Category Archives: The Heart of Religion

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The Heart of Religion Q&A (Part 2)

With Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma and Stephen G. Post

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 In order to find the data you needed from the survey, what kinds of questions did you ask? Can you give us a couple of examples?

Our national survey revealed that eight out of ten Americans view God as the most powerful force in the universe, feel God’s love directly, and feel God’s love increasing their compassion for others. We also created scales based on multiple questions in order to measure benevolent behaviors, not just attitudes or beliefs. We measured whether this benevolence was directed to friends, family, community, or the world.  For example, we asked whether respondents “actively support causes around the world that seek to help the less fortunate” (a behavior) as well as whether they agree or disagree with the statement “it is important for me to leave this world better than I found it” (a belief).  Never before has this level of detail about the experience and expression of divine love been collected.

What are some of the primary survey results? What did you learn from the people you interviewed?

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.” Those who feel God’s love more than once per day are more than twice as likely as the rest of Americans to give their time to help others in need, and more than twice as likely to give more than $5,000 per year to help others in need.  They are also much more likely to help at the world level, rather than just helping friends, family, or their local community. Divine love was the only significant predictor of all six of our measures of benevolent service, independent of other factors like age, race, gender, income, education, political ideology, and church attendance.  In order to better understand these broad patterns, we interviewed 120 Christian men and women from all walks of life. It was from them that we were able to explore the dynamic nature of benevolent service.” This process becomes a kind of “virtuous circle” that sustains them and gives their life deeper meaning and purpose.

Scholars in America have been discussing what they call the “heart of religion” for generations. How is your study distinctive from others?

Previous studies have not picked up on the centrality of experiencing a loving God in the lives of benevolent people. This deficiency might well reflect a more general bias against plumbing the depths of religious experience – as opposed to belief. 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. 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. 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.

  • Religious beliefs are important, but the affective side of the human condition has often been overlooked. 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.
  • 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 fosters increasingly intense or effective acts of benevolence and greater levels of well-being.

In just a few words, what would you say is the base finding from the survey? Why is that important to us as Christians?

Divine love is the door to a life of benevolence and prayer is the key that unlocks it. But experiences of divine love vary dramatically by denomination and across cultural groups. Our research therefore poses two challenges to American Christianity: 1) what can be learned from denominations and cultural groups that foster intense experiences of God’s love and how can these lessons be applied to other groups? and 2) how can Christians move beyond theological differences in order to stop working at cross-purposes and figure out how to work together? The contemporary church has become a house divided. Perhaps knowing the love of God and hearing God’s voice may deepen our understanding of these issues and point towards a common foundation upon which solutions could be grounded.

What do you hope your book, The Heart of Religion, will accomplish? 

We hope that our book will help people move beyond the structural shell of religion to investigate the heart of religion.  Demographics, creeds, denominations, social networks: these form the structural shell of religion. But our narrative is about how Americans wake up to the reality of divine love in a Christian context and then attempt to express that love to others through benevolent acts. This is the heart of religion. Our study focuses on the Christian tradition, but our findings may be applicable to religion more generally. More broadly, we hope our book contributes to a national dialogue on the role of love, both divine and human, in religion.  This, we believe, is the key to fostering well-being and the life of meaning at the individual level, as well as solving conflicts at the group level.  Ultimately, our book has identified some fault lines within American Christianity that will not be solved by doctrine or debate, but by love.  If we have helped to clarify what love means in the experiences of actual people, then we will have contributed to such a solution.

Visit www.heartofreligion.net  www.unlimitedloveinstitute.org

This can be used with permission and credit to The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love by Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post. Oxford University Press 2012

The Heart of Religion Q&A (Part 1)

With Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma and Stephen G. Post

How did you three authors, each of you a Ph.D. and expert in your own field, come to the decision to work together on The Heart of Religion?

Screen Shot 2012-12-16 at 9.21.20 PMStephen and Margaret had met at a local coffee shop near their homes in northeast Ohio on a couple of occasions 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. 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. The three of us strongly suspected, based on our own research and the scholarship of others, that powerful experiences of God’s love could be important for benevolence. Yet we had relatively little systematically collected empirical data about how this love is experienced. We decided to work together in order to begin to remedy this gap.

You mention that Americans are engaged in a never-ending struggle. Please explain what that means—what kind of struggle?

 Each of us strives to make a positive difference in the lives of others and to find meaning in this effort.  In other words, we are unlikely to be truly happy until we wake up from a selfish existence and embrace our interconnectedness and responsibilities to ourselves and to others. Religion is one institution that organizes this effort, at least for a majority of Americans, and indeed it is often very hard work. Perhaps the most important way that religion shapes us in this regard is that it gets many of us in touch with the experience of divine love – not just the idea of divine love.  It is the powerful emotional experience of God’s love that energizes us when our human capacity to love others (or ourselves) seems stretched to the breaking point.  In the midst of hopelessness, there is a divine hope that empowers us to love the unlovable. The people we interviewed are in touch with a sustaining love that revitalizes them when they feel like giving up and helps them see beyond their immediate circumstances to better understand how their lives fit into an overarching, loving plan for all. Our national survey found that experiences of divine love have a positive impact on having a sense of purpose and meaning in life and also on benevolent service to others.

Tell us about the survey you conducted. How did you decide whom to interview? Did you interview the 120 individuals in person, online, or how exactly?

Heart of Religion_cover The primary scientific data for our book are based on two separate studies. Our national telephone survey was open to all American adults whether or not they were religious. In the fall of 2009, we collected a random sample involving 1,208 American adults. Our results can be generalized to the vast majority of Americans, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. The survey was conducted by the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron under the direction of the three of us and John C. Green, a leading survey researcher. Unlike the telephone survey, which was not targeted to a specific group, our face-to-face interviews focus on Christianity because the vast majority of Americans self-identify as Christians—and because our survey shows that their religious experiences do make a difference in their willingness to benevolently serve others. We interviewed 120 Christian exemplars of benevolence and their collaborators. There was much diversity among our interviewees: young and old, black and white, Hispanic and Euro-American, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, famous and unknown. 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 approach was to collect diverse narratives from across the political, social, and religious spectrum. 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: experiences of divine love are clearly related to a life of benevolent service.

Visit www.heartofreligion.net  www.unlimitedloveinstitute.org

This can be used with permission and credit to The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love by Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post. Oxford University Press 2012

The Heart of Religion

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Heart of Religion_coverThe Heart of Religion is based on a national survey involving 1,200 randomly selected Americans regardless of religious background and extended interviews conducted by the authors with more than 120 Christians engaged in benevolence across America from all walks of life. According to the authors, “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 (81%) 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.’”

The authors found that the interviewees are in touch with God’s sustaining love that revitalizes them when they feel like giving up and helps them see beyond their immediate circumstances. Their multifaceted relationship with God gives them a deep sense of peace, reduces worry and anxiety, fosters inner healing, produces confidence, sharpens discernment, increases energy for action, and helps distinguish ordinary “busyness” from real fruitfulness.

This study is distinctive. Whereas much public and private dialogue in America tends to focus on the “shell of religion” (beliefs/cognitions, denominations, social networks), this book focuses on love as the “heart of religion.” Based on equal measures of scholarly research and human insight, The Heart of Religion offers an unprecedented level of detail about the experience and expression of divine love.

The Heart of Religion

Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love

Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post

Oxford University Press

December 12, 2012

www.heartofreligion.net    www.unlimitedloveinstitute.org

Inter//re\action

The heart of religion is God’s love in dynamic interaction with human response

reaction |rēˈakSHən|noun-an action performed or a feeling experienced in response to a situation

interaction |ˌintərˈakSHən|noun-reciprocal action or influence: ongoing

National survey results describe the connection between experiencing God’s love and serving others.

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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-authorsMatthew 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.”

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www.heartofreligion.net/authors.php

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