Can We Trust Psychology?

My wife and I recently conducted another weekend conference for Marriage Reconstruction Ministries that focused on the effects of childhood sexual abuse and how the survivor can be “Moving from a Shattered Past to a Strengthened Future.” During the two-day event, we offered some time for Q&A. One of the questions was, “Psychology seems founded in/from ungodly men and women. How can we trust these principles? Isn’t the Bible enough for healing?”

Since the question seems to be a recurring question, I do not assume that my answer will serve as the final answer that settles the issue for all mankind. Hardly! But though this is not a final answer, I offer it as a thought provoking answer.

During the late 1800s, French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot conducted clinical and scientific inquiry into a commonly recognized but ill-defined condition that especially afflicted women. The condition labeled as hysteria manifested psychological and somatic symptoms. In other words, the condition affected both mind and body.

On the heels of Charcot’s work, two other researchers produced independent studies regarding hysteria. Their research, focused on the clients in their clinical practice, drew a different conclusion from that of Charcot. They concluded that hysteria was a condition psychologically induced through trauma rather than neurologically induced as Charcot had claimed (Courtois, 1999).

These two researchers drew their conclusions in the same way that archeologists reached their discoveries. An archeologist came to a site and first heard the residents as they offered their beliefs and practices. The archeologist might settle for what he/she heard from the inhabitants about the region’s history, but knew there was a deeper revelation that lay underground. So the archeologist placed the picks and shovels in the hands of the inhabitants and together they dug to unearth the explanations to the beliefs and practices. In the same way, the two mental health clinicians placed the “picks and shovels” in the hands of their patients, and together they dug to unearth the explanations to the hysteria through questions and reflections.

One of those clinicians, published his conclusions from clinical observation of 18 cases of hysteria, stating,

I therefore put forward the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience [i.e. childhood sexual abuse], occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood, but which can be reproduced through the work of psychoanalysis in spite of the intervening decades. I believe that this is an important finding, the discovery of a caput Nili [source of the Nile] in neuropathology.

The clinician’s conclusion that hysteria was rooted in childhood sexual abuse was considered scandalous. His peers dismissed him stating that his conclusions were the outcome of his own issues pertaining to his own father.

However, years later, a Hungarian psychoanalyst conducted similar research and also concluded that childhood sexual trauma affects victims into their adult years. Unfortunately, the Hungarian’s work was also dismissed.

But in 1939, these previously dismissed conclusions resurfaced and were further investigated. The study of childhood sexual abuse accelerated in the 1970s. Eventually, it was accepted that childhood sexual abuse was more prevalent than previously acknowledged and had “high potential to traumatize the victim both at the time of its occurrence and later” (Courtois, 1999, p. 9). Research in the past 25 years has linked posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to childhood sexual abuse.

My questions are these:

  • Why did 100 years have to pass by before the trauma of childhood sexual abuse was taken seriously?
  • Why were the conclusions of the two clinicians dismissed, thereby leaving women survivors without help for decades?
  • Why did so many women and men survivors of childhood sexual abuse have to be set aside, stigmatized, and left unattended in their trauma?

Perhaps these questions cannot be answered. But there is an observation to make. The clinical researcher who discovered the link between the trauma-induced condition of hysteria and childhood sexual abuse was Sigmund Freud.

For years, many in the Christian community have dismissed Freud. I will not weigh in on whether or not that is justified because it is not even pertinent to this article. The point is that there was something to be learned from Freud and it was ignored, thereby delaying for a century adequate psychological help for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Discoveries within God’s creation have extended into the vastness of space, explored the depths of the sea, and have examined the intricacies of the human body and mind. Lifesaving discoveries have been made by researchers who honor God as well as by researchers who deny His existence. Nevertheless, all of the knowledge gained is from God.

While Scripture reveals God’s truth it does not give us all of God’s truth. Just as Scripture does not reveal the intricate nature of the physical heart with its valves and chambers, neither does Scripture reveal the hemispheres and lobes of the brain and their interrelated functions. But God has revealed knowledge through research that has led to remedies for some of the ills of the body and mind. All of the knowledge is from God.

The truth of Scripture grants us the discernment we need in order to properly apply the knowledge we are granted from God. While the discoveries may come from the godly and the ungodly, the discernment comes from God alone.


Resource Cited

Courtois, C. A. (1999). Recollection of sexual abuse: Treatment principles and guidelines. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Freud, S. (1962). The aetiology of hysteria. In J. Strachey, (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 3, pp. 191-221). London: The Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1896).


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