10 December 2022

Can a psychological theory help us understand how we relate to God?

Autonomy, relatedness, and competence are the three needs in Self-Determination Theory. Picture: iStock

By Christa McKirland

20 June 2022

Psychology is often associated with a secular understanding of human thought and behaviour. In this article, Dr Christa L. McKirland explains how a dialogue between Christian belief and psychology can in fact move us toward a healthier relationship with God. 

When you think about your needs, what comes to mind? Naturally we think of food, water, and shelter. But what about your mental, emotional, and even spiritual needs? And what even qualifies as a need instead of a want?  

In current philosophical treatments of “need”, whatever the need is, its fulfilment should contribute to well-being and its unfulfillment should contribute to harm. A similar idea of fulfilment through non-physical needs is found in psychology’s Self-Determination Theory, which identifies three needs as being universal for human beings: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. 

My own theological work has also proposed a specific psycho-spiritual need as fundamental to all humankind. I have proposed this need as being to have a relationship with God in which we know God personally, rather than knowing God as a list of facts. The term “psycho-spiritual” seeks to maintain the importance of the human body including the mind, while also recognising that what satisfies this need is ultimately not physical.  

So, for a second think about account our psycho-spiritual need and the question of how psychology and Christian belief might help each other. Taking these into account, is it possible that needs for autonomy and relatedness have overlap with this need to know God personally? What might theology and psychology learn from each other in light of this question? 

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The benefit of theology for psychology is clear, because a psycho-spiritual need goes beyond the purely psychological and theology focuses on God and all things related to God. In other words, there are certain needs that psychology will be ill-equipped to engage with on its own, as a siloed discipline. 

On the other hand, the benefits of what psychology can bring to theology are only beginning to be explored. It is here that the concept of autonomy provides a much-needed touchpoint. This touchpoint has its challenges though. One challenge is how necessary it is to reconcile the different understandings of “autonomy” between psychology and theology. In theology autonomy is a controversial topic because it is typically thought of as independence from others – so it understandably has a rather self-centred feel.  

But the way it is understood within psychology’s self-determination theory may provide fertile soil for integration. This theory was proposed in the 1980s and has since gone through international testing and scrutiny, but has only been engaged theologically since 2013. Even then the engagement has been minimal. In self-determination theory, autonomy means being the source of one’s actions: basically it is the idea that “I am the one willingly raising my arm”. Importantly, autonomy is conditioned by relatedness. In other words, if I believe someone is relating to me in an autonomous way, wherein they don’t have to relate to me but want to relate to me, this deepens my relationship with them. Further, the need to be the source of my own actions will mean choosing to move toward relationships. So, in self-determination theory, to flourish I need to satisfy my needs for autonomy and relatedness. Autonomy enriches relatedness and relatedness enriches autonomy. Where the integration with theology may prove fruitful is that these psychological needs can also condition the psycho-spiritual need for a personal relationship with God.  

For instance, we could relate to God as if God is a controlling father. This would technically meet the psycho-spiritual need of relating to God personally. However, if I believe that God is not controlling, how could that affect the health of my relationship with God? When people believe God wants them to make decisions and that they do indeed have the autonomy or agency to do so, such a perception contributes to their flourishing. This is born out in studies that have shown what we believe about God affects our flourishing. The first study of its kind into integrating self-determination theory with theology reported that when God is perceived as meeting needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness, lower symptoms of depression and stress were reported among Christian participants. A later study agreed, finding that: “the idea of an autonomy-supporting God is related with vitality, via the mediation of needs satisfaction, whereas a controlling God is connected with depression, through the mediational role of frustration”. The need for autonomy is thwarted when a person believes that God is controlling and will withdraw love if the person steps out of line.  

In contrast, studies published by Sebastiano Costa and his team argue those who viewed God as one who supports autonomy understood God as inclined to give them the opportunity to choose from various ways of being religious. So, these studies argued, they would consider God aware of human weaknesses and acknowledging of an individual’s perspective, or empathetic. 

Read more: Are we slaves to our genes?

This understanding of God is especially salient within the Christian faith considering the incarnation. To have a God who freely chose to become human and thereby enter human weaknesses provides theological justification for belief in an autonomy-supporting God. We might think of other examples of God endorsing human agency, for instance, putting the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden (even if this is purely a theological narrative), or giving the Law that it might be followed. 

What this means is that the psychological theory of Self-Determination could supplement our theological understanding of how we relate to God. Of course, it’s another matter if God is in fact controlling – but theologically there are many reasons to believe this is not the case. God can be in control without being controlling. 

One challenge is to appreciate the limitations of both theology and psychology as disciplines if we are seeking to bring the two together to consider the topic of humanity’s proposed fundamental psycho-spiritual need. Psychology cannot tell us if God is supportive of a human being’s autonomy, or if our need for autonomy would exist if we weren’t in a sinful context. Still, it can tell us how understandings of God bear upon the believer’s psycho-spiritual well-being. On the other hand, theology has the disciplinary task of speaking about who God is, how God relates to this world and how this world is meant to relate back to God, partial though that may be. This would include thinking about whether we might need autonomy regardless of human sinfulness. 

Although the tasks of psychology and theology have their respective domains, bringing theology and psychology together illustrates the importance of thinking deeply about our beliefs. What we think of God affects how we relate to God, what we think of ourselves, and how we live our lives. Thinking through our beliefs about God has consequences for how we live in the world. How we talk about God in our church contexts and how we model who God is in our actions really do matter.  

Dr McKirland is a lecturer in systematic theology at Carey Baptist College in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is also the executive director of Logia International, an organisation that encourages women to pursue postgraduate divinity education in order to enrich the academy and the church. 

The topic of this article was presented last year at the ISCAST–NZCIS Conversations, an online series where experts present on themes at the science-faith interface. A link to the completed series is: bit.ly/3n154VC 

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