Multi-faith engagement and the challenge of post hoc theologizing

I really appreciate the efforts of various evangelicals in trying to help members of our tribe relate to those in other religions in more positive ways. We are all doing our part in different fashion and parts of the world, and none of us has all the answers. I'm trying to navigate my own way, and as I reflect on various approaches, I think I've noticed a blind spot for us. Interestingly, it's a blind spot shared by both conservative and progressive evangelicals. It surfaces when both sides appeal to various biblical texts, Christian practices, and theological approaches to multi-faith engagement. The problem is we're not recognizing the importance of emotion in relation to post hoc theologizing: rather than going to the biblical text and putting together a theology of multi-faith engagement through a purely objective and rational process, our emotional disposition toward religious others shapes our theology and the biblical texts we select in justification. In order to unpack this, let's begin by looking at how post hoc reasoning takes place, and then consider how this works in connection with the construction of our theologies.

Previously I've referenced the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He has done some great work in social psychology that he primarily brings to bear on understanding our political divisions. I find it helpful to bring this research into dialogue with theology, particularly in the context of multi-faith engagement. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Disagree About Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2013), he includes a discussion on our reasoning processes. A couple of items are worth mentioning. First, cognition is best understood as a combination of the emotions and reasoning. We tend to make a dichotomy between the two, with the former considered irrational. It's only when we set emotions aside or keep them in check, allegedly, that we can then draw upon our reasoning processes to make sound decisions. But research in disciplines like social psychology indicates that this is not the proper way to understand human cognition. Emotion and reason work in tandem with each other, and emotion often leads the way.

This leads me to the second aspect of Haidt's discussion on cognition that I want to draw attention to. He says that the "first rule of moral psychology" is that "intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second." He advocates a social intuitionist approach to understanding human moral judgment, and in this model human beings have certain intuitions or gut feelings on various issues that are moralized, and then we search for and grab onto rational arguments to justify them. Those who hold contrary viewpoints are not only wrong, but given the moral connection to our intuitions, they are often also considered evil or deficient in some major way. He illustrates the relationship between the emotional and rational mind by drawing upon the metaphor of the elephant and its rider. “The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant,” he says. The elephant represents emotion, and the rider is reason. Given the size of the elephant, it is in control, and a skilled rider must work to get the elephant turning in the direction the rider wants to take it. But frequently it is the elephant that leads the way, and the rider works to justify and rationalize the direction the elephant has decided to trod. On this Haidt states:

“You can see the rider serving the elephant when people are morally dumbfounded. They have strong gut feelings about what is right and wrong, and they struggle to construct post hoc justifications for those feelings. Even when the servant (reasoning) comes back empty-handed, the master (intuition) doesn't change his judgment.”

The takeaway from Haidt's discussion on cognition, emotion, and reason is that we are not the objective, rational creatures we like to think we are. Emotion plays a significant role in our viewpoints, whether current political and social issues, or our stance toward other religions, and we often select facts and incorporate them into a narrative that justifies what we've already intuited.

With this background we can now connect the dots to the process of constructing theologies of multi-faith engagement. Theologizing operates in connection with our cognitive processes, and in light of the insights of social psychology, I suggest that we put together our theologies of multi-faith engagement based upon our prior feelings and intuitions about other religions. Our feelings are primary and particular theologies become attractive. This means that if we emphasize the moral foundations of fairness and care (as many progressives and some conservatives do) we will adopt a theology and praxis of positive interaction with those in other religions that includes things like love of neighbor and hospitality. If we emphasize the moral foundation of purity (which conservatives tend to do) we will adopt a theology of boundary maintenance and tend toward apologetic stances that keep the religious other at bay out of concern for possible contamination of our theology, worldview, and religious community. Regardless of which theology we choose, we do not go to the biblical text and find verses in objective fashion and then adjust our emotions, reasoning, and praxis accordingly. Our emotions and intuitions lead the way, and our theology and praxis follows. Everybody engages to some extent in post hoc theologzing.

For those involved in multi-faith engagement and interfaith work, this has implications in our attempts at persuading our fellow evangelicals, and other Christians, to change their views and strategies toward those in other religions. In regards to ministry strategy formation, a helpful way to think about this is the missional helix metaphor. It involves four elements, including theological reflection, cultural analysis, strategy formation, and historical perspective. The spiral connects these elements in an ongoing and interrelated fashion. As missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen has stated,

"The missional helix is a spiral because the missionary returns time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically in order to develop ministry models appropriate to the local context. Theology, social understandings, history of missions, and strategy all work together and interpenetrate each other. Thus praxis impacts theology, which in turn shapes the practice of ministry."

I would add another element to the helix, and that is emotion and moral intuition. For the reasons discussed above, our emotions connected to moral intuitions work subconsciously, interacting with how the other four elements of the missional helix are understood, and thus have a strong influence shaping theology and ministry strategy.

For those evangelicals hoping to persuade conservative evangelicals to adopt a more positive stance toward other faiths, we have to do more than operating out of our own intuitions and pointing to various biblical passages, particular theologies, the citation of facts and statistics, or public shaming by claiming that conservatives aren't living up to their faith. We've seen that because of the way our cognitive processes work such practices will be ineffective. When we do this, people will simply look for ways to reject our alternative approach and look for biblical texts and reasons to reinforce their prior views. Instead, we have to recognize the perspective of conservative evangelicals and their concerns, and then empathetically work through their moral intuitions and foundations, appealing to the emotions, the intuitions, as well as their reasoning. We have to be strategic in our work in multi-faith engagement, and that includes accounting for the process of post hoc theologizing.

John Morehead