Professor Larry Olson

Christmas in the Wesleyan Tradition

An Interview with Prof. Larry Olson, Chair, Department of Psychology

Q: Thanks for taking time to discuss how studying theories of personality helps us better understand human behavior and society, especially from a Christian perspective where faith in Christ transforms personality.  Now, as we celebrate Christmas and the new year, can you explain how studying psychology illuminates and inspires the individual in society, the human condition?

LO:  Sure.  Great question!  In our Integration of Faith and Psychology course, we talk about personality theories.  Why do we need them?  Simply put, to better understand and even predict behaviors.  Freud tells us personality is formed at an early age and locks in individual behaviors deterministically.  Each person behaves in certain predictable ways.  Eric Fromm’s model says persons are free to be who they want to be.  This freedom produces anxiety.  To escape or cope with that, they enjoin authoritarianism to build structure for their lives, or they escape through self-destructiveness, or other destructive activities, or by what he called automaton conformity.  Both of those are quite deterministic. In fact, Fromm said if your dad was a peasant, you’d be a peasant. Erik Erikson offers a little more hope with eight stages of psychosocial personality development through which a person grows from interaction with social influences, leading to identity crises or turning points that shape the maturing personality.  B. F. Skinner’s focus is on operant behavioral conditioning and adaptation through reinforcement saying that there is no real construct as personality, only behaviors shaped by reinforcements and punishments.  Abraham Maslow posits humanistic self-actualization through a hierarchy of needs met where the person transcends self through peak experiences. It’s a little bit more hopeful. At least there is some way the “person” can grow!

At OCU we add to those models the Christian worldview where, through Christ, a person may have life abundantly, the greatest level of hope, achieved through His transforming power. This can give rise to a personality model that goes beyond all others.  Persons are transformed by Christ’s renewing of the mind and cleansing of the heart to enable becoming the person God designed and intended.

We approach the study of psychology from a “CFRR” perspective, that is:  Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.  Initially, God created perfect persons who could live forever, that is Adam and Eve. Then, sin came into the world bringing physical and mental ailment spun out of that sin and selfishness.  All forms of possible malady entered the world at that point. Then, Christ came to redeem all sinfulness, to restore minds and hearts, so persons can move toward restoration to perfecting the image of God—toward Christ likeness.  That’s an explanation in a nutshell. And that offers the greatest of hope. We are not locked in to a determined life pattern but are free to become all God intended.

Q:  Thanks!  Well now, let’s say persons live their full lifecycles, confess their sins, acknowledge faith in and seek salvation by accepting Christ. Will they know what happens when they die?

LO:  As Christ said to the thief on the cross, “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise.”  St. Paul says, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”  We believe in instantaneous rejoining with God.  About bodily resurrection when Christ returns?  The Scripture says the dead in Christ rise first.  John 3:16 says, “Whosoever” believes in Him shall be saved.  Wesleyan Arminians believe persons choose to be saved, to repent, choose to be born again through their own volition, free will.  God works in the person to will and do according to His pleasure, motivated by the Holy Spirit to think, do, and live Christ-like.

Q:  So, a person can’t make it so through good acts alone?

LO:  No. By the Grace of God are we saved, through faith, not by works.

Q:  A person’s acts can become more Christ-like?                                                                  

LO:  Yes, through the Holy Spirit, motivated out of a pure heart with love for others. Wesleyans believe there are two works of Grace:  The salvation experience where sins are atoned for, and, the person is born again with the Spirit of God living within.  The second work is deeper, when the person is on the path to spiritual maturity, and the person’s selfish sin nature is faced.  The person surrenders fully to the lordship of Christ to be purified wholly, to be fully God’s.

Q:   So, some persons have these crises experiences, significant turning points, for which they say, “I’ve experienced the Holy Spirit, experienced the in-dwelling, I’ve seen it.”  That’s not something that happened just during the first century of the early Church.  It happens today?

LO:  Yes.  All the time.  In our Wesleyan theology, we talk of Spirit cleansing.  There may be many Spirit fillings—anointing and renewing, as when the Holy Spirit speaks through the Word.  But, the world is a dirty, hard place.  We can get pulled down by it, so we need periodic refreshing.

Q:  Each year we celebrate Christ’s birthday and renewal of hope in the coming of a new year.  What’s the deep significance of these rituals?

LO:  Christmas is the beginning of the end of the Christian redemption story, of the fulfillment of His story. The redemption and restoration of man is fully underway with the birth of Christ. Man is no longer locked into a deterministic life (as some personalty theorists might say) but can find freedom and completeness in Christ.  And then, as a favorite professor here expresses it: “It is in Him that We live, move, and have our being.”

Q:  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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