A Peaceable Psychology

Book Review by Nicole McDonald

Dueck and Reimer, in their book “A Peaceable Psychology:  Christian Therapy in a World of Many Cultures,” provide a reasoned and comprehensive critique of establishment psychology and its application within the counseling arena.  Whereas psychology is commonly described as a discipline and practice motivated toward the alleviation of human suffering, these authors argue that secular psychology must be more closely examined and deconstructed to expose the truth:  the very structure and philosophical assumptions underlying the highly secularized psychology of the Western world in many ways work against alleviation of human suffering that psychology is driven to achieve.  By considering individuals’ unique religious and cultural values and convictions—by applying the deep, authentic mercy and understanding of suffering that can only come through identification with Christ in his suffering on the cross—psychologists have much better opportunity to assist in the healing of human suffering.  This is the only way, following the authors’ argument, that Christian psychologists will be able to free themselves from the limitations of a secular, individualistic psychology—what some reviewers have gone so far as to describe as “violence” against diverse clients who are at their most vulnerable--and contribute to the meeting of the needs of clients from across world cultures.

Traditionally, according to Dueck and Reimer, psychologists have long regarded faith and religion as weak, ignorant, anti-intellectual and even pathological.  Freud described religion as “an illusion” whereas Ellis, in his early writing, described it as “irrational.”  The book goes on to show how psychologists, from the early days of their training, have been encouraged to disregard individuals’ faith or religious convictions, treating everyone as value- and religion-neutral.  As they summarize, “an enculturated American psychology will displace local traditions in favor of presumed psychological universals” (p. 48).  These psychological universals, they argue, threaten to neutralize what is unique and strong about diverse belief systems, thereby depriving individuals of a major and even primary source of healing in their psychological lives.  This is true across cultures, but particularly in group-oriented cultures where values stand in stark contrast to the consumerist, individualistic values of the Western world. 

One specific tension involves psychology’s ethical commitment to confidentiality in therapy.  In individualistic cultures, there is a strong emphasis on keeping sensitive information within the individual client-counselor relationship, even if the information affects the broader family or community unit.  This individualistic, secularist emphasis is reflected notably in the American Psychological Associations’ code of ethics, by which all professional psychologists practice.  In collectivistic cultures that emphasize community above the individual, psychology’s emphasis on individual confidentiality would threaten their core values, potentially thwarting the healing process.  The very definition of “healing” held by a particular cultural group or belief system further complicates the matter.

Psychology, in order to become culturally relevant and able to support the healing of human beings from diverse cultures, must become culturally sensitive and relevant by embracing all aspects of the humanity, including and especially so, faith and religious beliefs. Rather than restricting humans’ reality and healing by forcing the language and methods of secular psychology, we must allow individuals and cultures to retain their own ways of being—their own languages spoken in their authentic voice—to lay the groundwork for the alleviation of human suffering on many different levels.  This might mean, considering our prior example of the ethical obligation of confidentiality, that psychologists may need to reconceptualize confidentiality and figure out how that might specifically play out in a collectivist or tribe-oriented culture.        

The authors also recognize that many researchers and practitioners in the psychology field have shown increasing interest in religion and faith as they relate to an individual’s life functioning.  Religion has become an object of scientific study, as data suggests that it can be an important protective factor and stress reducer in peoples’ lives, yielding a host of mental and physical health benefits.  The American Psychological Association has even hosted special interest groups and international convention sessions focusing on the psychology of religion.  This trend could easily be misconstrued as psychology embracing religion, faith and God.  However, Dueck and Reimer are quick to point out that psychology (and society as a whole) has constructed a type of “Prozac God” who we can pull out and prescribe to meet our needs when they arise and to make us feel better, at our convenience and on our terms.  This is not the authentic God of Christianity who created all, controls all with love, power and justice and exists for nothing but His own glory and purpose.

This book plays a vital and timely role in the psychology field as the challenges that people and communities face become more and more prevalent and deep-seated.  How to be culturally relevant and sensitive to diverse groups, religious groups included, is not a new conversation in the psychology discipline.  Rather than being a ground-breaking book espousing new and innovative ideas, this book seems to enter the field of psychology and counseling at a time when many are expressing critical dissatisfaction with a consumer-oriented, self-focused secular psychology.  Critically questioning the role of establishment psychology and its underlying philosophical values, and the influence of such a practice on cultures across the United States and the entire world, is paramount.  For Christians who are also counselors and psychologists, the book emphasizes a careful scrutiny of our discipline and its roots and lays out how rejecting the underlying philosophies and assumptions of the Westerns world’s traditional psychology—its emphasis on individualism, secularism, individualism vs. collectivist culture—may unlock the true power of Christian psychology and therapy to promote genuine human healing and wellness.  Even those outside the field of psychology—pastors, lay counselors, missionaries, youth workers, Christian non-profit leaders—may be challenged in a positive way by the ideas forwarded in this book.

To sum, the major question with which Dueck and Reimer struggle in this book is:  How can Christians use the ideas and techniques of psychology to promote peace in the lives of themselves, their client, and their world?  This is an important question, and I appreciate that they frame their end goal in the language of peace-and violence, which is a rather new framework in the field.  Many practitioners will find this language helpful as they struggle with age-old questions about integration, sickness and healing. 

One issue that warrants further explanation by these authors is a precise model whereby a Christian psychologist can live and work effectively with people from a broad diversity of world religions and faith cultures.  A constant challenge for Christian psychologists is how to counsel people from different worldviews respectfully and effectively while still holding firm to one’s own worldview and faith convictions that there is One Truth and One Way:  God and His Word, the Bible.  Continuation of this dialogue is essential to both experienced and newly trained Christian psychologists who feel called of God to spread His love and healing through psychological intervention in a world filled with suffering.  After reading this book, I am more convinced that we as Christian psychologists need to find a way to move beyond words and dialogue to action and the day-to-day “how-to’s” of practical implementation.  What specifically does it mean to be “culturally sensitive” to religious and faith matters?  Or, do we shift paradigms altogether and strive instead for Christian psychologists to maintain Hunter’s “faithful presence” in the field?  And what exactly does this look like in our day-to-day lives?  In the practice of psychology, how do we move beyond this desire to be culturally sensitive and relevant, to this move toward an authentic “faithful presence” aimed at creating a place for those in our influence to move out of suffering and into shalom and thriving?  Dueck and Reimer, in “A Peaceable Psychology” do an effective job challenging the Christian psychologist to continued wrestling with some complex questions while seeking a new level of critical integration, reflection, practice, and action.