychological methods are submitted to scientific discipline can it be considered reputable, trustworthy, and ultimately helpful.

Mental health practitioners must keep up with the scientific research in their field. Likewise educators and parents should know the techniques shown to be effective with their families and children. Clergy should be informed of methods to aid their pastoral ministry and make proper referrals.

Psychology and values

A knife can be used for good or for evil. A scalpel can bring healing, a dagger can bring death. Psychology works the same way. Psychology is a tool that describes the dynamics that make up behaviors and can be used to free a person or oppress him. Consequently, the practice of psychology is never a morally neutral enterprise. A psychologist, or any counselor for that matter, is under a mandate to apply his craft in conformity with God's will and purpose for mankind.

All behavior change must be for love of God and love of neighbor as fully revealed to us by Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. For Orthodox Christians this means that psychological knowledge and praxis must reference the mind of the Orthodox Church as described above. In other words, psychology must always serve the individual in ways that promise him greater freedom to be able to choose God; a path already revealed through the Orthodox Christian spiritual and intellectual tradition.

If Vitz were correct in his assertion that psychology left off God and became a means of self worship (idolatry in theological terms), then Christians ought to eschew psychology with same vigor he does. In fact, Vitz is reacting to the misuse and abuse of psychology by some of its practitioners and not Christian centered "Orthodox" psychology.

Bishop Hierotheos (1998) states that the use of contemporary psychology to guide men is a secular view of pastoral care and cannot substitute for asceticism and the hesychasm (silence) taught by the Church. Psychology fails, in other words, not only when the veracity of its theories remain untested, but also when its goals for a patient are defined apart from any reference to God and when healing is attempted outside of the Church. This assertion would no doubt raise many eyebrows in the secular psychological establishment. For the Christian however, it posits God as both the source and end of a person's healing and sets the precepts of sound psychological practice squarely where it belongs: in the tradition of the Church. For this reason Bishop Hierotheos concludes that, "Pastoral care is the work of the Church...it is the Church's method for guiding men toward deification."

Scientific psychology is not a substitute for the asceticism, the spiritual wisdom of the Church Fathers, hesychaism (silence), prayer, the Holy Mysteries (sacraments), all the constituents that make up life in the Church. Rather it complements the teachings about how the Christian life ought to be lived. Scientific psychology is a tool, based on our God given intelligence, to foster communion with God. In the spirit of St. Luke and all the physicians of the Church: healing should lead to thanksgiving and blessing towards God.

This is the spirit of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine Psychology and Religion (OCAMPR) (www.ocampr.org). Orthodox psychologists are encouraged to adopt as their patrons and mentors the Holy Martyrs Cosmas and Damian, the physicians and miracle workers who took no money for their labors.

The OCAMPR statement reads that Sts. Cosmas and Damian:

... were born in Rome and grew up Christian, both showing gifts of healing and the ability to encourage others in their Christian journey. Persecuted for their faith, they were eventually brought before the Emperor Galerius, who asked them to deny Christ to save their lives. Instead, they preached to the Emperor urging him to turn to the Living God and the true Faith. After healing the Emperor of a serious illness, Emperor Galerius declared himself a Christian and released the two brothers. They lived to continue working until their fame elicited envy in a physician who had been their former teacher. On the pretext of collecting medicinal herbs together, he stoned them to death in 284 A.D.

OCAMPR adopted Sts. Cosmas and Damian as its patron saints, in honor of their witness to the Orthodox Christian faith, gifts in the healing arts, and rendering a life of service to all people without exacting a fee.

With boldness and without fear of condemnation I offer this prayer based on the Psalm 18 for all people engaged in the sciences:

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day may we use Thy gift of intelligence given to us, that night to night may we discover knowledge of Thy creation. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and by Thy grace their workings can be comprehended according to Thy will. For thou art the good God that lovest mankind and to thee we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever and unto ages and ages. Amen.


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McGuckin, J.A. (2004). The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology. Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press.

Murray, E.J. (1956). A content-analysis method for studying psychotherapy. Psychological Monographs, 70, (13, Whole No. 20).

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

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Truax, C.B. (1966). Reinforcement and nonreinforcement in Rogerian psychotherapy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 71, 1-9.

Vitz, P. C. (1994). Psychology As Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans.

Vlachos, Bishop Hierotheos, (1994). Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers. Lavadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery.

Vlachos, Bishop Hierotheos, (1998). The Mind of the Orthodox Church. Lavadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery.

Published: May 8, 2006

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