The Science of Virtue

“Positive psychology” and “Christian virtues.” One and the same?

A few decades ago, the answer probably would’ve been a resounding, “No!” But in the last 10 years, since positive psychology has exploded in popularity and in empirical research, the two camps are more likely to not just nod to one another, but to shake hands, maybe even give each other a hug.

Positive psychology studies the virtues that all good believers want to develop. And not just Christians, but those who follow other religions too.

Mark McMinn, a highly regarded psych prof at George Fox University, is a Christian, and that’s the sweet spot where he’s landed—at the intersection of positive psychology, virtues, and faith. He serves as the director of faith integration in the Graduate Department of Clinical Psychology at George Fox, and recently wrote a book on the topic, The Science of Virtue: Why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church. The book recently won an Award of Merit in Christianity Today magazine’s prestigious annual book awards.

McMinn (PhD, Vanderbilt University) helped to launch the PsyD program at Wheaton College in 1993 before returning home to Oregon, and George Fox, in 2006. A licensed clinical psychologist in Oregon, McMinn has been researching clergy health and finding effective ways for mental health professionals and clergy to work together.

Mark is married to Lisa Graham McMinn, a sociologist, speaker, and writer. Together they run a small Community Supported Agriculture farm, using sustainable farming practices to grow fruit and vegetables, tend chickens, and keep honeybees.

ORBITER: What got you interested in the field of psychology?

Mark McMinn: I was a chemistry major in college, but I took a psych class my sophomore year. It was so engaging to me, so interesting, that I just couldn’t stop. I ended up double majoring in chemistry and psychology, and I struggled to figure out which field to go further in. I ultimately decided on psychology, and I’ve never regretted it. It’s a great field. As someone who’s always been interested in science, the thing that got me most interested is the idea that science could be done in a field that also values helping and compassion for people who are hurting. As a chemist, I would’ve essentially been working in the lab my whole life. I think I would have enjoyed that, but psychology felt like it would be more relational.

The church was pretty skeptical about psychology back in those days. As a person of faith, was that a hard choice for you?

I graduated from college in 1980. When my wife and I were getting ready to move to Tennessee for my PhD program at Vanderbilt, a concerned couple from our church said they were really burdened for us. They said they thought if we studied psychology, that we both would lose our faith. I respected this couple, so that was a heavy thing to hear. But we ended up going anyway.

Then, the very first day on the Vanderbilt campus, I got into a conversation with another new doctoral who looked at me and said, “What, you’re religious? You can’t possibly be religious and be a scientist. That’s not even possible.”

So there I was with two different voices saying, “This can’t be done.” But I guess I’m stubborn, because it seemed to me that it could be done. I’ve seen lots and lots of examples that have brought science and faith together.

The exciting is this: Here I am 35 years later, and most of the science I read in the field of positive psychology comes from Christians or people of faith. There are many, many Christian scholars in this field. So, clearly, it could be done. People just didn’t know it back then.

You helped found the Doctor of Psychology program at Wheaton, a fairly conservative Christian college, in the 1990s. Secular universities had had PsyD programs for years, so was that a stretch for Wheaton?

Seminaries had tried it before, and they were beaten up pretty badly; it was a really tough go for them. Fuller Theological Seminary did it a couple of decades before, and there were challenges—both from the faith community which would look suspiciously at psychology, and from the psychological community that would look very suspiciously at religion in any form, especially Christianity.

But those seminaries were the pioneers that paved the way for the rest of us. Still, even in the early ’90s at Wheaton, it wasn’t entirely easy. But it became a very good program, well respected. So that’s been a blessing of my career, watching how these things have changed over the decades, and in some small way even participate in that movement.

A lot of the old-school psych gurus didn’t think much of religion. Is that part of why the psychology community been so skeptical toward people of faith?

Yeah, I think so. Psychology is a pretty new discipline, and some of the early psychologists were pretty opposed to faith. It’s fascinating to look at a history and systems textbook in psychology and see how many of the pioneers of psychology were children of ministers or raised in homes of faith, and they decided against it and went into psychology as a sort of alternative way of looking at the world.

Early in my career there were people who said, “Religion will make you sick; religion makes you disturbed emotionally.” But scientists started studying this and found out, “Wait a minute, that’s not true at all. Actually, religious faith has all kinds of benefits, that helps people make meaning of life, and live richer and fuller lives.”

When you look at the data, it’s hard to argue that religion makes you sick. So, things have really changed, largely because of science. Harold Koenig at Duke has been a pioneer, a consistent researcher over several decades. His work has been monumental in terms of changing how people understand the relationship of religion and heath.

You left Wheaton and returned to Oregon and George Fox in 2006. Was positive psychology fairly established by then?

Yes. Abraham Maslow actually mentioned the idea of positive psychology back in the 1950s. There had been some early work on some topics that are now big in positive psychology. For example, forgiveness, hope, happiness, and wisdom—some things prior to the formal start of positive psychology. That was really 1998 when Martin Seligman, who was president of the American Psychology Association, said essentially, “We’ve done a pretty good job in the field of psychology of talking about what goes wrong with people and how to help them get better, but not a very good job at what goes right with people: What does human flourishing look like?”

Here we are 19 years later, and it is a flourishing field. Lots going on, lots of different topics about what makes life good, and worth living, and what makes people thrive. And I must add that the Templeton Foundation deserves a lot of credit for what has happened in these 19 years. They have funded so much of the work in positive psychology, and exploring the intersection between faith and science.

You overhear a conversation at church. A person struggling with severe depression is talking to two friends. One says, “You need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist; you might even need some meds.” The other says, “You don’t need that. You just need more faith, you need to pray more, you need to look at the sin in your life.” What would you speak into that conversation?

It’s actually a very realistic scenario, and it happens a lot. I would want to respectfully disagree with the second voice. While it’s true that our spiritual life has some bearing on our emotional life, it’s not a one to one correspondence. There is no reasonable way to somehow shake a person out of depression by simply telling them that they need to get their spiritual life together. It’s not anywhere close to that simple because there are myriad of factors that influence something as complex as depression. So I would find myself agreeing with the first person and find a way to communicate that to the person who is experiencing depression.

People of faith can mean well, but by trying to reduce it to religious platitudes can add so much to the pain. There’s a special psychological phrase called “the just world phenomenon.” That is when we tend to assume that if something bad happens to someone, there’s some explanation for it, and it’s probably their fault in some way. But that’s not the way the world actually is. Often, depression has two layers. You’ve got the depression itself, and then you have the depression about being depressed—and that’s been contributed to by all these comments over the years, that make you feel weak and inadequate and somehow like it’s your fault.

Your latest book is titled The Science of Virtue: Why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church. Are the terms synonymous?

In the book we use “the science of virtue” and “positive psychology” as synonymous. I say “we” because it wasn’t initially my idea, but when the publisher (Brazos Press) came up with the idea of “the science of virtue,” it rang true to me. That’s really what positive psychology is, is a scientific look at the topics we consider virtuous. And then the subtitle is saying these are topics the church has cared about for two millennia. The things we care about in positive psychology and the things we care about in faith communities appear to me to be very, very similar, so we ought to be in dialogue with each other about it.

The book explores six virtues—humility, forgiveness, gratitude, grace, hope, and wisdom. Are those things in our DNA or are they developed? Nature or nurture?

The more we see in psychological science, the more we know there’s all kinds of things in our DNA that we might not have guessed. All sorts of different dispositions in life seem to be related to genetic qualities. But of course, it’s both nature and nurture. The ways that we learn to be in the world are largely related to our early life relationships, to the habits we develop, to the faith communities we belong to, to the friendships we have . . . these are learned patterns.

One of the first things I did in writing this book is go back to the philosophical classic, After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre. One of my colleagues described it as the most important book on moral philosophy in the last half of the twentieth century. The book’s main point is that it’s hard for us to understand virtue these days because we’ve lost this notion of teleology—this idea that we are becoming, that there’s a wholeness to what it means to be human, and that we’re to aspire to that wholeness. The point is that a fully flourishing whole human person should have incredible amount of virtue because that’s what we’re created to be. So that sense of nurture, of growing toward this telos, that has to be part of the conversation if we’re going to really understand virtue. It’s not just the DNA; it’s also who we’re becoming.

So there’s hope for people who may be lacking in one or more virtues.

Absolutely. Look at the work of Everett Worthington, who has developed a model for how people can learn to forgive. He has so much empirical evidence that it works. For centuries, the Church has talked about forgiveness, and that’s good and right. Then people like Worthington come along and say here’s how to do it. So, we ought to be talking to each other.

So yes, there is hope for all of us, even me! My disposition is that I tend to run a little anxious. My wife of 39 years, Lisa, could tell you stories about that. So, one of my practices, especially since learning more about positive psychology, is to really lean in to the discipline of gratitude. This morning, I found myself reflecting on those people and things I’m so grateful for, and it ended up being an hour of just reflecting on the blessings and the goodness of life. It’s hard to be anxious when you’re doing that. It’s an incredible juxtaposition when you realize that gratitude makes anxiety evaporate.

At the same time, I want to make it clear that positive psychology is not the same thing as positive thinking. There are tragic things happening in our country and in the world. These are not things that we should just not be concerned about. These are things that should burden us deeply. We should do everything we can in our power to make the world more just and a better place. It’s not like trying to erase bad and just say, “Everything’s good.” It’s more that we confront, we acknowledge, we grieve the sad places of the world, while also finding ways to flourish and be hopeful and fully human.

What about people who are looking for a fresh start in life?

There is something beautiful about the rhythm of life, whether that’s the newness of every day when the sun comes up and you have a new start, or whether it’s the newness of another year or another season. Life comes with opportunities to start again, to think anew, to ponder what it might be like to live into the fullness of who we can be. That involves grace, because without grace, we have no hope.

When we think about fresh starts, like with new year’s resolutions, we often think more about accomplishments or performance, or eating differently or exercising more. So much of what we do with our life is about trying to get away from something—too much sugar or carbs, stop being anxious or depressed, getting away from things that are difficult. So maybe another alternative is to think not so much about what you’re getting away from, but what you are growing into. What would it look like for me to be growing in wisdom, in hope, in gratitude, in forgiveness? What would that look like? What sort of benefits would that bring to me personally but also to those relationships that I care about? How might that help make the world a little bit better place if I could really grow into a thing, rather than trying to get away from a thing?

We have to lean into grace, and an awareness of what it means to be loved by God.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Watch McMinn talk about his book and the intersection of positive psychology and faith:


Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine