April 19, 2005

Psychology, Humanism and the Battle of the Gods

In ancient Israel, as Elijah was squaring off on Mt. Carmel with the prophets of Baal, he proposed a dramatic encounter, challenging them to enlist their gods in a dual of strength. He understood that ultimately this was a battle of whose God was real, and confronted the people with the challenge, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”[1]

In our own day, not much has changed. The self-styled promoters of foreign gods stand arrayed to do battle with the God of the Bible, and with the battle raging in every quarter of society, the causalities often come through the doors of the counselor’s office.

Everywhere we hear the message of “self” — it’s even the name of a magazine dedicated to, what else, the self! [2] Carl Jung is credited with developing the main outlines of this psychology of self, referred to as “fourth force” psychology. It includes the idea that “an individual can gain wholeness if he can set up some communication with the Self through opening himself to the world of the unconscious.” [3]

New Age Education

What opens the “world of the unconscious?” Most often “New Age” meditation is the means. This spiritual formula for self-awareness has even found its way into some popular programs in schools across America, and this is not on accident. Back in 1978, Jack Canfield, New Age promoter and educational consultant, put it this way,

“In a growing number of classrooms throughout the world, education is beginning to move into a new dimension. More and more teachers are exposing children to ways of contacting their inner wisdom and their higher selves . . .  New Age education has arrived . . . .” [4]

Canfield’s words have born fruit. For instance, one mother named Nancy reported that while driving her children to school one morning, she noticed her daughter Kim was unusually quiet as her brother picked on her. Kim’s eyes were closed, and Nancy was alarmed that Kim didn’t respond when she called her name. Nancy stopped the car and gently shook her daughter to arouse her from a trance-like state. Kim responded, “Don’t worry Mommy, I was relaxing, painting my mind picture and was with my friend, Pumsy.” Nancy asked where she learned this, and the second grader answered, “From school.” [5] As it turns out, part of this school’s guidance counseling curriculum, Pumsy: In Pursuit of Excellence, is used in an estimated 40 percent of schools across America.

A psychology of self animates the Pumsy “self-esteem” curriculum for young children. For example, in one exercise, after the teacher guides her students into a meditative state in which they paint “mind-pictures” and dialogue with imaginary friends, the children conclude the session by chanting repeatedly in unison, “I am me, and I am enough.” After another exercise, the children recite, “I can choose how I feel.”

Regardless of the specific psychological package prescribed by individual Cosmic Humanists, New Age psychology is based on a simple rule: commune with the god within. This transpersonal model of affective, nondirective decision-making is the basis of most drug and sex education courses, as well as many courses for gifted students and guidance counseling programs. These programs are based on the belief that if children can be guided to feel good about themselves (self-esteem), then they can be empowered to make healthy choices about sex and drugs.

New Age ideas are not confined to the classroom. Cosmic consciousness is a recurring theme throughout popular culture, in film and on TV. Many directors and producers are open about their goal of influencing the next generation with a New Age focus. Irvin Kershner, Director of the popular Star Wars episode, The Empire Strikes Back, stated bluntly, “I wanna introduce some Zen here because I don’t want the kids to walk away just feeling that everything is shoot-em-up, but that there’s also a little something to think about here in terms of yourself and your surroundings.” [6]

A little something to think about, indeed! Throughout the Star Wars saga, Yoda is depicted as the consummate “Zen Master” teaching Luke Skywalker the finer points of utilizing the “Force”, which Yoda defines as impersonal energy that permeates and animates all things. In this way, the message of cosmic consciousness is absorbed by way of entertainment. Other films pushing New Age ideas are Mulan, Brother Bear, What Dreams May Come, The Dark Crystal, The Pet Psychic, Pocahontas, Sixth Sense, and Bulletproof Monk, to name a few.

Responding to Cosmic Consciousness

In the face of these educational and cultural experiences, we find a growing number of Americans who have unwittingly embraced a smorgasbord of New Age beliefs. In 2002, George Barna reported that 35 percent of adults believe it is possible to communicate with the deceased. This is up from 18 percent just twelve years earlier. In addition, 46 percent of teenagers believe in reincarnation, including 17 percent of teenagers who consider themselves “born again.” [7]

How, then, should Christians respond? One approach would be through worldview education, which equips one to identify how ideas flow from a belief concerning the nature of God. The “worldview tree” is useful in illustrating the connections.

Take, for example, Pumsy, the “self-esteem” curriculum that teaches children “I am me, and I am enough.” That statement represents the fruit, or end result, of thinking about psychology (the nature of man). Yet, psychology, as a limb of the “worldview” tree, can be traced back to its root source. There we uncover the theology of New Age belief in pantheism, the assumption that god is all and all is god (“god” being defined as an impersonal force).

What we find, then, is a worldview in stark contrast from that of Christianity, whose root belief is a God who is both Personal Creator and Sustainer of life (Colossians 1:17). Tracing this biblically-rooted theology back up the “worldview” tree logically leads to a different kind of fruit, a psychology where people are understood as dependent creatures and in need of relying on the power of Christ’s sufficiency. As Paul confessed, “For me to live is Christ . . . ” (Philippians 1:21).

When approaching someone who has embraced portions of New Age psychology, we can affirm his or her desire for greater spirituality in the midst of our materialistic culture. Her longing for inspiration and wonder in life is legitimate, as well as the craving for a sense of personal worth. Yet we also need to explain that she is selling herself short by seeking personal fulfillment in a non-personal source — a cosmic-energy-force-god. Only a God with attributes of personhood, including intellect, will, and emotions, can meet one’s deepest need for love and unconditional acceptance. The Bible affirms such a God.

Beginning with a Personal Creator, there is a solid foundation for building a truly holistic psychology of self. Only the Bible provides an adequate basis for our personhood, as creatures made in God’s image, with a soul comprised of will, intellect, and emotions.

Biblical psychology answers the question of why we sense an awareness of a spiritual dimension to life as well as distinctiveness from the rest of the created world. As the psalmist wrote:

What is man that you are mindful of him,   
the son of man that you care for him?   
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor. [8]

When it comes to psychology, Christians will do well to keep Elijah’s challenge in mind and help others reorient their understanding of God. Only after winning the battle of whose God is real can there be victory over the emotional skirmishes in life! [9]

  1. 1 Kings 18:21 (NIV).
  2. The online version of the magazine is located at http://www.self.com.
  3. John P. Newport, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 109.
  4. Jack Canfield and Paula Klimek, “Education for a New Age,” New Age, Feb. 1978, p. 27.
  5. Quoted in “Public Education Or Pagan Indoctrination? A Report on New Age Influence in the Schools,” by Craig Branch, accessed 03/12/2005.
  6. From an interview in Rolling Stone Magazine (July 24, 1980), p. 37.
  7. George Barna, Real Teens: A Contemporary Snapshot of Youth Culture (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2001), p. 132.
  8. Psalm 8:4–5.
  9. This is not to suggest that transpersonal psychology has nothing to offer in helping people sort through the emotional side of life. Like every non-biblical worldview, certain areas comport with reality and may provide helpful insights into personality development, conflict resolution, etc. The point is, the Christian counselor must be discerning in separating the spiritual chaff from the wheat.

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