Interview with Matthew Lee on The Heart of Religion

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.Be grateful.
If you care about your congregation—for just a moment set aside all of your fears. You know the fears that we’re talking about: The roof may leak. Our members are too old. We are shrinking. Our pastor isn’t an effective preacher. Another church is taking all of our members. Our choir isn’t good enough to compete with the music at other churches. On and on … You—and thousands of other people in congregations nationwide—share these anxieties.

But, listen now to the Good News from a first-rate array of scholars at leading universities nationwide who, after four years of research, are releasing their remarkable conclusions in Oxford University Press’s new: The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love. Buy a copy by clicking on the cover, at right, then read it—and discuss it with friends at church.

In Part 1 of our coverage of this important new book, we summarized its findings and published brief excerpts. Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Dr. Matthew Lee, Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Akron and one of this new book’s three co-authors.


DAVID: Let me try to quickly summarize your key findings: There is a close relationship between our faith in a loving God—and the spiritual practices that deepen our faith—with real benevolent actions we share in the world. We’re not doing this because we expect any benefit. If we’ve felt God’s love then we sincerely want to share that love with others. So, how did I do? Your book is packed with so many fascinating facts—but is this a fair 50-word summary?

MATTHEW: That’s great. But there is one other thing I would add to even a short summary of our book. It’s a point that ReadTheSpirit makes in your own Ten Principles you have posted on your website. It’s your Number 5: “The most powerful spiritual stories are in the lives of the ordinary people we meet.” We found that to be true throughout our work. When we began interviewing people in our study, we had no idea they had these dramatic stories in their lives—until we asked them.

DAVID: You discovered that people did not want this described as “altruism.” You say that “altruism” is a word that implies a benefit people are seeking in their service, right?

MATTHEW: Yes, when people hear the term “altruism,” it implies a cost-benefit motivation. The people we interviewed told us they didn’t want us to use that term: altruism. People do what they do as an expression of love, not because they are expecting something in return. That’s what we found. And I’m talking here about finding this in the lives of ordinary people all across this country—not just in famous people like Mother Teresa.

DAVID: I am impressed with the way your study cuts to a deeper meaning and purpose in religion. Most of the other major research efforts on religion in America look at things like beliefs and customs, voting patterns and moral claims. I can’t recall another study that explored this particular set of questions.

MATTHEW: What has happened with scholarship on religion is that most of the attention is paid to the structural shell of religion: denominations, creeds, demographics and other elements of the shell that we study in great depth. We’re looking here at something deeper that drives religious experience.

DAVID: Just to clarify for readers of our interview today—your new book is not a How To guide. There is no section of 10 Sure-Fire Steps to Grow Your Congregation.

MATTHEW: We are talking about something that often is an experience of the Spirit breaking through in people’s lives—almost like a trump card that changes the game in our lives. This isn’t a case of our showing you something that you can bottle and sell.


DAVID: Regular readers of our online magazine know that we have been tracking other groups across the U.S. who are trying to promote a fresh appreciation for qualities that are sometimes described as Civility, Hospitality, Generosity or Kindness. Do you see those efforts as close to your own findings?

MATTHEW: Yes, these things absolutely are related. In my own discipline in sociology, there has been such a strong emphasis over the years on the dark side of human behavior. I think we are emerging from that focus to look in new ways at positive issues. Psychology has gone through this process, too, from a focus on abnormal psychology to more positive psychological issues. The Templeton Foundation has been supportive of a lot of these movements. There is now a generosity project. There is a gratitude project. There are now resources researchers can get to look at these issues in new ways. I think it’s good that the interest is no longer exclusively on: How do we identify pathology? I think it’s good that we are able to ask questions like: How do we foster benevolence?

DAVID: There is a purity and simplicity to this relationship you uncovered that I think anyone who cares about church life will find very refreshing and inspiring. I suspect that coming through the get-rich decades of the 1980s and 1990s, and now crawling out of the crash over the past five years or so, there is a strong belief out there that everything we do has to be argued in terms of cost-benefit. Why do we do anything in this world? The most popular answer these days is: To make money. To get ahead. Joel Osteen’s extremely popular message essentially is that God mainly wants us healthy, wealthy and happy. That’s not the spiritual process you found driving the faith of millions, today.

MATTHEW: Religion is a very complicated thing and there is a lot going on in what we call religion. But what struck us in our face-to-face interviews with men and women everywhere we went was the extent to which they described being taken by surprise by their experience of God’s love. And that love led them in directions they didn’t expect. As a result, they may even decline to pursue material goals in their life. This isn’t about a cost-benefit response.


DAVID: So, what is this love you’re talking about? I hope that our readers will buy your book and read the whole thing to understand the deeper relationships you’re describing. But give us a quick answer here: It’s not romantic love. It’s not shallow greeting-card sentiment. And some people might even choose other words than love to describe this principle.

MATTHEW: In our meetings of the research team, we would talk about how we can effectively study and talk about “love” and one member of our team would keep saying that we should talk about “justice.” For him, it didn’t make any sense to talk about love without justice. And, it’s true: Many people conceptualize love—and expressions of love—as only making sense when there is justice involved. People have many kinds of experiences they describe as love. That’s what we were trying to unpack in our study—and we describe this in the book. For many, this love is an emotionally, personally affective experience. For some, this is closely related to experiencing what people might describe as justice. But overall, our team decided that this whole range of experiences could be described as starting with a sense of “divine love.” People experience this divine love, then this moves them to express “love” to others.

DAVID: You also describe it as more than a one-time, one-shot experience in the lives of many people. You’ve got charts in the book that show these “loops” that form of renewed experiences of divine love fueling more benevolent expressions of love that people want to share in the world. It’s not a single experience. For millions of people, it’s more like a flowing circuit.

MATTHEW: People would burn out except for the renewal that comes from a deep experience of love. We saw this over and over again. I’m not saying that some people didn’t report getting depressed. They do have trials and tribulations, but even in hard times they have a sense that they’re not suffering alone. They’re part of a bigger story. This gives them a larger sense of meaning in their lives—even when they hit seemingly insurmountable barriers. They are refreshed by this ongoing encounter with divine love.

DAVID: Do you reject the Pay-It-Forward idea? That tends to be an argument that we all will somehow benefit if we are generous with other people in our community.

MATTHEW: That’s an interesting question. For many of the folks we interviewed, again and again, they described being able to see beyond their immediate circumstances. They see their lives as part of a broader story. But many of these people would describe that Pay-It-Forward idea in a different way than you’re describing it. They often told us something like: I’ve already received the greatest gift that I could receive in life from God, so now I’m simply enjoying living that out. Knowing God’s love, we live by giving away God’s love. A lot of people feel that it’s God’s love that has been paid forward into their lives and they are sharing those blessings.


DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we have been working with Michigan State University’s School of Journalism on efforts to combat bullying in our school and communities. And, frankly, anyone who watched television in the past six months is well aware of the extreme friction among Americans, often because of strong religious beliefs. If what you are describing is true, I’m sure our readers are wondering: Why so much friction?

MATTHEW: One of the criticisms we’ve received from people who haven’t fully read about our work is that we’re somehow blindly promoting an ideology of love and holding up our interviewees as examples to be emulated. It’s important to understand that while we have shown this relationship between divine love and benevolent service—we don’t mean that everyone is working in the same direction. Some of these people are moved to work at cross-purposes with each other as they express benevolence. We don’t have our heads up in the clouds. We’re not blind to this issue of conflicting ideas.

DAVID: And your research isn’t over, as I understand it. Keep in touch with ReadTheSpirit and we’ll be sure to tell readers about your next steps.

MATTHEW: We will. We are looking forward to a major conference on these ideas probably to be held somewhere in Ohio. The book is going out to readers now. We’re hoping many people will read it, discuss it and engage with us further.

Have you read Part 1 of our coverage of The Heart of Religion?

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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