In his new book, co-authored with his wife and psychology colleague, Todd Hall and Liz Hall, lay out a new way of looking at spirituality that takes into account insights not only from the Bible, but also from psychology and the neurosciences. Join Scott and Sean for this insightful look at spiritual formation.

Todd Hall is professor of psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University. He is the author of numerous journal articles, specializing in the spiritual formation of Christian college students.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. It's a podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics.

Scott Rae: We have the opportunity to have a dear trusted faculty colleague with us, who's done some groundbreaking research on the whole notion of spirituality and how best to pursue spirituality in a way that's actually transformative and not just sort of repeating what we've been doing in the past.

Scott Rae: Professor Todd Hall is with us. He's Professor of Psychology at Biola's Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Liz, have written this really terrific book that we want to recommend to you called Relational Spirituality, where he blends psychology, neuroscience, theology, biblical studies, all together, really nicely into, I think, a new and different view of spirituality that we desperately need to hear about today.

Scott Rae: So, Todd, so grateful to have you with us and tell Liz too, we're grateful for her contribution to this as well. So, thanks for being with us. And tell us, first of all, what do you mean by the term relational spirituality? Is that really something new? Because I thought spirituality was all about a relationship to Jesus. But you're saying it's a whole lot more than that.

Todd Hall: Yes. Yes. Well, first of all, thanks God, it's so great to be with you and Sean, really appreciate this opportunity. Yeah, I think in some ways relational spirituality is new. In some ways it's building on a lot of research that has been growing over the past really 40, 50 years, which is what I try to piece together and sort of integrate.

Todd Hall: But yes, I think, certainly spirituality is about relationship with Jesus, relationship with God. But there is more to it and psychology and neuroscience, as you mentioned, helps us to understand how we grow and develop in relationships. So, the term relational spirituality really refers to a broad model or paradigm that suggests that human beings are fundamentally relational. That's a primary aspect of what it means to be created in the image of God. And that the goal of sanctification is a relational goal. And so I refer or that in the book as loving presence. And that the process of how we get there is a relational process. And that we grow in love for God and others primarily through relationships.

Sean McDowell: Part of what you're reacting to in your book, relational spirituality is what might be called a rationalistic spirituality. What do we mean by that? Where did it come from? And how does this overly reductionistic rational view affect the way we relate to God?

Todd Hall: Yeah, Sean, there's a longstanding assumption or rationalistic approach to spirituality that basically holds if we just learn enough about God and enough about scripture in our head, so head knowledge, that spiritual growth and maturity will automatically happen as a result of that. And I think there's a growing recognition in the church that that model is outdated and truncated, that it doesn't tell the whole story.

Todd Hall: In terms of where it comes from, there's a longstanding history of that. And I trace that in chapter one, but briefly the Reader's Digest version is that, in the early church, the pursuit of conceptual or head knowledge, whatever you want to call that, was generally speaking pursuit as an integral part of a deeper knowing of God, a deeper relational knowledge of God. And then over time that became split apart.

Todd Hall: So, there's a lot of historical forces that led to that. But a couple of the key ones are the development of scholastic theology in the middle ages with a heavy focus on logic. And then the enlightenment with a heavy focus on the new science that was developing. And that was imported into our approach to scripture. Then, the split between the liberal-conservative split in the late 1800s, early 1900s led to the conservative group understandably focusing on doctrine and sort of the boundaries of doctrine. So, that led to a focus on explicit or head knowledge, which was important, but left some gaps in our understanding of the relational dimensions of spiritual growth.

Scott Rae: So, Todd, a lot of your background in psychology has been, I think, really helpful in understanding the spiritual journey and you've done a lot of research on the spiritual journeys of college students, particularly in Christian colleges. But I think what's new, as I'm reading your book, is the emphasis on what the neurosciences have helped us, how they helped us understand spirituality. How has that contribution been significant in your own research on spirituality?

Todd Hall: Yeah, yeah. Both psychology broadly, as well as neuroscience have helped us to understand that early relationships with caregivers, with emotionally significant people in our life, that those experiences are imprinted in our brain and remembered in a form of gut level or implicit memory. And those memories then guide and shape the way we experience relationships, the way we relate to others. And it does this all outside of our conscious awareness. So, it's very powerful and we have to sort of tune into that. And it's something that gets missed a lot, I think, in the church. And that comes from neuroscience and psychology.

Sean McDowell: You maintain that we were "created to connect." What's the evidence for that? And what bearing does that have on our view of spirituality?

Todd Hall: Yeah, Sean. So, there's a lot of evidence that I take a look at in chapter three in the book, that we're created to connect. Some of that comes from infant research. Prior to the 1970s, infant researchers thought that infants were born sort of non-relational and that they grow into being relational. And we've since learned that infants are incredibly relational from day one, even in utero, there's evidence that infants remember implicitly, again, their mother's voice, for example.

Todd Hall: So, there's a lot of research in the area of infant research, probably the biggest area would be attachment research, which I think I just mentioned, there's a whole body of research on attachment that shows that, again, the types of experiences that we have with early caregivers gets imprinted. We remember that. And that predicts all kinds of outcomes in every area of life.

Todd Hall: So, people who experience secure attachment and internalize that, again, through this implicit memory, have better outcomes in terms of educational outcomes, social outcomes, relationships, marital outcomes, physical health, and mental health. So, back to spirituality, Sean, if we're defining and thinking about spirituality within this relational framework or relational endeavor of growing and love for God and other people, then this whole idea that we're created to connect has a huge impact. It suggests that God designed us for relationships and that we really need to focus on and pay attention to this research and understanding how we grow and develop. Because it's not just, I mean, it is psychology, but it also is intrinsically part of our spirituality, how we love others.

Scott Rae: Todd, I know it's been sort of a longstanding tradition that our notion of spiritual formation primarily is for our relationship to God. And that scripture is really all we need for that. Have you gotten some resistance to your work on integrating psychology and the neurosciences into this sort of predominant view of spirituality?

Todd Hall: Yeah, I think there's some resistance, Scott. I do think it has lessened over the past 20 or 30 years, which has been encouraging to see. But there is some resistance still in some sectors of the church. And I think part of that comes from this typical view of spirituality that you mentioned, Scott, this more rationalistic view, it allows us to have a sense of control. It presents a very linear model of how we grow and there's a sense of control.

Todd Hall: So, when you bring in this new view that growing in our love for God and love for others is kind of a messy relational process and it's not linear, that really can kind of shatter our sense of control. So, I think there's some understandable reasons why there's resistance there, but the hope is that we can push through that and develop this in the church.

Scott Rae: Although this does make a little more sense why Jesus paired the two great commandments together like He did, and that loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and strength. And the second commandment is like it. I think what He meant by that is it's equally integral. So, loving your neighbor as yourself. So, those two are connected.

Todd Hall: They're all intertwined. Exactly.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Now, one other thing that I think we've been skeptical about in the past is the place of emotions. And we've often viewed emotions as disruptive or as unreliable things, you can't trust your emotions in favor of rationality. But you have really a different take on that. I mean, you describe it as the emotion revolution in your book. So, what do you mean by that and how do emotions fit into our understanding of spirituality?

Todd Hall: Yeah. Yeah. So, I think, first of all, we have to understand what emotion really is. We tend to, in the church, oftentimes, think of it as just mood or something like that. And that emotions as mood can just sort of take us astray. But really emotion from a deeper perspective is the way we evaluate the meaning of events for our wellbeing. And it happens automatically. It's processed primarily in the right brain, very rapidly, outside of our conscious awareness.

Todd Hall: So, when you look at emotion that way, what I'm trying to say in the book is that emotion reflects an underlying meaning system. So I'm not saying that you always just go with your emotions or mood. What I am saying is that emotion is the starting place for transformation, that you can't bypass that. It reveals this underlying meaning system, it reveals how we view ourselves at this deep implicit level and how we view God as well. So, that's the starting point for transformation.

Todd Hall: And it's an integral part of the growth process. Also, emotions are very helpful. They have what we call action tendencies built in. They motivate us to take action. Sometimes they can be off and they need to be rewired, but generally they reveal our meaning system.

Sean McDowell: So, what would that look like? Because if we're doing systematic, rational theology, it's pretty much easy to say, "Well, you got a faulty view of the Trinity. You don't understand the end times. Here's the role of the Holy Spirit." There's cognitive ways we can control and kind of fix the process, but emotions get a little bit more messy and seem to be outside of our control. So practically speaking, what would it look like to try to rewire those to develop spiritual health?

Todd Hall: Yeah. So, that involves, in a nutshell, new relational experiences. So, when a person for example has... Let's say they grow up with a father who's abusive or neglectful and they have certain kind of experiences that wires attachment system to expect those same experiences with other important people in their life, as well as with God.

Todd Hall: So, those experiences have to be rewired through new relational experiences. So, that's the code, if you will, in which it operates. So, explicit knowledge or head knowledge helps to guide us, it helps to interpret these experiences, but the direct transformation happens through new relational experiences that sort of challenge those old painful experiences in a positive way.

Sean McDowell: That's so interesting and helpful, because one of our mutual friends, Mark Matlock, some time ago just gave an example with me that he was talking about difference between implicit and explicit knowledge. And you talk about this in the book, but the example that he gave was related to relativism, how it's believed so much by young people. And we tend to say, "Well, it's faulty views that they have." And he says, "Actually, there's a connection between having broken relationships and lacking community and embracing certain things like relativism."

Sean McDowell: So, if we want to help someone to understand truth, there's a cognitive fix and kind of a relational fix. Now, talk about this distinction between explicit and implicit knowledge, because I'm an apologist and we tend to focus on explicit knowledge. But oftentimes, like you say, implicit knowledge can be equally, if not more powerful in the way we relate to God and other people.

Todd Hall: Right. Right. Yeah. So, there's an author, Michael Rousell who has a phrase that he says, "Emotion is the rule, rationality is the tool." So, emotion, again, when we think of it as the way we evaluate meaning automatically operates outside our conscious awareness, four times faster than conscious thinking. So, by the time we have conscious thoughts and beliefs, they're already thoroughly informed by this deep emotion system. So you have to get to that, to your point, to really have a deeper transformation.

Scott Rae: So, why is it that we spend so much of our time and energy in tempting spiritual transformation by just teaching people about it? Why don't we recognize this implicit knowledge as being so important in the process of spiritual transformation?

Todd Hall: Yeah, it's a great question, Scott. I think part of it, again, goes back to the history that we talked about of, there was a need to kind of defend doctrine, understandably, and a focus on explicit knowledge there. But I think then that led to, again, this gap in understanding the messy relational processes. So, that's part of what I started to learn as I got into psychology, became a clinical psychologist, started doing therapy.

Todd Hall: And I started to see that, to a person, my clients who have experienced painful, early emotional experiences, abuse, trauma, those things always played out in their experience of God. And I think part of the answer to that question, Scott, is that we have a thin model and understanding of this deep process within the church. So, many leaders in the church have not really experienced it and been trained in it, and have difficulty seeing it.

Scott Rae: It's part of that too, just because we're uncomfortable with messy relational things. And maybe to add to that, we just don't have the patience to realize that we're in a long game here when it comes to spiritual transformation. And especially if those early traumatic unattached experiences need to be rewired in the brain, that's not a short-term fix.

Todd Hall: Right. Yes. That's a great point. It is. I think that's some of the psychological reasons why this is difficult in the church. Yeah. That it is messy. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of grace and we, understandably, naturally, we want quick fixes. I mean, and that's part of our culture, I mean, this focus on quick fixes and information transfer and that's been kind of imported into the church.

Todd Hall: So, oftentimes you see in the church, people who are really struggling, they might go to a church leader or pastor, and pretty quickly they get to a point of, "I'm not sure what to do with this person." And then they get maybe referred out or the person leaves. So, it does take a lot of patience. I think the starting point for that is just understanding this process that it's a marathon, it's a long process to rewire someone's connection, especially if there's been trauma or abuse or those kinds of things

Sean McDowell: Are some of those experiences that somebody has trauma when they're younger, sometimes in terms of implicitly, before they even recognize that there was a kind of abuse, you said it's a marathon, but in some ways, does the data show that certain people, their ceiling will just be limited a little bit in their ability to connect with people and connect with God because of those experiences? Does the data show that? How do we incorporate that into the way we disciple people?

Todd Hall: Yeah, I think, overall, so one of the transformations we've seen in neuroscience is understanding what's called the plasticity of the brain. The brain continues to develop throughout life. 50 years ago, the view was the brain develops until maybe 25 and then it stops. But now we know the brain can continue to develop and regenerate. And of course, that's just sort of the mechanism for the change in the soul.

Todd Hall: So, change is always possible, but this view does suggest, again, the idea that it's a long haul and that early experiences that are damaging, especially when they occur during periods where the parts of the brain that process social and emotional information are going through a growth spurt. Those do have a big impact. So, back to your point, Scott, it's not an easy, quick fix. And we see this in psychotherapy, and in my training of students doing psychotherapy, it's not a quick fix. It does take time, but it is possible to change in a deep way,

Scott Rae: I can see it, some of our listeners thinking, this is a much more sophisticated view of spirituality than I've been used to. And yet, recognizing, if you have some of those traumatic things in your background, I could see some of our listeners saying, "Does this mean that I have to go to therapy to resolve some of these things before I can actually have a meaningful connection to God or really expect to grow spiritually?" What would you say to them?

Todd Hall: Yeah, that's a great question, Scott. And I mean, I think part of the reason I wrote this book is because I believe all of these growth processes we're talking about come from God, the source of the love in these processes that help people grow come from God. Sure, they may come directly from the field of psychology, but they're coming from spiritual formation and a number of different fields and disciplines now.

Todd Hall: So, that's part of what I want to do is get this out into the church. Psychology does not own, and therapy does not own these processes. They're God's processes. So, I would say therapy, I think, can be helpful, definitely for people like that. But I don't think it's always necessary and that transformation can happen through relationships in any number of contexts, and that can happen in the church and it should be happening in the church, and I think it does happen in the church when community is being done well.

Sean McDowell: So, I have a question, it may go beyond your focus. But I've noticed in the past two, three years, a number of theologies of the body by Protestants come on the scene in a way that used to just be talked about by Catholics. So, a lot of Protestants had this rationalistic, purely intellectual approach, and there seems to be a slight waking up that says, "Wait a minute, we are embodied creatures and relationships have an intellectual component, but we are present and there's affection and there's touch." Has this relational spirituality been more present in the Catholic church than the Protestant church? Is your book a part of a large you're waking up that you're seeing within the Protestant church and/or beyond?

Todd Hall: Yeah, I think in some ways it has been more present in the Catholic church and we see that in the spiritual formation movement, that has a long history in the Catholic church and has been sort of brought into the Protestant church in more recent times. And there's definitely an embodied component to that and a psychological component. So, yeah, I think that's bringing some good resources to the table that we are embodied beings. We have a soul, I think, or we are a soul. But we are embodied beings. And understanding how relationships impact us and how the brain works and all those kinds of things helps us understand spiritual growth.

Scott Rae: So, Todd, let's say that a local church in the area reads your book and calls you in as a consultant. And the pastor in essence says, and the leadership say, "We're just not seeing the kind of spiritual depth that we want to see in the people that we're serving. We got a lot of our people that see, they're just kind of going through the motions, help us take our church deeper spiritually." What kind of advice would you have for a church who ask for that based on what you've found?

Todd Hall: Yeah, I would say, when we look at the typical model of church, the main service with the preaching is sort of the main component. There is worship. And again, both are very important. But in a sense that is a reflection of this rationalistic paradigm we've talked about, that's the big focus. So, I think there needs to be a shift to where there's an equal focus on relationships and smaller groups, where there's sustained relationships over time.

Todd Hall: And one of the things I talk about in the book is a anthropologist named Robin Dunbar, who talks about maximum social network is about 150 people, where we can have meaningful relationships. And he talks about tiers of relationships, and we talk about that in the book that we need to be intentional about, yes, we need teaching, but we need to focus on helping people integrate God's truth into our hearts, to feel those ideas. So, that's one of the ways I talk about it is feeling an idea, it needs to become experiential, and stories help us to do that, when we tell our own story, when we hear people's stories. It's taking God's truth and ideas, and it's helping to integrate those into our hearts.

Todd Hall: And we also need smaller groups, whether that's house church, Sunday school group, where there's sustained relationships over time. And what we see oftentimes are classes that are topical and there's a place for that and those can be great. But we also need groups, where they're sustained relationships. And I've heard from some churches that, "Well, people don't want to sign up for a class where they're going to be stuck with certain people they may not like for a long period of time." So, it makes it easy to just, "I'll just go to this class and this class. And if I don't like this person, I'm just going to leave."

Todd Hall: So, I think part of it's the mindset and the culture among the leaders to understand that this is important. We need to foster ongoing relationships where we're dealing with the messy, relational processes in some core small groups, as well as the larger group.

Scott Rae: So, I guess I have to give up the idea that I'd love to be a part of a small group if I can choose the people who I'm with.

Todd Hall: Right.

Sean McDowell: Hey, Todd. One of the things we hear so much in the church is people will say things like, "All I need is Jesus." And that sounds so spiritual. And yet, it's not biblical, the Bible says, "Carry one another's burdens, encourage one another, confess your sins to one another, worship with one another." Part of your book is trying to say that spirituality's not an individual sport. It's a team sport. What do you mean by that? And what would it look like to take that seriously to have more of a communal sense of spiritual development?

Todd Hall: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's a great analogy, Sean. I think it is a team sport. So, I think part of that is recognizing that we're a family, the family of God, and that we all are responsible to build the community that we want to be a part of and that God wants to shine his love and light to the world. So, there needs to be a commitment to that. And I think there needs to be a longstanding mutuality. So, it's not mutuality in the short run, where there's this tit for tat, give and take, but really trying to give and support others in the community when others are struggling and need help and recognize and hope that they will be there for me when I need help.

Todd Hall: And sometimes, for some people, that involves reaching out, sometimes it's hard to receive help. So, I think, again, back to the culture, we need to foster a culture where this is viewed as important and essential. And there's this mutual commitment to each other's growth and to everybody using their gifts in the church. So, that's one step, I think.

Scott Rae: Todd, one final question, as you look across landscape of the Protestant church, what are you encouraged about as you see this movement towards spiritual formation? And what cautions would you give to the church based on some of the things that you've found?

Todd Hall: Yeah. I am encouraged that there is a movement over the past 20-plus years of bringing spiritual formation into the Protestant church. And I think, it's taken a while for the Protestant church and evangelicalism to sort of wrestle with that, and what does that mean? And is this biblical? And how do we do this? And I think there's a growing shift or turn recognizing that this can be approached in a very biblical way. And I think a lot of the psychology is helping us to see that there's some very important aspects to this. So, I'm encouraged by that movement.

Todd Hall: The Institute for Spiritual Formation here at Biola is an example of that and really one of the leading programs in that area. There's others all over the country. So, I think that's encouraging. There's, I think, more openness to psychology in general and the role it can play in understanding spiritual growth over the past 20, 30 years. And also more openness to the importance of mental health, which we all know is a huge issue. We've seen an increase in loneliness, in social isolation, in mental health issues like depression, anxiety, even before the pandemic, loneliness was being declared an epidemic in this country and in the UK. And it's just gotten worse, and especially with the young adult age group.

Todd Hall: And I think, 20, 30 years ago, that was sort of an off limits topic in the church, to talk about mental health and depression, anxiety, and even more severe things like schizophrenia or bipolar. And I think there's a growing awareness that this is important, that more people are struggling and we need to address this.

Scott Rae: Well, Todd, this has been super insightful. I appreciate you mentioned our Institute for Spiritual Formation here. For our listeners, if this discussion has captured your interest, I want to recommend Todd's book Relational Spirituality. But also, if you're interested in pursuing this at a more academic level, at a more for a degree or a certificate level, our Talbot's Institute for Spiritual Formation has all sorts of courses and programs available to you, and to check out in order to do that. That'd be a really significant next step for folks who really want to pursue this much more seriously.

Scott Rae: So, Todd, we're really grateful, grateful for your work and tell your wife, Liz, too, grateful for her contribution to this-

Todd Hall: Will do.

Scott Rae: ... as well. And thanks so much for being with us.

Todd Hall: Well, thanks for having me, really appreciate it.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically Podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including what we just mentioned as part of our Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit in order to learn more about those. If you enjoyed today's conversation with Sean and me and Dr. Todd Hall, and about his book, Relational Spirituality, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, Think Biblically about everything.