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Some Christian students in the sciences may encounter apparent tensions at the interface of science and religion, resulting in struggle, doubt, or loss of faith. While the content of these tensions is often addressed in the classroom, the experiential process of struggle is not often addressed. The goal of this paper is to explore two psychological capacities that may influence how students experience these apparent tensions—intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance—and suggest some pedagogical strategies for cultivating these capacities as a way of addressing the process of struggle. These capacities will be explored in the context of cognitive understandings of implicit and explicit knowing, and theological understandings of faith. M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall is Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University in La Mirada, CA.

During the college years, developmental transitions and exposure to diverse ideas and to the complexity and pain of the world can result in spiritual struggles. In a large national study of student spirituality, Bryant and Astin found that 18% of their sample had frequently questioned their religious/spiritual beliefs.1 While spiritual struggles increased across time in all types of institutions, the greatest increase occurred in students attending Evangelical colleges, from 7% reporting high levels as freshmen to 17% reporting high levels as juniors.2 Spiritual struggles were associated with lower levels of psychological well-being, physical health, and self esteem. While Bryant and Astin did not specify the kinds of religious/spiritual beliefs being questioned, research on deconversion indicates that the average age of loss of faith is 24,3 and the primary reason given for loss of faith is perceived irrationality or conflict with science.4 Even when loss of faith does not occur, apparent tensions at the interface of science and religion can lead to doubt and confusion in students and academics. The Barna Group, in a series of national studies on young Christians, found that “many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.”5

The tensions that arise at the interface of science and religion have primar-ily been addressed from a content-oriented perspective. Scholars from a variety of scientific disciplines have written extensively about the relationship between science and religion, both in general, and in application to specific issues and scientific disciplines.6 In addition, worldview issues centering around ontology and epistemology have been addressed in relationship to faith-science tensions.7 However, less attention has been paid to the experience of the person attempting to reconcile science and religion, to the phenomenology of tension and doubt. It is likely that there are psychological factors that are central to the experience of these kinds of conflicts, in addition to the content issues. In this paper I will explore two psychological traits that potentially influence the experience of doubt—intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance—and suggest some pedagogical strategies for Christian students, professionals, and faculty who seek to be faithful in the sciences. 

In the following sections, I will first lay the foundations for understanding religious doubt by grounding faith in the cognitive framework of implicit and explicit knowledge. Next, I will outline two interrelated kinds of religious doubt related to these two kinds of knowing. Following this, I will articulate proposed roles for intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance in addressing religious doubt. Finally, I will suggest some pedagogical strategies for cultivating intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance in Christian students of science.

Implicit and Explicit Knowledge

In the cognitive sciences, there is widespread consensus that there are at least two forms by which the brain represents information; there are two ways in which we “know.” These have been popularized by psychologist Daniel Kahneman as “slow” and “fast” thinking, which I here discuss as explicit and implicit knowledge.8 I draw primarily on the work of psychologist and cognitive scientist Wilma Bucci, given her rich work on how relational experiences influence the two kinds of knowing.9 Explicit knowledge, the one we are most inclined to label “knowledge” in our everyday language, is an analytic way of knowing that is linear, logical, language-based, and conscious. It is linear, meaning that one piece of knowledge follows from another in a sequential line, and each piece of information is processed in our brains one at a time. Explicit knowledge is logical, meaning that certain premises necessarily lead to certain conclusions and we can articulate how we arrive at these conclusions. It is also language-based, meaning that it exists and is processed in words. Finally, this form of knowing is conscious, meaning that it requires conscious attention to be processed in the brain. This way of knowing is processed in a particular circuit in the brain, primarily in the left hemisphere and the cortex of the brain.

Explicit knowledge in the context of faith can be illustrated by belief in the Nicene Creed. When we affirm the creed, we state it in words (that is, it is knowledge that is encoded in words) and we are conscious that we know it. It is logical and linear, and so we are able to explore it using rationality. We can, for example, explain how each line of the creed is supported by certain biblical passages, or understand it in terms of the historical debates that influenced its adoption by leaders in the early church. We can also find ourselves questioning certain parts of the creed, or wrestling with how it fits with other explicit knowledge that we have. We can, for example, wonder what it means for Jesus to ascend to the Father and be seated at the Father’s right hand, knowing that God is spirit and not material. We can use reason to attempt to resolve the questions we have. This is explicit knowledge.

In contrast, implicit knowledge is non-linear, emotional, subsymbolic or image-based, and largely functions outside of conscious awareness (although it can be brought into consciousness, a point to which we will return later). At its most basic level, it is subsymbolic, meaning that it is not symbolized in language nor in any other format, such as images. Instead, it is emotional: a diffuse, direct “background emotion,” such as when we have a sense of well-being, malaise, or unsettledness.10 This “knowledge” is the result of the brain’s appraisal of informa-tion from the body and stimuli from the external environment. This appraisal is able to process multiple pieces of information simultaneously, which is why we describe implicit knowledge as non-linear, and occurs largely outside of conscious awareness. It helps us determine whether a stimulus is “good” or “bad,” and prepares us to act accordingly by mobilizing our bodies for certain courses of action. A second, more advanced level of implicit knowledge puts knowledge into image-based symbolic form, where the primary medium is imagery rather than language.

While the two ways of knowing can be traced to their underlying cognitive structures, this does not mean that they are purely biological. Instead, our ways of knowing (and especially implicit knowledge) are shaped by a variety of environmental factors. Some of these are cultural. For example, in his monumental work, “A Secular Age,” Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor traced the historical shift from a conception of the universe in which the supernatural played an integral role, through the Enlightenment and to a conception of the universe as secular, stripped down to the material.11 He alluded to the shaping power of im-plicit forces by noting that when the surrounding culture predominantly holds to a certain view of the universe, alternative views such as a biblical cosmology that includes supernatural elements, are not even fully intelligible.12 In other words, what we see when we perceive the world around us, and consequently what we believe, is shaped by these cultural forces. This occurs not at the level of cognitively (that is, explicitly) evaluating different options, but at the implicit level that shapes whether or not we can even imagine and perceive the presence of the supernatural in the world around us. He calls this implicit way in which we perceive the world, the “social imaginary.”13

There is a shaper of implicit knowledge that is even more important than general cultural forces: our relationships. A large body of literature based on psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory demonstrates that repetitions of relational experiences in our earliest relationships are encoded as non-propositional (implicit) meaning structures.14 These then serve as a kind of filter for processing emotional information in relational contexts. For example, there is evidence to suggest that they shape individuals’ cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to others, presumably by directing the initial orientation and elaborative appraisal-arousal processes.15 But our early relationships do not just shape our implicit knowledge with respect to relational experiences. Research is increasingly demonstrating the influence of attachment in processing information in non-relational contexts such as information involved in creative problem-solving.16 The influence of relation-ships on our implicit knowledge in non-relational contexts may occur because of the role of relationships in affect modulation.17 Early relationships are crucial in providing a “safe haven” during times of experienced anxiety and threat. At-tuned caregivers are able to help children modulate and consequently tolerate strong emotions. Over time, this capacity to modulate and tolerate emotions is internalized. In adults who have not developed the capacity for secure attachments, the ability to modulate emotions may be compromised. This may make them vulnerable to perceived threats, such as new ideas or ambiguous stimuli. 

For example, when reciting the Nicene Creed, someone with a longstanding conflictual relationship with her father may have a vague sense of unease when talking about God as “the Father almighty.” When she encounters difficulties in life, she has difficulty turning to God, because her life experiences have led her to believe that others cannot really be trusted. When she reads something that seems to conflict with her faith in a textbook, she becomes anxious and is not easily able to sooth herself, nor does she have any confidence that there is a good solution somewhere. All of these reactions reflect implicit knowledge about the way the world works.

In our discussion of implicit and explicit knowing, it is important to recognize the priority of the implicit system, in the sense that it is developmentally on-board earlier, reacts much more quickly to stimuli in the external world (see Kahneman’s “fast thinking”), and is wired to be primarily the sender rather than the receiver of information. The brain sends information from its emotional centers that evaluate meaning and process our experiences (the implicit knowledge system) to the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center (where we process explicit knowledge).18 Interestingly, the opposite is not true; the prefrontal cortex sends comparatively little input to the emotional centers of the brain. It is largely a one-way road. We are aware of our explicit knowledge system and we can direct it, but, by and large, we cannot direct the implicit knowledge system.

With this basic overview of the two ways of knowing in mind, we turn now to understanding both faith and doubt in light of this framework. We turn first to religious knowledge, to faith.


The Greek word for faith (pistis) relates to a variety of words encompassing both explicit (such as belief or proof) and implicit (such as fidelity, commitment, trust) knowing.19 This range can be seen in Hebrews 11, perhaps the most famous biblical passage on faith. In this chapter, faith clearly has a propositional content which we can grasp with our explicit knowledge system. For example, verse 3 states that “by faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s com-mand” and verse 5 that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists.”20 But faith is much more than assent to propositions. Verse 1 says that it is “confidence in” and “assurance about,” words that have much more affective content and that are reflected in the obedience of the biblical characters highlighted throughout the chapter. Elsewhere in Scripture we find that this affective aspect refers to faith in a person rather than faith about propositions. Jesus exhorts his followers to “have faith in God” (Mark 11:22), and this message is emphasized throughout Scripture in encouragement to trust God (Prov. 3:5). 

While various accounts of faith have emphasized one or the other kind of knowing, this dual nature of faith has been reflected in descriptions of faith throughout Christianity’s history. While a historical theology of faith is too complex to cover in the constraints of this article, this brief overview will serve to show that the two strands of faith—explicit and implicit—have been represented in theological reflections on faith throughout Christian history. They are reflected in the early creeds of Christianity, which begin, “We believe in one God …”—a kind of implicit, relational knowledge characterized by commitment and trust. The creeds then go on to outline a list of propositions that are also believed, and that are explicit, rational knowledge rather than relational knowledge. The same confluence of implicit and explicit knowing is seen during the Reformation, in John Calvin’s description of faith as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”21 Elsewhere, he emphasized the dual nature of faith, stating, “One must not imagine that the Christian faith is a bare and mere knowledge of God or an understanding of the Scripture which flutters in the brain without touching the heart, as is usually the case with the opinion about things which are confirmed by some probable reason.”22  He was convinced that mere intellectual (explicit) knowledge was not Christian faith.

In the twentieth century, neoorthodox theologian Karl Barth insisted that faith is fiducia (trust), but that it also includes notitia (knowledge) and assensus (assent). In other words, it includes both the implicit and relational aspect of trust, and the explicit, rational aspects of knowledge and assent.23 Contemporary theologians now seem to be reacting to a perceived overemphasis on faith as explicit belief. Theologian Gregory Boyd, for example, states that biblical faith is a covenantal concept that moves beyond mere mental conviction that something is true (that is, involving explicit knowledge). Instead, it is primarily a commitment to trust and to be trustworthy in a relationship with God (that is, involving implicit knowledge).24. Similarly, theologian Matthew Bates argues that the best understanding of faith is allegiance, involving mental assent (explicit knowledge), but also sworn fidelity and embodied loyalty—both interpersonal dimensions of faith.25 While different theologians and denominations have emphasized one or another aspect of faith, the consistent strands of explicit and implicit knowledge have been woven throughout Christian history. We turn now to doubt and its relationship to faith. 

Two Kinds of Doubt

Doubt is often perceived as problematic. To begin with, it is uncomfortable psychologically. Decades ago, psychologist Leon Festinger coined the phrase “cognitive dissonance” to reflect the discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.26 He proposed that people will be motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance, which can be done in a variety of ways. In the case of contradictory ideas, this may take the form of changing one of the ideas, or avoiding the contradictory information. For example, when science and religion seem to conflict, resolution of the cognitive dissonance may take the form of loss of faith, a rejection of science and retreat into fundamentalism, or a refusal to engage in further academic endeavors which could serve as further reminders of the tension.

Doubt has become even more problematic due to cultural factors which have increased its prevalence and simultaneously made it less acceptable. Multiculturalism and the internet have brought a world of diverse ideas to our front door. Philosopher Charles Taylor, in his introduction to A Secular Age, describes the secular age that he is attempting to understand. He observes that the circumstances of our present moment are such that “we cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.”27 He attributes this in part to rubbing shoulders with people who embrace very different ways of viewing the world. Taylor—a practicing Catholic—wrote, “I am never, or only rarely, really sure, free of all doubt, untroubled by some objection–by some experience which won’t fit, some lives which exhibit fullness on another basis, some alternative mode of fullness which sometimes draws me.”28 While people in past ages could live their entire lives never encountering anyone with a different worldview, our contemporary lives confront us with differing ideas on a daily basis.

Doubt has also become more problematic because of our Enlightenment heritage with its emphasis on certitude. As articulated by English theologian Graham Ward, we have inherited a system in which “we should aspire to knowledge ‘altogether clear and bright’—certainty, transparency, daylight forever….”29 Doubt is not only uncomfortable psychologically and increasingly prevalent; it is also seen as problematic, an undesirable state that should be gotten rid of, a signal that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Certainty is assumed to be the goal. 

Part of this quest for certitude is a denigration of knowledge that is gained through implicit, affective, and relational means. Only explicit knowledge, propositional and rational, is seen as being capable of giving us the desired certitude. Because of this emphasis on certitude, “lesser” forms of knowledge must be outgrown and left behind. This also contributes to religious doubt, as cultural pressure causes us to see implicit knowledge such as trust in God as inadequate and inferior. Charles Taylor argued that scientific materialism is advocated, not on the basis of its findings, but on the basis of emotional appeals. Scientific materialism is presented as the stance that is taken when someone is willing to grow up, take responsibility for his or her life, and outgrow infantile, superstitious beliefs. “[Scientific naturalism] is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality.”30 In this account of maturity, infantile religious beliefs must be laid aside and one’s own self-determination embraced.

In conclusion, we live in an age in which certainty continues to be the goal, while at the same time certainty is becoming increasingly more difficult to obtain. It is no wonder that doubt also appears to be on the rise. According to Barna, in 1987, 88% of adults said they never doubted the existence of God. As of 2012, this figure was down 8 percentage points to 80%.31

Based on the two ways of knowing we have examined, we might also distinguish between two ways in which knowledge is questioned, that is, two kinds of doubt. One seems to be primarily in the realm of explicit knowledge, and may take the form of a failure to integrate knowledge coming from religious and scientific sources. The other seems to be primarily in the realm of implicit knowledge, and may take the form of a failure to trust in God, or a lack of confidence in God. Alister McGrath labels these cognitive doubt and personal doubt, and writes, “One is a doubt-it, the other a doubt-you problem. One is fundamentally intellectual; the other is basically relational.32 Doubt in the explicit realm relies on explicit knowing; it often takes the form of a perceived rational tension between tenets of the faith, and beliefs gained from other spheres, such as science. Doubt in the implicit realm is more affective and relational. While it can be represented in language, it is primarily a felt sense that God is not good or trustworthy. It may reflect an insecure attachment to God, in which questions about God’s goodness, power, or justice might emerge.

While these two kinds of doubt might seem to be quite separate from each other, there is indirect evidence that they are interrelated, and that relational doubt grounded in implicit knowledge may be more problematic for the ability to tolerate tension well. As noted above, implicit knowledge influences explicit knowledge much more than the reverse. Since relational knowledge is a kind of implicit knowledge, it may be that cognitive tensions only become personally problematic (or are labeled “doubt”) when the implicit relational foundations are not secure.33

As noted above, implicit knowledge is strongly affected by attachment relationships. Psychologists who study religion have found it helpful to study people’s experiences of God in terms of attachment theory. Proctor found in an interview-based qualitative study that recognizing doubt as part of a healthy relationship with God, comfort with questioning and examining beliefs, and the ability to reflectively embrace and integrate positive and negative life experiences within one’s relationship with God, were three of six indicators of secure attachment to God.34 Similarly, in a quantitative study Beck found that secure attachment was related to increased theological exploration (involving religious curiosity, effort spent exploring different theological ideas, and openness to new religious ideas), but without emotional distress and with higher endorsement of core Christian doctrines. In contrast, insecure attachment was related both to less theological exploration and to greater rejection of core Christian doctrines.35 It would appear that a trusting relationship with God facilitates the capacity to regulate one’s emotions and to view things from multiple perspectives, which are critical to more complex ways of processing doubt and painful experiences. A secure relationship with God at the implicit level allowed for doubting “well” at the cognitive level. Conversely, an insecure relationship with God can lead to interpersonal doubt, but can also make people more vulnerable to experiencing cognitive tension as threatening and problematic.

Psychological Moderators of Doubt

Given the ubiquity of opportunities to doubt, especially for Christians in the sciences, it would seem important to support students in their attempts to deal with the complexity of the subject matter to which we are exposing them. Specifically, support could be provided for the development of psychological capacities underlying the ability to doubt well. A number of interrelated psychological capacities might be implicated here (such as open-mindedness, need for cognitive closure, right-wing authoritarianism). Secure attachment relationships, both with other humans and with God, seem to be central to doubting well, given their important role in emotional regulation (as noted above). However, attachment systems are difficult to change, and other psychological traits that are more amenable to pedagogical interventions might be targeted instead. 

Two psychological dispositions or capacities in particular deserve further attention: intellectual humility, and uncertainty tolerance, as they appear central to the explicit and implicit aspects of doubt, respectively. Intellectual humility is a primarily cognitive dispositional variable, while uncertainty tolerance, though having cognitive and behavioral elements, also has to do with an affective capacity.36 Intellectual humility, from a Christian perspective, involves recognizing finitude in the form of cognitive limitations, and recognizing God’s omniscience—stances which make cognitive tensions (such as explicit doubting) less threatening. Uncertainty tolerance, which involves the capacity to regulate well the anxiety that may come with uncertainty, is grounded in implicit knowledge (especially attachment-based knowledge) and facilitates the resolution of interpersonal doubt (such as implicit doubt). Together, intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance address the capacities necessary to doubt well, as will be explored in the following sections, and research has in fact found that these traits are moderately correlated.37

Intellectual Humility

Intellectual humility is a dispositional variable characterized by “recognizing that a particular personal belief may be fallible, accompanied by an appropriate attentiveness to limitations in the evidentiary basis of that belief and to one’s own limitations in obtaining and evaluating relevant information.”38 It is not incompatible with strongly-held belief, as Krumrei-Mancuso and Rouse note that it “involves being able to embrace one’s beliefs with confidence while being open to alternative evidence.”39It has only recently been the topic of empirical study in psychology, though it has a longer intellectual history in theology and philosophy. Leary et al. found that low intellectual humility can lead to strong emotional reactions to differences of opinion; in other words, differing views are experienced as threatening and offensive.40 In contrast, Hopkin, Hoyle, and Toner found that people high in intellectual humility regarding their religious beliefs react less strongly to others’ opinions about religious beliefs.41  While not yet examined empirically, the rigidity of beliefs in those low in intellectual humility may also make those views more brittle and fragile. In other words, individuals low in intellectual humility may find opposing views more threatening because their ideological systems are, in fact, more vulnerable to threat by opposing views. When faced with strong counterarguments to belief that cannot be denied or dimissed, it is possible that a lack of intellectual humility can result in heightened anxiety, doubt, or abrupt loss of that belief. Alternatively, when a person has high intellectual humility, he or she can fairly evaluate those counterarguments without being unduly threatened by them. He or she can “doubt well.” 

Most research to date has conceptualized intellectual humility independently of any religious virtue tradition. Unfortunately, this has made it vulnerable to cultural trends stemming from the Enlightenment, which overemphasized autonomous rationality. The Enlightenment both elevated reason above other sources of knowing, and rejected outside limits on reason. In his famous article, “What is Enlightenment?” published in 1784, philosopher Emmanuel Kant advocated for Enlightenment beliefs, defining Enlightenment as

man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!42

When autonomous rationality is assumed as a value in the conceptualization of intellectual humility, it does not fit well within a Christian vision of an omniscient God in relationship to finite, created humans. Theologian John Swinton, writing about the conflict between cultural values of intellectual autonomy and Christian submission to God, wrote,

In a culture based on such assumptions, the ideas that mystery may be significant, that all problems may not be solvable through the use of reason alone, and that an important dimension of fruitful human living may involve learning to live with unanswered questions, sounds alien, disturbing, and foolish.43

The Enlightenment beliefs about autonomy embedded in many conceptions of intellectual humility make them of limited usefulness to our students. The kind of intellectual humility we want to cultivate in our students must reflect what philosopher Kent Dunnington calls “glad intellectual dependence on God.”44 In contrast to intellectual humility as conceptualized outside of a Christian virtue framework, this kind of humility will recognize God’s omniscience, the intellectual finitude of humans, and the reality of mystery. To date, this kind of intellectual humility has received only limited empirical attention.45

There is indirect evidence that intellectual humility can be cultivated. For example, studies on perspective-taking (a capacity related to intellectual humility) ask people to consider the possibility that competing hypotheses are true; these studies find that this intervention is sufficient to undo the bias of one-sided thinking.46 Philosopher Jason Baehr has outlined seven recommendations for cultivating intellectual virtues—including intellectual humility—in academic settings.47 His proposals have not yet been empirically tested.

Uncertainty Tolerance

Uncertainty tolerance, sometimes called tolerance of ambiguity, can be defined as “the set of negative and positive psychological responses—cognitive, emotional, and behavioral—provoked by the conscious awareness of ignorance about particular aspects of the world.”48 Uncertainty can arise because information is ambiguous, because a phenomenon is complex, or because future events are indeterminate or random. The tension between religious and scientific views may occur because the individual does not have all the necessary information (ambiguity), or because the issue is too complex (complexity). Following the perception of uncertainty, individuals have a variety of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses. When they have low tolerance for uncertainty, they tend to perceive uncertainty as a threat framed in extreme ways, followed by emotional reactions including uneasiness, discomfort, dislike, anger, and anxiety, and behaviorally they reject or avoid the triggers of uncertainty.49 For example, perceived discrepancies between religious beliefs and scientific views could lead to doubt and worry, which then cause blanket denials of the validity of science, loss of faith, denigration of sources, or ongoing experiences of anxiety.

Uncertainty tolerance has primarily been studied in relation to anxiety disorders and in the practice of medicine.50 It has not been studied in relationship to religious beliefs (except in relation to belief in supernatural agents),51 nor have interventions been developed to cultivate it in educational settings.52 Supporting the development of uncertainty tolerance in students would assist them in modulating the emotional reactions to tensions, allowing them to continue engaging with complex and ambiguous material, as required in the study of science. It would also allow them manage well the emotional load of unresolved uncertainty, to “doubt well.”

Pedagogical Strategies for Addressing Doubt

To this point we have spent some time understanding the cognitive underpinnings of tension and doubt, and I have suggested that intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance might be important targets of pedagogical intervention in helping our students navigate the complexity of the science-religion interface. We return now to Wilma Bucci’s work on implicit and explicit knowledge, and specifically to her concept of referential activity, as a way forward.

Referential activity is the activity of connecting the implicit and explicit processing systems, which, as noted above, are very different in nature. It is essentially the process of linking feelings and words.53 Recall that, on an automatic level, the relationship between our implicit and explicit systems is largely one-way, with the implicit affecting the explicit in ways that are often out of conscious awareness. Understanding referential activity can aid in engaging with it more intentionally as a pathway for building intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance.

Three major phases of the referential process have been identified: an arousal phase in which emotion schemas are activated; a symbolizing phase that includes descriptions of imagery and events; and a reorganization/reflection phase.54 In the arousal phase, we initially encounter something in our environment—a smell, a song, a sight, an idea, and so on—that invokes a set of bodily processes in us: the subsymbolic bodily and sensory processes. At this point, these experiences remain subsymbolic; they have not yet been organized into either nonverbal or verbal symbols. For example, a student may read a chapter from a textbook that seems to contradict deeply-held convictions. This is interpreted as a threat, and the result is a state of anxious bodily arousal as the student prepares for defense or flight.

Next, the subsymbolic information is organized by categorizing it into emotional schemas formed by similar events in our past. We then capture our subsymbolic experience by a “representation,” which may be visual, tactile, and auditory. These representations might take the form of an image. Alternatively, they may take the form of an exemplar, a specific episode in our experience in which the subsymbolic experiences were activated in a particular time and place. These images or exemplars exist as a link between the subsymbolic and the symbolic codes and are what allows us to link these two separate systems. Perhaps encountering a threatening idea resonates with a remembered experience of being left out, of sensing oneself as “not good enough” to be included in a peer group, or perhaps the disorienting experience of having one’s assumptions about the world overturned in an instant. Or perhaps it is sensed as a kind of image, perhaps of a huge, terrifying wave inexorably crashing down.

This linking is finalized in the next step, the symbolizing phase, in which these prototypic images or exemplars are put into verbal form. For example, someone might say, “when I consider that idea, it makes me feel the way I did when my dog was hit by a car, and I suddenly realized the world was not safe.” Once the experience is put into words, operations that depend on the verbal system can be conducted, such as verbal elaborations of images and episodes, the development of abstract ideas based on the images, the application of logic, and the examination of concepts in dialogue with others.55 In other words, the person can enter into a more reflective, logical mode, making connections, making distinctions, and bringing one’s broader body of knowledge and experience to bear on the initial experience. In this way, the implicit knowledge can be transformed.

Referential activity may help in cultivating intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance, because the barriers to these characteristics all lie primarily in the area of implicit knowing. The ability to have ideological commitments has an emotional and relational foundation in implicit knowing. The ability to, at the same time, take into account the perspectives of others is likewise grounded in implicit knowing. The ability to self-soothe and to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity similarly is rooted in the emotional and relational matrix of implicit knowing. By bringing to awareness and working through cognitive and emotional barriers to intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance, we can increase these capacities in our students. An understanding of referential activity highlights three potential ways to intervene pedagogically: through relationship, through images, and through narratives.

Through Relationships

What might pedagogical activities focused on relationship look like? One rather basic point is to note that when the professor represents a safe relationship for the student, he or she can provide important modeling for acknowledging personal limitations and coping well with uncertainty. Psychologist Randall Sorensen, in a series of studies on how graduate students in psychology learn the integration of psychology and Christianity, concluded that attachment-based mentoring relationships with professors are the primary mediating pathway that facilitates this kind of learning.56 Specifically, these studies showed that students valued seeing how professors wrestled with experiences, questioned precepts, and changed viewpoints over time. In addition to modelling uncertainty toler-ance and intellectual humility, the internalization of a safe relationship can also make it easier for students to be secure enough to grow in intellectual humility. One study found that students with more secure attachment styles also showed more cognitive openness, an indicator of intellectual humility.57

This type of modelling can occur spontaneously in classroom settings, or can be a more intentional part of instruction. In my own context, we are developing a series of short interviews with trusted science faculty for classroom use, in which we have them reflect on times when they have encountered tensions between science and faith, how they responded, and what was helpful to them at that time. These narratives are rich in references to relational connections to God, disciplinary integrity, and intellectual humility.

Developing a trusting relationship with God in times of tension can also be targeted pedagogically. Philosopher C. Stephen Evans, reflecting on the task of the Christian scholar, wrote, “Though the romantic glorification of doubt should be avoided, doubt is part of our finitude and can itself be offered to God in prayerful devotion as in the prayer, ‘Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.’”58 Students can be assigned reflective exercises in which they consider a specific area of tension before God and reflect on the interaction between Jesus and the believing/unbelieving father in Mark 9.59 Intellectual humility, in particular, requires “glad intellectual dependence on God.”60 Given the tensions noted in Romans 1 between futility of mind and heart on the one hand, and giving thanks to and glorifying God on the other, exercises aimed at cultivating gratitude to God might also influence students’ trust in and intellectual submission to God.

Through Images

Pedagogical activities can also be focused on images. Wittgenstein, the twentieth-century philosopher who made important contributions to the philosophy of language, had insights about pictures that closely foreshadowed Bucci’s observations on the role of images in implicit knowledge and in referential activity.61 Wittgenstein used the term “pictures” to describe ways of conceiving of a matter that seem to come before deliberate (explicit) reflection, and because of this, often are not examined critically. They are taken for granted. Pictures influence what we take to be fixed and necessary in the world around us, affecting our perceptions and also our willingness to engage with aspects of the world not consistent with our pictures. While this might sound similar to what is often referred to as a “worldview,” or to Charles Taylor’s “social imaginary,” the strength of Wittgenstein’s analysis was in his emphasis on the image-like nature of this knowledge, and the consequences of this for the ways in which we engage with this knowledge.

Pictures are not simply deeply held assumptions or unexamined beliefs, which are propositional and consequently can be critiqued through reason. Part of their nature as pictures is that they take hold of us at a deeper level, one which Wilma Bucci might recognize as the emotional realm of intrinsic knowledge, a kind of bedrock of knowing. Consequently, Wittgenstein thought that pictures required a different way of critical engagement than beliefs. Importantly, they needed first to be recognized as pictures, as something in our minds that strongly influenced our perception, in order to then be critically engaged.

One method of learning to recognize our Wittgensteinian pictures about the world is through the use of contrast; we are presented with contrasting images, not with the purpose of convincing us that the alternative is the true picture, but merely in order to loosen us from the feeling that the way we picture something is necessary. We can begin to see our pictures as something other than necessary, and to consider alternative pictures. Another complementary methodology is to examine closely the picture, pushing on it to test its adequacy. Once the hold of a picture is loosened, a type of conversion to another picture might occur.

Nicola Hoggard Creegan provides an interesting attempt to use Wittgensteinian methodology in the context of faith and science tensions. An advocate of evolutionary theory, she locates much of the difficulty of reconciling evolution with the Christian faith in that we have been “taken captive by a picture” (to use Wittgenstein’s famous phrase), a picture of a “materialist, reductionist, randomly directed evolutionary process.”62 This picture is embraced by some and rejected by others, but, according to Creegan, it remains the primary picture, and this has made it difficult to admit there are other ways of picturing evolution. Says Creegan, “For believers taken captive by this picture there is dissonance and tension as one attempts to harmonize a Scripture that speaks of God’s care with the dominant evolutionary metaphor of selfishness and competition.”63 As a contrasting picture, she notes the pervasive hand of God as depicted—as “pictured”—in Job 30: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together? … have you entered the storehouses of the snow? … What is the way to the place where the light is distributed? …”64 She argues that “newer understandings of, and metaphors for, evolutionary theory … break our captivity to a naturalistic mechanistic competitive picture of nature.”65 Pedagogical strategies following Creegan’s lead will need to be adapted to the specific theological commitments of the institutional setting and the pedagogical aims of particular classes. For example, it may be that creationist accounts also suffer from underlying pictures that present it in unsophisticated, naïve, two-dimensional ways. A thoughtful, unbiased analysis of origins is most likely to occur when unhelpful pictures of all the options are identified and challenged.

Through Narratives

Narratives are also important mechanisms of referential activity, as they take lived experiences (implicit knowledge) and put words to them, thus bringing them into the realm of explicit knowledge. A pedagogy involving narrative might involve exposing students to stories of scientists, contemporary and historical, who have been successful at bringing together their faith and their science. It might also involve having students reflect on the lives of biblical characters who have gone through periods of doubt and struggle (Sarah and Abraham, Gideon, Thomas, Job, David, Jeremiah). Finally, pedagogical interventions might encourage students to narrate their own struggles as a way to assist in their resolution. James Pennebaker is a psychologist who developed the concept of expressive writing, and demonstrated its mental health benefits in dealing with a number of issues.66 Experiences of tension or doubt can be stressful, and the opportunity to process these tensions cognitively and emotionally through expressive writing can be very helpful.67

Sociologist Elaine Ecklund, concerned about the suspicion with which science was viewed by Christians, implemented a program to introduce science in religious congregations in which they brought in a number of scientists to share their stories: their personal experiences, struggles, and successes integrating their science and faith.68 In evaluating the results, she recalled,

One church member said that wrestling with divisive issues related to science and faith during the program provided her with models she can use to “stay in the conversation without walking away” when faced with potentially divisive issues in the future. According to her, the experience was particularly meaningful because “the scientists were also church members, people we know and trust.”69

Ecklund concluded that scientists who were known and trusted were much more effective than the very prestigious outside scientists who had also been brought in to share their stories.

Concluding Thoughts

In this paper I have examined the experience of doubt, drawing on cognitive theories of knowing and theological conceptions of faith to highlight an understanding of doubt. I have then suggested that, from a psychological perspective, two constructs—intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance—are central to dealing well with tension and ambiguity, and have proposed some pedagogical strategies for strengthening these capacities. Our goal might be construed as teaching our students to “doubt well,” and this is not an easy goal. Yet, according to philosopher Stephen Evans, it is at the heart of our calling as Christian educators:

[it is] our responsibility to help students acquire both humility and conviction. It is not easy to teach our students to be modest and cautious, to help them see the complexity of many issues and the possibility of mistakes, and at the same time to develop passionate commitments. Yet I think that this is what we want to accomplish. We want them to see and understand the problems and difficulties, to be able to see the world through the eyes of those who disagree with them. Yet we also want them to have the courage of their convictions, to combine intellectual humility with the courage and passion of the martyr.70

In concluding, I want to return once more to theology and notions of faith. One might infer from the preceding sections that faith and doubt are somehow in tension with each other; that doubt is the enemy of faith and the best we can do is tolerate it through increased cognitive and affective capacities, that faith has no way of dealing with tension and doubt. Though this is the way faith is sometimes presented in our current situation, heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinking, the path forward through doubt and tension was articulated long ago by Luther. Luther put the cross at the center of the Christian faith at both the explicit and the implicit levels.71 The explicit connection of the cross to how the salvation of the world was achieved should be clear. Perhaps more relevant to the concerns of this paper are Luther’s emphasis on the cross as “a lens through which we should view reality,” his conviction that “the cross offers us the most secure standpoint from which to cope with [the] deep ambiguities within the natural order, human culture, and our own experience.”72 The picture, the narrative, and ultimately, the relationship represented by the cross show us that God takes all of these tensions and uses them to strip us of alternative sources of security and grasp hold of God in a relationship of security and trust. When we view tension and doubt through the lens of the cross, we can hope for what we do not yet see, even while in the midst of our confusion and struggle.

Ultimately, our implicit knowing—our trust in God—is foundational to our explicit knowing. Times of doubt are opportunities for growing in capacities such as intellectual humility and uncertainty tolerance, and we should be prepared to assist our students to do so. But above all else, times of doubt are opportunities for growing in deep trust in and dependence on God, a God we increasingly recognize as both omniscient and loving. This implicit knowledge of God is what will allow us to be intellectually humble in “glad intellectual dependence on God,” and to tolerate the negative affect of the moment as we find a secure haven in God.73

Cite this article
M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, “Teaching Students to Doubt Well: The Roles of Intellectual Humility and Uncertainty Tolerance”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 50:3 , 261-279


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  59. For examples of these kinds of reflective exercises, see John Coe, “Intentional Spiritual Formation in the Classroom: Making Space for the Spirit in the University,” Christian Education Journal 4NS (2000): 85-110; Yvonne S. Smith, “Spirituality in the Classroom: Two Integration Exercises for Management (and Other) Classes,” Christian Business Academy Review 3 (2008): 38-45.
  60. For examples of these kinds of reflective exercises, see John Coe, “Intentional Spiritual Formation in the Classroom: Making Space for the Spirit in the University,” Christian Education Journal 4NS (2000): 85-110; Yvonne S. Smith, “Spirituality in the Classroom: Two Integration Exercises for Management (and Other) Classes,” Christian Business Academy Review 3 (2008): 38-45.
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  62. Nicola Hoggard Creegan, Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil (Oxford, UK: Oxford Press, 2013), 98.
  63. Ibid.

  64. Job 30:4-24 NIV.
  65. Creegan, Animal Suffering, 101.
  66. 6For easy guidelines on implementing his approach, see James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth, Opening Up by Writing it Down, 3rd ed. (New York: Guilford Press, 2016).
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  73. Dr. Hall’s work was supported by a grant given by Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II, a project run by Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford, the UK subsidiary of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, with funding by Templeton Religion Trust and The Blankemeyer Foundation.

M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall

Biola University
M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall is Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University in La Mirada, CA.