The Saturday Age recently ran this interesting piece. My desire to seek out more then led me to discover this interview with Olivera Petrovich by Rebecca Bryant. I thought it was worth re-posting:

Young children see the world with fresh minds that embrace both scientific causality and metaphysical speculation, says Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich. And their conceptions show striking similarities across widely differing cultures, she tells Rebecca Bryant in this exclusive interview with Science & Spirit.

Science & Spirit: What is your current role in the field?

Olivera Petrovich: I am currently with the Experimental Psychology Department at Oxford University, where I research and tutor in developmental psychologist. I also lecture in psychology of religion at Oxford — my course is open to theology, philosophy, and psychology students.

S&S: Your research interests lie in the psychology of religion, focusing especially on the development of spirituality in children. How do you go about it?

Petrovich: My approach to this is very strictly empirical. It begins with children’s accounts of the physical world — notably their causal explanations and the way they categorize objects and events around them. I’m interested in children’s spirituality as it develops in their encounter with the physical world, not through the teaching they may receive in bible classes and so on. I’m not at all looking at the cultural transmission of spirituality.

S&S: You recently conducted cross-cultural studies involving British and Japanese children. What were the aims — and the findings — of this research?

Petrovich: I was really interested in children’s ability to offer both scientific causal explanations and metaphysical explanations, which go beyond the scientific. Japanese culture is very different from Western culture with a very different history of science and religious tradition. So I thought I should be able to get some interesting comparisons between Japanese and Western children.

I tested both the Japanese and British children on the same tasks, showing them very accurate, detailed photographs of selected natural and man-made objects and then asking them questions about the causal origins of the various natural objects at both the scientific level (e.g. how did this particular dog become a dog?) and at the metaphysical level (e.g. how did the first ever dog come into being?). With the Japanese children, it was important to establish whether they even distinguished the two levels of explanation because, as a culture, Japan discourages speculation into the metaphysical, simply because it’s something we can never know, so we shouldn’t attempt it. But the Japanese children did speculate, quite willingly, and in the same way as British children. On forced choice questions, consisting of three possible explanations of primary origin, they would predominantly go for the word “God,” instead of either an agnostic response (e.g., “nobody knows”) or an incorrect response (e.g., “by people”). This is absolutely extraordinary when you think that Japanese religion — Shinto — doesn’t include creation as an aspect of God’s activity at all. So where do these children get the idea that creation is in God’s hands? It’s an example of a natural inference that they form on the basis of their own experience. My Japanese research assistants kept telling me, “We Japanese don’t think about God as creator — it’s just not part of Japanese philosophy.” So it was wonderful when these children said, “Kamisama! God! God made it!” That was probably the most significant finding.

I’ve also established that children’s natural concepts of God aren’t purely anthropomorphic. They certainly acquire a conception of God-as-man through their religious education, but no child actually links the representation of, for example, God-as-Jesus with the creator of the world. Rather, their images of God the creator correspond to abstract notions like gas, air, and person without a body. When you press them, they of course fall back on what they’ve been told, saying things like, “I know he’s a man because I saw him on the telly,” or “He’s just like my daddy.” These are very rational responses, but they’re not natural conceptions formed by children. Rather they’re imposed by the culture in which the children live.

S&S: In what ways do adults’ religious concepts differ from those of children?

Petrovich: I did test adults in Britain, but not yet in Japan. The results show that the differences between lay adults and children tested under the same conditions are largely quantitative. Adults are more accurate at identifying objects and describing their physical properties, but the categories they use in their explanations aren’t qualitatively different from those used by children. When it comes to adults’ speculations about the creator — the source of objects — they do display greater cultural influences than children, but when you systematically compare adults’ and children’s descriptions, you see significant similarities — in their references to God being something like air or gas, for example. Children’s descriptions are very basic, whereas adults use more sophisticated vocabulary, but there is no more information about God in adults’ references than there is in children’s. I think this is perfectly plausible and predictable because we can’t say that we as adults have more privileged access to God than children do. We’re all in the same position.

S&S: From your research, do you think it’s possible that the inclination toward religion or spirituality is universal?

Petrovich: I think possibility is the precise word to use here. I can’t be more certain than that because I have only worked with children aged three-and-a-half upward, and that’s already an old age when it comes to basic understandings, some of which are in evidence in the first year of life. However, the cumulative contribution of many domains of cognitive developmental psychology suggests to me that it’s a serious possibility that spirituality is a universal aspect of human cognition. Recent research shows that human infants aren’t passive recipients of information around them, but obviously think, making inferences and forming hypotheses. There’s also a lot of research showing that very young children are quite good at handling temporarily hidden objects. So, I think it needn’t be too difficult for them to make the inference that surely there must be some kind of invisible principle for what we see around us.

S&S: What drew you to the psychology of religion, as opposed to any other field in psychology?

Petrovich: I’ve always been interested in religion as well as psychology — even before I knew the word “psychology” existed. As a child I remember being interested in how people think, in why I thought this way and others thought that way. I began to notice that some people go to church and believe in God and others don’t. Also, like all children, I kept asking questions about the origin of the world. But I might’ve been more fortunate than some other children because I remember, for example, my mother telling me that even though we don’t really know the answers to these questions, it nonetheless remains very important to think about such issues.

As soon as I discovered psychology as a possible area of serious study, I thought that religion must surely be the most fascinating aspect of human thought. You can’t say that this stimulus is more likely to lead you to the concept of God than any other, and so the interesting question is how thought about God occurs.

S&S: How do you see your work fitting into the wider field of science and religion?

Petrovich: This is a very important question indeed. What drives me is the realization — which I hope is correct — that psychology is probably the best-placed science to explain both the origin and continuity of the interaction between science and religion in human affairs. You can find astronomers, geologists, biologists, and chemists throughout history who have either been religious or non-religious. And the difference between these two groups has always intrigued me. What is it in people’s thought patterns, in their education, in their further development, in their interaction with other people and disciplines that makes them perceive the world in one way rather than the other? I think experimental cognitive psychology is in a unique position to answer most of these questions because we can’t achieve a great deal in inspiring others to see the world as we see it unless we first understand how the human mind works — and that is just what cognitive psychologists aim to do.

S&S: Where do you see your interest in science and religion taking you in the future?

Petrovich: What I ideally would like to do is obtain a proper, funded post in academic psychology of religion within a psychology department. That doesn’t exist at the moment, anywhere, but the interest is tremendous — every year for the past four or five years I’ve had inquiries from students wanting to do research in this area.

The other thing would be to get funding for one or two studentships to work on a large project with me so that people can get trained. At the moment, you have very good psychologists with no education in theology or religion, and theology people who have no technical knowledge of how to do psychological research. Why is that relevant? Because if people have no idea about a field, they can never reach a hypothesis that’s worth investigating.

Olivera Petrovich is the author of the upcoming book, The Child’s Theory of the World. She can be contacted at Rebecca Bryant has a doctoral degree in philosophy from Oxford University. She is a writer and researcher based in Oxford.


Robert W. Jenson & Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006). 158 pages. ISBN: 97815874321613. Review copy courtesy of Brazos Press.

When was the last time you had a conversation about baptism, temptation, purgatory, time, economics, the Nicene Creed, creation, the Trinity, Christmas, metaphysics, church calendars, evil, indulgences, the Holy Spirit, liturgy, Lucifer, hamsters, a ‘really stupid’ bishop, the disestablishment of the Roman Church, the imago Dei, and a host of other things, all with the same person? When was the last time you did so with a person who just happens to be a world-renowned Lutheran, and ecumenical, theologian? When was the last time you did so with an eight-year-old who knows more about Dante than not a few philosophy undergrads?

In this remarkable book, we are invited to eavesdrop on a spontaneous and unscripted conversation between elementary schoolgirl Solveig Lucia Gold and her septuagenarian grandfather affectionately called ‘Poppi’, more formally known as the Reverend Canon Professor Dr. D. Robert W. Jenson, B.A., B.D., M.A., D.Theol., D.H.L., DD.

The book comprises the verbatim transcripts – with minor editing of ‘Ums’, ‘Well, buts …’ and ‘You knows…’, etc – of conversations recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder over a series of weekends in which Solveig visited her grandparents (‘Poppi’ and ‘Mimi’) in Princeton. After each session, Mimi typed it up.

The authors invite us to read their book ‘as you would a Platonic dialogue, though in this one, the role of Socrates goes back and forth’ (p. 10). Their discussion is more wide-ranging than most systematic theologies, and is filled with wit, warmth and wisdom.

Time for an example:

Solveig: How can God pick who goes to heaven or hell?

Poppi: By looking at Jesus, who loves you, Solveig.

Solveig: Can you show me?

Poppi: One way of saying what happened with Jesus is that Jesus so attached himself to you that if God the Father wants his Son, Jesus, back, he is stuck with you too. Which is how he picks you. (p. 20)

The young Episcopalian and her ‘sort of half Anglican and half Lutheran’ (p. 70) Poppi return to some themes a number of times over the weekends. One such theme that offers some of the book’s richest insights concerns the Spirit, or ‘God’s liveliness’ (p. 38), as the good Professor Dr Poppi likes to remind his granddaughter. Solveig tries on more than one occasion to argue a case that the second and third articles in the Creed ought to be reversed not only because ‘all of us share in the Spirit’ (Father and Son included), but also because that’s how you cross yourself. Poppi agrees, ‘Father, Spirit, Son is probably a better arrangement’ (p. 146). The Spirit is also ‘God’s own future that he is looking forward to’ (p. 42). They compare God’s liveliness with Santa Claus who is ‘sort of like a messenger from the Holy Spirit – in a way’ (p. 100), before coming to discern the spirits to see if they are from God, for whom to have Spirit means that he ‘doesn’t stay shut up in himself … but that the goodness and mercy – and wrath, when it comes to that – that is in God blows out from him to hit you and me. And that means that just like your spirit is yours and not mine, even though your spirit effects me, so God’s Spirit is his and not a spirit like Santa Claus’ (p. 101).

In between laughs, they talk about what it is about Holy Communion – Solveig’s ‘favourite part of going to church’ because she gets to ‘stretch and walk around a little’ (p. 31) – that means that ‘the wine should be the very best’ (p. 33) and that dissolvable bread should be banned. The meal should be appetising, and not like those baptisms ‘when they just dribble a couple of drops on the baby’ (p. 34). They also talk about a confirmation service led by ‘this weird bishop guy’ who is ‘really stupid’ (p. 34).

While I’m trying to resist the temptation to share every gem in the book (and there are lots), allow me one more, this time on heaven, purgatory, and hell:

Solveig: Do you think of where you might go after you die as two places or three places? I think of it as three places.

Poppi: What three is that?

Solveig: Heaven, purgatory, and hell.

Poppi: So you hold to the doctrine of purgatory?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: You know that is very controversial.

Solveig: Why? It’s in Dante, isn’t it?

Poppi: Well, it’s in Dante, yes. But of course, Dante isn’t exactly in the Bible.

Solveig: No. But he’s still …

Poppi: The thing about purgatory is that it’s a very reasonable idea. It’s just that we don’t know if it is true.

Solveig: Except … Maybe God thinks that you should just go to two places. If you are bad, he has no patience with you at all, and he will just sort you to go to heaven or hell. I think that is reasonable enough.

Poppi: That God is impatient?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: That’s where I think the notion of purgatory is reasonable. I don’t think the Bible talks about God’s being impatient in quite that way.

Solveig: If he isn’t impatient, maybe he doesn’t want us to spend time thinking about where we should go.

Poppi: You know that plate that your mother and father gave us that hangs on the wall in the dining room?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: Remember what it says on it?

Solveig: I don’t remember what it says.

Poppi: It says, ‘I desire not the death of the wicked.’

Solveig: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’

Poppi: Right. So the biblical God takes no pleasure in sending people to hell, and that’s why I think that purgatory is a reasonable idea. The problem is we don’t have any way of knowing whether the purgatory idea is true or not.

Solveig: It’s just Dante’s idea.

Poppi: Well, it was older than Dante.

Solveig: It was?

Poppi: Yes.

Solveig: Yes. Well, see, I think of Dante as a theologian, in a way.

Poppi: He was a very great theologian.

Solveig: Yeah, I know. I’m saying that he kind of liked to make up things he wasn’t quite sure about, if you know what I mean.

The delightful exchanges in this album offer us a model of how good theological dialogue can and should take place: with mutual respect and humility which delights in both the giving and the receiving; with an eye on the scripture, an eye on the tradition, and an eye on the world (for those who possess at least three eyes); and within an environment of safety in which no idea is too whacky and no avenue of enquiry cut off prematurely.

Carl Braaten’s words regarding this book are worth repeating,

Robert Jenson has created a new medium, with his granddaughter Solveig, to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Just as Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism for children, this book of conversations covers the beliefs and practices of the Christian church – among them the commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the sacraments – in a way that parents, regardless of their denomination, can confidently read and discuss with their children. Robert Jenson has translated the core convictions of his two volumes of Systematic Theology into simple truths that his eight-year-old grandchild can understand in the course of their unrehearsed and lively conversations. If you want to know what a sophisticated theologian really believes, listen to him explain the mysteries of the Christian faith to a child in simple terms without being simplistic.

‘Children possess naturally the essential elements for having faith. The Kingdom of God is first perceived in the world children know best. Children, therefore, have as much to offer adults as adults have to offer children – perhaps more’. – John H. Westerhoff III, Bringing Up Children in the Christian Faith.