Theological inquiry is important and challenging. It is important because it concerns life’s biggest questions, and challenging because theologians commonly draw upon various types of evidence and disciplinary expertise. Theologians use insights from the study of sacred texts, history, archeology, linguistics, and philosophy, often in a single scholarly article. Because theological questions commonly concern humanity’s relationship to God, what it means to flourish and live the sort of lives God intends for us, and how the Church should go about advancing the Kingdom of God, theological inquiry may advance more rapidly with an infusion of insights from the human sciences—perhaps especially the psychological sciences.
This post is meant to help theologians identify the kinds of topics and research questions in which engagement with psychological science is most likely to be immediately valuable. Four questions will aid this discernment process:
- Are you making descriptive psychological claims?
- Are you making normative claims supported by descriptive psychological claims?
- Are you making claims about what effects texts, rituals, and practices have on people?
- Are you constructing an argument that uses intuitions as premises?
These four questions help to pick out different ways in which input from psychological science – findings and theories – may prove helpful for doing theology. These questions are not meant to be exhaustive or exclusive of each other. That is, it may be that even if the answer is “no” to all four of these questions that, with some creativity, psychological science may still be useful. Further, a particular theological project may generate affirmative responses to more than one of these questions.
By psychological science, I mean the scientific study of human thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and other mental states and dynamics and their impact on human behavior. The causes and consequences of particular human mental states and behaviors fall into the purview of psychological science (even if other disciplinary areas may investigate them as well). These mental states and behaviors may be mundane (e.g. the process of recognizing a friend), or exotic (e.g. the motivations behind martyrdom).
I am using the term “psychological science” instead of the more familiar “psychology” for two reasons. First, “psychology” primarily connotes the helping profession that concerns mental health. Psychological science is broader. Why it is that I think (rightly) that I had coffee with breakfast today is just as legitimate a psychological science question as why I might (wrongly, I hope) think that I am being spied on by secret agents from Liechtenstein.
I also use the term psychological science to focus narrowly on those approaches to understanding how humans think, feel, and act that are characterized by scientific research methods. Philosophers, for instance, have long reflected on the nature of human thought and action, but rarely before the 19th century did they empirically evaluate their claims through the systematic development of hypotheses, the testing of hypotheses against data gathered through carefully specified methods, the use of tests that could be replicated by other researchers, and so forth. Some areas of “psychology” are still fairly light on scientific methods and I am wishing to exclude these from my discussion by use of the term psychological science.
Though psychological science emphasizes minds (psyches) and, hence, individual thought and action, how individuals interact with each other and with broader cultural-level patterns would also be included under this umbrella term. For this reason, the psychological science(s) that I wish to capture may also be performed by non-psychologists. Any scholar who uses scientific methods to investigate the mental states and behaviors of individual humans could contribute to psychological science, including anthropologists, archeologists, behavioral scientists, cognitive scientists, linguists, neuroscientists, sociologists, and even experimental philosophers.
With this understanding of psychological science in mind, we can now ask: when might psychological science be a useful tool for theologians? Let’s look a little closer at the four questions that might help us identify those moments in our theological inquiry.
1. Are You Making Descriptive Psychological Claims?
Though much of theology is prescriptive or normative, in the course of doing theology, it is not uncommon to make descriptive psychological claims. These claims might concern mental states are or how psychological processes work. Similarly, theologians sometimes describe psychological features of human nature. For instance, when Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1998 encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, “In the far reaches of the human heart there is a seed of desire and nostalgia for God” (p. 15), he was making an empirically tractable, descriptive claim about human psychology. In principle, psychological science could seek evidence for this alleged desire and nostalgia.
Similarly, it is not uncommon for theologians to ask and attempt to answer questions that concern topics in psychological science. For instance, in his book Theology: The Basics (2018), Alister McGrath structures his presentation around the Apostle’s Creed. Hence, he begins with the questions, “What does it mean to talk about ‘believing in God’? What are we to understand by words such as ‘belief’ and ‘faith’?” (McGrath, p. 1). These two questions are decidedly theological but simultaneously psychological. Psychological scientists – along with other cognitive scientists – study what beliefs are, how they are formed, how they function, and how they change. Though “faith” is rarely used as a concept in psychological science, it concerns several domains of psychological research because it has mental, motivational, and relational dimensions. Put another way, a theological treatment of “faith” could be informed and enriched by insights from psychological science.
When theologians do wish to make descriptive claims that have psychological content or dimensions, psychological science could be useful in supporting, nuancing, or challenging these claims.
2. Are You Making Normative Claims Supported by Descriptive Psychological Claims?
Much of theology extends beyond discussions of what is the case to what should be the case. That is, theologians make prescriptive, proscriptive, and other normative claims, not merely descriptive claims. Typically, it would be folly to simply import the descriptive claims from psychological science into theology as normative claims. Just because people tend to think in such-and-such a way does not mean they should think such-and-such a way. Nevertheless, the descriptive claims of the sciences can play a role in theologically normative claims as premises in more complex arguments. For instance, that most humans have no volitional control over the content of their dreams may reasonably bear upon whether one judges that people are morally culpable for their dream content. Likewise, as the consequences of a way of thinking or acting may bear upon the value of that way of thinking or acting, understanding the likely consequences of the thought or action may matter to normative claims. If psychological science can demonstrate that feeling compassion toward an individual makes one more likely to treat that person kindly, and treating others kindly is to be commended, then learning to feel compassion toward others may also be commended. When making normative claims, there may be ways in which descriptive psychological claims could support, challenge, or nuance those normative claims.
In his book Was Jesus God? (2008), Richard Swinburne includes a section entitled “Christian Moral Teaching.” In this section, as part of a discussion of why certain “supererogatory” behaviors (or behaviors that go beyond an expected “call of duty”) seem to become “obligatory,” we find the following text:
Someone who has saved the satisfaction of sexual desire for a spouse will be able to regard and be regarded by that spouse as uniquely their own. And it is plausible to suppose that, if people get used to having casual sex before marriage, it becomes more natural to commit adultery when the marriage becomes difficult or boring; and it is also highly plausible to suppose that the example of many people abstaining from sexual intercourse before marriage will influence others to take their marriages more seriously. (p. 71)
Notice that Swinburne makes several empirical suggestions about human thought and behavior. Is there a link between pre-marital chastity and attitudes toward a spouse being regarded as “uniquely their own”? Do people who have more frequent casual sex before marriage also find it more “natural to commit adultery when the marriage becomes difficult”? Does a culture of abstinence influence others to “take their marriages more seriously”? With a little bit of effort, each of these claims could be translated into testable psychological science research questions for which evidence may already be available. This evidence might strengthen, weaken, or otherwise qualify what Swinburne finds plausible.
3. Are You Making Claims About What Effects Texts, Rituals, and Practices Have on People?
It can be powerful and efficient rhetoric to talk about what worship does to worshippers, what a wedding does to those joined, or what prayers of thanksgiving do to those praying. Note, however, that this kind of language is often shorthand for a psychological claim. Take these examples from J. I. Packer’s discussion of images of God in his book Knowing God (1973):
In a similar way the pathos of the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, for it hides the fact of His deity, His victory on the cross, and His present kingdom. It displays His human weakness, but it conceals His divine strength; it depicts the reality of His pain, but keeps out of our sight the reality of His joy and His power. (pp. 40-41)
Images mislead men. They convey false ideas about God. The very inadequacy with which they represent Him perverts our thoughts of Him, and plants in our minds errors of all sorts about His character and will. (p. 41)
Packer speaks as if the crucifix or images of God do things to people: they obscure, display, conceal, mislead, and convey. These verbs all suggest that images have some sort of agency, which is handy but imprecise. In fact, it is humans who respond to images in particular ways. Humans perceive in images this or that. At best, images trigger or prompt humans to think or respond in certain ways. Perhaps the artist or sculpture intends to communicate particular ideas and feelings through the image. In any case, human interactions with a crucifix or other image of the divine are psychological processes subject to potential psychological investigation. That is, psychological science could demonstrate (or falsify) that people who spend time gazing upon crucifixes are inclined to “forget” Jesus’ deity, perhaps more fluently associating him with human weakness and suffering rather than power and dominion. Perhaps some (but not all) images communicate God’s transcendent properties more effectively than words. Packer has made numerous assertions that may be testable through psychological science.
When discussing religious practices, rituals, disciplines, images, and so forth, it may be helpful for theologians to consider whether they are importing assumptions about psychological dynamics that may be honed through engagement with psychological science.
4. Are You Constructing an Argument that Uses Intuitions as Premises?
In the quotations from Knowing God above, perhaps unknowingly, Packer is making veiled psychological claims in order to fortify an argument about why God would prohibit the creation of images for worship. These claims move close to a fourth occasion in which psychological science could be useful to theologians: when an argument is strengthened by premises that are rooted in a theologian’s own intuitions that they assume to be shared with their audiences.
The philosophical study of ethics has undergone a minor revolution in recent decades by the discovery that certain intuitions that philosophers had taken for granted in their arguments were irregularly shared by the general population, or even varied considerably across cultures. In some cases, the framing of thought experiments has been shown to shape key intuitions in ways that the strict logic of the thought problem was supposed to prevent. Perhaps most famous in this regard is the Knobe Effect. Joshua Knobe found that when an actor in an ethical thought problem brought about an unintended negative consequence through his or her actions, readers are very likely to judge the actor as morally blameworthy. Hence, a business person who tries to maximize profits and so makes a particular decision that, as a byproduct, harms the environment, the businessperson is still judged as blameworthy for the action. Intuitions of relatively educated Americans seem fairly uniform in this regard. Nevertheless, when the actor performed the same action, driven by the same profit motives, and a positive byproduct was the unintended consequence (e.g., improving the environment), the action was not then judged to be praiseworthy, even though the relationship between the actor’s intentions and the actor’s desired outcomes was identical to the negative case. The Knobe Effect is the name of this asymmetry, and it was discovered by use of psychological science methods. It shows that the framing of a thought-problem can change normative intuitions. Thus, in many cases, the intuitions that philosophers have taken to be secure premises in their arguments may be fundamentally conditioned by their context, culture, or individual psychology. The area of “experimental philosophy” has developed to investigate these matters.
The extension to theological ethics is straightforward. Insofar as theologians working on various projects develop arguments that rely upon what seems to be the case in this situation or that situation, these “seemings” are potentially investigable using psychological science. To further illustrate, McGrath (2018), presents three different models for thinking about God as creator and briefly evaluates their relative strengths and weaknesses. In discussing the “artistic expression” model, part of the proposed strength of such a model includes the claim that, “There is also a natural link between the concept of creation as “artistic expression” and the highly significant concept of “beauty”” (p. 48). It may seem fair enough that, indeed, a “natural link” exists between these two concepts, but is that intuition accurate and stable? I may be inclined to believe it, but is that because I have been culturally conditioned to link artistic expression with beauty instead of, say, awe, fear, or sublimity?
A psychological investigation of these intuitions may reveal that arguments in favor of this model over the “emanation” (McGrath, p. 46), or “construction” (p. 47) models are stronger in some populations as opposed to others. Perhaps, too, scientific consideration of intuitions concerning “artistic expression” and “beauty” would reveal additional reasons for favoring the “artistic expression” model. Perhaps thinking of God’s creative act as artistic expression not only casts focus on beauty, and perhaps the assumption that beauty arises from goodness, but also prompts a deeper appreciation of God’s awesome power and untamed agency. Perhaps. Psychological science could help theologians develop or problematize such arguments. It may be that the time is right for developing an experimental theology that parallels experimental philosophy.
Cautions and Clarifications
This essay is not meant to suggest that all theological questions would benefit from interaction with psychological science. Psychological science may have little to add to many theological topics. Even on topics for which it could contribute in theory, there may be little available science (yet). This limitation, however, could present an opportunity for theologians to help motivate new areas of research that are useful to theologians and the faith communities they represent.
I also do not assume that psychological science should be introduced as a weapon to injure or destroy theological positions. Rather, psychological science may be a tool that theologians can use to improve their work. Sometimes the science will challenge commonly held assumptions. Other times, it will support, nuance, or enrich them.
Because psychological science is a tool for theology, it is not envisioned as an equal partner with traditional theology in pursuing theological insights. The tool is not equal to the carpenter. Theologians have many tools of inquiry available to them, including many academic disciplines, to seek understanding and utility in their theological analyses.
Tools work best when they are used for their intended purposes, skillfully employed, and properly maintained. A thorough unpacking of this metaphor for theological use of psychological science would extend beyond the scope of this essay. Here I only observe that psychological science is a dynamic area with a particular language, set of assumptions, and epistemological commitments. Though areas of inquiry manage to build evidence-based consensuses over time, particularly in newer areas of study, psychological scientists may disagree strongly over how to interpret findings, or even over whether they trust certain empirical findings. For these reasons, theological engagement with psychological science requires some care as with engagement with any other disciplinary area.
Nevertheless, theological inquiry and psychological science both address human nature, thought, relationships, and action. Scientific methodologies have also proven useful for promoting cumulative progress in many related spheres of inquiry, and many areas of theology are likely to benefit from engagement with psychological science.
Can you think of areas of theology that could especially benefit from collaboration with psychological science?
Justin L. Barrett, Ph.D.
Justin L. Barrett is a program chair for Fuller Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology and chief project developer for the Office for Science, Theology, and Religion Initiatives (STAR). An experimental psychologist (Ph.D., Cornell University), Barrett previously taught in Oxford University’s School of Anthropology, and is best known for his research on religion. While at Oxford, he helped found the Centre for Anthropology and Mind and the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology. Professor Barrett is regarded as a founder of the field of cognitive science of religion. He has authored more than 100 chapters and articles concerning cognitive, developmental, and evolutionary approaches to the study of religion and has published scholarly articles in the domains of anthropology, philosophy, religious studies, psychology, and even literary studies. His authored books are Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004), Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds (2011), and Born Believers: The Science of Childhood Religion (2012). He’s also edited a four-volume collection Psychology of Religion (2010, Routlege) and co-edited Religious Cognition in China: Homo Religiosus and the Dragon (2017, Springer). Barrett also serves as a member of the John Templeton Foundation board of advisors.