The Authenticity of Faith: Part 7, Winter Christians and Religious Commitment

In my last post, I introduced you to the Defensive Theology Scale (DTS), a scale I developed and published in 2004. The goal of the DTS is to assess a suite of beliefs within Christian populations that reduce or buffer existential anxiety.

Now, the issue raised in the last post was if there are Christians who score low on the DTS, Christians who eschew the beliefs the DTS assesses.

The answer, obviously, is yes.

For example, in the face, say, of a childhood cancer diagnosis, there are Christians who would reject any assertion that God willed or had a plan for giving that child cancer. In fact, there are many Christians who would be highly offended at the suggestion that God has a hand in childhood cancer.

In short, yes, there are Christians who reject the beliefs assessed in the DTS, some strongly so. William James calls these Christians sick souls, and in my research I call them Winter Christians.

Since its publication in 2004, the DTS has been used by many other researchers to investigate existential dynamics at work in Christian samples, to sort people into religious types. It's exciting to see the DTS being put to good use.

That said, the DTS has some issues that researchers are reckoning with.

To understand these issues, we need to dig into the dynamics I'm decribing with the label "Winter Christian." I discuss these dynamics in Chapter 6 of The Authenticity of Faith.

The heart of my analysis regarding Summer and Winter Christians begins by comparing what I call the polar versus circumplex models of faith and complaint.

Many Christian communities and believers implicitly or explicitly work with a polar model when it comes to relating complaint to faith. Complaint toward God involves experiences of lament, protest, disappointment, frustration, anger, and doubt toward/about God. According to the polar model these experiences and expressions of complaint are symptomatic of faith problems, and are, thus, the polar opposite of faith. According to this model, then, strong faith should be characterized by a lack of complaint. No lament. No protest. No doubt.

In short, the polar model suggests that faith and complaint are antithetical impulses:
In contrast to the polar model, I describe in The Authenticity of Faith a model that argues that the relationship between communion/engagement with God and compliant may be circumplex, not as polar opposites but as two dimensions existing at right angles. This model suggests that communion/engagement with God and complaint can co-mingle and co-exist. Faith, in short, can be a complex mixture of communion and compliant with God:
Again, as I described in Part 5 of this series, if you know your Bible and church history, you're very aware that faith and lament regularly mix together. So the circumplex model is a better map of religious experience than the polar model.

When we go on to label the quadrants of the circumplex model, we can become very specific about what we mean by Summer versus Winter Christians:
As you can see in the top two quadrants, the distinction between Summer and Winter Christians is not a distinction between those who are engaged and in communion with God versus those who are not. Rather, the distinction between the Summer and Winter Christian is the degree to which complaint, lament or doubt intermingles with faith, communion and engagement with God. Summer Christians are those whose communion with God is generally free of doubt and lament. Winter Christians are those whose communion with God is infused with doubt and lament.

So, how does the Defensive Theology Scale fit into this scheme?

The DTS mainly assesses the complaint dimension. Those scoring high on the DTS (those endorsing consoling beliefs) would be low on the complaint dimension, moving them in the Summer Christian direction. Those scoring low on the DTS (those rejecting consoling beliefs) would be higher on the complaint dimension, moving them in the Winter Christian direction.

But the circumplex model is two-dimensional, and the DTS doesn't help in assessing the vertical, communion dimension, the degree to which one is engaged with God. For example, an atheist would score low on the DTS, simply because he rejected any and all beliefs about God. Consequently, a low score on the DTS, by itself, couldn't distinguish the Winter Christian from the non-believer.

That creates problems for researchers who want to use the DTS to identify Winter Christians. This issue was pointed out to me by Ron Wright, Paul Jones and the psychology faculty from Southern Nazarene University, who have used the DTS extensively in their research. Ron Wright knows more about using the DTS in Christians samples than I do.

The way Ron and the SNU research teams get around this issue with the DTS is that, alongside the DTS, they also assess religious commitment in their research with Christian samples. Religious commitment scales assess the degree to which one engages in religious activities and practices, like going to church, praying, and studying the the Bible. The measure of religious commitment assesses the vertical, communion/engagement dimension of the circumplex model. (An aside to researchers: I also think a measure of intrinsic religiosity would tap this dimension.) Winter Christians, as assessed by those at SNU, are those who score low on the DTS (high complaint) and high on religious commitment (high communion).

All that to say, to answer the question raised in the last post, yes, there are Christians who eschew the beliefs assessed by the DTS. There are Winter Christians.

That said, as the researchers at SNU have pointed out, one can't use the DTS all by itself to identify these sorts of believers. The DTS assesses only one dimension of the two-dimensional circumplex model, so a measure of communion/engagement with God (e.g., religious commitment, intrinsic religiosity) is also needed.

And with that question answered, we reach the final, most pressing question. Summer and Winter Christians might believe different sorts of things about God and cancer diagnoses, but do they behave differently?

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