The Endless Spiral of Faith and Action

Newgrange_Entrance_StoneMost of the discussion of science and Christian faith focuses on the conflict or the supposed conflict between faith and science – the warfare narrative. We focus on naturalism and the threat this poses to the experience of God, on evolution and the peril this brings for the uniqueness of humans, on the age of the earth and the challenge this raises for the interpretation of scripture. This conflict motif is a shame because it too often keeps us from learning from science where appropriate. There is much we can learn from modern science, and not always because it challenges the interpretation Scripture. In some cases it brings us back to Scripture with important new insight. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of social psychology which demolishes some of the more serious errors of modern Western individualism.

In my post last Thursday (God Guides and Directs) I referred to a book written by Malcolm A. Jeeves (Professor Emeritus of Psychology at St. Andrews) and David G. Myers (Professor of Psychology at Hope College), Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith. Social psychology has taught us much about the collective nature of human evil, and this has, or should have, important consequences for the church. As Myers and Jeeves put it:

If evil is a personal aberration, then its remedy must also be personal. … The way to deal with sin is to convert the individual.

But research clearly reveals that the human problem is also collective and that these individualistic remedies often deliver less than expected. (187-188)

Precisely because sin has a collective aspect, we must also make a collective response to it. … Since we are not self sufficient, we stand in need of the church’s corporate fellowship. Only in that context can we adequately struggle against the with the evil within and about us.

It is the whole believing people, not isolated believers, that is the body of Christ. To say that the church is Christ’s body reminds us that together we can admonish one another. Together we can enable each other to minister … To repeat, evil is collective as well as personal and so requires a collective as well as a personal response. (p. 191-192, emphasis added)

Social neuroscience takes this one step further. Who we interact with, what we do, what we think; these attitudes and actions affects us at the very material level of the brain. There is a cause and effect relationship between social isolation, social interaction, and brain structure. We think with our brains – but what we think also changes our brains. This leads quite naturally to a discussion of behavior and attitudes and from there to action and faith. Myers and Jeeves address this issue in the next chapter of their book.

[I]t is now a fundamental rule of social psychology that behavior and attitude generate one another in an endless spiral, like chicken and egg.

This principle affirms the biblical understanding of action and faith or what Bonhoeffer called obedience and belief. Depending on where we break into this spiraling chain, we will see faith as a source of action or as a consequence. Action and faith, like action and attitude, feed one another. (pp. 194-195)

Here is a place where Myers and Jeeves suggest that we need to bring the insights of social psychology into the church. In this case the science of social psychology is not a challenge to ancient interpretation of Scripture but a corrective return to the ancient understanding of faith in God and in Christ, an embodied and active faith.

How can we apply the faith-follows-action principle to leading a church, planning worship, and to nurturing personal faith? First, a top priority for churches must be to make their members active participants, not mere spectators. … If research on persuasion is any indication, this will be best accomplished by direct, personal calls to committed action, not merely by mass appeals and announcements.

In worship, too, people should be engaged as active participants, not mere spectators of religious theater. Research indicates that passively received spoken words have surprisingly little impact on listeners. Changes in attitude resulting from spoken persuasion are less likely to endure and influence subsequent behavior than attitude changes emerging from experience. (pp. 196-197)

Myers and Jeeves go on to give some ways in which worship is enacted rather than simply received – passing the peace, contributing prayers, reading Scripture responsively, kneeling and such. All of these can be quite valuable, although I don’t think that they alone are sufficient to move the church experience from spectator to active participant. To be a an active participant requires not just embodied actions at the direction of a leader, but meaningful contribution.

I’m a scientist and an educator. Although “faith” isn’t the goal in my classes, learning certainly is – and passively received spoken words have as little impact on learning as they have on behavior. A course design involving nothing more than entertaining lectures with some reading thrown in generally gives less than desired results. Problems, presentations, projects, papers, study groups, even tests, … our students won’t really learn much without these. We flip or partially flip classrooms, require participation and discussion to engage the students more deeply. We encourage questions and expect to defend our answers. The experience is structured with an end goal in mind – making peers (not clones or followers) out of students.

A church isn’t a classroom though – and the problems and solutions are different. It is dangerous to draw too many parallels. The question I’d like to pose today is simple although the answers are not so simple.

What is the purpose of the church – or your church?

How does the structure of the church achieve this purpose? Where could it use improvement?

The answers to these questions may be quite different if we take some of the concepts described by Myers and Jeeves seriously. The science of psychology, especially neuroscience and social psychology, has reminded us of the collective nature of evil (i.e. sin) and the need for a collective response. It has led to the insight that action and faith, like action and attitude, is a spiral where action and faith feed back on each other to reach the end result. It has taught us the importance of active participation. Neuroscience takes this one step further. Who we associate with, what we think, and what we do changes the very structures activated and grown in our brains giving deeper significance to the endless spiral of action and attitude.

Are there lessons we can and should learn from studies in social psychology?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you would like to comment please see The Endless Spiral of Faith and Action at Jesus Creed.

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