Rather than taking an academic "psychology of religion" approach that would begin with data on human behavior and psychology, Margaret Alter takes what she calls a more "foolish" approach: she is willing to take the gospel stories at face value and build a psychology of human personality based on the teachings and life of Jesus. In Resurrection Psychology (1994) Alter reflects on the significance of Jesus' life and teachings while also observing how they align or diverge from "currently accepted theories of psychology."
In short, Alter asserts that Jesus reveals what it means to be a human being. She unpacks this assertion throughout the book by referring to Gospel stories, modern psychology, and real life anecdotes from her experience as a therapist. In my opinion, this is ultimately the strength of the book: Alter weaves together many genres - from scientific data to biblical exegesis to anecdotes, while writing from multiple perspectives as professor of psychology, therapist, and follower of Jesus. One may read this book as an academic and find lots of substance. Or, one may read this book as a "lay person" and simply enjoy Alter's insight on being human. The achievement of this book is that it reads as both.
Alter's thesis is founded on two basic assumptions that "underlie Jesus' understanding of human beings" (xix). "First, Jesus assumes the presence of a God of the universe, one who is in love with humanity and remains intensely interested and available. Second, Jesus assumes that all human beings are burdened with a need for forgiveness." (xix) Alter argues that Jesus' assumption is not just a religious hypothesis, but is actually a universal human experience that can be supported by modern psychology.
Psychological research, however, shows that shame is natural to human development and is characterized by our desire to be 'more' than we truly are (i.e. the experience of inadequacy). Part of being human, therefore, is the experience of shame. Alter observes that Jesus offers forgiveness to pretty much everyone he encounters, and he does this in two ways: 1) by receiving those who are burdened by shame; and 2) by awakening those who deny their shame through self-righteousness. Jesus reveals that, while shame is part of the universal human condition, the experience of forgiveness is also requisite for being human.
This assumption is central to Jesus' (and Alter's) approach to human personality and Alter never veers too far from this foundational assumption. Most of the book explores the human desire for certainty, safety, and security in the face of uncertainty, finitude, and morality. Thus, the centrality of forgiveness cannot be overstated. It is forgiveness that allows human beings to embrace inadequacy, error, wounds and scars. Ultimately, this is what makes a "resurrection psychology" possible: "When the worst that life might deal us can be so transformed, we encounter a 'resurrection psychology.' Our confidence lies not in preventing anything bad from happening to us, nor in seeking perfect healing of our psychological wounds, but rather our confidence lies in the transforming power of God promised to us through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ," (170).
If this book interests you at all, I highly recommend it. Here is my "sound bite" summary of Alter's 10 chapters.
1. The Centrality of Forgiveness - To be human is to carry shame and a deep need for forgiveness.
2. The Necessity of the Law - To be human is to live within limitations and expectations (i.e. accept our finitude).
3. An Answer for Perfectionism - Perfectionistic striving is a natural human neurosis because it is our attempt to feel completely safe. But God's fidelity to humankind gives us the courage to be ourselves.
4. The Holiness of Being Human - Jesus reveals holiness in the midst of human finitude and brokenness. Alter argues that we are holy precisely by gift of creation, God's choosing, the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection. (61)
5. The Function of Responsibility - Being human means taking responsibility for ourselves and responding to others as we are able ("response-ability"). Human responsibility should empower others.
6. The Danger of Certainty - To be human is to thirst for control, especially by way of belief systems. Jesus reveals that even belief systems are subject to uncertainty.
7. A Vocation of Concern - To be human is to embrace the world's suffering.
8. A Place for the Prophetic - To be human is to listen to that voice deep down within us that screams for justice and love. Many of our problems originate in our ignoring this piece of our humanity.
9. An Approach to Evil - To be human is to acknowledge the omnipresence of "evil" in each and every one of us through our attempts to be in control.
10. The Significance of Scars - Despite our rage that bad things should not happen, to be human is to live with scars and know that our scars make us credible agents for healing and redemption in the world.