At the bedrock of our being as persons is relationality: our ability to be known, to be loved, and to know and love in return. But what kind of claim is that? Theology or psychology? In this episode, Evan Rosa brings Pamela Ebstyne King (Fuller School of Psychology; Thrive Center for Human Development) on the show to discuss developmental psych as the observational study of human change and plasticity in the midst of a whole complex life; relational attachment for the sake of intimacy and exploration and ultimate purpose or meaning; the proper place of self-love; God’s enabling and loving presence as the ultimate secure attachment figure; the importance of learning, gaining skills, and the pursuit of expertise; the prospects of regaining emotional regulation through relationships; the game changing impact of deliberate psychological and spiritual practices to move us well beyond surviving to a life of thriving.
"Usually people think of a telos as an endpoint, but what if we think of telos as a dynamic process that sustains a thriving trajectory for the individual and the world around them? The imago Dei, which is deeply and inherently relational and social—we image God by being our unique selves in unity. So there is the particularity of personhood and the relatedness with other persons, God, and all of creation. And so that was what the reciprocating self was. It's 'How do I grow as a fully differentiated person in relationship and increasing intimacy, increasing contribution with the world around me?'
To thrive then is to pursue that fullness of self in the context of intimacy and accountability and relationships—not just with those closest to me ... that's essential—but also in contribution to the world beyond the self.
How does our faith, how does our devotion, fuel us to want to continue to reciprocate when life is hard? When there's a pandemic? We need something beyond ourselves, a power beyond ourselves, an orientation beyond ourselves to fuel that interrelatedness between our particularity and the greater good." (Pamela Ebstyne King)
Developmental Psychology, Thriving, and Purpose
At the bedrock of our being as persons is relationality: our ability to be known, to be loved, and to know and love in return. But whoa whoa whoa. Wait a minute. What kind of claim is that? Is that theology or psychology? We’re used to hearing that from the likes of the Jewish existential philosopher and theologian Martin Buber—he’s well known for his suggestion that an intimate I-Thou relationship is what makes for our conscious personhood. It’d be impossible to become an “I” without coming into direct contact with a “You” and seeing it as a “You.”
But how interesting that research studies in developmental psychology find just that. You can for instance turn to John Bowlby and the beginnings of attachment theory to find that this theological claim holds up once you start testing it with the tools psychological. But more than holds up, the claim that relationality is fundamental to personhood starts to expand and develop nuance by examining the most universal by application in the unique, particular circumstances. Famous psychological experiments like the “Still Face” show how central the reciprocal response of our earliest attachment figure is for our mental health, even as babies. (Check below for an excruciating video example of the Still Face Experiment.)
But this is just one way that developmental psychology might offer some interesting tools to theological reflection.
And today we’re continuing a new series of episodes on For the Life of the World all about “Bringing Psychology to Theology”—we’re exploring the tools of psychological sciences that might contribute to a deeper, greater, more nuanced theological understanding of the world. Last week we introduced the series with a conversation between Miroslav Volf and experimental psychologist Justin Barrett. Justin evokes the image of erecting a giant cathedral of theology—and how the task must be done with a variety of tools and subcontracted skills.
Well, whether theology is the grand architect of a cathedral of human knowledge or the benevolent and humble Queen of the Sciences—either way we hope this series highlights the prospects of a science-engaged theology and how it might contribute to the most pressing matters for how to live lives worthy of our humanity.
My guest in this episode is Pamela Ebstyne King. She’s the Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller School of Psychology and is Executive Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, her research has focused on the intersections of developmental and positive psychology, human thriving, and spirituality.
In this episode, we discuss developmental psych as the observational study of human change and plasticity in the midst of a whole complex life; relational attachment for the sake of intimacy and exploration and ultimate purpose or meaning; the proper place of self-love; God’s enabling and loving presence as the ultimate secure attachment figure; the importance of learning, gaining skills, and the pursuit of expertise; The prospects of regaining emotional regulation through relationships; the game changing impact of deliberate psychological and spiritual practices to move us well beyond surviving to a life of thriving.
About Pamela Ebstyne King
Pamela Ebstyne King, Ph.D. joined Fuller Theological Seminary as assistant professor of Marital and Family Studies in 2008, after serving in the School of Psychology for eight years as an adjunct and research professor. She was installed in 2014 with a professorship named for her mentor, Peter L. Benson. In 2021 she was promoted to the position of Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science. Dr. King is also executive director of the Thrive Center for Human Development.
Dr. King’s academic and applied efforts aim to promote a movement of human thriving that contributes to flourishing societies. Her primary academic interests lie at the intersection of thriving and spiritual development. She is passionate about understanding what individual strengths and environments enable humans to thrive and become all God created them to be. She holds particular interest in understanding the role of faith, spirituality, religion, and virtues in this process. To this end she has led in building an empirical field of study of religious and spiritual development within developmental psychology that provides a psychological scientific perspective of spiritual formation.
She has extensively studied and written on conceptualizations of thriving and positive youth development. Her work on telos is noted to provide an interdisciplinary framework for human thriving and flourishing from different philosophical, theological, and cultural perspectives and to provide a structure for understanding practical concepts like purpose, vocation, and joy. Her work combines theology, empirical research, and community engagement to further understand what contexts and settings enable people to thrive. She has conducted research funded by Biologos Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute, Compassion International, and Tyndale House, among others. In addition to her scholarship, she finds deep joy in teaching and mentoring students at Fuller.
Dr. King is coauthor of The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective and Thriving with Stone Age Minds: Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Theology & Human Flourishing, coeditor of The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, and coauthor of the inaugural chapter on research on religious and spiritual development in the seventh edition of the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science. She has served on the editorial boards of Developmental Psychology, Journal of Positive Psychology, Applied Developmental Science, the Encyclopedia of Applied Developmental Science, and the Encyclopedia of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. She has also published articles in the Journal on Adolescent Research, Journal of Early Adolescence, New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, and Journal of Psychology and Christianity. King is a member of the Society for Research on Adolescents, Society for Research on Child Development, and Division 36 of the American Psychological Association.
In addition to her studies at Fuller, Dr. King completed her undergraduate studies at Stanford University and a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford’s Center on Adolescence; she was a visiting scholar under the divinity faculty at Cambridge University. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), she has led high school and college ministries, and regularly speaks, preaches, and consults for various community organizations and churches. She lives in Pasadena with her husband and three children.
- Martin Buber’s I and Thou
- John Bowlby and Attachment Theory
- Trolick’s Still Face Experiment (Video)
- Justin Barrett & Pamela Ebstyne King, Thriving with Stone Age Minds: Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Faith, and the Quest for Human Flourishing
- Developmental psych as the observational study of human change in the midst of a whole life of complexity
- Plasticity of the human species
- Relational attachment for the sake of intimacy and exploration
- The Impact of environment on genetic expression
- Law if reciprocity
- Fullness of creation, redemption and consummation
- Theology as establishing ends, and psychology as developing towards gods purposes
- How psychology aids in the process of becoming our full selves as selfhood
- The proper place of self-love
- God’s enabling and loving presence
- Thriving as psychological, vs Flourishing as philosophical
- Meaningful life in eudaimonic and hedonistic terms
- Imago dei
- “Back to the future”—understanding the end toward the beginning
- Reading psychology through a teleological lens
- Linear stage theories of development
- Life as a series of cycles
- We can have a telos as a dynamic process
- Thriving as pursuing the fullness of self
- Reciprocity beyond ourselves when life is hard
- Colossians and Jesus as the perfect image of God
- Conformity is not uniformity
- Parenting as helping children to become their unique selves
- Telos as inhabiting the self, the relational, and the aspirational—purpose is found at the intersection of all three
- William Damon on purpose
- Purpose as enduring actionable goal, meaningful to the self and contributing beyond the self
- Learning, gaining skills, and pursuit of expertise
- Meaning making as a dynamic life-long project
- Orienting life in the present moment by tethering to a consummate vision of the future
- Sociality as inherent to human nature
- Goals: self, expertise acquisition, and what we aspire to
- Roles: who we are in our social networks
- Souls: what ideals are most dearly held and most meaningful
- The fundamental rejection of pre autonomy and independence; embrace of our relational selves
- How malleable our brains are through intentional practices
- Making meaning can change your brains
- Surviving vs thriving
- Attachment and regulation
- Regaining emotional regulation through relationships
- The game changing impact of deliberate psychological and spiritual practices—intention, motivation, and goals
- Possible cutoff point — The relation of psychological science and theology
- Psychology as a God-given tool to enable thriving and flourishing
- Known, loved, and loving others
- The role of suffering and loss as part of the thriving process
- For the cynical and jaded: thriving that is real to loss, grief, vulnerability, and daring to thrive
- This podcast featured Pamela Ebstyne King
- Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
- Hosted by Evan Rosa
- Production Assistance by Macie Bridge and Kaylen Yun
- A Production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School https://faith.yale.edu/about
- Support For the Life of the World podcast by giving to the Yale Center for Faith & Culture: https://faith.yale.edu/give
- This episode was made possible in part by the generous support of Blueprint 1543. For more information, visit Blueprint1543.org.