John Bennison Words and Ways

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Beyond Dis-belief: The New Frontier

You can read and/or print a pdf copy of this commentary Here.

 

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. — E. B. White

 

There was once a time in my professional career when I half-heartedly adhered to a belief expressed in one of my favorite Gary Larson cartoons, which I framed and placed on my office desk. As conflicted as I sometimes felt, it periodically drove me to recall my favorite E.B. White quote above.

Nowadays, here’s a subsequent question I’ve been pondering: How do I reconcile myself to the stark reality that I no longer hold certain views and beliefs that I once assumed and accepted, considered foundational, and held as sacrosanct?

In this post-modern, interconnected, diverse and globalized world that seems consumed by political divisions, international strife and – most recently – multiple natural disasters, there is a very human tendency to circle the wagons, hunker down, maybe even build an illusory wall, retreat and cling to what is presumably tried and true, and try to enjoy it. “I’m right,” I say to myself and to my circle of comrades who concur, “and how in the world can anyone else think differently?”

The problem is, the person who does see things totally differently thinks the same thing!

Seen in psychological terms, there may be two things going on. The first is what is sometimes referred to as “confirmation bias.” It is the tendency to seek, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs, viewpoint or world view. We all do this, of course; to one extent or another. It gives us a sense of order and identity out of what is otherwise confusion and chaos.

So, if I watch cable news, I’ll choose CNN or MSNBC. Still, Rachel Maddow is a bit too snarky for me; and Lawrence O’Donnell is too whiny and monolithic in his monologue; grinding the same axe until it gets rather dull and his “Last Word” isn’t. But Brian Williams is a witty guy with a thinly veiled viewpoint that pretty much aligns with my own. I’d never watch “Fox & Friends,” and conservative talk radio is absolutely anathema to any enlightened worldview, in my opinion.

Likewise, when it comes to things “religious,” I tend to cringe more and more at the utterance of any traditional “god” talk; or the mere mention or inference in any belief in a supernatural deity –v or deities — to explain the why’s and wherefore’s of the universe, and our place in it.

Our primitive ancestors lacked the reasoning and rationality that scientific knowledge has afforded us to explain such natural phenomena as earthquakes and hurricanes. So the mythic stories they left to us – not unlike our ‘sacred’ scriptures. They make for powerful metaphors to be taken seriously; but are hardly to be taken literally as still so often regrettably remains the case.

So now when live-coverage of natural disasters shows certain survivors expressing their gratitude to their “god” for having been spared, the obvious contradiction remains for those who perished. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what about the 3-month old infant, for instance, who along with ten other worshippers were crushed to death during a baptismal service when their church south of Mexico City collapsed in a recent earthquake?

Or, when I listen to our President give a speech where he threatens to totally annihilate millions of people, then concludes his bellicose remarks by bidding the “God” of “us all” to “bless” the United States of America, I ask what kind of a deity is he talking about? Is it the same one who unleashed the earthquakes and hurricanes, or remained powerless to stop them?

Such incidents only seem to confirm my bias and beliefs.

But the second psychological phenomenon that I sense is going on is “cognitive dissonance.” It consists of those lingering effects that have to do with the emotional and mental discomfort experienced when one is conflicted with regard to the opinions and beliefs one may struggle to still hold, and maybe even outwardly profess; while inwardly having the creeping knowledge those beliefs no longer hold any defensible validity. There are a multitude of worshipping Christians who still faithfully recite a 4th century CE creedal statement of beliefs; all the while cringing, with fingers and toes crossed. It’s called cognitive dissonance!

As I’ve illustrated, nowhere do these human psychological phenomena seem more readily apparent to me than in the two arenas of politics and religion; and both for good reason. They are the two primary places we long to call home. It’s our identity, our tribe and community). It’s where we’ve pitched our tents, or had them pitched by those who came before us; and in whose encampments we’ve constructed the way in which we see the rest of the world, and operate within it.

Would that it were an immovable rock of ages cleft for me and thee, we’d like to believe. But the ground has shifted beneath our feet; and the aftershocks continue to tell us we have already left those former things behind.

It only takes a few of such crises to arise for our confirmation bias to experience cognitive dissonance. Then we are confronted with what I’m convinced is one of the most difficult things imaginable for human beings; namely, to change one’s mind; or worse, admit one was wrong, or made a mistake. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, diehards (political or religious) are willing to do just that: die hard before admitting they were wrong; or at least wrong to continue down the same path of blind, irreconcilable beliefs. They constitute the multitudes sometimes referred to as the (religious) traditional true believers or (political) base.

Various religious traditions, of course, have offered sages and prophets to guide us in another, new direction; letting us know when we’ve strayed off-course. But they’ve also constructed hierarchical systems for confession and absolution to acknowledge and “process” this very prickly predicament for the penitent who might stray!

But there are yet other times when one moves beyond something that was once believed to be right, or true, or true anymore. Then it isn’t always so much a matter of transgression of course, but progression. The line between orthodoxy (right-belief) and heresy may be far fuzzier than some would like to believe. So-called “living” traditions (traditio, lit. passing down, passing along) has to do with something that presumably still holds water. But then there are other times when new wine just doesn’t work well with old wineskins (Mark 2:21-22, et. al.).

That is when the process of examining our confirmation bias and actually embracing our experience of cognitive dissonance can perhaps illumine a path of disbelief that can offer us something else, something more. A personal example:

I was born and raised in a mid-West town in the middle of the last century. While the Pottawatomi were the indigenous people to first inhabit the Kalamazoo valley (the city’s name means “boiling pot” in that native language), my tribe comfortably settled there as protestant Christians and conservative Republicans.

But it only took the tumultuous sixties for my Vietnam generation to experience a profound cognitive dissonance with our confirmation bias. My previously unexamined political viewpoint changed dramatically; while a low draft lottery number sent me scurrying off to my graduate theological studies with a student deferment. More than a draft dodger or conscious objector, I sincerely sought to re-examine and explore my religious worldview.

For the next five years, I delved into a deeper understanding of how my own religious tradition had evolved. I learned the extent to which our scriptures – deemed as being somehow sacred — were human creations; the results of interpreted human experiences, meant to bring orderliness and understanding to our lives. Bundled into this tradition as it developed were all the doctrinal apologetics; creating a systematic explanation of why we were to believe what we were to believe, and the church’s dispensation for the redeemed who remained faithful, or penitent and absolved!

Nearly seven decades ago, as an infant, I had been immersed into my family’s faith tradition through the salvific ritual of baptism. Over four decades ago, a bishop laid hands on my head, uttered a prayer, and ordained me a deacon, then later a priest. Before he did so – as the liturgical practice bade him to do — he asked me a series of questions, including this one: “Do you believe the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary for salvation?” Dutifully, I answered, “I do.”

At the time, it seemed neither the time nor the place to equivocate and ask him to clarify what he meant by the sacredness of our great mythic stories by which we lived our lives; let alone what he meant by “salvation.” There was a presumed confirmation bias to simply be affirmed!

But nowadays, these many years later, I would experience too much cognitive dissonance to let it pass. Between then and now, there were all those intervening years in which I lovingly pastored a flock;’ where we not only regurgitated creedal confirmations, but also lived out the sacred stories we would tell and retell. We were – as best we could – those incarnated gospel truths, as best we could discern them. When it came to the teachings of the Galilean sage, I like to say, it was less a matter of believing them, and more a matter of simply living them.

In the recent past there was the distinction former adherents explained their exodus as opting to be “spiritual, not religious.” Nowadays, the emphasis is on orthopraxy (right action) over orthodoxy (right belief). So, I believe in orthopraxy more than orthodoxy, and little else!

Nowadays, I resonate with authors who write books like “Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic” (Geering), or “God’s Human Future: The Struggle to Define Theology Today” (Galston). What once may have been cognitive dissonance has led me to a new confirmation bias, beyond dis-belief.

As a self-described post-theist, I don’t believe in any sort of ‘traditional’ supernatural deity that represents the sum total of our human capacity to imagine such a thing. As such, I do I believe in any traditional notion of prayer to be addressed to a supernatural creator, intervener or redeemer when the ground shakes and the raging waters wash over us. I do not believe in what is most often considered the petitionary or intercessory function of prayer.

But I do believe in regularly remembering the needs of others, and my sense of response-ability to act. Hence, we re-collect our “Remembrances” in our monthly gathering, with these words, “With open hearts and willing hands, let it be so.” And, at the same time, I can be thankful and express gratitude for the blessings of my life, without attribution to anything more than the sanctity of life itself. I can find enjoyment in the joy to be found in my days.

The only quandary that has arisen as a result of having passed through the dissonance of dis-belief is this: As E.B. White once put it, my confirmation bias to confront and respond to the needs of our world can interfere with my enjoyment of it, and make it difficult to plan my day.

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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