Personality and spirituality

How important are personality and temperament to matters of faith and spirituality? In one sense, not at all – any kind of person can equally be a Christian. But I believe personality is of great significance to the kind of Christian (or atheist or Buddhist or whatever) that you become.

Christianity is not monolithic (no religion is). Within the one ‘Way’ are a breathtaking diversity of streams, styles, pathways, denominations, theologies. I’d suggest that one fairly obvious reason for this is simply the diversity of people and personality types.

Personality and temperament are probably the primary influences on what you value and see as important; both on what you do and how you think things should be done. The kind of person you are plays a huge role in your whole approach to faith, theology, spirituality, church, worship, evangelism etc. It influences the forms of religious expression you’re drawn to, and may be the main factor in finding your overall theological ‘stream’ (charismatic or contemplative; evangelical, activist or sacramental etc). It affects which type and denomination of church you feel at home in, and what role you play in that church.

It’s also often the underlying factor in the kinds of fellow-believers you find hard to get on with, the styles of worship you find grating and the types of theology that you dislike. I’ve said before that the reason I struggle with the likes of Calvin, Cromwell and St Paul is probably as much to do with personality as anything more objective. And how many people leave churches over personality clashes, or over theological differences in which personality perhaps played a more major role than was acknowledged?

It’s for this reason above all that I think we need to understand the relationship between personality and spirituality. So many conflicts within or between churches and Christian groups come down in large part to personality differences; different perspectives on what’s important, and different approaches to theology in which personality plays a hidden role.

So many misunderstandings come down to a simple lack of understanding of our own and other people’s personality types and biases. Problems arise when we view our own personality-based theological or worship preferences as the only way; when we view ‘our’ group as the true believers and others as heretics.

Personality types

Of course, personality is a highly complex phenomenon; personality can’t ever be fully reduced to a simple schema or system. There are many models of personality typology – Myers-Briggs, the Four Temperaments, The Big Five, The Enneagram etc. All have their strengths and their flaws, and all are inevitably fairly wide-mesh nets.

Used together though they can be helpful in obeying the old dictum to ‘know yourself’ – understanding what broad kinds of people we are, what makes us tick; what our predominant strengths and weaknesses are and how to develop the former and overcome the latter. They can help us understand our prejudices and preferences, what makes us panic or see red, and why we find certain situations or types of people so difficult. Above all they can help you accept and have compassion on both yourself and other people.

At the very least they can give us language to describe the characteristics we notice in ourselves and others. For example, Myers-Briggs gives us the polarities of Extrovert/Introvert, intuitive/sensing, feeling/thinking, and judging/perceiving. And the Four Temperaments gives us four very basic but recognisable personality types of Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholic and Phlegmatic, which I’ve found helpful.

Cholerics are natural leaders; goal-oriented and motivated by results; great in a crisis but not the most sympathetic, pastoral or poetic people; they tend to cut through detail and nuance. Sanguines are sociable, warm, outgoing, motivated by relationships and with a great desire to connect and communicate; often a little scatty and not overly concerned with accuracy. Melancholics are introverted thinkers and analysers, loving detail and order; often deep and creative but with a tendency to depressiveness. And Phlegmatics are generally easy-going, good-natured and peaceable, faithful friends and good mediators, but sometimes needing a rocket under their backsides to get anything done. (I’m broadly Phleg-Mel.)

So Cholerics might approach church with strategies for getting ‘bums on seats’.  Sanguines may see church primarily as a place to connect with others. Melancholics will often want orderly liturgy or be concerned about the theological content of songs. And Phlegmatics will probably want a nice safe routine of familiar services.

Personality and theology

Of course there are many other ways of categorising personality, e.g. relationship-oriented vs fact-oriented; left vs right brain (or logical-analytical vs poetic-symbolic); action-oriented vs contemplative, etc. These are all just descriptions of the various ways people think and respond and act; their priorities and motivations and styles. I think they can also be descriptions of how churches and broader theological movements operate.

So as a huge over-generalisation I’d submit that evangelicals are often characterised by an emphasis on truth (or fact) and a desire for accuracy. Charismatics may be more influenced by emotion and also be more likely to respond physically (e.g. by dancing). Contemplatives are often naturally poetic and intuitive. And so on.

I’d also suggest that ardent evangelicals or ardent liberals (if that’s not oxymoronic) are often simply so because of the kind of person they are. Certain types of people are likely to end up as evangelicals; others as liberals; others as something else. Some people are naturally passionate about doctrine; others couldn’t give a monkey’s about it but have a tremendous pastoral concern for others. That’s all okay.

We all think that what we believe and the way we do things is the best way; otherwise we wouldn’t believe those things or do things that way. Most likely none of us are completely right, but perhaps none of us are completely wrong either. It’s okay to be different, to think differently, and to do things differently. Understanding that we’re all so very different (but still okay) is an important part of Christian maturity and community. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity.

Equal but different

Crucially, no type of personality is inherently better or worse, more or less Christian, than others. All have their own strengths and weaknesses; all manifest or approach spirituality in different ways. We will of course have our own preferences for certain sorts and prejudices against others, according to our own type and how we’ve been treated by others.

Some personalities may appear more ‘Christian’ – more naturally patient, forgiving, generous, hospitable or compassionate. But even the best natural traits still need to be perfected and completed in Christ. Sometimes these nice traits turn out to be partially ‘false’, or at least to have complex psychological causes. They may for example be a cover to hidden fear or shame, or an effort to win parental approval. And all good traits have corresponding weaknesses.

I’m convinced we all get a ‘fair’ chance; we’re all handicapped by our personalities in some areas and advantaged in others. Our personalities shape the direction we take, but they don’t determine our eternal destinies.

Character and calling

I’d also draw a fundamental distinction between personality and character. I’d say that personality is the raw material of who you are, the parameters of what you’re like (temperament, gifts, tastes etc); I’d see this as largely innate (God-given if you like), though it may be influenced by nurture. Character is about your choices and your attitudes; it’s what you make of the raw material of your personality.

Whatever your innate personality or temperament, you can develop better or worse character. Certain types of personality are simply more inclined towards certain kinds of character flaw. We all have to fight battles with parts of our nature; just different parts depending (partly) on your personality.

I’d also draw a distinction between God’s general, common purpose for all humans and his specific calling on us as individuals. We’re all called to love, to forgive, to worship etc; we’re not all called to be missionaries in China, or to be Billy Graham or Rick Warren or St Paul or whoever we feel we should be like but aren’t. We’re all called to become Christlike, but in unique individual ways; we’re called to incarnate Christ in our different personalities and lives. Your way of doing that will probably be very different to mine. Each of us is tasked with developing our own character and discerning our own calling. One body, many parts.

Limitations of personality tests

There are plenty of personality-type tests out there –just Google ‘Myers Briggs test’, ‘Four Temperaments test’, ‘Enneagram test’ or whatever. Some people love these kinds of tests (I do); others hate them; again, this probably just comes down to your personality type. 😉

Do try out some personality tests and schemas, but bear in mind that they’re all over-simplistic and over-generalising; they may well leave out the most important things about you. Above all, though we share many broad characteristics and traits with others, we’re all unique individuals. No-one else has quite our combination of characteristics, and at the deepest level our identity and personhood defies categorisation – thank God.

Perhaps the greatest danger with personality typologies is letting ourselves be defined or limited by them, as though our personality were set in stone and could never change. Similarly, it can be easy to misuse them to put others in a box so we can judge, dismiss or control them (‘you’re just such an x’); or to use them just to excuse our behaviour rather than to trying to address it (‘I couldn’t help doing it, I’m a y’). But like all tools, they can be helpful if used rightly.

Personality tests probably won’t save your life or your soul. But they can help you know aspects of yourself a little better, and that’s never a bad thing.

Advertisements

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Psychology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Personality and spirituality

  1. Terry says:

    …we’re not all called to be missionaries in China, or to be Billy Graham or Rick Warren or St Paul or whoever we feel we should be like but aren’t…

    But doesn’t St Paul tell us somewhere to imitate him…?

    Seriously, a good post. I’m a great fan of Myers-Briggs (I’m INTJ, by the way). I take its emphasis on the four letters as indicating preferences very seriously; too many, it seems to me, think the idea of the MBTI is to pigeonhole people, which it doesn’t!

    I’ve been flicking through a book called Knowing Me, Knowing You (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Knowing-You-Exploring-Personality-Temperament/dp/0281057214/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1342684106&sr=1-3) because it has a section on church relationships, etc. I’ve found it very interesting in places. It suggests in one place, for example, that when selecting songs for worship, you keep an eye on the intravert/extravert emphases of each song. If it turns out that all the songs emphasise an inner relationship with God, it’s likely you’re not going to please the extraverts. And, I suppose, if all the songs you sing are about going out with joy, dancing, and la-la-laaing, all the congregation’s intraverts are going to be cringing inwardly.

    Like

    • I do a very good St Paul imitation – brings the house down at parties.

      Good point about MBTI being about preferences rather than pigeon-holing. I think I’m INFP, or at least I was about 18 years ago when I last checked! Knowing Me, Knowing You sounds interesting – might try and get hold of a copy. I like the point about worship songs – I’ve never quite thought of analysing them in that way.

      The Four Temperaments model was popularised by good old Tim Lahaye, and is obviously related to an ancient and discredited view of medicine/physiology, but as a framework I think it’s got a lot to recommend it. I’m slightly more cautious about the Enneagram (mainly because it’s way too complicated for me to get my head round!), but apparently I’m a type 9.

      Like

  2. Eric says:

    “I’m convinced we all get a ‘fair’ chance; we’re all handicapped by our personalities in some areas and advantaged in others. Our personalities shape the direction we take, but they don’t determine our eternal destinies.”

    I’m not convinced that this is the only way to be fair. It’s certainly the model our culture holds out (we are all equal because we are all capable of producing things that come out, somehow, to the same sum) but I think that flies in the face of reality. I think the starting point for these things is God and His omniscience – maybe I start off worse than you and end worse than you but God can figure out who has moved towards Him more and that might not be you. So the idea that maybe some people just start in a bad spot doesn’t seem like that has to mean that some people basically start out pre-damned.

    Like

    • Hi Eric, I actually broadly agree with you – I wasn’t quite meaning ‘fair’ in that way (which was partly why I put it in inverted commas). I really just meant two things:

      (a) we all have weaknesses and we all have strengths, but ours are different to other people’s (though as you point out, not necessarily exactly ‘equivalent’ – there’s no way that could really be measured anyway); and
      (b) ultimately our eternal destiny doesn’t rest on our personality. However unpromising a start we seem to have (and some of this comes down to the separate nature/nurture debate), whatever weaknesses or handicaps we have to struggle with, our hope of redemption is as good as anyone else’s. Which doesn’t seem all that far from the point you were making.

      But I agree that ‘fair’ isn’t a particularly helpful concept in the sense that our culture defines it. That’s part of the point of the article – we’re very much not all the same. But we’re all (in a sense) equally flawed and fallen, and certainly equally loved, valuable and redeemable. And the things that we see as good or valuable in us or other people may not be quite the same as what God sees – again, not far from your point. 🙂

      Like

  3. dsholland says:

    They also serve… or as David said, they guys who stay with the stuff get an equal share. If we discuss fairness we have to consider God’s purpose and that’s not always evident. Best not to look too close IMO.

    Interesting post. Some shades of C.S. where my “Christianity” is enhanced by good digestion. This is important to remember before making comparisons, but useful in making connections.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s