July 23, 2009
Ten Commandments for a Biblical Psychology
— Kalman J. Kaplan
Fifty years ago, Dr. Erich Wellisch wrote, "The very word 'psyche' is Greek. The central psychoanalytic concept of the formation of character and neurosis is shaped after the Greek Oedipus myth...There is need for a Biblical psychology." Recently, housed within the University of Illinois College of Medicine and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, such a program has been developed. This Biblical psychology program reformulates mental health with regard to the following ten topics, overturning several of the fundamental premises of Greek-based classical psychology. This program is not theological or limited to any sect or denomination within Judaism and Christianity, but de-situates and offers Biblical foundation narratives as an alternative to those emanating from the classical Greek world.
Greek thought sees self and other as fundamentally opposed, while Biblical thought sees them as working in harmony. The Greek Narcissus cycles between self-involvement and enmeshment - he ultimately idealizes his own face in the brook and commits suicide. The Biblical Jonah shows psychological development as opposed to cycling, and ultimately learns the message of teshuvah (repentance) and divine mercy. He can reach out to another without losing himself.
Biblical psychology addresses the question of obedience versus disobedience: If one's god is Zeus, one should and indeed must rebel; if it is the Biblical God, one may benefit from obeying. Consider the two flood stories: Prometheus must steal the blueprint for the ark from the capricious Zeus. The just and God-fearing Noah, however, is freely given the blueprint for the ark by the Biblical God.
The ancient Greek understanding of the world sees Nature preceding the gods. In the Biblical account of creation, God precedes nature. The Biblical creation stories do not subordinate man to nature; nor do they focus on an Oedipal conflict between father and son or antagonism between man and woman.
In a famous Greek story, Pandora is described as a curse to man. Conversely, Eve is described as a blessing to Adam and a helpmeet opposite (ezer kenegdo). In the Greek view, then, attachment to a woman is seen as opposing man's autonomy, while in the Biblical view, attachment to a woman is seen as positive to achieving autonomy
Biblical psychology also offers another framework for analyzing relationships between parents and children, a perennial theme in psychological analysis. The biblical story of the Akedah - Abraham's binding of Isaac - provides an alternative to the Greek legend of Oedipus to understand the relationship between fathers and sons. The Akedah narrative suggests an unambivalent resolution of the father-son relationship that is based on a covenant of love and shared purpose between parent and child.
Similarly, the Biblical story of Ruth provides an alternative to the Greek legend of Electra to understand the relationship between mothers and daughters, once again based on a covenant of love and shared purpose rather than a compromise based on threats of abandonment.
The Hebrew Bible offers a plan to resolve family conflict by employing the father's blessing. Originally the source of sibling conflict, the blessing may work to achieve some level of reconciliation between offspring, as does Jacob's blessings to all his sons. Greek literature offers no such balm, never developing the idea that a father should bless his children. Conflict in the family grows angrier in each succeeding generation until the family self-destructs, as did the family of Oedipus.
Biblical psychology also offers an alternate view of the relationship between body and soul, which Plato sees as conflictual - the soul views reality only through the prison bars of the body. Biblical thought, in comparison, views the human body and soul as both sacred (both referred to as nefesh), both created by God. They can and must function in harmony to fulfill God's purpose in the world.
In Biblical thought, freedom can be achieved in the acceptance of the realities of one's relationship with God. To the Greek and Roman stoics, freedom from the control of others and the fatalism of life is achieved through suicide. Twenty suicides occur in the surviving seventeen tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides; there are comparatively few stories of suicide in the Old and New Testaments (seven in all), but there are many stories of suicide prevention, and even more of life promotion.
In essence, the Classical Greek view is deterministic and based on a tragic vision of man; the Biblical view is intrinsically positive, open to the possibility of change and transformation. Biblical psychology empowers the person, instilling the idea that life is hopeful, that generations are not in opposition with each other, that man and woman can live in harmony, and that one can overcome a dysfunctional family. Finally, meaning can be found in life rather than death. One does not need to find meaning in catastrophizing a minor mishap, as does Zeno when he suicides after stubbing his toe. One can instead follow the example of Job, who is able to withstand profound stressors because he has an intrinsic sense of life's worth.
For more information, see www.rsmh.org.
Kalman J. Kaplan is Professor of Clinical Psychology in the Departments of Psychiatry and of Medical Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago College of Medicine. He is also Director of the Program for Religion, Spirituality and Mental Health there sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. His most recent book, with Matthew Schwartz, is A Psychology of Hope: A Biblical Response to Tragedy and Suicide (Praeger, 2008).