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Relational Spirituality, Humility, and Commitments to Social Justice and Intercultural Competence.

Cultural diversity and social justice are relatively controversial topics within Evangelical Christian communities in the United States, eliciting a diverse array of perspectives and practical commitments. While Evangelicals on the whole are relatively more socially and politically conservative than Catholics and mainline Protestants (Pew Research, 2015), there exists within the movement a spectrum of attitudes toward social justice and cultural diversity, reflecting different interpretations of sacred texts and core theological and spiritual convictions. Regarding social justice, one key point of divergence involves whether Christians ought to focus their energy on addressing individual needs or working to change social and political systems (Todd & Rufa, 2012). Evangelicals range from those who express a consistently progressive political vision (Wallis, 2016), to those who advocate efforts by churches and other institutions to relieve unjust suffering (Labberton, 2010; Stearns, 2009), to more conservative orientations which express reservations toward the term "social justice" as indicating a liberal political project that may detract from a more important focus on either (a) evangelism and personal salvation (Mohler, 2010; Smalling & Smalling, 2011) or (b) nuclear family relations and virtuous behavior (Olasky, 2015).

Issues of cultural diversity may arise among Evangelical Christians as they address racial and ethnic diversity within their congregations and as they engage in social service work through the helping professions. Emerson and Smith (2000) detail how Evangelical history, culture, and structures lend themselves to culturally homogeneous churches, while attempts at integrating different cultures into one congregation often experience pressures toward homogenization that favor dominant cultural norms (Edwards, 2008). The desire to develop culturally diverse congregations and institutions remains a priority for significant numbers of Evangelicals, however, and a body of literature has emerged to assist communities in developing the necessary skills to do so effectively (e.g., DeYoung, Emerson, Yancey, & Kim, 2003; Rah, 2010).

At the same time, the professional organizations of many service-oriented vocations that Evangelicals might pursue, including vocations in psychology, mental health, and education, have identified social justice and cultural diversity as important aspects of their respective professions. For example, social justice and respect for cultural differences are among the key principles in the ethical codes of the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), and the American Counseling Association (ACA). Vocations in areas such as ministry, missions, and theological education tend to be more loosely regulated; thus, expectations about student or trainee commitments to social justice or cultural competence may vary based on social or denominational context. Nevertheless, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) published a special issue of their journal (Theological Education; see Graham, 2009) on race and ethnicity in theological education. In recent years ATS sponsored a "Preparing 2040" initiative to (a) "enable schools to define success in their efforts related to racial/ethnic diversity;" (b) "help schools think critically and theologically about issues related to race, ethnicity, and diversity;" and (c) "guide schools with regard to practical institutional or educational steps to take on issues related to race and ethnicity" (Association of Theological Schools, 2017). As graduate trainees in the helping professions in seminary contexts are increasingly expected to receive training in relation to issues of social justice and cultural competence, it is likely that individual differences in the spiritual and personality orientations of Christians will interact with such exposure in various ways. In fact, a growing body of empirical research on individual differences in social justice commitment and intercultural competence supports the narrative above, showing (a) wide variation in such commitments and capacities, and (b) various spiritual, personality, and developmental or virtue factors can account for variance in commitments to social justice and intercultural competence (e.g., Balkin, Schlosser, & Levitt, 2009; Beer, Spanierman, Greene, & Todd, 2012; Endicott, Bock, & Narvaez, 2003; Jankowski & Sandage, 2014; Jankowski, Sandage, & Hill, 2013; Paine, Jankowski, & Sandage, 2016; Sandage, Crabtree, & Schweer, 2014; Sandage & Jankowski, 2013; Sandage, Li, Jankowski, Frank, & Beilby, 2015; Sandage & Morgan, 2014; Todd & Rufa, 2012). The present study investigated humility and differing spiritual orientations in predicting student commitments to social justice and intercultural competence in an Evangelical seminary and was intended to contribute to the critical and theological thinking suggested above by ATS.

Commitments to Social Justice and Intercultural Competence

Cultural diversity and social justice are themes within a complex set of topics that can be organized in various ways. For example, in the fields of counseling and psychotherapy the move toward multiculturalism and multicultural competence in the 1980s and 1990s was considered a paradigm shift and was called the "fourth force" following the previous three paradigms or "forces" (i.e., psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, existential-humanistic; Ratts, 2009). However, social justice has been described by some as the necessary "fifth force" in the history of counseling and psychotherapy, which shifts the ultimate goal of the helping professions toward impacting not just individual well-being, but transforming social systems that oppress (Constantine, Hage, Kindaichi, & Bryant, 2007; Goodman et al., 2004; Miller & Sendrowitz, 2011; Ratts, 2009; Sue & Sue, 2015; Vasquez, 2012).

Although cultural (or "multicultural" or "intercultural") competence and social justice are both increasingly emphasized as relatively distinct construct domains, there appears to be very little empirical research investigating measures of both in the same studies. One exception is a study of Christian seminary students by Sandage and Jankowski (2013) investigating spirituality in relation to measures of both social justice commitment (SJC), which used a definition based on Goodman et al. (2004) as "an active commitment and concern for social justice" (p. 368), and intercultural competence (IC), defined as "the ability to think and act in interculturally appropriate ways with sensitivity to cultural differences" (Hammer, Bennett, & Wiseman, 2003, p. 422). While both SJC and IC were positively correlated with aspects of healthy relational development, the small positive correlation (r = .15) between SJC and IC did not reach statistical significance, suggesting they were relatively orthogonal constructs in that study. In a subsequent study, Sandage and colleagues (Sandage, Jankowski, Crabtree, & Schweer-Collins, 2017) developed a brief measure of intercultural competence commitment (ICC) to assess a commitment to development in that area (as distinct from the achievement of intercultural competence) to offer a parallel to SJC in a cluster analytic study and found similar patterns of effects for ICC and SJC across clusters. These findings are generally consistent with a differentiation-based, relational spirituality model described by Sandage, Jensen, and Jass (2008) that posited SJC and ICC as related-yet-distinct dimensions of mature alterity, with alterity defined as "developmental forms of relating to the differentness of otherness" (p. 183). That is, mature alterity would be characterized by high levels of intercultural competence and a commitment to social justice, which would move beyond ethnocentrism toward strong capacities to engage in relational justice characterized by mutual recognition. In the relational spirituality model, experiences of alterity are thought to potentially generate crucibles of anxiety that might catalyze spiritual transformation and relational growth. However, the anxiety of alterity does not necessarily lead to growth and might overwhelm some individuals and reinforce stereotypes, prejudices, and defensive processes. Thus, individual differences in forms of alterity (e.g., relatively open versus defensive) appear to interact with individual differences in relational spirituality variables. More research is needed in this area to understand these alterity-related processes and spiritual formation factors that might facilitate or inhibit personal commitments to growth in these areas.

Humility and Mature Alterity

Humility is a virtue that has been increasingly conceptualized and studied in relation to the mature alterity dimensions of intercultural competence and social justice commitment (Jankowski et al., 2013; Paine et al., 2016). Humility seems to be consistent with a "curious and 'not knowing' stance" recommended by Addison and Coolhart (2015, p. 451). They suggested that individuals move beyond a "diversity tourism" (p. 450) approach of simply trying to learn content about different groups toward a relational or ethnographic capacity that is open and responsive to the complex and fluid intersectionalities of cultural and social dynamics. Hook and Watkins (2015) defined "cultural humility" (p. 661) as a willingness to reflect on one's own cultural position, an awareness of limitations in comprehending the culture and worldview of others, and openness to the cultural identity of others. Whereas Hook and Watkins focused on cultural humility as a foundation for multicultural effectiveness among therapists, we were interested in a more general dispositional humility among the seminary trainees in a variety of helping professions in the present study.

We define humility as a sense of personal groundedness (Wolfteich, Keefe-Perry, Sandage, & Paine, 2016) and build upon Hill, Laney, and Edwards' (2015) view of dispositional humility as being characterized by (a) low concern for status, (b) realistic self-awareness, and (c) an other-orientation. Humility facilitates SJC by generating a concern for the well-being of others across social differences and a preference for equity over personal status. Humility can also facilitate systemic social awareness that moves beyond myopic self-interest. ICC may also be associated with the realistic self-awareness dimension of humility and the embeddedness one has in cultural systems (Hook & Watkins, 2015). Humility has also been associated with the openness to appreciate new learning and understanding of differences, which are essential parts of ICC (Paine et al., 2016).

Relational Spirituality and Mature Alterity

Humility has been considered an important dimension of the relational spirituality model (Worthington & Sandage, 2016). Spirituality has widely been considered intrapersonal and defined as "a search for the sacred" (Hill & Pargament, 2003, p. 38). Hill and Pargament characterize the sacred as "concepts of God, the divine, Ultimate Reality, and the transcendent" (p. 65). Expanding upon Hill and Pargament's conceptualization, Shults and Sandage (2006) posited that spirituality is inherently relational and define relational spirituality as "ways of relating to the sacred" (p. 161). They stated that spiritual traditions describe various ways individuals relate to the sacred and that ways of relating to the sacred are diverse and may include love, anger, avoidance, preoccupation, resentment, fear, and submission, among other forms of relationality. Ways of relating to the sacred may vary not only in type, but also in quantity and quality, and can change over time (Worthington & Sandage, 2016). Because relational spirituality is viewed as developmental, it has been posited that spiritual experiences emerge in developmental and sociocultural contexts (Worthington & Sandage, 2016). These contexts and the related traditions are hermeneutical in that they provide ways of interpreting spiritual experiences throughout the life span of development.

An important aspect of spirituality development involves alterity or the way that individuals relate to "the sacred of others" (Worthington & Sandage, 2016, p. 44), making the relating not only intrapersonal, but interpersonal as well. Relational spirituality is interpersonal and intercultural in as much as it is influenced by ways individuals relate "to the diverse cultural frameworks of others" (p. 44). Because of its interpersonal nature, alterity forms an important individual differences dimension of relational spirituality. Alterity functions as a relational dimension of spirituality in patterns that dictate the way individuals relate to the "differentness" of others, particularly related to spiritual and religious differences (Sandage, Paine, & Morgan, in press). SJC and ICC form two components of mature alterity related to individual differences in relational spirituality or ways of relating to the sacred. A lack of mature alterity, seen in negative patterns of interaction, can be linked to forms of relational spirituality that do not foster constructive relations across differences or impede concern for social justice (Worthington & Sandage, 2016).

Faith Maturity and Defensive Theology

In consideration of extant research, we were interested in whether different relational spirituality orientations would predict alterity dimensions (i.e., social justice and intercultural commitment) over and above humility. We focused on two relational spirituality orientations: faith maturity and defensive theology. Faith maturity is "the degree to which a person embodies the priorities, commitments, and perspectives characteristic of vibrant and life-transforming faith" (as cited in Piedmont & Nelson, 2001, p. 167). It is dually assessed in the degree to which relation to God (vertically) and commitment to prosocial relation to others and service to humankind (horizontally) are emphasized. Cross-sectional studies of faith maturity find it positively related to moral foundations of care (i.e., concern for the well-being of others) and fairness (i.e., concern for the oppressed and disadvantaged; Johnson et al., 2016), and greater marital adjustment (Knabb, 2014). Increased faith maturity was also positively related to increased service to others over time (Hall, Edwards, & Wang, 2016). Thus, mature faith is linked to positive ways of relating to others.

Beck characterized defensive religion/theology as "existential defensiveness, a faith deployed to avoid or minimize existential predicaments (e.g., death, meaninglessness)" in contrast with existential religion, which is characterized by "a reluctance to quickly adopt religious 'solutions' to existential predicaments" (p. 143). Beck's (2006) description of these two religious motivations represent two divergent existential anxiety coping methods. Key differences hinge on whether faith is used to repress anxiety in a "denial of death," or held in tension in "the face of death." Research has shown that defensive religious orientations successfully minimize anxiety as it relates to positivity, optimism, greater existential security, and meaning in life. However, beliefs in special divine protection, insight, and spiritual blessings vis-a-vis religious others, which characterize defensive theology, together reinforce a strong "worldview defense" that can foster less tolerance for diverging religious views (Beck, 2006; Van Tongeren, Davis, Hook, & Johnson, 2016). The more one's religion functions to provide an enclosed, secure worldview in the face of existential uncertainty, the more important it feels to protect that worldview from external challenges. Thus, while a defensive theological stance can promote certain forms of prosocial behavior, it is also linked to negative forms of relating to those outside of one's religious in-group.

The Present Study

The present study tested the discriminant validity hypothesis that differing relational spirituality orientations (i.e., faith maturity and defensive theology) would significantly predict individual differences in commitments to social justice and intercultural competence over and above the effects of dispositional humility in a sample of graduate-level seminary students in the helping professions. Faith maturity was expected to positively relate to both SJC and ICC on the basis of a relational spirituality that seeks to integrate closeness with God in combination with systemic care and concern for others. Defensive theology was also predicted to negatively relate to SJC and ICC on the basis that a defensive theological stance promotes a focus on personal security and benefits in combination with limited tolerance for diverging viewpoints of others and outgroup members (Beck, 2006; Van Tongeren et al., 2016). Spiritual impression management (Hall & Edwards, 2002) was included as a control variable to account for the possibility of socially desirable responses to survey questions.



Masters-level students (N = 228) in helping professions at a Protestant-affiliated university in the Midwest United States participated in this study. Ages ranged from 22 to 62, with a mean age of 33.32 (SD = 9.17). The sample was 55.7% male, 43.9% female, and .4% not reported. Average time in the seminary program was 2.68 (SD = 1.62) years, with a range between 1 to 7 years. Participants identified as 79.4% White, 14.5% Asian, 5.3% Hispanic/Latino, 3.1% Black or African American, and 2.6% American Indian or Alaska Native. Participants were invited to self-identity their ethnic identity. A total of 65 individual (e.g., German, Chinese, Mexican) and multiple (e.g., Indian/South African, Irish/Mexican) ethnic backgrounds were represented, and twenty-five different denominations or faith traditions were also represented.


General humility. The General Humility Measure (GHS; Hill, Laney, & Edwards, 2015) is a 13-item, self-report scale designed to assess a disposition toward humility. Confirmatory factor analysis validated a three-factor solution: (a) low concern for status (e.g., "When I achieve something, I deserve special recognition;" reverse coded), (b) other-orientation (e.g., "It is important that my work benefits others as much as it benefits me"), and (c) accurate assessment of self (e.g., "To view myself more honestly, I am willing to face things I don't like about myself"). Respondents rate their agreement with such statements on a 5-point scale (1 = strongly disagree, 5 = strongly agree), and higher scores represent greater general humility. Good convergent validity has been demonstrated, as well as internal consistency (Cronbach's alphas for subscales ranging from .73 to .85; Hill et al., 2015). In the current study, the Cronbach's alpha internal reliability for the overall GHS was .71.

Defensive theology. The Defensive Theology Scale (DTS; Beck, 2006) is a 22-item measure designed to assess a sense of specialness and the view that the universe is well ordered, benevolent, and predictable. Respondents report agreement to items using a 7-point scale (1 = Disagree Strongly, 4 = Neutral/Mixed, 7 = Agree Strongly). Sample items include "God's Hand is directing all the daily events of my life" and "God controls every event around us, down to the smallest detail." Initial construct validity generated a coefficient alpha of .86 (Beck, 2006). Cronbach's alpha of the DTS was .88 for this study.

Faith maturity. The Faith Maturity Scale-Short Form (FMS-SF; Piedmont & Nelson, 2001) is an 11-item self-report measure of the extent to which an individual reports experiences of a mature spirituality characterized by: (a) closeness with God (vertical faith maturity; e.g., "I have a real sense that God is guiding me") and (b) altruistic social and relational commitments (horizontal faith maturity; "I feel a deep sense of responsibility for reducing pain and suffering in the world"). The FMS-SF has evidence of cross-cultural construct validity and internal consistency (Dy-Liacco, Piedmont, Murray-Swank, Rodgerson, & Sherman, 2009; Hui, Ng, Mok, Lau, & Cheung, 2011; Piedmont & Nelson, 2001). Respondents indicate their agreement with items using a 7-point Likert scale (1 = Never true, 7 = Always true). The Cronbach's alpha of the FMSSF in this study was .79.

Social justice commitment. Social justice commitment was measured using three items from the Horizontal scale of the Faith Maturity Scale (FMS-H; Benson, Donahue, & Erickson, 1993). In the present study, we used the following three items: (1) "I am active in efforts to promote social justice," (2) "I speak out for equality for women," and (3) "I speak out for equality for people of color." Prior studies using these same three items have found social justice commitment to be positively associated with hope, forgiveness, humility, differentiation of self, and positive religious coping (Jankowski et al., 2013; Sandage et al., 2014; Sandage et al., 2017; Sandage & Morgan, 2014). Items were endorsed on a scale from 1 (never true) to 7 (always true). Sandage et al. (2017) reported a moderate internal consistency (a = .79), and this study was similar (a = .77).

Intercultural competence commitment. A commitment to developing intercultural competence was assessed using the two-item Intercultural Competence Commitment Scale (ICCS; Sandage, Jankowski, Crabtree, & Schweer, 2017). The items include "Growth in intercultural competence is a vital part of Christian spiritual formation," and "I feel personally motivated to develop my skills and competence to improve my intercultural relationships." Items were endorsed on a scale from 1 (never true) to 7 (always true). Sandage et al. (2017) reported a coefficient alpha of .82 for the ICCS in their study, and a coefficient alpha of .85 was obtained in this study.

Spiritual impression management. The five-item spiritual impression management (SIM) subscale of the Spirituality Assessment Inventory (SAI; Hall & Edwards, 2002) was used in this study to assess the tendency to exaggerate spiritual virtue. Sample items are rated on a five-point scale and include "I am always in the mood to pray" and "I am always as kind at home as I am at church."

The SIM scale was developed through factor analyses of the SAI to ensure impression management items loaded on a separate factor and exhibited solid construct validity in relation to other measures of spiritual development (Sandage & Morgan, 2014). The SIM had an internal reliability of .68 in this study.

Data analytic procedure

The data was examined for outliers, and normality prior to data analysis. Using Hoaglin and Iglewicz's (1986) method, three outliers were identified on intercultural commitment. These cases were subsequently removed from all analyses. Skewness (skewness index < 13.00 1) and kurtosis (kurtosis index < 110.001) were not problematic as indicated by Kline (2011).

Preliminary data analysis

No differences were found among the variables based on gender, ethnicity, or year in the program. Descriptive statistics and bivariate correlations among study variables can be seen in Table 1. Two hierarchical multiple regression analyses were used to examine how faith maturity and defensive theology were related to intercultural and social justice commitment separately, over and above dispositional humility. Faith maturity and defensive theology served as independent variables with SJC and ICC serving as dependent variables. A step-wise process was used to assess both the respective and cumulative effect of the dependent variables in relation to the independent variables. Spiritual impression management was controlled for by entering it first, followed by humility, in the analyses.


The hypothesized models predicting SJC and ICC were examined using hierarchical linear regression analyses. Spiritual impression management did not account for significant variation in the SJC model (shown in Table 2). Introducing humility to the model accounted for 2.2 % of the variation in SJC, and this change in R was significant ([DELTA]F [1, 224] = 4.83, p < .05). A significant direct effect emerged between humility and SJC when added to the model ([beta] = .109, 95% CI [.011, .207]), but did not remain when defensive theology and faith maturity were included ([beta] = .060, 95% CI [-.016, .1351). Adding defensive theology and faith maturity accounted for 42.5% of the variation in SJC, and this change in [R.sup.2] was significant ([DELTA]F [2, 222] = 77.74, p < .000). Defensive theology had a significant, negative effect on SJC in step 3 ([beta] = -.058, 95% CI [-.081, -.034]), and faith maturity had a significant, positive effect on SJC in this same step ([beta] = .312 95% CI [.259, .369]).

Spiritual impression management did not account for significant variance in the ICC model (see Table 3) at step one. Including humility in the model at step two explained 8% of the variation in ICC, with a significant change in [R.sup.2] (AF [1, 225] = 16.354, p < .000). Defensive theology and faith maturity were added to the model at step three and together accounted for 22.7% of the variation in ICC with a significant change in [R.sup.2] ([DELTA]F [2, 223] = 21.113, p < .000). A significant direct effect between humility and ICC emerged in step two ([beta] = .106, 95% CI = [.054, .158]) and remained when defensive theology and faith maturity ([beta] = .092, 95% CI [.045, .140]) were added to the model in step 3. Defensive theology was significantly and negatively related to ICC in step 3 when controlling for humility and spiritual impression management ([beta] = -.028, 95% CI [-.043, -.014]), and faith maturity was significantly and positively related to ICC ([beta] = .091, 95% CI [.058, .124]).

Defensive theology and faith maturity mediated the relationship between dispositional humility and SJC while controlling for spiritual impression management. Dispositional humility was not related to social justice commitment directly, but indirectly through defensive theology and faith maturity. Additionally, defensive theology and faith maturity accounted for some of the variance between dispositional humility and ICC while controlling for spiritual impression management. In other words, dispositional humility maintained a direct effect on ICC even when defensive theology and faith maturity were significantly related as well.


The present study found that humility and differing relational spirituality orientations were associated with commitments to social justice and intercultural competence among students in an Evangelical seminary. Humility was positively associated with both SJC and ICC over and above the effects of spiritual impression management, so these results add to the empirical literature on humility and aspects of mature alterity (Hook & Watkins, 2015; Jankowski et al., 2013; Paine et al., 2016). Faith maturity was positively associated with SJC and ICC, suggesting greater faith maturity characterized by an integration of vertical and horizontal dimensions of active love is positively associated with commitments to social justice activity and intercultural competence beyond the effects of humility. Conversely, defensive theology was negatively associated with SJC and ICC beyond the effects of humility, indicating that increased defensive theology characterized by a focus on special protection from God and Divine control over all events is negatively associated with commitments to social justice and intercultural competence. The results add to a growing body of research on spirituality, virtue, intercultural competence, and social justice (e.g., Sandage & Jankowski, 2013; Sandage & Morgan, 2014) and contribute to understanding spiritual and theological factors that shape differing attitudes toward diversity and social justice among Christian leaders in Evangelical contexts. SJC and ICC were only moderately correlated in this study, which further supports the understanding that it is important to consider both of these relatively distinct dimensions of alterity (Sandage & Jankowski, 2013; Sue & Sue, 2015).

Prior to further discussion of the results, several limitations to the methodological design are worth noting. First, this study is cross-sectional; thus, causal inferences are inappropriate. Longitudinal designs are needed that examine whether humility, defensive theology, and faith maturity change and how such changes might influence SJC and ICC over time. Second, although the study had variations in age and nearly equal gender proportions, the majority of participants were Euro-American and Protestant attending an Evangelical seminary. Research with more diverse samples in other educational contexts is needed. Third, while humility is a virtue that is unique in showing positive correlations with multiple indicators of mature alterity, future discriminant validity research might also investigate some of the other positive psychology virtues that have shown associations with certain alterity factors (e.g., gratitude, hope, forgiveness). Future research might also examine how family relationships (i.e., family of origin, romantic) and social networks or community connections influence these constructs. Finally, the measures of humility and ICC are relatively new and necessitate further psychometric development and validation, including the construction of more items to measure ICC. All the measures in this study were self-report, although it is worth highlighting that measures of SJC and ICC were not associated with impression management. Future research on relational spirituality and theological orientations toward alterity might also use the Intercultural Development Inventory as a more rigorous measure of actualized intercultural competence.

Humility was positively associated with both SJC and ICC and predicted variance in ICC beyond the effects of the relational spirituality orientations in this study. As described above, humility involves low concern for status, realistic self-awareness, and an "other" orientation, with each dimension being important for mature alterity. Humility may be particularly important to appreciating the value of cultural differences and intercultural competence beyond the impact of spirituality, and future research might further study whether this is due to the factors mentioned above or other potential aspects of humility, such as an appreciation of transcendence or the ability to regulate emotions of shame and pride.

As was hypothesized, faith maturity was positively related to SJC and ICC, which supports the relational spirituality model (Sandage et al., 2008; Shults & Sandage, 2006). In addition to supporting previous research, the findings showed that faith maturity accounted for nearly ten times the amount of variation in the model compared to defensive theology. The faith maturity measure used in this study was based on theological assumptions that mature Christian spirituality integrates positive "vertical" and "horizontal" relational spirituality dynamics. That is, mature faith involves a secure, loving relationship with God and active concern for the well-being of others, including those experiencing social oppression. Perhaps commitment to social justice and faith maturity are linked because more mature faith opens one up to work toward fairness for others, which corroborates findings that those who are more humble and have a mature faith are more caring and fair toward others (Jankowski et al., 2013). Future research using qualitative designs might assist in better understanding specific theological understandings that support these connections between faith maturity and mature alterity.

Faith maturity was positively associated with ICC, and this association was significant over and above the effects of humility, as we expected. Findings indicate that faith maturity positively influenced ICC and that graduate students in the helping professions are more likely to be committed to developing intercultural competence if they, to a greater degree, have sincerely taken on the priorities, commitments, and perspectives of faith full of vitality and believe that life involves change over time (Piedmont & Nelson, 2001). Perhaps those scoring high in this measure of faith maturity are able to sacralize their efforts to relate across social and cultural differences, thus making it part of their sense of spiritual formation.

Our hypothesis that defensive theology would be negatively associated with social justice commitment over and above the effects of humility was also supported. This finding confirms research indicating that individuals with a defensive theological stance are less tolerant of diverging religious views (Beck, 2004, 2006; Van Tongeren et al., 2016). Those with a more defensive theological stance may exhibit less commitment to ensuring that others are treated fairly and with care in part because of how their theological system functions to provide both a sense of existential comfort and special protection visa-vis others and a strong in-group orientation. Confidence in special divine protection, insight, and blessings may lead to a belief that because their God(s) provides these special blessings, that God(s) will provide similar blessings to those who are socially oppressed if they are worthy and ask for them. The anxiety-minimizing function of the defensive orientation may therefore serve to reduce a sense of urgency and responsibility for material social change on the premise that the benefits of their theological system can be extended to anyone who chooses to affiliate with the in-group.

Defensive theology and ICC were also negatively related and may also be attributed to the need for the in-group system to defend itself over perceived threats from out-group members and external critique (Beck, 2006). Because defensive theology is focused on existential security, viewpoints that challenge one's theological stance are guarded against rather than welcomed or integrated, which make it more difficult to comprehend and seek to understand differing theological stances of others. Thus, the defensive stance, energized by the need to minimize existential anxiety, may erect social barriers to engaging with out-group viewpoints due to discomfort and perceived threat to the system. These individuals high in defensive theology may demonstrate less commitment to intercultural competence if they are uncomfortable engaging with those of differing viewpoints.

Practical Implications

Positive associations between faith maturity and SJC and ICC, and negative associations between defensive theology and SJC and ICC have practical and important implications for those preparing to enter the helping professions. It would be expected that those with greater faith maturity are more willing to learn to be--or are--more adept at attending to the cultural differences of others, particularly cultural and social differences. Graduate trainees with a defensive theological stance may find it difficult to relate to others whose theological stance vary from their own, possibly due to underlying anxiety about personal security (Beck, 2004). Assessing faith maturity and defensive theology early in training programs may help faculty know which students need attention regarding the way that they relate to diversity in the world around them, develop mature understandings of their own community identity, and engage in prosocial activities in relation to people of different religious and cultural groups. Students high in defensive theology may also need help with theological tensions between an emphasis on horizontal or alterity dimensions of relational spirituality in contrast with their greater focus on divine protection and control.

Further spiritual formation considerations in training may also include exploring ways to help students identify and explore defenses, in particular the factors that have contributed to defense mechanism development and ways defenses manifest in trainee worldviews and those they will serve. This may include examining the nuanced intersections of cultural background, religious and spiritual experiences, relational development, and social identities (Sandage et al., 2008). Educators that aid graduate trainees in gaining insight about these connections and in developing a critical sociocultural lens may increase the propensity for translating knowledge into practical application across diverse contexts.

In terms of relational spirituality, the implications for those entering into the helping professions may extend to both personal development and the capacity to effectively relate to the "sacredness of others." Could it be that one aspect of another person's sacredness is their cultural background, values, and experiences? If so, as trainees learn to better relate to and process their own cultural locations, they may be more equipped to value, honor, and attend to the diversity within the people they will eventually serve.

Another extension of this research may be exploring how defensiveness can be reduced and faith maturity developed in the context of graduate training. This may be an opportunity for collaboration between psychologists, researchers, and graduate level educators to explore specific interventions and exercises that facilitate this process in students. In light of this, future research opportunities should explore questions such as (a) To what degree is a propensity toward faith maturity innate? (b) What internal and external factors are most conducive to developing faith maturity? (c) How can defensive theology be expanded and/or defensiveness reduced? (d) What psychological constructs and principles can inform this training? and (e) How might denominational affiliation and variations in theology and organizational commitment to social justice and intercultural competence mediate the training process?


Cultural diversity and social justice remain relatively controversial topics within Evangelical Christian communities in the United States, so we investigated how humility, faith maturity, and defensive theology relate to commitments to social justice and intercultural competence. Greater faith maturity was indicative of greater commitment to social justice and intercultural competence over and above humility; on the other hand, defensive theology was indicative of the opposite pattern of effects. We recommend that graduate training programs assess faith maturity and defensive theology to aid graduate students in the helping professions. By so doing, they can help facilitate the development and growth of faith maturity and reduce defensive theology of trainees to enhance their service to others.


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Chance A. Bell (PhD. in Marriage and Family Therapy, Florida State University) is a post-doctoral research associate at the Albert and Jessie Danielsen Institute. Dr. Bell's interests include the integration of character strengths and virtues (humility, forgiveness) and spirituality in couple and family therapy.

Steven J. Sandage (Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University) is Albert and Jessie Danielsen Professor of Psychology of Religion and Theology at Boston University, Research Director and Staff Psychologist at the Albert and Jessie Danielsen Institute, and Visiting Faculty in Psychology of Religion, MF Norwegian School of Theology. His interests include spirituality and psychotherapy, positive psychology (humility, forgiveness), integration of psychology and theology, couple and family therapy, and intercultural competence and social justice.

Tranese Morgan, M.A. is a fifth-year doctoral student in Clinical Psychology at Regent University's School of Psychology and Counseling. She is currently a Psychology Intern at the Danielsen Institute, providing individual therapy, group therapy, and psychological assessment. Her clinical and research interests include the intersections of race, culture, spirituality, and sexual identity, LGBTQ issues, social justice, advocacy, Black identity development, meaning-making, and relational psychodynamic theory.

Daniel Hauge is a doctoral student in Practical Theology at Boston University's School of Theology, where he serves as a Research Associate. He received his Master of Divinity from Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. His research employs developmental and social psychology in analyzing systemic racism in faith institutions and society at large. His interests include liberation theology, critical whiteness studies, and the role of spirituality, empathy, and imagination in shaping ethics and social policy.

Chance A. Bell

Steven J. Sandage

Tranese D. Morgan

Daniel J. Hauge

Albert and Jessie Danielsen Institute

Boston University

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Chance A. Bell, Ph.D., Danielsen Institute, Boston University, 185 Bay State Rd, Boston, MA 02215; This project was supported by a grant (#60622) from the John Templeton Foundation.
Table 1
Descriptive statistics and bivariate correlation matrix of variables

Scale     M      SD     SIM    DH       DT        FM
SIM     13.48   3.60    --    .19 **   .44 **   .26 **
DH      48.75   5.17           --      .09      .15 *
DT      97.67   18.04                   --      .14 *
FM      62.72   7.58                             --
ICC     12.11   2.08
SJC     14.84   3.82

Scale    ICC        SJC
SIM      .12        .03
DH       .28 **    .15*
DT      -.14 *    -.19 **
FM       .36 **    .59 **
ICC      --        .44 **
SJC                 --

Note. SIM = spiritual impression management; DH = dispositional
humility; DTS = defensive theology; FM
= faith maturity; INTC = intercultural commitment;
SOCJ = social justice commitment * p < .05; ** p < .01.

Table 2
Hierarchical regression predicting social justice commitment

          [DELTA]    [R.sup.2]       B           95% CI
Step 1     .001        .001
SIM                                .029       [-.111, .168]
Step 2     .021        .022
SIM                               -.001       [-.141, .1340]
DH                                 .109 *      [.011, .207]
Step 3     .403        .425
SIM                               -.028       [-.151, .094]
DH                                 .060       [-.016, .135]
DTS                               -.058 ***   [-.081, -.034]
FMS                                .312 ***    [.259, .365]

         SE B    [beta]

Step 1
SIM      .071     .027
Step 2
SIM      .071    -.001
DH       .050     .148
Step 3
SIM      .062    -.207
DH       .038     .081
DTS      .012    -.272
FMS      .027     .618

Note: SIM=spiritual impression management; DH=dispositional
humility; DT=defensive theology; FM=faith maturity
* p < .05, *** p <.001

Table 3
Hierarchical regression predicting intercultural competence

          [DELTA]    [R.sup.2]       B           95% CI
Step 1     .014        .014
SIM                                .067       [-.008, .143]
Step 2     .067        .080
SIM                                .039       [-.035, .113]
DH                                .106 **      [.054, .158]
Step 3     .146        .227
SIM                                .056       [-.021, .134]
DH                               .092 ***      [.045, .140]
DTS                             -.028 ***     [-.043, -.014]
FMS                              .091 ***      [.058, .124]

         SE B   [beta]

Step 1
SIM      .038    .116
Step 2
SIM      .038    .068
DH       .026    .263
Step 3
SIM      .039    .098
DH       .024    .229
DTS      .008   -.247
FMS      .017    .331

Note: SIM=spiritual impression management; DH=dispositional
humility; DT=defensive theology; FM=faith maturity
*** p <.001
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Author:Bell, Chance A.; Sandage, Steven J.; Morgan, Tranese D.; Hauge, Daniel J.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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