Ministry and Theory of Mind

Garrett talks about the Theory of Mind and how it can help us understand the spiritual journeys of ourselves and others.

One piece of advice I will never forget receiving from my Spiritual Director is this: in ministry, you must learn to speak the language of the heart. This means learning to empathize with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and identifying with their struggles and hopes. Being a more bookish and studious sort of guy, I must admit this changed the way that I approached my ministry. When before I looked to form ideas from high concepts to improve the institution or society as a whole, I started again from the ground up, having casual conversations that eventually led to a deeper sharing of lives, which in turn helped me gain a deeper understanding of the universal struggles of the human condition. I realized how crucial it was to understand the hearts of my fellow members of community, and how easy it was, as a leader, to become out of touch with the average member’s spiritual needs.
But rather than turn my back on everything that I had read, I found my established literary foundation an invaluable tool in learning the language of the heart. This intellectual formation, coupled with carefully processed intuition, helped me form and connect ideas, especially when my friends found that they lacked the words to describe their situation. Often, after I managed to draw that connection, I was met with an exclamation of ‘Whoa, you read my mind there’, or on one particularly memorable occasion, ‘STOP STARING INTO MY SOUL, GARRETT!’. I started to wonder if I had struck upon something, if I had begun to figure out the way that the head and the heart can come together in walking this faith journey with others.
Perhaps a little anecdote will serve to elaborate this idea further. Recently, I attended a panel discussion titled “The Relevance of Literature in a Time of Confusion”, organized by the Singapore Management University. At the end of the discussion when the panel was opened up to the audience, an elderly professor who was in attendance shared his own answer to the question. He gave the biblical example of John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The professor brought up the fact that this is the only time in the whole of scripture that Jesus is recorded as writing, when he “bent over and wrote in the dust with his finger” (Jn 8:6). What did Jesus write? We may never truly know, but some believe that it was the Law of Moses, and the professor’s response seemed to place him among their number. Others, referencing the Old Testament, see a connection with this verse: “Lord, you are Israel’s hope; all who abandon you will be put to shame. They will disappear like names written in the dust, because they have abandoned you, the Lord, the spring of fresh water.” (Jeremiah 17:13) Could Jesus, then, have been writing down the names, or even the sins, of those who were accusing the woman?
Whatever the case may be, the professor put forth the idea that perhaps this is the only glimpse we have of Jesus the literary critic. He had to analyze the letter of the Law of Moses, the hearts of the accusers, the accused woman, and whatever he was writing on the ground. And from this analysis, Jesus was able to draw out from this chaotic situation an amazingly compassionate response: “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her” (John 8:7). Perhaps, said the professor, this was the most compassionate response in all recorded writing.
I would propose that a good way to learn the language of the heart is practicing the Theory of Mind. The definition of the Theory of Mind is given below:
Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to recognize and attribute mental states — thoughts, perceptions, desires, intentions, feelings –to oneself and to others and to understand how these mental states might affect behavior. It is also an understanding that others have beliefs, thought processes and emotions completely separate from our own.
Theory of Mind is a skill, just as much as St. Ignatius’ Discernment of Spirits is a skill. As such, it can grow better with practice, as you hone your intuition and become better at attuning to the thoughts of others. In a nutshell, this process consists of taking what a person is telling you and forming a theory about the underlying patterns that influence these thoughts and behaviors. It remains a theory as it is impossible to completely understand the mind of a fellow human being, and your conclusion may be right or wrong. The theory of mind is also similar to empathy, but the key difference is that empathy is the ability to feel what the other is feeling, while theory of mind relies on intuition and leaps of logic.
However, I would argue that this does not make the latter any less valid in the process of journeying with someone, as empathy has it’s limits. As humans, our experiences are all different, and that means we aren’t necessarily able to feel completely everything associated with someone else’s experience. This is where theory of mind helps fill in the gaps: “Oh, so-and-so probably feels X because Y.” Furthermore, theory of mind is something that everyone practices instinctively on some level. As such, it can be understood and harnessed to bring others to Christ.
In my opinion, to develop theory of mind in the context of Christian ministry, I would propose that three things are important:
  1. Firstly, prayer. As with all things in ministry, prayer is at the heart of everything. In this case, I believe that having a deep prayer life is of the utmost importance, as we are helping each other along in our Faith. Like any aspect of psychology, the theory of mind can be used to sinister or manipulative ends. Knowledge is power, and the very act of journeying together implies a mutual trust between two Christians that this knowledge will not be abused. So we must continue to pray that we will be given the grace to honor that trust, and to use it for God’s purposes, to lead others to Christ and to grow in Faith ourselves.
  2. Secondly, reading fiction. I understand that reading fiction is a luxury that few can afford, but it is nevertheless a very good way to develop the theory of mind. Stories resonate with people because the author, if competent, is able to replicate on the page experiences which resonate with the readers. Why did Harry Potter react that way? The narrative trick of ‘show, don’t tell’ forces you to think and guess at the motives of characters from the author’s description.
Another way that reading fiction helps is that stories and narratives bring people together, and which parts of a story people are drawn to can tell you quite a bit about them. I once gained an insight into someone’s particular emotional baggage and spiritual struggle by his sharing with me why the character of Darth Vader appealed to him so much.
  1. Lastly, spiritual reading. Journeying with others in a ministry or community setting necessarily operates on the assumption that humans have a spiritual dimension to them that cannot be ignored. Therefore, understanding this spiritual dimension is paramount if we want to use the theory of mind in helping others develop in their relationship with Jesus. I particularly recommend the works of Henri Nouwen, as he draws deeply from his own experiences and understanding of humanity, making his works extremely relatable. Spiritual reading helps us to uncover the common yearning that all humans, including ourselves, hold in their hearts, allowing us to help each other along in our journey.
So this has been my short and no means comprehensive introduction to a particular cognitive skill I think anyone in ministry should be aware of and aim to develop. I hope that as inadequate as it is, it will inspire readers to do their own exploring and reach their own conclusions.
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Author: christcenteredconversations

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