Allen Bergin: ‘The Gospel Is a Continuing Revolution against the Standards of the World.’

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“Allen Bergin: ‘The Gospel Is a Continuing Revolution against the Standards of the World.’” Ensign, Sept. 1983, 34

Allen Bergin:

“The Gospel Is a Continuing Revolution against the Standards of the World.”

From his eleventh-floor office in the Spencer W. Kimball Tower on the Brigham Young University campus, a soft-spoken professor looks out over much that is important to him. His brown eyes gaze on a manuscript before him and on his campus ward below. To the east he sees the Provo Temple, and to the north is his home on Quail Summit. Though he appears to enjoy the quietude from this elevated perspective, Bishop Allen E. Bergin, prominent psychologist and past president of the International Society for Psychotherapy Research, lives a life of intellectual action, presenting his unconventional views on religious values and psychotherapy in numerous professional settings as diverse as Poland and South America.

Brother Bergin’s ancestral roots have given him a natural appetite for challenges. “I was brought up to be independent and iconoclastic—very Irish. I was never one to conform readily,” he says.

His grandfather, too, was something of a maverick, moving west and breaking away from the Catholic clan that had settled in Michigan. His father was Irish, his mother Swedish. “Ours was a nondenominational home, but one high on positive values,” says Allen. “My father had wanted to be an engineer, and he wanted me to be one. I seemed to have the nature for it: I was very inquisitive as a boy. I especially liked doing science experiments.”

Allen’s ingenuity and industry helped him to excel in high school in Spokane, Washington, and later to enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on scholarship. “I went there looking for answers. I was curious, searching for meaning in life. But, my study became an impersonal grind, bound by a stringent and prescribed curriculum of science. I wanted to broaden out, get some humanities, something I hadn’t grown up with. When I learned MIT had a cooperative liberal arts program with Reed College in Oregon, I transferred.”

He went to Reed as a physics major but found time for courses in philosophy, psychology, and art. He prayed the agnostic’s prayer: “Oh, God, if there is a God, and if there is something more to life (than science), help me to find it.”

What the searching nineteen-year-old found his first day at Reed was, indeed, something more than science—seventeen-year-old Marian Shafer from Ogden, Utah, formerly from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Both Allen and Marian jokingly refer to this first meeting as more “fate” than “date,” even though they spent time together at the get-acquainted dance that evening. Not many Latter-day Saints go to Reed—there were four that year—and Allen fell into close company with two of them (the second was a roommate from Idaho). His transition from hard to soft sciences coincided with his transition from agnosticism to religion. But neither change was easy.

“Allen and I started seeing each other often, studying together, and taking long walks at night in the rainy Portland streets,” says Marian. “It was the first time I felt that a boyfriend really understood me. He played no dating games; he was warm, open, and honest. He taught me true integrity.”

Meanwhile, she continues, he was working out many philosophical questions. “One night he stunned me with his theory that there is life on other planets and that perhaps we could become gods of other worlds. I was delighted to explain the doctrine of eternal progression, but I could never satisfy all his questions. I talked him into meeting with the missionaries, but he was so steeped in philosophy and science that the elders couldn’t handle all his questions either.”

Allen began attending some Church meetings and reading both pro- and anti-Church literature, rebounding with more questions and criticisms. Marian became discouraged. The two parted for the summer, he going to Alaska and she to Ogden. Marian then transferred to BYU, and Allen followed suit. “My only other choices were the army and Reed. My life had reached a crisis of meaninglessness, and I was doing poorly in school; in fact, I came to BYU on academic probation.”

“It was a stormy fall semester,” recalls Marian. “Some of our differences seemed very real; but we were in love. It was spirit-to-spirit. I felt he knew the real me like no one else.”

The young couple counseled frequently with a favorite professor and Reed College alumnus, Robert K. Thomas. “Allen told me he had followed this girl down from Reed,” says Brother Thomas, “and that he was in love with her and she with him, but that she would never marry him outside the temple. Since he wasn’t even a member, he thought he might as well break it off.

“I asked him if he was willing to give the Church a very careful look, to be absolutely dispassionate. He said he was, and at that point I felt like saying, ‘When should we schedule your baptism?’”

Six months later, Allen Bergin was baptized by Brother Thomas. “I’ll always remember the day (13 March 1955),” reflects Brother Thomas. “I went with him to the chapel where the stake mission president interviewed him. He asked Allen, ‘What do you know about the gospel?’

“Allen responded, ‘Quite a bit. What would you like me to talk about?’

“The mission president said, ‘The Apostasy.’ Allen then gave an amazing discourse—he had studied the gospel thoroughly.”

Such preparation has had its payoffs. “I have never had a real trial of faith since my baptism,” says Brother Bergin, “because I had to clear so many hurdles before I joined. I had to go through a major reorientation and make a massive commitment.”

“Allen was very cautious about being baptized because he wanted to be truly converted,” says Marian, adding that once baptized, Allen in turn strengthened her desire to better keep the Sabbath, revere the prophet, live a gospel-centered life, and make decisions by the Spirit.

Following their marriage, the young couple worked odd jobs while Allen completed his master’s degree at BYU, his Ph.D. at Stanford, and then postdoctoral work at the University of Wisconsin under Carl Rogers. But the most important events of those years, they agree, were the births of David, Sue, Cyndy, and Kathy—their first four children.

When Allen finally got “a real job” at Columbia University in New York City in 1961, the family settled in the New Jersey suburbs and spent the next eleven years “juggling hats.” Among other things, Marian served as Young Women’s president and Relief Society president and Allen as stake mission president, bishop, and counselor in the Eastern States Mission presidency. They also added two more children, Eric and Benjy, to their family.

To be “successful” at Columbia—to get recognition, promotions, and salary increases—one had to meet certain expectations, says Brother Bergin. “I was expected to publish, work late and on weekends, travel, and teach well because that meant success. And I was very much caught up in it; I found it exhilarating, even though I was aware that it was somewhat one-dimensional.

“If I had it all to do over again, I think I would still want to achieve, exercise creativity, and explore my talents. But I would be more balanced, less driven to achieve just for the sake of achievement and position and honors.”

A colleague at Columbia, Dr. Sol Garfield, recalls that in 1964 Allen Bergin was junior man in the clinical psychology Ph.D. program, but by 1969 he was a full professor. “He moved up fast by building a solid reputation in the field. His Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (edited with Sol Garfield) is regarded worldwide as a standard reference in clinical psychology. He was also an excellent teacher—conscientious, warm, and extremely honest. Moreover, he was and is highly regarded for his research and integrity in evaluating the effectiveness of psychotherapy.”

In his research, Brother Bergin has verified that people’s mental health may improve with good treatment, but also be impaired as a result of inappropriate therapy. That finding has not caused him to lose faith in his profession; rather, he has dedicated himself to its continuing development. “One reason I’m a psychologist is to help people improve their lives. This field has marvelous possibilities for blessing humanity. How better to do that than to build on the eternal nature of man?” he asks.

He readily acknowledges that some psychologists espouse theories that are alien to the spiritual nature of human beings. “They believe that human behavior is a product of evolutionary adaptation, and that civilization is but a thin veneer over a savage, animal ancestry; whereas I think of the human condition as a fallen, mortal veneer over a divine, eternal core. The prophets have been very clear on that. (See, for example, D&C 93:29–40.) What I’m saying is, ‘Hey, fellows, you can’t get away with this.’”

“We have a profusion of techniques in psychotherapy, and while these can have very positive effects, they may sometimes threaten our humanity more than cure our ills,” he stresses; “a technique that is guided by a naturalistic philosophy, for example, may lead to immorality. Personal values come into play!”

He is now collaborating with other professionals in documenting the mental health effects of values such as love, self-control, self-sacrifice, moral purity and integrity, fidelity, and personal responsibility. “I want to see a ‘restoration’ in academe,” he says. “I want to see basic gospel values harmonized within the academic and professional spheres. I have been thrilled to find outstanding people from many religions, and even with no religion, who share a commitment to reestablish traditional value perspectives.”

“The gospel is a continuing revolution against the standards of the world,” says Brother Bergin, quoting President Harold B. Lee. “I can’t think of a profession that has not been corrupted by a measure of worldliness,” he continues; “consequently, it is our task to confront whatever is wrong in our professions, not merely to become competent in them. It is up to us to revolutionize them—not by militant action, of course, but rather by a steady, inexorable pressure for change, rooted in deep scholarship and inspired thought.”

Allen says that some professionals in his field, “have misled students into believing that psychotherapy is based primarily on science, that it is objective, when in fact much of it is opinion in the guise of scientific theory.”

Years ago, when that fact began to dawn on him he continues, “I began to attack my colleagues, and we had some arguments. I would sometimes attack their moral views, their ideologies, and their overreacting to concepts like obedience and self-discipline. ‘Obedience to divine law and true principles makes self-actualization possible,’ I would tell them. ‘You don’t achieve that by ethical relativism or spontaneity. Obedience is critical—the most obedient people I know are also the most self-actualized.’ I perhaps reacted too emotionally and judgmentally, and have since been more calm and kind in my approach, but my basic position is firm.”

Allen Bergin’s emphasis on values, comments Sol Garfield, antagonized some colleagues. “Some of the more hard-line scientists saw him as getting ‘soft’ on religion.” Bergin explains that he was only being firm on values. Garfield adds, “I thought, ‘He’s sincere in his concern. Certainly values do enter into psychotherapy—the values of the therapist cannot be completely excluded from his therapy, even though he tries to be objective.’ Nevertheless, when I published a paper of his dealing with religious values in a leading journal of empirical research, I got some joking and derisive commentaries on religion. But most reviews were positive because Bergin called attention to an issue that doesn’t get much attention. And in my opinion, it hasn’t hurt him.”

According to Brother Thomas, one of his distinguished colleagues was heard to say, “If anyone else had written it, I would have dismissed it. But Allen Bergin has written it, so I must take it seriously.”

Having established themselves in New Jersey and New York, the Bergins’ decision to return to Utah in June 1972 was difficult, relates Marian. “But when our family fasted and prayed together, we knew what the answer was.”

For Bob Thomas, then BYU’s academic vice-president, the decision was welcome. “I had tried to recruit him every year. He would say to me, ‘When the Lord tells me to come to BYU as clearly as he told me to be baptized, I’ll come.’ He was true to his word.”

At first, it appeared that life in Utah would be comfortable. But the Bergins experienced a happy crisis sixteen months later, when their triplets were born. “The birth of Patrick, Michael, and Daniel changed our lives,” says Marian. “Spiritual experiences surrounded that event, assuring us that this miracle was divinely blessed, perhaps to help us accept the disruption of our family patterns.”

A second, tragic crisis came two years later with the near-drowning of Daniel, an accident that caused the family to reexamine their lives and reevaluate goals. “Danny was severely brain damaged from lack of oxygen, paralyzed and blind, and the doctors felt he would die,” says Marian. “He was comatose for three months; the damage appeared irreversible. Yet through prayer, special blessings, and therapy, we have witnessed a slow reawakening of this precious child.

“He and Allen are very close,” she continues; “though Daniel cannot yet walk or speak, they have intimate communication with each other.”

“A hug of his is most surely a ‘royal embrace,’” says Allen. “His condition keeps us humble and contrite. Every day we see him struggling to eat, speak, sing. Sometimes I just break down and cry.” But this kind of pain has immeasurable benefits, he adds. “It makes me more empathic, more sensitive to the pain of others, more down-to-earth, more committed to relationships than to achievements.”

He believes that people who are down-to-earth, open and congruent, don’t waste much energy in role-playing. For example, much of President Spencer W. Kimball’s tremendous power for personal influence, observes Brother Bergin, can be attributed to his unassuming, authentic, and loving manner. “His personality makes people feel good and want to be good. Some pop-psychologist might try to tell us how to develop attributes for the power to influence others, but what President Kimball has cannot be acquired through a crash-course in techniques. His skills are such an integral part of his personality that without experiencing what he has over the past eighty-eight years, you can’t imitate them. That’s what makes for character and charisma.

“I think President Kimball has learned well some very personal lessons on how to be a complete human being. On one occasion, I had the privilege of meeting with him. I felt unworthy. I was troubled by my imperfections. But at the time of the meeting he greeted me warmly, embraced me, put his cheek against mine, and then kissed me. I felt his influence permeate my being. I felt enveloped by a feeling of power and affection. What he did in a few seconds was the most therapeutic thing that could possibly have happened to me. That’s the power of a person who is pure and without guile—it’s very real, and it’s not something you can pick up in a classroom or a clinic. It’s the product of years of gospel living. The Savior summed up the process in 3 Nephi when he said, ‘Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.’ (3 Ne. 27:27.)

“Sadly,” he says, “our culture puts too much value on other kinds of achievement. And generally our social values for measuring achievement have become grossly distorted. People who make scientific discoveries, achieve great athletic feats, win political victories, or live dazzling life-styles often receive more acclaim than those who attain harmony in the home and responsible personal maturity. That’s why many women today are in such pain and our men in such panic—they are not being recognized and rewarded for familial success.”

The irony, states Brother Bergin, is that familial success is essential to make other success lasting and meaningful. “Single adults, too, need to contribute in a major way to their family of origin or an adopted family. The decline in esteem for fundamental, familial behavior is socially disastrous. Since there is little hope that the world will reverse itself and again give full value to family virtues, it is essential that the Church forthrightly do this and that its professional members show by means of research that the perfecting of human personality exceeds all other accomplishments and that one of the best ways to do this is through home or kinship ties.”

Translating that philosophy into action, both Allen and Marian work at making the most of their home life. “Allen is very flexible in his role,” says Marian. “He’s willing to help with scrubbing floors and powdering baby bottoms, shopping, canning, and housecleaning. He has always been solicitous of my needs, seeing that I was able to continue developing my talents and fulfill my Church callings. He has missed important meetings to stay home if he felt I was under stress.

“We are very aware of the marriage blight all around us, and we are even more aware of the need to be Christlike in our lives. We are trying to keep the commandments, and we feel a sense of urgency.”

“We all experience stress and duress at times, and our family is no exception,” says Allen. “The healthy person weathers it in an adaptive way, not wasting much energy in self-defensive behaviors, even though escape is sometimes essential to one’s sanity. A person who enjoys good spiritual and emotional health has enough strength to adapt to changing circumstances, meet conflicts and difficulties, and keep in touch with reality. One’s capacity for love and work is an important factor in meeting these challenges. Those who get caught up in a high achievement syndrome can become imbalanced: If their achievement is isolated from love and affection, it grows like cancer, independent of the social system in which it exists, and ultimately it destroys the very tissues that give it life.”

The Bergins aim for balance. “I’ve always been achievement-oriented,” he says introspectively, “and the approval I receive from my achievements is very important to me. As a result, it has been a struggle to avoid pride and an excessive task orientation. I have had to learn by sad experience that quiet humility is better than public displays of ability. Through gospel discipline, I have gradually learned that relationships really are more important than achievements. There is nothing I will ever do professionally that will give me as much joy, satisfaction and delight as seeing my wife, children, and grandchildren optimize their growth.”

Much of the credit for their strong marriage should go to Marian, according to Bob Thomas. “She is just the sort of spiritual and intellectual force Allen has needed. They are not unequally yoked. She has never felt simply put aside but has provided focus and stability, and has meaningfully participated in his career.”

The culminating work of Allen Bergin will be as much in the home as in the office. He would have it no other way. “At this point in my life, recognition is no longer so important. If my current professional work develops into something significant, so be it. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too. I know what I want to do, both in my psychological research and in the family, and I’m going to do it. I’ve reached a point where I realize that the ‘rat race’ is just that, and it is not as meaningful as doing the things I value most, and in a balanced way.

“Perhaps I have finally achieved a good integration of my father’s striving and my mother’s calmness and kindness. Though such traits have traditionally been considered masculine and feminine, respectively, harmonizing them may be more healthy. I believe I perceive just such an example in President Kimball. Hasn’t he mastered the capacity to be both strong and tender?”

Brother Bergin is currently lecturing to professional groups in many parts of the world on values, mental health, and psychotherapy. His hope is to unite, not divide people. “Even though I have strong differences of opinion with some people,” he says, “I have lost my tendency to criticize them. I realize that it will take a lot of time and effort, and many people from diverse backgrounds to bring about a new orientation in personality theory and clinical practice.”

Just being part of such an effort is reward enough, concludes Allen Bergin. He likes having both feet planted firmly on the ground while he explores the heights of human potential which emerge from our eternal nature.

Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

Brother Bergin on his way to his BYU office.

Brother Bergin with two of his students. “I want to see basic gospel values harmonized within the academic sphere.”

Now serving as a bishop, Brother Bergin chats with members of his ward.

“Nothing I do professionally gives me as much joy as seeing members of my family optimize their growth.”

Allen and Marian Bergin. “Relationships really are more important than achievements.”