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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of uncomfortable tension you get when you try to hold two conflicting thoughts in your head at the same time. We've all experienced it, I'm sure. Of course, since my primary focus here is matters of Christian concern, my primary cognitive dissonance issues will point there.

Let's say that you believe it is wrong to kill animals ... and then you discover that God ordered thousands of animals killed often for sacrifices. Or you believe that the death penalty is immoral ... and then you read that God ordered the death penalty in many instances for a variety of crimes. Maybe you're quite sure that science accurately explains the origins of the universe ... and then you read the Genesis account. Perhaps you think that there is no fundamental difference between men and women ... and then you read that Paul didn't allow women to teach men and that wives are to submit to their husbands. Or, here, how about this? You know lots of good people who aren't Christians ... and then you read "There is none good, no not one."

Cognitive dissonance is the description of what is occurring in these (and many other) examples. You have your own core beliefs ... and then you run up against another of your core beliefs. What do you do? How do you resolve this problem? Different people have different approaches, but, essentially, there are only three. One approach is to hold both beliefs at the same time, as contradictory as they are. They put themselves in an awkward position, trying to logically defend a contradiction (which, by definition, is illogical). Another very popular approach is to throw out the new paradigm in favor of the old. That is, "I've always believed X, so Y just can't be true." I suspect there are several reasons that this is so prevalent. First there's pride. "You're saying that I've been wrong all this time???!!" Then there's the emotional connection. "Hey, I learned that from my mom/pastor/favorite person ... and you're telling me they are all wrong?" Dropping an old paradigm for a new can be difficult and disconcerting. The third approach, then, is to drop the old for the new. The person encountering the dissonance says something like, "Well, I had an opposing view, but it appears to say something different, so I'll discard my original view in favor of the new."

Now, I'm sure you're well aware that this is an oversimplification. Usually people use some combination of these three. Perhaps they won't see it as one of these three. For instance, when they explain away the new view as not what it actually says, they'll think, "I'm just being wise here", not "I'm unwilling to change my original view for a new one." Conversely, they might say, "I am not even going to think about it; I'll just toss out my original view and take the new one because 'the Bible is always right'." And they don't think ... many of them.

A thinking approach might equally be any of these three positions. A thinking person might tell himself/herself "I've always been told that there is no difference between men and women. I've carefully examined the texts about men and women/husbands and wives and cannot find support for my original view in Scripture. It would seem that I need to change my view." It is possible to think, "I've seen the evidence from science and I don't know how to refute it. Perhaps I am not properly understanding what the Genesis account of Creation is actually saying. Let's see if I can correlate the two." You could say, "I believe God is good, and this passage seems to portray Him as bad. While I don't accept that He's bad, I'll still accept this passage as true and rely on my ignorance of the total character of God to retain both positions -- God is good, and this passage is accurate."

So ... what approach would I recommend? Well, think it through. Here are a few points in the order that I would recommend:

1. Ask "What does Scripture say?" That would include "What does the text say?" (including context, type of passage -- doctrine, narrative, poetry, wisdom, etc.) as well as "What does the rest of Scripture say?" since Scripture is first and foremost best interpreted by Scripture. If what you read in a passage contradicts what you read in another passage, there is valid reason to question your understanding (as opposed to the veracity of Scripture). If one passage implies something you've always believed, but another explicitly denies it, you may need to make a change. On the other hand, if there is no contradiction in Scripture, be prepared to change what you believe so that it aligns with what Scripture says.

2. Ask, "Why does this cause me problems?" If you are confused because your experience or personal views are getting in the way, then you may need to overwrite your experience or personal views. "I always thought people were like this" is not a good reason to conclude "the Bible must be wrong." Very often people refuse to change their perceptions in the face of clear biblical content because the cost is too high. "That would mean that I'm in sin" or "if that's true, then people I love are in deep trouble." I would submit that the reverse is true. If you are actually in sin or the people you love are actually in deep trouble, redefining it to protect yourself or them is a disservice ... to both.

3. Find out what historic Christianity has said on the passage. This is 3rd on my list because historically the Church has made mistakes, but if the Holy Spirit truly leads His own into all truth, then there should be a thread throughout Church history that holds one common view from beginning to end. If your conclusions are novel, question them. If your understanding defies historic orthodoxy, on what basis do you think you're right when they've all been wrong? If you come to the same conclusion that historic Christianity did, especially if it is in opposition to your original view, be very careful before you reject it.

4. Ultimately, determine your source. Are you, in the end, going to go with yourself as your source, or are you going to submit to the Bible as your source? Is God's written Word sufficient, or are you going to hold yourself in higher esteem? Your call. Make it the right one.

Let's look at an example. You know lots of nice people. You know atheists who are good husbands (or wives) and good parents and good citizens. They do lots of good. Then you read,
"For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one'" (Rom 3:9-12).
Wow! Didn't see that coming. So, let's take a look. What is the context? Well, Paul has just spent Romans 1:18 through 3:8 explaining that sin is a problem, that God's just wrath is against sinners, and we're all in a heap of trouble with God. The context, then, supports the passage as written. But does other Scripture? Well, later we read, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23), "you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness" (Rom 6:16), and "The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom 8:7-8). Wow! Just as harsh! And over in 1 Corinthians we read, "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14). Then in Ephesians Paul writes, "You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience -- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Eph 2:1-3). And on it goes. It appears that the Scriptures hold a dim view of the capabilities of natural man for any possibility of good.

Still, I know good people, so perhaps the text doesn't mean what it appears to say. Maybe it's hyperbole, you know? Let's look at that. The Bible certainly uses hyperbole at times. In Mark 1:33 we read, "And the whole city was gathered together at the door." Seriously, Mark? The whole city? Well, no, of course not. He's trying to get across the large number of people that showed up. But ... what if he actually intended to say "every man, woman, and child"? Well, he'd need a few more words, but it would look something like this: "And the whole city -- every single person -- was gathered together at the door." You see, in that case Mark would have been saying "the whole city -- and I'm not speaking in hyperbole." We find this type of thing in Genesis. "But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house" (Gen 19:4). Do you see the care taken to explain this? When you first read "the men of the city", you might think "hyperbole -- overstatement to make a point". But the passage explains carefully -- it's not hyperbole. It is "the men of Sodom" (as opposed to Gomorrah), "both young and old" (as opposed to any particular age group), and "to the last man" (as opposed to "a whole lot"). This description is designed to say that actually every single adult male in the city of Sodom was outside of Lot's door. So ... what do we see in the passage in question? Paul uses this descriptive tool, doesn't he? When he says, "There is none righteous" he doesn't leave room for hyperbole. He emphasizes it: "no, not one". When he says "no one does good" he doesn't leave room for misunderstanding. He emphasizes again "not even one". He is clarifying, "I'm not speaking in hyperbole" (or, to be more accurate, "the psalmist I'm quoting wasn't speaking in hyperbole"). He actually means all.

Now we have a choice. We can redefine our experience -- those good non-believers we know -- or we can redefine what is plain in the passage, allowing our experience to override the text. If we chose the latter, it would not be because of context or contradiction of other Scripture. It would be on the basis of our personal experience and preference. Essentially we would be saying, "That passage cannot mean what it clearly intends to say because I trust my instinct and experience over that text, so I will not accept it at face value." And we would do so at our own risk.

It's important to read the Bible for all it is worth. It is important to know what it says both in immediate context and in its entire context. The Bible is our sole source on matters of faith and practice, God's Word to us. We should "rightly divide" -- handle carefully -- the Word. But be very, very careful if you decide that despite all the texts and contexts and history and commentaries that you're right and they're all wrong. Be very, very careful.

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