Psychoanalyzing The Need For Psychological Understanding
Why would someone choose to go to a seminary to get a degree in psychology? I asked myself when deciding where to attend graduate school. If my goal had been a Master of Divinity, a seminary would have been my only option. However, there are many kinds of schools a person can attend to do graduate work in psychology, and most of them are not seminaries. Further, in the field of psychology, degrees from secular schools tend not to be stigmatized as much as degrees from Christian schools. So whyshould someone go to seminary for psychology?
Unlike many people, my decision to attend Fuller was not based on a desire to work in a Christian setting. Moreover, the cost of Fuller definitely did not make it the most practical decision for my financial future. So it might seem that it would have made more sense for me to choose a secular, less expensive program. However, in spite of these considerations, former and current students convinced me that Fuller was an excellent choice. Moreover, it is the people here – and not just the many papers I have written on integration – that have helped me process and learn what it means to be a good student and professional in the field of psychology.
Now that I have graduated from Fuller, I have a better understanding of the distinctiveness of the psychology program here as well as how a program like this has broadened my understanding of what the seminary looks like – at least at the school I attended. In the School of Psychology we were required to do a lot of self-reflection –much more, it seemed, than in the other Fuller schools. I once had a friend in one of Fuller’s other programs tell me he could not believe I was writing another paper on my feelings. He wondered why we didn’t spend more time discussing practical matters. Ironically, I found that the process of writing these “feeling papers” actually had a lot of practical value. They enabled me to explore what it meant to heal, grow, and learn through pain on a personal level. These are things many therapists hope to do in their own lives as well as the lives of their clients.
The SOP’s place within a seminary context was an important piece in the way I was able to process my feelings, including what it means to heal and do good therapy. It gave me the freedom to let go of the pressure to intellectualize everything I learned. While part of the program required us to take courses in the School of Theology where we learned things about interpreting scripture, much of our degree let us explore how the healing process in therapy involves much more than reading scripture verses for comfort. A person may be able to exegete an entire passage of scripture, but most people begin their healing process in other ways. In this way, I see the SOP as adding a lot of depth to the seminary experience. While we need people who are able to explicate passages and give informed sermons, I believe it is just as important to train people to be able to personally reach out to those in their brokenness without using a theological or intellectual bent. I think this is something that can be easily neglected at other seminaries.
Fuller’s seminary-based program also allowed me to explore how my emotional, physical, and spiritual health are significantly interdependent. I have found that becoming equipped to help people deal with their psychological health is a complex process. Our psychological health is dependent on our spiritual well being, and vice-versa. Psychologists have not always considered it important to pay attention to people’s spiritual well being and the way it connects to their emotions and psychological well being. The entire field of psychology is slowly beginning to take more seriously the idea that religion and psychology can be discussed at the same time and, further, can work together in the healing process of a person. On the opposite end of the spectrum, spirituality is also something that religious communities are taking more seriously. Religion and psychology can mix and I appreciate that this is something that Fuller has realized for quite some time.
A person’s deepest and most personal beliefs are usually connected to their spirituality. When a person has doubts about their spirituality and the way it fits into his or her everyday life, it can be emotionally exhausting and even devastating on his/her psyche. A psychological environment in which spirituality is left out of the conversation, in my opinion, limits the healing process of the individual. For example, there are clients who feel God may be punishing them when they are faced with a divorce, death in the family, or financial hardship. These clients carry with them many theological questions that may not simply be satisfied by looking at scripture or exploring the cultural context of biblical times. The clients may feel shame and or guilt about their situation, and many other feelings are inexplicably tied to all this. A therapeutic setting that enables clients like this the freedom to explore questions about their spirituality – such as how their spirituality and emotional state affect one another – is very important to me in the healing process. This is one of the reasons I see the need for the intersection between psychology and spirituality in people’s lives. Does this mean I was trained to be merely a Christian counselor? No. I was trained to be able to think about spirituality and psychology and how they do not completely exist apart from each other. I did not choose to go to Fuller because I wanted to evangelize all of my clients and this is, thankfully, not what I was trained to do. If a person sees Fuller as a place to go to learn how to evangelize clients, this is not the place for him or her.
I could have gone to a non-Christian school and received a great education. I would have been able to learn many of the same techniques that I learned at Fuller. However, for me, Fuller was a place where I was able to openly discuss the connection between psychology and spirituality within a religious context. For many people, their religion/spirituality is one of the most important parts of their life. Why would I leave this out of the therapeutic process? It is important to point out that a person’s spiritual journey may not necessarily be a Christian one and that it is no less important to discuss a non-Christian’s journey and how it connects to spirituality than it is to talk about a Christian’s journey. My experience of the program is not about the conversion of clients. Instead, it equipped me to be open to walking with my clients through their own psychological and spiritual journeys and to be open to talking about and processing all areas, including the spiritual area, on their way to healing.
My point is that Fuller’s psychological program is not in its own little world of Christian psychology. The MFT program equipped me to work not just in a Christian setting but also in all different kinds of clinical settings, religious and non-religious. I think this is something that a seminary should do regardless of the program. Many people may see the SOP as an important while still peripheral part of the seminary. But I think that the other schools at the seminary can learn a lot from the SOP just as we have learned from them. I don’t think a seminary’s education should be just about thinking theologically. While this is important, a seminary’s education should also equip students to live and minister in and out of the church and think in a variety of ways. We should be able to relate to people in all kinds of settings and it was here that I learned a lot about reaching out to people in their deep pain and brokenness – no matter what their past. This fits with my vision of a seminary as a whole. In this way, I hope the SOP can be seen not as a tangential part of the seminary but as a central part of Fuller’s future and mission.