Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Good Samaritan

So I wasn't quite sure what to expect from my Psychology of Religion class at St. Edwards. It satisfies two of my degree requirements, so it was more or less mandatory. When I was deciding between the Psychology of Religion course and Human Rights/Social Justice, several people chimed in with warnings that the Psych class could really mess with my head. While I appreciate their concern, I had a hunch that this course could be really good for me. After just one class I think I may have been right.

I want to say up front that I’m a novice in terms of psychological thought, so I may at times sound like I don't know what I'm talking about. And that is for good reason ☺. Still, I want to try and convey this experience.

The professor started out by defining both religion and psychology. We tossed around a whole lot of stuff about beliefs, practices, rules, deities, houses of worship, etc. But the bottom line is that talking about religion is by and large reification, i.e., taking things that are abstract and non-tangible and somehow engaging or examining them in concrete terms. For example, you can say you have "faith" but I cannot see it. I can see your actions, I can see you read your Bible, I can listen to your beliefs and ideals, but I can't take your faith, put it on a table, and say, "there's her faith."

Psychology, on the other hand, is scientific. Scientists rely solely on empirical data, meaning that they draw conclusions based upon observation. Deductions are made from information that is publicly verifiable. For example, if a group of scientists were considering what effect daily exercise had on cholesterol levels, they would likely do a controlled study where individuals were put to the test. After a determined amount of time they would compare the cholesterol levels of those who exercised daily and those who didn't. Then they could chart it and put it in a medical journal for all to see. It would all be more complex than that, of course, but you get the gist.

So according to my professor, one of the things we'll be doing in this course is examining the behavior of religious people and systems, and then pondering what that means. The first lesson really knocked my socks off. The assignment was to read Luke 10: 25-37 (the parable of the Good Samaritan), and then read a nine-page study conducted by two psychologists from Princeton University. Their aim was to observe what Christians would do in a scenario much like the Biblical parable. Among other things, they wanted to get a better idea of what drives people to certain decisions in such situations. Theories abound as to why the priest and Levite in the parable didn't stop and render aid, and why the Samaritan did. But in real-life situations today, why are some people more Samaritan-like and others aren't? How do their beliefs affect their behavior, or DO their beliefs affect their behavior at all? What were they thinking in the process? What outside forces played a role in their decisions?

So they got a group of seminary students together and invited them to participate in a study on religious education and vocations. They were asked to fill out a questionnaire that would reflect some of their ideas and beliefs. Then they were placed in an environment where they had to travel from point "A" to point "B", and along the way they planted a person in need. There were some controlled circumstances, i.e. one group was told to hurry, and another group was told they were going to be discussing the parable of the Good Samaritan when they got there. So the psychologists sat back and observed what people did. The findings are too extensive to list here, but they are fascinating. I will say, however, that many of the seminary students who knew they were going to be talking about the Good Samaritan still walked right on by the person slumped in the chair!

One of the reasons I am so excited about this course is that it's a way to look at the connection (or discrepancy) between our beliefs and our actions. Though I've probably read this parable hundreds of times, last night it really hit me: this was Jesus' answer to a man's question about how to inherit eternal life. He didn't launch into systematic theology, or rattle off a list of things you must believe or do to find favor with God. Instead, he said, "Love God. Be a neighbor." I think sometimes we trick ourselves into believing that we're good neighbors, when really we mostly just walk on by.