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So I just spent the last six years studying theology and therapy in a graduate seminary and am trying to get back to whatever it means to have a “normal” life. But every now and then I’m reminded of that witty pun that likens “seminary” to “cemetery.” I remember hearing this long before I ever started seminary. I thought I’d offer up a few reflections on the comparison, as well as toss it up to my three or four readers to add any that I haven’t mentioned. :)

In my experience, when I’ve heard seminary referred to as “cemetery,” it’s typically been for one or more of a few (often related) reasons. I’ll note these below, and offer a brief response following each of them. If you think there’s more I could have added (or should have foregone), chime in with your thoughts. These are just a few that come to my mind.

(1) Some people go to seminary and begin to promote themselves as intellectually, spiritually, or otherwise superior to other Christians in their life who haven’t gone to seminary. When those…you know…poor, pathetic, primitive non-seminarians utter what they think they know about God or the Bible [*note sarcasm*], the “enlightened” seminarian knows just how and where to undercut their conclusions and/or trump them with one more  sophisticated…or at least a few divinely inspired nuances. It’s unfortunate.

Thoughts: It seems to me that if one’s seminary is doing its job (and, of course, if one is listening), one should be far more aware than ever before of just how little one actually does know, or at least of how little one has been exposed to and how much more one needs to learn if there’s to be anything even remotely close to “figuring it all out.” Seminary students often get exposed to more questions and answers than they ever knew existed, and they hopefully begin to see that they’ve still only been exposed to a relatively small portion of what has been thought or written out there. And then there’s the fact that the God in question is infinite, or at least transcends our categories, something of which the seminary is hopefully reminding its students. So the seminary experience should be an intellectually humbling enterprise, I think, not one producing (or sustaining) grandiosity. A good seminary should be a good Socrates—convincing students that the true path to knowledge involves, perhaps first and foremost, the knowledge of one’s own ignorance.

(2) Some people go to seminary and find the vitality of their faith, if not their faith altogether, significantly eroded. For some, Christianity becomes all about the ideas, the parsing of all divine truths and who has or doesn’t have them…and whether or how one actually experiences God becomes negotiable. For some, their studies and experiences in seminary leave them convinced that Christianity is an elaborate fiction–in many ways good and beautiful, perhaps, but unfortunately (or even fortunately) not true.

Thoughts: One reason relates to how seminaries might instill that sense of intellectual humility mentioned above—they often expose their students to more questions, concepts, inferences, conclusions, implications…than the student (and his/her former faith community) even knew existed when he/she walked in. There’s so much to think about, and unfortunately some do nothing but think about the ideas (as if God’s work in and through Jesus and the Bible were primarily about making sure we got all the information right). This has personally been one of my more significant–and I dare say chronic–weaknesses, though I’d like to think I was worse at this in some ways during my early twenties than during or after my seminary experience. This pursuit of “truth” (which can border on addiction for some) can even be driven by the anxiety of uncertainty, something to which some are more prone than others, and something with which I’ve definitely wrestled. Some get more anxious than others about not having the answers (or about being proven wrong), especially if they’ve invested a great deal of time—and perhaps their identity and/or self-concept—in seeking or defending them.

At the same time, many of these new questions, concepts, angles, findings, and so forth often challenge some of the fairly deep-seated biblical, theological, philosophical, and historical beliefs a student brings with them to seminary. And the challenge is upped when these different perspectives come, as they often do, from people who seem to be just as—if not more—God-loving, neighbor-loving, passionate, and brilliant as your biggest spiritual influences, heroes, pastors, and authors. For some, this instigates some personal theological reform, a tweaking or retooling of one’s particular theological or ministerial stances in various areas. For some, however, this instigates a sort of skepticism that suspects we’re all chasing the wind, asking the wrong questions and looking for answers that, naturally, don’t exist. Of course, for some, the anxiety and frustration of uncertainty or unanswered questions can be motivating here as well. That anxiety goes away if we refuse to acknowledge or entertain the legitimacy of the questions that prompt or reinforce it (which, interestingly, is also a technique often used to silence one’s opponent in a debate). Not that that’s necessarily the only reason some people jettison their Christian faith, but it’s definitely an enticing psychological reinforcement.

Then there’s the fact that seminary is graduate education and, thus, involves engaging what can be an overwhelming tsunami of new information, which amounts to adding a huge commitment to one’s other already-demanding commitments in life. The need simply to stay on top of the assignments can be all-consuming and, when added to one’s busyness in other areas of life, can wipe a person out intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. Graduate school is often a time of significant stress, and when the stressful demands are largely due to processing a great deal of biblical, theological, and ministerial information, one’s enthusiasm about these things (if not one’s enthusiasm or vibrancy simply in general) can wind up significantly diminished.

(3) Some people go to seminary and come home no longer believing what their former community of faith believes in one respect or another. Some back home might critically describe it as “being corrupted,” some as “going liberal,” and perhaps some even as  “losing one’s faith.” Whatever it is, it definitely has a he-or-she-no-longer-thinks-like-we-do tinge to it, however pronounced.

Thoughts: This also relates to the seminary student being exposed to questions, concepts, angles, and so forth beyond what they or their former faith communities had been exposed to or had taught. (And sometimes, quite frankly, this involves thinking about things in more complex–which is to say, less simplistic or reductionistic–terms, albeit certainly not always.) Faith communities tend to endorse and reinforce certain sets of theological convictions and practices, often grounding in these beliefs and practices a member’s sense of identity, meaning, purpose, security, hope, and community/acceptance (often defining who’s “in” and who’s “out” by them). So, naturally, when a seminary student “individuates” from their theological “family of origin” (to pull in some social science concepts here), the (church or biological) family members’ thoughts toward—and relationships with—them can become strained. This individuation often calls into question those beliefs/practices and, thus, everything the family has riding on them (or so they feel anyway). And to protect and reinforce the family and its convictions—and everything they have riding on them—family members naturally get defensive (wouldn’t you if you felt like your sense of identity, security and so forth were being attacked?) and criticize the individuated family member’s newfound convictions. They identify the family, its convictions, and its practices with life, you might say. And, naturally, they identify the seminary with death.

These are just a few reflections on this seminary-as-cemetery stuff. Have any thoughts, additions, resonance, disagreements…? :)

Some Digital Decorum

So I’ve been accumulating a list of potential blog/paper/book topics over the course of my graduate studies these past several years, most of them pertaining to theology, philosophy, social science, and the intersections that might obtain between them and their incarnations within, between, and around us. As that list comprises about 250 topics now, and as my tenure in the world of higher education finally comes to a much needed close—permitting a little more time for the endeavor—I figure I should probably start writing on some of these. As I consider actually blogging a bit more often, though, I can’t help but recall the insightful humor here:

Courtesy of Despair, Inc.

So as not to have “so little to say” myself, or to say it poorly at that, I thought I’d sketch a grocery list of personal aims and digital decorum that will hopefully further the productivity and integrity of The Occasional Muse, guiding my posts and interactions with anyone who might like to comment on them. While others may also find these guidelines helpful in their own blogging or commenting, I’m primarily writing them down to keep myself in check and get things off on the right foot.

So, let me give myself a little advice:

  1. Be constructive and never merely deconstructive/critical.
  2. Tie the theoretical to the practical.
  3. Keep posts on topic and sufficiently limited in scope.
  4. Organize and articulate thoughts clearly.
  5. Attempt to be concise, minimizing verbosity.
  6. Own the limitations, particularity, and fallibility of my own understanding.
  7. Interpret and address others and their perspectives as charitably as possible.
  8. Don’t project or hastily generalize out of my own personal experience.
  9. Keep an eye out for unnecessarily dichotomous thinking.
  10. Try not to be reductionistic about complex issues.


[This paper was written in March of 2009, so the autobiographical material is a bit dated.]


For several years now, I have worked in elementary and secondary schools as a substitute education assistant with children and adolescents who have special needs. I interact primarily with students falling under one of two diagnostic umbrellas—autism spectrum disorders and emotional-behavioral concerns. Although vastly different in their particular developmental challenges and needs, most of my students have at least one important characteristic in common—a relatively compromised capacity for self-control. This limited capacity makes whole, healthy relationships of mutual give-and-take somewhere between difficult and impossible for them. Taking self-control to be one of the most important virtues for human development and relationality, as well as for spiritual formation, I examine the topic from a social science perspective below and offer an integrative discussion of its place in Christian theology and spirituality.

The Virtue of Self-Control

Several centuries before the birth of Christ, Plato, that ancient Greek thinker to whom Whitehead aptly said the whole history of philosophy is a footnote, spoke of four chief virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. To these four “cardinal” virtues, Aquinas and other medieval scholastics added the supreme “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and love. Centuries (and millennia) later, with the rise of the positive psychology movement in the late 20th century, many psychologists began shifting their focus away from the phenomenon which had so captured their discipline’s attention since its formal inception—human dysfunction—and back towards those virtues and strengths that enduringly seem to facilitate individual and collective human wholeness.

Self-control arguably deserves a great deal of attention among the virtues, as a decent case can be made for its being connected to the cultivation and exercise of most, if not all, of the others. As one pair of researchers observes, “Virtues seem based on the positive exercise of self-control, whereas sin and vice often revolve around failures of self-control” (Baumeister & Exline, 1999, p. 1175). Indeed, for this reason, they submit that “it is fair to consider self-control the master virtue.” Ultimately, virtues receive the attention they do because they are intrapersonally and interpersonally life-giving, critical to optimal human development and relationality. The self-in-community will eventually wind up short on both self and community without this foundational virtue of self-control.[1]

Whereas some researchers more narrowly identify self-control with mere impulse control, I treat it as roughly synonymous with Baumeister’s conception of self-regulation, as referring to “how a person exerts control over his or her own responses so as to pursue goals and live up to standards” (2004, p. 500). Filling out our conception a bit, we might also understand it as “any act that requires the individual to override, change, or inhibit a behavior, urge, thought, or emotion” (Muraven, Rosman, & Gagne, 2007, p. 322).[2] The 8 year-old turning his attention from video games to homework, the 18 year-old quelling her anger over an estranged boyfriend, and the 28 year-old walking away from, rather than aggressing, the provocateur at the pub all demonstrate the practice of self-control.

As the researchers above suggest, self-control involves dynamics of both resistance/abstinence and engagement and speaks to cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions of human operation and development. As for particular experimental measures, researchers often examine self-control in terms of a few primary components—a person’s attention to the standards/goals guiding her intentionality;[3] the attention to self (or self-monitoring) by which she assesses her thoughts, affect, and/or behavior relative to those standards and goals; and the operations or acts by or in which she attempts (via implementation) to align her thoughts, affect, or behavior with the latter (Baumeister & Exline, 1999). And the more developed or mature a person’s capacity and exercise of self-control, the more sophisticated, differentiated, principled, and relationally-attuned the person is likely to be with respect to each of these components.[4]

The Research

When studying self-control, social scientists commonly explore those things to which it contributes both immediately and in the long-term, as well as those that immediately and more remotely contribute to it. Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory of self-control (1990), a framework constructed for criminological purposes and a launching point for much discussion in the literature, speaks to both dimensions, as well as to the question of the continuity or stability of self-control across the lifespan. Their theory contended that the absence of self-control contributes to criminal behavior, that self-control is formed during and primarily by parental socialization in pre-adolescence (before the age of 10), and that self-control is relatively stable from then on (Hay & Forrest, 2006).

Considering self-control as contributory, numerous studies have substantiated the thesis concerning criminality, while others have demonstrated significant correlations between the virtue and academic success, positive social interaction, personal adjustment, adult physical health, and accommodative behavior in marriage, among other things (Baumeister, 2004; Murphy, Shepard, Eisenberg, & Fabes, 2004; Kokkonen, Kinnunen, & Pulkkinen, 2002; Finkel & Campbell, 2001).[5] Considering self-control as more of a consequence, numerous studies examine the more immediate, direct influence of emotional distress upon self-control. Not surprisingly, increases in emotional distress contribute more immediately to lower self-control. Some argue that such distress decreases one’s capacity or motivation to self-regulate or perhaps increases one’s tendency towards self-destructive behavior, while others argue that it leads one to strategically shift regulatory energies away from behavioral impulse control and specifically toward the regulation of emotional discomfort (Tice, Bratslavsky, & Baumeister, 2001).[6]

Gottfredson and Hirschi’s contention concerning the wiring of self-control prior to adolescence receives some degree of support in the literature as well. Calkins (2004) states, “It is likely that [attachment processes] contribute to the acquisition of the repertoire of self-regulated emotional skills that develop in the child over the course of infancy and toddlerhood” (p. 325). Indeed, decreased self-regulatory capacities and competencies are classic hallmarks of the insecurely attached child (or adult, for that matter). Unclear standards, broken promises, and consistent parental indulgence, not to mention more directly abusive parenting patterns, serve to undermine a child’s self-regulation (Baumeister, 2004). And while research testimony to the continuity of self-control throughout and beyond adolescence does lend some support to Gottfredson and Hirschi’s declarations about the matter, their stability thesis requires some mitigation in light of research demonstrating, among other things, successful parental cultivation of self-control among those beyond the age of 10 (Brody et al., 2005).[7]

In terms of contextuality, gender may not contribute as much to the virtue of self-control as do socioeconomic and cultural factors. Per Baumeister, “General self-control abilities appear to be similar between the two genders, but the domains in which they are applied may differ” (2004, p. 512). As for socioeconomics, all too many impoverished families suffer from an “underorganization” (Aponte, 1994) quite ill-conducive to healthy self-regulation and development, as is somewhat evidenced by the disproportionate number of prison inmates coming out of poor families. And while more collectivistic and shame-based cultures might present more stringent behavioral standards, eliciting higher degrees of self-monitoring and behavioral conformity from their constituents, more individualistic cultures like America can easily inhibit the cultivation of a virtue like self-control. Ten years ago, Baumeister and Exline observed three ways, in particular, in which relatively recent changes in American culture prove to be somewhat inhospitable to virtue:

First, the rising instability of social relationships has weakened the social forces that penalize immoral behavior. Second, new economic patterns depend on the pursuit of self-interest to achieve benefits to the collective. Third, the rising moral ideology of selfhood has recategorized many self-interested actions as morally good, a change that undermines the age-old opposition between self and morality (1999, p. 1188).[8] The veracity of their observations is arguably more evident today than it was when they offered them.


Virtues like self-control receive the recognition they do in virtue (forgive the pun) of their contribution to optimal human development and life in community. Christian theology grounds truth, goodness, beauty, and the related virtues in a triune God who is life-in-community (and perfectly so). As God is inherently relational, so is the humanity that has been created in the divine image (Gen 1:26-27). And whereas those who constitute the Christian community far too often spend a great deal of their lives trying to control others and the circumstances around them (out of security/survival concerns, no doubt),[9] the scriptures frequently remind the faithful that they are to be self-controlled (1 Thes 5:8; 1 Tim 3:2; 1 Pet 1:13; 2 Pet 1:6). In so being, they bring healthier selves to relationship, have more to offer in relationship, take less selfishly from relationship, and better mirror the God who created humanity out of and for relationship.

In keeping with the divine grounding of virtue, the New Testament identifies self-control with the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:23).This raises some interesting pneumatological questions in our increasingly pluralistic milieu, where it is becoming ever clearer that plenty of people across the globe exhibit self-control (and plenty of other virtues and fruits of the Spirit) apart from any expressed or conscious commitment to the Bible, to Jesus Christ, or to Yahweh through Jesus Christ. In light of the social science research, relational dynamics in the family might be said to account for this to a significant degree. Certain family processes seem to contribute to healthier, more whole, and more mature persons and relationships. Christian social scientists Jack and Judy Balswick (1999) propose a biblically grounded model of the family rooted in such family dynamics—committed covenant love, grace, empowerment, and intimacy—which they perceptively find evidenced in the biblical account of God’s relationship with his people.

This dimension of empowerment intersects in some thought-provoking ways with a Christian understanding of spiritual disciplines. It is through the practice of spiritual disciplines that the Christian acquires increased spiritual power to fully experience God and life and to extend them to others in healthy relationship. Spiritual disciplines appear to be the preeminent conduits of divine empowerment, “the means by which we are placed where He can bless us” and by which we “place ourselves before God so he can transform us” (Foster, 1978, p. 6). At the same time, that empowerment is relational—these disciplines require one to volitionally and freely[10] engage oneself, through self-discipline,[11] as a co-creator of the divine-human and human-human relationships in which the disciplines subsist and between which they facilitate reciprocal benefit.

However one might want to nuance and differentiate between definitions of self-discipline and self-control, we can safely say the two have some significant overlap. Engaging the self in the spiritual disciplines inherently requires that one be able to, via self-control, redirect one’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior away from other gratifying pursuits and toward those of the disciplines. The dimensions of abstinence and engagement—omission and commission—recognized in the research on self-control are evident.[12] For the Christian, the abstinence is intentionally for the sake of engagement—for the sake of relationship, other, and self. In a word—the disciplines require sacrifice. It’s largely for this reason that I tend to think of sacrifice less as a mere “discipline of abstinence” (Willard, 1988, p. 158) and more as the unity of the disciplines.[13] If self-control is the “master virtue,” sacrifice just might be the “master discipline.” Perhaps not surprisingly, it is precisely the self-controlled spirit of sacrifice that we find preeminently demonstrated in and characteristic of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.


I’ve attempted above to offer a cursory examination of the virtue of self-control from a social science perspective, as well as an integrative discussion of its place in Christian theology and spirituality. Christian author Dallas Willard insightfully comments that the Kingdom of God is “an ongoing spiritual presence that is at the same time a psychological reality” (1988, p. xi, italics original). For this reason, if for no other, we should ever be eager to integrate the insights of careful social-scientific research with those of Christianity. Self-control, extensively researched by the social science guild,[14] is an indispensable contributor to healthy human development and community. Not surprisingly, neither Christian spirituality nor any person’s experience of the divine kingdom can carry on without it.


Aponte, H. J. (1994). Bread and spirit: Therapy with the new poor. New York: Norton.

Balswick, J. O. & Balswick, J. K. (1999). The family (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Baumeister, R. F. (2004). Self-regulation. In C. Peterson and M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.). Character strengths and virtues. (pp. 499-515). New York: Oxford.

Baumeister, R. F., & Exline, J. J. (1999). Virtue, personality, and social relations: Self-control as the moral muscle. Journal of Personality, 67(6), 1165-1194. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the EBSCO MegaFILE database.

Brody, G. H., Murry, V. M., McNair, L., Chen, Y., Gibbons, F. X., Gerrard, M., et al. (2005). Linking changes in parenting to parent-child relationship quality and youth self-control: The strong African American families program. Journal of Research on Adolescence (Blackwell Publishing Limited), 15(1), 47-69. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the Academic Search Premier database.

Calkins, S. (2004). Early attachment processes and the development of emotional self-regulation. In R. F. Baumeister and K. D. Vohs (Eds.). Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 324-339). New York: Guilford.

Chang, E. C., & Sanna, L. J. (Eds.). (2003). Virtue, vice, and personality: The complexity of human behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Cramer, P., & Jones, C. J. (2007). Defense mechanisms predict differential lifespan change in self-control and self-acceptance. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(4), 841-855. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the ScienceDirect Journals database.

Eisenberg, N., Smith, C. L., Sadovsky, A., & Spinrad, T. L. (2004). Effortful control: Relations with emotion regulation, adjustment, and socialization in childhood. In R. F. Baumeister and K. D. Vohs (Eds.). Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 259-282). New York: Guilford.

Finkel, E. J., & Campbell, W. K. (2001). Self-control and accommodation in close relationships: An interdependence analysis. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 81(2), 263-277. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the APA PsycArticles database.

Foster, R. (1978). Celebration of discipline. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hay, C. & Forrest, W. (2006). The development of self-control: Examining self-control’s stability thesis. Criminology, 44(4), 739-774. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the Academic Search Premier database.

Kokkonen, M., Kinnunen, T., & Pulkkinen, L. (2002). Direct and indirect effects of adolescent self-control of emotions and behavioral expression on adult health outcomes. Psychology & Health, 17(5), 657. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the Academic Search Premier database.

Muraven, M. (2005). Self-focused attention and the self-regulation of attention: Implications for personality and pathology. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 24(3), 382-400. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the EBSCO MegaFILE database.

Muraven, M., Baumeister, R. F., & Tice, D. M. (1999). Longitudinal improvement of self-regulation through practice: Building self-control strength through repeated exercise. Journal of Social Psychology, 139(4), 446-457. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the EBSCO MegaFILE database.

Muraven, M., Rosman, H., & Gagné, M. (2007). Lack of autonomy and self-control: Performance contingent rewards lead to greater depletion. Motivation & Emotion, 31(4), 322-330. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the EBSCO MegaFILE database.

Murphy, B. C., Shepard, S. A., Eisenberg, N., & Fabes, R. A. (2004). Concurrent and across time prediction of young adolescents’ social functioning: The role of emotionality and regulation. Social Development, 13(1), 56-86. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the EBSCO MegaFILE database.

Tice, D. M., Bratslavsky, E., & Baumeister, R. F. (2001). Emotional distress regulation takes precedence over impulse control: If you feel bad, do it! Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 80(1), 53-67. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the Academic Search Premier database.

Van Orden, G. C., & Holden, J. G. (2002). Intentional contents and self-control. Ecological Psychology, 14(1), 87-109. Retrieved February 21, 2009, from the Academic Search Premier database.

Willard, D. (1988). The spirit of the disciplines. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

[1] Of course, when developmental disabilities like autism and the like limit capacities for self-control, as is the case with most of my students, we ought to be careful about describing the latter as lacking virtue. This is particularly important when it comes to the moral overtones that connect to the possession or practice of virtues.

[2] Both of these characterizations do a better job of recognizing the dynamic, active, and even process-oriented nature of self-control, which can easily be lost in the more static-sounding identifications of it as a virtue, trait, or disposition.

[3] The distinction between immediate and long-term goal-orientation becomes significant here, as is evidenced by the focus upon delay of gratification in the research, and particularly some of the earliest research.

[4] Again, we should keep our qualifications regarding persons developmentally disabled in mind here.

[5] Eisenberg, Smith, Sadovsky, and Spinrad (2004) also note that children high in “effortful control” exhibit high levels of conscience and committed compliance. I suspect self-control plays a significant mediatory role between the two.

[6] Whether we take such consequences to reflect retarded self-control or redirected self-control strikes me as largely a matter of semantics. Self-control and emotional damage control both involve the somewhat strategic control of the self, although the latter is arguably more autonomic (i.e., biologically strategic, rather than cognitively strategic, we might say) and less worthy of being considered virtuous.

[7] And it’s noteworthy that Brody’s team of researchers demonstrated such results among children and families in poverty.

[8] Perhaps not coincidentally, a number of scholars, expressing concern about some positive psychologists’ alleged over-emphasis on the virtues, contend that “virtues” can actually turn out to be “vices” given certain conditions (Chang & Sanna, 2003). These thinkers challenge us to make sure we’re thinking carefully about our conceptions and evaluations of virtuous behavior.

[9] I don’t find it entirely coincidental that the default God-image for so many believers, and I dare say the majority, seems to center on a control-based understanding of divine sovereignty in which God is taken, for all practical purposes, to be the grand orchestrator (if not puppeteer) behind all or most of the world’s events.

[10] I suspect that the “answer” to the longstanding debates concerning the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom lies somewhere in the nature of relational divine empowerment. I would suggest that relational divine empowerment ceases to be authentically relational in the absence of genuine (libertarian) human freedom and ceases to be divine in the absence of divine power.

[11] It’s not uncommon for researchers to speak of self-control in terms of a “muscle” (Baumeister & Exline, 1999) subject to depletion (Muraven, Rosman, & Gagne, 2007) which can, however, be strengthened through regular exercise (Baumeister, 2004), becoming productive of habits which then require the muscle to exert less conscious effort and suffer less depletion (Muraven, Rosman, & Gagne, 2007). Following John Wesley, Christians occasionally speak of spiritual discipline as the cultivation of “holy habits.” When an action becomes automatic, however, some might be tempted to withdraw its candidacy for moral evaluation, as the latter is commonly taken to presuppose the free choice of the action. This could precipitate some interesting discussion about the import of freedom vis-à-vis moral development and virtuous activity. Unfortunately, I lack the space to explore the matter here. Such exploration would also get us into the literature’s lengthy discussions of automaticity versus intentionality (Van Orden & Holden, 2002) in self-control, as well as towards the determinative import of nature versus nurture. Lacking the space to include this piece of the discussion as well, I’ll simply assert that we should arguably pull the “versus” out in both cases and recognize the constitutive contributions of all four realities in various qualified, mitigated respects.

[12] Of course, the social science research foci of standard-/goal-attention, self-monitoring, and implementation are no less important here.

[13] I would file the discipline under both abstinence and engagement.

[14] It’s admittedly intimidating trying to gather even a partially representative sample of studies for a paper such as this, and it’s almost embarrassing trying to definitively conclude much of anything on the basis of them.


I recently took a look at the cast of my all-time favorite television show, The Office, through the lens of the DSM-IV-TR only to find that at least five (and potentially more) of the main characters arguably meet criteria for some personality disorder. No doubt, this plays into the show’s comic genius (in my humble opinion). Among these characters stands the excessively invested, cheer-deprived, and supremely anal Angela Martin, the head of accounting. Angela arguably warrants a diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCP),[1] the particular mental health concern I will be examining below.

According to the DSM-IV-TR, “A Personality Disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 685). These disorders are broken down into three broad categories, with OCP falling under the “anxious/fearful” Cluster C group, along with the Avoidant and Dependent Personality Disorders. This cluster accounts for the greatest prevalence of personality disorders in the general population and outpatient settings (Svartberg, Stiles, & Seltzer, 2004).

Per the DSM-IV-TR, “The essential feature of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is a preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency” (APA, 2000, p. 725). Sperry (2003) further specifies what he takes to be the optimal, or most useful, criterion for diagnosis—the display of perfectionism that interferes with task completion. OCP occurs in approximately 1% of community and 3-10% of clinical samples, as well as twice as often in males (APA, 2000). And despite the research revealing little correlation between OCP and OCD (Benjamin, 2003), the disorder is often comorbid with other Axis I disorders, most notably Social Phobia Disorder, simple phobias, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Dysthymia (Sperry, 2003).

In what follows, I offer an integrative discussion of social-scientific research and Christian thought as they pertain to OCP. I begin by attending to the research, wherein I render the originating and sustaining factors of OCP from a cognitive (or cognitive-behavioral) perspective, share and raise critical questions about the research, and discuss some important relational implications attending the disorder. I then shift to an integrative discussion of where a Christian perspective on the originating and sustaining factors behind OCP resembles and differs from that of cognitive theorists. I close with comments concerning perfectionism, God, and well-being.

OCP in the Social-Scientific Literature

In Cognitive Perspective

Leading cognitive theorist Aaron Beck and his colleagues capture the heart of their theory succinctly: “According to cognitive theory, the essence of a personality disorder is revealed in the dysfunctional beliefs that characterize and perpetuate it” (Beck, Butler, Brown, Dahlsgaard, Newman, & Beck, 2001, p. 1213). Similarly, they state, “When correctly identified, key dysfunctional beliefs reflect one or more conceptual themes that link a patient’s developmental history, compensatory strategies, and dysfunctional reactions to current situations” (p. 1214). The OCP’s beliefs here typically pertain to perfection, control, and personal worth, and the evidence of fear and shame is striking. Examples might include, “I can’t make a mistake or I’ll fail, and failure is unbearable,” “If I don’t keep everything perfectly under control, then intolerable, terrible things will happen,” and “If I make a mistake or lose control, I’ll be a worthless failure.” Such schemas, as the underlying cognitive structures are commonly called, “are thought to create vulnerability to disorders, because they act as templates for the perception, encoding, storage and retrieval of information” (Stopa & Waters, 2005, p. 45).

The two most common approaches to cognitive-behavioral therapy come from Beck and Young, respectively. Beck’s approach, the more traditional of the two, focuses on “the modification of automatic thoughts, cognitive distortions, and underlying assumptions,” whereas Young’s schema-focused cognitive therapy (or simply schema therapy, ST, for short) takes aim at “the deepest level of cognition, the early maladaptive schema” (Griffith, 2003, p. 133). These early maladaptive schemas (or EMSs), which Young places at the heart of the personality disorders, allegedly arise during childhood, are more unconditionally cast (e.g., “No matter what I do, I’m a failure”), are central to the person’s self-identity, and are vigorously maintained, which helps render personality disorders so difficult to change (Pretzer, 1994).

Cognitive theory, with its focus on these underlying constructs and internal dialogues, tends to concern itself with the perpetuation of the personality disorder more so than with its origin. This focus includes attention to more than mere cognition, however. Cognitive theorists also pay attention to ways in which corresponding behaviors affect one’s environment, which then reciprocally reinforces the maladaptive cognitions via a vicious cycle. Scholars speak of confirmatory bias (Griffith, 2003) and of compensatory strategies (Griffiths, 2003), acts of schema avoidance (Bernstein, 2002), and coping behaviors (Nordahl, Holthe, & Haugum, 2005), all of which tend to further reinforce and rigidify the schemas. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Young’s ST “combines cognitive-behavioral techniques with elements of interpersonal, experiential, and psychodynamic therapies” (Nordahl, Holthe, & Haugum, 2005, p. 142).

While cognitive theory in general would appear to place its greatest emphasis upon the factors sustaining a personality disorder like OCP, Young’s appeal to the EMS reveals that cognitive theorists do not neglect the originating factors behind schemas entirely. Many appear to broadly root the maladaptive cognitions in childhood, although the dynamics here tend to be explicated more by other theorists. Lorna Benjamin’s interpersonal construal (2003) delineates three main features of the typical OCP’s developmental history thought to characterize his or her family of origin and account for the symptoms noted in the DSM: the child was relentlessly coerced to follow rules and perform tasks perfectly (fueling the tendency in later adulthood toward perfectionism and inconsiderate domination of others); the child was punished for non-compliance, deemed horrible, and not rewarded for successes (fueling the adult’s tendency to focus on mistakes and to shame and punish oneself and others for making them); and rules were taught without personal involvement (fueling the adult’s tendency to be inaccessible, even if obedient, and to dull feeling).

As far as the biological import behind the personality disorder, opinions differ on whether biological predisposition plays any part. Paris argues for a biopsychosocial diathesis-stress model in which “genetically influenced personality traits determine the specificity of personality disorders” and “psychological and social factors would affect the threshold at which these personality traits become maladaptive” (1996, p. 98). He notes, however, the somewhat speculative nature of his perspective, which comports with our lack of any empirical evidence for a biological diathesis for OCP as of yet (Yarhouse, Butman, & Yates, 2005).

Research and Empirical Support

Leichsenring and Leibing (2003), in their meta-analysis of 11 empirical studies of cognitive behavior therapy with various personality disorders published between 1974 and 2001, concluded that cognitive therapeutic approaches are effective in treating personality disorders.[2] Beck and his colleagues have tried to specify connections between particular schema sets and particular personality disorders and have allegedly produced empirical support vis-à-vis at least five disorders, including OCP. They acknowledge that there may be some overlap in constructs, however, on account of the “common heterogeneity of personality disorder features and the rarity of ‘pure’ personality disorders” (Beck, Butler, Brown, Dahlsgaard, Newman, & Beck, 2001, p. 1215).  Nordahl, Holthe, and Haugum’s study of personality disorders in general lent support to schema therapy, showing that “levels of early maladaptive schemas were related to pathology and that modification of early maladaptive schemas strongly predicted symptom relief by the end of treatment” (2005, p. 142). Similarly, Svartberg, Stiles, and Seltzer (2004), in what they proudly contend to be the first study empirically evidencing the effects of cognitive therapy on personality dysfunction specifically, found such therapy to be effective in the treatment of Cluster C personality disorders specifically.

Despite such studies, scholars confess a dearth of research into EMSs as such. Stopa and Waters note a lack of empirical explorations of schemas and their measurements, stating, “While there is good experimental evidence for cognitive products such as negative automatic thoughts, for cognitive processes such as attention and memory, and for some of the underlying cognitive structures such as dysfunctional assumptions, the evidence for the existence of schemas remains largely at the level of clinical report” (2005, p. 46). No doubt, this might have something to do with the difficulties naturally inherent in verifying such constructs. If this is the case for schemas and personality disorders in general, then it’s probably all the more so for schemas specifically underpinning OCP. As Yarhouse, Butman, and McRay (2005) note, we probably know the least about OCP among the three Cluster C disorders.

Despite these concerns, the research supporting cognitive-behavioral therapy with personality disorders probably suggests that cognitive theorists are on to something. None of the studies I perused indicated the failure of cognitive-behavioral treatments with personality disorders in general or with OCP in particular. In terms of criticism, I might wonder about the ontological distinction between similarly seated schema and non-schema constructs. I might also wonder where there might be reliability concerns with the self-report questionnaires and other instruments of schema assessment, particularly with non-diagnosed subjects and particularly given the evidence that transient mood states can affect self-reporting (Stopa and Waters, 2005). I might also have questions about the use of self-reports as measurements of recovery.

In addition, we could use more studies of personality disorders sans comorbidity, as so many of the studies I looked at have personality disorders hitched to other Axis I diagnoses. We could also use some more research into non-Western people groups, as well as examination of any unnecessary Western biases underpinning cognitive theory (Alarcon, Foulks, & Vakkur, 1998). Finally, and related, I might wonder where overly linear and/or individualistic conceptions of thought-to-behavior influence exist to the neglect of important reciprocal, systemic, and other relational realities. As might be evident, I have more questions for cognitive theory than I do criticisms, per se. I wouldn’t say I’ve explored the research methodologies thoroughly enough to find any clear flaws.

Relational Implications

People meeting criteria for OCP experience a number of problems in their relationships with self and others. Indeed, the personality disorders are perhaps best known for the relational difficulties they entail. People with OCP symptoms tend to be highly self-conscious and prone to guilt, shame, and the fear of such. This would appear to be a big part of the motivation behind the overly scrupulous pursuit of perfection. They are profoundly demanding and self-critical in their own internal dialogues (Benjamin, 2003). As such, they have significant difficulty experiencing grace and forgiveness (Yarhouse, Butman, & McRay, 2005), as well as allowing themselves to experience positive emotion.

Benjamin (2003) also suggests, however, that the relevant cognitive distortions would appear to be functions of dysfunctional relationships in one’s developmental (an inherently relational) history, which the OCP tends to later duplicate as spouse and/or parent. People with OCP tend to relate to others—as spouses, parents, bosses, and otherwise—in utilitarian ways, void of authentic intimacy and prone to controlling rather than empowering. Of course, this is assuming their arguably avoidant attachment (Karen, 1994) doesn’t lead them to avoid relating to others altogether. And as we noticed above, the OCP’s patterns tend to elicit relational responses from others that reciprocally tend to reinforce those patterns and perpetuate the cycle.

Not surprisingly, studies reveal the dark cloud hanging over the OCP’s relationships. Research indicates that the presence of personality disorders in general correlates with increased likelihood of not marrying, of marrying early, and of experiencing marital disruption (Whisman, Tolejko, & Chatav, 2007), with the latter effect being the most pervasive.  OCP, in particular, correlated with the latter two. People with OCP typically enter treatment only after their spouses have become fed up with their demeanor and insisted they get help (Sperry, 193). Studies have also shown that OCP might predispose certain people towards eating disorders predicated upon the need to manifest the perfect body (Halmi et al., 2005). The fear of both failure and unpredictability attending the OCP type has also been shown to correlate with risk aversion (Chapman, Lynch, Rosenthal, Cheavens, Smoski, & Krishnan, 2007), which can keep people from pursuing the inherently risky business of rewarding, intimate relationships (not to mention empowering others).

OCP in Christian Perspective

How might a Christian lens render the origins of a disorder like OCP? The initial appeal might be made to the doctrine of original sin and the primeval Fall of humanity. The third chapter of the Biblical text of Genesis renders the account of humanity, newly created, violating God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the Garden of Eden. This violation leads to enmity between God and humanity, between man and woman, and between humanity and the earth. Man and woman experience shame (and fear) before one another and before God, evidenced in their covering their nakedness with leaves and hiding from God. Theologians also note the systemic consequences of the Fall, evidenced in our holistically compromised biopsychosociospiritual condition and in the compromised structures of existence, “those larger, suprahuman aspects or dimensions of reality which form the inescapable context for human life and which therefore condition individual and corporate human existence” (Grenz, 1994, p. 228). Perhaps nowhere else are such consequences more clear than in the multigenerational transmission of brokenness  and insecure attachment patterns in families (Karen, 1994), something arguably intimated in the scriptural passages surrounding God’s “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Deut 5:9).

Theologians appeal, then, to a doctrine of original sin based upon this primeval event and the New Testament commentary upon it. As theologian Millard Erikson states, “The key passage for constructing a biblical and contemporary model of original sin is Romans 5:12-15” (1998, p. 652). The most salient verse states, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned . . . .”[3] Whatever else is meant by this statement, it puts forth the Christian conviction that humanity has been sinful from the beginning and that negative consequences have followed for all of humanity since. So anything bad that obtains in the world—a mental disorder like OCP, for example—is thought to stem ultimately from humanity’s initial fall (complete with leap) into sin. Sin has generally been thought in Christian tradition to hinge on selfishness, pride, disobedience, a desire to be like God, or some other such characteristic. For all the variety evident in the different conceptualizations, their convergence most importantly, I would say, indicates the eminently relational nature of the sin construct.

Interestingly, humanity’s original sin, according to the biblical narrative, was in part precipitated by lies and deception.[4] Satan (literally, “the Adversary,” referred to as “the father of lies” in John 8:44) denies God’s claim about the consequences of death (“You will not certainly die”) and questions his command and motivation before Eve (“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”). In so construing God’s the situation, the Adversary casts suspicion upon God’s motivation and, most importantly I would say, his trustworthiness. God has not issued the command in the best interests of humanity, much less in truth; he has issued it out of his selfish concern to hold all of the cards.

All in all, then, a Christian perspective on the ultimate origins of a personality disorder like OCP has some common ground with the cognitive theorists in that it points back to lies, or distortions of the truth (a cognitive matter), that were instilled early on and which presumably influence human decision-making and behavior.[5] There are differences, of course. The mainstream social science makes no appeal to any command of God, primeval fall, cosmic Adversary, or sin, even if the mainstream mental health field does seem to be making more room for the import of spirituality and spiritual concerns in therapy these days (Pargament, 2007; Walsh, 2008). In addition, the Christian scriptures generally remain silent on matters of biological import and attend only minimally to developmental concerns. Nor do theologians tend to concern themselves with discovering, much less unpacking the nature of, the schema construct as such. As for tying particular sets of false beliefs to particular disorders in Beckian fashion, some theologians might, if anything, be more prone to reducing mental disorders, most fundamentally, to disbeliefs about God in particular.

As for a Christian conception of the continuation of OCP patterns, the case has been made that such mental disorders are, in fact, sustained by self-reinforced deception about God, others, and self. Christian practitioners William Backus and Marie Chapian, in their Beck- and Ellis-based contribution to the self-help literature,[6] Truth Talk (1995), contend that “misbeliefs are the direct cause of emotional turmoil, maladaptive behavior, and most so-called mental illness” (p. 17). For Backus and Chapian, it is the reinforcement of falsehoods through our internal dialogues—or “self-talk”—that perpetuates many diagnosable patterns. They appeal to Jesus’ words in John 8:32 that the truth shall set people free (presumably implying that the lack thereof enslaves). They appeal to the Old Testament proverb (Prov 23:7) that “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (as the King James Version, anyhow, renders it). To these, we might add prescriptions like that of Romans 12:2—“Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” [7]

Indeed, the very idea of God revealing himself through propositional truths to humanity and engaging in dialogical persuasion suggests that beliefs can motivate behavior, even if volitions, relational contexts, and other factors undeniably contribute to the bigger picture. While Christianity does appeal to the generous works of God and to the regenerative import of the Holy Spirit in bringing people to the truth about God in a salvific sense, the scriptures do seem to attest to the part that beliefs play in a person’s overall formation. For the most part, despite their divergence on metaphysical issues, cognitive and Christian perspectives on OCP seem quite amicable, at least in their takes on the fundamental import of cognitive distortions in personal and relational dysfunction.


This paper has amounted to a very cursory explication of select cognitive and Christian perspectives on OCP, a disorder marked by the compulsive pursuit of perfection. We saw that the two theoretical camps seem compatible enough, at least on the basic process level. While I don’t have room to thoroughly explore it here, we might wonder more about how Christian conceptions of divine perfection contribute to spiritual, relational, and associated behavioral problems in good cognitive fashion. Christian thought takes God to be perfect in goodness (character, love, etc.) and greatness (power, grandeur, etc.). According to Matthew 5:48, interestingly enough, Jesus places a thought-provoking call upon his followers: “Be perfect, therefore, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Where are such motifs taken to maladaptive extremes, and where might theologians be more careful in their conceptions of divine perfection and God’s perfect demands upon humanity?

Interestingly, the research has shown some correlation between religiosity and perfectionism (Ashby & Huffman, 1999) and that people with images of God as the demanding, omni-controlling perfectionist experience less spiritual well-being (Kunkel, 1999; Wong-McDonald & Gorsuch, 2004). Research also suggests that people experience more well-being when they believe the locus of control in their experience rests in both themselves and God over the course of their lives, rather than in one or the other alone (Wong-McDonald & Gorsuch, 2004). One wonders what this might say about conceptions of perfect sovereignty in a relational cosmos. Perhaps more of the weary faithful, and any OCP sufferer in general, could afford to embrace a “better version of perfection” (Benjamin, 2003, p. 260), one that says more about divine and human relational empowerment.


Alarcon, R. D., Foulks, E. F., & Vakkur, M. (1998). Personality disorders and culture. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed. Text Revision). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.

Ashby, J. S. & Huffman, J. (1999). Religious orientation and multidimensional perfectionism: Relationships and implications. Counseling & Values 43(3), 178-189. Retrieved May 27, 2009, from the EBSCO MegaFILE database.

Backus, W. & Chapian, M. (1995). Truth talk. New York: Inspirational Press.

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Benjamin, L. S. (2003). Interpersonal diagnosis and treatment of personality disorders (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.

Bernstein, D., (2002). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders in patients with histories of emotional abuse or neglect. Psychiatric Annals 32(10), 618-628. Retrieved May 27, 2009, from the ProQuest Psychology Journals database.

Chapman, A. L., Lynch, T. R., Rosenthal, M. Z., Cheavens, J. S., Smoski, M. J., & Krishnan, R. R. (2007). Risk aversion among depressed older adults with obsessive compulsive personality disorder. Cognitive Therapy & Research 31(2), 161-174. Retrieved May 27, 2009, from the EBSCO MegaFILE database.

Erickson, M. J. (1998). Christian theology (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids: Baker.

Grenz, S. J. (2000). Theology for the community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Griffith, L. F. (2003). Combining schema-focused cognitive therapy and psychodrama: A model for treating clients with personality disorders. Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama, & Sociometry 55(4), 128-140. Retrieved May 27, 2009, from the EBSCO MegaFILE database.

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Haslam, N., Reichert, T., & Fiske, A. P. (2002). Aberrant social relations in the personality disorders. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 75(1), 19-32.

Karen, R. (1994). Becoming attached. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kunkel, M. A., Cook, S., Meshel, D. S., Daughtry, D., & Hauenstein, A. (1999). God images: A concept map. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38(2), 193-202. Retrieved May 27, 2009, from the EBSCO MegaFILE database.

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Pargament, K. I. (2007). Spiritually integrated psychotherapy. New York, Guilford.

Paris, J. (1996). Social factors in the personality disorders. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Sperry. L. (2003). Handbook of diagnosis and treatment of DSM-IV-TR personality disorders (2nd ed.). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

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Walsh, F. (Ed.) (2009). Spiritual resources in family therapy (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.

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Yarhouse, M. A., Butman, R. E., & McRay, B. W. (2005). Modern psychopathologies. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

[1] According to common practice, and despite my concerns with reductionism vis-à-vis identity, I will use OCP throughout this paper to refer differentially to the disorder and to someone diagnosed with it. And, of course, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is not to be confused with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (commonly dubbed “OCD”), the anxiety disorder seen in those who compulsively wash their hands, check door locks, and so forth.

[2] None of their studies, however, focused specifically on OCP.

[3] All scripture passages come from the TNIV (Today’s New International Version of the Bible).

[4] I, for one, do not believe that evangelical theologians pay enough attention to this. Instead, they seem to move almost immediately to concerns with human volition.

[5] The account of the Fall raises the interesting question of whether humanity still would have sinned without this deception—this cognitive distortion, if you will—on the part of the Adversary, perhaps out of sheer selfishness, a desire to be like God, or something similar. From what I gather, most theologians in my evangelical heritage would say yes. I’m at least hesitant to say so, however, even if our conjectures here do have to be somewhat speculative.

[6] The influence of Ellis’ Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy is particularly evident.

[7] One might wonder whether the verse from Proverbs hangs too precariously on a questionable translation to be construed as clear support for the cognitive position. One could also contend that the Johannine and Pauline passages lend at least as much, and quite possibly more, credence to more interpersonal and holistic perspectives as they do to a cognitive one. Given the immediate context provided by John 8:31, the knowledge of the truth that sets one free is acquired in the relational context of following Jesus and his teachings. And given the immediate context provided by Romans 12:1, the renewing of the mind that transforms the self would apparently occur as one offers one’s body to God as a living sacrifice. Such passages caution us against forming thoroughly linear, individualistic, or disembodied conceptions of personal or behavioral formation.

For mental health researchers, educators, and practitioners, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has long constituted the standard reference guide in the field. Having gone through a number of editions and revisions over the years (1952, 1968, 1980, 1987, 1994, and 2000), the hefty manual directs the traffic, you might say, in the field of mental health. Until the fifth edition surfaces in the near future, the textually revised fourth edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) will remain the chief reference point among mental health professionals. In its own words, “The purpose of the DSM-IV is to provide clear descriptions of diagnostic categories in order to enable clinicians and investigators to diagnose, communicate about, study, and treat people with various mental disorders” (p. xxxvii). In what follows, I will offer my own estimation of ways in which this latest volume is more and less helpful (if not harmful) to mental health treatment.

The DSM-IV-TR as More Helpful

The expressed purpose of DSM-IV-TR, stated above, reveals what may be the most important of the volume’s helpful contributions to the field—the provision of a professional language. Without a common language—and with it, categories—communication becomes extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible. Of course, any attempt to devise a common language for the masses beckons those undertaking the effort to recognize and include as many voices as possible. The weighty tome admirably reflects just such an attempt in its large number of contributors and teams and in their commendable (nevertheless imperfect) efforts to render it as theoretically neutral as possible (Yarhouse, Butman, & McRay). And just as languages morph and expand over time—with dictionaries rightly following suit—the manual’s history appropriately evidences an ongoing awareness of the need for revision.

The care with which the DSM-IV-TR has been developed merits some commendation as well. As the editors themselves note, “It is our belief that the major innovation of DSM-IV lies not in any of its specific content changes but rather in the systematic and explicit process by which it was constructed and documented” (p. xxiv). The volumes empirical anchoring is also evident: “The Task Force on DSM-IV and its Work Groups conducted a three-stage empirical process that included 1) comprehensive and systematic reviews of the published literature, 2) reanalyses of already-collected data sets, and 3) extensive issue-focused field trials” (p. xxvi). This reflects its contributors’ desires to have the volume’s reflections and formulations rooted in and drawn from real experience on the ground, rather than merely synthetic of purely a priori sentiments and theories. The volume’s already being so anchored in real experience can increase our confidence that it will apply in some helpful ways to the experiences that lie before us.

I consider several specific dimensions of the volume’s structure and content to be helpful as well. It’s quite readable, for starters. Each disorder’s section is organized in user-friendly fashion and flows rather easily. The manual’s introductory material concerning its terminology and usage is also helpful. In addition, the attempt (however imperfect) to provide conceptual clarity between disorders and support differential diagnosis is important. Categories must be sufficiently distinguished if we’re to avoid conflating things which are best kept distinct.[1] The multiple-axes system, provision for multiple diagnoses, and recognition of contextual/cultural import are valuable as well and reflect attempts to avoid excessive reductionism (Wylie, 1995; Yarhouse, Butman, & McRay, 2005).

Of course, a certain measure of reductionism is arguably inevitable in any system of language. Language trades in categories, and categories, by nature, are abstracted from the concrete particulars and, thus, are arguably bound to capture those particulars imperfectly at best. Similarly, only so much can be done in one volume before the attempt to “be all things to all people” vitiates any hope for order, intra-/inter-communal understanding, and collective productivity. I find commendable the volume’s authors making important qualifications and reflecting an awareness of the volume’s limitations in certain respects: challenging the rigidity of axis and disorder distinctions, as well as the uniformity of those to whom a particular category is applied (p. xxxi); challenging rigid distinctions between the biological, psychological, and social dimensions of “mental” disorders (p. xxxv); and noting the volume’s lack of attention to etiology and to personal behavioral control with respect to particular disorders (p. xxxiii).

The DSM-IV-TR as Less Helpful (If Not Harmful)

Interestingly, the manual’s qualifiers and acknowledgement of its own limitations has by no means preempted criticisms from being launched against the volume and its methodology, several on account of the very imperfections acknowledged. Wylie (1995) notes where some have charged the volume with lacking holistic, biopsychosocial insight, as well as with rendering categories of axes or disorders insufficiently distinct (see also Carter, 1994). Yarhouse, Butman, and McRay (2005) note the lack of etiological import, and Carter contends that such a lack leads to “arbitrariness in cutoff inclusion criteria” (p. 284). Scholars have also criticized its formulators for attempting to make the volume atheoretical and everything to everyone, likewise criticizing the volume for offering relatively meager attention to socio-cultural dimensions of human dysfunction (Wylie, 1995).

I suspect the relative degree of silence on biopsychosocial (not to mention biopsychosociospiritual) holism, and with this the over-focus upon empirical and individual pathology—to the neglect of relational, systemic realities—does render the volume less helpful than it would otherwise be. Does it render the volume more harmful than helpful? I’m not sure how to answer such a question, although I’d be inclined to say that it is properly those using the manual—and not necessarily the manual itself—who will principally determine its potential for harm. More etiological explanation, of course, would also be helpful, although I’m not sure how much we should indict the volume for not attempting to establish what is so difficult to decisively establish anyway (viz., causality) and what, at any rate, is perhaps better fit for a supplemental or companion volume.

Such a diagnostic system does harbor some more clearly dangerous potentialities, however. Despite all qualifications to the contrary, slapping an “official” diagnosis upon a person does have a way of leading people to view them reductionistically. It lays great emphasis upon their dysfunction (to the neglect of their strengths and potential), can reduce them to their symptoms (Wylie, 1995), and has a way of “stopping the conversation” (Gergen, Hoffman, & Anderson, 1996, p. 111). For Gergen, Hoffman, and Anderson, “Diagnoses, official and unofficial, often concretize identities that limit people; they create black boxes with few, obscure exits; and they form obstacles to more viable and liberating self-definitions” (p. 106). Such comments are applicable both to the broader community’s perceptions of the person diagnosed and to the diagnosed person’s self-perception. The client and others might also be quick to think that a diagnosis may serve to license questionable behavior. I have to wonder, however, if the greatest danger attached to the DSM diagnostic system might lie in the corporate financial interests that fund its research and determine who merits treatment on the basis of it (Wylie, 1995).


I’ve noted a number of respects in which I find the DSM-IV-TR to be helpful to the mental health field, as well as a number of ways in which I find it to be less helpful, if not potentially harmful. Do the potential dangers render the volume, overall, more harmful than helpful to the mental health profession? I don’t know how to answer that. At this point, I’m content to see the manual as more helpful on certain counts and less helpful on others. Perhaps the forthcoming fifth edition will increase the ratio in favor of the former.


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (text revision) (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Carter, J. D. (1994). Psychopathology, Sin, and the DSM: Convergence and Divergence. Journal of Psychology and Theology 22(4), 277-285.

Gergen, K. J., Hoffman, L., & Anderson, H. (1996). Is diagnosis a disaster? A constructionist trialogue. In F. W. Kaslow (Ed.). Handbook of relational diagnoses and dysfunctional family patterns. (pp. 102-118). New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Wylie, M. S. (1995). Diagnosing for dollars. Networker (May/June, 1995), 23-33, 65-67.

Yarhouse, M. A., Butman, R. E., & McRay, B. W. (2005). Modern psychopathologies. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

[1] Of course, this begs the question of whether and where some distinctions might be artificially imposed, perhaps to the detriment of systemic awareness or in ignorance of genuine overlap. It also begs the question of why we insist on the particular distinctions we do (e.g., whether they are motivated by more than merely conceptual clarity).

we watch it crumble
we watch it fade
this broken world you came
and you lived and died to save
we watch it struggle
and strive in vain
but hope is rising up
and singing from the grave

the kingdom is now
we shout it out loud
we can see the power of your
spirit coming down
the kingdom is now
we shout it out loud
the kingdom of your grace
redeeming us today
with the power of your love

we’ve felt the sorrow
we’ve felt the shame
we know you bore it all
and there’s healing in your name
in times of trouble
in the times of pain
our hope is rising up
and singing from the grave

lord our savior god and king
we find our healing in your reign

Copyright © 2009 Shane Moe

i take this 7:30 train
to earn my keep another day
take a seat here beside a gray-haired man
with nothing to his name
and i’ve got 30 years to see
if i’ll be him like he was me
just watching life keep passing by
while I’m passing away

god i’m falling on my knees
trying to find the little peace I need
to make it through the week
to see what you can do for me
i’ll be calling out your name
down here begging for a change of scene
to get me through the day
till you’ve got me on my feet

i keep praying for escape
to find some means to get away
’cause this same old 9 to 5 right now
is more than i can take
i just need it off of me
so i can breathe for heaven’s sake
two seconds of your time
is all i need from you today

are you listening to me
are you listening to me
’cause I’ve been on my knees all week

i’m still sitting on the train
and i’m sinking in the seat
seems like nothing’s gonna change
no nothing’s gonna change
if you’re not listening to me

Copyright © 2009 Shane Moe

I made a trip to the University of Minnesota yesterday to hear Dallas Willard (a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California at Berkeley and noted Christian author) deliver a lecture entitled “Theology and Worldview in the Research Project.” Willard delivered his 30-minute lecture to a room largely full of U of M students and academics (i.e., the researchers), most of whom I suspect were Christian (based on the Q and A afterward). The trip was particularly meaningful to me, as I would consider his book The Spirit of the Disciplines to be among the most (if not the most) insightful and apropos I’ve read. Willard is also well-known for embodying in profound ways the Christian faith he proclaims. The man actually lives the Sermon on the Mount. And here’s a guy who is teaching philosophy in a secular department in a secular university, the heart of the contemporary intellectual assault upon Christianity. I deeply admire his belief in and demonstration of holistic and integrated thinking and living—and I admire the fact that he does it while surrounded by brilliant academics who think he’s out to lunch when it comes to his Christian convictions.

Willard basically spoke about the worldview transition we have witnessed in universities and other mainstream institutions of higher education in relatively recent history. There was a time when universities sought to produce morally grounded, cognitively integrated citizens who were prepared to better their societies. This agenda was grounded in a worldview that included a God who gave life ultimate meaning and who gave humanity knowledge of what is good. But universities have since become institutions where matters of God and morality are no longer considered valid components in one’s cognitive framework. As Christian philosopher and apologist J.P. Moreland argues in The Kingdom Triangle (a fantastic recent work of theological/philosophical/lifestyle integration), such areas of inquiry are no longer taken to be domains of genuine knowledge. Rather, they are at best areas of opinion and speculation. (Read Moreland’s book, the first third of which does a nice job of tracing this history and discussing its problematic consequences.)

Willard spoke of the “questionable epistemic respectability” and “question-begging nature” of secular universities and noted that they are typically “closed-minded and bigoted” concerning religious claims. He stated that universities were originally founded, in large part, to help people “find knowledge to base life upon.” And education, whether past or present, is “an essentially moral enterprise,” one which will produce citizens who will assume certain answers to questions of God, morality, and the like that will impact the way they live their lives—whether we (or they) like it or not. The question is, what kinds of citizens is the contemporary university going to produce with the worldview(s) it currently promotes? And what are these leaders and citizens going to think of morality—or what it means to “live rightly”—after they’ve graduated? (Cue Wall Street in the recent media.) For the universities to saturate society’s future leaders and citizens with a worldview that permits no ultimate ground for morality and, thus, no grounded knowledge of how to live relationally in this world—while tacitly expecting them to live good lives for the benefit of society—is socially suicidal (for lack of a better expression).

I thought Willard was dead on in his assessment, although the alternative he proposes (namely a God-grounded, morality-grounding worldview) is not without some substantial difficulties of its own. I addressed this with him during the Q & A time. Willard had commented during his lecture that universities offer no method for pursuing answers to life’s “big questions,” whereas the other sciences all pretty much have their methods for their respective areas of inquiry. I mentioned Etienne Gilson’s profound observation in The Unity of Philosophical Experience that attempts throughout history to answer the “big questions” of metaphysics through the methods of some other science (through the methods of mathematics, physics, sociology, etc.) have always wound up resulting in skepticism about answers to those metaphysical questions. For Gilson, this is because they are using the wrong method for the science (of metaphysics)—the wrong tool for the job. Square peg, round hole. I think Gilson is dead on as well.

But this raises the big question, which I asked Willard—what might be said for a method for pursuing answers to those big questions? I mentioned that I think that one reason why much of higher education writes off knowledge of the metaphysical these days is precisely because these scholars (who are all about research methods) would say that humanity can’t seem to find any even broadly agreed upon and/or adequate method for going about it that clearly produces reliable positive results. They feel like humanity has tried and failed time and time again, and they’ve become convinced that no method is forthcoming. (Granted, they’re probably assuming a lot about verification here, but that’s for another blog.)

I admit I didn’t like the answer Willard gave me. He just reiterated the critical importance of morality for any such method—essentially reiterating his lecture’s main point—but said little more than that. I responded that while we might take an objective morality component and grounding worldview to be necessary, it is by no means sufficient—because even if you grant the existence of an objective morality or religious absolute of some kind, you still run into the problem of pluralism. Whose method of metaphysical inquiry and whose metaphysical assumptions (starting points) among the various religions are you going to go with? Not only do the different religions come with their own approaches and assumptions, but each religious camp (Christianity included) has a great deal of variation and disagreement within it. Whose rationality (cue MacIntyre), whose religion, or even whose Christianity are you going to go with?

So all in all, while I think Willard is absolutely right that universities should acknowledge the inevitably moral nature of education and ground it (and their research) in an appropriate worldview/metaphysics, selecting the particular method that academia should use to justify that worldview/metaphysics—and, thus, selecting that particular worldview/metaphysics itself—seems to be the principal problem we inevitably run into. (Saying there is no method doesn’t help us much either.) And the problem here, of course, is inter- and intra-religious/philosophical pluralism and disagreement. No doubt this is partly why many are saying that the greatest challenge facing Christianity today is pluralism. I’m inclined to think they’re right. The broadly Judeo-Christian worldview has lost its intellectual throne in our culture, and the increasing pluralism surrounding us is going to press harder and harder against our confidence in the particular worldview/metaphysics that our parents, churches, favorite authors, etc. have given us. At least it will if we’re paying attention to and actually engaging the world beyond ourselves and our bubbles.

Now, what do we (all Christians in the house) make of the pluralism within Christianity alone, particularly given our belief in God’s presumably immanent and guiding Spirit? Maybe I’ll ramble about that next time.

Why isn’t God more obvious? This simple, yet profoundly deep, question has precipitated a great deal of discussion and disagreement among philosophers of religion in recent years, a conversation which I summarize here. Atheist John L. Schellenberg ignited the contemporary debate in 1993 with his full-length treatment Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason,[1] in which he argued for bonafide instances of “reasonable nonbelief,” for the claim that a God of unsurpassable love seeking relationship with his creation would evidentially render his existence beyond such doubt, and for the inference that no such God exists. Those possessing reasonable nonbelief, according to Schellenberg, are those genuine and painstaking seekers who, through no fault of their own, fail to believe that God exists and, consequently, cannot experience personal relationship with Him. And Schellenberg argued that no offsetting or outweighing goods would seem to obtain which may legitimize God’s permission of such nonbelief.

The primary avenues of response in the debate, then, largely break down into those which attempt to adduce such goods (the theodical) and those which do not (the non-theodical).[2] Theodical responses, for the most part, presume (even if only for the sake of argument) that something like Schellenberg’s reasonable (and “inculpable”) nonbelief actually obtains in some instances. Some proponents of such responses contend (via freedom arguments) that the human freedom necessary for genuine relationship with God would be jeopardized were God to make his existence obvious to everyone. Others argue (via presumption arguments) that God obscures his existence because he knows that some individuals would respond inappropriately were they given clear or compelling evidence. And yet others contend (via stimulus arguments) that God so operates in order to incite awareness of humanity’s wretchedness without Him or perhaps to goad the passionate inwardness of faith.

Among the less well-trodden theodical responses are those claiming that compelling evidence for God’s existence would stifle the intellectual virtue of seeking truth about the divine, eliminate intellectual diversity, or preempt corporate investigation, transmission, or engagement of the divine truths. In addition, many theodicists, regardless of their emphasis, are inclined to suggest that God’s “hiding” with respect to an individual is typically temporary, that He may hide from different individuals for different reasons, and/or that some combination of reasons may justify his doing so.

Now, non-theodical arguments, rather than adducing some good that allegedly underwrites the compatibility of God’s existence and reasonable nonbelief, tend to question either the implicit understanding of God or the existence of reasonable nonbelief. Regarding the former tack, some contend that God is perhaps more impersonal, that his greatness need not entail unsurpassable love, that our conceptions of God’s love are based upon faulty analogies (e.g., maternal love instead of a more general benevolence), and/or that God’s incomprehensibility should obviate any criticism. Those denying the existence of reasonable nonbelief take a number of approaches. Some hang on the deliverances of the sensus divinitatis, natural theology, or historical revelation (often with a ready appeal to Romans 1:20). Some point to the noetic effects of sin (and summon the following verse). Others argue that one may believe in God implicitly (through belief in the Good) or even experience relationship with God without believing in him (say, through a general attitude of faithful acceptance which lacks the more formal, propositional cognitive commitment).

To those offering theodical rebuttals (most or all of which might be considered “soul-making” in some respect), scholars endorsing arguments from divine hiddenness on behalf of atheism supply two primary rejoinders. First, they contend that the goods connected to the respective theodicies need not require the hiddenness of God in order for them to obtain. Secondly, they suggest that God could accomplish his respective good purposes here just as well, if not better, in a relational context where his presence is evident. Thus, it is said, God could safeguard human freedom, challenge presumption, stimulate appropriate inwardness, and so on equally well and potentially better while being cognitively and relationally present to individuals.

Atheistic scholars in the vein of Schellenberg challenge the non-theodical rebuttals as well. They contend that alternative understandings of God are irrelevant to the argument and the particular God whose existence it places in question. They remind their rebutters that benevolence is not love and that the God being discussed, if truly personal and unsurpassably great, must be at least somewhat comprehensible. Regarding the objections to reasonable nonbelief, Schellenberg and others take it as a matter of empirical fact that some nonbelievers “really do earnestly seek the truth about God, love the Good, assess evidence judiciously, and, if anything, display a prejudice for God, not against Him.”[3]

[1] Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
[2] I owe this schematization, and much of the structural tenor of my summative rendering here, to Daniel Howard-Snyder. See Daniel Howard-Snyder, “Divine Hiddenness.” In Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2nd ed., ed. Donald Borchert. MacMillan, 2006. Found online at
[3] Howard-Snyder, 4.

The Nature of the Atonement–A Response (click on link)


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