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The Table Video

Justin Barrett

Thriving: Kids, Spirituality, Social Networks, and Born Believers [Justin Barrett From the Table #7]

Thrive Professor of Developmental Science and Professor of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary / Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development
September 26, 2014

In October 2013, we invited cognitive psychologist Justin Barrett to brave the traffic between Pasadena and La Mirada, and he made the drive in record time. But more importantly, once he was here, Justin shared about the work he’s been up to in his own research and among a group of other researchers in psychology, cognitive science, sociology and theology at Fuller’s Thrive Center for Human Development. In this interview, we asked him about spirituality in childhood development (especially related to introducing young children to talking to and thinking about God), the bloated social networks that affect spiritual communities (especially surrounding pastors), and our apparently inborn inclination to believe in God.


Justin: Okay, are you ready?

Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.

Hi, I’m Justin Barrett. I am the Thrive professor of Developmental Science at Fullers Graduate School of Psychology. And director of the Thrive Center for Human Development. [kids laughing and chattering] Spiritual formation isn’t something just for adults, but it actually can and maybe should begin early in childhood, maybe even 3-4 year olds. They already have the capacity to think about God.

They already have almost an impulse to think about supernatural beings and to account for why things are the way they are, and how things work in the world around them, and to make meaning of their experience. And they are really incline to make sense of it in terms of something like God. So they’ve got that natural capacity that then can be cultivated. I think it’s important for churches not to think that the only thing I can do with kids is tell them keep bible stories that have moral lessons, but to engage them with the mind of God.

How does God think that might be different than how they think. What is God’s perspective on their life? And the life of those around them? On events in the world around them. How can they start having practicing interactions with God? Not only do I think they’re capable of this sort of thought. I think that kind of engagement might actually be good for their personal development, both their religious development, but also just their social cognitive development. [orchestra music]

There’s evidence that thinking about others who have different perspectives in their own, who look at things in different way, who feel something differently, who know different things, is good for developing their social intelligence and just their ability to navigate the world around them and the different kinds of people that their going to engage with. And while God is a really interesting test case in that so thinking about God, engaging with God, and God’s differences from our own, may help stretch them and build up those muscles for thinking about other people who have different perspectives than they do.

And maybe loosen up that idea that I am the center of the world and how I think is the way everyone else thinks and what I think is right and wrong is what everybody else thinks. That God helps gives us a different perspective, sometimes erratically a different perspective on that. I think that’s healthy for kids, from a very young age to begin engaging with those kinds of issues.

Man: We Americans is something new and new generations of us are developing. Playing together, growing together, learning together. I certainly think humility is a big part of this process. It’s understanding that not only might someone see something differently than I do or think something differently than I do, I could be wrong about these things.

Their perspective might actually capture more of the truth than mine, and certainly we can do with a whole lot more humility in, well in all of us today, starting with a child isn’t a bad strategy. And so I think that’s one of the really important lessons here is don’t wait. Don’t wait before engaging kids in God talk and really developing their personal relationship with God, that can start really early. [elevator music]

One of the projects we’re working on in the Thrive Center, four right now, concerns what we’re calling “relational capacity,” and its implications for relational style and ministries. One of the things, one of these findings from, actually evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary psychology, appears to be that humans have a limited number of personal relationships that they can develop. People that we can know on an individual basis, that we can emotionally connect with.

And build a relationship of trust, and that limitation, on average, appears to be around 150 people. It’s sometimes called “Dunbar’s Number” if you google it. So this number of personal relationships we can maintain, is sometimes called “Dunbar’s Number” because of Robin Dunbar’s work in this area on our social networks.

It’s very unusual for people to deliberately go out and cultivate more personal relationships than they can manage in this regard. Relational ministers try to do this and that’s the subject of our study. One of things we’re finding already, even though the study is not complete, is it looks like, at least a lot of youth ministers, and other relational ministers in the United States, have very unusual shape of social networks. They actually seem to be investing a whole lot in a smaller number of people, at the expense of a full size relational network.

These are predominant youth ministers in America, and in churches. Seem to have way too many intimate relationships. Too many in the sense that it, abnormally large. Now, just because they have them, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, by itself maybe it’s a good thing, but previous research suggests that we typically have an inner circle of close trusting relationships of about 5 people, and the next ring out of intimacy around 15 people, and what we’re finding in youth ministers is that on average that inner ring is closer to about 9 people, so about twice the 5 that we would expect, and that next ring is about 25 people, so we see this really swollen inner rings of number of people that feel really intimately- sorry, feel real intimate relationships with and having that high degree of trust.

Maybe that’s a good thing, but it turns out that having those sort of swollen inner rings of relationships, also does lead to, it appears, smaller total number of relationships, and so maybe their total number of people supporting them, their active social network is actually, shrinks to accommodate these sort of swollen inner rings. It’s too soon to tell what the personal costs are, for having this unusual, unnaturally shaped social network.

But it does raise some cautions I think for how the church goes about doing ministry in many cases, in that we can actually be pressuring ministers and maybe even congregates to have too many intimate relationships than they’re actually naturally equipped to handle. And so they can feel that pressure of “I have to have more, I have to have more relationships.” And that can be a stressor, it can be a negative thing, it would lead to burnout and other kinds of social problems. But this work on social networks also suggest that within a network of, let’s say 150 people, seems to be the right place to really engage in spiritual formation.

To really challenging encourage each other in our spiritual growth. But our churches, of course, obviously gotten bigger than that, and so a really interesting problem for the contemporary church in America and elsewhere to deal with is how do we build those communities of trust in which real personal and spiritual growth can take place? If our communities are bigger than Dunbar’s Numbers seems to allow them. Today congregates signs of religion seems to show that we got natural receptiveness toward the belief in god’s generally, and not necessarily God capital “G” in particular.

And so we might worry, does that somehow explain away God or just put God on equal footing with all these other gods? And of course that is a really big question, but that we’ve identified psychological dynamics that encourage people who believe in God, of course, shouldn’t threaten belief in God at all, it doesn’t explain away anymore so than identifying the psychological dynamics for why it is I believe my wife loves me means she doesn’t love me, or why it is that I think I love my children means that I don’t love my children, that just doesn’t follow.

We are natural beings and, of course, there are going to be natural mechanisms for how we think about God, and how we come to believe in God. And what’s striking to me is how resonate some of the findings from Cardinal Science are with Christian theology.

Think of it this way that if it is the case that we are created to be in loving relationships with God, then of course we would expect to find signs of that in our nature. Our nature, maybe even by virtue of common grace or however you want to talk about it theologically would equip us with a natural receptivity or a tendency toward belief in God and that’s what the science is finding.

So far from being an explained in a way of belief in God, I think we can see the signs says support of other kinds of theological propositions that we already have in embedded grounds for believing.