Experimental Theology

In 2006 when I started this blog I picked the title "Experimental Theology." Six years later and I think the title still fits.

As it says on the sidebar, I picked the title "experimental theology" for two reasons. First, I want to write in a provisional voice. I wanted a place to think out loud and float ideas.

I also wanted to create a place where I could bring psychology into conversation with theology. Along these lines, I was pondering some of the research I've been mentoring with some students over these last few weeks. As I've mentioned before, during the summer term at ACU I work with students in conducting original empirical research with the aim of presenting that research at a professional psychological conference. Over the years we've look at attachment to God, the psychology of PostSecret, the psychology of blasphemy, the religious correlates of torture endorsement, the experience of the demonic, and iPhone/Facebook "addiction."

This summer I have two teams doing two different projects. Leslie, Kyle and Stephen are looking at the relationship between anxiety and end of the world beliefs. For example, they are examining the correlations between variables such as trait neuroticism and the belief that the end of the world will happen in our lifetime, that we are living in the "end times."

Gabe, Maddy, Chandler and Nathan are looking at how attitudes toward authority figures affect one's experience with God. Specifically, if you have dim views of authority figures are you more dismissing of God (who is sort of the ultimate as far as authority figures go)?

Both groups have run their analyses and have found significant associations between these variables. Anxiety seems associated with eschatology. And problems with authority figures seem to leak into our experience of the Divine.

In all this, I continue to be fascinated with the connections between psychology and theology, the way psychology affects things like our experience of God and why we might hold particular theological beliefs. Like the timing of Armageddon!

Six years and counting and I'm still fascinated by experimental theology.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

16 thoughts on “Experimental Theology”

  1. Has it been that long since I became one of your backstage fans? Congratulations, Richard! Hope you keep this blog going. Its reach is farther and wider than you imagine.

  2. I, for one, have benefited greatly over this past year from reading your blog.  Not knowing where to look online for the results of your latest research, I took to your homepage and studied your C.V.

    I found this excerpt of great interest:

    " Some have speculated that avoidant attachments with God do
    ultimately produce agnosticism (Beck & McDonald, 2004; Kirkpatrick,
    1999). And yet, theological curiosity, as the Quest literature suggests,
    is also associated with mature faith. Superficially, both groups (the
    securely attached seekers and the future apostates) may seem to be
    displaying faith "problems" as they question and explore
    theological ideas. However, the two groups would seem to be radically
    different. The securely attached would rarely, if ever, sever the bond
    with God. By contrast, the avoidantly attached, due to their lack of
    emotional investment in the attachment figure, would be much more
    willing to sever the bonds of dependency upon God, an action which might
    ultimately culminate in unbelief. Thus, any examination of theological
    exploration must be careful to discern spiritually healthy searching
    from seekers who are, in all reality, simply walking away from the
    attachment figure."

    I years ago "walked away from the attachment figure".  In point of fact, at that time, owing to my youth and fractured home I doubt that I possessed any attachment figure -- real or imagined.  Yet I maintain today a burning theological curiosity.  And I like to think I am always engaged in "spiritually healthy searching".  Does that mean I have a "mature faith" now?  Or am I finally an apostate, simply incapable of belief?

    That is the question I continue to ask each day as I study your posts.  Many thanks for your efforts, and for your gracious tolerance of one such as me.

  3. Thanks Sam. These latest results are "hot off the press." The students have not yet presented or published them. Only readers of the blog get this kind of inside scoop. :-)

  4. Thank you Dr. Beck,

    5 years ago or so, I stumbled onto this website while in the midst of a personal crisis of faith.  This site was immediately added to my favorites list and I've read your posts every weekday ever since.  If it weren't for your genuine, genius,  (and humble) approach, AS WELL AS the fortune of meeting many wonderful people here (your work attracts such people), I probably would have completed my descent to becoming an Ex-Christian.   Congratulations Dr. Beck ... and thank you for you courageous work .
    Gary Y.

  5. Hi Dr. Beck,

    It seems like I've been reading this blog forever, but it's only been about 2--maybe 3--years now since I happened upon ET.  The content has been on a level of excellence that amazes me, given that a new post is added every day (except Sunday).

    Theology:  the study of God and the relations between God, humankind, and the universe.

    Qualifying "theology" with "experimental" has been a good personal move for me in my faith journey.  Good to at least *think* like a scientist about life and God; even if my personal investigations and conclusions may often be less than precise and accurate.  Data and methodology...belief and practice -- learning all the time.  :-)

    I am only now going back to read some of the series that were posted before I discovered ET.  "George MacDonald" and "Why I Am a Universalist" being two such series of interest to me.

    Many thanks to you for creating and maintaining this one-of-a-kind blog, and most of all, for your generosity and hospitality.  ~Peace~

  6. Ooh -- very interested in the students' research on anxiety and eschatology. In the Left Behind novels, the Rapture is repeatedly described as "Jesus coming back for us before we die." Fear/denial of death seems at the core of so much of Rapture belief -- particularly for those most preoccupied with it. Thus 1 Corinthians 15, for example, is turned from a passage about death and resurrection into a passage about the Rapture -- about never dying at all.

    All of which is to say that I hope you'll share more of your students' findings after they present and/or publish them.

  7. Brand new to the blog and continually fascinated. I grew up scared to death that Jesus was coming back before I really, really got "saved."  I remember watching the Eastern Sky and listening for the Trumpet to sound. Who knows how it much it has messed with my psyche.  

  8. Hi Fred,
    A quick summary of the statistical findings. Among many things the students assessed scores on a measure of neuroticism (a trait-like propensity toward negative moods, anxiety in particular) and the Penn State Worry Questionnaire (a measure of how much a person worries) with two items rated on a Likert Scale (1 = Strongly Disagree; 5 = Strongly Agree): "I believe the world will end in 2012" and "I believe the world will end in my lifetime".

    As for "I believe the world will end in 2012" they observed a significant positive correlation with neuroticism (r = .24, p < .001), suggesting that the belief that the world will end this year was associated with increased neuroticism.

    As for "I believe the world will end in my lifetime" they observed significant positive correlations with both neuroticsm (r = .27, p < .001) and worry (r = .21, p < .001), suggesting that those who are more neurotic and worry a great deal were more likely to believe the world would end in their lifetime.

    The sample was 89% Christian (mainly non-denominational Protestant) and 70% of the sample attended church every week.

    These are correlational results so the directionality is up for grabs. Are anxious people more likely to believe in end times thinking? Latching onto it as one more thing to worry about? Or does the belief come first resulting in anxiety? Given that the measures of anxiety used in the study look at more dispositional, trait-like issues I tend to think the anxiety is foundational and drives the eschatology.

  9. Experimental Theology is without a doubt my favorite blog in all the mighty blogosphere. Keep up the brilliant, thought-provoking, heart-tugging work. PAX CHRISTI

  10. I had to pop out of my "read but never comment" status to say I am so thankful you started writing here. Your blog has become one of my favorites and has prompted some of my most thought-provoking studies (or a good cry). You have helped to re-light a fire that was about to fizzle out. Thank you.

  11. Richard,

    Keep up the good work and remember "the least of these."  You are one of the reasons I have faith in you young fogies.


  12. Two very good research topics! After 40+ years hanging around with all stripes of Christians and having a background in psych it seems the research bears out the intuition.  :)

  13. I still remember the day about 5 years ago when I was trying to find a way of express my approach to how I thought about God things and googled the phrase 'experimental theology'. After getting over the initial disappointment that someone had got there ahead of me (!) I was so excited to discover your blog and it has been a source of reassurance and challenge ever since.
    Thank you. 
    p.s. Come to the UK one day!

  14. Hi Dr. Beck:

    1) Anxiety and end of world beliefs:
    1.1) would the level of anxiety when associated with eschatology differ according to age?
    1.2) would the level of anxiety when associated with eschatology differ to ones approach, for example, does one focus on eschatology as apocalyptic or is ones focus more on heaven?
    2) if you have dim views of authority figures are you more dismissing of God in general or only as an authority figure?

    i am really interested in your findings.

Leave a Reply