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How Christian thinking can be fast and slow

14 March 2014

Influential theories of human cognition have a strong religious application, argues Nick Jowett

YOU ARE driving along, and you see a traffic queue ahead. Quick as a flash, not pausing to check what kind of a jam this is, you turn off on to an alternative route you know.

That is an example of System1 thinking, as described in the Nobel-Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane, 2011). If you saw the BBC2 Horizon programme (broadcast on 24 February), How You Really Make Decisions, you will realise that Professor Kahneman's theories of human cognition have been hugely influential, from the smallest everyday decisions, up to the strategies of macro-economics.

System 1 thinking is the fast thinking, when we react quickly and make intuitive decisions and responses, in many cases correctly. But there is also System 2 thinking, when we take time and use research or reasoning to come to a conclusion; that is the slow thinking.

Yet System 1 is usually in charge, and there are simply too many things coming at us all the time for us to stop and switch on System 2 at every turn. And Professor Kahneman suggests, from his own and others' research, just how lazy and biased our judgement can be, as we repeatedly fail to switch on System 2 thinking.

So, for example, as a driver, if you did a little research, you would probably find that, over time, you never actually gained any advantage by turning off on to rat-runs, and actually wasted more petrol.

READING Professor Kahneman, however, I wondered whether his theories had any application to spirituality and theology. I think that they do. Surely moments of spiritual awareness and inspiration count as System 1 fast thinking: I become aware of God's hand in an event I am part of; everything suddenly makes sense.

Then, however, as I reflect on those experiences, I can subject them to critique. I can talk and write about them, put them into a wider context, perhaps become critically aware of my own naïveté or wish-fulfilment, but also build a settled world-view and make better decisions. That is System 2, which is doing theo-logy.

The Bible is System 2 - slow thinking: events of revelation that have been pondered, repeated and written down, set in a wider context of meaning. The Bible itself can trigger fast thinking - the ecstatic moment of revelation for the reader; or slow thinking - different kinds of theology, both institutional and personal.

Worship can do both: a wonderful hymn tune or a beautifully read passage of scripture can lift us up in an instant, while the well-crafted words of a sermon or a prayer can send us off on a slow chain of theological reflection.

THE effect of Professor Kahneman's book is to make System 1 somewhat the villain of the piece, the system that has accumulated just enough experience to think that it can deal with every situation without further mental ado. An interesting contrast with this, in a theological context, is William James, writing in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) about first-hand and second-hand religion.

James focused on religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine".

Out of this first-hand religion, "theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow". James was much more interested in those fundamental experiences and intuitions - System 1 thinking - than in the traditions that developed out of them.

The effect of Professor Kahneman's warnings about the dangers of self-deception and the deficit of true rationality in System 1 should perhaps make religious believers more willing to examine their spiritual intuitions, and be more aware of emotional and other biases.

If a church, a parish, or a whole diocese has a decision about its future policy to make, the temptation is to narrow the frame of consideration to a short period of its life, and to the actions that the decision-makers really want to take - and call it the will of God. A wider System 2 approach would include the planners pondering more deeply the signs of the times, what other churches and institutions are undergoing, and what God might be doing, even in the negative aspects of current experience.

This could actually establish a stronger hope, as they see that God has purposes far beyond their short-term history and recent travails,and is calling them to something imaginatively different.

IF THE Bible and church doctrine are already very much System 2 thinking, does that mean that they are complete? In the farewell discourses, Jesus says to the disciples: "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16.12-13).

The Spirit is surely both a System 1 and a System 2 initiator. When you spontaneously stop the car and help someone who has had an accident, or when you suddenly come out with the perfect word to reconcile two people, that is the Spirit as System 1; but when you come to a difficult decision that seems to be against your own interests, or when you allow yourself to look hard at some of the strongest rational objections to faith, but come through the struggle with life and faith enhanced, that is the Spirit at work as System 2.

If it is truly the Spirit at work in both these modes, then the fruit will be love, joy, and peace. We need Christian thinking, fast and slow.

The Revd Nick Jowett is a retired priest in the diocese of Sheffield.

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