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Mari Clements | Relationship as Revelation

Jim Stump is joined by clinical psychologist, Mari Clements to talk about how psychology can provide tools to help ensure the health of our relationships.


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Jim Stump is joined by clinical psychologist, Mari Clements to talk about how psychology can provide tools to help ensure the health of our relationships.

Description

From marriage and parenting to managing life in a world of social media, relationships are central to our lives, and in some cases to our happiness and wellbeing. So what happens when problems arise in this area of our lives? In this episode, Jim Stump is joined by clinical psychologist, Mari Clements whose work focuses on helping real people in real relationships with real problems. The conversation focuses on how the tools of psychology can be useful for working through some of these problems, in order to ensure the health of ourselves and our relationships with those we’re closest to.

This episode is the second in a three part series we’re calling TheoPsych. These episodes were made possible in part by the TheoPsych Project, hosted by Fuller Seminary’s office of Science, Theology, and Religion. 

  • Originally aired on February 06, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Clements:

You know, obviously human relationships can go terribly wrong. There are lots of individuals, Christians and otherwise who are examples of that, who have experienced really difficult disruptions in relationships. But I also think that relationships are a crucible in which we learn a lot about ourselves and we learn a lot about what it means to interact with, to give up for, to love, to champion, to want the best for people to thrive. And I think that at their best, human relationships are sort of a shadow, to be sure not a full revelation, but a shadow of what it is that God wants for us. Of his love for us, his desire for our wellbeing and so forth.

I’m Mari Clements. I am the provost at Fuller Theological Seminary, previously the dean of the School of Psychology, and on faculty since 2001.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host Jim Stump. 

This is the second episode in a series which has been made possible by Theopsych — a project that explores how theology and psychology might more fruitfully interact. If you didn’t hear the first episode, that’s ok, there’s no particular order to them. You can find that episode with Justin Barrett in our podcast feed. 

One of the questions we’re exploring in this series is, “why does theology need psychology?” You can come at an answer to that from a lot of different angles. In this business of science and religion, we often focus on the very theoretical angles, but psychology can offer practical tools that directly influence the way we actually live: these tools can help to heal some of the problems we find in our relationships with others, especially those we are closest to. This might be especially important for pastors, who are often the first people approached when someone is dealing with mental health problems or problems in their relationships. 

Mari Clements is a clinical developmental psychologist and so much of her study of human nature comes in the form of helping real people with real problems. Her work focuses on families and relationships and looking at ways to predict when problems might occur in those relationships. That, of course, can help to prevent problems before they arrive. She is also a Christian, and that fact motivates much of her work. 

From parenting and marriage to managing life in a world of social media, Mari has a little wisdom for just about anybody. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Jim:

So you are a clinical psychologist. When did you—we’re going to go back into memories here a little bit—when did you realize that that’s an occupation that people can have and what was it that drew you to pursue it?

Clements:

I had the most excellent intro psych professor in the whole world, I think. Richard Gehrig was actually a cognitive psychologist. Reminds me a little bit of Justin Barrett actually in terms of the way he can make things that would normally be considered dry and dull to really come alive. And he cared very much about it. I didn’t actually plan on taking his class. It conflicted with a required English class that I was really kind of planning on taking. But at Yale there’s this thing that they called shopping periods. So for the first week or two of classes, you actually just got to sit in on anything that seemed interesting. And so I sat in on this class and it was his first year teaching at Yale and he was amazing.

There were some classes that got to be known only by the last name of the professor. And so I was in the first instantiation of Gehrig, the intro psych class and it was just really fascinating. And so I went from being a biology major to a bio psych major with emphasis on biology to being a psycho bio major with emphasis on psychology to being a flat out full on psych major. I had initially thought that I wanted to be a pediatrician because I cared a lot about children and I wanted to help them. And then by exploring and taking psychology classes, I was like, oh, there are other ways to help children and to help families and to help people be able to thrive.

Jim:

Hmm. Interesting. You’re also a Christian. What difference does that make for your occupation?

Mari:

Well, interestingly enough, I was on faculty at Penn State before I came here, and I used to get a lot of questions about how is it different being a psychologist at Fuller versus a psychologist at Penn State. And the answer that resonates the most with me, the thing that captures it best is not that the things that I do are so different, but that I can be open about the why. That is, the whole motivation to help people, the whole motivation to understand and be able to remedy and to be able to have a positive impact on individual functioning and our understanding of people’s functioning as a group isn’t any different whether I’m doing that from a secular perspective or whether I’m doing that from a religious perspective. But the why: Why do you treat people with unconditional positive regard? Why is it important that you be able to really help people think about their choices and really help them be able to make good choices? Why is it that you help parents give up difficult and problematic parenting strategies and styles? All of those things are the same, no matter which way I’m doing it from. But at Fuller I can be really honest about, and this is because I’m trying to help us get to more of what God would have us be as people.

Jim:

So there are a couple of aspects of that I’d like to probe a little deeper. I think it’s really fascinating. This conversation or the dialogue between science and religion that’s been going on is often dominated by sciences, like physics or biology. Psychology has been fairly late to the game in that regard. And I wonder if you’d talk a little bit about why you think that might be. And then even following up on what you just said, that sometimes, maybe the substance of the discipline itself is not hugely affected by one’s faith commitments. So we sometimes might hear from mathematicians in this regard too that, you know, math works the same whether you’re a Christian or not. So is that part of the issue that there aren’t as many points of contact in the actual substance of the discipline? Of why it hasn’t been such a big participant in the science and religion conversations so far?

Mari:

I actually think there are really important points of contact. What I think is more likely to be the case is the historic and continuing sort of hostility between psychology and Christianity.

Jim:

Yeah, what’s that? Where’s that come from?

Mari:

Yeah. Well, psychology, in several national studies psychologists are the least religious profession that there is. That they are more likely to be atheists or agnostics than any other profession there is. And there has been, you know, a series of hostilities on both sides. So psychologists will treat religion with suspicion, thinking that this is some sort of crutch or delusion or what have you. And Christians of course, not particularly excited to be thought of as a crutch or delusion or distortion. But also about sort of the godless nature, the lack of the explanation, the lack of the why.

And some, you know, there are some, some differences in how we might see particular things. So psychology is not big on the ideas of things like sin. You know, a mathematician doesn’t have a problem with the idea of sin. In part perhaps because if you do a mathematical equation, if you do a mathematical theory, there is a right answer and it’s always, it’s always going to be the same answer.

Jim:

It’s not influenced by my values or…

Mari:

It’s not influenced by my values. In fact you compute the area of a circle the same way. The Pythagorean theorem works whether you’re Christian or not. But in fact in psychology, the idea of values and the idea of there being an idea of truth that is not compromising, not necessarily imposing, mind you, but not compromising, the idea that in fact there is something out there that is good and right and just, and is a model for us, and that that is independent of what I think as an individual is just really sort of a paradigm shift in some ways.

Now, what is, you know, the things that Jesus taught about the golden rule, about putting others, you know, valuing other people, treating them as you would like to be treated. Nothing in psychology would have a hard time with that. It would, for instance, however, have a bit of a hard time with an idea of putting someone, or at least parts of psychology would have a hard time with putting someone above yourself and would be worried about, well, does this mean you’re being overly sacrificial? Does this mean you’re harming yourself? And you know, that question can certainly be raised. Certainly you can see people who have gone too far in their efforts to be sacrificial to others, in ways that leave them nothing left to be able to recharge with or what have you. But you know, I do think that those sorts of specific conflicts are really quite far and few between. To borrow from Wheaton’s famous motto about all truth being God’s truth. I think there actually is something to that. I mean, it may be a little simplistic in some respects, but I think there’s actually something deeply right about that in some important ways. And so there’s that.

Jim:

A lot of your own work has been about relationships. You sat in a session that we were in this morning that relationships are a form of revelation and that God intended us for relationships to communicate important truths to us. Now, correct me if I’m wrong here, but I suspect you mean by that, that the actual process of being in a relationship conveys something to us, some knowledge to us that we couldn’t just get by reading a book. Right? So unpack that a little bit more for us if you would, relationships as revelation.

Mari:

Sure. I think it was not at all an accident that God chose to reveal himself in scripture in very relational terms. You know, we think about the father and the son. We think about even moving outside the persons of God to God’s relationship with us. We read about how he is our protector; our father; our, in some cases even, our mother; you know, when all the passages about God seeking to gather us under his wings as a hen would gather her chicks, those sorts of things. And I think that that’s not an accident. You know, obviously human relationships can go terribly wrong. There are lots of individuals, Christians and otherwise, who are examples of that, who have experienced really difficult disruptions in relationships. But I also think that relationships are a crucible in which we learn a lot about ourselves and we learn a lot about what it means to interact with, to give up for, to love, to champion, to want the best for people to thrive.

And I think that at their best, human relationships are sort of a shadow to be sure, not a full revelation, but a shadow of what it is that God wants for us, of his love for us, his desire for our wellbeing and so forth. And I think we learn about that in a variety of ways as children ourselves, as parents, as individuals in relationship with friends and romantic partners and so forth that we learn about the nature of God because God is love through our relationships with others as well as our relationship with God.

Jim:

So you alluded to this a little bit, but what about the implications of that for people for whom human relationships have been particularly difficult or problematic? Is the revelation somehow being compromised for them?

Mari:

I think you could think about it that way. The way I like to think about it is about how is it that we know it’s compromised and we know it’s compromised in part because there has been a revelation of what does it mean to be a true father. You know, I mean people object to the idea of God as father because of the abuses that they see earthly fathers doing. That’s certainly one way to go. My way to approach it or to think about it is really to think about how are those concepts redeemed by a heavenly example. So how is it that we can in fact have a relationship with God that buffers or that restores or that somehow redeems relationships that have been more difficult, that have not lived up to what I would say God’s plan for relationships are. So what does it mean, for instance, for a child who’s been abused to learn that there is a savior that really loves her, who gave his life to save her? You know, what does that mean and what does that gift like? So even though human relationships can let us down, I still think that there’s value in realizing and recognizing that they’re not all there is. And even recognizing that a failure of a human relationship, I think, is informed by what we learn about what relationships should be.

Jim:

So it sounds like this is a two way street here of the one direction of our human relationships informing relationship to God, but then also that our relationship to God can inform the way our relationships with other people ought to be.

Mari:

Oh, I definitely think so. You know, so there are many things that we learn from scripture and some of them are pretty darn straight forward. So treating other people as you would like to be treated. You know, thinking about the welfare of others. Thinking about how it is that they have worth and value and that those things are, you know, from the sermon on the mount to what we learn about Jesus’ restoration of Peter, for instance, after his denial. You know, the kinds of ways in which we can have evidence of forbearance with each other, the kinds of ways that we can, as Paul would put it, bear one another’s burden and thus fulfill the law of Christ.

[Musical Interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new questions, but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of God?” “How should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two:

Jim:

Your particular involvement in psychology has been on the clinical side and in the church there’s sometimes been a stigma attached to therapy. It seems to me, at least anecdotally, that that is changing a little bit. But could you give a kind of defense perhaps, for the church, of therapy and why this is a good thing?

Mari:

Oh, please God, let it be changing. In all seriousness. You know, it’s striking to me how when someone is struggling with depression or with anxiety, they’re much more likely to hear from well meaning Christian friends, perhaps even their pastor, you know, “God made you, God loves you, pray more, spend more time in the Word.” Okay, those are great things. I would never ever say don’t do that. Right? But they don’t say to someone with a broken arm, “God made your arm and he can heal it. All you need to do is pray more.” So the history of the school of psychology at Fuller in fact, is because of that kind of difficult relationship between the church and church leaders and psychology.

Jim:

Tell us about that.

Mari:

Yeah. So the school of psychology was funded and founded by a member of our board of trustees who, there was a family member who was struggling with a debilitating psychological condition with a great deal of anxiety and stress and got what was then standard advice from the pastor—pray more, you need to pray more. And that’s a tragedy because we have interventions that are empirically supported, that work that we can use to help with issues of depression, anxiety, lots and lots and lots of things. And so refusing to avail ourselves of those resources is much like refusing to take penicillin when you have strep throat and think that the Lord will heal me.

Jim:

So is some of the resistance to that, do you think, because those instances there of the strep throat or the broken arm are just purely physical, whereas my mental health, we’re nervous to reduce that to just a physical component because then it seems to make it too mechanical or, I don’t know. I’m wondering if that’s at the base of some of the concern over this.

Mari:

I think there is far more interaction and interplay between that which is purely biological, physical and that which is quote unquote purely mental or emotional. So for instance, you know, there are people who have physical illnesses who die when they shouldn’t, you know, because they give up hope. That’s a pretty important thing. Similarly, you know, there is all sorts of evidence that there are a number of psychological disorders that have biological components. Either started that way, worsened by chemical imbalances, whatever, whatever. And so I think that we don’t know as much as we’d like to think we do. You know, I mean within medicine there are drugs that work that we’re not really sure why, cause it’s kind of paradoxical.

So imagine the situation, for instance, where you have a child who is overactive, who is having a very difficult time focusing. On the face of it, the last thing it seems like you should give them is stimulant medication. But in fact that often helps to bring a child’s focus into play where they’re able to engage and process things and learn in ways that were disrupted prior to that. Similarly, there are entire classes of antidepressants that we know work. But why in fact, is it the case that this particular mechanism in the brain is affected by those kinds of medications? 

Our best efforts typically are ones that combine approaches. So stimulant medication by itself, okay. But it’s also really good to teach that kid self-control skills to be able to help that child, now that they’re a little bit more focused, gain more study skills, become more able to regulate their own behavior and emotion. Similarly with an individual with depression, really a great thing to combine both a medication to lift some of the initial symptoms and then teach them the appropriate coping skills, the appropriate self-talk, if you will, to be able to battle the depressive thoughts and cognitions. The lies that we tell ourselves that make us feel really lousy about ourselves. And so the combination is often really important. So I suspect that there are few things that are solely biological in terms of their course and reaction, and that there are few things that are solely emotional. But that’s one question that I’ll ask God when I get to heaven.

Jim:

Can you give us a couple of examples? I think it might be interesting for our listeners to hear examples. You mentioned some of the empirical research that shows that therapy is effective, right? So can you give us a few examples of that just to prime our imaginations here, even a little bit of what kinds of things we’re talking about that therapy might very profitably be used for?

Mari:

Yeah. Well, I’ll give you a really simple and easy one. There are things that individuals have irrational fears about, right? There are also rational fears, right? But there are things that people have irrational fears about and it looks like those are specific things. So, for instance, people don’t have irrational fears of light switches, right? They have irrational fears of snakes. Okay. Now, I personally think, you know, God said he would put enmity between the women in the snake. So I got no problem with that one. No, I’m just kidding. So people do seem to be sort of biologically primed to have particular irrational fears about particular things.

Okay. It’s not actually a problem in my life that I don’t like snakes at all. In fact, if one were in this room with me, I would exit immediately, even if it was a garter snake, even if it were, you know, completely harmless or whatever. Even if it were a quote unquote good snake that eats rodents and stuff. Not my thing. In fact, it makes me a little nauseous to say the word as many times as I have. This is not really a problem in my life. I live in the greater Los Angeles area. I don’t run into this very often. On the other hand, I know someone who treated a forest ranger who was, her assigned park was one in which there were actually a lot of snakes. And so being able to get over that anxiety so that she could do her job was a very, very important thing. And the treatment of simple phobias—dog phobia, snake phobia, et cetera, water phobia—is a very straightforward kind of thing within psychology, if you will. 

Sort of the classic treatment of that would be to have the person think about what are the things that make them really scared about it and put them in order. And it doesn’t always make sense. So for instance, someone who’s afraid of heights, if you asked them to put the things in order, you might think that being at the top of the ladder would be the scariest thing. And being at the bottom of the ladder would be less scary. And that it would just sort of linearly increase. But it turns out that’s not necessarily the case. So it may actually be that in the middle of the ladder is the scariest because you’re too far away from the ground and you’re too far away from whatever it is you’re trying to reach at the top. So it doesn’t always necessarily quote unquote make sense. But having them put those things in place and then gradually and carefully go through that, what’s called the hierarchy of fears—pairing a relaxation response with each of those steps is a really important thing. Because you can’t both be relaxed and fearful at the same time. So you substitute a particular behavior and you stay at that one stage until that anxiety relieves itself.

Because the nasty little thing about anxiety is untreated it reinforces itself. So if you’re really anxious about a dog for instance, and you encounter a dog and you’re anxious and so you leave that situation, your anxiety reduces and so you feel better having left the situation. So the next time you’ll have an even bigger push to leave the situation and not be, not face that fear.

Jim:

This is classical conditioning, right? 

Mari:

Depending on how you’re, on which kind of way you’re doing it. Yeah, it’s operant conditioning or classical conditioning depending on exactly the circumstances. But yeah, you can actually reward the behavior that you would like to get rid of inadvertently in an anxious sort of situation. So that’s one example. That’s an easy one. We also have, you know, similar sorts of approaches for things like school refusal. So children who for whatever reason are really not excited about going to school. And I’m not talking about your kid who gets a stomach ache once a term or what have you. But, you know, kids for whom it’s actually interfering with their ability to make progress in school cause they’re missing too much school. So there are interventions for that kind of thing. There are interventions that, as I mentioned before, combine both medication and intervention to be able to address attentional difficulties, to be able to address depression, to be able to address anxiety.

There’s a whole list of empirically supported interventions, but probably important to note that the most common reason that people go into therapy is because of conflict in their relationships, relationship difficulties. And that’s actually an area in which we have a lot of empirically supported interventions that can be really helpful. The problem is that most people, including most Christians, vote with their feet by going to see a lawyer instead of going to see a marital therapist, for instance. And so that’s a really tragic thing I think, because if there is an intervention that can be helpful to you and either you don’t know about it or you don’t make use of it, or you wait too long to make use of it, it’s a really difficult thing. Prevention is always easier than cure down the road. 

So one of the things that I’ve been really involved in in my career is the prediction and prevention of marital distress and divorce. And so being able to find interventions that really help you think about setting up patterns and habits in your marriage, in your relationships that make it resilient to conflict. Because it’s not the case that the perfect marriage has no conflict because all relationships have conflict. That’s not the issue. The issue is how it’s dealt with. And so being able to have those tools and those abilities, which, you know, maybe you learned some of them from your parents, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you learned some good things from parents, maybe you learned some bad things. Maybe you watch some things on TV that are like really toxic as well. You know, there’s the idea of how do you bolster commitment, how do you bolster being able to take the long view in relationships? How do you work as a team? Those are all things that we can actually help with.

[musical interlude]

Biologos:

This episode is part of a series we’re calling TheoPsych about the intersection of theology and psychology. We wanted to take this brief break to say thanks to the TheoPsych Project, hosted by Fuller Seminary’s office of Science, Theology, and Religion which helped to make this series possible. Now back to the interview.  

Interview Part 3

Jim:

It might say more about me and my place in life now than any objective thing, but it seems to me that the epidemic of anxiety and depression is so much more than it used to be. Is there any research that that speaks to, is it really more, or is it just that now it’s okay to talk about it, where in previous generations those things were not fit for polite company to even talk about?

Mari:

Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I haven’t seen recent epidemiological research on that. I would not be surprised if there were in fact, higher levels of depression and anxiety now. And probably the answer is both. That it’s both more acceptable to say something now than it may have been in the past, but it’s also the case that we live in interesting times. Right? And so there are things that have shaken our communities, shaken our worlds in ways that didn’t happen before. So I mean, prior to 9/11, for instance, America’s invincible, right? What does it mean? The rules all changed in terms of what the U.S. saw as the way the world works, whereas individuals in other countries, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon didn’t have that sense of safety that got blown away with the twin towers and so forth. But there are certainly some disorders that do look like they are on the increase. So for instance, autistic spectrum disorders in children and adolescents that have really shown a marked increase, an increase that doesn’t look like it’s solely accounted for by changes in diagnostic criteria but does look like it is increasing and we’re not entirely sure why that would be. But that does look like there are changes that are happening.

Jim:

Also at least if the popular reporting on these studies is to be believed, it doesn’t seem that social media is particularly helpful to our mental health is it?

Mari:

Oh, social media. You know, social media has both some really wonderful things to it. So I am super excited to be back in touch with people that I haven’t seen since high school through social media. You know, to be able to see what they and their kids are doing. Of course it’s always going to be a slanted picture.

Jim:

The good stuff we’re going to talk about and show pictures of.

Mari:

Well sorta depends on your friend. Sometimes they tell you really awful things. Here feel sorry for me. But yeah, in general, you know, our Instagram perfect world. Here, I’ll show you this great picture. But I’m not going to show you the five that I took leading up to it. So there’s that and so people have this sort of sense of comparison, oh my life isn’t as good as that, what have you. 

But then there’s also, you know, some people just have dramatic personality changes when they’re behind a keyboard as compared to when they’re in person. So I have a friend who is just a really nice guy, would give you the shirt off his back and then go buy you another one, in person, who is vicious behind a keyboard, absolutely vicious behind a keyboard. To sort of preserve our relationship and my sanity, I kind of unfollow him, you know, because I know that he can be a very generous and wonderful person, but I also know that he can go on these ideological rants that are not him at his best. That there’s something about that environment that makes it okay to lash out in ways that he would never do in person. And makes all of the, you know, all of the unreasonableness, feel like it has a place to have an outlet. And you know, there’s just so much that’s harmful about that.

I’ve seen more and more people taking quote unquote Facebook breaks. And I totally get it. A number of my friends have said, yeah, I’m just going to post happy pictures of kittens right now. Which is a strategy, but it doesn’t necessarily allow for the things that I really value about Facebook—to be able to know what’s going on in your life, to be able to pray for things that are struggles for you, to be able to rejoice with you when something really cool happens. You know, I think that people can go to one of two extremes either they don’t filter what they’re saying, don’t think about how it’s gonna impact people that or lash out or you know, take this sort of position or they resort to only sweet and nice and vapid, if you will, kinds of things that aren’t real either.

Jim:

Do we know enough yet about the interaction of our mental lives with these technological wonders of our age now for why this happens? Why do we react in those polarizing ways in that medium?

Mari:

Yeah. Well I think there are a couple of things that apply. One of them is about how do I feel like I am part of a group that’s important and valuable to me. So what is it that makes people join movements? Why is it that makes people be blind to the shortcomings or the faults of a particular group or strategy or what have you? Sort of a blind allegiance kind of thing. I also think that, you know, there’s something about watching a train wreck. There’s something about horrified fascination with things going badly wrong that appeals to a person’s desire to get attention.

I mean there’s, with young children, the reason timeout works as a punishment is because it is timeout from positive reinforcement. So the attention that a child gets when throwing a temper tantrum, that attention itself can be rewarding. And so putting a child in timeout where they’re deliberately not getting that attention, is in fact a really powerful intervention. I will never, ever forget the time my oldest son had done something naughty and he was in timeout. And it was a minute a year, so I think he was in timeout for four minutes. He’s sitting on a stool in the middle of the kitchen floor, because you want them to be in some place that’s boring and not attractive and that there’s, you know, don’t send me to my room like briar rabbit, don’t throw me in that briar patch where I have all these cool toys. So he’s sitting on a stool kicking his little feet and screaming at the top of his lungs, “Don’t put me in time out, please just spank me.”

It was hysterically funny because there is something rewarding about getting attention even if it’s negative attention for some people. And so, you know, saying something that’s deliberately outrageous to get a reaction, you know, you’re going to get that on Facebook. You know? You just are. And it can then take on a life of its own because once you’ve said it, do you back down from it? Do you dig in deeper? And I think that our country right now is in a real polarizing sort of position. You know people don’t go much purple. There really is a lot of red and blue stripes in a whole lot of things. And you’re not likely to hear something constructive from another position that you quote unquote don’t agree with, even if in fact you do agree with it, because there’s this whole preconception that you are a member of X, I don’t agree with X and so nothing you have to say can be meaningful or valid or useful in my life. And I think that cuts us off from our ability to collaborate, our ability to make positive changes. And it’s just, I think, fueled by all kinds of media, social media and regular media as well. Because, you know, conflict kind of sells. It’s kind of boring to say, yeah, this person’s doing a good job. 

Jim:

When it comes to rearing children, we parents often get lots of conflicting advice from the latest how-to books we find in the bookstore. Any insights on discipline of children that you can offer us since that’s been something you’ve had some work in.

Mari:

Yeah, yeah, sure. One of the interesting things is the context in which a particular disciplinary strategy is used actually really matters. Probably not only for the ways in which it tempers their response, but also in what it means to the child. So for instance, there have been some really interesting research suggesting that a parent’s beliefs about say corporal punishment or spanking really matters in terms of how that is experienced by the child. And so for instance, a parent who believes that spanking is wrong should never spank their child. Ever. Okay? Because if they believe it’s wrong, they are violating their own expectation and they’re going to, there’s going to be a whole lot of conflictual guilt-ridden stuff in there.

Jim:

And that gets communicated to the child…

Mari:

That the child will pick up on. And will have reactions to. In contrast, there’ve been a number of studies in different ethnic groups and in different cultures in which not spanking is unusual. And in fact, until very recently in U.S. history, this would have been the case across the board. So, you know, there are some children below this age, 90%, 80%, 70%, depending on which study you’re looking at had been spanked. Right? And so, you know, what’s the impact of that? Certainly we don’t have 80, 90, 70% of children who are having tremendous and terrible outcomes, right? Whereas abuse—that’s a bad thing. So there is a line at which you can cross. And the argument has been made that if you never spank, you can never spank too hard. So if you never raise your hand to a child, you can never raise that hand in anger and actually hurt them. And that there’s something to that. There’s something about what lines do you cross and how. And so that again interplays with the culture of the context, the parent parents belief. 

But there are also, you know, there are also things in which, you know, there’s evidence of children whose parents do use corporal punishment who were completely indistinguishable from children whose parents don’t. On every measure we can think of behavior, attention, parent-child warmth and relationship. And that actually seems to be a really important key. So discipline delivered within the context of a warm and loving relationship both is more likely not to cross a line that’s difficult not to become abusive, but is also likely to be understood within the context of that warm and nurturing relationship. And so it’s not the case that I would say, although others might, it’s not the case that I would say that spanking is or is not right or wrong. It’s one disciplinary tool and probably shouldn’t be your only one. And sometimes has my son Matthew demonstrated, “please spank me, please don’t put me in time out,” it sometimes isn’t even the most effective one, right? But there are, you know, there are circumstances where a light swat with an open hand on a clothed the bottom of a child who’s engaged in some behavior that could be even more harmful to them is probably not, I mean it’s a tool like other tools and there are lots of ways in which we teach children, and you don’t have to raise at your hand to a child to hurt them deeply. And so, you know, the withholding of love and affection in response to a child misbehavior is an abuse of a different kind. So, you know, I really do think that the context of the relationship in which a particular behavior is enacted is really and truly critical for the impact of that behavior on the child.

Jim:

That’s helpful. Sometimes we look at all of these problems in our society today and see a fallen world, know that none of us as parents are perfect and that we mess up our kids in certain ways for sure. And the other relationships that we’re part of. Let’s not stop there though and maybe bring our conversation back around full circle here again and finish with talking about maybe some of the redemptive ways that psychological science can help to inform us. And I mean redemptive in a theological sense too. Not just restorative to human flourishing in the generic sense, but as Christian theists the role that psychology can play in helping us understand the world and even in helping us try to bring about the kind of world that we see called to in scripture and the kingdom. So you contributed to a book that was titled Why Theology Needs Psychology. Why does theology, why do we need, as Christians trying to make sense of the world we live in, through particularly Christian theological categories, why do we need psychology to help us in that? How can psychology help us to understand and repair our world?

Mari:

Well I think that first part is really important. I think psychology provides a lot of ways and lenses to be able to understand human behavior, to be able to understand behavior of groups and persons. And that then allows…understanding is a first step towards being able to work with and work alongside and to elaborate and what have you. If you don’t understand something, you’re much more likely to demonize it. If you don’t understand something, you’re much more likely to find it fearful or scary or something to be avoided. But if you understand, there are in fact reasons why this person is acting in this particular way and what might I do about that. You know, some of them are proverbial in nature, so in fact, if someone is attacking you in fact, in truth, really a soft answer does often turn away wrath, right?

But understanding being able to think about putting some yourself in someone else’s position, understanding the ideas of things like, cognitive theories like the theory of mind. So understanding that someone else may have information that I don’t have and that I may have information that they don’t have and that I can reflect upon what it is that they’re likely to know and what it is they might think that I know. And really being able to put names and terminology and understanding around some of those basic interaction sorts of pieces. To be able to be better than just a stimulus response machine, to be a step above more baser desires, to be able to think about delay of gratification, to be able to think about things like planning and what does that get us, to be able to understand that no, I’m not perfect, never going to be a perfect parent, never gonna be perfect wife, never going to be perfect provost for that matter.

But what is it that I can do and why? You know, how can I be motivated to make my world better? And how can I forgive myself when I don’t? Which is certainly something that theology has something to say about as well. How do I realize that I’m actually not called to be perfect, but I’m called to do what I can? I really love some of the narratives in the Bible about “for such a time as this,” or even-if stories. So even if God does not save us from the fiery furnace, we still are not going to bow down and worship your God, you know, those sorts of things which seem to me to be higher human callings, higher levels of human functioning that we can understand through principles of things like altruism or we can understand as sacrifice for the, for a greater cause.

Within marriage for instance, one of the things that we know is associated with really good outcomes is in fact an appropriate level of sacrifice for one another, mutual sacrifice. Yeah, we can actually get that from the writings of Paul too. But it’s nice to know sort of how does that play? What are the things that are happening there in terms of being able to think of yourself as part of a team rather than an individual? And we as people can be, you know, kind of selfish sometimes can, you know, can put ourselves first in ways that we can actually understand why that may not be the ultimate best thing. And understanding that as the first step towards achieving that, I think.

Jim:

Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Mari:

Absolutely.

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf (that’s me). Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Thanks again to the Theopsych project, hosted by Fuller Seminary’s office of Science, Theology, and Religion for helping to make these episodes possible.

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Featured guest

Mari Clements's Headshot

Mari Clements

Mari Clements is currently the Provost of Fuller Seminary. She has conducted research on the impact of marital conflict on family members. Her recent research has examined marital conflict in intact families, models of satisfaction and stability in marriage, and the effects of marital conflict on parent-child relationships and children’s peer relationships. Her work has appeared in numerous scholarly journals, and she has also authored several book chapters and presented at various psychology association meetings around the country.


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