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Vol. XV • 1993

Secular Western Mindset or Biblical Framework:
The Representative Case of Alfred Adler
Paul D. Ackerman & Melanie Aronhalt

Alfred Adler is a psychologist unknown to most Christians today. He is not well known even among students of psychology Even so, his thought is a representative expression of the Western mentality, and his ideas are echoed both in contemporary psychology and present day Western culture. The degree to which Adler influenced rather than anticipated the trends of psychology and society is arguable, but one observer, Joseph Wilder, recognizing how most of the observations and ideas of Adler had subtly and quietly permeated modern psychological thinking, was led to assert, "The proper question is not whether one is Adlerian but how much of an Adlerian one is."'

The second of six children, Alfred Adler was born in Vienna Austria in 1870. At that time Austria was a great cultural center of Europe, widely renowned for its music, arts, and sciences. In its grandeur. Austria was a paradigmatic expression of Western culture and civilization. Adler's father was a merchant and able to provide "easy middle-class circumstances" for his family.2 As a child Adler was sickly, suffering from rickets and a breathing disorder that became life threatening during emotional episodes of crying or screaming.' As a result he learned to maintain strict emotional control over such outbursts, and the breathing problem went away. Adler's personal, self-willed progress over and against his many physical infirmities is one of the keys to understanding his psychology and view of life, just as Western civilization's technological and scientific progress is a key to understanding the secular Western mindset. Weak and sickly as a child, Adler, through striving and determination - as viewed from his vantage-point-became the picture of exuberant health in adulthood.

In 1935, just two years before his death, Adler emigrated to the United States obtaining a professorship in Medical Psychology at the Long Island College of Medicine. lathe later years of his life he thrived on an exhausting schedule of traveling, teaching, lecturing, work at clinics and with private patients, and preparation of papers and hooks to be published.4 During a quiet walk on the morning of May 28, 1937 in the midst of a lecture series at Aberdeen University in Scotland, he collapsed and died.

To understand Adler as a representative case of the secular Western mindset we must understand Adler in the context of the secular Western mindset. Writing on the history of psychology, Hergenhahn refers to the secular shift that occurred in the thinking of leading philosophers and scientists at the time of the Renaissance - 1450-1600. With the Renaissance the focus of intellectual thought shifted from God to man.5 Isaac Newton, for example, certainly retained belief in God and the general Christian world view, but Newton's work represented a shift away from the biblical framework in that it was leading to a view that although God created and set the universe in motion, God was no longer involved in the moment-by-moment sustaining of the universe.6 Hergenhahn has pointed out that for Western intellectuals, "after Newton, it was but a short step to removing God altogether."7 Whether or not Renaissance man realized it, the removal of God from day-to-day involvement in the affairs of human beings led inevitably to a radically different view of the nature of human beings and human life. With the banishment of God from his creation, "it was only a matter of time before humans, would be viewed and analyzed as just another machine operating in accordance with Newtonian principles."8

The Newtonian, mechanistic view of human life is seen most dramatically in behavioristic psychology. Behaviorists, like Watson, Hull, and Skinner, denied the existence of human mind and soul while studying only behaviors that were directly measurable. Man - male and female - was placed on a continuum with other living organisms, differing from animals only in complexity. A strict behaviorist view clearly contradicts biblical revelation, of course, in its reduction of human life to mechanical behaviors.1 Other movements in psychology, which give place for mind, choice, and power in human life, are more subtle than behaviorism in their threat to the biblical view of man. Adler's psychology, as the focus of this study, may seem more compatible with the biblical framework, but an examination of his thought reveals humanistic deviation from biblical teaching.

Adler began his psychology career as a disciple of Sigmund Freud after he wrote a paper defending Freud's theory of dream interpretation. With Freud's blessing, Adler became president of the Freudian "think tank," the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, but later resigned, as his ideas began to diverge from Freud's. Specifically Adler rejected Freud's emphasis on biological determinism and sexuality as the central explanatory principle of personality. Instead, Adler believed that the driving force of human personality was "striving for superiority," and he founded the school of Individual Psychology to further his point of view. Much of Adler's thought is compatible with a biblical framework, certainly more so than Freud's. For instance, Adler held that each person is a "unity" and that no single expression can be examined without reference to the total personality. Other aspects are blatantly contradictory to Scripture, such as his view that people are good in nature and thought and that their mistakes in life (sinfulness, the Bible would say) can be corrected through therapy rather than Divine grace and regeneration through Christ's gospel.

The central tenet of Adler's Individual Psychology, striving for superiority, can be best understood as a pantheistic evolution metaphor applied to explain individual personality development. By striving for superiority Adler intends to describe the counterpart in mankind of the fundamental principle of the force of life pervading the whole universe. Striving for superiority is the manifestation in mankind of the unitary "force of life principle."1 In the early phase of Adler's career-while he was young, striving for superiority was explained in terms emphasizing the overcoming of personal weaknesses and shortcomings, but as Adler grew older the concept took on a distinct social interest focus." In the end, social interest was viewed by Adler as an essential component of any healthy and rational striving for superiority.

Adler's concept of striving for superiority can not be completely apprehended apart from understanding it in the context of his own life history Adler, himself strove for superiority, and in worldly terms was victorious. He devoted his professional life to teaching others how to do the same thing. Adler struggled successfully to overcome poor health, and he strove victoriously in other realms of his life as well. One example involves his attempts to learn mathematics.'2 As a secondary pupil Adler was so poor in mathematics that he had to repeat a grade, and his father at the urging of young Alfred's teacher, contemplated taking him out of school. The senior Adler relented, however, and allowed his son another chance. Alfred made the best of the opportunity and "strove for superiority" by studying hard. This striving paid off in a memorable incident in Adler's life. His mathematics teacher put a problem on the board which neither he nor the class was able to solve. Alfred, however, announced to all present that he could solve the problem. Amidst jeers and sarcasm, Alfred strode to the front of the room and successfully solved the problem. From that time on he was recognized as the best pupil in the class.

The roots of Adler's emphasis on striving for superiority can also be seen in defeats as well as in personal triumphs and overcoming. Before devoting himself to psychology and psychotherapy, he practiced medicine for a time as a young man. Hertha Orgler reports that at this stage of his career Adler had a special interest in incurable diseases. He wanted to fight untimely death caused by disease, and had the idea of trying to cure cancer by the application of heavy metals.13 Adler's departure from general medicine was precipitated by his inability to help diabetic patients.

The experience of his helplessness when confronted with diabetes made a deep impression on him-insulin had not yet been discovered - he had to look on powerless and see young patients die. This feeling of powerlessness in regard to death was so strong that he decided to give up general practice and specialize in a field of medicine in which he could give more help........He turned to neurology.14
In Adler's thinking about psychology he also drew from the prevailing evolutionist mind-set. Many of psychology's major theorists - most notably the experimentalists such as Wundt, Thorndike, Watson, Skinner, and Hull - were associated mainly with the rationalist, positivist, or materialist wing of evolutionist thought. For others, mainly in the arena of personality theory and clinical psychology, we can best understand their theories in the context of the irrationalist, mystic, or pantheistic evolutionist tradition.15 Adler fits into this latter camp. Also, along with many psychologists of that period, Lamarck's concept of the inheritance of acquired characteristics was influential. In Adler's words, "Especially since Darwin, Lamarck, and others, it is a matter of course to take the evolutionary thought into account. If we go a step further here and emphasize more strongly what these ingenious researchers envisioned, we want to state: To live means to develop."16 He continues, expounding the evolutionist roots of his theory,
How life came on this earth is an uncertain matter; possibly we shall never reach a final answer. We could assume that there is life even in inanimate matter. ... Such a view becomes quite plausible through modern physics which shows that the electrons move around the proton. Whether this view will be further vindicated we do not know. But it is certain that our concept of life as development can no longer be doubted.

We must keep in mind that we are dealing here with something primary, something which adhered already to primordial life. It is always a matter of overcoming. This coercion to carry out a better adaptation can never end. Herein lies the foundation for our view of the striving for superiority.17 (emphasis in original)

We may contrast Adler's pantheistic evolutionist-like striving for superiority with a biblically based striving within the context of Christ's gospel rest. In Hebrews 4 we learn of a rest for the people of God likened to the rest God entered on the 7th day of creation: "He that is entered into [God's] rest ... has ceased from his own works. Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest." The foundational example of faith and rest as the basis for action and striving in accord with man's created identity in obedience to God was set by Christ, "I can of mine own self do nothing;" and later, "Without me you can do nothing.""' The matter is put succinctly by Paul, "For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God."19

From Genesis to Revelation the theme of striving in the context of faith, rest, and obedience is set forth, and so we can give a qualified approval to Adler's central concept. Scripture does instruct man and woman to strive: We are to "strive to enter in at the strait gate" (Luke 13:24); strive to "overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21); strive to preach the gospel (Romans 15:20); strive in prayer (Romans 15:30); strive against sin (Hebrews 12:4); and, most compatibly with Adler's thinking, we are to "strive for masteries ... lawfully" (2 Timothy 2:5).

In the biblical framework, striving is related to man's created identity. God works and creates, and so does man as created in God's image. Man is also fallen and thus vainly strives for improvement or perfection out of, perhaps, a sense of lost identity and "nakedness." Adler's misconceptions about striving begin with his false view of God. Adler's conception of God is related to his teleological view of life. All people strive toward a goal and the most prevalent goal is to be like God.2" However, the contemplation of a supreme being, or God, is not the contemplation of a reality but only man's "concretation" of the concept of perfection. Other valid goals, besides "being like God" (i.e. being perfect), are socialism and social interest (one's compassion for others).

According to Adler man strives for perfection not because he is fallen and sinful, but because he is by his very nature needy and plagued by inferiority feelings. Adler believed that God's existence cannot be proven scientifically, and, therefore, religion lacks logical foundation and should not be the central focus in man's striving for superiority. In place of religion, Adler offers his own theory, "Individual Psychology," which intends to provide a scientific basis for the human quest and make man, instead of God, the center of the universe. In remarkable anticipation of contemporary globalism and "new age" efforts, Adler predicted that social unity would become the dominant goal of mankind, replacing religious faith.21

Christians must, of course, vehemently reject these central tenets of Adler's thought. God is not a mere human concretation of perfection. God created man and therefore existed before man.22 God has revealed Himself to people so that they might know Him.23 Also, without God, people cannot ultimately reach social unity and peace. Men are naturally sinful and without God will turn to sin.24 Truly sacrificial love for others comes from God and not from within people.25 At the same time we can affirm that not all Adler's basic assumptions are false. For example, scripture supports the idea that men are individuals and should be treated as complex and unique.26

Adler's view of human nature is reflected in his model for therapy. Orgler has given an overview of Adler's method of treatment.27 His basic assumption is that a person's nature is good, but that in the course of life "wrong concepts" are often formed. These wrong concepts must be discovered, examined by the client, and changed. Adler's method of therapy is intentionally vague, so as not to restrict therapists to a formula. Each patient is unique and has developed a unique style of life (patterns of thought and behavior developed to cope with problems in life) requiring individualized counseling. According to Adler, the therapist should try to be friendly, cheerful, encouraging, optimistic, tolerant, active, empathetic, dependable, benevolent and warm. (These characteristics, by the way, describe Adler's own personality according to his colleagues). The counselor should help the patient to discover his or her own error in life style by encouraging him or her to share about birth-order, early childhood, dreams, etc. The patient should be brought to realize that he or she has a wrong view of how to deal with life. The therapist should then encourage the patient in the development of some skill, which, if successfully developed, will result in increased self-confidence. Confidence should then result in the establishment of personal contact with others, thus increasing social interest. The cheat's new concern for others will spread to other people with whom they have contact. The client is cured through becoming aware of his lifestyle and by taking responsibility for developing social interest.

Obviously Adler's therapy is not entirely unbiblical, although there are dangerous spiritual errors in it. The Bible does not discourage individuality, creativity, or empathetic counseling; however, Adler's method for treatment wrongly assumes that people are selfless by nature. Also, he assumes that people who can develop self confidence will then develop an interest in helping others. Jesus taught, however that people who want to be happy should think of themselves last and should be servants to others first (Mark 10:43-45). Also, Paul urges the Philippians not to have confidence in themselves and what they have attained, but to seek self-worth in knowing Christ (Phil. 3:3-9). Again, only God can be the source of selfless love. Others can model this love, hut its true source is in God.

Adler also hints that his method of therapy and counseling could ultimately improve society as people begin to care about one another This prediction also follows from his assumption that people are good by nature. From a biblical standpoint, however, the present world will never be a perfect place. The way to improve society is for Christians to go and make disciples as Jesus commanded ~Matt. 28:18-20). Jesus' plan for improving society is for people to rely on Him, experience forgiveness and abundant life, and love others with the love He displayed. Adler's assumptions about human life led him to faulty conclusions about human behavior and solutions to human problems. His foundation was that people are at the center of the universe and that people created God to fulfill their needs. He assumed that people are good and will relate to one another selflessly if they are self confident enough. In reality, God thought of us first, created us, and then showed us how to live peacefully with one another. The source of truth, wisdom and love is God, while humans merely reflect His image.

The degree to which Adler influenced or at least anticipated modern social scientific thought and many of the movements characterizing Western society in the latter part of the 20th century is remarkable. Practical and case oriented discussions of issues related to child development, family dynamics, feminism, delinquency, criminal rehabilitation, productivity, self-esteem, aggression, and social cooperation were central to his writing. As an example of the degree to which Adler anticipated contemporary thought consider this statement regarding its potential as a rallying cry for the modern day women's movement:

An adolescent girl acts very much as though she were inferior ... the belief in her inferiority is forced upon a girl by her environment. She is so irrevocably guided into this channel of behavior that even investigators with a great deal of insight have from time to time fallen into the fallacy of believing in her inferiority. The universal result of this fallacy is that both sexes have finally fallen into the hasty pudding of prestige politics, and each tries to play a role for which he is not suited. What happens? Both their lives become complicated, their relationships are robbed of all candor, they become surfeited with fallacies and prejudices, in the face of which all hope of happiness vanishes.24
As with other areas in Adler's writing, the insight and genius for communication are apparent, but faulty premises lead to distorted analyses, conclusions and applications. Regarding the gender issue, for example, Adler accepted the evolutionist, socialist view that the age of masculine dominance was preceded by a long epoch of matriarchy According to this scenario, wars and battles between rival tribes thrust men into a more central role. As a result and through a great and protracted struggle, men succeeded in subjugating women to the inferior role. Later the subjugation of women was codified into the legal and institutional fabric of society in order to keep women in their place.29

By contrast, a biblical framework for men and women of conscience to strive against subjugation and exploitation of women would be rooted in Genesis. Foundationally, the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 is explicitly and equally addressed to male and female. In Genesis 2:18 we learn that Eve was created as a helper to Adam, not as a slave or sex-object. Eve was created as "comparable" to Adam in order that he should not be alone. Likewise in the eternal state, Jesus declared, "The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: but they [male and female] which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being children of the resurrection. 30 In the present world, the wife is to have "power over the husband's body," and the husband is to have "power over the wife's body."31 Submission is to be "to one another in the fear of God," and it is in this context that wives are to "submit to their own husbands" - as opposed, of course, to someone else's husband. The spiritual headship of the husband is to be honored by the wife as a reflection of the order of creation and in obedience to Christ's example in giving his life for the Church in submission to the Father's will.32

One final Adlerian concept that needs to be presented in order to appreciate his program to "advance the harmony of man's social and communal life" is the idea of "fictional finalism." Adler believed that people strive toward goals and ideals that have no current representation in reality. More than that, mankind's final goals are ideals that are vaguely defined and beyond the realm of actual accomplishment. For Adler, the healthy personality is one that is ultimately striving to attain the ideal of God (the divine perfection); to become if you will like God. "We should not attempt to formulate too easily any particular superiority striving; but we can find in all goals one common factor-a striving to be godlike. ... Even the atheist wishes to conquer God, to be higher than God."33 This idea should recall to the Christian reader the Luciferian corruption recorded in Isaiah 14:12-16 and also Satan's original temptation to Eve in Eden leading to the Fall of mankind. For Adler - a secular man and a psychologist after all-these "fictionally final" goals and ideals are couched in practical and earthly concerns of social justice and fair play. He believed in the ultimate goodness of human nature and taught that through practical application of and education in his "Individual Psychology" mankind could be put hack on the true and upward evolutionary path toward superiority and perfection.

For the Bible believer, the goal of the individual is, of course, not some vague and fictional "superiority," but a created identity and Divinely ordained destiny perfectly known (by God) and perfectly suited to the unique character of each person created in the image of God. Furthermore, and most important, the crucial "striving" to insure attainment of the goal has already been accomplished by God Himself through Christ's victory, overcoming the world, at Calvary. Our call is, thils, not to strive after a salvation of our own works, but, rather, to receive an accomplished salvation producing works through living faith.


1 Alfred Adler, Superiority and Social Interest: A Collection of Later Writings, 2nd ed., ed. Heinz L. Ansbacher and Rowena R. Ansbacher (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970), pg. 13
2 Carl Furtmuller, "Alfred Adler: A Biographical Essay," ibid., p. 330.
3 Hertha Orgler, Alfred Adler: The man and his work (London: Sidwick & Jackson, 1973), p. 3.
4 Carl Furtmuller, op. cit., p. 389.
5 B. R. Hergenhaho, An introduction to the history of psychology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1986).
6 see Acts 17:24-31 and Colossians 1:16-17 for the biblical perspective.
7 B. R. Hergenhalin, op. cit., p. 80.
8 ibid p 80
9 Genesis 1:26; 2:7.
10 Alfred Adler, On the Origin of the Striving for Superiority and of Social Interest, 1933 ed Heinz L. Anshacher and Rowena H. Anshather, op. cit. pp. 29-40.
11 C. S. Hall and G. Lindzey, Theories of personality New York: John Wiley & Sans, Inc., 1957 p. 122.
12 Bertha Orgler, op. cit., p. 3.
13 ibid p. 5
14 ibid.
15 Ellen Myers, "The Breakdown of Philosophy and the Modern Evolution-Creation Debate," Proceedings of the second International Conference on Creationism. held July 30- August 4, 1990 (Creation Science Fellowship, 362 Ashland Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15228), p.159-163.
16 "`Alfred Adler, "On the Origin of the Striving for Superiority and of Social Interest," 1933, ed. Heinz L. Anshather & Rowena R. Anshacher, op. cit.
17 ibid., p. 32.
18 John 5:30 & 15:5
19 Romans 13:1
20 Alfred Adler, The science of living (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1969), p. 14
21 Alfred Adler, Religina and Individual Psychology," 1933, pratt Ernst John, ed. Heinz L.
22 Ansbachcr & Rowena R. Ansbachen op. cit. pp. 271-308.
23 Genesis 1:27, Revelation 22:13
24 1 John 4:19, Romans 1:20, & John 17:3
25 Genesis 3-22-23, Romans 3:23, & Romans 1:21-13
26 John 4-16 17, Philippians 2:3-5, Psalm 139
27 Bertha Orgler, op. cit., p. 167-181.
28 Alfred Adler, Understanding human nature (New York: Greenberg Publisher, 1946), p 148
29 ibid p 124-125. In support of his thesis on the evolutionary development of patriarchy.
30 Adler refers his readers to a book by August Babel, Women and socialism.
31 Luke 20:34-36
32 1 Corinthians 7:3-4, Ephesians 5:21
33 Alfred Adler, What life should mean to you (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1931), p.60-61.

"Secular Western Mindset or Biblical Framework: The Representative Case of Alfred Adler"
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