Rev Dr Joanna Collicutt is a clinical psychologist who teaches trainee Anglican priests and is the Advisor for Spiritual Care of Older People for the Church of England Diocese of Oxford. Nigel Bovey talked to her about faith, delusion, wellbeing and her own journey as a Christian.
Dr Collicutt, what did you study as a student?
I studied experimental psychology at Oxford and then became a clinical psychologist. As a clinician, I specialised in neuropsychology, working with the rehabilitation of people who had brain injury as a result of a stroke or an accident.
In an increasingly ageing society, there is concern about the difficulties of dementia. Can eating a correct diet or doing puzzles help stave off the onset of dementia?
It’s always good to keep your brain active. The other thing – even for somebody with dementia – is to keep your social life going. There’s something about stimulation and having meaning in life that just seems to help people resist the progress of the disease.
Do people with dementia lose spiritual awareness?
The way that we normally understand faith seems to get lost. A lot of the experience and expression of faith is through memory. The Old Testament, for example, is full of remembering what God did through the Passover. Holy Communion celebrates the Last Supper when Jesus said: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’
Part of being human is being able to tell your story, including your faith story, to yourself and to others. If you have the kind of dementia that takes away memory, then a lot of this is then taken from you. So, in one sense, as dementia advances, people’s faith does crumble.
But in another sense, faith is not about our memory but about how God remembers us. God does not forget us. Maybe it’s a case that rather than being a shell of who they used to be, a person with dementia experiences a new kind of relationship with God.
Is there a link between faith and wellbeing?
Yes. Generally, people of faith are physically and psychologically healthier than people of no faith. But the reason isn’t necessarily specific to it being about God. There is, for instance, evidence that atheists who behave like religious people – having a good social support group and a purpose and meaning to life – also seem to do rather better health-wise.
Those members of faith groups that require their members not to get drunk, not to smoke and not to indulge in sexual promiscuity also live more healthily. Those are good lifestyle choices.
There is also something about prayer and meditation that is good for the cardiovascular system.
To what extent is belief in God a delusion?
A delusion is holding a belief that is contradicted by evidence. The Christian view of a God of love is challenged by evidence but not contradicted. The randomness of suffering, for example, ought to cause us to think; but things such as the theory of evolution or particle physics are not the slightest bit inconsistent with the existence of God. If we interpret suffering as part of some wonderful divine plan then we probably are deluded.
To me, the mark of a real faith is where we admit there is an apparent problem and then set about working out how it might be consistent with the God revealed in Jesus. Wrestling with tough issues is part of the Christian life.
So when a bereaved parishioner asks you as their priest: ‘Why has God done this to me?’, what’s your response?
My response will depend on the situation, but it would be along the lines of: ‘I don’t know but I’m with you in the I-don’t-know-ness.’ I’m struck by the story of the Emmaus road when bereaved disciples are asking why Jesus had to be killed. Then he appears and says, ‘I am here’. The important thing is that in the grief and bewilderment, Jesus turns up.
In such circumstances, the question ‘why?’ is not an intellectual question. It is driven by a belief that the universe ought to be just and fair. It is people’s way of asking: ‘If I am suffering, am I still loved?’ People are looking for the reassurance that God loves them.
To what extent does religious faith cause suffering?
Religion is a powerful cultural force with many benefits. It gives us stability, identity, cohesion and moral values. It enables us to articulate things through ritual that are beyond words. But because of its power, it is open and vulnerable to misuse.
Historically, when religion becomes negative and repressive something seems to happen within its moral framework that renews it. But if you’re experiencing it at the low point in this process, before the renewal has kicked in, it can be deeply destructive.
Religion can give a strong sense of in-group identity. The downside is that it can also identify outsiders and has the potential, when a group feels threatened, for hostility towards outsiders. A general human weakness is that we are not good at giving ourselves an identity without pointing out how we are different from others.
Again, in Christian terms, it is about knowing people by their fruits, rather than by what they claim. Hostility towards outsiders is not of God. Central to Christ’s character is repudiation of hostility to those who are different – the ‘love your enemy’ idea. This then is the mark of true Christianity.
Essentially faith in Jesus is about a relationship. Whereas the biblical sense of faith is to meet Christ and respond in trust to him, the word is now just another way of saying ‘religion’. Relationship and religion are two very different things.
Are there different psychological triggers between men and women to spiritual things?
There are masculine and feminine ways of responding to, or expressing, faith, which don’t relate in a simple way to male and female. (Some men are more feminine than some women). But typically, for instance, men have a need to be on their own or together with other men to the exclusion of women. Women are who they are because they hang out with people of both sexes and they want to connect. That plays out in how people experience faith. Men, for example, often engage in a ‘who’s in charge?’ kind of conversation – an issue that bothers women much less.
Why do children appear to be more spiritually receptive than adults?
They are more open. They’re less formed. They’re less stuck. As a child, you can see possibilities, but as an adult, choices are limited. A child is trusting. They say things as they are and are impulsive. They don’t have as much baggage. Being spiritually receptive is not foolishness on their part; it is what children are like.
So when the likes of Richard Dawkins says that teaching a child about God is equivalent of child abuse, he’s totally wrong?
Yes, absolutely off the wall. You can’t make a child believe something that isn’t plausible to them. They are not stupid. They are not pots into which you can simply pour ideas. They’re perfectly capable of reading what you’re saying. They can pick up what is real and what is not.
Telling a child that they are not good enough, that God doesn’t love them and that they’re going to burn in Hell is abuse, but that’s not Christianity.
It can equally be argued that not giving a child their right to their Christian cultural heritage and the story and wisdom of many years is abuse. The message of the gospel is that we are loved, and that’s a good message for any child to hear.
Did you become a Christian as a child?
Growing up as a child, I had a faith in Christ but when I was about nine or ten, I decided that God didn’t exist. I recall asking my teachers why the astronauts hadn’t met God. They didn’t have an answer. I started studying chemistry and biology and thought everything could be explained without invoking God. Jesus, to me, was a good man but I didn’t believe the miracles.
Then, one Sunday when I was 13 I was in church with my mother and something happened to make me rethink.
When I was eight I had learnt my times tables up to 12 x 12 for an exam. My father tested me thoroughly and I was faultless. Then he asked what 13 x 13 was. Immediately, I said: ‘It doesn’t exist.’ As soon as I said it I knew that it did, it was just that I didn’t know the answer. It was a salutary moment.
On a later occasion I was in church when the preacher said that the person who thinks the whole universe can be explained without God is like a child who thinks that 13 x 13 doesn’t exist because they haven’t learnt their times tables. And I thought: ‘That’ll be me.’
I decided I’d start thinking about who Jesus was and what he said and did. As I did so, I really got to know him. I went back to school after a summer holiday and said to my friends: ‘You know that stuff they used to teach us in Sunday School about Jesus and God and we all thought it was a story? Well, it’s real.’
I didn’t have a word to express what I meant, but the teacher who happened to be in the classroom when I was saying this said: ‘You’ve become a Christian.’ And I took that as what had happened. Jesus had moved from being a story to being real.
How did you know you had to be a priest?
Quite soon after I became a Christian I thought that the natural thing to do was to become a priest. Then I realised I hadn’t seen any women vicars and thought that it was because of where I lived. Then I discovered that women were not allowed to be priests. I was shocked. I was angry at the injustice, so I wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
When I was at university, I attended a course for those considering priesthood. I found that I could do what the job requires – preaching, pastoral visitation, leading prayers – quite well. I thought this is precisely why I mustn’t be a priest, because it’s not just about what I can do. I needed to know that this is what God wanted me to do. So I put that aside and became a psychologist.
I then started to get angry with the Church. There I was, working with individuals, doing what Jesus asked us to do in helping sick people and the Church seemed not to be interested. I thought it had no desire to understand the working lives of lay people who feel they’re living out their calling.
Then in a vision I saw Christ. That was my calling to study theology. Subsequently, kicking and screaming, I became ordained.
What convinces you that Jesus is who he says he is? On what is your intellectual assent based?
It’s based on coherence. The Old Testament was written and edited over a period of 1,000 years. The New Testament was written in a short space of time by people who were coming from different angles, yet the writers arrive at the same place, saying the same thing. There is a consistency, and almost mathematical purity, throughout the whole Bible that is completely intellectually convincing – as satisfying as a mathematical proof.
Then there is the person of Jesus. That is a much more heartfelt conviction – he knows me and always acts for the best for me.
You mention mathematical proof. Can God’s existence be proved?
I think that’s a bit of a boys’ question. Paul was much more on the spot when he wrote: ‘I know whom I have believed.’ To try to prove God from philosophical first principles seems a strange and anoraky thing to want to do. It’s like asking me if my husband exists. That’s not the interesting question. The interesting question is: ‘What is he like?’
My experience of the 13 times table told me that it wasn’t nonsense to say that God existed and, therefore, I was prepared to look at Jesus. I know Christ exists. And I cannot do justice to him without talking about God.
This interview was conducted by Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission
Photo by Nigel Bovey