Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sowing Abraham's Seed

Humanist psychologist, Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was very optimistic about human nature, writing in his Toward a Psychology of Being: "This inner nature, as much as we know of it so far, seems not to be intrinsically or primarily evil." On the contrary, human nature is "good or neutral rather than bad." In the introduction to the same volume, Maslow wrote: Destructiveness, sadism, cruelty, malice, etc., seem so far to be not intrinsic but rather they seem to be violent reactions against frustration of our intrinsic needs, emotions, and capacities." In response to the question of the origin of neuroses, Maslow wrote:

My answer...was, in brief, that neurosis seemed at its core, and in its beginning, to be a deficiency disease: that it was born out of being deprived of certain satisfactions which I called needs in the same sense that water and amino acids and calcium are needs, namely that their absence produces illness. Most neuroses involved, along with other complex determinants, ungratified wishes for safety, for belongingness and identification, for close love relationships and for respect and prestige.
Basic needs, said Maslow, possess the following characteristics:
  1. The deprived person yearns for their gratification persistently.
  2. Their deprivation makes the person sicken and wither.
  3. Gratifying them is therapeutic, curing the deficiency-illness.
  4. Steady supplies forestall these illnesses.
  5. Healthy (gratified) people do not demonstrate these deficiencies
Maslow described these "deficits" or "deficiency needs" as: "...empty holes, so to speak, which must be filled up for health's sake, and furthermore, must be filled from without by human beings other than the subject." Elsewhere he says that these psychological needs "may be considered as deficiencies which must be optimally fulfilled by the environment in order to avoid sickness and subjective ill-being." It is as important that psychological needs be met as it is that physiological needs (e.g., the need for salt, calcium, or vitamin D) be satisfied.

Maslow grouped needs into five levels that stood in a hierarchical and developmental relationship to each other. Beginning with the foundational level they are: physiological needs (e.g., food, drink, air, etc.), safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs (respect from others and for oneself), and the need for self-actualization (the ability to make the most of one's potential). Maslow proposed that we are most immediately aware of lower level needs but once they are satisfied, upper level needs become more apparent and have greater motivational force.

In that Maslow was seeking to construct a humanistic model of personality and motivation, it's no surprise that the concept of "sin" is absent from his system. Sommers and Satel write in One Nation Under Therapy:

From the beginning, Maslow's aim was to displace moral philosophy and religion with a science of man. Traditional religion, in his judgment, had proved inadequate. He proposed a "religion-surrogate." He said, "Throughout history [humanity] has looked for guiding values, for principles of right and wrong outside of [itself], to a God, to some sort of sacred book, perhaps, or to a ruling class." Maslow believed that he had found the basis for ethics and personal fulfillment in human nature itself.
Behavior and attitudes that are, from a biblical perspective, sinful, are not, according to Maslow, evidence of a morally corrupt nature but of frustrated needs. Assuming Maslow's diagnosis, the appropriate cure is not a new heart with redirected desires but satisfaction of the natural heart's yearnings. Neither the objects nor the intensity of our desires are the cause of the conflicts among us. Nancy Pearcey notes in Total Truth that "Every worldview...offers a counterpart to the Fall, an explanation of the source of evil and suffering. What has gone wrong with the world? Why is there warfare and conflict?" For Maslow, unfulfilled psychological needs are what bar us from Paradise.
This assumption about human motivation is deeply entrenched in the American psyche even among those unfamiliar with Maslow's work. What I find so astonishing (not to mention disturbing) is how influential and pervasive this perspective on human nature and behavior is among Bible-believing Christians. You don't have to search hard for it. It's propagated in sermons and popular Christian books, particularly those having to do with marriage. It's the lens through which we view life and even the grid through which we interpret Scripture.
Maslow was well aware that his motivational model was part of a larger worldview. In the preface to the second edition of Toward a Psychology of Being he described Humanist Psychology as "one facet of a general Weltanschauung, a new philosophy of life, a new conception of man...." Why, then, do Christians so readily accept and even defend this way of thinking about the human condition? Why does so much Christian teaching about why we do the things we do sound more like Abraham Maslow than Jesus, the seed of Abraham, the patriarch? I share the curiosity David Powlison expresses in his essay in Care for the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Psychology and Theology:

Why does one or another secular theory of human motivation almost inevitably control the Christian counseling theory at the punch line, where counseling engages the details of life as it is lived? In particular, why have "need" theories that define significance, love and self-esteem as the standard needs been so prominent when they are so alien to the gaze of God and the psychological experience of Jesus? Why has the most typical, and apparently the most vital, external contribution of psychology been secular motivation theory, the very thing that wrenches human life out of its true context and drains psychological experience of its essential characteristics? Why do integrationist theories fail to take seriously the specific, omnipresent nature of sin as the chief and most immediate problem in the hearts of those we counsel?
I'll devote future posts to further exploration of the influence of Abraham Maslow on the children of Abraham, including examples of this influence in Christian literature. Go to Part 2


Anonymous said...

Pastor Keith, it all keeps getting back to "People are Big, and God is Small" doesn't it? Our SELF esteem always seems to come before giving GOD glory. The Bible keeps pointing us back to the heart - why do we fight that so much? Jesus died for our sin. Hallelujah!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post - I am looking forward to more.

Rosemarie said...

Excellent post, Keith. I wish I had access to material like this when I was an undergrad studying psychology in a Christian college.

Lexie said...

"It's propagated in sermons and popular Christian books, particularly those having to do with marriage. It's the lens through which we view life and even the grid through which we interpret Scripture."

Will you be giving examples of those in future posts?

I've never explored Maslow beyond his pyramid until now.

Though I disagree with the foundational statements of his thoughts on basic needs, doesn't his pyramid have some practical applications on some level? If your basic physical needs aren't being met, you're less likely to be concerned about achieving your potential. You just want to eat.

However, does God call us to "meet our potential"? Is my question an example of how his theory has infiltrated Christian thought?

I'll be thinking about that as I look forward to your next post.

Thanks for the well referenced post.

Hope I didn't poke anyone's eye out while flailing my ignorance about. :)

KP said...

Thanks to all who commented.

Lexie, yes, I will be offering examples of what I have in mind. I may even get something posted today.

I do believe it's an accurate observation that we find it difficult, if not impossible, to focus on anything else when we are experiencing physiological needs. My problem is with Maslow's equation of strong desires with emotional or psychological needs. I'll say more about this soon.

Lexie said...

Thanks. Looking forward to it.

Chad said...

Good post KP. Have you read The Road to Malpsychia: Humanistic Psychology and Our Discontents by Joyce Milton? It's a critical look at the history of humanistic psychology and features Abe Maslow quite a bit.

KP said...

Thank you, Chad. I wasn't aware of the title you mentioned but you can be sure I'll be searching for it. Thanks for the reference.

James Fletcher Baxter said...

The missing element in every human 'solution' is
an accurate definition of the creature.

The way we define 'human' determines our view of self,
others, relationships, institutions, life, and future. Many
problems in human experience are the result of false
and inaccurate definitions of humankind premised
in man-made religions and humanistic philosophies.

Human knowledge is a fraction of the whole universe.
The balance is a vast void of human ignorance. Human
reason cannot fully function in such a void; thus, the
intellect can rise no higher than the criteria by which it
perceives and measures values.

Humanism makes man his own standard of measure.
However, as with all measuring systems, a standard
must be greater than the value measured. Based on
preponderant ignorance and an egocentric carnal
nature, humanism demotes reason to the simpleton
task of excuse-making in behalf of the rule of appe-
tites, desires, feelings, emotions, and glands.

Because man, hobbled in an ego-centric predicament,
cannot invent criteria greater than himself, the humanist
lacks a predictive capability. Without instinct or trans-
cendent criteria, humanism cannot evaluate options with
foresight and vision for progression and survival. Lack-
ing foresight, man is blind to potential consequence and
is unwittingly committed to mediocrity, collectivism,
averages, and regression - and worse. Humanism is an
unworthy worship.

The void of human ignorance can easily be filled with
a functional faith while not-so-patiently awaiting the
foot-dragging growth of human knowledge and behav-
ior. Faith, initiated by the Creator and revealed and
validated in His Word, the Bible, brings a transcend-
ent standard to man the choice-maker. Other philo-
sophies and religions are man-made, humanism, and
thereby lack what only the Bible has:

1.Transcendent Criteria and
2.Fulfilled Prophetic Validation.

The vision of faith in God and His Word is survival
equipment for today and the future. Only the Creator,
who made us in His own image, is qualified to define
us accurately.

Human is earth's Choicemaker. Psalm 25:12 He is by
nature and nature's God a creature of Choice - and of
Criteria. Psalm 119:30,173 His unique and definitive
characteristic is, and of Right ought to be, the natural
foundation of his environments, institutions, and re-
spectful relations to his fellow-man. Thus, he is orien-
ted to a Freedom whose roots are in the Order of the
universe. selah


MERRY CHRISTMAS December 25, 2006 AD