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Episode Summary

Imagine building a cathedral with just a hammer and nails. How might theologians today continue to build the grand cathedral where human knowledge meets divine revelation by implementing the tools of psychological science? Experimental psychologist Justin Barrett joins theologian Miroslav Volf for a conversation on how psychology can contribute to theology. This episode is made possible by Blueprint1543.

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Yep, we’ve heard that before. But imagine trying to make that work. Imagine, for instance, the visionary builder of a medieval cathedral… building it only with a hammer and nails. And you know there’s an analogy coming here. Suppose the cathedral you’re trying to build is nothing less than the human inquiry into the nature of the cosmos and the nature of the God who created them—from the dark matter at the edges of the expanding universe, to the recycled space dust that’s found its way into the pristine fingernails of a newborn baby.

Artfully articulating the nature of reality with nuance and care—saying something true and meaningful about God, people, and thriving in the world we share—the task of theology could be just like that extravagant building project.

But imagine if the theologian only had one tool.

Experimental psychologist Justin Barrett tells a story like this to make a suggestion to theologians to consider how they might incorporate the tools of science—and psychological science in particular—into the building of their theological cathedral.

Justin is long-time researcher in cognitive science of religion. He’s author of a number of books, including Why Would Anyone Believe in God? and Born Believers: The Science of Childhood Religion. He just edited the Oxford Handbook of the Cognitive Science of Religion.

And in 2019 he co-founded Blueprint1543, an organization that’s bringing theologians and scientists together to accelerate better contributions to life’s biggest questions.

And today we’re launching a series of episodes on For the Life of the World that will explore the tools of psychological sciences that might contribute to a deeper and greater theological understanding of the world. By bringing a science-engaged theology to bear on the most pressing matters for how to live lives worthy of our humanity.

Throughout the series, we’re featuring conversations with psychologists who can offer insightful tools for crafting the cathedral where human knowledge meets divine revelation.

About Justin Barrett

Justin L. Barrett is an honorary Professor of Theology and the Sciences at St Andrews University School of Divinity. An experimental psychologist by training, he is concerned with the scientific study of religion and its philosophical as well as theological implications. He is the author of a number of books including Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, Born Believers: The Science of Childhood Religion, and Religious Cognition in China: Homo Religiosus and the Dragon.

Show Notes

  • Download your copy of Justin Barrett’s A Psychological Science Primer for Theologians (2022)
  • TheoPsych Academy
  • Normative vision the good life
  • Psychology as among the most secular of academic disciplines
  • Psychology’s historical (but non-necessary) anti-religious tendencies
  • There are plenty of Christian psychologists who are deliberate in thinking about the integration of Christianity and psychology
  • Comparing instrumental, explanatory psychology and purposes, meaning, and teleology in theology
  • How the purposes of our lives—normative visions—how do they then shape psychological inquiry
  • Are questions of the good life matters for science to determine, or are religious and theological perspectives essential to thinking about the purpose and meaning of human life?
  • When can theologians and philosophers be helped by psychological science?
  • Theologians often make use of psychological claims fairly uncritically—how human minds work, how emotions work, how social relationships work
  • Miroslav’s book The End of Memory
  • Is the theologian making descriptive psychological claims?
  • Are you the theologian making normative claims supported by descriptive psychological claims?
  • Are you making claims about what affects texts and rituals and practices have on people?
  • Are you constructing an argument that uses intuition as premises?
  • Experimental philosophy: Are philosophers’ intuitions universal?
  • Can there be an “experimental theology”?
  • Being careful about descriptive psychological claims—especially for practical theological questions or lived theology
  • Psychology needs to do its own inspecting
  • “The science of psychology has a great self-awareness of how we can't trust ourselves. … The entire method is built around, to put it in theological terms, a conviction about total depravity.”
  • Methodological rigor in sciences—checking findings with the community
  • Cultural situatedness
  • E.g., “How well do we know ourselves?”
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The world of a happy man is not the same as the world of a sad man.”
  • “Affective states shape how we perceive the world.”
  • Mary Magdalene’s breaking a precious jar or oil on Jesus’s feet—the smell is refracted through how Judas and Jesus see the world. Judas finds the smell a terrible waste, and Jesus finds the smell beautiful.
  • “What we perceive in the world around us is set by our expectations.”
  • “Every Christian is a theologian because theology accompanies the life and situatedness of each individual in the world.”

Production Notes

  • This podcast featured cognitive scientist Justin Barrett and theologian Miroslav Volf
  • Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
  • Hosted by Evan Rosa
  • Special thanks to Justin Barrett, Rebecca Dorsey, Sarey Martin Concepción, and Holly Crain at Blueprint1543.
  • A Production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School
  • Support For the Life of the World podcast by giving to the Yale Center for Faith & Culture:
  • This episode was made possible in part by the generous support of Blueprint 1543. For more information, visit

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