God-complexity: Conceptualising the Divine

Have you ever wondered how people think about God?  Do they think purely in theological terms, such as the Christian Trinity or do they think of God in terms of the roles that God plays in their lives?  Does people’s theological understanding always match their personal experience of God?  In our latest research project, “God-complexity: Conceptualising the Divine,” our team is investigating how people think about God and some of the consequences this has in their day-to-day lives.

Thinking of God in different ways

Psychologists who study religion have been interested in how people think about God for many years, and have developed many ways of measuring this through various lenses (is God in control of everything that happens?  Is God loving or controlling?  What emotions do you feel in reference to God?).  These are all useful ways of understanding how people might think about God, but they assume that people’s concept of God is always the same.  However, not everyone understands God in the same way.  My colleagues and I have shown that many people describe feeling a discrepancy between their theological understanding of what God is like and their personal experience of what God is like.  For example, someone might know that God is supposed to be loving, but not actually experience that in their day-to-day life.  Also, different religious traditions talk about God in multiple ways – such as the 99 names of Allah, and various gods and goddesses within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

As a concrete example of this, recently my co-authors and I have argued that people think about the members of the Christian Trinity in different ways.  Let’s try an exercise: examine the three iconic images below of God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and try to imagine how you might describe them or your relationship with them.

The Holy Trinity: God the Father, Jesus Christ the son, and the Holy Spirit
The Holy Trinity: God the Father, Jesus Christ the son, and the Holy Spirit

Do different things come to mind?  If so, you’re not alone – our research found that our participants (British and American Christians) consistently had different representations of the Trinity members.  God the Father was seen as more supernatural (e.g., “omnipotent”) and more negative (e.g., “harsh”) than Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  We think that this likely corresponds with the “Old Testament” God described in the Bible.  Jesus was described with human-like positive words (e.g., “dependable”), likely related to the fact that he is believed to have lived a human life.  On the other hand, people had relatively “fuzzy” conceptions of what the Holy Spirit was like, with the Holy Spirit being less describable in terms of adjectives and personality than God the Father and Jesus.

Current Research Project

Continuing the investigation of how people think about God in multiple ways, our new project, “God-complexity: Conceptualising the Divine,” is one of a number funded by the John Templeton Foundation in order to better understand how people think about God (or gods).  The project is based on research in the field of social cognition, a sub-field of psychology that investigates how we think about ourselves and other people, and applies those theories to how people understand God.  Back in 1987, Dr. Patricia Linville developed a measure of what she termed “self-complexity.”  That is, how complexly do people think about themselves, in terms of the different “selves” they have in different situations, and how they experience themselves in those situations. I, for example, experience my “musician self” as being quite different from my “academic self,” while always being recognizably me.  Dr. Alan McConnell and colleagues have used Linville’s measure to devise a “map” of how people understand themselves.  This model helps us to understand how people experience themselves in different situations, as we can see with the example of “Rachel” below, who experiences her “Mike’s girlfriend” self as being relatively similar to her “daughter” self, but very differently from her “student” self:

McConnell, 2011
Hypothetical self-concept of a person named Rachel (from McConnell, 2011)

If we apply this technique to understanding people’s representations of God, like Linville, we can measure the complexity with which people think about God, and building on McConnell’s research we can also “map” what their God-concept looks like.  This gives us a lot of detail about the structure of how people think about God, not just the specific words they use to describe God.

Potential Applications

You may be thinking, “Well, this is interesting [hopefully!], but what are the practical uses of this information about how people think about God?”  Let’s examine two potential areas of application:

  • Individual or Clinical: Research has shown that the ways in which people relate to God have very important impacts for individuals, and part of what we are assessing in this research project are the consequences God-complexity has in regards to people’s day-to-day lives.  This has the potential to be of great use to clinical practitioners and pastoral staff when counselling people who are religious and believe in God.
  • Community or Societal: On a societal level, the ways in which we represent God may also have implications for our empathy with and behaviour towards others. Our research thus has the potential to provide a catalyst for dialogue and growth between and within religious communities.

How to get involved in our research:

At the moment, we are conducting research with people who meet the following criteria:

  • live in the greater Birmingham, Manchester, London, York, Leeds, or Canterbury areas
  • are Christian
  • believe in God
  • are over age 18

If you meet these criteria and would like to get involved, please email me at: sres.admin.sona@newman.ac.uk 

If you do not meet these criteria, but are interested in our research, please consider joining our participant database – we are looking for people with all ranges of views regarding science and religion.