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Exploring the Link Between Psychiatrist and Pastor

Danielsen Institute receives $400K Templeton grant for study and lecture series

Robert Neville, the director of the Danielsen Institute.

The Albert and Jessie Danielsen Institute at Boston University recently won a grant from the John Templeton Foundation that will fund lectures and interdisciplinary study focusing on the theme of religious experience.

The Danielsen Institute, established in the 1950s to promote the benefits of close collaboration between psychology and religion to alleviate human suffering, provides multidisciplinary training and clinical care in mental health and sponsors research through its Center for the Study of Religion and Psychology.

The Templeton Research Lecture grant will last for three years and provide approximately $400,000 for the institute’s proposed project, Religious and Psychological Well-Being. In its first year the project will focus on religious experience, from the exotic to the mundane, and will highlight the work of the Center for the Study of Religion and Psychology.

The first installment of the grant, which was awarded on May 1, will allow the Danielsen Institute to present six lectures on religious experience, which will be collected in a book at the end of the year; to form a research team of BU faculty from various fields, such as science, psychology, sociology, medicine, and religion, which will meet six times a year to work on research papers on the theme; and to present two other public lectures.

Wesley Wildman, a School of Theology associate professor of philosophy, theology, and ethics, will deliver the six lectures, which will describe religious experience from the perspective of several disciplines, including theology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. He says that knowledge about religious experiences can help people achieve a more balanced judgment about their religious experiences and a better understanding of self.

“One of the key marks of religious experiences is intensity, in the sense of emotionally, intellectually, and sometimes physically gripping experiences that seem to link every part of life together in a potently meaningful way and that frequently transform those who undergo them,” says Wildman. “There are some aesthetic experiences that are intense but not religious, and there are some social experiences that are religious but not intense. But there is a significant overlap between intense experiences and the most powerful religious experiences.”

Robert Neville, executive director of the Danielsen Institute and a former University chaplain, STH dean, and dean of Marsh Chapel, says that from its founding, the Danielsen Institute has striven to understand religious experience by attempting to integrate psychology and psychotherapy with religious practice and pastoral counseling. He sees the opportunity to work with faculty across different disciplines as one of the greatest benefits of the grant.

“We focus on all aspects of the relation between psychology and religion and how it helps people in churches and clinics,” Neville says. “This grant will allow us to give very specific focus to that work. It will also allow genuine interdisciplinary collaboration, because it is very easy for chemists to cooperate with biologists, but it’s much harder to bridge from the modes of thought and language between the sciences and the humanities.”

Neville says the grant will also make the public more aware of the institute’s research program, based at its Center for the Study of Religion and Psychology. The center studies religious and spiritual experiences and practices, religious and spiritual issues in psychotherapy, and the interplay of religion and spirituality with mental health. Recent research has focused on the impact of the closing of Catholic churches on the spiritual lives of priests and parishioners.

“The study of psychology began as part of the study of religion,” says Brian McCorkle, center director. “If you go back and read ancient writings in any of the cultures, their discussion of psychology is phrased in terms of their understanding of religion. We understand religion now in perhaps different ways, but both religion and psychology are expressions of our inner life, so there is quite a lot of overlap.”

Meghan Noé can be reached at mdorney@bu.edu.