Is your faith a house of cards? If you were wrong about one belief would the whole structure just collapse? If even one injury came to you, one instance of broken trust, would the whole castle fall? If one element was seemingly inconsistent or incompatible—would you burn down the house? This depiction of the psychology of faith is quite fragile. It falls over to even the lightest breath. But what would a flexible faith be? Resilient to even the heaviest gusts of life’s hurricanes. It would adapt and grow as a living, responsive faith. Psychologist Elizabeth Hall joins Evan Rosa to discuss the domains of psychology and theology and what it means for each to “stay in their lane”; she introduces a distinction between implicit and explicit knowledge, and identifies the social- and self-imposed pressure to know everything with certainty; we reflect on the recent trends toward deconversion from faith in light of these pressures; and she offers psychologically grounded guidance for approaching doubt and ambiguity in a secure relational context, seeking to make the unspoken or implicit doubts explicit. Rather than remaining perched upon our individualized, certainty-driven house-of-card faith; she lays out a way to inhabit a flexible, resilient, and relationally grounded faith, tolerant of ambiguity and adaptive and secure amidst all our winds of doubt. This episode was made possible in part by the generous support of Blueprint 1543. For more information, visit Blueprint1543.org.
Is your faith a house of cards? If you were wrong about one belief would the whole structure just collapse? If even one injury came to you, one instance of broken trust, would the whole castle fall? If one element was seemingly inconsistent or incompatible—would you burn down the house?
This depiction of the psychology of faith is quite fragile. It falls over to even the lightest breath. But what would a flexible faith be? Resilient to even the heaviest gusts of life’s hurricanes. It would adapt and grow as a living, responsive faith.
This metaphor isn’t too far off from the Enlightenment-founding vision of Rene Descartes—whose Meditations sought to build an edifice of Christian faith on a foundation free from doubt, ambiguity, uncertainty, or falsehoods. Even the slightest of doubts had to be categorically obliterated in order to prove the existence of God and the reality of the soul. He was clear about this in the preface. This was a work of apologetics. And he thought a good offense is your best defense. So he went on a whack-a-mole style doubt-killing spree that he hoped would secure a faith built on certainty.
Now, here’s a question for you: Does a quest for certainty strengthen and fortify the Christian faith? Or does it leave you stranded on the top floor of a house of cards?
Today, we’re continuing our series on Bringing Psychology to Theology, with a closer look at what to do about doubt, uncertainty, and ambiguity, in all sorts of stakes, but especially when it comes to faith.
In this series we’ve been exploring the tools of psychological science that might contribute to a deeper, greater, more nuanced theological understanding of the world.
We began the series by establishing certain normative questions about the integration of psychology and theology—experimental psychologist Justin Barrett offered to Miroslav Volf the suggestion that to build your cathedral of theology, you need the tools of psychological sciences.
Then, developmental psychologist Pamela King offered a vision of thriving that expresses the dynamic, human telos or purpose throughout our lifespan. Research psychologist Julie Exline followed with a psychological exploration of spiritual struggle and one of the most embattled and suppressed of human emotions: anger at God.
In this episode, I’m joined by Elizabeth Hall of Biola University’s Rosemead School of Psychology. She’s both a clinically trained therapist, helping people deal with life’s difficulties, as well as a psychological researcher exploring human spirituality, personality and character traits, women’s mental health, and human relationships. Most recently she co-authored Relational Spirituality: A Psychological-Theological Paradigm for Transformation, and I asked her to come on the show to talk about her recent work on tolerance for ambiguity in a life of faith.
Here we discuss the domains of psychology and theology and what it means for each to “stay in their lane”; she introduces a distinction between implicit and explicit knowledge, and identifies the social- and self-imposed pressure to know everything with certainty; we reflect on the recent trends toward deconversion from faith in light of these pressures; and she offers psychologically grounded guidance for approaching doubt and ambiguity in a secure relational context, seeking to make the unspoken or implicit doubts explicit. Rather than remaining perched upon our individualized, certainty-driven house-of-card faith; she lays out a way to inhabit a flexible, resilient, and relationally grounded faith, tolerant of ambiguity and adaptive and secure amidst all our winds of doubt.
About Elizabeth Hall
M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall (PhD, Rosemead School of Psychology) is professor of psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University, where she teaches courses on the integration of psychology and theology. She has published over 100 articles and book chapters and serves as associate editor for Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. She lives in Whittier, California, with her husband, Todd, and her two sons.
- Relational Spirituality: A Psychological-Theological Paradigm for Transformation
- On the integration of psychology and Christianity in life
- Vocationally; psychology is the “little area of God’s creation” where she gets to work, she attempts to bring it back to Jesus’s lordship
- Jesus as owner of all
- Intellectually; if all truth is God’s truth, she is trying to get the most complete sense of what humans are all about
- God gave us the capacity to study using psychology
- Faith, theology, and religion lend themselves into a psychological domain more than other fields, providing rich content that comes together easily with what the Bible says about humans.
- What helps the intellectual puzzle pieces come together for you?
- “I need to allow theology and psychology to stay in their lanes. I can’t expect more from each discipline than what it is constructed to offer.”
- Ex: Psychology gets in trouble when making prescriptive statements (vs descriptive)
- People are seeking clinical based advice for how to live better
- “When someone sits down with a client to help them with whatever they're dealing with, they do have notions of human flourishing in the background that, whether they've thought through it or not, are going to come up in the course of how the therapy is steered.”
- Defining flourishing is not easy, so choosing criteria becomes difficult for psychology
- What does it mean when doubt enters the mind? When we act on doubts?
- It is difficult to be a Christian with questions about your faith in this current moment.
- Social Pressure:
- We are continually being confronted with people who live and think differently than us, and who seem to be doing well in life, opposed to the homogenous communities we historically lived in.
- Intellectual pressure:
- We naturally want to seek truth that is certain.
- There is a strand of Christianity where we’ve reduced what faith is to an intellectual ascent to the affirmations of our faith.
- What is it to know something? What might psychologists be working with as definitions of knowledge that would offer alternatives to knowledge as certainty?
- A useful distinction from cognitive scientists has been the definition between the explicit and implicit knowing
- We know important things about the world at an implicit level:
- Via nervous systems, without words
- Emotions and relationships
- What are the ways that gut knowledge comes to us, relationally or culturally?
- Our initial reaction to something in our environment is immediately a “push or pull” towards or against that thing. Then it becomes refined by past experiences (culture, past relationships, etc.) This then shapes what happens on the conscious level.
- Being aware of that psychological force between our unconscious and conscious thought becomes important when breaking down doubt in a religious context.
- Hall grew up in the Evangelical church, feeling certain that faith was set of propositions about Jesus and God that was very certain.
- Early church had more of an interpersonal dimension to faith, centering on trust and loyalty.
- Relying on propositions/blanket statement of Christian faith creates a “house of cards” vision of faith: If you pull one card out, all come down.
- This relates to an intellectual need for certainty, but there is also a social dimension to this stack
- Guilt by association: disgust, remorse, shame, around the association of a particular belief with Christianity, which can feed all the way back to one’s experience of God
- This becomes particularly heightened when the larger culture is confronting/criticizing these beliefs or institutions
- Our experienced relationship of God also has implicit foundations
- Studies on deconversion show that people who turn from Christianity find that the reason is usually a perceived injury (with God, another person, the church) that sets off the process
- Many people say “science” is the reason, but it’s not actually until the betrayal of trust comes in that most people start cognitively deconverting
- Most of our shaping and life happens outside of our conscious awareness
- Psychology does not understand well how the explicit knowledge systems can influence our implicit beliefs
- Two kinds of doubt:
- Explicit: content, perceived competing claims with Christianity and (usually) science
- Implicit: betrayal of trust. God has let a person down
- Different people will encounter the same perceived discrepancy and will experience it in vastly different ways.
- It is difficult to be a thoughtful creature and not wonder at how things fit together
- Some people may meet a discrepancy and decide their whole life has been built on a lie
- The factors that allow a person to entertain doubts with more confidence:
- Solid relational attachments (such as parental) early in childhood
- Helps a person to be overwhelmed by a question because they know they have faced and managed similar situations before
- Being okay with doubt: some people can live with it, intellectual resilience
- If it’s very threatening, you have to do something because you can’t live in a state of constant tension: deconverting is one possible solution
- Tension: literal physiological arousal
- How to help people find their way through the doubt:
- Try to make what is implicit, explicit. Explore the process of the doubt.
- Provide a window into a person’s capacity for uncertainty tolerance
- Envisioning faith a different way: Rethinking our churches for relational spirituality
- There are ways to be attuned to caring for peoples relational experiences of the love of God
- This podcast featured Elizabeth Hall
- Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
- Hosted by Evan Rosa
- Production Assistance by Macie Bridge & 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.