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July 2006 Article of the Month
This month's article selection is by Kyle D. Johnson, MDiv,
Chaplain, United States Army (Retired), Athens, TX;


Oman, D. [School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley] and Thoresen, C. E. [School of Education, Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, Stanford University]. "Spiritual modeling: a key to spiritual and religious growth?" The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 13, no. 3 (July 2003): 149-165.

[Editor's note: Kyle Johnson presents here an article that is pertinent to learning theory and its empirical study, and offers a particular perspective from his familiarity with the work of Albert Bandura. See especially his questions for discussion with CPE students--easily used also in discussion with Supervisory Education students.]


BACKGROUND and CONTEXT: This month's article invites the reader to take a different approach to looking at spirituality and religion (S/R). This approach does not rest on a psychodynamic or humanistic perspective. Another perspective is offered. This perspective is Albert Bandura's social cognitive theory.

Albert Bandura has been a dominant figure in psychology since the 1970s. He has been a prolific writer, and currently he is the world's most cited psychologist. In addition, he is known for using meticulous research in his writings. Bandura became a dominant figure during psychology's cognitive revolution of the 1970s. The psychodynamic and humanistic schools that had dominated psychology were displaced by schools that took a cognitive perspective. The main change was a shift from the primacy of affect and emotions to cognition and thinking. The change in thinking may be seen in the name of Bandura's approach, social cognitive theory.

A comprehensive review of Bandura's work is beyond the scope of this presentation. Those aspects of Bandura's work that are related to this month's article will receive a brief explanation. The reader is invited to consult the Related Items of Interest section (below) for a partial list of Bandura's publications.

Self-reflection is a key to understanding the Article-of-the-Month by Oman and Thoresen. Bandura says that people are constantly evaluating themselves and their surroundings. They want to have an idea what their futures hold, what they can and cannot do, who is in their support group and which needs and wants they can satisfy. Self-reflection is a lifelong process that involves constant learning. One might describe self-reflection as the sum total of one’s life lessons. Learning is a crucial contributor to being self-reflective.

Bandura says that learning occurs primarily thru observational learning. Persons learn by watching other persons. These other persons serve as models of behavior. Children learn about the ability to walk and run by watching models (e.g., older siblings and adults) long before they can walk. Chaplain interns and residents learn the art of pastoral care in large part by watching models (i.e., chaplains) perform this ministry.

Observational learning helps persons learn lessons much faster than trial and error. Learning to drive a car by watching a model drive is much faster and safer than simply getting behind the wheel and learning which moves are safe and which ones are hazardous.

Bandura says that observational learning lays the foundation for self-efficacy. In a nutshell, self-efficacy is about what a person believes or perceives that he or she can and cannot do. Persons who perceive themselves to be highly assertive and ambitious have a stronger sense of self-efficacy than those who have doubts about their abilities. Self-efficacy is more than overall self-confidence. Rather, it is about one’s specific perceptions in particular situations of how confidently they can do something. Self-efficacy includes the processes of learning, and contributes to a person’s sum total of one’s experiences and self evaluations.

One crucial lesson that Bandura offers to pastoral care providers is that the study of spirituality and religion (S/R) is a study of what persons do, not simply what they think. Bandura's approach challenges the minister to look beyond persons’ faith claims to their faith acts. Bandura’s perspective would affirm the old saying about "walking the talk."

ARTICLE SUMMARY: Oman and Thoresen wrote their article as a presentation of the wealth of resources that social cognitive theory offers to the study of S/R. Research on S/R can build on "social cognitive processes about which a great deal is already known" [p. 160]. They also recognize that few if any studies have used Bandura’s work to explore this topic. This article actually was part of a four-article collection devoted to introducing Bandura's work for the purpose of studying S/R. The other three articles are listed in Related Items of Interest (below).

Two terms are bound closely in this article. They form the central core of the authors' presentation. The first term, spiritual modeling, is found in the article's title and builds on Bandura's concept of modeling. The authors' define spiritual modeling as, "the idea that people may grow spiritually by imitating the life or conduct of one or more exemplars" [p. 150]. Central to spiritual modeling is the second term, observational spiritual learning, which is "the learning of spiritually relevant skills or behaviors through observing other persons" [p. 150]. People learn their spirituality in large part by watching other models. These models are persons whom they respect and see as worthy of imitation.

The terms, spiritual modeling and observational spiritual learning, help illuminate the similarities between the major religions of the world. For example, the authors point out that all major religions "emphasize that progress in spiritual growth (or faith development) must eventually result in allegiance to the sacred as one's supreme priority pursued 'with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might' (Deuteronomy 6:5, KJV) " [pp. 152-153]. For the authors, the roots of spirituality are not often found in Sunday School or religious education classes but more in the spiritual models who persons of faith observe.

Models are not necessarily living persons. Models can be persons found in sacred writings. For example, Jesus Christ can serve as a model for Christians thru the study of the New Testament. Models also can be the teachers who point to models in sacred writings. An example could be a rabbi who teaches Jewish students about models found in the Pentateuch. For the authors, sermons come more from a clergy person's behavior than his or her words.

The authors point out that observational spiritual learning can occur unconsciously. People are not aware always of the lessons that their brains are receiving. Persons of faith are not always aware of the lessons they are learning from their spiritual models. These unconscious lessons can be positive and negative.

Oman and Thoresen recommend that spiritual modeling and observational spiritual learning should be taken seriously in research. They believe that exploring the implications of spiritual modeling and observational spiritual learning can bring about crucial insights into individual and group S/R.

COMMENT: The complimentary concepts of spiritual modeling and observational spiritual learning have much to offer CPE settings. Supervisors need to recognize that their pastoral care modeling may be teaching their interns and residents more than any verbal teaching they offer. Pastoral care providers need to recognize that their behavior with a patient colors everything the pastoral care provider may say.

Oman and Thoresen offer pastoral care providers a valuable lesson through their study of spiritual modeling and observational spiritual learning. All of the major world religions have common characteristics because of spiritual modeling and observational spiritual learning. Learning a religion’s key spiritual models can help provide pastoral care that is more effective to a particular religion's adherents. The pastoral care provider needs to look for commonalities between the pastoral care provider's own faith models and that of the patient’s. A pastoral care provider should never assume that no commonality exists between the pastoral care provider's S/R and the patient’s.

Oman and Thoresen's work raises the issue of religious education and spiritual education. How do persons learn their faith? To whom do persons with no religious affiliation turn for spiritual models? For persons who claim a private secular spirituality, how does their observational spiritual learning work? These issues are very relevant for pastoral care providers who claim to be ecumenical and flexible in providing pastoral care to a diverse population.


Suggestions for the Use of the Article for Discussion in CPE 

Oman and Thoresen's use of social cognitive theory may present a perspective some CPE students have never encountered. A useful exercise might be asking the following questions:

  • "How would CPE be different if CPE were based upon Bandura’s social cognitive theory?"
  • "What pastoral care insights might be drawn from spiritual modeling and observational spiritual learning?"
  • "Do any research projects come to mind?"
  • "How might one use spiritual modeling and observational spiritual learning in one’s spiritual and religious growth?"
  • "What role does spiritual modeling and observational spiritual learning play in CPE groups?"


Related Items of Interest: 

I. This month's featured article was originally accompanied by the following three articles in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion:

Bandura, A. "On the psychosocial impact and mechanisms of spiritual modeling: comment." The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 13, no. 3 (July 2003): 167-173. [Bandura provides a good introduction to applying his work to the study of spirituality and religion.]

Silberman, I. "Spiritual role modeling: the teaching of meaning systems." The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 13, no. 3 (July 2003): 175-195. [Silberman critiques Oman and Thoresen's article. She also gives an interesting presentation in which she applies Bandura's work to Judaism in detail.]

Oman, D. and Thoresen, C. E. "The many frontiers of spiritual modeling." The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 13, no. 3 (July 2003): 197-213. [Oman and Thoresen respond to Silberman's critique and expand on their article.]

II. Two recent publications by Albert Bandura:

Bandura, A. "Social cognitive theory: an agentic perspective." Annual Review of Psychology 52 (February 2001): 1-26. [Bandura gives a good concise summary of social cognitive theory.]

Bandura, A. "Social cognitive theory in cultural context." Applied Psychology: An International Review 51, no. 2 (April 2002): 269-290. [Bandura demonstrates how his work can be applied to cultural settings in a manner similar to his work's applications to spirituality and religion.]

III. Three books by Albert Bandura. These three are representative of the evolution of Bandura’s work. Please notice the dates.

Bandura, A. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. . New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1997. [Self-efficacy has assumed a more important role in Bandura's writings.]

Bandura, A. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986. [This is Bandura’s definitive work. Notice the change in his theory's name from his 1977 work. The change reflects psychology’s cognitive revolution.]

Bandura, A. Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977. [Bandura’s earlier definitive work. Please notice that Bandura refers to his theory as social learning theory. This book is shorter and easier to read than the 1986 book on social cognitive theory.]

[Editor's supplemental note: This month's featured article is cited in Bormann, J. E., Oman, D., Kemppainen, J. K., Becker, S., Gershwin, M. and Kelly, A., "Mantram repetition for stress management in veterans and employees: a critical incident study," Journal of Advanced Nursing 53, no. 5 (March 2006): 502-512; which has been added to the Related Items of Interest section of the November 2005 Article-of-the-Month page.]


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