I was honored, along with my former graduate student Andrea Haugen, to write the chapter in Volume One surveying the Christian faith. The goal of the chapter--alongside other chapters surveying the other major world religions--was to provide an introduction to Christian belief (we used the Apostles' Creed) and to summarize the empirical literature regarding Christian belief and practice. We were to keep in view both practitioners--those working with Christian clients--and researchers--those looking for entry points into the empirical literature regarding this population--in writing the chapter.
At the end of the chapter we were asked to give empirically minded psychologists our suggestions regarding future research directions. This is how we started that section:
When we set about writing this chapter we adopted a top-down approach. We laid out a theological map of the Christian faith (i.e., the Apostles’ Creed) and went in search of empirical literature related to the major theological landmarks. What we discovered surprised us. Enormous swaths of the Christian experience have virtually no associated empirical literature. More, many of these unexplored areas are central and fundamental to the Christian faith.For example, most Christian theologians would consider the doctrine of the Trinity to be absolutely critical and foundational to the Christian faith. And yet, we couldn't find a single study in the empirical psychological literature that attempted to assess the social, behavioral or psychological correlates of Trinitarian belief.
Take another example: the Incarnation. Pretty crucial doctrine for Christians, right? But guess what? Beyond my 2009 study about Incarnational ambivalence (research I discuss in both Unclean and The Authenticity of Faith) we couldn't find any empirical literature directly associated with this core Christian doctrine.
In fact, you can name just about any Christian doctrine and, more likely than not, there is absolutely zero empirical literature associated with it. Zero.
What can account for this strange situation?
In our chapter Andrea and I point to the long shadow cast by William James:
Our suspicion is that this void [in the empirical literature] is largely due to the long shadow cast by William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience. In The Varieties James explicitly eschewed a consideration of metaphysics, theology, and religious doctrine. James’ approach was experiential and phenomenological. The power of this approach was in its universality. It allowed James to gather experiences from every world religion under broad phenomenological categories (e.g., mysticism, conversion), categories that continue to dominate psychology of religion research. However, what has been lost in this approach is a sustained and fine-grained empirical consideration of the theological distinctives that exist between the world religions, Christian denominations, and individual believers (e.g., liberals versus conservatives). Simply put, these diverse theologies (be they Buddhist vs. Christian or Evangelical vs. Catholic) are worldviews that shape how individuals apprehend and make meaning of life experience. By focusing on the commonalities of religious experience James’ approach misses what is unique, distinctive, and particular to a religious tradition. Consequently, perhaps because of the influence of The Varieties, little attention has been devoted to assessing the psychosocial correlates associated with the theological distinctives within faith traditions. It may be time for researchers to address this imbalance. Beliefs matter as much as experience.We go on to offer some recommendations for researchers wishing to push into this uncharted territory:
Borrowing from the growing field of “experimental philosophy” (for a review see Knobe & Nichols, 2008) in which empirical methods are used to explore the philosophical assumptions of ordinary people (across a range of topics from free will to causality to ethics), we suggest future research move toward investigations into how Christians of all stripes reason about God, temptation, sin, grace, repentance, prayer, heaven, hell, angels, Satan, death, the Bible, the body, the soul, miracles, love, hate, evil, and the end of the world...to name only a few topics awaiting empirical attention.Basically, from where I sit the research literature is wide open.
A whole field of inquiry--experimental theology--just waiting to be explored.