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Whose Virtues? Which Character Strengths? Positive Psychology in Christian Schools

Monday, 3 November 2014  | Alex Abecina

In his 1998 opening address as President of the American Psychological Association, Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania sparked a movement that has come to be known as ‘positive psychology’. Positive psychology arose in response to Seligman’s observation that much of modern psychology had placed an overemphasis on pathology and mental illnesses. He suggested that psychology should chart a new course which would enable it to identify and promote positive human character and virtues. Unlike the domains of philosophy and theology which have a long tradition of reflecting upon character, virtue, and human flourishing, positive psychology would be rigorously scientific and able to provide a list of virtues and character strengths that could be empirically verified. In this way, positive psychology is synonymous with the science of wellbeing.

Since Seligman’s APA address, positive psychology has garnered sizeable support and gathered much momentum through funding, research and publication (both academic and popular). One of its most notable achievements is the publication of Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,[1] a manual which lists six ‘universal virtues’—wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence—and twenty-four ‘strengths’ that fall under the six ‘virtues’. According to its authors, Character Strengths and Virtues is designed to act as a complement to Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (IV). The year 2006 saw the first issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology which publishes six volumes per year. In the field of secondary education, positive psychology has made significant inroads, largely following the lead of Seligman who claimed that the explicit teaching of wellbeing from a positive psychology perspective would lead to a ‘new prosperity’ among school age children (308). Furthermore, the year 2012 saw the establishment in Australia of the Positive Education Schools Association (PESA) whose member schools, several of which belong to Christian traditions, aims to “lead and promote the science of wellbeing and positive psychology, enabling all students, schools and communities to flourish.”

The technical vocabulary of the movement has been quickly adopted as a norm for speaking of Australian student wellbeing. For instance, Christian schools across the country have begun to opt for ‘wellbeing’ as a replacement for what has traditionally been called ‘pastoral care’. Further, Seligman’s so-called PERMA model,[2] which measures wellbeing in terms of Positive emotion, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment, has been applied as a standard multidimensional model for measuring student wellbeing. This year alone, three high quality academic papers have been published in rapid succession via St. Peter’s College in Adelaide, a flagship school of PESA, which applies the PERMA model to assessing staff and student wellbeing. In September of this year, St. Barnabas Theological College, Adelaide, in conjunction with St. Peter’s College, ran a two-day conference titled Flourishing in Faith: Positive Theology, Psychology and Education, which saw a number of international and local theologians, psychologists, teachers, and chaplains gather to discuss the relationship between theology and positive psychology and its relevance to teaching and learning. The influence of positive psychology upon Christian schooling in Australia has gained massive attention in relatively short span and looks likely to continue this trend for the foreseeable future.

In response to the growing influence of positive psychology, Christian psychologists, ethicists and theologians have actively sought to bring positive psychology and theology into constructive dialogue. James Gubbins, professor of interdisciplinary studies at Salem State University, finds much to commend in the positive psychology approach.[3] It is interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and employs several thoughtful and sound methodologies (186). Furthermore, positive psychology reports insightful findings on the relationship between gratitude, spirituality, and wellbeing (187). Nevertheless, Gubbins points to several internal and external challenges facing positive psychology. For instance, he notes an underlying lack of coherence between the six virtues and their corresponding twenty-four character strengths. Gubbins suggests that this arises from a failure of positive psychology to adequately define what virtues actually are. Indeed, he suggests that what positive psychology calls virtues are merely ‘abstract concepts’ that only play a ‘metatheoretical’ role in organizing the character strengths. In other words, Gubbins claims they do no real work in practice. Furthermore, Gubbins goes a step further and suggests that what positive psychology calls ‘character strengths’ are themselves also merely abstract concepts used to conveniently organise a disparate collection of terms co-opted from an eclectic mix of pre-existing contemporary psychological jargon and theories. Thus, it is not surprising that Gubbins believes that what positive psychology identifies as the character strength ‘hope’ bears little resemblance to Christian hope (194), and he suggests that this is because the movement fails to take philosophical and religious traditions seriously enough (194). For Gubbins, the psychological investigations of Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard, and Jonathan Edwards offer a superior account of ‘love’ than positive psychology’s character strengths are capable of. Despite his criticisms, however, Gubbins regards positive psychology as a friend rather than foe religious virtue ethics inasmuch as it opens up a means for genuine dialogue between religious virtue ethics and psychology (194).

Ellen Charry, professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, suggests that classic Western Christian psychology (CWCP) shares with modern psychology a basic orientation toward ‘curing disease’ via its commitment to the moral pathology of sin (288).[4] While she maintains the importance of retaining the concept of sin in a Christian account of psychology, Charry suggests that Christians ought to reflect more deeply on the things that positively encourage human wellbeing. In order to do so, she suggests we “must assume that God provides grounds for self-confident functioning that enables us to enjoy self-reflective morally good lives” (288). By locating Christian reflection on wellbeing in the doctrinal arena of pneumatology and the sacraments, Charry proposes that a Christian ‘positive theology’ might be anchored in the Holy Spirit’s work through the powerful baptismal rites of initiation and chrismation (291). In view of these rites, Charry claims that “Christian identity provides a solid floor on which positive psychology’s interest in resilience, emotional security, positive emotions and coping mechanisms, as well as the classic Christian virtues like compassion, empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, love and hope can build” (291). Charry suggest that there might be a genuine “exchange of gifts” between theology and positive psychology (291). Not only can theologians deepen their reflection on Christian identity from what they learn from positive psychology’s character strengths, but psychologist can look to Christian sacramental rites as a “therapeutic foundation” upon which to build character strength and wellbeing (291).

Charles Hackney, Professor of Psychology at Redeemer University College, notes that the work of Alasdair MacIntyre on virtue offers a connecting bridge between the tenets of positive psychology and the important work of Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy.[5] Nevertheless, he also notes significant divergence (214). Murphy’s privileging of the Christological virtue of kenosis (drawn from the writings of John Howard Yoder) does not correlate to any of the stated positive psychology virtues (214). Furthermore, he notes that Murphy believes that human beings have a clear telos that underpins their wellbeing, while the concept of an objective telos is something that is either denied, ignored or merely given lip service in positive psychology literature (214). Indeed, Hackney suggests that positive psychology may actually be a non-teleological approach to wellbeing which results from “filtering Aristotle through liberal modernity” (215). In addition, he calls for positive psychology to acknowledge that virtues and character strengths are dependent on cultural worldviews, which give rise to rival versions of human flourishing (215). In other words, positive psychology virtues and character strengths are not as universal and trans-cultural as they are purported to be. Despite these criticisms, Hackney believes that there are potential benefits of dialogue between positive psychology and Christian theological approaches to psychology and wellbeing. Like Charry, he suggests that there might be an ‘exchange of gifts’ of sorts between the two. For instance, he acknowledges that positive psychology has “an established track record of empirical research” (216) which would assist the integration of empirical evidence with Christian psychological reflection. Furthermore, Christian theological reflection might enrich the sometimes facile philosophical reflection on virtue and the ‘goodness’ of human nature that undergirds much positive psychology (217).

In view of the analyses outlined above, I suggest the following points that Christian schools should bear in mind as they consider the place of positive psychology in their school’s approaches to student wellbeing. My observations are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather suggestive of the kinds of issues that ought to be considered.

First, I believe that Christian schools ought to gladly welcome the language of virtue, character and flourishing that underpins positive psychology. Positive psychology, it seems, has recovered for psychology a way of speaking about human flourishing at roughly the same time that many Christians are rediscovering the virtue tradition.[6] Christian schools should be glad for the convergence of modern psychology and Christian thought and should seize upon the potential that virtue language has to integrate the delicate and even oppositional relationship that can exists between ‘pastoral care’ programs and ‘ministry’ in Christian schools. The concept of virtue, though also rooted in the world of Homer, Aristotle and Plato, is thoroughly biblical and at home in the Christian tradition. By drawing on the virtue tradition, Christian schools will find that its intellectual foundations, developed over centuries of Christian theological, pastoral and liturgical reflection, is vastly richer than the rather vacuous term ‘Christian values’ often employed by default in Christian schools with respect to their pastoral and ministry aims.

Second, it is important that Christian schools do not simply adopt the methods and terminology of positive psychology uncritically. We should be sceptical of the claim that the “six virtues” and the “twenty-four character strengths” are truly as univocal and trans-cultural as claimed by positive psychology’s key proponents. Christian schools should not assume that there is a direct correlation between the virtues identified by positive psychology and those identified by Christian traditions simply because they share some names in common. As Alasdair MacIntyre rightly noted in his seminal work After Virtue, virtues are historically contingent and bound to particular practices, traditions, and social roles.[7] Thus, just as MacIntyre showed us that there exist ‘rival versions’ of virtues within the West, Christian schools should realise that there will exist ‘rival positive psychologies’ under the one positive psychology banner. Therefore, Christian schools committed to integrating positive psychology into their wellbeing programs and curricula must articulate for themselves, “Whose virtues? Which character strengths? Which positive psychology are we actually seeking to encourage?” Those shaped by Christ, or of liberal modernity? And, “Which practices? Whose traditions are we actually commending to our students as we seek their wellbeing?” Those of the Spirit of Christ or rival ones that conform to the spirit of the age?

Third, following MacIntyre, Christian schools that seek to integrate positive psychology, especially Seligman’s influential and compelling PERMA model, must look to supply what the positive psychology movement as a whole largely disavows—namely, a stated telos or goal of the good and ultimately flourishing human life, informed by the Bible and the Christian tradition. As MacIntyre suggests, “Unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of the whole human life … it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.”[8] To be sure, Australian Christian schools are faced with challenges on this score, finding themselves having to operate within a broader culture that has eschewed the notion of a Christ-centred telos that constitutes the good of a human life. However, if MacIntyre is correct, in the absence of a clearly articulated telos of the good and flourishing life, our schools’ approaches to wellbeing risk becoming arbitrary, fragmented, and confusing for students, and may even unwittingly contribute to the very mental health disorders our wellbeing programs seek to combat.[9]

Finally, Christian schools ought to fully embrace the scientific approach that underpins positive psychology. This, it seems to me, is the greatest strength of the movement. Educators will be familiar with the great value of psychometric testing across multiple facets of secondary school life (e.g. in the areas of special needs and mental health), and so we should also expect at least some aspects of student wellbeing to be empirically measurable in some way. Schools should make the most of the methods developed by professional psychologists that enable the gathering and analysis of data that helps to monitor and assess students’ wellbeing progress. However, we need always to realise that the ‘scientific methods’ employed by professional psychologists cannot decide for us the vision of the good life that Christian schools seek to pursue. That, I suggest, is a matter for prayerful theological reflection by the school administrators, boards, and other governing bodies. Further, they cannot decide for us what aspects of wellbeing we want our students to report on. And so, again, even when it comes to the empirical domain of science and psychometric testing, Christian schools invested in positive psychology must yet return to the questions: ‘Whose virtues? Which character strengths?’

[1] Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[2] Martin Seligman, Flourish (New York: Free Press, 2011).

[4] Ellen Charry, “Positive Theology: An Exploration in Theological Psychology and Positive Psychology,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 30:4 (2011): 283-292.

[6] See Jonathan R. Wilson, "Virtue(s)" in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, ed. Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 811-814; and Nikki Coffey Tousley and Brad J. Kallenberg, "Virtue Ethics" in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, 814-819.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

[8] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 203.
[9] Liah Greenfeld, Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

Alex Abecina currently works as a chaplain and teacher in the ACT. He holds a MA in theology from Regent College in Vancouver.


I Terest
November 4, 2014, 1:13PM
The best review of this trend I have read. Particularly in the light of M Seligman speech at Aspen Ideas Festival, that Osam Bin Laden probably had a life that was, very high in PERMA. Thank you
You sensibly raise the potential for these programs to cause some harm. a good reason for school not to rush into the adoption of these concepts. Your concerns seemed confirmed in the paper by Saint Peters College on Positive Psychology in Sports coaching. A percentage of boys reporting they felt more anxious after the program. I hope the school is conducting these experiments ethically and with parent approval, as human research guidelines.

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