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Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu. This episode was made possible in part by the generous support of Blueprint 1543. For more information, visit blueprint1543.org.
Elizabeth Hall: One of the things that a solid attachment experience early on in childhood gives people is the capacity to modulate or digest or not be overwhelmed by emotions. And so what our parental figures, if they're good parental figures, do is that when we're distressed, they sooth us, they help to calm us down, help to make feelings manageable, and then over time we internalize that capacity.
And so as adults, we emerge with various ways or capacities for just dealing with difficult emotions. So what that means is that for some people a question might be non-threatening because they know that they're not going to be overwhelmed by it. They've faced other things before, they have confidence in their ability to kind of face the world intellectually.
For other people, that same problem might bring up emotions that then spiral out of control. And so that idea really is a threat that requires a response in order to rid oneself of the feelings. So, uncertainty tolerance is one way that people talk about that capacity.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Is your faith a house of cards? If you were wrong about one belief, would the whole structure just collapse? With even one injury, one instance of broken trust, would the whole castle fall? If one element was seemingly inconsistent or incompatible, would you burn down the whole 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 house of cards metaphor isn't too far off from the enlightenment founding vision of René Descartes, whose Meditations sought to build an edifice of Christian faith on a foundation free from doubt, free from ambiguity, uncertainty, any falsehoods. Even the slightest of doubts had to be categorically obliterated in order to prove the existence both of God and the reality of the soul.
He was clear about this in his preface to Meditations. 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 situations, 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 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 Christian 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 whims of doubt.
Thanks for listening,
Liz, it's such a pleasure to be chatting with you today. Thanks for joining me on For the Life of the World.
Elizabeth Hall: It's great to be here.
Evan Rosa: So I wanted to begin by talking about your sense of vocation as a Christian, as a psychologist, and give us a little bit of context about how you think about the integration of theology and psychology in your life.
Elizabeth Hall: It's such a big topic. So I think about it vocationally. So as a Christian, I feel that the lordship of Jesus over all creation, as maybe articulated in Colossians 1, is a framework for living my life. And so this little area of God's creation, of human psychology, is the one where I get to work and try to bring it under Christ's Lordship. Might be one way of thinking about it vocationally.
Evan Rosa: And are you specifically thinking of like, "all things are held together" in that kind of cosmic Christ?
Elizabeth Hall: That's exactly right. You know, my friend, Rick Langer, points out that all of the words that are used there are in terms of ownership. So Jesus really is owner of all and obviously in this present moment, that's not always very clear. But as we do our little jobs in the kingdom of God, this is one little area that I get to tackle. So vocationally, that's one lens that I think about it.
Maybe another one would be just intellectually, it's a puzzle. And so intellectually I want understand people and since I accept that all truth is God's truth, it makes sense that to get the most complete picture of what humans are all about, that I can draw on both what God has said in the Bible and what God has said just in the way that he created human beings and that he gave us the capacity to study through the lens of psychology. And so there's kind of an intellectual sense where I get to wrestle with a conversation between those two.
Evan Rosa: I've heard Justin Barrett say something along the lines of, you know, the testimony of the Scriptures or the testimony of faith, theology, religious claim, they naturally tend to fall into psychological domains and offer a unique opportunity to look scientifically, to look empirically, at those religious claims.
Elizabeth Hall: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I rub shoulders with people from all kinds of disciplines here at Biola and integration is kind of what Biola is known for, but I certainly think that the job of integration in the field of psychology is so much easier than my friends in chemistry or kinesiology or, you know, some other areas where there's not as much rich content that just naturally comes together with what the Bible says about humans.
Evan Rosa: When you think about that intellectual puzzle, are there a few key principles that sort of inform your particular way of seeking integration, that help the puzzle pieces fit together?
Elizabeth Hall: Well, several things are coming to mind. So one big idea would be that I need to allow theology and psychology to stay in their lanes. And so I can't expect more from each discipline than what it is constructed to offer, in a sense. So I think in psychology, we get into a lot of trouble when we make prescriptive statements, for example. And I'm not sure that that's something that psychology has any business doing just because of what it's set up to do so well, which is give very thick, rich descriptions of the relations between things. So that would be an example. So that might be one, I guess, principle or big idea.
Evan Rosa: The prescriptive-descriptive distinction is I think really, really helpful there. But it's worth camping out on that for a moment that I think there's a growing tendency, at least observation on my part, people are looking for a little bit more on the prescriptive side when it comes to psychological evidence. They want evidence-backed advice for how to flourish and live better.
Elizabeth Hall: And I'm not sure that I would even say that this is a new thing in psychology. I mean, I'm trained as a clinical psychologist, and so every theory of psychopathology has an implicit notion of what health or normality is all about.
When someone sits down with a client to help them with whatever they're dealing with, they do have notions of shevan 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. Obviously, positive psychology has put a new spin on that because now we're trying to attach different human pursuits or characteristics to the study of wellbeing or flourishing.
But again, we get into trouble there because it turns out that defining what flourishing is, is no easy matter. And so then depending on what you choose as your criteria for flourishing, you're going to get a wide array of answers.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. I want to shift to some of your recent research in a particular domain of the integration of theology and psychology, and that's around the question of doubt and what that means when doubt enters the psyche, enters the mind. Then we go beyond merely entertaining those doubts and perhaps acting on them, undergoing some form of religious change from them, deconverting maybe. But it's clear that the whole history of human thought does interact with doubt at some level. It's clear in ancient texts and we have all sorts of scriptural commentary on this kind of ultimate question of faith and doubt.
But the context here is exacerbated by recent deconversion trends and that it looks like things are trending in a way that, at least in the United States, if not in other parts of the world, Western societies in particular, there's just increasing numbers of people who move beyond having questions, being aware of doubts, and then they're moving more in the direction of acting on those and allowing those doubts to in fact change their mind in a more significant way.
Elizabeth Hall: I think we're in a kind of perfect storm for the emergence of doubt right now. Some historical trends, some trends within the Christian church, different things that come up that I think make it very difficult to be a Christian with questions about your faith in this present moment.
So I'm thinking of things such as just the fact that the world is growing so much smaller. It used to be that you would live within a homogenous community and would rarely be faced with people who had very different experiences than your own. And of course, that is simply not our lived reality nowadays. And so we are confronted with other people who not only think differently than us, but that even seem to be doing well in life, in fact, in spite of not thinking the same ways that we do. So that's kind of one strand.
I think a couple of other intertwined strands that have to do with our intellectual history—some were laid at the feet of the enlightenment—but the idea that we want to seek truth that is certain, that anything that we cannot, for example, empirically prove in some way, we shouldn't call it knowledge, we shouldn't put our confidence down in that. So there's that strand.
There's another strand I think, within Christianity, perhaps also based on enlightenment principles, where we have really reduced what faith is all about to the kind of intellectual ascent, to the affirmations of our faith.
And so when you put all of those pieces together, what you get is a situation where you think that you need to be certain but you're in a position to hear all kinds of competing claims, some of which might make sense to you. And that you think if you don't have certainty, that you have lost your faith. So no wonder people are just very, very confused in this area and are struggling.
Evan Rosa: Sure. I've noticed just a real uptick in terms of the number of deconversion stories or testimonies or, you know, bearing witness. And this usually is aired out over social media where someone declares, you know, "this is it. I've had enough. I don't believe anymore."
And things are constantly seeming to shift at a personal level perhaps, but it's interesting that it kind of just pushes one over the precipice in that way to actually, like, make that change.
And I think up until now, what has been most prominent and popular consciousness is it's just the opposite direction, like the conversion narrative, at least in Christian culture, right? Far more attention on that, and maybe it's just the stages of life. But I heard three strands there. I heard a social dimension of comparison perhaps, or relationality, and just kind of comparing oneself to other people. I heard an intellectual strand and then I heard this religious strand that seems to formulate a kind of background that you describe as a perfect storm for doubt to enter in.
I'm wondering if you can help with some more definitions of the terms here, because bringing up this quest for knowledge in a social environment where faith is an important player; what is it to know something from a psychological perspective? And I'll say a little bit more because "what is it to know something?" It's a tiny question. I mean, you say laying all this at the feet of the enlightenment, that usually falls to Descarte and his quest for certainty. Removing all doubt, right?
Elizabeth Hall: Yes.
Evan Rosa: If that would be a philosophical definition of knowledge that places certainty as the standard, what might psychologists be working with as definitions of knowledge that would offer alternatives to knowledge as certainty?
Elizabeth Hall: Yeah. So I'm going to come at this a bit indirectly because one of the reasons I laughed is because I have been in interdisciplinary conversations where you get a room with philosophers and theologians and ask what is knowledge?
Evan Rosa: Usually that comes with an eye roll once the philosopher starts talking.
Elizabeth Hall: Yes. So I mean, let me just be clear here that when psychologists are talking about knowing something—and we do talk about that—in a sense, we're on kind of a parallel playing field, not really interacting with or even that concerned with how philosophers are defining knowledge.
So I think again, we're going to be talking about it, not so much prescriptively as descriptively.
Evan Rosa: Yes. Great.
Elizabeth Hall: So when we think very pragmatically, what does it mean psychologically for us to say that somebody knows something, I think that one very useful distinction that cognitive scientists have made is between the explicit knowing and an implicit knowing.
So typically in fields outside of psychology, folks are more concerned with explicit knowing. So knowing that is propositional and logical and linear, and that we can speak about through words. That kind of knowledge.
So I think that what's very interesting is it seems pretty clear that we know important things about the world at an implicit level. And when I say that, I mean that what we might say in our gut and through the processes that our central nervous system and our brain give us, we react to the world. We take in information very, very quickly. And without the use of words and often in multiple channels at the same time, we very quickly quote, unquote "decide things." For example, about whether something is threatening or something is desirable or those kinds of things.
And so this is a realm that has a lot to do with emotion. It's a realm that has a lot to do, frankly, with relationships. I mean, there's solid evidence that our early relationships shape our gut, shape the ways that we react to, especially, the interpersonal world around us.
Evan Rosa: I've read you a little bit on this and you talk about implicit knowledge as non-linear, emotional, subsymbolic, maybe image based, largely functions outside of conscious awareness. And you talk both at the cultural level and the relational level, and I wanted to dwell on the implicit side of knowing a little more here. What can you say more about the ways that that gut knowledge actually comes to us, whether it's relationally or culturally or subsymbolically or whatever?
Elizabeth Hall: So what seems to happen is that our initial reaction to something in the environment, for example, somebody saying something controversial, seems to be a push or a pull. It's toward it or against it. And then it becomes refined a bit more, perhaps based on other experiences that we've had, including the influences from culture. And we come up with more refined, gut-level ways of interacting with it. And that system strongly shapes them, what happens at the more cognitive level.
So even before we start consciously thinking about the idea that we have heard, we already have some sense of whether we're going to... whether we find it plausible or not, whether we find it believable or not, and how we're going to interact with it. Are we going to interact with it in a way that seeks information that is going to confirm that idea? Or do we interact with it in a way that we are going to find reasons to not believe that idea? So what we think about is just logical thinking turns out to be strongly influenced by this implicit knowing that reacts much more quickly to stimuli.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. And I think this is really going to come back later in the conversation once we think about doubting well, right? This is going to play a really important role, and so I just wanted to flag that as part of the conversation, that understanding this kind of knowing and being aware of its force psychologically, or being aware of that interface between our unconscious, implicit knowing, and then the more explicit, conscious, logical thinking that happened, that's going to play a pretty important role once we start breaking down, "well, what does it mean to doubt in this kind of religious context?"
Before we get there, explicit knowing. Help us understand that a little bit more.
Elizabeth Hall: This is what we typically think about as knowing. So it's when we use our reason to work with words, with arguments, with propositions, to put them together in ways that make sense to us. So that's very easily defined because it's what we tend to think of when you think of knowing something.
Evan Rosa: Okay. Just more common sense knowing.
Elizabeth Hall: That's right.
Evan Rosa: Now we can also add this other dimension because faith and knowledge; now, a lot of ink has been spilled over the question of faith and knowledge and the rationality of belief and so on and so forth. But with this distinction between implicit and explicit knowledge in hand, let's throw in faith to the matter. And so tell me how you like to frame up a discussion of the way that faith enters the equation.
Elizabeth Hall: I grew up in the Evangelical Church and certainly I came away from of my early experiences thinking that faith was being very, very sure about a set of propositions about God and Jesus. And as I've just looked into this area a bit more, what I've been struck with is that when faith is described biblically, when early theologians of the church talked about faith, it was a much more robust concept. Certainly it did include ascent to propositions, so I don't want to diminish the importance of, we might say, believing the right things. But there was also a very interpersonal dimension, a dimension that had to do with trust and loyalty and allegiance.
And so I think that it's really problematic to think about faith, first of all, as only being about propositions, and secondly, about kind of being a blanket statement about all Christian truths, that when we put everything that we believe as Christians on the same level of requiring certitude, it sets up what my friend, John Marriott, who does research in this area, calls a house of card way of having faith, because if you pull one of the cards out, the whole thing comes tumbling down.
So if my conviction that God loves me and sent Jesus to save me is on par with "you shouldn't drink because that's sinful," then it becomes really problematic when things that are really peripheral, not central to the faith, are the subjects of doubt. You just start wondering about them because it feels like the whole house has become undermined.
Evan Rosa: So that's an interesting thought that we should camp out on for a minute, which is association. It's sort of like guilt by association, a different metaphor here, but when you have one belief that seems to be connected to a system, and once you start chipping away at one thing, it does seem to threaten the whole, depending on which ones seem to stand up more to a tolerance for uncertainty or a tolerance for doubt.
Elizabeth Hall: That's exactly right. That's exactly right.
Evan Rosa: So that sort of guilt by association thing, I think we should talk a little bit about this because I think a lot of this really contributes to the trend of deconversion or the trend of rethinking aspects of one's faith. And I think this is squarely within the scope of your work on doubt and ambiguity and the ways that this impacts real life.
So the guilt by association thing is tough for a lot of people because they experience a kind of disgust or remorse or a kind of shame around the association of a particular belief with Christianity, both the societal expression, the culture around Christianity, but also then that can feed back all the way to one's assumptions or experience of God.
Elizabeth Hall: And, you know, Evan, you're saying something very important. I think it's a different point that I was making, but I like the point that you're making.
So I was thinking more of kind of an intellectual need for certainty. And so if everything is at the same level of importance, then you pull one piece and the rest is also brought into question.
Evan Rosa: Got it.
Elizabeth Hall: But I do also think that this other piece that you've brought up is very important because we function in social tribes. And so if having the whole package is very important to our people, and all of a sudden we start thinking differently about some of those aspects and especially if the larger culture is looking at us in some of those areas and saying, "That is... I can't believe you think that," then you're really caught because the larger culture is rejecting you in a sense. Your own people are questioning you or not quite convinced that you actually belong with them anymore because you don't fit in terms of all of these beliefs. And so that can really set somebody up for wanting to exit the system as well. But it's a more social dimension, I would say.
Evan Rosa: That's interesting. So we've got... so we're trying to clarify some of the links in the chain here, right? There's the logical links that kind of represent the framework of beliefs. When one belief falls just at the level of it doesn't pass muster at a level of reason, you change your mind about that thing. If that is also connected to another belief in that system, it threatens the sort of rational integrity of it. That's on one side. Is that right?
Elizabeth Hall: That's right. Yeah.
Evan Rosa: But then there's also the social dimension of this as well, where it seems like your interaction with your peers or your tribe, the social effects of belief, were appearing a particular way or association at a social level. That can also, not in a logical way, but it can shape it perhaps more implicitly more emotionally.
And look, once you have both of these systems kind of integrating with one another, they form a kind of conflagration of doubt, at some level. If they're both operating at the explicit and implicit level, then that's doing a lot there.
Elizabeth Hall: That's right. I want to bring up another way in which the implicit system is important if we're trying to put together a plausible deconversion narrative of sorts here. And it has to do with the fact that if our experienced relationship with God also has these implicit foundations.
And so most of the research on deconversion asks people why they don't believe in Christianity anymore. And the number one reason is science. It doesn't fit with science. But the couple of studies that have actually looked at the narratives of people who are deconverting find something interesting, that in a significant group of these folk, it's actually an injury, a perceived injury, either with God or with the church or with another Christian, that sets off the process.
So it's not until that implicit betrayal of trust comes in that then the more cognitive or intellectual side starts emerging.
Evan Rosa: How do you understand the back and forth nature of the human psychological experience in that way then? Because it seems like we are neither totally rational or totally irrational. We have this strange way of coming to believe things and yet the end result still is belief, right? There's still a form of propositional trust, or there's still a form of trust in a proposition. So I boil it down to this, that we have trust in propositions. We also have trust in people, or either of those can fail.
Elizabeth Hall: That's exactly right. And, you know, one big lesson from psychology over the past century has been so much more of our life happens outside of our conscious awareness in terms of shaping the things that we do, the things that we think. I think that what psychology is not quite as good at, at this point, is figuring out exactly the back and forth processes. Especially... I think we're much better at understanding how, what we might call, our biases influence our actions. So often that's the way that the implicit knowledge is thought of, in terms of schemas or biases or these kinds of things.
We understand much less how our rational system, our explicit knowledge system, can then influence the implicit, although I think that it's a very interesting area and very relevant for this area of doubt.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. Let's move into doubt. Try to describe this. We've taken a trajectory so far. We've talked about knowledge, we've talked about faith, and now we need to come back to doubt. You described two different kinds of doubt. I wonder if you could introduce those and help us understand the difference between them.
Elizabeth Hall: I think that the distinction, even though we haven't labeled it, has already come up in our conversation, that one kind of doubt has to do with content. It has to do with the perceived competing claims of Christianity and usually science. And so that's a kind of doubt that is definitely at the explicit level.
The implicit level would be the more relational betrayal of trust one, where God is seen as having let down or disappointed or somehow not lived up to the expectations of the person. And so what better way to, I want to say, even cancel somebody, to use contemporary rhetoric, than to stop believing in that person who disappointed you so much.
Evan Rosa: Right. Yeah, that's interesting. So I want to ask first about the kind of explicit doubts, the doubts about content, because it seems like those are the first to be introduced, perhaps. If not the first, their just the more current, and it's just by nature of being explicit. It's more conscious.
We're more aware of... you know, you might hear suggestions or you might hear arguments against the existence of God. You might hear competing claims against one another, and you just observe the fact that there are other people in the world who disagree with you. And so you're introduced to this kind of explicit doubt all the time, but what holds that up? How would you add more color to that?
Elizabeth Hall: I first want to point out that different people are going to encounter the same perceived discrepancy and will experience it in vastly different ways. So I just want to point out... point that out first. I mean, I think that it's very difficult as a thoughtful creature, a thoughtful Christian in this day and age, not to wonder at how things fit together, that we don't have all the pieces. And so it's like, "okay, I'm not quite sure I can see how this fits with this." But the emotional impact or the meaning of that experience is going to vary quite a bit from person to person.
For one person, it might be "oh, this is interesting. I wonder someday I'll be able to figure that out." For another person, it might mean, "well, my whole life has been based on a lie." You know, "this is a terrible thing that's just going to upend my entire belief system." And so those are two places on the spectrum of the psychological impact of having a question about how two things fit together.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. What would you say is the X factor then between those two things? You might think a little bit in terms of resilience, right? A kind of intellectual resilience. And we're going to be moving now into some of the ways to respond to doubt. But what would be those factors that allow one person to entertain them with more confidence? Entertain those doubts, and yet stay resolute?
Elizabeth Hall: So I think there's probably going to be many factors that play into that. Let me just articulate a small handful of those. So first of all, the concept of attachment has already come up. Maybe not in those words, but in terms of how our early relationships shape our gut experience of the world.
So one of the things that a solid attachment experience early on in childhood gives people is the capacity to be able to modulate or digest or not be overwhelmed by emotions. And so what our parental figures, if they're good parental figures, do is that when we're distressed, they soothe us, they help to calm us down, they help to make feelings manageable. And then over time we internalize that capacity.
And so as adults, we emerge with various ways or capacities for just dealing with difficult emotions. So what that means is that for some people, a question might be, again, non-threatening because they know that they're not going to be overwhelmed by it. They've faced other things before. They have confidence in their ability to kind of face the world intellectually.
For other people, that same problem might bring up emotions that then spiral out of control. And so that idea really is a threat that requires a response in order to rid oneself of the feeling. So uncertainty tolerance is one way that people talk about that capacity.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. Let's draw that out and spend like the remainder of our time on that. I mean, talking about that tolerance for ambiguity, that tolerance for uncertainty is just another way of saying "I'm okay with doubt." You know, "I see the usefulness of doubt. I can live with it and find a way to persist." Again, a form of perhaps an intellectual resilience in the face of explicit or, I would say, it's intellectual resilience. If it's explicit knowledge that you're in the domain of doubt, or it would be a kind of other form of resilience. I don't know what you would call it. Perhaps emotional resilience, maybe if it was implicit doubts.
Elizabeth Hall: That's right. That's right. Yeah, so again, let's go back to that psychological experience of it. If it's very, very threatening, you have to do something because you can't live in a state of constant tension. So you have to do something radical to get rid of it.
You drop out of college because you don't want to be faced with those ideas again. You become a fundamentalist because then you don't have to deal with the threatening ideas. You're protected from them by your tribe. Or you deconvert. I mean, these are some solutions to get away from that overwhelming experience of tension.
Evan Rosa: But you describe it as like you've got to do something about it.
Elizabeth Hall: You've got to. Yeah.
Evan Rosa: What would the result be of someone who just didn't deal with it and just lived in the tension? What does that yield?
Elizabeth Hall: Well, so when we think of tension, we're talking about a physiological arousal, a state of physiological arousal. It's very uncomfortable. And so, you know, whatever these specific emotions are attached to that, I mean, people don't like living there. So that experience of tension...
Evan Rosa: So it's just a matter of survival.
Elizabeth Hall: That's right.
Evan Rosa: And whether you stuff it down, talk about it with your therapist, or maybe pray about it or something. Like you're going to do something about it is the point.
Elizabeth Hall: That's right. If it's not that threatening, if it's just something that arouses, for example, curiosity, then you're able to actually deal with it even at kind of a more explicit level. And you can be more nuanced about it. You can reflect on it. You can just take your time to try to figure out how these things fit together. You can put it on hold until you get more information. I mean, there's just all kinds of things that you can do with it when it's not something that's going to overwhelm you,
Evan Rosa: Ultimately your goal is to perhaps feel and deal with doubt in a way that is going to be both psychologically beneficial for a person, but also help them to like, encourage a life of faith, encourage continuity in whatever their religious tradition perhaps, but particularly in this case with respect to Christianity. So how do you help other people find their way through the doubt? The practical side of things?
Elizabeth Hall: One just basic point is that, for example, I'm in the university context. If a student came to me struggling with doubt, one of the things that I would start with is to try to make what is implicit explicit.
So rather than focusing on the content of the doubt, I would probably go for the process of the doubt. I might ask the student, you know, what does it mean to you that you have doubt? What are you afraid will happen if you don't resolve the doubt? And so this might provide a window into maybe their view of their faith. It might provide a window into the way that they experience God. It might give a window into their capacity for uncertainty tolerance, which then allows you to work with those areas, right? Whether that means expanding their view of what it means to be a faithful Christian, or providing them some almost spiritual formation to help them to bring this experience to God.
And in terms of the uncertainty tolerance, the reason people go to therapy is because sitting down and talking to somebody else can help you to modulate the emotions. So even being attentive to that experience of it, normalizing it and providing a model of somebody who is not freaking out about the perceived discrepancy can be very, very helpful to people.
Evan Rosa: Making the implicit explicit. That's beautiful.
Elizabeth Hall: Yeah, so I would avoid diving into the content until that framework for exploring the content is there.
Evan Rosa: It sort of suggests that the explicit conscious mind often has a way of tricking or diverting the attention away from the real issue.
Elizabeth Hall: I think that that is often the case and even if it's not diverting, it's again, the implicit effects are explicit so strongly that even if, for example, you were able to sit down with somebody and provide them some excellent reasons for the existence of God based on centuries of philosophical thought about this, right? If their implicit is set up against those arguments where they're scrutinizing them for "must I believe this," for example, you're not going to make much headway.
So before giving people the wealth of resources that exist for addressing certain content areas that seem to be in tension with science, I think it can be very valuable to people to just examine their own experience of doubt.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. One of the implications of I think some of your ideas here is that we might be pursuing a concept of faith in a way that is just setting us up for problems, setting us up for tension or cognitive dissonance, that if our faith is purely at the level of belief, then it's really a thinner faith, a faith that is more highly subject to complications.
And it also, again, potentially produces a kind of bait and switch, that we end up not paying attention at all to the implicit realities of how human psychology is primed, how an individual psychology is primed for a relationship with God or not, and the ways in which the matters of the heart are really, really working deeply in the matters of the mind.
So I wonder what do you pull away from some of this work for an implication on a sustainable faith in the future?
Elizabeth Hall: I think of our churches as places that have been so, again, shaped by certain cultural moments and our own histories here on the United States. So much set up by the culture wars of fundamentalism and you know, the break from mainline denominations and some of the intellectual heritage of that.
And we need to be rethinking our churches in terms of what my husband, Todd Hall, might call a relational spirituality. How are the churches cultivating the main thing about our faith, which is, as you said, that relational aspect of intimacy with God? How are we set up in all of our activities to facilitate people in internalizing the love of God? For example, it's described at the end of Romans 8. How are we doing that?
And I don't want to diminish the importance, again, of knowing what our Bible's saying, which I think is the main thing in churches these days. But there are different ways of doing that. There are ways of doing that that are always attuned to what this is saying relationally about your experience of God. And there are ways of doing this that have to do with filling your head with facts, certain right ways of thinking that seem kind of disconnected from that relational context.
Evan Rosa: Liz, thanks so much for your time today. This is such fascinating work. I'm excited for the future of it.
Elizabeth Hall: It's been a pleasure to be with you, Evan.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is the production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured psychologist Elizabeth Hall. Production assistance by Macie Bridge and Kaylen Yun. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. Special thanks to Justin Barrett and our friends at Blueprint 1543 for making this series possible.
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