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Hold onto your thinking cap, because this episode of The Bible for Normal People is going to get really, really nerdy. Pete and Jared are joined by psychologist, professor, and priest Jonathan Jong to talk about the psychology of religious experiences, how scientists approach truth, and how engaging the Bible is an inherently communal experience. Join them as they ask the following questions:

  • What is involved when scientists study religion?
  • How do you even think about religion from a scientific perspective?
  • Can scientists study gods or God?
  • How do we overcome the binary of science vs. God?
  • Do scientists think of God as a being among other beings?
  • How useful is science in theological thinking? How useful is theological thinking in science?
  • How much of our theologizing about God is just us making it up as we go?
  • Is there a different process for studying religion from a sociological and communal experience perspective versus individual experiences of the Divine?
  • How do scientists look at objectivity vs. subjectivity when it comes to religion or truth?
  • What are the similarities between religious communities and scientific communities?
  • Can we ever engage with the Bible on a truly individual level?
  • What does it mean that reading the Bible is a communal experience?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jonathan Jong you can share.

  • At the most basic level, there’s a sense in which how scientists study religion is how scientists study everything else—which is by observation. — @jontweetshere
  • Psychologists just think of religion as a specific category of thoughts and feelings about what we might consider religious matters: rituals, gods, moral issues to some extent, religious groups…to us, it’s not different from the way we study thoughts and feelings about political beliefs or attitudes, or personal relationships. — @jontweetshere
  • We don’t get to study God, or gods or angels, because we can’t bring them into a lab and give them a questionnaire or put them in front of a computer and give them a cognitive task. All we can do is study the human side of religion, and we can remain agnostic about whether there’s a divine side or not. — @jontweetshere
  • What we’re interested in is the human side of things: the beliefs themselves rather than the objects of those beliefs. — @jontweetshere
  • Because the kind of theology I’m mostly interested in is quite basic or fundamental—the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Incarnation, Eucharistic theology, etc.—I’m going to learn more about the nature of God by reading Aristotle than reading the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. — @jontweetshere
  • Psychologists mostly study individuals. To the extent that we study groups that are larger, what we’re actually studying is how individuals perceive the groups and their relationships to their groups. — @jontweetshere
  • I think we make a mistake if we think that the only kinds of traditions that exist are our religious traditions. — @jontweetshere
  • When scientists say they’re interested in truth, this is very closely tied to what we can observe—what is empirical and therefore at least partially subjective. To a scientist there’s no kind of contradiction between subjectivity and truth, because truth is accessible only by experience.  — @jontweetshere
  • We don’t call our theological views “theories” a lot, but they’re structurally, semantically, and subjectively quite similar to scientific theories. They are articulated structures for making sense of our experience. — @jontweetshere
  • We have to admit that this grasping for the truth is going to be a kind of fallible and provisional and changing, and also fundamentally social, inter-subjective activity. And this is true both in the sciences as well as any sort of religious tradition. — @jontweetshere
  • Reading the Bible is always this social and tradition phenomenon, and therefore the pursuit of truth by reading the Bible is also then a social and tradition phenomenon. — @jontweetshere

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete  

You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared  

And I’m Jared Byas. 

Jared  

[Jaunty intro music] But before we get started today, we just wanted to take a minute to share some personal information about where you might find us over the next couple of weeks!

Pete  

Yeah, and for those of you who think I’m just a lazy oaf, I do things, including teaching. But also this fall in September, actually, I’m going to be at the Palmer Seminary Science and Religion Symposium. This is connected with Eastern University. And that’s September 24th from 9-5 in McGinnis Hall, and the symposium will explore the question, “what does it mean to be human?” and I’ll be doing some talking about evolution and whatnot. And you know, if you can’t make it, we live in a digital age, where live streaming is almost automatic. So this symposium will be livestreamed and recorded for future viewing.

Jared  

And you can get more information and sign up at PalmerSeminary.edu/science. In addition to that, Pete will also be at Theology Beer Camp, which is October 13th to the 15th in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And it’s hosted by our good friend, Tripp Fuller of the Homebrewed Christianity podcast. And so it’s, you know, think of it like a combination between youth camp and theology seminar with probably between 15-20 of maybe your favorite theology—I mean, hopefully, we’re number one in your hearts and minds…

Pete  

That goes without saying, but…

Jared  

But if you happen to listen to other non-God-ordained podcasts around theology and religion, those hosts might be there as well, because it’s going to be a lot of fun, a lot of people. So if you want to come hang out, you can use the code NORMALHUMAN for $50 off your admission price. And you can sign up at HomebrewedChristianity.Lpages.Co/TBC22. Unfortunately, I will not be at Theology Beer Camp, because we had to divide and conquer. I am going to be at Evolving Faith! So that’ll be October 14th and 15th. It’s a live virtual conference, so you could actually go to Theology Beer Camp and stream it from there if you wanted. 

Pete  

Yes!

Jared  

I have to be physically somewhere to do the recording but other people can do it. So go to evolvingfaith.com/conference. Alright, let’s get to the episode. [Jauntry intro music ends]

Pete  

Hello, everybody. Welcome to this episode of the podcast! Our topic today is “How scientists study religion” and our guest is Jonathan Jong.

Jared  

And strap yourselves in, because he’s got a lot of jobs.

Pete  

This is deep.

Jared  

He’s Research Fellow and Assistant Professor at Coventry University Center for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, attached to the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford as well as the Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion at Oxford. He’s an associate priest at an Oxford College. He’s also, we hear in the episode, he’s a local parish priest for some rural parishes in the Church of England…

Pete  

Four towns or something, three churches or parishes…

Jared  

But he also has a book coming out at some point in the future, you know, academics, I don’t know when it’ll come out. But it’s called “The God Investigators: How Scientists Study Religion” which is what we’re talking about today.

Pete  

And this is a deep episode.

Jared  

It is a deep episode. So we wanted to have a little disclaimer here to say we try to make things for normal people. But when you’re talking about the evolutionary psychology of religion, and the cognitive science of religion, you know it’s going to be hard to break it down into really simple concepts.

Pete  

I think he did about as good as you could possibly do. That’s just it. You know, there are a lot of weird things you could read that says, like, “I don’t even know what this guy’s talking about.”

Jared  

What I loved about it though, is sometimes people talk in using big words to cover over things that could be simplified. But these just are very important, substantial topics that need attention.

Pete  

They do. 

Jared  

And we do need to break these down and talk about them more and more, because it’s all very important stuff. In my exp—my assumption is for the 21st century of Christianity, these are going to be really important topics.

Pete  

Yes, exactly. For the future, how we think about the nature of faith and things like that. And so, you know, I like to be reminded of the kind of like mental attention the study of God and religion actually requires once you start getting into the weeds. If you’re not interested in the weeds, pull back and just let the breeze flow and there’s no judgment there, that’s fine. But for people, and we suspect this is our listeners, you know, you’re looking for ways of thinking about things that are different. And I think there are things that happened in this episode that I think will generate that kind of like, “Oh my. Okay, gosh, that sounds right to me. I never thought of it that way before.”

Jared  

Absolutely. Alright, let’s get into it.

Jonathan  

[Teaser clip of Jonathan speaking plays over music] “Now, when it comes to religion, psychologists just think of religion as a specific category of thoughts and feelings, which is to say thoughts and feelings about what we might consider religious matters. So rituals, gods, moral issues to some extent, religious groups, and things like this.” [music ends]

Jonathan  

Well welcome to the podcast, Jonathan, it’s great to have you.

Jonathan  

Thanks for having me!

Jared  

Absolutely. So we just want to start with with some of your spiritual story, and how did you end up in the roles that you’re in now, because it’s not often that we have someone who’s in academics studying religion, somewhat detached, but also then a parish priest. So how did you end up there?

Jonathan  

Yeah, so I had no real intention to become a parish priest in the traditional sense. I was ordained to be a priest in 2015. And at that time, I was a postdoc at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford, having trained while I was a postdoc there as well, but I was always just going to be an academic with ministry, as it were, on the side in an unpaid capacity at some church nearby to the university. But then, my wife and I, we had a baby, and we wanted to move closer to her family down south in the south of England. And a few weeks after we arrived in a little medieval town called Chichester, we got a message saying, “Oh, you know, this job has come up.” And it’s three very, very rural village churches, the total population of the four villages I serve is about 1300 people. So that’s the size we’re talking about. And they’re these three tiny churches with, you know, about 20 people each at most on a Sunday morning. But one of these churches is where my wife’s family are buried, and she was baptized there as a teenager, her mother grew up in one of the villages in question. So we have this sort of close familial connection to this part of the world. And so I felt like I just had to throw my hat in the ring. So I called the bishop and I said to him, “I’m not really interested in the job, because frankly, you couldn’t pay me enough to leave my current job to take this up.” But bishops being very persuasive, he managed to trick me into taking the job. But fortunately, I’ve managed to maintain an academic position as well. The universities have been very flexible with the fact that I now spend most of my time doing pastoral ministry.

Jared  

Wow, that’s, that’s kind of, I think, a whole podcast in itself. But I want to take a turn because before we started, we were talking, you called it like “inside baseball,” we are using terms like the evolutionary psychology of religion and the cognitive science of religion, and what are the similarities and differences? But I’m gonna back up and just ask, how do scientists study religion? Like what’s involved? How do you even think about that, from a scientific perspective?

Jonathan  

At the most basic level, there’s a sense in which how scientists study religion is how scientists study everything else, which is by observation. And there’s a kind of, there’s a kind of misunderstanding about, I think, psychology in general, that it’s somehow completely impossible to study because a lot of the things we’re interested in are subjective or directly observable. But of course, the same thing is true for particle physicists, right? So no one can see atoms, no one can see quarks, no one can see gravitational waves. But we figure out ways to observe their effects and make inferences about their existence and their properties. And the same is true for psychologists more broadly. So we psychologists study thoughts and feelings, broadly construed. And thoughts and feelings are not, you know, physical objects that you can look at, unless you’re a particular kind of philosopher who thinks that all they are, are patterns in brain activity. But even patterns of brain activity are not directly observable, we have to take electrical measurements or blood flow measurements for your brain to observe them and make inferences about what’s going on in the brain.

Jonathan  

So we’re doing a lot indirect observation and inferences based on our indirect observations in more or less the same way that particle physicists do. Now when it comes to religion, psychologists just think of religion as a specific category of thoughts and feelings, which is to say, thoughts and feelings about what we might consider religious matters: so rituals, gods, you know, moral issues to some extent, religious groups, and things like this. And it’s not different, to us anyways, not different from the way we study thoughts and feelings about political beliefs, or attitudes, and groupings. Or about, you know, our feelings towards other human beings, like personal relationships, like friendships and marriages and things like this. So in that sense, the psychology of religion is just a normal branch of psychology. I think it is understandable for people to then say, “Wait a second, but are you trying to study God?” And the short answer to that question is no, right? Psychologists aren’t interested in gods as such, or in God with a capital G, if you like. We don’t get to study God, or gods or angels, because we can’t bring them into a lab and give them a questionnaire or put them in front of a computer and give them a cognitive task. All we can do is study the human side of religion, and we can remain agnostic about whether there’s any other side, right, so whether there’s a divine side or not. So my colleagues, some of them are religious, some of them have perfectly orthodox Christian beliefs, and others are aggressive atheists, and most are kind of somewhere in between, right? They’re more or less indifferent or agnostic about the truth of their religious beliefs that they’re studying. What they’re interested in is the human side of things, the beliefs themselves rather than the objects of those beliefs.

Pete  

So yeah, that hits on something I think all our listeners would be very in tune to. It’s not about—science doesn’t prove or disprove God, right? I mean, that’s the simplest way of putting it. What we’re talking about is describing people’s experiences.

Jonathan  

I think describing is one activity that scientists do. I think where some religious people get a little bit worried is when scientists like myself and my colleagues also claim to explain religious beliefs. We want to know why people hold the beliefs they do, or how come people have the experiences that they have and claimed to have. And that can happen at various levels. So we can ask, for example, you know, whether or not there’s something going in the brain that produces religious beliefs and experiences. We can ask about the ways in which one’s upbringing or life experiences of various kinds lead to religious beliefs and experiences. We can ask questions about whether or not there are various psychological needs that are fulfilled by religious beliefs, so that those needs make it more likely that you develop religious beliefs of various kinds. We can also ask developmental questions, so how it is that religious beliefs change and develop over time from childhood all the way to the end of life. And then we can take one step further back and ask evolutionary questions about whether or not there is something about the way our brains and our minds evolved to be able to produce what seems to be culturally universal beliefs and practices of a certain sort, which are, you know, beliefs about Gods and souls, to some extent beliefs about the afterlife, and also behaviors that revolve around these beliefs, most notably rituals of various kinds and perhaps sacrificial rituals in particular.

Pete  

Okay, so, when you ask someone, for example, just like a normal person in Christianity, “why do you believe in God?” “Well, Jesus spoke to me,” and your job is to try to understand why they think Jesus spoke to them.

Jonathan  

Yes, the job is to try to understand why they think Jesus spoke to them. But it’s also to understand the experience itself. So say we take for granted that they have a vivid experience of Jesus speaking to them. So our question will be “Okay, what is it about the human mind that makes it possible for them to have this experience?” In the same way that when we say, I look at an apple, and I say that I have the experience of seeing a red apple, you can ask the question, “Well, what is it about a human mind that allows us to see red apples?” Right? So a neuroscientist might say, well, you know, we have rods and cones in our eyeballs. And you know, here’s, here’s where color processing happens in the brain. Even if there was a red, a red apple in the world, there’s still an additional question of how it is that our brains can perceive that red apple. And the same goes for religious experiences. So say we assume that God exists and can speak to people. That still raises the question of how it is that our brains function so that this is possible in the first place. So that’s the kind of positive interpretation, right? So that assumes that, that God exists, that assumes that the apple exists, but you don’t have to assume that apples or God exists. Right? You can remain agnostic about that and say, okay, look, you know, “here’s what the brain is doing when people say they’re seeing red apples.” And that’s a perfectly reasonable way to function.

Jared  

I want to ask a more philosophical question about this. Because the way we’re talking about it, I think there is still a very common way of thinking about God that maybe classically, we would call it the God of the gaps. So for a lot of people, it’s, it’s “God explains some of these mysteries that we have.” And so I think, like you talked about, the threat can be, well, if we can explain everything through science—that’s why often, in my tradition, we would have pitted science against God. It’s almost like they were two methods for the same thing. They’re both trying to explain how the world works. And you can choose the “Christian” way of explaining the way the world works, or the scientific way the world works. But if they’re not opposed, how would you see those differently where we can, we can do both of those things—that science can perfectly explain (not perfectly) but can explain these things. And there isn’t a lot of remainder left like, no, whenever we look at all the facts, and we do all these experiments and things, we kind of have a decent, okay grasp at how the world works. So we don’t need God to explain that. I think it’s hard for people to get around like, “Okay, well, then why the God…”

Pete  

Like the duality, how to get around the duality of it? 

Jared  

Yeah, I mean, because I think there are ways—and this is getting a little bit more into your personal story, which I’ll get to in a minute, I’m going to spring that question on the after this one—but before we get there, just more philosophically, how do we, how do we overcome a binary that I think doesn’t have to be a binary but has been the case, at least in my tradition?

Jonathan  

Sure. First, on your reticence to say that science can perfectly explain something. I mean, I understand the reticence, right? But I think the reticence might come from either a theological place or a kind of philosophy of science place. And I think when it comes from a philosophy of science place, that’s perfectly reasonable. But I don’t know if we have theological reasons to suppose that science couldn’t perfectly explain all like empirical regularities. So I’m gonna set aside miracles for a moment and we can come back to that if you’d like to, but like, I think, I don’t know if there are solid theological reasons to suppose that science couldn’t just explain all empirical regularities. And I say theological quite narrowly, by which I mean, you know, what we believe about God. So what is the Christian doctrine of God? I’ve always felt that there was something heretical maybe about the idea that there is causal competition between God and finite causes, because it supposes that God is something like a finite cause, right? Like an object in the universe that applies, for example, physical force in the world or something like this. For centuries and centuries and centuries, at least since Gregory of Nyssa, if not even incipiently in St. Paul, and certainly by the time you get to St. Thomas Aquinas, you have this idea very strongly that God is not a thing in the world, and therefore doesn’t cause things to happen in the way that other finite objects cause things to happen. And so there can just be no causal competition, and if there can be no causal competition, then there can be no explanatory competition to the extent that explanation is about the identification of causes.

Jonathan  

So how, how Thomists, how lots of Roman Catholics and to some extent, non-Roman Catholic philosophers and theologians who buy more or less the scheme constructed by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages—what we do is we say, what God explains is not the things that happen in the world, what God explains is the existence of things in the first place. Not in the first place temporally, but in the first place, like principally. And also God explains the fact that we have causal powers at all. And then all the rest of the work is done by thinking about and talking about finite causal powers. So in that sense, God is at a different level of explanation, if you’d like, and that’s not an epistemic claim, or it’s not a claim about knowledge. It’s a claim about about the nature of God, God is just not an object in the world. You know, the world does not comprise human beings, billiard balls, platonic laws of nature, and God. You can’t add God to the sort of furniture of the universe, and to that, and if that’s true, then there’s no sense in thinking about God and other objects as as, as being in competition. The great philosopher, the great English Dominican friar and philosopher Herbert McCabe used to like to say, “Look, we never asked the question, why does the kettle boil? Is it because of the fire under the kettle or is it because of God?” And yet, we seem to think that that question is reasonable when it comes to, you know, evolution, or the Big Bang or something, but just in the same way that we never asked the question, “Why does the kettle boil? Is it because of God or because of the fire?” then it makes no sense also to ask questions about competitive questions about the Big Bang, and evolution and other kinds of sort of interesting scientific controversies.

[Music plays for ad break]

Jared  

Before you go on, I think I have this story of going through Exodus and getting into trouble when I was a kid, because I pointed out, you know, there, I guess there’s this, there’s this way of reading the Bible in my tradition that says, the most supernatural reading of the Bible is the correct one. And by that they mean that God causes things directly as an object of, you know, in basically what you’re saying is not the case, historically, in Christian tradition. And I think of Exodus 14, when you make a suggestion that maybe the Red Sea was split by a strong east wind, maybe not directly…

Pete  

Which is what the Bible says. 

Jared  

Which is exactly what it says in Exodus 14:21, that God caused it through a strong east wind. But if you said that, I remember saying that in my, in my church, and they, basically it was like heresy, like “You’ve been duped by this liberal agenda to think that God couldn’t just push back the wa—” and I’m like, “No, it literally just says that in the Bible itself.” Because again, I think there’s something to this antagonism that maybe comes, you know, in the enlightenment and post enlightenment, definitely in the 20th century here in America, where there’s this antagonism between competing narratives of creation. And one is where God directly does something with God’s hands in some physical imagination of things. Or evolution. And those are competing. And so I like what you’re saying that those are, historically in the history of Christian tradition, not only not competitive, but in fact, somewhat heretical to think that God does things physically in the world in the way that we might, again, in my tradition that would have been assumed.

Pete  

So Jonathan, just following up on what Jared just said, could you explain the parting of the Red Sea according to how you understand God as not a being alongside of other beings but the ground of being. You know, that which makes existence possible. Because I’m—here’s the way that I think some people would try to bring it together, which I think you’re not saying. “Yeah, it’s an east wind, but God caused the east wind.” Like manipulated nature or something to cause the east wind. I think, and correct me if I’m wrong, I think you’re saying something different.

Jonathan  

Yeah. I think this business of God being a kind of like big and powerful quasi-humanoid agent making decisions, it just strikes me as a bit odd and also contrary to sort of historic Christian views about what God is like, which is quite kind of strongly anti-anthropomorphic, but with this kind of, like beautiful incarnational theology at the end of it, right? Like there, Christianity has always held two views of God which seem inconsistent, but the fact that it seems inconsistent is in some ways its glory. Which is that we have a very, very strong sense of divine transcendence. God is nothing like any other object in the world, not being an object at all, while at the same time, humbling God’s self to become one among other objects in the Incarnation. And you detract in some ways from the power of the incarnational theology, if you think that God is a bit like a human being, a bit like a human being already anyway, by nature, and so then suddenly the gap in the Incarnation is quite small. And so because I don’t, I just don’t have a kind of, well, you know, like, once upon a time God decides to do something, and then causes one finite thing to happen—like, I don’t have that view of God, that in some ways the question doesn’t really make that much sense to me.

Jonathan  

Yeah, I’ve changed my mind about this a lot over the last 10 years or so. But I mostly think, most days when I wake up in the morning, I think that science has remarkably little to say to theologians. But I want to qualify that in two ways. One of the things that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have in common is that we have a very, very sort of high view of divine mystery, right? So God is that which we know not how to speak, God is ineffable, God is transcendent. But where we part company, Christians, Jews and Muslims, where Christians part company from Jews and Muslims in a certain way is that in particular, [unintelligible] from Muslim country, and it’s quite well known around the world that it is haram to depict things in heaven. And the sort of iconoclastic streak in Judaism and Christianity as well, but it’s perhaps strongest in Islam. Now, so how we characterize the difference is that Jews and Muslims are more reticent to say things about God, because they’re likely to be wrong, right? Because God is ineffable and mysterious. Whereas the Christian solution to the problem of the divine mystery is to say as much as possible, even though most of it is going to be nonsense. And that’s sort of an interesting strategy, I think, right? Where, where we try to use as much speech, either literal or metaphorical, or analogical, but always knowing at a kind of meta level that all our words are straw. 

Jared  

Can I ask this question then on that, because we talked about it a little bit beforehand and I think it fits here. Then what is the relationship, how useful is science in theological thinking? And we’ve been doing a lot of this around here at The Bible for Normal People more, you know, as we learn more about quantum mechanics and the physics of things, and how does that affect our theology? So, what…How do you think about that relationship between science and theology? And how useful is one to the other?

Jonathan  

And I think if you take that seriously, then sure, read some interesting popular science book about the Big Bang, or about quantum theory or about neuroscience, and riff on that and come up with some like interesting, creative theology that you know will be wrong, but it’s nevertheless interesting and a kind of creative intellectual exercise. That is a kind of worship, right? But as long as you don’t take it seriously, as long as you don’t think that we are articulating truths about God, then in essence, we have nothing to worry about. We’re just having a bit of sort of finite, slightly infantile theological fun. So on that level, you know, science is very useful, because it provides fodder for creative, innovative riffing about God. The other thing to be said about this, I think, is that very often, our theological claims even our very serious theological claims that we want people to take seriously and literally come with various assumptions about the world that can be observed, right? What scientists might call empirical assumptions. So we make assumptions about how humans behave, or how churches function or [unintelligible]. So here’s a topical thing for the US at the moment: we make assumptions about you know, whether or not fetuses can feel pain or something like that. And those are questions that are amenable to scientific investigation. And to the extent of theological theories, empirical assumptions, then science can definitely play a role by checking those empirical assumptions. We can say, “Wait a second, you are assuming such and such about fetuses,” or “you’re assuming such and such about the generosity of Christians,” or “you’re assuming such and such about the age of the Earth” or something like this. But those are all straightforward questions of fact, which we can investigate scientifically. Now, that’s not going to be all theological questions. Some theology questions just don’t make any empirical assumptions, in which case, then science plays a very limited role. And because the kind of theology I’m mostly interested in is quite, I suppose, basic or fundamental theology—so the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Incarnation, Eucharistic theology, and sacramental theology more broadly—because that’s my theological world, I tend to think that the sciences have very little to say about those kinds of things, which are, in some ways, kind of more fruitful for me to turn to sort of the philosophical literature than the scientific one. I’m going to learn more about the nature of God, if you like, by reading Aristotle than then reading the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Pete  

Well, this raises a question and it’s not really necessarily one that I fret over, but I can imagine people listening here having a question, something along the following—it sounds like an “I gotcha” question, but I think it’s a legitimate question people would ask. If our theologizing is—and I love the phrase riffing, it’s sort of like jazz, we’re making it up as we go along, right? So if, if theology is infantile riffing, because we’re dealing with an infinite creator that we can’t comprehend, right? Why isn’t it also riffing to say that God is being, or God is the ground of all existence, and that the incarnation is a legitimate theological category?

Jonathan  

I think to some extent it is, right? So the things, the language we use, like what the Incarnation is, for example, has changed over the centuries. The language we use over how to make sense of the Eucharist has changed over the centuries. And the same goes for how we think about the divine attributes or about the doctrine of creation. But then the doctrine of Trinity itself, the Incarnation itself, the commitment to the idea that the universe is created itself, that is basic to the Christian faith in a way that I think is in some ways, a kind of brute sociological fact about what it means to belong to a particular tradition. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t question it, right? You can ask the question, “Well, you know, why assume that the universe is created?” Or “Why assume that God was incarnate as a human being?” Or “Why assume that Christ is present in the Eucharist?” But I think when you do that, then there’s a sense in which you just kind of don’t belong to the tradition. If you come to an answer that’s different from the traditions, you just don’t belong to the tradition anymore. And for lots of people that’s okay, and you just sort of move on. And for other people it’s not okay, and so then you have this question about what you do, when you have these sorts of questions and doubts in your mind. Are you happy to take it as given that the what it means to be a Christian is to belong to a particular tradition first, and then for the beliefs to come secondarily? Or whether or not you’re the kind of person who needs to flip that around, to say that the beliefs are conditional or the condition for belonging to the tradition. And I think, you know, like, I happen to be the sort of person who takes for granted that what comes first is belonging to the tradition. And what that means sometimes, in the case of the Christian tradition, is to have a few beliefs that are just given, and then you can riff on those. But once you give up the beliefs, then you just don’t belong to the tradition anymore, which may or may not be fine for you emotionally and socially.

Jared  

Say a little bit more about that. Because I think one thing that I keep doing in this conversation is waffling between individual personal experiences of the Divine, and then this, the tradition and being part of a community both now but also throughout the history of the tradition, and trying to go back and forth between, I guess…What, from your perspective, from the scientific perspective, are there different processes or is it a different sub-part of the field to talk about religion from this sociological and communal experience perspective versus how we might study individual experiences of the Divine?

Jonathan  

Oh, yeah, sure. So psychologists mostly study individuals. Our level of analysis is of the individual or, or at most of the kind of small group, right? So the dyad, for example, which is two people, or you know, a group of three or four people. To the extent that we study groups that are larger than that, what we’re actually studying is how individuals perceive the groups and their relationships to their groups. But of course, you don’t have to be a psychologist, right? So you could be a sociologist, or historian, in which case you might be studying large groups, and how the groups, as groups, behave or have behaved in history. You might study institutions, which are a kind of group. And so broadly speaking, different people do these different kinds of work of focus on different levels of analysis. But occasionally, we meet one another at conferences, like the American Academy of Religion, and try to make sense of how to put all these puzzle pieces together, the individual level and the social level and the institutional level more specifically. Because you know, all these things interact with with one another. I should say though, about traditions, that I think we make a mistake if we think that the only kinds of traditions that exist are our religious traditions, I mean, obviously, there are there are cultural and sort of national traditions, right. But but also, you know, the scientific enterprise itself has a history, which is to say that it is a tradition. We do science a particular way, and science makes particular assumptions. And those assumptions are sometimes questioned, but very rarely, and when they are questioned, it sometimes leads to crises in science. So for example, you know, we take for granted that our empirical observations can tell us something about the world as it really is. And when people raise doubts about the relationship between our observable experiences, our observations and reality, then it leads people to be skeptical about even science. It’s important to recognize that all of us belong to various traditions. We don’t get to choose to not belong to a tradition, all we get to choose is which traditions we belong to, and then how to make sense of them and how to put the different traditions to which we belong together in a kind of coherent way.

Jared  

Yeah, I asked that question because I think what you were saying just at a very practical level, since I’m just thinking of a lot of our listeners, and this is the place I was in maybe 10 or 15 years ago where my faith was built on my personal experience with Jesus, let’s say. You know, that was, growing up in a charismatic tradition, that kind of “me and Jesus”, you have to have this divine mystical experience with the Spirit. And that’s sort of the basis of your faith, nothing can shake your faith as long as you have that to hold on to. A memory of it or reoccurring experience with the spirit as an individual. And then the challenge for me became when my beliefs started to shift, it seemed to shift everything. Like there was nothing that I could rest on. And so then to find this tradition, like you’re talking about belonging first, allowed for space for changing beliefs. And I just think there’s this interesting interplay between the individual experience of religion and then the communal experience of religion, and they do overlap as an individual. They, I’ve, I’ve found the value of both of those things, which I think historically for me, I wouldn’t have even considered the one without, you know, well actually I would have been very anti-tradition.

Jonathan  

Yeah. So I think you’re right, that you have to hold sort of both simultaneously, right? That there’s something important about an individual’s experience of whatever and we’ll get to whatever in a moment, and also the collective experience of the tradition. But on the note of an individual’s experience, I think we have quite a narrow, like, intuitively narrow view of what counts as a religious experience. Right? So in some traditions, perhaps yours…So for context, I’m now a priest in the Church of England, which in the US you would call an Episcopalian, but on the very, very Catholic end of the spectrum. But when I first became a Christian as a teenager, I was converted by evangelical Methodists, and then for five or six years mostly went to a sort of Pentecostal church. So I’m very familiar with the prioritization of a particular kind of experience, which is, as you describe, a sort of an experience of, on one hand, a personal relationship with Jesus and on the other hand a kind of ecstatic experience in which you kind of are caught up in an experience of worship. But I think, as kind of valuable and interesting as those two kinds of experiences are, my worry about focusing on those is that it then leads us to ignore lots of experiences that we might think of as mundane. But I hope they aren’t really mundane. So experiences for example of gratitude. Of gratitude not to a particular individual, but kind of as it were, gratitude in general—a gratitude that’s looking for someone to be grateful toward, right? Or a feeling of awe, for example, that is kind of slightly nebulous, and then the job is to figure out like, where to locate, how to attribute this feeling of awe. Or as CS Lewis used to write about, sort of feelings of homesickness, right, of kind of only partial belonging to the world as we know it now. Or maybe these days in the 21st century, we have feelings of moral outrage and a sense of grave injustice. Actually, CS Lewis writes about this too, right? He writes about this kind of innate sense that there is unfairness in the world, right? And so I think a lot of these feelings that we think of not at all in religious terms, there’s no real reason for at least religious people to think of those in theological terms to say, “Wait a second, these what you might think of as mundane experiences about the world allude to something, point at something, might lead us somewhere and might lead us to our knees in worship.” You know, no more or no less than the feeling of being in a personal relationship with Jesus or being caught up in sort of rapture when listening to particular kinds of worship music, right? Why not broaden our sense of what counts as a religious experience?

Pete  

Okay, all this is triggering a question for me that again, I can hear people, especially on social media, as we discuss some of these things. I happen to really appreciate the language of experience when talking about, let’s say, the religious life. And I’d like you to comment on a common response to that kind of an assertion, namely, “well, experience is subjective, but I’m interested in truth. And that’s objective.” Could you riff on that and what your thoughts are about that kind of duality?

Jonathan  

Sure. There’s a sense in which no scientist would say that, right? Because all of science is predicated on observation and observation like just has a subjective component, right? Which is to say, you see things with your eyes, right? And, and the thing that you see is subjective. And of course, we have measurement. And what measurement allows us to do is to compare our subjective experiences. It permits inter-subjective comparison, right? And confirmation. Now whether or not it gets to objectivity right, a lot of people think that measurement gets us objectivity—it’s not totally obvious how it does that, right, like, as far as I can tell. What a measure does is it allows us to standardize observations which are, which are inherently subjective phenomena and inherently subjective activity. So, but of course, we’re interested in truth, right? And when scientists say they’re interested in truth, this is very closely tied to what we can observe, what is empirical and therefore at least partially subjective. To a scientist there’s no kind of contradiction between subjectivity and truth, because truth is accessible only by experience. 

Pete  

Subjectively.

Jonathan  

Quite. Well you know, all experience being subjective in that sense, even though scientific tools permit, as I say, inter-subjective comparison and confirmation. So that’s the kind of like, I think what a scientist would say. And I think what that reminds us then, right, is that the quest for truth is and should always be a collective one, a social one. So if I’m right to say that what scientists, how a scientist accesses the truth is by experience, which is by its nature subjective, and then adds to that scientific tools, for example, measures, which then permit inter-subjective confirmation and comparison, then I think that’s a model for pursuing truth in general. Which is not to denigrate individual experience, but to, if you like, compare and check it all the time with other people who are seeking the same truth. And that’s why I think that religion is kind of almost always a social enterprise. And that almost inevitably, institutions arise when when people start gathering together, having particular kinds of experiences and try to puzzle around them and try to make sense of these experiences. And so you can have this sort of analogous situation where you have a scientific community, and you have religious communities, and what both of those communities are trying to do is to make sense of their experiences—either by making more observations, and this is more true I suppose in the sciences than in religious groups, or by theorizing, which happens both among religious people and among professional scientists. We don’t call our theological views “theories” a lot, but you know, they’re structurally, semantically, and subjectively quite similar to scientific theories. They are, they’re just, you know, these structures, articulated structures for making sense of our experience.

Jared  

I have been thinking a lot about truth over the years. And I think that was a huge “aha!” for me that you just articulated, maybe even better than I ever have, which is: I always think of it as, you know, truth seemed to be this thing out there. It was very platonic for me in my tradition growing up, that there is a set of facts out there just having to be grasped. And instead thinking about, what the precarious conclusion I came to is, truth is the conclusions we’ve come to when we use the right tools and the right process as a community. And that’s, it’s a little, it’s more social, it’s more communal, and it’s more subjective. And it puts the emphasis on the process. So that what you’re talking about, the tools, the measures, are the things that, you know, truth is just the conclusion of what comes out when we put these experiences on a conveyor belt, and they go through a particular process. What comes out the other side is what we’re calling “truth.” And that’s subject to change if we run the same experiences through that, and maybe tweak the measurements, and maybe, you know, we calibrate it based on other things we’ve learned. And now we do it again, and the conclusion might be a little different. And now that’s the truth of things. I think it’s almost hard for me to have a mental model of that, because I think I was so ingrained with a particular view of truth, that had it be objective out there and easy to grasp, if we, you know, in this almost intuitive sense, rather than seeing science and theorizing, whether it’s religiously or scientifically, as that’s the process of truth making,

Jonathan  

Right, yeah, and I think that’s, that’s one very reasonable way to make sense of, for example, the history of science, right? Like, you know, once upon a time it was reasonable to believe that the sun revolved around the earth or something like this. And then certainly by Descartes’ time, that would no longer have been reasonable to believe to be true. And so it goes, right? And in Descartes’ time, it was reasonable to believe that, you know, space and time are fixed entities. And by Einstein’s time, it was no longer reasonable to believe that that’s true. And one way of describing this is to say that the truths have changed, and I think that’s not an unreasonable way to talk. But I think, you know, if, if you have listeners who want to be a bit more kind of conservative about what Truth is, with a capital T, I think that’s okay, too. Right? So you know, we can maintain the idea, right, that kind of what you described as the platonic idea that there is truth with a capital T out there, there is just the way things are. And we’re all just sort of trying to grasp at them, at these truths, more or less validly. And the truths themselves don’t change, right, but our beliefs about them, and what’s the most reasonable account of the truth that we have—that does change. And in both cases, whether or not you want to, want to say that the truths themselves change, or whether you want to maintain that the truth themselves don’t change—I think in both cases, we have to admit that this grasping for the truth is going to be a kind of fallible and provisional and changing and, and also fundamentally social inter-subjective activity. And this is true both in the sciences as well as any sort of religious tradition.

Pete  

Well, Jonathan, I’m very conscious of the time here and I’d like to ask you one last question. And again, this is I think, taking this down maybe a couple of notches, but again, I’m thinking of, you know, the normal people that we try to communicate with and what they might be asking at this point. Back to the objective/subjective thing that, “Oh, yeah, experience is subjective, but we’re interested in objective Truth, and the source of that objective Truth is, guess what, the Bible.” How would you help someone process that kind of a claim? What would you say? Put on your Anglican priest hat, right, and how would you talk to someone about maybe, I don’t want to prejudice it, but the problems with that claim?

Jonathan  

Right. So you know, as you will have discerned, I’m sort of obsessed with the social, right, with kind of collective activity. So I think what I would do is to, is to show the person that the Bible is itself a collective product, right? It belongs to a tradition, it belongs to several traditions, it took a lot of people to put it together, right? It took even more people than that to then translate the thing and then to bind it in a hardcover with like red letters for Jesus’s words or whatever. And then you know, it ends up on your bookshelves. And then for the same reason, even reading the Bible is a collective activity whether or not you are reading the Bible in a church or reading Bible during your private devotional time in your bedroom, because you may be an individual reading the Bible, but the Bible that you are reading, and the aides which allow you to read the Bible in front of you is itself a collective activity. You did not collect the papyri, right? You did not translate, you did not try to do the palaeography to read the script, you did not translate the thing, you did not write the critical editions, you certainly didn’t bind the book. And so to that extent, you are never alone when you are reading the Bible. It is always and inescapably a collective activity. And if that’s true, right, if that’s true, then all that that means is that the production and consumption of the Bible is a phenomenon that belongs to a tradition, right? The tradition of the people involved in putting it together until this evening when you’re reading it in your bedroom by yourself. And so then the relationship that you have with the Bible can’t just, you can no longer pretend that it’s, you know, that you’re absorbing truth directly from some supernatural source, right? It’s that you are collaborating with all these people, some of whom are alive and some of whom are long dead, in making sense of the tradition to which you all belong, which is the tradition that produced these scriptures and also which canonized them, right? I like to say that the Christian view of the Bible and of Christians, and their relationship, is not that Christians are the People of the Book. That’s how other people describe us. And in particular, that’s how Muslims described Christians as a way of praising us, right, as a way of saying that Christians are okay. And that’s great. But it’s also a mistake. It’s not the case that Christians are the People of the Book or a people of the book. It’s exactly the other way around. The book, the Bible, the canons that we have, and I say canons in plural because we have slightly different Bibles, if you like, across slightly different Christian traditions. The Bible is the book of the people—of this people, of the people of God, if you like, of the church. And so there still, the church comes before the Bible. It is the church that put the Bible together, the church that canonized it, you know, we hope by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and guided by God, but nevertheless, right, the church is the agent here. And so reading the Bible is always just this social and traditioned phenomenon. And therefore the pursuit of truth by reading the Bible is also then a social and traditioned phenomenon.

Pete  

Okay, well, listen, Jonathan, you’ve given me a lot to think about, Jared a lot to think about. This is fascinating and it’s deep, and we just want to thank you for taking your time—you’re a busy guy, and you know, staying up, well but this is afternoon for you so you’re over across the pond—but just for taking the time to be with us, to explain, I think, some difficult concepts, but I think at the end of the day, extremely important concepts for all of us as we think about the religious life. So thank you very much for taking the time.

Jonathan  

Thanks so much for having me. And I’m very sorry that I didn’t say very much about psychology, even though you know, like, I am supposed to be a psychologist.

Pete  

[Chuckles] I think you wear a few hats and that’s fine! 

Jared  

Alright, thanks, Jonathan!

Outro  

[Outro music plays] You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People! Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producers Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. So a big thanks to Logan Janzen, Matt Sutton, Darlene Sinclair, Ryan Morrison, Heidi Brandao, Claire Patterson, Tyson Alexander, Doug Banister, Kathleen Palmer, and Abigail Reaves. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more! We couldn’t do what we do without your support. This episode was brought to you by The Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Prescott, Savannah Locke, Stephanie Speight, Tessa Stultz, Nick Striegel, Haley Warren, Jessica Shao, and Natalie Weyand. [Outro music ends]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

One Comment

  • Kendra Andrus says:

    That was awesome! Can you please have him on for a part two? I want to keep listening to what he has to say and your discussion with him.

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