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
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
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
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
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
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