On Folk Theology

One of the things that interests me most as a psychology of religion researcher is what we might call "folk theology." The word "folk" here is a reference to "the common people." So when we add "folk" in front of some academic discipline--folk psychology, folk philosophy, folk theology--we are speaking of how common, ordinary folk (non-specialists) reason and think about these subjects.

There is a great deal of interest in studying folk understandings. For example, take folk psychology. Let's say I go out on the street and ask people, "What makes people happy?" The answers I get are a sampling of folk psychology, the beliefs people have about the correlates of happiness. These ideas are of interest as they may or may not converge upon the scientific study of psychology. There may be a disjoint between folk psychology and scientific psychology. For example, it might be a widespread folk psychological belief that winning the lottery will make you happy. But the data on lottery winners might suggest otherwise (as indeed it does). Here, the folk psychology is mistaken. People are walking around with mistaken beliefs about the correlates of happiness. Folk psychological conceptions are leading us astray. In situations like this we might try to correct these folk conceptions with the empirical research. Obviously, if people are pursing the wrong things in the quest for happiness that's a problem we'd like to fix.

But this isn't to say that science always trumps folk conceptions. Very often, folk conceptions are found to be remarkably prescient and accurate.

Just like there is folk psychology there is folk theology. And like with psychology there can be huge disjoints between academic theology and the folk theology of the people sitting in the pews. Take, as an example, academic and folk understandings of eschatology. As we saw with the May 21st end of the world predictions, folk eschatology tends to focus on Judgment Day, biblical prophecy about global events, the rapture, the Anti-Christ, and Armageddon. But these "end times" things, regular features in folk theology, have almost nothing to do with how academic theologians understand the subject of eschatology.

And so, as we saw in psychology, people can have a lot of bad ideas about God and faith. In fact, parts of my book Unclean can been seen as an attempt to understand where some of these bad ideas come from. In the book I call these cognitive temptations a "theological sweet tooth," psychological impulses that pull folk theology toward bad ideas.

Obviously, the disjoint between academic and folk theology can be disconcerting and problematic. Many a preacher, pastor or theologian has lamented the theology of, say, the Left Behind series. And this might lead us to conclude that what we need in church is better theological training. To be sure, this is sorely needed. Better theology can help. And this is why I think academic theologians need to go easy on writers who try to "popularize" difficult theological concepts. True, like with popular scientific writing, popular theology can be of greater or lesser quality. But there is a vital and important role for good pop theology. In fact, this is a pop theological blog. I'm not a theologian. But I do read a lot of theology and what I do read I try to communicate to non-specialists. I popularize theology.

But even if we had better theology in churches we'd still be awash in folk theology. Mainly because Christian theology tends to leave too many details unspecified or uninvestigated. Let me give two examples.

Example #1: When does a temptation become a sin?

Most Christians, due to Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5, tend to moralize mental states. Christians believe they can sin with their thoughts. Following Matthew 5, hate and lust are common culprits. As Jimmy Carter once said in a Playboy interview, "I have committed adultery in my heart many times."

Still, most Christian believe that temptation isn't sin. To be tempted by hate or lust isn't to sin. So when does a mental temptation tip over into being a sin in your heart? When does, say, a sexual tempation turn into lust, mentally speaking? Is it the frequency, intensity, or duration of the mental event? Or some other feature?

The point is, there is little explicit teaching on this subject. Not in the Academy or in churches. People are just left to figure this stuff out on their own. And this is the source of a lot of folk theology. The sense-making that occurs when people try to apply theological concepts--like sin, temptation, and lust--to their lived experience.

Example #2: Can the Devil see you right now?

Most Christians believe in the Devil. As do many academic theologians (though many would scoff at the notion of a literal devil). However, there is a lot about the devil that isn't specified, theologically speaking. Consequently, people are largely left to their own devices to "fill in the gaps." For example, ask people at church "Can the Devil see you right now?" Most, after taking a moment to think about it, would respond "Yes." Now what is interesting about this response is that it appears to be tapping into a folk theological conception that the devil is everywhere, omnipresent. As best I can tell, that idea--that the devil is omnipresent on the earth--isn't explicitly found in the bible. So where did it come from? It's another product of folk theology, the process of sense-making. I'm always to be on guard against the devil, no matter where I am. So the devil is "everywhere" in my lived experience. And, given that I'm not a unique target of the devil, I expect that everyone's experience with the devil is the same as mine, that the devil "everywhere" for these people as well. Ergo, the devil "everywhere."

The point in all this is that folk theology can't be avoided. Even with good popular theology and better theological teaching in churches. There are simply too many gaps in the fabric faith that people are required fill in, as an act of sense-making, with folk theology. So in light of this, we are left with a few choices. One choice is to just allow academic theology and folk theology to drift apart. To snicker at the masses when they express silly ideas. But a better choice, in my opinion, would be an effort to understand folk theology on its own terms, to study how people wrestle with and make sense of notions like lust, sin, miracles, suffering, temptation, prayer, evil, providence, and devil. To name only a few things. Because like it or not, people are connecting the dots of their life, theologically speaking. Largely if not wholly on their own. True, some of these beliefs are uncritical, bizarre, naive, or incoherent. But if we want to improve theological reflection within our churches we need to understand and listen to the folk theologians sitting all around us.

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9 thoughts on “On Folk Theology”

  1.  Is that theology, though, or is that mythology? (Or is there a difference?)

    For example, I come from a Pentecostal background that turns the folk theology dial to 11. I usually resort to words like "superstition" when I try explaining to other people the sorts of things the people who raised me believe in. I've used "folk Christianity" as well, but that's usually for more mainstream weirdness like the Hollywood portrayal of heaven and hell.

  2. That's an interesting question. I'm not sure I have a great answer.

    Mainly what I'm trying to describe here are how "normal" and "orthodox" theological concepts work in daily life. The weirdness then isn't in the belief than in the application. The theology of the seams where little explicit teaching takes place.

    Let me give another example. Many Christians think Satan "tempts" us. But the mechanics of this aren't specified. So how, exactly, does Satan tempt us? Does he orchestrate external events? Does he insert thoughts in my mind? Does he intensify pre-existing thoughts in my mind? Or something else? The point being, the core belief about Satan tempting us isn't bizarre, but the fleshing out of that idea can get pretty weird.

    But like you say, there are also examples of folk theology getting out of hand. My first pass at a distinction would be a figure/ground frame. What I'm talking about in the post is folk theology in the background, where "normal" beliefs are in the foreground with folk theology working to glue those pieces together in daily life. True deviance comes when a folk theological conception moves from the background to the foreground and comes to dominate the faith experience. The recent May 21 end of the world stuff comes to mind as an example.

  3. I think very little current theology - folk or otherwise - is found in the Bible.  Obviously, the people who wrote it had their own theologies. In practice, theologians of all sorts use the Bible as a prop for ideas derived, one way or the other, from two thousand years of history subsequent to the writing of the Bible. That's inevitable; things, and ideas, move on. We should recognise it more.

  4. I think I lean more toward the label of superstition on a lot of folk theology. Whereas your blog, C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, and George MacDonald may not have been professional theologians per se, but certainly provoke(d) some deeper thougt among a general populace through the media of their times.

  5. Welcome home, Richard!

    Sounds like you're proposing something like grounded (or at least qualitative) theological research.  As a Personal Construct (PCP) psychologist, interested in bringing about change, this sounds like a fantastic idea to me.  It is when we can define how two things (e.g. pop and academic theology) are different that we can start to reflect on the values behind those differences.  We can also plan a map from where we are to where we want to get to.  This could lead to theology becoming an applied academic discipline (like PCP) instead of an ivory tower up in the rarefied theoretical stratosphere. 

    One of the well-worn debates in my discipline is on how to 'give psychology away'.  Maybe it's time to start finding ways to give theology away.

  6. I was curious how how you might mention the May 21st thing.
    The huge irony - Harold Camping has a civil engineering degree from U.C. Berkeley no less.  He supposedly went through extravagant calculations using benchmarked scriptural events to come up with the May 21st 2011 Judgment Day date.  Swung on and missed strike two!

    My former pastor/teacher completed his Ph.D at Talbot School of Theology, writing a dissertation centered on validating the doctrine of hell (the explicit eternal fiery torment thereof).  Before that, he was granted acceptance by a prestigious law university when he made the difficult decision to become a pastor/teacher instead.

    This next example was not based on any biblical prophetic forecast but back in 1998, Chuck Missler warned of possible civil calaminity regarding y2K.  Chuck Missler has an extensive resume in the U.S. military and private (technical) industry.

    Historically, respected individuals (by society's standards) have put together exegetical/scriptural packages which have led to such primal/tribal beliefs/behaviors within the church.  Personally, I know the latter two examples truly meant well.  It seems despite the best intentions regarding scriptural interpretation, folk theology remains inevitable.

    Gary Y.

  7. Not sure why Y2K should be lumped in with Harold Camping.  Although they may have been over-hyped, the Y2K dangers were very real and the fact that not much happened is a tribute to the precautions that were taken, not the lack of danger.

  8. I agree entirely. I have two thoughts.

    1) This sounds like contextual theology. Normally that term is used to describe theology done elsewhere or by obviously Other people. Here, though, the people in a different context asking different questions are the people that the theologians are passing on the street as they go to seminary.

    2) On the omnipresence of Satan: perhaps it's a more panoptic sort of situation. It's not that he's actually everywhere, but instead potential be anywhere. You don't know if he's watching or not, but he always could be. (This isn't my own thought on the matter. It just seems like a more elegant folk-theological solution.)

  9. I'd have to agree with you but I hardly find it surprising. It's simply a matter of definition. Any attempt to understand a text must exist outside of it and must exist within the context of that understanding.
    But I'll also point out that theology must precede the Bible, since it's theology of some sort or another that leads us to believe that the Bible is true. Who comes to the Bible before they come to Jesus? The Bible can't self-authorize. It's from Christianity that the Bible gets its authority (I mean in terms of experience, not alethiology or inspiration), which means some skeletal theological work must first be done.

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