Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Foundational Concepts Towards a Christian View of Mental Health (Part II of II): Axioms, Evidence, and Discerning Truth

This might well be subtitled as
Is all psychology atheistic and evil?”
Why won't people in patriarchy listen to me?”

The last consideration I'd like to offer before John Weaver's guest post about problems with nouthetic counseling or “Biblical” counseling that tends to trace problems back to a sin cause on the part of the person in distress concerns how Christians go about discerning truth. As previous stated in the preceding post, this subject is one of great interest today because of the Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC) initiative to develop a doctrinal statement about mental health. I will again endeavor to condense some complex concepts down into some simple descriptions, though I would love to jump into elaborate discussions of them. I again beg the mercy of those with knowledge of these matters as I did in the previous post, for I have condensed them significantly for the sake of brevity.

In reading John's article, I realized again just how profound the implications of how a person arrives at truth is for those who are working through questions about mental health and care offered to those in need. In philosophy, this discussion of developing a theory of knowledge, is called “epistemology.”

It seems that human beings tend to prefer a particular epistemological style of assuring that something is true, based upon personality preferences, styles, and personal experiences. Each style of making sure that truth is true has its own set of strengths and pitfalls, but a style is not necessarily right or wrong. For Christians, we are called to bring every thought captive to Christ, and as long as we remain balanced and faithful to Scripture, we can remain grounded, especially with the aid of the Holy Spirit. There are more than just two styles, but most Christians today tend to fall into two primary categories (and that's plenty for us to discuss in a single blog post). An excellent introduction to this subject can be found in a chapter in Moreland and Craig's Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, if this kind of thing really floats your boat (or your raft, if you prefer – as that will make sense in a moment).

If you still don't find this all that engaging, discrepancies and communication difficulties owing to differences in epistemological style account for one of the biggest early controversies in 20th Century Calvinism and Presuppositional Apologetics. Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til argued aggressively because of this issue and both criticized one another's style, even though they stood for most all of the same things in terms of doctrine and practice. (Google away, as there is plenty of material available on the subject.) I have some concerns that the same kind of friction will again erupt in the SBC as they hash out ideas about mental health, because the subject demands some reckoning about axiomatic and rational ideas and information to accomplish their stated task. And if these wise men of the past could not work things out very well in their day, I suspect that even greater problems will emerge today among the Young, Restless and Reformed. I find that many in Patriarchy and some of the more legalistic Fundamentalist groups are more like Gordon Clark (who basically don't prefer science, particularly mental health), and I tend to be more like Van Til.

Two Styles of Validating and Accepting Truth

Foundationalism. Someone who prefers this style tends to look first to the world of abstract ideas to discern truth from this realm first. For the Christian, this source of truth concerning abstract ideas (axioms) serves as the basis of truth. In this system, a series of basic beliefs are accepted as “indubitable” and “incorrigible,”, then they are built into the person's belief system like stones that are placed into the foundation of a house. These basic beliefs are said to need no justification because they are so obviously true. All other beliefs that a person develops thereafter, more specific and peripheral or specialized ones, to some degree rest upon the support of those basic beliefs that are in the foundational level. The foundational truths become a part of the meaning and give direction to the more secondary beliefs. All understanding that comes after the foundation must relate back and be consistent with the person's understanding of those ideas when they built them into their framework.

Rene Descartes who said “I think, therefore I am” was said to be a type of foundationalist because he validated truth from that which he could consciously know, doubting other sources of information. Many Christians who prefer this style will latch on to a belief, and hopefully, they derived that belief from a reliable source (hopefully not a televangelist, a smiling fool who tickled ears, or the words of a hymn that they liked).

I believe that this system works rather well if the basic beliefs adopted prove true and accurate, as well as the person's perception of them. However, it is hard, once you have your whole home built to go back to address problems with a faulty foundation. This usually strikes fear into the hearts of people and involves a great deal of trouble when it happens with a physical building, so people are not so willing to go back to look at problems in understanding, either. It can “rock your world,” or at least your home of ideas, if you figure out that one of your basic ideas was faulty. Truth is rock solid and immovable, (but it should not be static).

Coherentism. A person who prefers this style is not at all averse to axioms or principles – they are essential, especially to the Christian. However, those with this style also go through a process of vetting a truth by looking at how functional that truth is and whether it can stand up to scrutiny in the pragmatic world. Coherentists are concerned about the way and the procedure for justifying a belief. They tend not to take axioms at face value before submitting them to a series of tests, so to speak, before they are willing to trust that truth. (This certainly does not preclude them from the Christian faith and following the Bible as the sufficient source for truth and meaning.) Relationships between beliefs are also important.

For the coherentist, individual truths are more like the logs of a raft, and they are examined for their ability to float and perform as a part of a raft. In some sense, these ideas are constantly being challenged and are evaluated, and they are derived more from how they perform in systems than they are from examining them in isolation. If they “take on water” like a log that may begin to absorb water, they are not as cogent of a truth as a more durable and buoyant idea that is seaworthy. The way ideas are attached to one another becomes another concern, more like a scientist tests an invention or an hypothesis. If it is true in the abstract, the application of that truth will hold up and will demonstrate itself to be reliable in the physical world. Abstract truths, in particular, should be transcendent. I once wrote a post about “Everready Apologetics” as proof of transcendence along these same lines, as this is my preferred natural style of understanding truth (in case the reader wondered). Truth floats and adapts to changing circumstances (but it should not be compromising).

Potential Problems in Communication

Looking at the example of Clark and Van Til, some of the problems become obvious. Clark, a foundationalist, said that we cannot derive truth from science. He also argued that if someone looks to the material world to validate truth that they are selling out the Bible or sola Scriptura (by the Word of God alone) as the ultimate source and tool of the discernment of truth. Clark counted on our ability to read the Scriptures with a pure understanding, despite the fact that we are studying a dead language from a culture that is long since gone, written to people that we may or may not understand and are depending on translations. Even with the insight imparted to us by the Holy Spirit as Christians, there is no guarantee that we will be able to discern perfect truth from Scripture. We need to do this in community with other believers, in light of history and in light of a sound hermeneutic (with the historical grammatical as the generally preferred one by presuppositional apologists). How can we be sure that those incorrigible and indubitable truths were properly discerned without putting them to some test, even if that is just the test of the history of Christian tradition and what other theologians thought about them?

Van Til was criticized as a rationalist because he believed that God's creation was clearly evident in the rational and material world, and that truths in it were consistent with the truth of Scripture as a part of all of God's creation. We can see the handiwork of God, and we look to the Word of God to know how to think God's thoughts after Him by conforming to Scripture. We are taught how to interpret what we learn about truths in the rational and material world. Scripture becomes a critical and essential part of the whole of reality and the measuring rod or consistent, most precious standard by which we put other truths into perspective. As Andrew Sandlin once stated it in his essay, A Conflict of Apologetic Visions,
Rational communication between men is possible not because of the Greek idea of a rational, universal, abstract principle, but because all men are made in the image of God and reflect that image in every iota of their being. God’s revelation to man is religiously holistic, not reductionistically rational. We are not saved by ideas; we are saved by union with Christ— communicated, to be sure, in the propositional ideas of the Bible.

What Does that Have to do with Mental Health?

(If I believe that the brain is an organ that can affect behavior and thought,
does that make me a secular humanist
and a sell-out to science that I've made my God?)

Certainly for the past fifty years, Christians and presuppositional apologists in particular, have been intimidated by the threat that secular humanism posed on America Culture. Atheism became a more openly embraced system of belief, if not one of evangelism. Really in what I believe became a culture of fear as opposed to a culture of dominion that was willing to engage competitive beliefs, Christians resorted to all sorts of means to oppose this growing threat. I have written about many of these influences, and the theological innovations that were birthed from the effort to stave off the progression of secular humanism, several of which were birthed at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in the '60s and '70s (where and when Jay Adams, the father of nouthetics, attended – see a statement about the history of nouthetics and Adams below). The patriarchy movement in homeschooling also promises to provide strategies to overcome these influences.

Personally, I look at Scripture much like men like David Stoop and Chris Thurman who were some of my first introduction to expressly Christian clinical psychology and appreciate how they see the Bible as the foremost authoritative book on psychology. I had a discussion not long ago about Matthew 18 which I see as a model for assertive communication that avoids what Murray Bowen coined as “triangulation.” I see Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as disciplined spiritual warfare, etc. I could go on and on. I also look to empirical and physical findings in science and the objective rigors of statistics concerning medical research to validate this information, and I see appropriate and compassionate care for people in need, people with mental health issues, emerging and converging from all of these different disciplines, like a web of truth. (Explore these posts to read many things that I've written concerning the new information that we have about the physical nature and sometimes physical cause of many mental health problems.) I do not see these truths as at odds with Christianity and do see it validating Christian truth. I rather like how Daniel Amen described things in an earlier book, echoed in Earl Henslin's that the physical brain is the hardware of the soul and what we put into it (like Bible Study) is like the software, to draw an analogy. (Both of these men are born again Christians.) Sometimes, we need to heal the hardware of the soul when physical problems present as behavioral or emotional or physical ones. These things give us more ability to have better self control and can make us better stewards so that we can be better Christians.

These ideas about the brain and the mind are not shared by all of us, however. For many Christians, science and the scientific method became an enemy. If the Bible were the source of all truth and meaning, it was treated as it was the ONLY source of truth. Any other truths seemed to pose a threat to it. It was also believed that because secular humanism turned to science as the sole source of truth, that Christians who embraced science in any capacity would do the same. Some groups, out of fear, vilified all psychology as evil, citing antiquated and almost poor modern examples like Freud and Jung as representative of anyone who studied and practiced any kind of psychology, even if it was purely clinical, functional, and pragmatic. (What do you do when someone's memory fails, if they struggle with confusion, if they lose some aspect of mental function, or if you have a child born with special needs? Is that spiritual or sin-based? What resources did or does the church have to offer?) But the atheist Freud who was obsessed with sex, likely out of guilt for fornicating with his sister-in-law and spiritists like Jung who walked with his spirit guide, Philemon, every morning in his garden became the poster child Hitlers that were used to prove that all mental health care was secular humanism in disguise, and it was creeping into our precious churches under the guise of altruism.

There is also a resistance and fear regarding the idea of the physical brain as an organ that has the ability to affect how a person functions in terms of the soul and spirit. If an organic brain issue (one with a physical cause) has the physical ability to influence those things that overlap with the mind, it is seen as a terrible threat. Many disorders today, through brain imaging and other advances, are proving to have treatable physical components. Post Traumatic Stress, Attention Deficit Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the like are often due to physical issues and are not issues that owe to behavior and attitude. In some examples, even Cognitive Behavioral Techniques and appeal to control one's thoughts are limited or are triggering/aggravating, depending on the condition and the individual's state of management and recovery.

A number of years ago, as an alternative to drug therapy, I found a skilled physician who found that I had a high systemic yeast problem in my blood producing a host of physical symptoms including brain fog. I was also found to have high levels of toxic metals, a serious deficit of key nutrients that are required by the brain to function properly, and several sensitivities that affect brain function. About 80% of my physical symptoms were alleviated when these conditions were treated because my physical body was able to work again. Were it not for these advances in understanding the brain as an organ in the body, I would still be suffering with these symptoms. (Not all psychologists and psychiatrists seek to dive in there to put people on “psychedelic drugs.” And to be honest, I can argue that most drugs and many foods do have psychoactive effects.) None of these things have anything to do with atheism or secular humanism. I will not say that all but many practitioners if not most of them, just due to the limited funds available to pay for services, are very interested in restoring a state of optimal function and health to their clients – and nothing more.

My Concerns About The Implications

I am deeply concerned that populations of Christians who can greatly benefit from mental health services may be marginalized and shamed, particularly if a “Biblical” counseling only model such as Jay Adams' nothetics system is adopted by a group such as the SBC. The Bible is the ultimate arbiter of truth for the Christian and the means by which we put other truths into perspective, but it is not the source of all truths. If the foundationalists who resist science and see it as competitive with what I understand as medical concerns get over into the practice of medicine. I'm concerned that out of fear, much along the lines of the problems that Gordon Clark voiced, that effective treatment could be outlawed for whole populations of people suffering with disorders with primary physical components (ADHD, PTSD, OCD, etc.). I am so weary of the claims of ignorance that people seeking treatment for such disorders are seeking psychedelic experiences or are avoiding sin and spiritual growth through medication which is ignorantly labeled as “psychedelic,” when treatments for these types of disorders are outcome based and are directed at the alleviation of symptoms. The blatant ignorance is embarrassing to me as a nurse and as a Christian, because we ought to be well-informed and able to engage physicians and other biomedical scientists intelligibility.

I understand the motivation of fear after decades of rhetoric and the ignorance of laypersons who lack understanding in some of these areas. I do have some compassion for those who have been indoctrinated and manipulated with these antiquated ideas, but it all disappoints me nonetheless.

And I think that my greatest concern of all and a point of great grief for me can be read in the next essay to be posted here, written by John Weaver. He has chosen to largely reject Evangelicalism and is quite ambivalent about the Christian faith as a result of the poor care and the condemnation that he received when seeking help through a nouthetic program. And he sees this lack of care and compassion in other populations within many other Evangelical groups. Like Rachel Held Evans noted as discussed in a recent post, he did not find Jesus in the “Biblical” counsel offered to him, and I wonder how much of the “Benevolent God” was shown to him in the midst of that process. He left the church. The individuals who are trodden under foot in the name of principles and axioms and systems grieve me deeply. I hope that many take heed to what he has to share with us so honestly.

Dr. John Weaver's guest post
about problems with nouthetic counseling
will follow imminently.

Cited in text was an essay by P. Andrew Sandlin entitled A Conflict of Apologetic Visions. Circa 2000-2001, I suspect published in the Chalcedon Report or in his own Center for Cultural Leadership newsletter. I obtained a copy from him personally many years ago. Written from the perspective of someone from the school of thought of Van Til, it addressed issues posed in a Trinity Review article written by Gary Crampton that touched on the Clark Van Til Controversy.


A note from a previous post concerning the nouthetic counseling system of Jay Adams:

I also bear a weight of concern over this instruction, for Jay Adams is the creator of the system of “nouthetic counseling,” a concept of Christian counseling that views emotional and mental problems as rooted in some sin or willful resistance of God's grace. As a clinical nurse who deals with so many people afflicted with post traumatic stress as a consequence of spiritual and other types of abuse, and as someone who can appreciate the physical cause of many mental health problems and illnesses, I don't have a very high opinion of nouthetic counseling (a term which derives from the Greek word for “admonishment”). Certainly, if someone has a problem with sin which creates other difficulties and problems as sin does, then such counsel is warranted. But I find that in problems with abuse, nouthetic counseling revictimizes real victims who quite often do nothing to warrant the harm done to them. So it deeply troubles me that Adams adds another layer of potential harm to broken people and to victims in addition to the inadequacies that I already note within his system of counsel. In certain cases, it seems to actually facilitate abuse, specifically spiritual abuse. (What if the corruption rests with those leaders who can apparently circumvent the role of the whole community?) 

I also find it curious that Adams does not appear to have any formal, peer reviewed training in mental health, mental disorders or physical health, yet he has established a program which rivals and replaces mental health counseling. His fields of study and training include Divinity, Arts in Classics, Sacred Theology, and Speech (which I am inclined to think, as a terminal degree without prior training in clinical speech pathology, must be a program in rhetoric or homiletics). Again, as a clinical based and trained nurse, I find this all a bit disconcerting. Concerning matters of sin, I'm sure that nouthetic material can be helpful, but in terms of clinical disease and the physical and mental aspects of both physical disorders with mental health effects and neurophysiologic disorders, I have great concerns about the efficacy if not safety of nouthetic counsel.