What are the Conditions of Reliable Discernment?

Martin Westerholm
Monday 2 May 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

On the terms of a Pauline theology, Christian formation has its end in the exercise of discernment, understood as a refined form of judgment that is able to see truths that are otherwise hidden. In Romans 12, Paul speaks of Christian formation in terms of a renewal of the mind, and then adds that this renewal is for the sake of discerning what is good. In 1 Corinthians, he speaks of formation in terms of growth in a spiritual form of wisdom, and adds that this growth is for the sake of discerning things that are hidden from the “natural” human being. In Philippians, he writes that his hope is that believers’ love will be shaped by continual growth in capacity to discern distinctions between good and evil. Across the different themes that surface in his letters, one consistent point of emphasis is that spiritual growth has a discerning form of judgment as one of its ends.

Ongoing shifts in theological work are perhaps best understood as recoveries of Paul’s repeated emphasis on discernment as the end of spiritual formation. Recent work in biblical studies has suggested that concerns about the norming of religious speech should be addressed not by following the modern tradition in privileging particular sources of our speech — religious experience, perhaps, or divine revelation — but rather by cultivating a disciplined mode of judgment that is able to discern differences between reliable and unreliable (see, e.g. Munzinger 2007; Moberly 2006). Recent theological work has been marked by turning from typically modern emphasis on theology as scientia, a vision of the discipline as governed by consistent application of rigorous methods in the model of the natural sciences, towards recovering an earlier vision of theology as the cultivation of a discerning form of sapientia (see, e.g., Coakley 2013; Fiddes 2015; Ford 2007; Ward 2016).

Changes in the theological landscape over the last three decades or so have meant that few notions are more central to contemporary theological ethics than formation, and few more central to theological reflection than discernment and wisdom (see, e.g., the material summarised in Martens 2020 and Westerholm 2020). It is however striking that, if we pull back and set theological work within the wider intellectual landscape, one thing that comes to visibility is a distinctive contrast between theological emphasis on formation for discernment, and wider perception of the ambiguity of putatively refined human judgment. Developments in two fields of study in particular have fostered tension in our understanding of the forms of judgment that theologians stress.

On one side, the popularisation of research in behavioural economics has led to widespread suspicion regarding the capacities of human judgment. Phenomena like confirmation bias have been shown not only to impact human judgment generally, but also to cripple the ostensibly refined judgments of experts more particularly, for training in a specific area has been shown, in some cases at least, simply to increase a subject’s agility in pressing new information into existing conceptual modes (see the research summarised in Kahneman 2011). The term “moneyball” has entered the popular lexicon as a way of naming the reality that statistical projection is often more predictive than the judgments of putative experts (see Lewis 2003).

Yet, alongside this work in behavioural economics, wider psychological study has demonstrated that participation in particular practices does increase the capacity and reliability of human perception and judgment. Psychologists have shown that people like artists, conductors, and sommeliers genuinely see, hear, and taste more than untrained observers, and firefighters, doctors and nurses are able to make reliable expert judgments that save lives (see Connolly 2019; Klein et al. 1992). Important developments in psychological research push back against the notion that human judgment is inevitably crippled by bias. The result is that, in considering theological emphasis on discernment, we are left to reckon with the reality that human judgment is both affected by systematic bias, and genuinely capable of deepened forms of perception that open dimensions of reality that are hidden from untrained observation.

The question that I propose to take up concerns the conditions under which the formation of judgment succeeds. What, according to research in psychology, are the conditions under which the formation of specific forms of judgment is or is not reliable? The question brings together inquiry into spiritual formation and the deliverances of cognitive psychology. It has a twofold logic. On one side, it acknowledges that concerns regarding the exposure of human judgment to bias compels theological accounts of formation to be responsible in learning from psychologists about practices that do and do not cultivate reliable judgment. On the other side, it supposes that psychological study cannot simply dictate when acts of discernment themselves have succeeded, for the psychologist has no measure of the presence of God, goodness, or justice that is not itself rooted in acts of discernment. If we are to pursue an answerable puzzle rather than an open-ended inquiry, then we must ask what psychologists have learned about the conditions under which processes of formation are likely to lead to good judgment. An inquiry of this kind would have far-reaching implications not only for contemporary emphasis on formation and wisdom, but also for reflections on topics like ecclesiology and sanctification.

2. Fields of Study

The disciplines with which I will engage are systematic theology and cognitive psychology. I turn to systematic theology in order to develop a picture of theological understandings of the conditions under which formation for the particular form of spiritual discernment that is central to Pauline thought can succeed. I turn to cognitive psychology in order to develop a picture of contemporary understandings of the conditions for successful formation more generally.

2.1 Systematic Theology

Invocation of the notion of systematic theology as one of the fields to be engaged raises important questions. The identity of the field is not at all clear: in the English speaking world, systematic theology tends to name the study of Christian doctrine quite narrowly; in Scandinavia, systematic theology is an umbrella label that subsumes under itself Christian doctrine, practical theology, philosophy of religion, and ethics. Even where it is employed more narrowly, just what counts as inquiry into Christian doctrine is a contested question. But, for all of the difficulties, there is something appropriate about invoking the vague notion of systematic theology because no one discipline or tradition owns inquiry into spiritual formation and discernment. As a question of discipline, a range of fields can lay claim to the topic: biblical studies can claim to illuminate Pauline or wider biblical understandings of discernment; doctrinal inquiry can claim the question under the auspices of inquiry into the work of the Holy Spirit; practical theology can claim to the question as a matter of conduct or exercise; liturgics can claim the question as a matter of the practices of the Church. As a question of tradition, the matter is rendered complex because differing Church traditions are separated in part by differing visions of the place of discernment in the Christian life, and the practices that give it rise.

I locate my work under the ambiguous label systematic theology in order to acknowledge that no clear claim to the question may be made by one discipline. But, of course, this helps us little, for it remains that we must identify some way to approach the question. I propose to address the difficulty by giving a brief account of Augustine’s vision of formation. Two points can be identified by way of justification. The first is the breadth and influence of Augustine’s work: an understanding of biblical theology passed through his work down into virtually every tradition of western Christianity; there is no discipline of theology in which his work is not read. The second is the significance of his work as a point of dialogue with psychology. Among the points of fascination of Augustine’s work is the perceptiveness of his self-analysis. This perceptiveness opened up new areas of inquiry in seeking to understand the human psyche. His work has remained of interest to, and influential for, the study of psychology in a way that other theologians cannot match. He thus offers a helpful point of entry into dialogue between the disciplines.

Of course, given the amount written by and about Augustine, even the decision to focus on his work might not seem to narrow down the scope of inquiry much. For present purposes, three summary points about his understanding of formation for discernment may be offered.

  1. The first and decisive feature of Augustine’s understanding establishes from the beginning a barrier to dialogue between theology and psychology, for it involves invocation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Augustine is clear that equipping believers for discernment is the peculiar privilege of the Holy Spirit (see, e.g., Augustine 1991A, Book 13.23.33). To say this much is, for him, to do nothing more than to restate a foundational feature of Pauline thought. Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 2 of a hidden divine wisdom that is known by and revealed through the Spirit of God alone, so that it is the ‘spiritual’ person endowed with the Spirit who judges all things. Augustine supposes that the passage provides a rule in terms of which parallel discussions in Paul’s letters about the renewal of the mind for the exercise of judgment are to be understood: any growth in capacity for judgment is conditional on the presence of the Holy Spirit, who alone knows the hidden wisdom of God (see, e.g., Augustine 2002, Book 6.20.31-6.28.39; 1991B, Book 14.22-23).
  2. A second feature of Augustine’s understanding of judgment follows closely from the first. It involves the idea that judgment arises from the reformation of human love. Emphasis on love emerges as an extension of Augustine’s privileging of the work of the Holy Spirit because Augustine understands the work of the Spirit to consist primarily in a reordering of love (see, e.g., Augustine 1991B, Book 15.28-29). For him, the Holy Spirit makes possible a discerning form of judgment by drawing human love from the self-enclosure of prideful lust towards the generous openness to truth of agape (see, e.g., Augustine 1991B, Book 8.10-14). The idea offers a synthesis of philosophical accounts of judgment that suggest that we begin to see things as they are only when we are converted from seeing the world in terms of self-interest, and biblical identifications of love as the criterion of perceiving divine truth.
  3. A third feature of Augustine’s understanding follows, in turn, from the second. As an extension of the idea that love is a condition of growth in judgment, Augustine counsels a humility that resists the pretensions of a self-aggrandising spiritual heroism (see, e.g., Augustine 1998, Book 10). Alongside the idea that growth for the exercise of judgment is part of the vocation of those renewed by the Spirit, Augustine argues that, in a great many spheres, judgment should be humble, provisional, and left up to an eschatological divine judgment (see, e.g., Augustine 1998, Book 1.26). As with his emphasis on love, this idea, too, expresses both philosophical and biblical conceptions. From a philosophical perspective, Augustine is convinced that decisive matters like the intentions of others remain hidden from us (see, e.g., Augustine 1998, Book 19.6). From a biblical perspective, Augustine takes the eschatological cautions of 1 Corinthians 4, according to which believers should judge nothing until the appointed time, when God will reveal matters that are hidden in darkness, to stand as a crucial qualification of the commendation of judgment in 1 Corinthians 2.

2.2 Cognitive Psychology

Inquiry into the deliverances of cognitive psychology takes us out into a sphere that is no less expansive and sprawling than systematic theology, or indeed the study of Augustine’s work. I will focus here on three lessons from psychology that provide important points of conversation with the Augustinian notions that we have encountered.

  1. A first lesson consists in the idea, central to psychological inquiry now for several decades, that reliable judgment may be formed primarily regarding repeatable phenomena in stable environments (see, e.g., Stewart, Roebber, and Bosart 1997; Shanteau 1992). Study in psychology has shown that claims to expert judgment from people dealing with irregular, unstable environments — politics and the stock market, for instance — are worse than misleading: not only wrong, but usually a manifestation of a host of unconscious biases (Tetlock 2017). By contrast, expert judgment may genuinely be reliable amongst those who have had long practice dealing with phenomena that repeat themselves in regular ways. The closed, controlled environment of a chess board provides an ideal context in which expert judgment can develop, but even more fluid contexts like hospitals and house fires permit the development of genuine expertise amongst experienced nurses, doctors, and fire chiefs (see Van den Brink et al. 2019). Psychological study seems, in short, to repeat and sharpen a key claim made by Hobbes: wisdom is just another name for experience, and not just experience generally, but long exposure to stable environments containing causally controlled phenomena (Kahneman and Klein 2009).
  1. A second lesson provides a complement to the first, and a further point of contrast with Augustine. It consists in the idea that good judgment emerges from control of the mind’s executive functions over the decision-making process (see, e.g., Diamond et al. 2012). One kind of study from which the lesson emerges involves asking listeners to evaluate different recordings of the same piece of piano music, sometimes with priming to associate the recording with either a professional pianist or a student, and sometimes not (Aydogan et al. 2018). The study showed that listeners were highly likely to allow the priming to affect their judgment, but less so when they recruited areas of the brain associated with executive function, and emotional regulation and self-control in particular, into the evaluation process. Indication of the importance of executive control furnishes an important extension to the first lesson regarding experience in regular environments: one reason that experienced doctors and firefighters are able to make reliable judgments is that they are better positioned to resist emotional stress reactions that inhibit judgment. Even chess masters will make mistakes when the stress of high stakes play weakens the hold of their executive functions on their decision-making processes (Klein et al. 1995).
  1. A third lesson brings us back to a theme encountered in Augustine’s work: good judgment is inseparable from humility. On one side, contemporary research shows that overconfidence is the “mother of all biases”, both generating and exaggerating a number of the biases to which human judgment is prone (see Moore and Swift 2010, and the application of this study in Moore 2018). Even in the kind of regular, stable environments that make good judgment possible, overconfidence leads to mistakes by experienced professionals (Croskerry and Norman, 2008; Angner 2006). By contrast, those experts who possess a reliable capacity for good judgment consistently display traits that reflect intellectual humility: awareness of their own fallibility and the limits of their knowledge; openness to new information that requires rethinking existing conceptions; moderation in the certainty with which they present their views, and willingness to revise their conclusions (Schwab 2012; on the definition of intellectual humility see Samuelson et al. 2014). Research has found little correlation between intellectual humility and general cognitive ability, but it is clear that the least reliable judgment is found in a person who claims ironclad certainty for a conclusion about irregular phenomena, while the most reliable is found in experienced figures who, confronted with a regular situation, indicate a high probability of a particular outcome while acknowledging — or at least retaining awareness of — their own limitations (Krumrei-Mancuso et al. 2019). The point is an important extension of emphasis on executive function, for research shows that epistemic humility is most characteristically present in those who allow this functioning to predominate (Zmigrod et al. 2019).

3. Discussion

As we saw above, a disconnect between theology and psychology complicates the task of formulating a question regarding good theological judgment, for the fundamental task of that judgment is discerning the activity of God, and psychology has no means of verifying divine activity in a way that allows it to evaluate when judgment has and has not succeeded. The question of good judgment must, therefore, be framed at a level above the concrete question of success or failure. I have presented it as an inquiry into what psychology can teach theology about the conditions under which judgment is likely to succeed. Though indirect, this way of framing the topic is useful because it shows that, at a decisive point, psychology offers a fundamental challenge to theology.

The challenge is this: the central lesson of psychological study is that judgment succeeds where it concerns regular phenomena that occur in stable environments, while Pauline and Augustinian thought have bequeathed to theologians the notion that discernment hinges on the activity of the Holy Spirit, which, Paul reminds readers, is free, singular, and occurs where it will. This basic contrast entails that, though psychology cannot pronounce directly on the success of theological judgment, it can raise pointed questions regarding its probability of success. If the primary conditions for success are stability and regularity, then the reliability of judgments that depend on the presence of the Holy Spirit would seem to stand in serious question.

A sense of a disconnect and a fundamental challenge is furthered if we consider the faculties on which good judgment depends. Johannine and Augustinian thought are united in pointing to love as the criterion of discernment. As we saw, Augustine develops the notion, indebted to Platonic thought, that a conversion of love is required if we are to become reliable judges, for we are prone to seeing things in terms of our own self-interest until we are converted to love of the neighbour. Love and service to the neighbour emerge as keys to good judgment; but these ideas stand in contrast to the results of psychological research, which suggest that reliable judgment is rooted in the dispassionate working of executive control, and not the affective investments of love. We appear to encounter a foundational opposition in accounts of the faculties on which good judgment depends: the affective resources of love, on one side, and the detached assessments of executive function, on the other.

Yet it would be premature to look at differences between insistence on regularity and identification of free agency, and privileging of executive function and emphasis on love, and declare irreconcilable differences between the psychological and the theological, or the thoroughgoing problematisation of the latter by the former. It might be that there is a fundamental disconnect between theological emphasis on love and psychological emphasis on executive function, but it might also be that the two disciplines are attending to different aspects of the question. Where psychologists speak of relying on executive function, they tend to remain quite thin in descriptions of how to do this. A general commendation to avoid emotional judgment is offered with little attention to the concrete movements involved. By contrast, it is clear that, in speaking of the importance of love, Augustine is in some cases at least not naming a decision-making faculty that takes the place of executive function, but rather identifying a key to bracketing self-involved passion so that deliberative faculties may do their work. The primary impediments to good judgment are, on his account, the passions stirred up by self-interest. In drawing us from self-interest towards an engaged openness to others, love serves not as an alternative to processes we now call executive functioning, but rather as a way of freeing space for executive functions to do their work.

Beyond a possible harmonisation of this kind, there is a key area in which actual harmonisation exists between psychological research and theological pronouncement. It is an area that also permits a qualification of the opposition between psychological emphasis on the need for stability and regularity and theological privileging of the free activity of the Spirit. This area concerns the centrality of humility. Augustine develops the theme by pointing to biblical material that identifies binding judgments as the exclusive privilege of the divine. He takes this material to entail that judgment must be offered, if at all, provisionally and with humility. Precisely because judgment depends on the presence of a Spirit who does not admit of human control, it must be offered in humble openness to correction, for the speaker cannot claim mastery over the Spirit. This qualification makes possible a lessening of the gap between psychological emphasis on regularity and theological privileging of a free spirit (for accounts of some of the possibilities and limits of wider rapprochement between biblical and psychological themes, see Macaskill 2019; Wolfteich et al. 2016A and 2016B). It also points to an important alignment between the psychological and the theological, for psychologists suggest that the reliability of judgment is inversely related to the confidence with which it is offered. Experienced figures who have cultivated genuine forms of reliable expertise are open about their limitations and the possibility of their error. One hallmark of false expertise is a claiming of certainty beyond what a situation allows.

4. Conclusion

The apostle Paul points to cultivation of discerning judgment as the end of spiritual formation. Inquiry into the conditions under which good judgment is possible point to some concrete lessons that theologians can learn from psychological study. Psychologists cannot dictate where Christian judgment has and has not succeeded, but they can point to ways in which contemporary understanding of existing theological conceptions should be shaped. Two concrete conclusions can be offered based on the dialogue that we have encountered here. The first is that theological emphasis on the Spirit’s work should be understood as grounds for a humility that tempers the certainty attributed to theological judgment. Psychological research raises important questions about emphasising the Spirit’s work; on one level, theologians must live with the challenge raised by psychological emphasis on stability and regularity. But there is another level on which they can learn from psychologists by taking emphasis on the Spirit’s work to entail the kind of humility that psychologists themselves commend. The second lesson is that emphasis on love as the key to judgment should be understood as a complement and not a competitor to executive functioning. Identification of the centrality of love is well-entrenched in the theological tradition, but it is important that it be understood not to open onto partial, affect-driven forms of judgment, but rather to set believers free from a prejudicial form of self-interest for the task of clear-eyed perception. Psychologists’ emphasis on regular contexts and executive function driven judgment will remain, on some levels, uncomfortable challenges for theologians, but they can also point to ways in which theological notions can be reframed in order to further the aim of growing into wise forms of discernment.


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Westerholm, Martin. 2022. “What are the Conditions of Reliable Discernment?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 7). https://www.theo-puzzles.ac.uk/2022/05/02/westerholm/

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Martin Westerholm
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