“My Journey as a Scholar of Faith” Lecture: Brent Slife

The following presentation was given by Professor Brent Slife on October 17, 2013 as part of the series, “My Journey as a Scholar of Faith.” This series is an effort to hear from faculty members how they came to teach and research in a way that is both spiritually strengthening and intellectually enlarging. Below the video is a summary of the presentation. We welcome your comments at the bottom of this page.

Brent Slife is a clinical psychologist who is currently Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University. He has been honored recently with several awards for his scholarship and teaching, including the Karl G. Maeser Award for top researcher at BYU and both “Teacher of the Year” by the university and “Most Outstanding Professor” by the psychology student honorary, Psi Chi. Professor Slife moved from Baylor University where he served as Director of Clinical Training for many years. As a Fellow of several professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, he recently served as the President of the Society of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, on the Council of the American Psychological Association, and on the editorial boards of eight journals. He has authored or co-authored over 200 articles and 7 books, including his most recent books Human Frailty, Vice, and Suffering: Flourishing in the Context of Limits and Dependency (in press, APA Books) and Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Psychological Issues (2013, McGraw-Hill).

In his lecture, Dr. Slife organized his journey around two important life events that served as turning points in his spiritual and academic journey. From each of these experiences he learned a number of lessons. He organized these two events and their lessons into the outline below. To this outline we have added a summary of each event. After the outline, we have posted the questions that were asked in the Q&A session following his lecture.

LECTURE OUTLINE

Part 1: Town Scandal

Dr. Slife grew up in a small hillbilly town in the hills of Missouri. At age 12, he participated in a routine class for confirmation in the United Methodist Church. Prior to confirmation, he was required to sign a document affirming his belief in 25 articles reflecting the doctrine of the church. Not completely sure of his beliefs, he asked for extra time to consider it and reluctantly his pastor consented.  He spent a few days talking to the pillars of the church about the 25 articles, and found that most of them were ignorant of the articles. This seemed wrong to him and he refused to sign the confirmation document. While this resulted in a minor community scandal, his mother, a devout and thoughtful Christian woman, was supportive of his thoughtful and deliberate choice. As Dr. Slife and a friend visited pastors in neighboring towns to ask religious questions, they found little help and much ridicule. He chose to be an atheist. His mother, though concerned, was supportive of his critical thinking about religion.

His atheism continued into college, where his philosophy major led him back to Christianity. He found that the things that made the most sense to him had already been espoused by Jesus Christ. He read the Bible, found resonance with characters such as Saul of Tarsus, and found evidence that Christianity is, and should be, a thinking person’s religion.

Lessons learned:

  • The intellectual is ultimately relational.
  • Courage requires background encouragement.
  • Christianity needs its deeply intellectual side.
  • Appreciating the “other” is profoundly important.
  • It is dangerously easy to argue one’s self into a corner.
  • The Truth can come from unsuspecting places.

Part 2: Religious Claptrap

As a clinical psychologist in his first year of graduate training, Dr. Slife was a newly-minted Christian with only a rudimentary theological understanding. Though he saw psychology as a part of his mission to help and heal, he was puzzled that his instructors talked about topics such as love, care and ethics without any connection to religious ideas. Religion was not seen favorably. A supervisor once laughed at a video of Dr. Slife working with a client who felt her unhappiness stemmed from her spiritual struggles. “Help her get out of that religious claptrap,” he said, and he instructed Dr. Slife to help her by adding reinforcements and pleasures to her life. Anxious to please, Dr. Slife taught her not to think of her happiness in relation to God at all. Though a Christian, she became functionally atheist when it came to emotional issues. Dr. Slife believes that had therapy continued in this way, she would have been persuaded to understand more and more of her life as if God didn’t matter.

Lessons learned:

  • The secular isn’t less value-laden.
  • Investigator bias can masquerade as scientific objectivity.
  • Excluding God doesn’t make research or practice less biased.
  • Secular explanations are alternative to Christianity.
  • We need a truly Christian voice in our disciplines.

Q&A Questions

  • What brought you to BYU?
  • Given the existing secular forces, what advice do you have for students who are headed to a doctoral program outside BYU?
  • What is a research topic that you have been encouraged in at BYU because of the connection of religious and secular here?
  • If you want to practice therapy that includes God, what if your client is not of the same mind?
  • Parker Palmer says that as humans we’re not objective—we’re passionate. What do you think about that?
  • How do we best avoid arguing ourselves into an intellectual corner?
  • Couldn’t this open a door to so many religious psychologies that we end up with an attitude of “anything goes?”
  • If you open up this space for different schools of religious psychology, couldn’t it lead to ontological and other problems?
  • Do you think having been atheist at one point has helped you own your Christianity?
  • Do you find that people from different nationalities can be more accepting of introducing God into psychology than others?
  • Your road to faith sounds somewhat like C. S. Lewis’ path. Will you talk about that?
  • What differences, if any, do you see between a Christian psychology and an LDS psychology?
  • Are there Christian insights into the human mind that secular psychology doesn’t appreciate, and what might be their implications for clinical work?
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