Integration: What With What and With Whom?

Integration: What With What and With Whom? April 18, 2016

This is an article that originally appeared in FULLER Magazine, the primary publication of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Brad D. Strawn

In 1953 psychologist Fritz Kunkel first used the term “integration” as a description of the interdisciplinary activity between theology and psychology.1 Kunkel was a major pioneer in the integration movement in the 1940s and 1950s, establishing a Christian counseling center in Los Angeles as well as the Foundation for the Advancement of Religious Psychology. Integration historian Hendrika Vande Kemp notes that the term integration was picked up by the editors of the journal Pastoral Psychology and was applied to both Kunkel and later to famous American psychologist Gordon Allport.

Since the ’50s the term integration has been used in diverse ways, including (but not limited to) the integration of psychology and Christianity, psychology and religion, psychology and theology (faith and practice, belief and life), psychology and Christian faith, psychology and spirituality, psychotherapy and theology, and even psychotherapy and spirituality.

While the term integration is relatively young, the scientific study of the “psychology of religion” has been around for some time.2 The psychology of religion uses the science of psychology to study religion and religious experience. While some have worried that this approach may reduce religion to “nothing-but” psychology, it has produced fascinating and helpful findings on everything from the development of cults, the experience of spiritual transcendence, and religion and health to brain science and religious phenomena. For these reasons, the psychology of religion continues to be an important avenue of study.

The field of integration, however, is a more superordinate concept. While it may include the psychology of religion, it may also include the religion of psychology. Here religion, theology, or spirituality might be used in an attempt to explain/critique some branch of psychology (e.g., humanistic clinical psychology) or psychological experience (e.g., struggle with sin). From the perspective of the religion of psychology, it has been argued that integration has been going on in theological circles for a long time.3

Illustration by Denise Louise Klitsie. Used by permission from
Illustration by Denise Louise Klitsie. Used by permission from

Integration may also include the application of psychological findings to areas that have import for Christian theology and life such as virtue acquisition, forgiveness and reconciliation, spiritual formation, life and health of the church and its ministers and missionaries (see the article by Eriksson, Wilkins, and Tiersma Watson), Christian marriage and families, health issues, and overall sanctification, and growth in holiness—just to name a few. Integration in counseling and therapy has also grown as scholars study Christian therapists working with Christian clients, develop unique Christian counseling approaches, and explore ways to understand God’s activity in the counseling moment (see the interview with Tan).

It is safe to say that the field of integration has exploded since the early 1950s with the development of master’s and doctoral level training programs specifically aimed at integration training, and with the development of professional journals, professional organizations, and international conferences specifically focused on integration. Even secular organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association are now recognizing the importance of religion and spirituality in mental health, and their publishing houses produce books and journals every year on integrative topics. It could be argued that integration is a subdiscipline in the larger field of psychology.4

Despite the long history and work in integration, the task has not been without its detractors and critics. Some have simply argued that Christianity, faith, and theology should have nothing to do with psychology. They have seen psychology as a secular enterprise whose agenda was usually incompatible with Christianity and at worst was in the business of the eradication of religion.5 Practitioners from this school of thought, such as the “biblical counseling”6 proponents, argue that they find everything needed for mental health in the pages of the Bible and subsequently reject theories and findings emerging from secular psychology.

It should also be noted that there are some in the field committed to relating psychology and theology that don’t care for the term integration. They worry that integration sounds like making one discipline out of two, perhaps forcing one on the other while doing violence to both. Or they may question the primary integrative assumption that we are dealing with two separate disciplines to begin with.

Still others, while not rejecting the project outright, have recognized a persistent and unanswered question. The question boils down to which, if either, of the two disciplines is privileged, and what are the implications of such privileging?7 On one end of the continuum, psychology explains away theology/Christian faith and trumps any conflict between the two by relying on the power of science while never acknowledging science’s limitations. On the other end of the spectrum, theology is conceived as the queen of the sciences and trumps psychology whenever there is a conflict, relying on the power of revelation and ultimate Truth, while never acknowledging that theology is an interpretive process.

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Brad D. Strawn is the Evelyn and Frank Freed professor of the integration of psychology and theology and the chair of integration Fuller Theological Seminary’s department of clinical psychology. Read more about Brad, classes he teaches, and his publications.

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