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Towards a Latter-day Saint Perspective in Psychology

Most students of psychology embrace the prevailing assumptions of the field as a starting point towards examining other things in their lives, such as faith. What if we did the opposite?
This is the first installment in a serialization of a book by Jeffrey Thayne and Edwin Gantt, putting forth a vision of a psychology that takes seriously the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

In 1976, Elder Neal A. Maxwell gave a landmark address to a room full of Latter-day Saint behavioral scientists. In that address, he extended an invitation to set forth a distinctively Latter-day Saint perspective in psychology and declared that —as covenant members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—we have an overriding loyalty to the kingdom and a unique mission to integrate the Gospel into everything that we do. Elder Maxwell said:

[I] suggest that the LDS behavioral scientists become more of a link and bridge between revealed truth and the world of scholarship. The LDS scholar has his citizenship in the kingdom, but carries his passport into the professional world—not the other way around.”

Since 1976, a number of Latter-day Saint thinkers and psychologists have taken up Elder Maxwell’s invitation and, each in their own way and unique emphasis offered various proposals for what a distinctively Latter-day Saint perspective in psychology might look like and what it might entail. Not all have agreed with each other, but each took up the project with sincerity and ingenuity. Each has accepted Elder Maxwell’s invitation to participate in the sacred, intellectual project of building bridges to link their professional worlds and their covenant world. Although we do not expect them to agree with us in every particular, this project is an attempt to consolidate their tremendous work into a single argument.

Of this bridge-building between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the secular discipline of psychology, Elder Maxwell suggested four things: first, some bridges can be built now, others not for a while, some can be expanded, and some simply cannot be built at all. In other words, this project should not embrace a strictly confrontational approach to the discipline. If we embrace a staunchly adversarial attitude, in which we see little in the discipline worthy of consideration, we are not fully embracing Elder Maxwell’s invitation to build bridges with the discipline. We should see ourselves as partners and collaborators with secular psychologists, rather than as combatants. Elder Maxwell explains:

When we seek to communicate, however, with those in the world of scholarship, we must speak to them and communicate with them “after the manner of their language.” We can, as many LDS behavioral scientists have done, develop our skills in that “tongue” without coming to prefer it and without losing the mother tongue of faith.

This does not mean, however, that we can blithely accept and embrace every aspect of the prevailing consensus within the discipline. Elder Maxwell further explains, “While we may not now know fully how to construct all these bridges of which I have been speaking, we know now that some bridges simply cannot be built, however much some secular scholars struggle to do so.” Some worldviews, perspectives, and approaches can and must be challenged if our loyalties are truly centered in the Restored Gospel. Of particular note, in this regard, is Elder Maxwell’s important warning:

The two responses to be avoided when discussing the challenges of such bridge-building are, first, disinterest in even trying; and second, assuming a posture in which LDS behavioral scientists are, at every point, indistinguishable from those whose approach is purely secular.

On the first point, we take Elder Maxwell to mean that if we treasure our unique heritage as Latter-day Saints, then we will find interest in this project. We can and should work toward integrating our faith into our scholarship in earnest, and we should not treat the project with indifference. Echoing this sentiment, S.D. Gaede described it this way:

I am a Christian. This is a reality of no small importance to me. It has implications for my thoughts, my actions, my entire life. Scholarship is a part of my life. As my Christianity makes a difference in how I act (or should act), it also makes a difference in how I think (or should think). If one’s faith is important enough to encompass the personal life, then I see no reason to neglect its application to the rest of life as well. In my opinion, I am just as obligated to be concerned with a Christian perspective in my scholarly pursuits as I am in matters pertaining to ethics, family life, or whatever.

The point, of course, is that Christians should allow their Christianity to permeate their entire lives, and not just preselected portions of it.

In short, we should not quarantine our faith from our scholarship. We might disagree with how some colleagues pursue the project of integrating the two (as some will certainly disagree with us), but we should recognize that, in doing so, they are attempting to follow (however imperfectly perhaps) Elder Maxwell’s invitation.

We should not quarantine our faith from our scholarship.

Furthermore, as we undertake this project and take the Restored Gospel seriously in our theorizing, our research, and our practical and professional efforts, we should expect that the questions that interest us, the way we operationalize our variables, the methods we choose to pursue our research, and the sorts of conclusions we draw from our data, may be different than that commonly endorsed in the larger secular discipline. We should not be afraid to depart from and push back against consensus paradigms in the discipline. Elder Maxwell continues:

To build bridges will require both courage and competency. It will require the perspiration and persistence of a Pasteur. It will require the forsaking of the easy praise of the world that comes from following the fashionable. But real esteem is earned, while often authority is conferred.

We must not be disturbed if we are unfashionable in terms of the trends of the time, for as Paul reminds us, “The fashion of this world passeth away.”

Of course, the stubborn facts of reality cannot and will not bend to our whims, nor should we expect them to do so. We are not suggesting that we mold our research towards pre-determined conclusions.[ref num=”1″] Rather, we are suggesting that taking the Restored Gospel seriously as psychologists requires that we be conscientious scholars and impeccable researchers and that we conduct our research in rigorous ways that can stand up to the scrutiny of other scholars. However, considerations of rigor and the observance of high scholarly standards are not the only relevant ones for the Latter-day Saint psychologist. If we are operating from the fundamentally different philosophical, theoretical, and moral paradigm the Restored Gospel provides, we should not expect our investigations into human behavior, human experience, and human flourishing to play out in all the same ways that secular approaches do. In this, we agree with Professor Richard N. Williams, who said:

We must have faith that bringing the Restoration to the intellectual world and to our culture will result not just in something different, but something better. Pursuing this project will not make us mere crackpots and cranks, but leaders among the clear thinking, among the best and brightest in our cultures who are also honest in heart.

Similarly, Elder Maxwell believed that many in the academic world will eventually recognize wisdom in the divine truths that undergird a distinctively Latter-day Saint perspective, especially as we learn to package those truths in the language of academia. Elder Maxwell taught:

It will not surprise me in the least if some of the insights and methodologies of able, orthodox, LDS behavioral scientists will exert an increasing gravitational pull on some of our thoughtful nonmember colleagues in the years ahead. Perhaps there will even be the academic equivalent of what Isaiah foresaw, and thoughtful souls will say in various ways, “Come ye, let us go up” to the Lord’s house of learning to be taught and shown his ways. If we are not ashamed of Jesus Christ and his teachings, he will not be ashamed of us.

We are writing this series because we think honest, sensitive, respectful souls will be drawn to the message we have to share as Latter-day Saint social scientists, as well as by the uniqueness of our insights and approaches, and the unusual yet stimulating nature of the questions we ask. While we think that some strides have been made over the years in responding to Elder Maxwell’s invitation, there is still a long way yet to go and many potentially very fruitful avenues of inquiry and understanding that remain untapped and unexplored.

As Elder Maxwell said, “We have been given more cosmic clues and cues than we have yet used as Latter-day Saints.” We believe that we have at our fingertips more doctrine and more revelation than we yet know what to do with, that we have not yet fully appreciated the embarrassment of riches at hand for thinking ever more deeply about human experience in light of the Restored Gospel. Elder Orson F. Whitney was once told by a Roman Catholic friend: “You Mormons are all ignoramuses. You don’t even know the strength of your own position.”

We have not yet fully appreciated the embarrassment of riches at hand for thinking ever more deeply about human experience in light of the Restored Gospel.

This project is an attempt to lay out—drawing on the tremendous work of scores of thinkers who have come before —precisely what we think might be unique or different about such a Latter-day Saint approach. In this article series, we set forth what we refer to as thirteen “foundations” of (or stepping stones towards) a distinctively Latter-day Saint approach to psychology. Our vision and hope are that the combined efforts of Latter-day Saint scholars, researchers, and practitioners can carve out a niche of diverse perspectives that take seriously these doctrinal teachings. Those foundations include:

  1. Revelation from God is a vital source of wisdom and knowledge. This invites us to challenge scientism, the assumption that empirical methods can yield answers to all of life’s important questions. Without sacrificing the scholarly rigor of our work, a Latter-day Saint perspective might embrace wisdom and truth from divine sources, especially when it comes to our pre-empirical assumptions and worldviews. In this process, we can embrace intellectual humility.
  2. Human action is full of possibility and meaning. This leads us to challenge determinism, the worldview that all human experience and behavior can be understood entirely in terms of cause and effect. Moral accountability requires possibility in human action, and so Latter-day Saint social scientists might take interest in approaches that emphasize and explore agency.
  3. We live and choose in a morally-inflected universe. This leads us to challenge moral relativism and other perspectives that strip human behavior and experience of its distinctly moral texture. For example, we could take seriously the work of Terry Warner on how our moral responsiveness has meaningful, measurable psychological and social implications.
  4. We have the capacity to act out of genuine concern for others. This leads us to challenge psychological egoism, the assumption that all human action can be explained in terms of self-interest. Most do not realize that from Freud to Maslow, and especially in evolutionary psychology, no seemingly selfless action is considered “explained” unless it can be reduced to self-interest. A Latter-day Saint perspective might offer a valuable and defensible alternative to the cynicism inherent in such a view.
  5. God is real and is central to human flourishing. This will lead us to challenge secularism and metaphysical naturalism, approaches that reduce spiritual and religious experiences to the effects of physiology or social forces. A Latter-day Saint perspective might build upon the work of Brent Slife, who has thoughtfully explored how to engage in rigorous research and theorizing from an explicitly theistic perspective. 
  6. Our physical embodiment is a vital part of God’s plan for us. Because the body “is the great prize of mortal life,” we can explore the ways in which our embodiment expands our capacities for thought and action. A pitfall to avoid along the way is materialism or reductionism, the assumption that all human experiences can be reduced to brain chemistry, genetics, or other physical and mechanical forces.
  7. Joy is one of the purposes of life. We can embrace this truth while also challenging how conventional psychology operationalizes happiness in terms of individual hedonic satisfaction. Some pitfalls to avoid here include what has been termed “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a worldview that treats religion primarily as a means of increasing personal satisfaction and fulfillment, and which treats worldly contentment, rather than holiness, as our primary goal.
  8. The good life is found in discipleship. This will lead us to challenge the notion of expressive individualism, which treats self-expression as chief among human goods, and which leads us to be suspicious of religious mores or cultural norms. A Latter-day Saint perspective in the social sciences could explore how inspired norms and sacred covenants can scaffold our moral intuitions and provide us with purpose, meaning, and identity. 
  9. Chastity is an essential and enabling norm. A Latter-day Saint perspective in the social sciences might embrace the norms of chastity (both prior to and within marriage), and explore the role of moral discipline in building strong families and communities. This might lead us to challenge the current framing of celibacy as psychologically damaging, as well as the presumption that consent is the primary benchmark for “ethical” sexual expression.
  10. Gender is an essential characteristic of our eternal identity. We argue that gender, in this context, refers both to biological sex and the social identities that are enmeshed with biological sex. A Latter-day Saint perspective in the social sciences could explore how gender is an important part of our identity and purpose. While leaving room to critique problematic cultural norms surrounding gender, this might lead us to challenge both social constructionist and biological reductionist approaches to gender.
  11. The family is the foundational unit of society. A Latter-day Saint perspective in the social sciences will embrace the central role of marriage in strong communities, and celebrate norms of marital fidelity and Gospel-centered parenting. This might lead us to also challenge the redefinition of marriage as a mere contractual arrangement for the purposes of adult fulfillment and to explore the beauties of gender complementarity in marriage.
  12. We are all beloved children of God. A Latter-day Saint perspective in the social sciences will take up President Nelson’s call to lead out in ending attitudes of prejudice and racism, and vigorously examine social and cultural norms surrounding race. This will also lead us to strive to find a Gospel-centered approach to addressing our current cultural and racial divisions and to be peacemakers in times of social strife. 
  13. We have a responsibility to minister to the vulnerable. A Latter-day Saint perspective in the social sciences would take up the discipline’s concern for the vulnerable and under-represented. However, rather than using secular “allyship” as the primary template and rubric for our ministering (with its presumptions of expressive individualism and social/political advocacy), we might explore and develop Gospel-infused alternatives.

This list may develop further as this series progresses. (This is one of the perils of setting forth an outline of the series before it’s been completed.) We reserve the right to add and amend it as we complete the project.

Further, the purpose of this is not to set forth a definitive or exhaustive treatment of these issues. After all, there may be many diverging approaches that can be built upon the same foundations outlined here. Our goal is simply to set forth a few core doctrines and teachings that we think are filled with untapped potential, to catalyze further conversation in pursuit of “bridge-building.” We hope to help inspire our fellow laborers—and laborers in training—to better respond to Elder Maxwell’s invitation when he said: “The timbers of truth are waiting to be used. You have the professional and spiritual tools as has no preceding generation of LDS scholars. Go to, and build! Be about your Father’s business!”

[footnote num=”1″]More on this point in a later chapter.[/footnote]

About the authors

Jeffrey Thayne

Jeffrey Thayne blogs at ldsphilosopher.com, and is the coauthor of “Who is Truth?” He has a Ph.D. from Utah State University in Learning Sciences

Edwin E. Gantt

Edwin E. Gantt is a Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Psychological Issues and Who is Truth? Reframing Our Questions for a Richer Faith (co-authored with Dr. Jeffrey L. Thayne). He has a Ph.D. from Duquesne University.
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