[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]
Academic disciplines are not only about ways of thinking but are also about habits of the heart and mind. It is this existential dimension of our respective intellectual formations that seems to me to be most at stake in discussions between cognitive scientists, on the one hand, and humanists and social scientists on the other, at least in my brief experience of such discussions in the context of the New Dimensions in the Study of Prayer (NDSP) project. Having been trained in one way of knowing it is nearly impossible to think otherwise. There is an analogy to prayer practice here. Many Southern Baptists, for instance, probably find it nearly impossible to think of the recitation of the Hail Mary as an authentic way of praying, just as older Catholics may say that addressing God conversationally in everyday speech is not praying. These are deeply embodied habits of heart and mind. Maybe the place to go for conceptual assistance in working through the seemingly intractable epistemological and methodological divide between cognitive scientists and humanists/social scientists is ecumenical theology.
But surely once we acknowledge the power of our respective academic formations, to return to the matter at hand, we can take a step back and acknowledge that whatever we are trying to understand about humans (probably all mammals, maybe all living beings, but I do not feel confident saying so) always involves both the universal and the particular. My discussions with Jonathan Lane in the NDSP meetings have greatly enriched the questions I ask about the relationships among survivors of clerical sexual abuse, their families, and God. Talking with Jonathan made me pay attention to the fact that the question of what is going on in other people’s—and in God’s—minds is a highly charged and often very painful one for survivors of clerical sexual abuse. Exploring this issue is a matter both of understanding the human mind at work on the world in this particular social and religious context. How is this inquiry not enriched by both social scientific/humanist and cognitive science perspectives?
Academic walls are intriguing places. As a very young man I once suggested to a very distinguished scholar of Puritanism that surely a Puritan pastor did not stand up before a grieving family that had just lost a child to sickness and tell them that this unredeemed human was going to burn in hell for eternity. The response was explosive. Of course the minister did exactly this! This is what it meant to be a Puritan!!! What was I thinking!!! I remember feeling a hot blush of the distinctive sort of academic shame that comes over one in such moments. How could I be so stupid?
Well, one reason I was so stupid was that as a human being whose first child had just been born I could not imagine another human being saying something like this. At the very least, it seems important to know that theology might so thoroughly overcome human instincts (among them my certainty that I would have physically attacked the minister in this case, had my ancestors been in, say, New Haven in the seventeenth century and not in Tuscany, where they had their own, but different, theological problems to deal with). Many years later another distinguished scholar of Puritanism—such was the experience that I was still probing it decades afterwards—assured me that current research suggests my instinct was correct, that ministers would not have told grieving parents their child was damned. There is always both recognition and difference across the historical ages.
This suggests that academic walls—such as the wall we keep running into in the discussion between cognitive science and social science/humanities—are the best places to go digging for new knowledge and new theory, because any idea or way of thinking that is so fiercely defended that any alternative way of thinking is said to unthinkable is definitely shaky and probably wrong.