Musings on the Integration of Psychology and Theology: Part 2, The Long Shadow of William James

The big publishing event this year in psychology of religion is the two volume work published by the American Psychological Association: the APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality. As you might guess by the cost (around $500), size (just under 1,500 pages), and weight (clocking in at nine pounds), the Handbook is ambitious in scope, attempting to be the definitive and generation-defining reference book for psychologists--researchers and practitioners--interested in issues related to faith, religion and spirituality.

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 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.

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9 thoughts on “Musings on the Integration of Psychology and Theology: Part 2, The Long Shadow of William James”

  1. Very cool post. I would like to read the chapter. I share many of these criticisms of the literature on psychology and religion. It seems that psychology has largely studied it as this foreign culture that no one understands, focusing on paranormal experiences, false beliefs, and altruism.

    However, I wonder if empirical investigation would find Christians' beliefs are generally quite free of theological matters. Honestly, I think theology is largely left to theologians and the ministers who are concerned about it. Instead, I think normal Christians are largely focused on more pragmatic religion-related concerns such as loving our neighbors as ourselves and engaging with our own brokenness as humans.

    I would really like to do some of this work in the future. If nothing else, I think it might help explain some of the religion-related issues in society that psychologists seem to ignore entirely! I need to get a job first!

  2. Richard, have you seen this? I'm not sure it was out when you were writing your chapter, but anyhow, it's available now:

    Fr Alexis is a monk in Florida, and writes a blog here:


  3. I want to be a researcher "wishing to push into this uncharted territory." I'm starting my master's degree in the fall. It will be so interesting to see what new research is done in this area in the next few years while I continue my education.

    One of my many dreams:

  4. Oh, I think there will be tons left to do. I doubt, simply based on my recommendation, that researchers will start rushing into these areas.

  5. I have not. Thanks! Much of my early research was working with Aaron Beck's Cognitive Theory of emotional disorders.

  6. I'm going to hope that researches will start rushing into these areas based on your recommendation AND that there still will be much that I can contribute to when I get there. =)

  7. Is it any surprise I'm responding?

    Seriously, though, I super excited about this stuff. Your suggestions for future research are basically what I'm hoping to do after I finish my MA - particularly in the area of tying perception and metaphysics together with depth analysis and a pragmatic emphasis.

    However, in reading this post, I'm wondering if I read James differently than most who approach Psych and Religion. Specifically, I see his essays on Pragmatism as fundamentally shaped conclusions through his categorical analysis of religious experience. Furthermore, it seems to me that his metaphysics, while certainly not as robust and nuanced as Whitehead's, furthered his scope of reality, thus leaving room within the Jamesian framework to analyse these fire-branded experiences in a different light. I agree with your assessment that the long shadow of William James no doubt shaped the direction the field took, but I see his method as an attempt at description and explanation, but not prescription. Thus, his view of the universe being so radically open it allows for an incredibly robust understanding of the variety of human persons and the way they are shaped by the various conceptions of it and the experiences that shape them so drastically.

    Pertaining to this, have you seen this article that apparently just came out?:

    Nonethless, thanks for the great post! I hope to contribute to a burgeoning field of experimental philosophy and those of us who are crazy enough to mix depth psychology and pragmatic metaphysics! Do you think it would be possible for me to re-imagine William James in this way?

  8. I definitely think that's the right way to look at James. And I agree with James. I'm a huge fan. My observation here is simply that when James eschewed an examination of beliefs he wasn't able to describe religious distinctiveness. Mainly because he was looking for commonalities across religious experiences. That is a very powerful and rich approach. My point is that it's not the only approach and that it might be time for the psychology of religion research to move away from experiential variables to theological variables.

  9. Big sigh. I wish I had this way back when, I'd LOVE to do this kind of research... But then, even though I espoused the dogmas, I don't think I realized the Trinity and Incarnation were such truly pivotal dogmas that could/should shape our entire human existence. It wasn't until I encountered the Christian East/Orthodoxy that those became "front and center".

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