Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Psychology Research:Two Tensions for Christians (Part 1)

Sherri LantingaOur guest blogger, Dr. Sherri B. Lantinga, is an academic consultant, editor, and adjunct professor at Handong Global University. You can also read her delightful blogs about being an expat in Korea here: http://korealantinga.blogspot.com/

I taught the senior psychology research course at Dordt College for about 15 years.  Students didn’t want to take it, dreaded taking it, and were sure it would be the worst class in their college career (although History of Psych was a close contender).   They were usually terrified of statistics and/or public speaking, did not feel the joy of APA style, and really wanted to help people by doing counseling–not wasting their time and talents with independent variables and ANOVAs and proper DOI citations.

But I loved teaching the course.  Because I knew something my students didn’t: researching people is really fun (ok, not 100% of the time, but more than they expected).  And I knew that even if they never again came within 10 blocks of a p value, they would turn out the best paper and conference presentation they’d ever done.  In fact, our department staked a fancy steak dinner on it every year.

“Well, that’s nice for Dordt,” you dear Trinity readers may be thinking. “But WE have to reflect on Christian Perspective and, really, what does THAT have to do with the size of t or the insanity program called SPSS?”

Good question–and one I couldn’t answer myself for many years.  But gradually I found at least two sticking points for Christians doing psych research.  The first point I shall get to indirectly.  Imagine that you are in Florida and visiting a local swamp (just go with me here).  Your travel companion wonders aloud: “I wonder.  How many teeth does an alligator have?”* You do not know the answer.  And, lo, there is a dead alligator just yards away!  Do you (a) say “Oh, curious friend, let us adjourn to Disney World and leave behind your strange nature-y questions!”; (b) open the mouth of said gator to count the teeth therein; or (c) repeatedly attempt to access Google or your mom or pastor or anyone wiser than you for the answer?

The method you chose to answer that question (and many other questions in life) reveals something of your beliefs about the proper way of finding truth. (Some of you may suspect we’re nearing the great swamp called epistemology. Fear not.)  In the same way, different academic fields have different preferences for the way they answer questions like these.  By this time you probably know that psychology is a relatively new discipline (Wilhelm! Wilhelm!) that has struggled, like a teenager with bad breath, for respect among its academic peers.  Psychology straddled the line between philosophy and biology for a time, but sometime around Watson and Skinner it opted for scientific, empirical methods for answering questions and booted out the introspective meanderings of Wilhelm and Sigmund and others.  As a result, neither philosophy nor biology respect us because they both think we’re using the wrong methods to learn about human behavior.

Now back to the alligator’s dental situation.  If you chose to count its pointy teeth, that’s akin to using empirical methods: using your senses to make systematic observations to gain knowledge about the world. (And, if you had time on your hands, you could rustle up some other alligators to count their teeth and consider variables like gender, diet, and dental insurance coverage.)  When you, O Student of Psychology, use empirical methods to study human behavior, you don’t just trust Plato or the Bible or Urban Dictionary for answers–you look for yourself (in a systematic and unbiased way, of course).

So where exactly is the darn “sticking point” this essay is supposed to be about? Here it comes. God gave us senses and the brainpower to learn about his creation. Very cool, that. If empirical methods are your only tools for learning about people, you’d be an empiricist. From a Christian perspective, empiricists miss big opportunities for learning about people in other ways, including what God reveals through his Word and his Spirit and the wisdom of other people.  My first-year grad professor at UIC was a dedicated empiricist who sprinkled even normal conversations with zingers like, “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.”  But Christians believe in a much larger universe. Christians believe in unmeasurable things like the twisted power of sin and the redemptive, unceasing movement of the Holy Spirit. We have faith in things we cannot see, as the author of Hebrews reminds us.  Empirical methods are very cool God-given tools; but there are other tools in the bag, too.

Back to our gator one last time.  An empiricist is sort of like someone who counted that dead gator’s teeth, took its measurements, carefully documented the terrain and the goo in its stomach, and then concluded that he/she knew everything there was to know about alligators.  But, of course, this gator is dead: the researcher would have completely missed learning about some of the most important aspect of gators (like how they whirl around to attack the Gator Boys of TV fame).  The field of psychology pushes empiricism in an attempt to get respect from the natural sciences.  But Christians in psychology must remember the bigger picture: our senses don’t give the whole story about people. And thus, from the mouth of a gator, we have one source of tension for Christians doing psychological research; you’ll have to wait for the next episode, about snowflakes, to learn about tension #2.   

**Thanks to Francis Bacon for his teeth-in-the-mouth-of-a-horse analogy in the 16th century.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Shalom, Multiculturalism and Christianity

Keenan Cleary is a graduate student here at TCC in the Counseling Psychology MA program.

The reason we engage in multicultural counseling is a direct attempt to restore shalom. While shalom will never truly be reached, it is something that we should continuously strive for in order to better humanity. Sin has lead to racism and bigotry, which not only separates us from shalom, but keeps us from a true sense of community. Shalom, or the attempt to reach a true sense of shalom, impacts counseling in multiple ways. Shalom guides how we should approach counseling, and acts as an example as to what should be achieved through counseling. There are obstacles to shalom in counseling though, including classism, racism, and an ignorance of culture and cultural context. 

Multicultural counseling helps us reach Shalom in three key ways. First, multicultural counseling helps us understand the views and motivations of others. When counselors are able to work with people from a variety of backgrounds, people are able to grow in their understanding of one another, as well as grow within their knowledge in other cultural groups, separate from their own. Second, multicultural views help us understand ourselves in new ways. When encountering other cultures, we are encouraged to analyze the way we do things, and the way we interact with people, which helps us grow and develop. The final way is through uniting these different cultures in their new understanding. Once people are able to understand others differently, and themselves differently, multicultural bonds can begin to form, and restore us to this sense of Shalom. This is necessary in the first place because of how far we have deviated from this idea of shalom in reference to multiculturalism. Because we have fallen so far from multicultural shalom, we must work to reclaim it, and a large part of that can be done through multicultural counseling (Plantinga, 1995).

One of the biggest threats to this multicultural shalom in the USA is the lingering effects of racism and bigotry, beginning with slavery, and going through the civil rights movement, and even into today. While racism and bigotry have evolved, both still exist, and all cultures suffer from the residual effects. In his film The Psychological Residuals of Slavery, Dr. Hardy discusses the true repercussions of slavery, and how they still, to this day, effect African Americans, and their relationships with Whites. Feelings of hostility, as well as deep feelings of shame are usually associated with the residuals of slavery. These residuals have also kept African Americans separate from many major parts of culture like television, movies, and even toys. This has lead to a great psychological trauma, as many African Americans have reported feeling like second class citizens. This is where sin has fragmented the true idea of shalom. When Whites are thought of more highly than African Americans, our true sense of Shalom has been forgotten, and the issues of sin become evident as a result (Hardy, 2008).

This not only shows an oppression of African Americans, but a lack of cultural knowledge by those who are white. Many white people do not understand the extent to which separations between white culture and black culture are made, and this is in part due to the lack of clarity around white racial identity development. When white people ignore the culture that they are taking a part of, they enable the disregard of another. Plantinga says, “To shut one’s eyes to an injustice, to look the other way, to pretend ignorance of evil - to do these things is to connive. We generally think of connivance as a case of active conspiracy, but it needn’t be and often isn’t.” While many white people do not have an understanding of their own culture, it is often by their own choice that they do not seek out an understanding (Plantinga, 1995, p. 182). This lack of understanding leads to a misunderstanding of other’s cultures, and how those cultures relate to one another. Plantinga is demonstrating that it is this kind of blind ignorance that is leading to a disruption in Shalom. While people may not be maliciously pursing racism or bigotry, the lack of knowledge of racial and cultural differences, and how those differences effect other races, leads to the subjugation of those different races (Plantinga, 1995).

Multicultural counseling tries to combat this in a very direct way. The recognition of other cultures, and the differences that come along with those cultures is imperative to the psychological empowerment of clients. It is also important for counselors, in the sense that it may bring counselors to a better understanding of their client’s issues. Once a client is able to realize what their role within their own culture is, they can better assess who they are as a person, and realize what cultural withholdings may be preventing them from a psychological shalom. Especially when working with clients from different cultures, issues associated with racial and cultural identity can be directly linked. While workplace anxiety may be a reality for most working individuals, the additional stress of racial discrimination could cause many different issues, especially in regard to diagnosing and treatment options for a client. If these issues are not addressed correctly by the counselor, a client’s wellbeing may be at risk. It is important for a counselor to understand these cultural intricacies in order to develop proper rapport with their client, and to better understand the needs that go along with a client from another culture. This understanding brings us closer to a place of shalom because we can better assess the needs of our client, and help them through the healing process in a way that takes these events into account (Ponterotto, 2010).

Justice plays a key role in this.. As Christian counselors, we have a duty to each other and to God to see that shalom be restored, and the effects of sin be minimized. If counselors are able to understand those who come from a cultural background that is different from their own, the Christian ideal of community can be better achieved. A multicultural understanding will prevent the demeaning of other races and cultures, as well as help create strong communities that embrace their diversity. This idea of justice is imperative to the pairing of multicultural counseling and the idea of shalom. Justice is the motivator that brings change that is necessary in order for shalom to occur. When justice is the mindset of the community, change will become something that is part of the culture. This change is what is necessary especially when racial conditions have become as askew as they currently are.

Sin applies to every aspect of multicultural counseling. Sin is something that we must consistently contend with as mental heath professionals, and from a Christian perspective, it must also be something that is addressed in counseling. Sin prevents this idea of shalom from manifesting in every aspect of life, and inversely, sin tarnishes every aspect of our life and separates us from shalom. When we disregard the importance of a multicultural perspective to counseling, we are in a way polluting that therapy, and further separating ourselves and our clients from the possibility of shalom (Plantinga, 1995).

Kirksey (2009) also pointed to the idea of a multicultural acceptance being much deeper than a general acceptance of different races. She shared a story of a group of students from multiple racial backgrounds coming together. The point that Dr. Kirksey was making was that, multicultural understanding seems to almost see past these racial dividers and through to a very human level of understanding. While race, and the understanding of race still remain important, true multicultural understanding seeks the individual person, instead of the surface level racial understanding. It is this deeper level of understanding that will lead us to a better version of community, as well as a greater understanding of God’s love. God called us to love others, but more importantly, to love others as he loved others. In order to have this kind of love, it is important for us to look past (but not ignore) those differences between one another that may separate us, to recognize that there is a person that God has love for, and that we should also share that love for.

The problem that we face within seeking shalom is that we can never truly escape from sin. As we are born sinful people, sin will always be something we must contend with in order to attempt to reach shalom (Plantinga, 1995). Even when presented with difficult situations, there is something great about fighting for the progression of shalom. It allows us to truly see the grace and love of God, as well as be able to experience the tools that have been laid before us to better ourselves and others. This is something that God has laid before us for a reason, and it is our duty and obligation as both Christians and counselors to attempt to restore shalom to the clients that we treat (Plantinga, 1995).

Hardy, K. V. (Producer and Director). (2008). Psychological residuals of slavery [Motion Picture]. (Available from Alexander Street Press).

Kirksey, K. (Director). (2009). Christianity and Multiculturalism: Understanding an Important Dimension of Diversity [Motion picture]. US: Microtraining Associates.
Plantinga, C. (1995). Not the way it's supposed to be: A breviary of sin. Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans.

Ponterotto, J. G. (2010). Handbook of multicultural counseling. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.