This is Part Two in the Psychology of Religion series. Check out part one here.
In today’s installment we are examining the concept of religious orientation, with an emphasis on C. Daniel Batson’s “Quest” orientation and the ways in which this concept can be misused by Christians.
Questing Without Becoming a Spineless Wimpy Lily-Livered Milquetoast
Charles H. Hackney, Ph.D.
Research in the psychology of religion tends to move from the primitive to the complex, and the movement often follows a certain pattern. When psychologists investigate how religion is involved with some psychological or social phenomenon (volunteerism, for example), the first question tends to be “Does it make a difference if the person is religious?”, and we see studies in which the researcher is doing something like comparing self-identified churchgoers versus non-churchgoers in relation to the psychological phenomenon (so, to continue the example, a study might compare the average volunteerism rates for churchgoers versus non-churchgoers to see if being religious is associated with more volunteering). If the researcher wants to get more sophisticated, the next question tends to be “Does it make a difference how religious the person is?”, and then we get things like correlations calculated between scores on religiosity measures and the number of hours spent volunteering. The next level of sophistication often involves the question “Does it makes a difference in what way the person is religious?”
The primary approach to this question comes to us from one of the key figures in the psychology of religion, Gordon Allport. Allport proposed a fundamental distinction between what he called “immature” and “mature” religion. This was later rephrased as “Extrinsic” and “Intrinsic” religious orientations. According to this approach, two people can be equally “religious” (defined in terms of things like going to worship services and attending Bible studies and bringing homemade pumpkin cake to a church potluck), but be religious for very different reasons. The Extrinsically-oriented “use” their religion as a means to some other end, such as community networking, emotional comfort, or the opportunity to meet nice girls. The Intrinsically-oriented “live” their religion as an end in itself. Worship through song, for example, is not valued because it feels uplifting, it is valued because it is worship and God is worthy of praise.
C. Daniel Batson proposed a third orientation, called “Quest,” in which religion is seen as an ongoing journey in which we grapple with the difficult questions of existence in a lifelong process of learning and growing. Batson and Shoenrade’s Quest scale assesses three aspects of Quest-oriented religion: 1) “readiness to face existential questions without reducing their complexity,” 2) “self-criticism and perceptions of religious doubts as positive,” 3) “openness to change.” In connection to one of the best movies ever made, I will refer to people with kind of orientation as “Questarians.”
The idea of being a Questarian works on a number of levels. Theologically, it is vital to recognize the tentativeness of our ideas about God and the Christian life, and to be willing to change our minds if we encounter a better theology than the one we currently embrace. Stanley Grenz, for example, states that “all theological assertions are historically conditioned” (p. 6) and that “no theological system encompasses reality in its fullness. The topics the theologian studies—God, the human person, and the world as a whole—lie ultimately beyond the ability of the human intellect to grasp fully. Therefore, every theological system will have limitations.” (p. 10). Stephen Moroney, in his examination of how sin influences our ability to reason, points out that the mind of a Christian is not instantly, or fully, purged of the distorting effects of sin. So an acknowledgement that our best attempts to answer important questions will always fall short of perfect truth is a correctly-humble attitude to take. The idea of life as a journey has scriptural support (Philippians 3:12-14), and fits with the work of a number of Christian scholars who take a “narrative” approach to understanding the Christian life. There are also philosophers and psychologists who have focused on understanding a human life in terms of “narrative” and “quest.”
The psychological research on Quest orientation has generally been favorable toward this approach to living one’s faith. The data seem to indicate that Questarians are more helpful, less prejudiced, more morally-principled, less willing to simply accept what others tell them to believe, just in general more way-cool types than non-Questarians. So should all us Christians be balls-to-the-wall Questarians? It works theologically, philosophically, psychologically… to quote another great film, “How is this a bad plan?”
Not so fast, Jacopo. Like most things, there’s a right way and wrong way to go about this. Quest can go wrong when it stops being a “quest” so much as an “aimless wandering.” There seems to be some overlap between the ideas expressed by the concept of “Quest” and less desirable concepts such as “struggling with doubt” and “sophomorically rejecting orthodoxy.” So it’s important to distinguish between them.
Doubt can be a good thing, though seldom a fun thing. Gordon Allport argues that the “mature religious sentiment” is “fashioned in the workshop of doubt.” Similarly, Dostoevsky says, “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” Like the physical exertion necessary to build muscles, and the mental exertion necessary to cultivate the intellect, Quest religion is a struggle that can result in greater spiritual strength. But doubt can also cripple and poison one’s faith life. I found Philip Yancey’s advice for doubters helpful. In his book, he gives eight tips for turning unhealthy doubt into healthy doubt. I have found the first tip to be the most valuable: “Question your doubts as much as your faith.” Not all doubts are reasonable. We have been told (correctly) that our faith must be strong enough and our beliefs well-supported enough to withstand questioning. What happens if we turn that spotlight on the nagging doubts? Which of those are powerful enough to withstand questioning?
The second issue is the reason for the title of this post. Healthy questing is not the same thing as a blanket rejection of anything touched by words like “tradition” or “orthodoxy.” In 1902, William James complained about the “one-sided absolutizing” that kept getting in the way of having intelligent discussions about religion. It’s been a hundred and eight years; things haven’t improved. We still tend to polarize issues, push them to extremes, and demonize anyone who doesn’t line up 100% with our way of thinking. Talk to some Christians, and you might get the impression that you must either be a full-bore fundamentalist or a radical liberal, with nothing in between. The moment you start questioning why we believe what we believe, someone will accuse you of stepping on the slippery slope to relativism. Say anything suggesting that maybe your parents’ generation did something right, and someone will accuse you of being a roadblock on the path of progress. Quest religion is especially vulnerable to this second extreme, as questions and the individual journey are given priority over the acceptance of institutional forms and received teachings. This makes it easy for people to toss around perfectly good concepts (like Quest) as lame excuses for developing a self-centered approach to the Christian life. If there is something that I do not like in the church, saying that I’m on a quest is a perfect excuse for walking away. (I will refer to these individuals as “PseudoQuestarians”)
This is not to say that there is never a time or place for the individual taking a stand against the group, and this is not to devalue individuals wrestling through tough issues and coming to conclusions that might differ from others’ conclusions. What I am talking about is the temptation to dress up moral and intellectual laziness with smart-sounding words. Like rebellious teenagers who talk big about thinking for themselves, and end up rebelling in precisely the same way that their friends rebel, a PseudoQuestarian’s “personally-developed” theology is likely to precisely mirror whatever positions are currently popular, rejecting “traditional” Christian ideas at exactly the points where “traditional” Christianity diverges from the current zeitgeist. This is why a PseudoQuestarian is a spineless wimpy lily-livered milquetoast, projecting a façade of rugged intellectual individualism over unthinking conformity.
While a Quest approach will encourage us to acknowledge our ignorance, it does not require us to abandon the concept of truth. PseudoQuestarians may talk about orthodoxy being “limiting,” or their approach as “transcending boundaries,” in the name of “inclusiveness,” but without limitations and boundaries, a quest becomes aimless wandering. Let’s look at three illustrations.
I play World of Warcraft (“The first Step is admitting that you have a problem.”). For those of you who have never played, a central feature of the game is the completion of quests. A non-player character will offer you an assignment, with a reward promised when you complete it.
This structure is inherently limiting. If I want the reward, then I must do what the quest-giver wants, and if I make an individual choice not to do what the quest-giver wants, I will not get the reward. If the quest is to slay twelve Murlocs, with a high-quality dagger as the reward, and I choose instead to slay fifteen Furbolgs, then I’ve chosen not to receive that dagger. There certainly is freedom and choice involved if I want the dagger (if I so desire, I could kill the Murlocs on the north end of the coastline instead of the south end, or I could choose to kill six Murlocs, then get in some fishing, then kill the other six), but it is a contextualized and bounded freedom.
Second example (one of my favorites): The Hobbit. JRR Tolkien’s story is a classic example of a quest. “Far over the Misty Mountains cold, To dungeons deep and caverns old, We must away, ere break of day, To seek our pale enchanted gold.” This, too, is a set of limitations on the actions of Bilbo and the dwarves. Stay on the path. Do not deviate from it. Avoid getting eaten. Slay the dragon (somehow). This is also an example of the roles of both ignorance and knowledge in a quest. At the beginning of the journey, Bilbo had no idea how to kill a dragon, had no idea how tremendously useful a magic ring could be, and had no idea of his own potential as a friend and a fighter and a burglar. This does not mean that Bilbo abandoned all forms of knowledge about the quest. He knew about the gold and the dragon. He knew that Gandalf was a source of trustworthy knowledge. He knew that there would be dangers (though he did not know exactly what they would be).
Third example: Pilgrim’s Progress. In this allegory, the main character (“Christian”) is on a quest to get to the Celestial City. This story is loaded with all the things that a Questarian would appreciate. Christian never once claims to have all the answers, in fact it seems that half the time he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Christian is willing to go against the advice of his family, his community, the people of Vanity Fair, and characters such as Timorous and Mr. Worldly Wiseman. Christian’s path is filled with doubt and struggle, including having to slog through the Slough of Despond, to escape from Doubting Castle, and to avoid Legalism, Formalism, and Hypocrisy. However, Christian is by no means free to pick and choose what he believes, but submits to instruction from those who know the path better than he does. Every time Christian turns away from the path, he ends up in trouble, and the path can only be legitimately accessed by the Wicket Gate. In fact, one of the characters (Mr. By-Ends) prides himself on his freedom to live by the spirit of the times and go with the flow when it comes to religion. When Christian says that questing toward the Celestial City means “you must go against wind and tide… you must also own Religion in his rags, as well as in his silver slippers; and stand by him, too, when bound in irons, as well as when he walketh the streets with applause,” By-Ends accuses him of “imposing” and “lording it over” By-Ends’ faith (sound familiar to anyone?).
There is a difference between being on a quest and doing whatever you want. A quest is defined by its goal, and the methods that lead the Questarian toward that goal are not infinite. Progress in the Quest means sticking to the path.
Up next in this series, Terror Management Theory and the book of Ecclesiastes.