Christianity and Psychology: Living at the Intersection of Faith and Intellectual Inquiry
For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.
As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness.”
1 Corinthians 3:19
. . . there are comparatively few research psychologists who would define themselves as people of faith.
The place where religion and psychology meet is a complex and often uneasy point of intersection. On the one hand, the lessons learned with respect to clinical and therapeutic interventions have often enriched the practice and effectiveness of pastoral counseling. Similarly, research into social psychological processes such as interpersonal relations, group dynamics, and leadership styles have had the potential to productively inform congregational life and functioning. On the other hand, as research psychologists delve into the scientific study of human thought and behavior, the lessons learned have provided some notable challenges to established religious beliefs. As a Christian and academic social psychologist who has been involved in the study of human interactions for over twenty-five years, I have observed how faith and psychology can both augment and undermine each other. In the following paper I will focus primarily on some of the tensions that exist and how I, as a research psychologist and person of faith, have worked to understand these tensions and find ways to balance the relevance of a personal faith in the context of data that often provides non-transcendent explanations for spiritual beliefs.
FAITH AND PSYCHOLOGY
The place of intellectual inquiry in the Judeo-Christian tradition is ambivalent at best. New knowledge has the potential to destabilize existing beliefs, traditions, and doctrines. Thus new insights and ideas are often met with skepticism until they are vetted for the impact that they could have on the faith tradition. Doctrinally “safe” ideas (i.e., ideas consistent with the existing belief structures) tend to be tolerated or even embraced and ideas that challenge the accepted orthodoxy are frequently ignored or denounced. It is within this context that new ideas from the field of psychology have entered the discourse on spirituality and religion.
However, unlike other domains of scientific research, psychology poses a distinctly different set of challenges for spirituality and religion. The threats from fields such as biology, anthropology, and physics typically challenge what people think. For example, theories of evolution offer alternatives to established ideas of divine creation. Psychological theories, on the other hand, examine how people think about spirituality and religion—that is, they don’t only challenge the content of people’s spiritual thoughts but rather question the nature of people’s thinking.
The challenges that psychology poses to established faith traditions are significant. Consider the resurrection stories in the Bible, for example. Arguably, Jesus’ resurrection is a cornerstone of the Christian faith and any evidence supporting or challenging the veracity of this pivotal event has great significance for believers of all stripes. Yet, if the gospel accounts of the resurrection are taken at face value, not only is it virtually impossible to form a single, coherent narrative but, at points, the accounts are directly contradictory. For example, there are discrepancies about who arrived at the tomb first and how many angels were present. Indeed, the only clear point of agreement is that the tomb was empty—beyond this, the appearances and encounters of a resurrected Jesus diverge considerably from gospel to gospel. Yet these eyewitness accounts, however diverse, form the foundation for the belief in a resurrected Jesus.
In my course, Psychology and the Law, I cover some of the sobering lessons learned from the almost two thousand studies conducted on the accuracy of eyewitness accounts in the context of the legal system. Mistaken eyewitnesses are the single most common source of wrongful conviction in the legal system. For example, approximately 90 percent of DNA exonerations involved original convictions based on false identifications. There were cases in which five eyewitnesses had identified the wrong person. Some estimates suggest that in the United States there are 4500 wrongful convictions per year based on false identifications.
THE PROBLEM OF EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY
Why does this happen? Although some eyewitnesses may simply have been lying, the reality is that human memory is open to biases and distortions. For example, contrary to the impression often left by television police dramas, the ability of people to correctly identify suspects in a lineup is surprisingly subject to error. For instance, if a suspect is not present in a lineup and eyewitnesses are not explicitly told that the suspect may be absent from the lineup, these eyewitnesses rarely claim that they are too uncertain to come to a conclusive decision, let alone indicate that the person they saw commit the crime is not present. Rather they will typically assume that the culprit must be there and choose an innocent person who looks the most like the person that they actually saw.
Human memory is a remarkable thing but it has not been designed to store information with photographic accuracy. Rather, human memory is selective, interactive, and constructive. We more easily recall events that are personally relevant, vivid, and unexpected, and our experiences are often integrated into a network of related memories and recalled in the form of a narrative. Thus, it is not unusual for people’s “eyewitness” memories to contain details of an event that they added later. For example, when I ask students in class to recall an image of a time when they were learning to swim, many will admit that, in their recalled memory they can see themselves swimming. Of course, unless these students were remembering an incident in which they were swimming while having an out-of-body experience, they are not accurately recalling the event as they actually experienced it—a more accurate image would be one of their arms flailing in the water in front of them. Instead, these students created a reconstructed mental image of what they must have looked like and perhaps embellished it by their recollections of having seen others swimming or scenes from home movies.
Despite the growing body of research pointing out the limitations of human memory and eyewitness testimony, the importance of eyewitness accounts is so entrenched and so important for establishing the “truth” of an event that the legal community has often resisted accepting these findings. I suspect that many Christians would show a similar resistance to research findings that call the validity of eyewitness testimony into question. When it comes to our knowledge of historical events, eyewitness recall is often the best information that we have available to us, and this is certainly the case when it comes something as exceptional as the resurrection of Jesus.
In terms of the resurrection, the psychological research can increase our confidence in some respects and decrease it in others. On the plus side, there is no question that witnessing the events of the resurrection would be a vivid, personally relevant experience and, for the first witnesses at least, it would also be unexpected. Therefore, there are good reasons to expect that these eyewitness experiences would be accurately stored and not easily forgotten. At the same time, the fact that the resurrection accounts are so divergent suggests that the gospel writers may not be reporting first-hand eyewitness accounts—we would expect the accounts of such dramatic, memorable events to be much more consistent. In addition, a number of the accounts indicate that some of the encounters with the risen Jesus were rather ambiguous. In one account Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus until he spoke to her and, similarly, the men on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus until he broke bread with them. The fact that Jesus was not always immediately recognizable opens up the possibility that some of resurrection experiences were reconstructed narratives in which a gardener or a stranger on the road was, retrospectively, remembered as a manifestation of the risen Lord. This possibility would be even more likely if stories of the resurrection were already circulating, for in this case an established and highly longed-for narrative would be available for others to integrate into their own experiences.
Thus, psychological research indicates that, although the resurrection accounts may be compelling, they are not definitive. Rather, research findings broaden the range of alternative explanations for the resurrection accounts and illustrate the power of belief to shape people’s perceptions of reality. Recalling experiences in a way that makes sense can lead people to interpret those experiences in a way that is consistent with what they are hoping for. If the followers of Jesus wanted to believe that an empty tomb meant that Jesus was alive, it would not be surprising that they “saw” the risen Lord or believed the accounts of others (note how many of Elvis’s devoted fans claim to have seen him alive—often in a donut shop).
That said, does psychological research on eyewitness recall disprove the resurrection or suggest that memories of it were manufactured? Of course not! There is nothing in the research that I have described to negate the possibility that God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him a position above all others. Such a spiritual resurrection and exaltation is beyond the ability of science to either verify or challenge. In the same way it is also entirely possible for a raised Jesus to appear to others in a spiritual form, much as he appeared to the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. Certainly, the eyewitness accounts of the resurrection suggest that some of Jesus’ followers had profound experiences from which they came away with the firm conviction that they had encountered their risen Lord.
WHO IS MORE LIKELY TO BELIEVE?
In addition to providing some insights into what early believers may have experienced, some recent psychological research also gives us a clue about the psychological characteristics of people who are more likely to accept the validity of eyewitness accounts and people who are more likely to be skeptical. The inconsistencies in the gospel resurrection accounts are certainly not news to the biblical scholars who have studied these texts, but it may be news to many Christian believers. A number of years ago I heard a preacher point out some of these inconsistencies in a sermon and I was struck, not only by the surprised reaction of many congregants, but also by the realization that this was the first time that I had ever heard this openly proclaimed from the pulpit. The fact that inconsistencies in the historical accounts of something so central as the death and resurrection of Jesus are rarely articulated and relatively unknown is an interesting phenomenon, especially given that, in many churches, congregants are regularly exhorted to read, study, and know their Bible.
Of course, it is not uncommon for spiritual traditions to establish and maintain a sacred text. Furthermore, depending on the specific tradition there may also be additional texts, creeds, traditions, etc. that carry similar spiritual importance. Yet within any given faith tradition believers will vary in the extent to which they regard sacred texts as an inviolate message of divine origin. Some see them as historical records or valuable guides that reflect human insights into the nature of the divine, whereas others will venerate the sacred texts almost to the point that they become physical manifestations of the divine. Additionally, regardless of the specific nature of sacred texts and writings, it seems that the more venerated the sacred text, the less likely it is to be critically analyzed. These diverse approaches believers take to sacred writings can readily be located on a liberal to conservative continuum.
Considering the Bible specifically, at a purely secular level, it is a collection of sixty-six (or more) texts written by various authors over the span of many hundreds of years and compiled into its final form by a group of religious “experts” a few centuries after Jesus’ death. Yet this book of edited and compiled documents will be regarded by more liberal Christian believers as recounting people’s experiences of God, whereas, as believers become more conservative, they are increasingly more likely to see the Bible as writings directly inspired by God such that the Bible becomes the final, definitive, and inerrant message that God has for humanity.
In some ways the desire for a delimited divine statement seems counter-intuitive. Certainly a strong case can be made for wanting God to provide an ongoing, expanding revelation. For example, given current scientific advances in biology and physics, God could clear up a lot of strife and confusion by providing a clear updated statement of how creation took place. Yet, for many believers there is no room for new additions that refine or update the Scriptures—they are final and complete. Of course, even with a discrete set of scriptures, Christian thought has continued to expand—often drawing in ideas from external sources—but the advances are constrained. In describing God as a loving father, Jesus rather dramatically revised the harsher image of God that the Old Testament often portrayed. Yet with a fixed set of scriptures, the opportunities for similarly large conceptual advances in thinking about God are quite limited. Indeed, to the extent that there is a strong need for a clearly defined, unalterable text, not only would new revelations not be given the same credence as the existing scriptures, but they would likely be openly opposed. Why is a defined, fixed sacred text is of such importance to some believers and not to others?
RESEARCH INTO POLITICAL IDEOLOGY
To help understand these differences, it is helpful to turn to recent psychological research on liberal and conservative political ideology. Interest in political ideology has been a consistent theme in social psychological research since the 1950’s when work on the “authoritarian personality” attempted to understand the rise of German fascism during the Second World War. A recent meta-analysis examined eighty-eight studies that have tried to understand political conservatism at the level of core psychological motives. 1 Although the goal of many of these studies was to understand political conservatism, the research instruments typically measure beliefs on a continuum from conservative to liberal. The findings indicate that, a greater tendency to endorse politically conservative beliefs is associated with a similarly greater tendency to report more fear of death, more alarm at the prospect of living with an unstable social system, and a greater fear of ambiguity and uncertainty. The authors summarized their findings by suggesting that the “core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.” Thus, as people’s needs for security, structure, and certainty increase, they are less likely to be open to change. Ironically, people can be very “conservative” about traditionally liberal ideas, such as equal opportunity for job applicants, gay marriage, or a woman’s right to choose abortion. That is, to the extent that people who hold traditionally liberal views are motivated by the need for security, structure, and certainty they will be just as fearful and resistant to change as those who hold traditionally conservative views. It is not a matter of content but a way of thinking. On the other end of the spectrum those who are more open to change (i.e., more liberal in the true sense of the word) are less concerned with protecting and maintaining their beliefs. With increasing openness to change comes a greater tendency to be embrace new experiences, tolerate uncertainty, and welcome diversity. Thus, those with a liberal ideology appear to be motivated by a desire for the acquisition of new experiences that are novel, exciting, and diverse.
I must readily acknowledge that these theories are far more complex and nuanced than my simplified presentation implies, but even at this basic level the understanding of human motives can go a long way towards explaining the differing needs that believers have for a definitive sacred text. A tangible, clearly delimited text that speaks a divine (and therefore unalterable and unarguable) truth offers certainty and assurance in ways that a growing, evolving, changeable text could never hope to do. In the same way, those who fear stagnation and value novelty and change may find a fixed and unalterable sacred text to be limiting, unresponsive to new knowledge, and unable to remain relevant in the face of new ideas. Thus, whereas more liberal Christians may make the mistake of too readily dismissing ancient texts as outdated and irrelevant, more conservative Christians run the risk of remaining too strongly locked into the ancient texts and, like the Pharisees in Jesus time, actively opposing the possibility of new revelations from God.
In sum, like many domains of intellectual inquiry, psychology presents challenges to established ways of thinking. However, whereas many fields threaten established beliefs by providing new ways of human understanding, psychology threatens established beliefs by offering new ways of understanding humans. Not only does it offer alternatives to the content of religious doctrine, but it also offers alternative explanations for why the doctrines exist in the first place and while these alternative explanations do not provide evidence that makes it possible to dismiss existing beliefs, they do give more reasons to doubt. In particular, to the extent any psychological explanations are grounded in a measurable physical reality, they will be particularly threatening to beliefs that require belief in an unverifiable, spiritual reality. How, then, is it possible to be a person of faith in this field of study?
FAITH AND PSYCHOLOGISTS
Given what I have said, it should not be surprising to learn that there are comparatively few research psychologists who would define themselves as people of faith. Moreover, the faith positions that do exist are typically liberal rather than conservative. Indeed, at a recent conference of over 3000 social psychologists, fewer than 1 percent classified themselves as political conservatives. Given the research knowledge that psychologists have, it is difficult to imagine that it could be otherwise. The goal of a researcher is to acquire new knowledge—knowledge that can produce changes in established perspectives and accepted ways of understanding. Moreover, in the search for new knowledge, scientific researchers, including psychological researchers, must be able to accept and tolerate uncertainty. Understanding human behavior is not static. Current ideas are always being updated, revised, and sometimes supplanted by new data. To be fair, there are certainly some scientists, psychologists included, who are “true believers” in their own ideas and are very resistant to change. However, many others are willing to revise their ideas if the data is sufficiently compelling, and I count myself among them. In addition, psychological researchers need to accept the fact that new empirical discoveries about human thought and behavior may offer alternative explanations for the existence and purpose of religious faith.
My own experience follows this pattern. I have a strong personal faith but it is a faith that many would consider unconventional. I am not alone in working to reconcile faith and reason but, because of my field of study, I have had to forge a somewhat unique path. My faith journey is based on a number of premises. First, my journey begins by taking seriously the meaning of the word “faith.” Faith represents a belief, a conviction; it is not actual knowledge of the truth but rather the “evidence of things not seen.” If something is “seen” we have knowledge, and faith is no longer necessary. As such, any faith position will, by definition, be uncertain and convictions, no matter how firmly held, can be supplanted by knowledge.
My second premise involves the search for new knowledge and builds on the statement I heard a Christian Philosophy instructor make as he introduced his course: “All truth is God’s truth.” If the “truths” scientists uncover are in fact true, then there is nothing to fear in the search for new knowledge. Rather the new pieces of information are there to be engaged, challenged, revised, and integrated into a growing body of knowledge that helps us to unravel some of the mysteries of God’s creation. Consequently, I welcome the search for new knowledge with excitement. I don’t believe that God has finished revealing truth to humankind and I am open to revising my understanding of God and creation as new knowledge emerges. At the same time, I recognize that my faith must go beyond where knowledge can take me.
This position is inherently agnostic. As human beings walking this earth we do not know, and likely will never know, the answers to the great questions of life: Where did the universe come from? Is there life after death? What is the meaning of life? Whatever our answers to these questions, they will be answers of faith, not knowledge. Therefore, the belief that there is no God, no afterlife, and no meaning to our existence is as much a faith position as believing the opposite. Yet, as someone who can intellectually acknowledge the absence of final answers, I can, nonetheless, choose my faith position. Whether I choose to live and act as if there is no transcendent God or whether I choose to live and act as if there is, my choice is an act of faith. I have chosen the latter, and I have done so with a clear recognition that I may be wrong, but there are reasons to believe in a reality that transcends our understanding. The question of existence—the movement from nothing to something requires going beyond human understanding. From that premise to a belief that there is a creator of some kind is a view shared by virtually all world religions. As a psychologist I am keenly aware of the limits of our human understanding and I know that there are questions that we may never be able to answer because of the limits of our intellect. As a result I can reach out with intellectual humility and integrity to a God who far transcends the limits of my understanding.
I am not alone in this. There are other well-respected social psychologists that are people of faith. Yet, their thinking also tends to align with the “Christian left.” As scientific researchers their faith remains open to revision as new knowledge emerges. For example, David G. Myers, the author of one of the most widely used textbooks in social psychology, is a devout Christian. In a 2005 essay published in the APS Observer, Myers writes, “If, indeed, humans are finite and fallible creatures—with dignity but not deity—then some of our beliefs are sure to err. We had therefore best hold our own untested beliefs tentatively, assess others’ beliefs with open-minded skepticism, and, when appropriate, use observation and experimentation to winnow error from truth.” 2 Myers goes on to say that this research has led him to change his mind on, among other things, the natural, dispositional origins of sexual orientation—he now advocates for the right of homosexuals to marry. Thus, for Dr. Myers and other psychological researchers who embrace a faith position, uncertainty, ambiguity, and new ideas are not threats to be feared. Rather they are challenges that mandate participation in an open scientific inquiry into God’s truth.
Finally, it is important to note that, even with a general recognition that faith can coexist with the search for new knowledge, there is still the question of why an individual would adopt a specific faith perspective. In this regard I can only speak from my own experience. Of course some of the reasons for choosing Christianity are purely historical. I was born and raised in an evangelical Christian context, so it is the faith tradition with which I am most familiar. Similarly, my ongoing social connections are with people who are rooted in a Christian faith. Yet, my need for intellectual integrity and a faith that makes sense brought me to more than a few decision points, one of which was a university course that examined Jesus as a historical figure. At a time in my life when I was questioning the relevance of the conventional view of Jesus and could have easily walked away from my faith, my views were revolutionized and I developed a far richer understanding of the historical Jesus. I learned of his deep compassion for the poor and disenfranchised, his profound faith in God as a loving parent, his commanding presence and ironic sense of humor, and his sacrificial giving. If God had sent such a person to point the way, this was someone I wanted to follow.
Of course these qualities are not unique to Jesus, they can also be found in many revered historical figures such as Gandhi and Mother Theresa, to mention just a few. But it was Jesus who delivered some of the most profound and challenging breakthroughs into the nature of God and the implications for humanity. Jesus’ words and actions were the inspiration for many of the admirable people who followed his example—it is no accident that Jesus was venerated. Nor is it surprising to see how his message has transformed the world. Yes, the Christian church has a checkered history and has, at times, been the source of horrific injustice and evil. Yet, the church has also been a tremendous source of peace, acceptance, justice, forgiveness, and sacrifice—the very things that Jesus taught and lived. At their best, the followers of Jesus continue to move towards these goals with both self-critical humility and inspired passion.
I also continue to find Jesus to be a source of inspiration and direction and I continue to reach out to a transcendent God. Thus, I am ready to live my life as a person of faith in ways that enrich the lives of the people I come in contact with. At the same time, I hold my specific beliefs with an open hand, ready to have them expanded or replaced by new knowledge. For example, I am currently exploring how people’s moral and ideological positions may be a manifestation of more basic psychological motives. As I continue my research it appears that there may be a physiological or genetic foundation for the tendency for certain motives to take precedence over others. If this is so, then I may have to revise my beliefs about choice and free will and integrate them with the knowledge that people’s choices may be influenced or constrained by their genetic predispositions—free choice may not be quite as free as I once thought.
In all this, I have also come to terms with the realization that there are some questions that I will never know the answers to, at least in this lifetime. I look forward to having the answers in the next life, but, since the afterlife is itself one of the questions for which there is no answer, I accept the need to live with the uncertainty of knowing that I may never have all the answers.
However, I believe that I am far from alone in my struggles to integrate faith and intellectual inquiry. In a presentation I heard a few years ago, the speaker described survey results indicating that well over half of those who made a Christian faith commitment as adolescents had abandoned their faith later in life. The speaker speculated that many people may have abandoned the faith of their youth because there was no flexibility in what they were allowed to believe—they did not have the option to revise their faith in ways that made sense with their growing experience and knowledge of the world. Thus, their only option was to choose the faith that they were given or leave it altogether. Too many people unnecessarily choose the latter. Due to various circumstances and experiences, I was fortunate enough to find an alternative in which I could revise my faith in ways that allowed it to coexist with my growing psychological knowledge. Although I realize that the ways in which I have reconciled faith and scientific psychological research is not going to resonate well with all believers—and in large measure the work that I do helps me to understand why—I would argue that we do a disservice to our young people when we make matters of faith an all-or-nothing proposition. As the classic passage in 1 Corinthians 13 so eloquently puts it, “we see through a glass darkly.” My personal hope is that the Christian church can more fully embrace the implications of that simple but profound statement and increasingly learn to respectfully accept of diversity in beliefs that will emerge as people try to make sense of their imperfect image of God. We can offer to them the many lessons about God that other people of faith have learned on their spiritual journeys—especially the good news of God’s love that Jesus lived and taught. But in the final analysis, people will need the latitude to work out their own faith in ways that allow them find peace with God and live their lives with integrity and purpose.
- J.T. Jost, J. Glaser, A.W. Kruglanski, and F.J. Sulloway, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” Psychological Bulletin 129 (2003): 339–75.
- David G. Myers, “Psychological Science Meets the World of Faith,” APS Observer (October, 2005). Available online at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=1861.