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

September 11 Reflection – A Singaporean Viewpoint

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times” – Matthew 18:21 – 22.

I can still remember that fateful day: Waking up to go to school in the wee hours of the morning, everything seemed to be abuzz. Everyone seemed to be talking about one common thing and every television set seemed to be focused on one main image: the World Trade Centre Twin Towers in New York City. George Bush mentioned that it was “a day of infamy” and while I had little knowledge of what that meant or what was happening around me (cocooned in the comforts of childhood innocence, I was 11 years old), there seemed to be an undeniable atmosphere of immense sadness and ambivalence. Terrorism, hysteria and paranoia took centre stage. Yet at the same time, news of heroic emergency response teams and strangers supporting each other became evident as well. And all of these made me wonder: How can there ever be forgiveness and reconciliation in this scene of chaos and grief?

Continue reading “September 11 Reflection – A Singaporean Viewpoint”

Creating Space for God

Chris shares on the vital necessity of creating space for God in the midst of a busy world.

Lately, I’m noticing an invitation to actively create space and make myself available for God in my life. The availability that I actively consent to, the willingness to sit with my inner restlessness and resist the constant (and inordinate) desire to do something (for God, for the church, for ministry-related activities etc. in a knee-jerk and sporadic manner), better allows me to cooperate with God’s divine grace and trust in His perfect timing.

Continue reading “Creating Space for God”

Repentance and the Morte d’Arthur

Garrett reflects on what his childhood hero King Arthur has to teach him about Christian leadership.

“Then Sir Bedivere cried: Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies? Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as thou mayst, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

Not too long ago, I volunteered to serve in a 9-day long School of Christian Leadership. Desiring a break from being a facilitator, I subtly hinted to the organizers that I wanted to help out in logistics instead. Just turn my brain off, do some manual labour, and reconnect with Jesus, you know? My plan worked a little too well, and I found myself in charge of logistics, because Our Lord has a strange sense of humour. But regardless, it turned out to be an extremely fruitful experience for me.

Continue reading “Repentance and the Morte d’Arthur”

Teaching and St. John Baptist De La Salle

Chris shares more about St. John Baptist De La Salle and why he is one of Chris’ favourite Saints.

“You can perform miracles by touching the hearts of those entrusted to your care.”                                                                                                                                                                                      – [Meditations 180.3]

It is often very easy for us to get lost in our work – especially when we live in a fast-pace, productivity-driven society like Singapore. Amidst the hum-drums of routine work and key performance indicators (cue the dreaded “KPI”), it is often tempting to lose ourselves in our jobs, equate our identities with our professions and forget that we are so much more than what we do. In short, in losing ourselves to work, we lose our self-identities completely. Indeed it is often very tempting to get so caught up with the things we do at work on a daily basis that we forget the very rationale, purpose and objectives of our work as calling. Therefore, it is often necessary to re-focus and re-center our attention to first-principles; it is important to (re)anchor ourselves lest we get blown around in the turbulence of societal expectations and competing voices.

Continue reading “Teaching and St. John Baptist De La Salle”

Letter to St. Teresa of Avila

Chris writes a letter to St. Teresa of Avila — a Saint whom he considers very very intimidating.

“Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee:
All things pass; God never changes. Patience attains all that it strives for.
He who has God finds he lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”  –
St. Teresa of Avila

Dear St. Teresa of Avila,

I hope this letter finds you well. I have a quick confession to make: I find you incredibly intimidating.

Your writings are always so fiercely passionate and incredibly firery; they have pierced the depths of my soul, over and over again. Paradoxically, however, my trepidation towards you does not stem from fear but more from awe. I am awed that a living, breathing individual like yourself was able to reach such immense depths of union with Christ whilst on this earth. I am awed by how you remained steadfast and convicted to our Faith despite the numerous trials and tribulations that you experienced both from the world and from our very own Church.

Though I find you very intimidating, I must also add that your writings and ideas have aided me enormously and have drawn me closer to God. Indeed, you have been a very effective instrument of His will, and a very clear signpost pointing towards God to so many people. Some of my friends even consider you as their closest spiritual companion, and I know a couple of them who have entered Carmel, so moved by your life and intimacy with Jesus Christ.

Continue reading “Letter to St. Teresa of Avila”

Creating Space for God

Chris shares about the importance of carving out time to reconnect, recalibrate and recenter one’s life in God’s love.

Lately, I’m noticing an invitation to actively create space and make myself available for God in my life. The availability that I actively consent to, the willingness to sit with my inner restlessness and resist the constant (and inordinate) desire to do something (for God, for the church, for ministry-related activities etc. in a knee-jerk and sporadic manner), better allows me to cooperate with God’s divine grace and trust in His perfect timing. Continue reading “Creating Space for God”