Dominic Doyle, associate professor of systematic theology at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry (STM), and William Roozeboom, assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at STM, gave a joint lecture on Thursday evening as part STM’s public lecture series. Doyle and Roozeboom explored the connections between theology and psychology, and their implications for how Christians can live healthy, spiritual lives.
Doyle began the lecture by introducing the connections between theological virtues and humanist psychological therapy. Much like how the fundamental Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are at the heart of a Christian’s spiritual life, so to are the traits of acceptance, empathy, and authenticity in a humanist therapist, according to Doyle.
“This unconditional positive regard … is a nonjudgmental and deep-valuing of the humanity of the person in need,” Doyle said. “As such, the client’s experience … resembles a believer’s experience of God’s justification by faith, for just as conditions of worth are irrelevant for how the therapist sees the client, so achievement of works are irrelevant for how God sees a person.”
Doyle also emphasized that hope is not just something we receive from God, but from fellow believers as well. He said that God showed empathy through Jesus’s suffering on the cross, setting the example to undo human alienation from neighbor and God and encourage empathy with one another.
Finally, authenticity and charity allow the relationship to flourish, allowing the believer and patient to achieve spiritual or psychological healing. In this sense, Doyle likens these final traits as states of being, and peace or healing is achieved when what is experienced reflects reality. Anything less indicates that authenticity and charity have not been reached, and peace has not yet been achieved.
“If a person—for any reason—fails to love God, then God is experienced differently from how God is: for example, as wrathful, as distant, indifferent, and so on,” Doyle said. “The therapeutic notion of authenticity sheds light on the theological virtue of charity.”
Roozeboom then elaborated on recent neuroscientific discoveries regarding changes in brain chemistry and brain health, connecting these discoveries to how Christians can live true lives loving God, neighbor, and self.
He built off the connections between psychology and theology made by Doyle and introduced the three central commandments in Christianity: loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self. He noted that there was an important distinction between loving oneself and narcissism, expressing concern that many believers are not loving ourselves, and thus living an unhealthy spiritual life.
“In my experience, a lot of us have stopped listening,” Roozeboom said. “We love God and we love neighbor, and somehow self gets lets in the midst of that, and we equate that self-love to narcissism or hedonism.”
Fortunately, Roozeboom believed that neuroscience, particularly the concept of neuroplasticity, offered a way for us to achieve wellness of the whole, spiritual person in order to follow all three of the Commandments. Rather than seeing the body as something that contains the soul, Roozeboom encouraged us to see it as an integral part of the whole person.
Thus, he deemed it necessary not only to practice top-down spiritual self-care, but also bottom-up care of the body.
“Spiritual practices have always been a part of the Catholic identity,” Roozeboom said. “But if they aren’t a lived, daily experience, there’s not much to faith we’re professing. I think it’s important to note these embodied, performative practices.”
Roozeboom pointed to the concept of neuroplasticity, in which “the brain’s lifelong, dynamic capacity for change and growth through regular, habitual experiences and practices,” and explained how this can be applied to our spiritual lives, strengthening them and allowing us to live lives of better faith. Just like how repetitive practices help London cabbies and violin players do better with their work, Roozeboom saw the potential for us to do the same with our spiritual lives. He found this to be especially important for clergy members, who lag behind the general population in person health.
“As we use … repeated habits and practices … we’re strengthening our brain,” Roozeboom said. “The idea that we exercise the heart or muscles is seldom questioned … because they know if they take care of themselves, they’ll be healthier. But what I’m arguing is that the brain is no different. The possibility that behavior can change the brain is seldom considered … we perform our identity.”
With this in mind, Roozeboom created a five-part wellness model, composed of attunement, nourishment, physical activity, rest, and meaningful relationships. Simple, but habitually exercised practices such as meditation, movement, practicing Sabbath, having meaningful interaction with neighbors, and spiritual, intellectual, and physical nourishment will allow us to achieve this state of wellness of the whole human and help us become better reflections of God. Roozeboom also emphasized, however, the importance of actually performing the ritual, arguing that it serves no personal or communal use until exercised.
“As we spend time loving and caring for ourselves, our brain responds and our capacity to love and connect with our neighbor increases,” Roozeboom said. “What happens is people lose a sense of separateness between the self and others, and we have this experience of being at one: with one another, with all creation, and with God.”