A Christian Psychologist Looks At Virtue -- By: Everett L. Worthington Jr.
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A Christian Psychologist Looks At Virtue*
* This is the first article in a four-part series, “Virtue in Positive Psychology and Practical Theology,” delivered as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectureship, February 7-10, 2012, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.
Everett L. Worthington Jr. is Professor of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.
In the four articles in this series I look at Christian virtue and four specific virtues from a psychological point of view. Psychologists do not look at topics as theologians do. Theologians tend to try to capture the richness, complexity, and depth of concepts in a nuanced definition, explanation, and exposition. They use the Bible, community tradition, personal experience, and theological tradition, and a variety of disciplines (such as historical, anthropological, sociological, psychological, and cultural research) to inform their understanding. In contrast, psychologists try to define terms clearly and simply, investigate them systematically and in great detail, and to nuance the antecedents, consequences, moderators (that is, the conditions that affect relationships), and mediators (that is, the causal mechanisms that connect relationships).
Theologians, in principle, tend to privilege their theological understandings of Scripture (and perhaps tradition) over psychological data if an apparent conflict occurs. Psychologists, in principle, tend to privilege their observations over their interpretations if an apparent conflict develops. In practice things often differ from principle. Both theologians and psychologists can become more attracted to their theories than to their basic data—the biblical text for theologians and observations for psychologists.
In principle Christian psychologists try to walk the tightrope that values both biblical text and observation. They vary along the
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spectrum of privileging biblical text or observation, though they are committed to both. In practice, though, Christian psychologists are human and can become more committed to their theories—no matter how theological or psychological they sound—than to the data. Yet with both theology and psychology the data remain—biblical words and human behavior. Aspects can be ignored or distorted by determined theorizing. But if one retains a commitment to the data, the data cannot be explained away, and theologians and psychologists, in another time or culture, can provide correctives.
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