Conversatio Divina

Part 5 of 12

Moral Maturity? What Does Christianity Predict and How Strong is the Research Evidence?

Christian Miller

The fourth session of the 2024 Martin Institute Christian Formation Workshop featured a presentation by Dr. Christian B. Miller (philosophy, Wake Forest University) and comments by Dr. Brandon Rickabaugh (philosophy, Palm Beach Atlantic University). The session was moderated by Dr. Jason Baehr (philosophy, Loyola Marymount University). Dr. Miller’s paper was titled “Moral Maturity? What Does Christianity Predict and How Strong is the Research Evidence?” This session continues to focus on the evidence for Christian maturity/immaturity.

01.  Summary

Drawing on empirical research Christian Miller sets out to answer two questions: 

  1. If Christianity is true, then what can we reasonably predict about the moral maturity of Christians as compared to non-Christians? 
  2. Is there any empirical research which does in fact find greater moral maturity in Christians in a way that sets them apart from non-Christians?  

 Smith defines “moral maturity” as a person’s moral behavior and character. Smith believes that after conversion, and over time, one should expect Christian growth in moral maturity. That we should expect greater sanctification in cases where the HS is involved than when not is what he calls his “bedrock idea.” In drawing on the work of William Alston, who speaks of three different ways in which the Holy Spirit impacts the life of a Christian, Smith concludes that on average there is an expectation of better character for persons indwelt by the HS as opposed to those who are not. Indeed, Smith contends that growth in moral maturity seems so central to Christianity that if we were to concede this point about growth in maturity, then, Christianity cannot be said to be true. Hence, “if Christianity is true, then we have good reason to predict that Christians on average will have a more virtuous character than non-Christians.” 

 After insisting that Christian maturation must be possible, Smith then compares Christian moral maturity to that of non-Christians. To do so, he employs a method that he calls “Group Comparative Prediction” (GCP), which compares group averages between Christians and non-Christian. After reviewing some possible objections to the GCP model, he turns to empirical research to see if his expectation of Christian maturity is legitimate. It is important to note that the studies he draws from focus primarily on American and European populations and utilize the four virtues of compassion, non-malevolence, honesty, and self-control to measure maturity. While Smith is conscious of the limits of empirical research, noting that there is only a correlation (not causal relationship) between Christians and higher levels of virtue and that such studies are assessing behavior not virtue (which would involve the motivations and desires behind behaviors), he concludes that “there is preliminary, suggestive evidence in favor of thinking that greater moral maturity on average is to be found in Christians as compared to non-Christians.”  

 Smith concludes by offering some “speculative points” relating to gray areas in the data, and areas for further research. He thinks it is important to examine further what might be attained by nature, what requires supernatural agency, and how these are related. We might consider how “common grace” might be at work in non– or “anonymous Christians,” how prevenient grace might be at work in the pre-convert, how infused or supernatural virtues might play a part in one’s growth, and/or whether we ought to be thinking more ecclesially about the collective evidence for Christian maturity. 

02.  Key Quotes

“Furthermore, if the Holy Spirit is involved, it is hard to accept that the Spirit would have no or just a marginal impact on the moral character of Christians, at least over a significant period of time. Hence I do not see a way to avoid the conclusion that, given Christian claims about the Holy Spirit and sanctification, we should predict that those in whom the Spirit is operative will on average have a better moral character than those in whom the Spirit is not.”

“Christians are, I think it is safe to say, expected to be different from everyone else in some way. It would be surprising from a Christian perspective, in other words, if becoming a Christian and living one’s life as a Christian didn’t produce any noticeable moral differences from non-Christians.”

“There is preliminary, suggestive evidence in favor of thinking that greater moral maturity on average is to be found in Christians as compared to non-Christians.”

“ . . . overall studies find behavioral differences between Christians and non-Christians. Furthermore, those differences tend to reflect an alignment between higher religiosity and either acting better (donating more, volunteering more, etc.) or refraining from acting worse (less crime, lower drug use, etc.).”

“If anything the empirical evidence points in the opposite direction. Hence as a contribution to a more defensive apologetic, this paper can call into question an important argument against the truth of Christianity.”

03.  Application Questions

  • The empirical data, as Smith presents it, suggests that there is an uptick in the moral maturity of Christians vs. non-Christians. How does this sit with you?  
  • Smith openly acknowledges that the empirical evidence he presents is based on a kind of behavioralist model. In other words, from the data, we aren’t really able to discern why it is that a Christian behaves more maturely than a non-Christian, although they do. Do our models of formation promote right behavior or look deeper to the intentions, motives and/or fears driving this behavior? 
  • What are some safe practices or models for helping leaders get beyond mere behaviorism, to the intentions, motives, or fears driving right behavior?  
  • Smith mentions how virtue is something that persists and is cultivated over time. Might we benefit from an emphasis on virtue formation or incorporating virtue in our discipleship models and curriculum? (e.g. the classical/Christian virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and love | the capital virtues: love, faith, good works, concord, sobriety, patience, and humility).  
  • Speaking of maturation over time, what role might the practice of “waiting” play in our spiritual development?