Friday, December 18, 2009

What Defines Spiritual Maturity?

Lately, I've been wrestling with how we might conceptualize Christian spiritual maturity. Here are a few options that I have been considering.

Moral behavior - a person who engages in acts of service and giving and who does not engage in behavior that can be harmful to their self or others. Now, I know this is broad - how does one judge what is harmful? - but is this even the right track to explore? I firmly believe that Christian spirituality encompasses morality and ethics - that there is a changed life - but is this the essence of spiritual maturity, a critical component among many, or simply the byproduct of something else entirely.

Spiritual well-being - one popular scale for measuring spirituality in the psychology of religion is the spiritual well-being scale. This scale measures two things: a sense of well-being in one's relationship with God and a sense of well-being about life in general. Of course, we would expect that people who are mature will feel good about their relationship with God and might even feel good about their life, but again is this something that determines maturity? What about people who are struggling with their relationship with God and a sense of purpose in life, but nevertheless are faithful in their actions and their beliefs?

Intrinsic religious motivation - is spiritual maturity a state of being motivated towards faith for the intrinsic sake of faith alone, and no other reward? Intrinsic religious motivation suggests that we love our faith for its intrinsic characteristics and would remain faithful even if we were to face suffering. Does this characterize spiritual maturity, despite the fact that the person's faith might be completely twisted?

Beliefs - is spiritual maturity holding to the correct tenets of the Christian faith. Is Paul's argument that our minds will be transformed and renewed mean that we will find the truth in propositional form?

Closeness to God - does spiritual maturity mean that I feel close to God in all moments of the day, like Brother Lawrence? Certainly, the spiritually mature will often report a deeper sense of God's presence in their life where they find strength and comfort. Yet, can closeness to God lead to susceptibility to a narcissistic belief that one is acting as God's agent?

Of course, I am being somewhat critical, and possibly even cynical, of these criteria for determining what is spiritual maturity. Perhaps the answer is all of the above, that spiritual maturity cannot be reduced to one essential element (maybe "Christlikeness" but what is that?).

I think I would have to add that spiritual maturity is not a universal construct, that spiritual maturity is determined, in part, by the situation a person is in. Spiritual maturity will obviously look a lot different among a persecuted church than among American churches. And I would argue that this is okay, that God would have us grow to serve our communities, not to simply be idealistic models of perfection.

Any thoughts on this? Any criteria for spiritual maturity that you think should be added?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Theories of Spirituality

Following this past weekend's conference, I thought it would be nice to review some of prominent theories in the psychology of religion. These theories have to do with how we can conceptualize religion and spirituality. As they developed in the realm of psychology, some of them may strike religious believers as being unusual or atheistic. I will discuss the implications of them as I currently understand them.

Attribution theory - generally, this theory has to do with how we attribute causes to events. We might explain events internally, by our own action, or externally, by the action of an outside agent. In relation to religion, attribution theory suggests that humans judge the cause of some actions to be a higher power, which they might term God. The way we attribute the causes of events can be referred to as our locus of control. We can infer causation to self, powerful others, luck, or God (among other sources). While this may sound scientific or reductionistic, I find that this is an important element of faith. Religion and spirituality give believers a new lens to see the world and to interpret what is happening around them.

Motivational theory - One of the earliest studies of religion was by Gordon Allport on the relationship between religion and prejudice. Studies had found a small but significant positive relationship between religious importance and prejudice, such that religious individuals were more prejudiced. Allport posited that this relationship had to do with how one orients oneself to religion. He found that in individuals with an intrinsic orientation towards religion, this relationship reversed and was significantly negatively related to prejudice. People who were oriented toward religion for personal happiness or as a social group as their primary motivations showed a positive association with prejudice. Thus, the motivations for why one pursues religion matter. This was the first study to show that religiousness was more than just an identity but actually had components that were important to understand. I appreciate the concept of intrinsic religiousness because it captures true faith rather than just an identity.

Religious coping - The study of religious coping has recently exploded - and for good reason. This is the most promising area of religious research currently being investigated. Religious coping refers to how we use our faith to deal with problems. Ken Pargament suggests three coping styles: collaborative, deferring, and self-directing. Each of these has to do with how we rely on God in the midst of our problems, do we collaborate with God, do we let God make all the decisions, or do we take the reins for ourselves? In fact, a collaborative style has been shown to be the most healthy, physically and mentally, which is consistent with most religions. (A fourth coping style is surrender - but I have not read Pargament's research on this concept). Religious coping has been shown to be very predictive of spiritual well-being and is therefore a key component of religion.

Multivariate Theory - This is the theory that I have been using and which integrates the above perspectives. Additionally, it holds that religious beliefs are an important part of religion. This theory argues that what we believe affects the reasons we turn to religion (religious motivation), our reasons for being religious affect how we use our religion (religious coping), and that beliefs, motivations, and coping styles compose the structure of our religious life such that our experience of religion (i.e. closeness to God, spiritual well-being, morality, etc.) are founded on these variables.

Attachment theory - the final theory that I am aware of is attachment theory. This theory is based on the belief that our cognitive conception of God, as well as experience of God, has to do with how we connect with God. If we have a secure and trusting attachment with God, we will see God as loving and feel that we are safe in his hands. However, if we see God as abandoning or as restrictive, we will react in other ways. While this is a compelling theory, the empirical evidence for its validity is lacking. However, I anticipate that further research will show that this, too, is an important part of religious life. Certainly, how we interact with God is an important part of our spiritual lives.

Hope these theories enliven your understanding of the psychology of religion. Feel free to ask questions about any of the above.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Psychology of Religion

Over the weekend, I attended the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Denver, CO. It was great getting to meet some of the major figures in the Psychology of Religion. In fact, I was able to go out to dinner with a large group who were celebrating the legacy of Bernard Spilka, who developed an application of the Attribution theory to the study of religion. Many pictures were taken and hopefully I will be able to access some of them in the near future.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Flow States and Everyday Spirituality

In my previous post, I wrote about flow states and spiritual disciplines but here I want to expand on how flow states could be related to everyday spirituality. I encourage you to read the previous post first to get a better feel for what I am writing about here. But, to summarize, a flow state is an "optimal experience" where one feels highly challenged and highly competent to meet those challenges. An example would be expert rock climbers when climbing a difficult face, they feel a sense of "flow" in what they are doing.

Now can Christians achieve this type of experience in their everyday lives? I might argue that the Apostle Paul, who was able to bear numerous trials and still remain connected to the faith, is an example that one can. But I believe the trick is to achieve the proper amount of "spiritual competency" to meet the challenges of everyday life.

Now, first of all, let me say that I believe that all believers have the Holy Spirit working inside of them and are capable of doing everything that God requires of them. So I'm not saying that spiritual competency is just a skill-base or something that we can develop apart from God. But I also believe that all Christians need to rely on numerous resources that they are not inherently able to do as soon as they become Christians.

One might call this concept "religious coping" - using religious resources to cope with problems (the term has limitations - true faith does not use strategies just to get through life, it embodies faithful devotion that has a secondary effect of being able to overcome difficulties). Religious coping is not bestowed through conversion but is taught in sermons, books, etc. and modeled through relationships in the church. Religious coping involves both external forms of coping (seeking support of a pastor, listening to and participating in religious music, etc.) and internal forms (surrendering will over to God, prayer, etc.). These are the resources that will enable a believer to feel competent to meet the challenges in their lives.

But one important point needs to be made. Some Christians (I might even say most American Christians) do not experience "high challenge" that requires them to feel a state of flow. Their lives do not involve the threat of extreme poverty, violence, or political control. These Christians likely do not experience recurrent times of "high challenge" that can facilitate the awesome experience of flow. But there is hope here. By challenging themselves (and I can say this to myself - by challenging myself) to grow in ways that are uncomfortable, by giving generously, sharing one's faith, and giving voice to the powerless, Christians can have the opportunity to experience the pleasure of being in a state of optimal experience. By giving of themselves, they can receive the blessing of fulfillment.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Flow States and Spiritual Disciplines

I have been doing some reading on the concept of flow lately and wanted to see if I could relate this popular concept to spiritual disciplines. Flow states, or optimal experiences, are thought to arise when situations are highly challenging and when the individual feels like they have the capacity to meet those challenges. There is a balance of high difficulty and high ability (Hektner, Schmidt, & Csikszentmihalyi, 2007).

When we engage in spiritual disciplines, we are engaging in an activity that might have variable levels of challenge. While reading the Bible may seem like a straightforward task to some, trying to grasp deeper spiritual meaning of any given passage might be more difficult. If someone tries to simply read the Bible for simple answers (or to check off their to-do list for the day), but is actually quite capable of deeper reflection, they will likely not experience flow. On the other hand, if someone tries to really dive into the Word, looking for deep truth, but is not trained on how to do so, that can inevitably end up being frustrating.

To achieve a flow state when engaging in a spiritual practice means taking on the activity with challenging goals appropriate for that person and with the skills to meet those goals for that time.

A new Christian, for example, might take prayer as a time to simply talk with God openly and honestly while submitting to God's will in their requests. A mature Christian, on the other hand, might look at prayer as a chance to speak with God with Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (ACTS) to achieve greater personal devotion and submission in all they do.

Why would flow states be important to consider when we practice spiritual disciplines? Well, I believe that spiritual disciplines are more likely to be adhered to when we enjoy doing them. That means that asking people to engage in such behaviors means assessing how capable they are at engaging in the behavior while providing them further skills to grow in their practice of spiritual disciplines. As people grow more capable of practicing spiritual disciplines, they must be further challenged and provided further resources to meet those challenges.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Live Forever or Die Tomorrow?

I read a short passage from "Zorba the Greek" by Nikos Kazantzakis that has provoked some thought for me. In it, Zorba comes along an old man who is planting a tree. He questions the old man about why he would plant a tree when he will never see it produce fruit. The old man responds, "I live as if I am going to live forever." Zorba enjoys this thought, as he mutters to himself, "I live as if I will die tomorrow."

What a contrast in perspectives. But which leads us to a full and prosperous life? Haven't we all heard that we should live as if we will die tomorrow? Isn't that the lesson we feel we must take away any time we attend a funeral? Sure, living as if we could die tomorrow has some benefits. We may treasure our relationships more and give to worthy causes. Yet, what about the constant fear? I am not sure I want to live a life worrying that the value of my life depends on having everything in order when I die.

The old man suggests another way. Now, living as if we will never die has some dangers. If we live in ignorance of death, we run the risk of taking unnecessary risks to our health. We all know we should visit the doctor, wear our seatbelts, and avoid dangerous activities. But what if believing we will never die could mean more than that? What if living forever meant that we devoted ourselves to larger causes, tasks that may take a long time to complete?

The Christian believes they will live forever, through the grace of God. The faithful do not live in fear of death but in hope for the redemption of all creation. They do not sit back and watch but participate in this work of salvation.

What are your perspectives?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Truth and Beliefs

Truth is the accurate and complete perception of reality, including and transcending a variety of perspectives and beliefs. Truth is not a constructed reality but simply exists, without relation to subjectivity. Yet subjective knowledge, including beliefs, can have a varying reflection upon truth. The psychology of religion typically gives little mention to beliefs and, when it does, relegates belief to "merely" subjective experience, without attending to whether beliefs are true (Vergote, 1993).

Cognitive psychology has taken a greater interest in this question by looking at how beliefs develop and change. The research in that field has pointed out that beliefs can be formed independent of rational discourse and accurate perception that would be consistent with a search for truth (Begg, Anas, & Farinacci, 1992; Gilbert, 1991; Hasher, Goldstein, & Toppino, 1977; Ladowsky-Brooks & Alcock, 2007). Instead, beliefs are formed through mechanisms that can introduce error, such as repetition, reputation of the source, and consistency with prior memories. Although this provides a quick and efficient means of information gathering, the drawback is that beliefs are not always representative of truth (Begg, Anas, & Farinacci, 1992). In fact, people are directly affected by all sources of information, whether they be factually true or false, and the inherent process is to accept all information as true before comparing to prior experiences and evaluating the source (Gilbert, 1991). Beliefs are therefore subjective rather than objective.

Does this mean that beliefs can never be true or that truth does not matter for beliefs? On the contrary, the truth of beliefs becomes of the utmost importance when a false belief causes an unwanted problem. Cognitive-behavioral therapy addresses the emotional consequences of false beliefs by teaching the client to rationally judge their beliefs, rather than allowing false beliefs to continue to have a destructive effect on their lives. The need for such therapy reflects how difficult it can be for people to become aware of and challenge their false beliefs. While psychology cannot determine whether beliefs about transcendent realities, such as God, are true, there is the possibility that the factors that contribute to these beliefs can be unveiled and evaluated.

What does all this have to do with religion? Well, religion is fundamentally about beliefs (Froese & Bader, 2007). These beliefs are presumed to be true. Yet if beliefs can be formed in a manner that allows for error, how can we be sure of our religious beliefs? Sociological research has shown us that beliefs about God are shaped by socioeconomic status, suggesting that beliefs are merely constructed out of experiences that have little to do with a personal knowledge of God (Froese & Bader, 2007). However, religion has retained its explanatory power as a belief system despite thousands of years of hard experiences that have tested the limits of these beliefs. Although theology has changed alongside the times, the shortcomings of these new perspectives generally become evident in time. In other words, theology's truth can be tested with experience. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been effective because the flawed thinking of depressed or anxious individuals has proven to be too weak for rational evaluation. Religion has not yet experienced an equivalent rational retort.

Religion evaluates truth in a variety of ways: through scripture, reason, religious tradition, personal experience, with some even integrating science (Brown, 2004). By these methods, religion tests beliefs for truth. These are all methods for evaluating religious beliefs that can help discern truth for the religious individual. Religion therefore has a more stringent test of the truth of beliefs that most other institutions and individuals.

Begg, I., Anas, A., & Farinacci, S. (1992). Dissociation of processes in belief: Source recollection, statement familiarity, and the illusion of truth. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 121, 446-458.
Brown, W. (2004). Resonance: A Model for Relating Science, Psychology, and Faith. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 23, 110-120.
Gilbert, D. (1991). How mental systems believe. American Psychologist, 46, 107-119.
Hasher, L., Goldstein, D., & Toppino, T. (1977). Frequency and the conference of referential validity. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 16, 107-112.
Ladowsky-Brooks, R., & Alcock, J. (2007). Semantic-episodic interactions in the neuropsychology of disbelief. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 12, 97-111.
Preston, J., & Epley, N. (2005). Explanations Versus Applications: The Explanatory Power of Valuable Beliefs. Psychological Science, 16, 826-832.
Unkelbach, C. (2007). Reversing the truth effect: Learning the interpretation of processing fluency in judgments of truth. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33, 219-230.
Vergote, A. (1993). What the psychology of religion is and what it is not. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 3, 73-86.