Science in Christian Perspective



From: JASA 20 (March 1968): 27-30.

In the attempt to construct a psychological theory of personality it is customary to view man as having (a) a structure-the anatomy; which structure is related to (b) functions or processes-at least partly described by physiology and psychology; which processes are related to the (c) content of his environment. Man, furthermore, has a (d) history. Each of these is related to the others, and each is more or less dependent upon the others, and may be more or less modified by the interaction.

It is important to pause along the way long enough to state that process not only influences content, but content influences process as well. The behaviorists find no difficulty with that statement, but the more orthodox psychoanalysts have tended to deny it. A simple illustration of the influence of content on process is that of the violent death of a parent in the presence of a small child in which case the traumatic effect of that content may distort the child's psychological processes for life.

*Paul F. Barkman, Ph. D. is Associate Professor of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary Graduate School of Psychology. This paper was presented at the Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation at Stanford University, Stanford, Cal. August 1967.

One dramatic example of the interrelationship of history, structure, function, and content is the wartime story of the athletic soldier who came to consciousness after battle and was told that he had lost two limbs; whereupon he exclaimed in despair, turned to the wall, and soon died; even though physicians regarded the physical trauma as inadequate to this effect.

It has been somewhat characteristic of psychologists to be more interested in structure and process than in other aspects of the person. They frequently disclaim interest or competence in content, preferring to leave that to the educational system, the parents, the culture, or whoever is interested. Their appropriate preoccupation, they feel, is to assure a man that he will be able to reason efficiently, perceive well, relate realistically, tolerate frustration, and engage in other such processes without deficit or distortion. Or, in popular language, it is the psychologist's business to help men think straight, and it is a man's own business what he thinks about.

Because religion has so often been regarded as content, this preoccupation with process, together with a failure to recognize the reciprocal effects of content upon process, have caused religion to be brushed aside with such labels as "the unanalyzable residue" of psychoanalysis, or as "orthogonal with psychology."

Before pursuing that line of thought, we must recognize that for others religion has not been regarded as beside the point but as related process.

For the analysts it has often been regarded as either neurotic or psychotic process, and thus a displacement and distortion of reality. (Note that not all analysts take this position.) For some religionists it has been regarded as the dynamic panacea which transforms personality, sustains integration and creativity, heals physical ailments, and orients man to cope intuitively and effectively with reality.

If it were not for a recent fresh wind of scientific research and relatively unimpassioned theory which has blown through the emotional smog of ignorance and emotion in the past decade, such a discussion as this would rapidly descend into the familiar old exchanges which were characterized more by heat than light. Fortunately man's religious behavior has come under much more careful scrutiny lately, with anthropologists and sociologists leading the way, and psychologists entering increasingly into the task.

The first awareness that has resulted is that religion has been grossly oversimplified by both its exponents and its detractors. Let me make a quick review of some of the discriminations which have begun to appear.

Michael Argyle (1959)1 reviewing extensive research and theoretical literature has discussed the theories of religious behavior and belief under the following headings: Religion as social learning, as a response to frustration, as a reaction to intra-personal conflict and as conflict with the environment, as a fantasy father-figure, as obsessional neurosis, as a response to cognitive need, and as a response to physiological processes. Without entering into his findings, one may summarize his conclusions by saying that, in his opinion, most of these theories are descriptive and explanatory of certain groups of religious persons when they are classified into the usual sociological rubrics of church, denomination, sect, and protestant liberalism; but that no one theory is applicable throughout all religion.

For this paper, the single most significant awareness that comes from Argyle's work is the documentation that religion-even when defined as narrowly as the Judeo-Christian context-has a great variety of meanings and functions which differ for recognizable groups and classes of persons.

In view of the involvement of religious behavior in the psychoses and neuroses, such knowledge makes it possible to be more precise about the meaning of religious behavior in the disturbed personality, and the part it may or may not have had in the etiology of the disorder, and how (or whether) it should be included in the process of treatment.

Sociologist Gerhard Lenski2 did a survey in 1961 in Detroit of the religious factor in the political, economic, and family life of that city, and found himself driven by the evidence to distinguish between two kinds of religious intensity that have previously been classified together. He found that "doctrinal orthodoxy" and "devotionalism" were both present among religious people, but not nearly so often in the same persons as one might have imagined. The Pearson product-moment correlation was only 0.23. A surprisingly low correlation. The sample included the usual American proportions of Catholics, Jews, and Protestants. Throughout the very extensive study these two factors of religiosity were repeatedly, though not always, related differently with various kinds of attitudes and behavior.

"Devotionalism" was defined by the frequency with which a person had individual prayer, or asked God what to do.

Quoting from Lenski's concluding chapter, "On the whole, doctrinal orthodoxy appears to be a type of religious orientation which is linked with (and we suspect fosters) a compartmentalized view of life. . . . one's religious commitments are irrelevant to one's political and economic actions and other aspects of secular life ... Devotionalism, by contrast, seems linked both with the spirit of capitalism and with a humanitarian outlook when confronted with problems of social injustice."3

Gordon Allport has defined similar variables under the title of extrinsic and intrinsic religion. Extrinsic religion is "a dull habit, or a tribal investment to be used for occasional ceremony, for family convenience or for personal comfort. It is something to use, but not to live.4 That is to say, "it is not a value in its own right, but is an instrumental value serving the motives of personal comfort, security, or social status."5 It is the kind of religion responsible for the slogan, "Go to church and leave your troubles there."

Allport defines intrinsic religion as an orientation that regards faith as a supreme value in its own right.6 ". . . it is not primarily a means of handling fear, or a mode of conformity, or an attempted sublimation of sex, or a wish-fulfillment. Earlier in life it may have been all of these things. But now these specific needs are not so much served by, as they are subordinated to, an overarching motive. . . . intrinsic religion has nothing to do with formal religious structure."7 He says there are intrinsically religious persons in all faiths.

He cites several studies which show a clear and unvarying positive correlation between extrinsic religion and prejudices toward race and religion; and a corresponding negative correlation between intrinsic religion and such prejudice. The subjects were drawn from both white and Negro, and from Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic churchgoers.

He continues to predict that, "mental health will vary according to the degree to which adherents of any faith are intrinsic in their interpretation and living of their faith,8 but he does not support this statement with research. His predictions challenge research.

Such discriminations as the foregoing are exceedingly useful in the scientific approach to religious behavior.

In the spirit of such efforts at refined discriminations, the following hypothesis is presented relative to the relationship of personality modes and religious experience and behavior.

It is proposed that there are at least four basic modes which are closely related to the central character of the varieties of Christian behavior. (Brief discussion with those who are acquainted with other religions seems to encourage the idea that these modes may apply elsewhere as well, but the theory does not say so at this time.) These four modes are verbal, affective, social-relational, and transcendental.

Modes can be thought of as relatively distinct and abiding characteristics of personality which are dynamic
and somewhat determinative of behavior. For the purpose of this discussion, they are ways of cognition and
of action or response. One might use the old term "personality traits", but the word "mode" is closer to the
concept of a "style of life", and more in keeping with the observations which prompt this theory.

There is considerable evidence in all of psychology to support the idea that we perceive and conceive in
light of our needs and styles of life; and there is no reason to feel that this would not be the same with the
religious behavior of a person; but not much has been done to explore that aspect of human behavior.
There is also some evidence that these modes are not arbitrarily arrived at, but may indeed represent
fairly universal human modules of personality. For example, the evidence from the Wechsler Scales of in
telligence seems to indicate that people do differ with respect to verbal and performance aspects of intelligence, and research would support the idea that they find their existence and expression in recognizable
degrees in certain named categories of persons. (Schizophrenics, for example tend to be high on the verbal
scales and low on the performance scales, while juvenile delinquents are low on the verbal and high on the performance scales. These are somewhat gross statements, but close enough for our example.)

Gilford gives another partial confirmation of the foregoing list of modes in his summary of the factor analytic study of personality traits. "The primary traits of temperament can be grouped in three broad classes, depending upon whether they refer to a person's attitudes toward his general environment, to his emotional dispositions, or his inclinations in dealing with his social environment."9

When one thinks of verbal, emotional, and social modes as possibly the basic human dispositions to perceive and deal with the world; and then regards the nature of the Protestant Reformation, there is suggested the idea that these modes may be closely related to the central emphases of the main segments of that great social and religious epoch.

At the time of the Reformation, perhaps for the first time in Christian history, large numbers of people were given relatively great freedom both to shape their religion and to shift their allegiance to the particular shading of Christianity which seemed most congenial to them as individuals. This freedom was far from complete, but sufficient to allow considerable alignment by personal choice. Thus, both reformers and adherants were free to shape and express religion in a manner that seemed most congenial to them as persons.

All appealed equally to the Scriptures, and doubtless all were faithful to the Scriptures within their conscience. That personality modes were related to the results, is rather evident, although no claim is made that Christianity was distorted thereby.

It would appear that those whose basic personality tendencies were more predominantly verbal tended to conceive of Christianity most readily and easily in words, and in verbally mediated concepts such as theologies-which are essentially verbal. They defined Christianity as the adherance to these verbally expressed ideas. Their watchword was "faith". For them, to be a Christian meant to believe the doctrines. The verbal mode found its strongest expression in the Reformed and Lutheran churches. They were the Believers. To the extent that congregations and individuals are orthodox Calvinists or Lutherans, this is probably still quite true.

A second mode is affective or emotional. For these people, Christianity was an experience. They developed a whole system of feelings and emotionally meaningful behavior by which they defined Christianity. Communion with God, conversion experience, and the manifestations of the Holy Spirit by way of glossolalia and faith healing were some of the significant concepts and expressions of their Christianity. To them the great watchword was not "believe", but "experience." The Pietistic movement, in which this found its strongest expression was not very much interested in theology. They were the "born again~' ones, the "converted', and the "saved ones." They scornfully stated that the devils also believed and trembled, and that the Reformers were cold intellectuals whose religion never went beyond their heads to their hearts, because they substituted intellectual pride for humble communion. The Methodists and the Pentecostalists are among the well-known heirs of this tradition, and to the extent that they are orthodox, these attitudes and expressions are rather characteristic of them.

There is little meeting of minds (or hearts) between the Reformed and the Pietists to this day. One can hear a Presbyterian say that the Methodists have never produced a good theologian in their entire history; and hear a Methodist ask what that has to do with Christianity.

The third movement of the Reformation, that of the Anabaptists, contended that ideas and beliefs had their place, and emotional communion with God was good, but that a Christian is not measured primarily by these. He is ultimately measured by his relationship with people. Faith and experience were validated in observable behavior. Their mode was activist, or perhaps more correctly in Guilford's phrase, social-relational. A Christian, to them was a person whose character and behavior were modeled after the example of Christ and the Apostles. Among those congregations which remain closest to the Anabaptist tradition, even to this day, a person is not admitted into membership until he has demonstrated his Christian "walk", and has the public testimony thereto by the members of the congregation. The Anabaptists' emphasis on the personalness and relational quality of Christianity rejected formal theology with outright suspicion, and instead gave every man the right and obligation to think through to his own understanding of the Scripture, and his own relationship with God. Their watchword was "be", and by this they meant "do". They were the original social workers of the Protestant church, and consistent with their teachings, also the first active pacifists. They called themselves (and still do) the Brethren.

Carried over from the older stream of Roman Catholic Christianity (which did, and still does, contain all four of these modes, expressed in its various ranks and orders) was what appears to be a fourth mode which focuses on the transcendental. There is some question about whether this should be distinguished from the affective mode, but there is evidence that they are not really the same. It expresses itself both in the liturgy of the high church ritual, and in the life of the mystic. Both the ritual and the mystic experience focus on "worship", which is the watchword of the transcendental mode. This is not the emotional, individualistically involved experience of the Pietist, but the selfless absorption into the greater, all-comprehending being of an ineffable God, wherein the individual is submerged, and it is usually a passive and receptive state. This is the "mysterium tremendum,"10 and the "wholly other" quality of God which Rudolph Otto, the anthropologist, has so well described, and which he proposes is the common element in all religions of every kind. It may be that Guilford's mathematical processes of factor analysis did not sort out this mode because the materials with which he was working did not contain so non-verbal a set of materials. The Episcopal church preserves much of this mode of religious experience and expression in our time, but it is also to some extent the heritage of some of the Lutherans. These are the Communicants.

Time and opportunity have broadened and blended the characteristics of the major denominations. This would be expected, if as in this theory, religious experience and expression are related to personality modes. It stands to reason that persons of following generations might not have quite the same predominant personality characteristics as their ancestors, while they still remain members of the same religious denomination. Thus there would be pressure to change the character of the congregation and the denomination. (This is not to exclude the intellectual pressures which come from competing theologies within the Christian church, but to add somewhat to our understanding of why they have an appeal.) Also, in so mobile a time as ours people move around and tend to join the churches which are geographically near their new location, thus the congregations tend somewhat to lose their identity. The typical large-city congregation of today has a bewildering mixture of denominational backgrounds among its members, and probably has many more adherants whose religion is extrinsic than intrinsic (to use Allport's categories). Thus, there are probably fewer "pure" congregations or denominations than formerly. Furthermore, these modes do not exist in all-or-nothing quantities, but are likely all present in varying degrees in all people.

The theory is that where these modes are present in a manner that makes one or another particularly dominant, and where a person has reasonable choice of his religious expression, one will find that his religious expression is positively correlated with his personality mode.

It would seem that an approach of this kind to religious experience and behavior can help to explain how Christianity achieves its diversity while retaining it's recognizable essential character. It could also help us to understand somewhat more accurately the meaning of Christianity to the individual.

For the churches it might open ways of consciously planning for the religious needs of their members in a somewhat more systematic manner; and it could probably help to understand and even eliminate some of the unnecessary frictions in the Christian church which arise essentially out of personal factors rather than the nature of Christianity.

This theory is presented for discussion in the hope that it can be refined for research.


1. Michael Argyle, Religious Behavior, (The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1959), 196 pages.
2. Gerhard Lenski, The Religious Factor, A Sociological Study of Religion's Impact on Politics, Economics, and Family Life (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1961) 367 pages.
3. ibid., p. 297.
4. Gordon W Allport, "Behavoral Science, Religion, and Mental Health" in (Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 2, No. 3, April 1963, pages 187-197), page 193.
5. Gordon W. Allport, "Traits Revisited," in (American Psychologist, Vol. 21, No. 1, January 1966) p. 6.
6. ibid.
7. Allport, op. cit., "Behavioral Science, Religion, and Mental Health," p. 195.
8. ibid, p. 195.
9. J. P. Guilford, "A System of Primary Traits of Temperament", in (Indian Journal of Psychology, 1959?), p. 147. 10. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy.