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Secular Psychology Harms the Gospel and Christian Living

In two books examining the withering effects of modern secular Western culture on Christian life and Biblical theology, author David Wells provides page upon page of perceptive comment to help the reader make sense of our confusing times. Reading Losing Our Virtue (9780851115771) and No Place For Truth (9780802837134) will amply repay your time and attention.

Wells says, “I believe so little in the modern world because I believe so much in the Transcendent, in God as sovereign, and in His word as absolute.” In contrast he says of “evangelicals” in the USA and the West in general, “[They] now stand among those who are on easiest terms with the modern world, for they have lost their capacity for dissent. The recovery of dissent is what is most needed…” He presses the need to develop the “capacity to wrench ourselves free from the subjective preoccupation of our modernised culture…and to occupy ourselves instead with the objective interests of the biblical.” He laments how evangelicals assume “that modern culture is neutral in its values and so does not pose the threat of alienating people from God.” His books were written in the 1990’s, so he tackles issues such as Television, consumerism and urbanisation. What would he say of our digital social media-obsessed age?

Chapter 4 (“Self Pity”) and Chapter 5 (“The Rise of Everyperson”) of No Place for Truth are alone worth the price of the book. In a couple of passages from Ch. 4 Wells explains the negative effects of the cosy accommodation modern evangelicalism has made with the ideas of secular psychology. Says Wells:

“The psychologising of life cuts the nerve of evangelical identity because the common assumption beneath the self movement is the perfectability of human nature – and this assumption is anathema to the Christian gospel. It is no accident that its theoreticians (e.g. Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Eric Fromm and Rollo May) are all humanists. It is precisely this sort of assumption that neither evangelical theology nor evangelical piety should be making. The Biblical gospel asserts the very reverse – namely the self is twisted, that it is maladjusted in its relationship to both God and others, that it is full of deceit and rationalisations, that it is lawless, that it is in rebellion, and indeed that one must die to self in order to live. It is this that is at the heart of the biblical gospel, this that is at the centre of Christian character. There is abundant evidence that people become strong by suppressing what is unworthy within them, not by expressing it. This kind of suppression should not be confused with Freud’s ideas about repression. Repression is an irrational and unconscious mechanism; suppression is a conscious and rational act undertaken out of moral concern and a sense of being owned by Christ. It is perhaps paradoxical that self-denial should build character and that self fascination, more than anything else, should undercut it” (No Place for Truth, p. 178-179).

“The sort of Christian faith that is conceived in the womb of the self is quite different from the historic Christian faith. It is a smaller thing, shrunken in its ability to understand the world and to stand up to it. The self is a canvas too narrow, too cramped, to contain the largeness of Christian truth. Where the self circumscribes the significance of Christian faith, good and evil are reduced to a sense of well-being or its absence, God’s place in the world is reduced to the domain of private consciousness, His external acts of redemption are trimmed to fit the experience of personal salvation, His providence in the world diminishes to whatever is necessary to ensure one’s having a good day, His Word becomes intuition, and conviction fades into evanescent opinion. Theology becomes therapy, and all the telltale symptoms of the therapeutic model of faith begin to surface. The biblical interest in righteousness is replaced by a search for happiness, holiness by wholeness, truth by feeling, ethics by feeling good about one’s self. The world shrinks to a circle of personal friends. The past recedes. The church recedes. The world recedes. All that remains is the self.” (No Place for Truth, p. 182-183).