Decompartmentalizing your faith

Submitted by devin on Sun, 01/08/2017 - 18:25

I think the single greatest challenge so far in my life as a Christian has been compartmemtalization. And I imagine others may have the same challenge, so I'm going to blog about it. To really do the topic justice, though, I need to first talk about Fruedian, behavioural, and cognitive psychology.

Originally the field of psychology was dominated by Freudian theories, which were vast and attempted to explain why high society women might become hysterical. Each of his theories had a few important traits:

  1. The theories attempted to be dispassionate and scientific
  2. They were based on an assumption that (strange) behaviours could be explained by hidden thought processes in a person's mind. Call these processes P, for "person".
  3. It was impossible to prove whether they were true or false (they were not falsifiable).

Behaviorism was the next movement in the field, which sought to apply more intellectual and scientific rigor to psychology to increase its usefulness. For instance, it was discovered that if a button was set up to randomly produce food or not, pigeons would peck the button until they exhausted themselves. The field was characterized by two big changes from earlier Freudian theories:

  1. These theories were based instead on the assumption that all behaviours could be explained by features of the environment: the context you were in (e.g. church, a pub, etc) at the moment the behaviour occurred, socialization with peers and family while growing up, or maybe even the clothes you were wearing at the time the behaviour occurred. Things like that. Call these factors E, for environment.
  2. Crucially, and why behaviourism was a big step forward from Freud, every theory was fasifiable. That meant experiments could be run to disprove or build confidence in a theory.

The third movement happened much more recently, and I'm calling it cognitive psychology. This was a move to extend behaviourism to include human's internal processes and thoughts, while still trying to maintain rigorous falsifiability. Its hard to do! Just as with Freud, we can continue to call these internal thoughts P, for person.

So the model that was drilled into me in my psychology courses in university was P x E. That is, behaviours should be seen as being caused by internal thoughts and factors (the person), external factors (the environment), or both.

So how does this apply to living out my faith? I learned about compartmentalized faith when i was 16, but I've been thinking about it much more deeply recently. I became a Christian at a church camp. My thoughts, words, and deeds were all impressively faithful during my time there. I'm so grateful hat i was influenced by church camp.

But as we know, it's a tired complaint that Christians are faithful on Sundays but are invisible as Christians the rest of the week. That's part of what I'm saying here. But I think it goes deeper. I think the reason I feel closer to God on a soccer field at camp than in a church pew during the year is that during the year I am exposed to so many more contexts. In particular:

  1. Church
  2. Work
  3. Home
  4. With family
  5. With friends from high school or university
  6. Meeting a Chinese citizen or another expat in Beijing
  7. Meeting a fervently faithful American at church in Beijing

I know there are more contexts in my life, but these are the most illustrative of my point. For each of these contexts (note they don't include church camp, where my faith took root), I have to go through a few steps just to begin identifying myself in my head as a Christian!

  1. Read the bible and pray while thinking about issues and problems from that context
  2. Say a prayer (even if it's quick and silent) while in that context
  3. Thank God for a blessing from that context

This is a bare minimum! And its still unlikely I'll be talking about faith with my friends from that context. I still need to "come out" as a Christian in each context, and ideally gauge people's reactions, before even talking openly about it.

I think compartmentalization is easily confused with cowardice - I'm just not courageous enough to share my faith with all my friends outside of a church. But that's not really it. I think framing a faith struggle as one journey, from sinner to saint, ignores a crucial part of my psychology. I've got 7 or more simultaneous journeys, and I'm at a different place in each one.

I really welcome comments on this entry. This is something I've been thinking about a lot as I try to keep growing in my relationship with God.

Submitted by Paul N on Sun, 01/08/2017 - 19:50


There is so much I could blather on aboot this, but here is one thought: it is important to distinguish between acknowledging/living one's identity and proseltyzing to others. When you talk about "sharing your faith" with friends or whatnot, what do you mean?

Submitted by devin on Fri, 01/13/2017 - 12:26


In this post, I'm mostly talking about the "coming out" part, where I need to just acknowledge in different contexts that I am a Christian at all. If I can't even acknowledge it in a given context, I'm not much of a Christian. I think there could be an analogy there for my status as a (semi-)vegetarian, or a feminist, but it's more important as a Christian I think.

There's another discussion about trying to convert my friends to believe what I do, but that's definitely not what I'm talking about in this post

Submitted by Paul N on Sun, 01/15/2017 - 01:08


What is the difference between living your faith by acting like a Christian and living your faith by stating that you are a Christian?

A distressingly high percentage of people I admire are Christian (which is likely an artifact of your former workplace, which was loaded with Mennonites and social justice Catholics). For the most part, I am aware that they are Christian, but I tend to admire them less because of their stated faith and more by their behaviours, their kindness/compassion, and the ways they approach interaction with others. I think it is known that these people are Christian; none of them denied Jesus three times or anything. But they did not go out of their way to declare their Christianity out loud either. Whether they privately acknowledge their Christianity in their day to day work is another question (and one I don't know the answer to).

In contrast, when people loudly declare their Christianity I get nervous, because I expect proselytization to follow soon afterwards. Maybe that is an unfair stereotype.

I live a fairly compartmentalized life myself. There are contexts where I behave and speak quite differently from other contexts. Most of the time these other contexts do not feel like they betray my core identity; rather they expose different (sometimes conflicting) facets of it. But then again I am decidedly non-Christian, so my circumstances are significantly different than yours.

On the other hand I am a hypocrite, because there are definitely aspects of myself that I will keep quiet for fear of offending other people or making them feel uncomfortable. If circumstances come up where those aspects are relevant I will sometimes bring them up, but I am wary of doing so.

Submitted by devin on Sat, 01/21/2017 - 17:56


Yeah! That hits compartmentalization on the nose. Being Christian is a bit different than subscription to other beliefs, because you have two things: 1) Canadians are wary of people sharing their faith and agree it's a bad idea and 2) the Bible says you've gotta share your faith. Of course there are other reasons I want to decompartmentalize my faith than just 'the Bible said so', but that's the simple way of putting it.

Part of the challenge is certainly the issue that in Canada it's uncomfortable to proclaim your Christian faith. And that's probably why people don't do it. I guess part of my point here is that not doing it can weaken your faith in a subtle and insidious way.

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