The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love by Matthew Lee, Ph.D., Margaret M. Poloma, Ph.D., and Stephen G. Post, Ph.D. {Preview}

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Oxford University Press, USA (December 12, 2012)
***Special thanks to Rick Roberson for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Matthew T. Lee, Ph.D.


Matthew Lee, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair in the Department of Sociology, University of Akron. He is Vice President of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love and served as Vice President of the Center for Restorative Justice of North Central Ohio. He is the founding editor of Altruism, Morality, & Social Solidarity Forum, the forum for scholarship and newsletter for the Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity Section of the American Sociological Association. He is also Chair-Elect of that section. His more than 50 publications include The Science and Theology of Godly Love and Godly Love: Impediments and Possibilities (both co-edited with Amos Yong). He serves on the Board of Directors for the Commission on the Accreditation of Programs in Applied and Clinical Sociology and he is an ad hoc reviewer for the National Science Foundation. His most recent work focuses on altruism/love, with earlier studies addressing crime and deviance. He was the project director and co-principal investigator on the “Flame of Love” Project, which focuses on the “Great Commandment”-loving and knowing God’s love and then reaching out to love others.

Margaret M. Poloma, Ph.D.


Margaret Poloma, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology, University of Akron. She has written extensively about religious experience in contemporary American society including pioneering studies on prayer, Pentecostalism, contemporary revivals, and divine healing. Much of this work has focused on diverse Pentecostal spiritualties (i.e., denominational Pentecostal, Charismatic, Third Wave, Neo-Pentecostal, etc.) as reported in Charismatic Movement; The Assemblies of God at the Crossroad; Main Street Mystics; Blood and Fire (with Ralph W. Hood); and The Assemblies of God (with John C. Green). Her pioneering research on prayer (c.f., Varieties of Prayer with George H. Gallup Jr.) has served as a bridge between Pentecostal spirituality and common spiritual experiences of American Christians through data collected in two national surveys (1989 and 2009). Through the use of both qualitative and quantitative measures to explore the experiential dimension of religion, Poloma’s work suggests that religious experience does indeed impact human behaviour. She was a co-principal investigator on the “Flame of Love” Project.

Stephen G. Post, Ph.D.


Stephen Post, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics in the School of Medicine, Stony Brook University (SUNY). From 1998 through 2008 he was Professor of Bioethics, Philosophy, and Religion in the School of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University. Post is Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 3rd edition (Macmillan Reference, 2004). He is President of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, founded in 2001 with a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation and devoted to high-level scientific research on unselfish love. Post received his Ph.D. in ethics from the University of Chicago Divinity School (1983), where he was an elected university fellow, a member of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion, and a preceptor in the Pritzker School of Medicine. He served as a co-principal investigator on the “Flame of Love” Project. His work on love spans three decades.

Visit the authors’ website.

SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:

What is the true heart of religion? If you could boil down all the precepts, spiritual laws, and values of religion today into a tasty, take-home nugget, what would you find? What would religion lived out in daily life actually look like? Two social scientists and a theologian have done extensive research to determine that, and their results are extremely revealing.

Co-authors Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post have written The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love (December 2012, Oxford University Press), which explores the effects of the experience of love in the Christian tradition in America. They offer compelling examples of how receiving God’s love, loving God, and expressing this love to others has made a difference in the world and given a deeper significance to the lives of millions of Americans.

This new book is a fascinating narrative about how Americans “wake up” to the reality of divine love through an experience with God and then attempt to express his love to others through daily benevolent acts. The authors say, “That is the heart of religion . . . . Our aim was to investigate the relationship between spiritual empowerment, benevolence, and the experience of God’s love in America.”

Product Details:
List Price: $29.95
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (December 12, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0199931887
ISBN-13: 978-0199931880

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Why Should We Care about Godly Love?

Encounters with God’s love are quite common in America. They can be transformative, both for individuals and their communities. At times the effects reverberate throughout the world. Our national survey reveals that eight out of ten Americans claim to have had such experiences, at least on occasion. Eighty-one percent of respondents acknowledged that they “experience God’s love as the greatest power in the universe,” and 83 percent said they “feel God’s love increasing their compassion for others.” In order to better understand these broad patterns, we interviewed over one hundred Christian men and women from all walks of life across the country who provided us with countless examples of how their experience of participating in God’s love, loving God, and expressing this love to other people has impacted their life and the lives of others. In this book and in a number of previous works, we have called this set of dynamic interactions godly love. Godly love is a scholarly concept and is related to the Christian “Great Commandment” of loving God above all and loving neighbor as oneself, but it also includes the additional elements of receiving God’s love and working with others in benevolent ways.

The twofold Great Commandment (see Matthew 22:36–40) directs Christians to love God and to love their neighbors as they love themselves. Godly love incorporates this but goes further, adding two additional components. First, one must experience God’s love in order to love others properly. This is the “New Commandment” articulated by Jesus in John 13:34–35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This aspect has been a major focus of some recent Christian teachings, which have replaced the image of God as an impassive, unmoved mover with the image of God as one who desires deep relationships and who suffers with people while lavishing an extravagant love upon them. The fourth component of godly love involves interacting with other people to realize not just one’s own vision of benevolence, but to work together to establish the Kingdom of God (as collectively defined) on earth. To illustrate this somewhat complicated concept, we begin with a simple story.

Love Can Change the World—or at Least a Piece of It

When we conducted an interview with German missionary Klaus Kugler, we were not aware that he was one of the unnamed “missionary friends” cited by Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond described the Fayu of New Guinea much as Klaus had during his interview: at that time they consisted of about four hundred hunter-gathers who had formerly numbered about two thousand, “but their population had been greatly reduced as a result of Fayu killing Fayu.” Diamond also mentioned that “one group of Fayu invited a courageous husband-and-wife missionary couple to live with them. The couple has now resided there for a dozen years and gradually persuaded the Fayu to renounce violence.” Diamond’s account of New Guinea was undoubtedly enriched by Klaus and his wife’s knowledge about the Fayu, and he probably saw no cause to mention the details that Klaus shared with us. Different people tell the same story differently and for varying purposes. But the details not presented in Diamond’s report of how peace came to the Fayu provide a good illustration of how godly love unfolds in the real world. It demonstrates how this love can change the world—or at least a piece of it. Klaus began his interview with the same story he had told earlier in the day at a local church in northeastern Ohio one November morning as we—Matthew, Margaret, and Stephen—were beginning to write this book.

At one point in the 1980s when we had first come to Irian Jaya [West Papua New Guinea], members of the local tribe were breaking into our household while we would go shopping for supplies. They would break in with their stone axes and steal all kinds of stuff—like children’s clothing. I don’t know what they would do with it; they would just take it. Finally we said, “Lord, we have to come to you; we don’t know what else to do. They are breaking into our house. What should we do?” And he said to us, “When they take your cloak, give them your coat also; if they take your goods, do not ask for them back.” I could not believe it. Everything in me said “No! No!” You see, our Father is never pushing us. You asked the question; that is the answer. You make the decision.

Then one day we made the decision. We said, “We want to do it.” So I went to a boy who I knew was stealing. I didn’t want to scare or frighten him; he was testing me with his bow and arrow. I said, “I know you have broken into my house, and I am here to tell you that I love you. I am not angry with you. And because you have broken into my house, I will give you this knife on top of all you have taken.” He looked at me and then looked at the knife. He didn’t understand it; but honestly, I didn’t understand it either. But that is it—to show them that your love is not centered around material things but it is centered somewhere else.

Margaret heard Klaus share with the Sunday morning congregation details about his recent return visit with the Fayu, after having left Irian Jaya some years earlier. She decided to return for the evening service to learn more. She was struck by Klaus’s account that demonstrated how one person’s “hearing” from God can have dramatic social effects in a community—effects of spiritual experiences on the natural world that the research team had been studying for nearly three years. In response to a request Margaret made to the church member who was hosting Klaus, the missionary agreed to interview with her. As Margaret and Klaus shared a late-night meal at a local restaurant, Klaus would further develop his story. This opening account, he went on to say, “was only the beginning”; the main breakthrough would come a few months later.

The chief’s teenage son came by, and I had a big chunk of crocodile meat over the fire. He was hungry, and he was just about to take the meat to run. But I caught him in the nick of time and said, “Young man, this is my meat. Put it back on the fire” (which he did). But his father was so angry with him that I could hear him yelling for miles against his son—because he didn’t know what I might want to do with him. When they steal among themselves, you get shot with an arrow. So we [Klaus and his wife] were talking—what would we do? Obviously he is afraid of me. My wife then wrapped a big chunk of meat in a piece of paper and said, “Go over there and give it to him.” And I did. He was at first hiding in the jungle (he was afraid), but then he came out. And I was able to say in his language [Klaus spoke in the indigenous tongue]—that means, “My heart is not angry with you. I love you; I have forgiven you; and I want you to receive this piece of meat—only for you.” And I gave him the meat. He looked at me and then looked at his dad—and it was so (how shall I say it) so outside the normal experience because in these moments something significant happened. Something penetrated their culture—the principle of love and forgiveness.

And then the Holy Spirit spoke to me. He said, “Klaus, you want to translate my word (the Bible) and you think it takes twenty years.” And I thought, “Yes, that is what all the linguistics books say.” And the Lord said, “No. From the first day you were here you were translating it.” And I said, “But, Lord, I can hardly speak the language.” And he said, “You don’t need to. You are translating my word through your life.”

This short narrative illustrates how a godly love might inform the ways in which people respond to life’s biggest questions:

What is my purpose in life?
How should I respond to those who harm me?
What are my responsibilities to others?
How am I to live in a conflict-ridden world?
Who is my neighbor?
Where can I turn for support in my hour of desperation, when circumstances seem to make little sense?

Perhaps the most important question is this: do experiences of God’s love actually move a person to have a truly helpful effect on the lives of others? Plenty of evil has been done in the name of God and religion—one need only conjure a mental image of suicide bombers or what some have called “toxic churches” to grasp this obvious point—so what good is religious experience for making the world a better place? Is there a true religion of love to be contrasted with a false religion of hate?

We learned a great deal about how deeply spiritual people respond to such questions through the rich interview narratives we collected from over one hundred exemplars of notably self-giving lives. The wisdom we gained from these interviews helped us to develop a national survey on the relationship between religious experience and benevolence. These two sources of data, along with previous research, provide the empirical foundation for the central arguments of this book—a book that is less concerned with the external shell of “religion” (social networks, religious organizations, denominational creeds) and more focused on the inner experience of lived religion. This is what we have called the “heart” of religion: the dynamic and emotionally powerful experience of a radically loving, radically accepting God that provides the energy for religious social networks and institutions. Ongoing encounters with divine love motivate many people to engage in the benevolent service of others, with the help of other people. This is not often recognized in contemporary discourse on benevolence, or even religion. Our book seeks to establish a new dialogue on this neglected topic.

Consider the words of Klaus Kugler that you just read. How would you have responded to a thief in a similar circumstance? Would you have responded in anger or love? Would you have acted on a desire for retribution, or would you have also given more of your possessions to the thief as an expression of unconditional love? Klaus was not fully certain at the time why he responded the way he did. His generosity seems like a reflex. He was clearly influenced by his wife, who suggested to Klaus that he offer the chief’s son more meat, in addition to what he had stolen, as an act of radical love. Perhaps Klaus also had experiences with God and other people earlier in his life that might have conditioned his spontaneous expression of a love that, in his words, “is not centered around material things but it is centered somewhere else.” In our overly cognitive social discourse, we do not talk about people like Klaus very often. Nor do we try to deeply understand why they engage in such counterintuitive actions. In The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, David Brooks has written about the “intellectual revolution” currently occurring in some segments of the scientific community. This revolution has dethroned the “conscious mind from its privileged place at the center of human behavior”—a shift in thinking equivalent to the one that occurred after Galileo demonstrated that the earth was not the center of the universe. This is not to suggest that rational thought, or the more general external approach to understanding religion, are unimportant. They are essential. But there is more to the story.

As a German missionary to an exceptionally violent and isolated tribe in a remote part of New Guinea, Klaus, his wife, and their young children had the explicit intention of sharing God’s love with a group of people who had had virtually no contact with the outside world for thousands of years. This group of people had escaped the seemingly ubiquitous reach of globalization and maintained a prehistoric lifestyle. At first Klaus did not understand their language or customs and given their violent ways this could have proved fatal. In an early encounter, Klaus watched in horror as men from two rival tribes engaged in a war dance which put them in a trancelike state that escalated into violence and ultimately culminated in brutal killings on both sides. As weeks turned to months, Klaus tried in vain to prevent the tribe from routinely stealing from his family. Catching the boy stealing a piece of meat, described above, provided an opportunity to solve this previously intractable problem. The boy’s father expected Klaus to exact the appropriate penalty for stealing: death. Instead, despite his anger and not feeling fully in control of his actions, Klaus took a page from Jesus’s playbook and—at the suggestion of his wife—responded by giving the boy an additional piece of meat. This display of unconditional love bewildered the tribe and served as a turning point in their relationship. According to Klaus, the tribe became eager to know more about the God who inspired such selfless giving. The horrors of the traditional war dance were replaced by an unexpected dance with the divine; peace now reigns among the members of this tribe.

As our study of godly love has continued to unfold over the past five years, we have been continually astonished by the ways that our findings revealed dimensions of the relationship between religious experience and benevolent service that have largely escaped sustained scholarly and popular attention up to this point. The reader might also be surprised by the following findings:

“Prayer” is a richly textured religious phenomenon that has been largely overlooked by social scientists. Although nearly nine out of ten Americans say they pray (a figure that has not changed much over the past sixty years for which data exist), some forms of prayer (devotional, prophetic, mystical) are more empowering than others. A few virtuoso pray-ers have integrated multiple forms of prayer to great effect and benevolence might be better served by this holistic approach.
A spiritual transformation rooted in divine love is often intertwined with significant suffering. Both appear important as an individual makes the switch from self-interested goals to a life of serving others. In the process, the meaning of “well-being” is fundamentally redefined and enhanced. Suffering often persists after the transformation and continues to play an important role in benevolence. Although some religious subcultures have avoided or downplayed the centrality of suffering to the human condition, many of our interviewees continue to unflinchingly—and constructively—confront this issue.
Anger at God is a normal part of the process of experiencing divine love and engaging in benevolence. Far from indicating lack of health in the human/divine relationship, anger—at a certain dose—is a signal that a deep relationship exists and is worth fighting for.
Discussion of religion and spirituality often turns on the issue of belief. Cognitions are important, but the affective side of the human condition is often ignored. Our work shows that emotionally powerful experiences are key, and they often reshape beliefs. Our interviewees generally moved in one direction: discarding a judgmental image of God picked up during childhood socialization in favor of a loving and accepting representation of God that is more consistent with their direct, personal, and affectively intense experiences. Creeds evolve as people repeatedly encounter the loving presence of God in the midst of a suffering world.
But perhaps our single, most important finding concerns the extent to which experiences of divine love are related to a life of benevolent service. For many Americans, the two are inseparable. And indeed, repeated experiences of divine love can provide the energy for a “virtuous circle” in which a positive feedback loop that fosters increasingly intense or effective acts of benevolence. This holds across religious and social groups. Whether liberal or conservative; male or female; young or old; black, white, or Latino; or Amish, Episcopal, or Pentecostal, powerful experiences of God’s love motivate, sustain, and expand benevolence.

Our approach was to collect diverse narratives from across the political, social, and religious spectrum, and our national survey was open to all Americans whether or not they were religious. From this initial diversity, some group differences turned out to be especially important in shaping the nature of godly love. A major purpose of this book is to better understand these differences while not losing sight of the common finding that unites these groups.

Rumors of Angels?
In much of American society there is a reluctance to share personal experiences of God’s love. Much like sex in the early half of the twentieth century—before Alfred Kinsey released his two books on human sexuality—talking about personal experiences of the divine is off limits. It appears that many media producers—journalists, authors, playwrights, and scholars alike—may themselves be uncomfortable with the topic, so few have sought to explore the depths of American spirituality and the effects it can have on society. We are not talking about the taboo that instructs us to refrain from talking about religion and politics in polite company, but rather about the silence that seems to encompass sharing details about an affectively intense, personal relationship with God.

Debates about deity are hardly new to human history, but they have intensified with the development of modernity with its focus on scientific rationality as a foundation of all knowledge. This is a common trope in modern literature. Leo Tolstoy’s classic nineteenth-century novel Anna Karenina (made popular for a new generation through Oprah’s Book Club in 2004) provides one example. Konstantin Levin, a main character in the novel, and often regarded as Tolstoy’s fictional alter ego, received “unquestionable knowledge,” which was “revealed, inconceivable to reason,” directly to his “heart” by God. The Russian peasants Tolstoy so admired were quite familiar with this heart knowledge; aristocrats like Levin (and a young Tolstoy) found it harder to accept.

Four years after Anna Karenina made the New York Times best-seller list and as we began working on our research project, a cultural phenomenon known as The Shack was exploding. As we write these lines in May 2011, this novel has sold over 10 million copies in thirty-four languages. It has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 138 consecutive weeks (52 at number one) and was ranked as the best-selling book of 2008 by Nielsen. Written over a century after Anna Karenina—and in much more prosaic prose, to put it mildly—The Shack has resonated with the people of Main Street while remaining virtually unknown to most scholars in the Ivory Tower.

Part of the appeal of The Shack is that it depicts God the Father as a black matronly woman, simultaneously compassionate, loving, and wise, an image that has connected in a deeply personal way with millions of readers around the globe. Through this fictional account many were able to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the undeniable reality of evil in the world. It achieved this goal, not through theological exegesis, but by imagining how a loving God might be a co-participant in suffering with people. In short, the book focused on relationships—a deep, committed, and emotionally intense relationship between a compassionate God and, in the case of the novel, a suffering father whose daughter was brutally murdered by a serial killer. By the end of the novel, the father has compassion for the killer and knows that God is not absent during his worst experiences. Therein lies hope. Shack author W. Paul Young, a son of missionaries and former janitor, himself found such hope and shared it through his best-selling fictional account.

As a young child Paul was raised by his Canadian missionary parents among a Stone Age tribe near the part of what was New Guinea (West Papua) where Klaus Kugler would later follow his calling. Paul’s life was scarred by sexual abuse, and he himself became an abuser while attending a Christian boarding school. Although always religious (he even founded a small church), he was haunted by his past. His spiritual awakening that brought the healing of a loving God to his tortured soul paralleled that of the main character in The Shack. An interviewer summarized Paul Young’s awakening to God’s love as follows: “[Young] found healing through relationships—with people and with God. But he said his religion failed him. ‘Religion won’t heal us. Religion can’t.’” Loving relationships with people and with God rather than religion—this is the theme of The Heart of Religion. Like The Shack, this book reflects the spiritual revolution that has occurred in American culture as the dominant image of God has shifted from a divinity who is the creator of hellfire and brimstone to a God who is love. The Heart of Religion lifts the shroud around common religious experiences that are both personally life-changing and deeply transforming for some communities.

In the Beginning: Studying Godly Love

With orange, red, and yellow leaves dancing in the gentle sunlit breeze, Margaret made the familiar drive to the bucolic village of Hudson, Ohio, on a beautiful autumn afternoon. Stephen and Margaret often chose to meet at a coffee shop conveniently located between their homes in Cleveland and Akron, one with big windows to frame the beauty of the day and an ambiance hospitable to intense discussion. They had met there a couple of times before to talk about doing research together on “nature and grace,” a shorthand phrase Stephen used to describe how God’s unlimited love might affect human behavior. In many ways, Stephen and Margaret were an odd couple, with his theologically trained mind ever soaring toward the big questions of life and Margaret’s sociological training forcing her feet to remain planted in a ground more amenable to scientific assessment. She would soon catch his vision, as each recognized the complementary gifts the other brought to the proposed project.

But something was still missing. Both were senior scholars and closer to the end of their careers than the beginning; the project needed the energy and insight from a member of a younger generation. For Margaret, Matthew seemed to be the perfect person, and he would be meeting Stephen for the first time this afternoon. Margaret had many intellectually stimulating exchanges with Matt, a sociologist who joined the faculty at the University of Akron as a specialist in criminology and whose office was across the hall from hers. Despite their dissimilar specialties—hers in religion and his in crime—they developed a friendship, and Matt would in time share his interest in developing a course in the sociology of love, partly as an antidote to the depressing effects of studying crime for a living. Margaret was confident that Matt was just the person needed to complete the team. A cordial introduction was followed by hours of discussion during which the autumn afternoon sun set with hardly a notice. Something new had begun as daylight faded into dusk; a theologian and two sociologists became partners in launching a new field of study around the core concept of godly love.

Exploring how ordinary mortals interact with God necessarily involves peering into a spiritual world that is shrouded in ambiguity and clothed with metaphor. Albeit from differing perspectives, Stephen, Margaret, and Matt shared awareness that such inquiry was seemingly mysterious and impenetrable with questions centering on issues of life and death, illusion and reality, time and eternity. Transcending the material world readily amenable to the five senses into a nonmaterial or spiritual world seemingly requires familiarity with another way of knowing as it seeks to deal with questions about the nature of God, the essence of love, and the meaning and purpose of life. The dominant materialistic worldview of modern humanity has put a particular spin on these cosmic concerns, but scientific skepticism and time-bound technologies have not silenced the sixth sense of spirituality that remains widespread in American society. Deep streams of spiritual energy still can be found beneath the materialistic surface of American culture to provide meaning and spiritual empowerment for at least two-thirds of Americans.

We have tried to capture some of this energy through interviews with 120 Christian exemplars of benevolence and their collaborators, like the one that produced the narrative by Klaus Kugler that opened this chapter. We interviewed well-known public figures—ranging from Anne Beiler, founder of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in American history, to Jim Wallis, best-selling author and spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama—as well as those who serve others in significant ways without ever receiving awards or public notice of any kind. Our interviewees represent the diversity of the US population, from conservatives like Beiler (who delivered a kickoff speech for the Republican National Convention in 2008) to liberals like Wallace or Leah Daughtry (the latter served as CEO of the 2008 Democratic National Convention Committee [DNC] and chief of staff to the DNC chair). We conducted interviews with people from different, age, racial/ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, holding a variety of theological, political, and social viewpoints.

Results from our wide-ranging qualitative data were used to develop a survey instrument to collect data from 1,208 randomly selected Americans from across the United States, supplemented by hundreds of more targeted surveys and interviews, to explore the relationship between spirituality and benevolence. The Godly Love National Survey (GLNS), illuminated by the thick description of in-depth interviews, provides a unique account that reflects the experiences of millions of spiritual and religious people who claim to have encountered the deep love of God and seek to share this love with others. The purpose of our book is not to prove the existence of God or to advance the position that religion-based benevolence is more effective or desirable than secular counterparts. Instead, we hope to initiate a conversation that is too often lacking about the role that religious and nonreligious experiences play in convincing people to try to help others and make the world a better place. We focus on Christianity because the vast majority of Americans self-identify as Christians—and because our research shows that their religious experiences do make a difference in their willingness to serve others. We need more in-depth studies of other traditions and the nonreligious in order to have a comprehensive dialogue, but this book is a starting point.

While there is little doubt that Americans live in a public culture that has been increasingly secularized, private spirituality continues to have a direct impact on individuals and communities. Scores of books have been written on “toxic churches,” with their rigid beliefs and sometimes harmful practices; but there is another side to the religious coin, namely, religious and spiritual experiences commonly promoted by churches that have positive influences on families, friendships, and communities. We believe that one (if not “the”) heartbeat found in this dynamic process of divine-human interaction is love—love that finds expression in the dialectical dance between God and humans. Indeed, as we were writing these words, the national magazine USA Weekend (which reaches 48 million Americans each weekend) arrived in our local newspapers. The cover story was “How Americans Imagine God.” The article notes that Americans have many different images of God and includes this quote:

No two are the same, and each is intensely personal and deeply passionate. Still, one gleaming, common thread weaves throughout: For Americans today, God, quite simply, is love. Christians, Hindus, Jews and Buddhists alike describe a loving presence who offers a pathway to goodness, peace, and brotherhood. Some imagine him, or her, as limitless energy; others, a force of nature as great as the ocean and as dear as a baby’s smile.

In an earlier work intended for theologians, social scientists, and others who may be concerned with the theoretical and methodological details that are foundational to our study, we used select qualitative interviews from our research to describe a process of divine-human interaction captured by our concept of godly love. In this new book, which aims for a broader audience, we build on our previous work by using nationally representative statistics from the GLNS and by making more thorough use of our interview data. We have had several years to reflect on our findings as part of a sustained dialogue with our larger research team, composed of nineteen prominent social scientists and theologians from a variety of traditions. We expect our findings will be of interest not only to professional scholars of religion and altruism but also to lay readers who may be less concerned with theories and methodologies than they are about how real people claim to have experienced God’s love and attempt to pass that love on to others. Our empirical research supports the thesis that a decided majority of Americans are engaged with divine love and this engagement positively affects not only their personal well-being, but also that of friends, families, and communities.

Although only our three names appear on the cover of this book, we would not have been able to collect our data and make sense of our results without the support of the aforementioned nineteen additional scholars from a variety of social science and theological disciplines who joined us as members of our extended research team. Their diverse perspectives have helped us develop an interdisciplinary perspective, and we will reference some of their important work that our grant funded throughout this book. The conversations we had about godly love with our research team helped us think through some of the initially puzzling findings we uncovered.

The concept of godly love may resonate with some readers, while others may have some reservations about it. To the skeptics, we respond that mythic tales, metaphysical treatises, and theological statements can influence human behavior and, when appropriate, should be factored into social scientific research. From a social psychological perspective, if spiritual realities are believed to be true, they can and do often have real consequences. Although the limitations of social science prevent researchers from judging the metaphysical truths claimed in different spiritualities, its methods do enable the investigation of the consequences of deeply held convictions and experiences. It is beyond the scope of science, for example, to prove the existence of God or the reality of a spiritual world; but the tools of social science do permit us to collect facts about religious beliefs and reports of spiritual experience, using them to explore possible consequences of the nonempirical. These findings should not be summarily dismissed (as often done in social science) by relabeling positive effects as “placebo” and negative ones as “pathology.” As we will demonstrate throughout this book, experiences, even spiritual experiences that cannot be proven, do appear to produce lasting consequences that can be identified and assessed.

Is Godly Love Alive and Well in America?

Experiencing the love of God is the heart of religion. Unlike the love described in a well-known Shakespearean sonnet, however, most human perceptions of love—even divine love—do not involve “an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” According to Wayne Jacobsen, one of our interviewees as well as an author and public speaker who played a major role in the editing and publishing of The Shack, human understanding of divine love is often more like a child engaged in tearing the petals off a daisy—“God loves me, he loves me not.” Wayne describes his thirty-four years of “daisy-petal Christianity” as being like “the schizophrenic child of an abusive father, never certain what God I’d met on a given day.” Statistics, collected as they are at one point in time, are always more fixed than the dynamic stories told by interviewees. Yet statistics play an important role in supporting our thesis that experiencing God’s love has important implications for benevolence by providing a skeletal framework of numbers for our broader story about godly love.

Select figures from the GLNS will give the reader a sense of the importance of spiritual phenomena within the context of American culture. The United States is more religious (regardless of whether the dimension is private devotion, public ritual, or religious experiences) than other Western countries, including Canada. Increasingly, however, the term “religion” itself has come under question. From the pens of militant atheists to daily news reports, religion often has been presented in a negative light. Even some conservative evangelical Christians have come to denounce “religion” as a dark spirit that corrupts “true faith,” as they warn believers to beware of harboring a “religious spirit” of self-righteous laws and legalisms. Suddenly a question asked in surveys for decades—“How religious are you?”—has become suspect, forcing scholars through the painful process of sorting out spirituality (spiritual practices and experiences) from religion (rituals, doctrine, and organizations). Judging from our survey responses, however, for most Americans being “spiritual” and being “religious” appear to be nearly analogous terms.

As found in our national survey, religion is reported to be important for 83 percent of the American adult population; the corresponding figure for the importance of spirituality is 88 percent. There is, as these figures suggest, a high correlation between the two concepts. For example, 82 percent of those who say that religion is extremely important in their lives also claim that spirituality is extremely important. Whatever else they may be, the clear majority of contemporary Americans tend to consider themselves to be highly religious and spiritual. For some analytical purposes it is useful to separate religion and spirituality, but the statistical differences, as we will see, are negligible. In order to provide an introduction to the survey findings, we compare those who are both very religious and very spiritual (58 percent) with Americans who are neither religious nor spiritual (9 percent).

Spirituality and religiosity in America are commonly linked to a personal relationship with a loving God. Almost half (45 percent) of all Americans feel God’s love at least once a day, and 83 percent have this experience at least “once in a while.” This finding will play an important role in our analyses, as many previous works have not assessed religious experiences in terms of love. Those reporting to be more highly spiritual and religious are also more likely to have regular experiences of a loving God. It is fair to conclude that not only do Americans claim to be highly religious and highly spiritual but also that the clear majority experience God’s love. According to our survey findings, being religious and spiritual provides an important context for considering the big questions of life. Those who reported that they are highly religious and spiritual also contend that they have a clear sense of the purpose of their lives. For example, nearly all (98 percent) of those who report that religion and spirituality are very important to them agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I have a strong sense of purpose that directs my life.” The figures for those who claimed to be neither religious nor spiritual dropped to 68 percent.

The effects of spirituality/religion do not stop with feel-good personal experiences. We also noted that the experience of God’s love was believed to increase compassion for others. A clear majority of all survey respondents (83 percent) acknowledged that they “felt God’s love increasing their compassion for others,” and 53 percent claimed this is an experience they have “on most days” or more often. Perhaps not surprisingly, self-identifying as religious and spiritual, regularly sensing God’s love and a strong sense of existential well-being are all statistically related to reports that feeling God’s love increases compassion for others. In other words, the awareness of God’s love not only fuels a sense of personal meaning and purpose but it also seems to stoke the fires of compassion.

But can these subjective perceptions lead to acts of benevolence? To put the question another way: do experiences of the divine actually have a helpful effect on the lives of others—can they make our world a better place in which to live? This is a central question and is a theme that will be developed through interview narratives and the presentation of survey findings in the chapters that follow. However, we would like to provide a sneak preview of some statistics that bear on our guiding question—an appetizer for the full-course analysis that follows. Our results suggest that these self-described personal attributes and experiences may indeed bear the fruit of good works.

Survey respondents were asked whether they went out of their way “to assist people in my community who are struggling,” whether they “often come to the aid of a stranger who seemed to be having difficulty,” and whether they “regularly provide financial support to local charities.” A Community Benevolence scale, composed of the answers to those three questions, is the measure of good works employed in this preliminary examination. Based on what statisticians call bivariate analysis (studying the relationship between two variables), we found a significant statistical relationship between experiences of divine love and community benevolence. Those who score higher on the Divine Love scale are also likely to score higher on community outreach; those who score lower on community outreach are also likely to score lower on divine love.1 For example, 42 percent of those who scored low on the Community Benevolence scale also scored low on the Divine Love scale, compared with 12 percent who scored low on divine love and high on community benevolence.

We tested these preliminary findings further by using multivariate analysis. Multiple regression analysis permits the simultaneous use of more than one indicator (“independent variables”) that may have an effect on our outcome measure or “dependent variable.” Our big research question, as we have noted, centers on the relationship between spirituality and benevolence. Bivariate analysis shows that there is indeed a positive relationship between experiencing God’s love and community benevolence. Multivariable analysis allows us to test for other possible “causes” of benevolence. Perhaps it is “really” age or gender that is “causing” this finding. Perhaps older people and women were more likely to be included in the sample, were more likely to be benevolent and also “happened” to be spiritually inclined. Multivariate analysis, a technique we will use throughout our statistical assessment, is a procedure that allows us to determine whether perceptions of divine love is really contributing to benevolent actions—or whether benevolence is “caused” by something else (perhaps commonly used demographic measures). To test for such a possibility, we added the independent variables of age, gender, race, education, and income to the Divine Love scale to determine what effects demographic variables have an affect on community benevolence. The results of multiple regression analysis showed that of these six indicators—divine love, gender, age, income, education, and race—experiences of divine love is the most important factor in accounting for differences in community benevolence.

We believe we have a solid foundation with this and related findings to continue to develop our narrative about godly love. Experiencing God’s direct and personal love contributes to existential well-being and a greater compassion for others, which may further enhance benevolence. Although experiencing the love of God is not a necessary cause of benevolence, our survey finding suggests that a personal and experiential knowledge of God’s love is indeed an important factor that has been too long overlooked. Godly love does appear to be alive and well in America. In chapters to follow, we systematically analyze the results of our interview and survey data to further explore this idea.

An Overview of the Chapters

A personal and loving relationship with God has a ripple effect that affects both personal well-being and interpersonal relationships. This is the key to unlocking the analysis and presentation found in the chapters that follow. Chapter 2 considers adaptations shaped in part by demographic differences (like race, ethnicity, religious denomination, gender, education, and age), differences in worldview (naturalistic and spiritual), and different degrees of extensity in caring and compassion (from family/friends, to community, to all of humanity). The next four chapters focus on specific types of spiritual experiences and the roles they play in the unfolding of godly love.

Chapter 3 employs the survey findings to create a typology into which we classify the five primary exemplars whose narratives appear throughout our book. The typology consists of four distinct yet permeable categories that represent important patterns in the experience and expression of godly love: (1) Global Mystics, interviewees with high scores on both extensive benevolence and a spiritual/mystical worldview; (2) Global Planners, those with high scores on extensive benevolence but low on the spiritual worldview; (3) Local Mystics, those with low scores on extensive benevolence (although still highly benevolent at the local level) but high scores on the spiritual worldview; and (4) Local Planners, those with low scores on both extensive benevolence and spiritual worldview but high scores on benevolence at the local level. Chapter 4 focuses on spiritual transformation and personal experiences of a loving God. Spiritual transformation commonly begins in a quest for the sacred, often leading to the experience that Protestant evangelicals have called “being born again.” Being born again is one example of the broader social psychological concept known as “primary spiritual transformation.” Spiritual transformations, often accompanied by a persistent lifelong calling, are fortified with secondary changes in pathways that people take to the sacred. This chapter explores the statistical relationship between some select variables that reflect spiritual transformations, including being born again, a sense of divine call and destiny, and an accompanying sense of existential well-being.

Chapter 5 describes how godly love is energized through prayer that seemingly releases what sociologist Pitirim Sorokin has called “love energy.” As demonstrated through survey statistics and illustrated through the stories from the lives of exemplars, prayer is far more than a monolithic practice that can be measured (as it commonly is) by asking how often someone prays. Although active or devotional prayer is nearly universally practiced among American pray-ers, forms of receptive prayer are also quite common. Active prayer and two approaches to receptive prayer (prophetic and mystical) work together in deeper experiences of divine love. Chapter 6 explores how our respondents often were able to “see beyond circumstances” when faced with pain and suffering in ways that were self-sacrificial and self-affirming. Some forms of populist theology have tended to minimize suffering, but most of our interviewees confronted their pain directly, sometimes as expressed anger at God. Continuing to weave together survey data with narratives, chapter 6 describes three faces of holistic healing in relating to the divine—anger with God, inner or psychic wounds, and physical healing. Findings from the surveys and the enriching stories from the interviewees showed how joy and suffering could work together in strengthening an ongoing love relationship with God.

Clearly the loving relationship that the majority of Americans profess to enjoy with God is rich in detail and filled with dynamic interaction. The concluding three chapters develop the link between experiencing of divine love and benevolence that we identified as the major theme of our book. Chapter 7 focuses on the benevolent activities associated with godly love, especially as these are carried out with human partners. It shifts the spotlight away from personal experiences of divine love toward works of benevolence that are the fruit of both human and divine collaboration. Using the typology we created to select and classify the interviewees in an earlier chapter—as Servers (engaging in community service), Renewers (working to revive the church), and Changers (advocating peace and justice)—we examine further some basic differences found when comparing the three groups. Chapter 8 responds to the widespread concern, perhaps best articulated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, that “some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” Our national survey suggests that this concern is misplaced: regardless of how benevolence is measured, religious experiences (particularly those associated with divine love) are a catalyst for benevolence. Previous research has found religious helping networks to be important for benevolence, but this work has been unable to help us understand why. Our interviews help us understand the subjective nature of benevolence and how what actually “counts” as benevolent service varies across social and political groups. Our concluding chapter returns to the “big questions” that we raised at the beginning of the book and summarizes what we have learned from our research as we attempt to answer them. We find that cultural contexts are central to any assessment of spiritually empowered benevolence. In the next chapter, we begin to explore some of these contexts, particularly the spiritual worldview that is at the center of godly love.

Print Friendly

About CherryBlossomMJ

The Creative Madness Mama also known as Margaret is a Christian Stay-at-home Mama, married to the Enginerd, Quilter, avid reader and book-a-holic. A book blogger for bunches of different publicists. She loves to share the latest and greatest about books coming out as well as her quilt and other crafty projects with some pictures of her Kindergartener AppleBlossom, newborn Almond Blossom (the boy!) and toddler OrangeBlossom in between. Plotting to be a homeschooler, she's a cloth diapering, breastfeeding, babywearing, list making mama full of a little creative and a lot of madness.