Archive for July, 2012

Theology, Thin-Slicing, and the Perils of Prejudice July 31, 2012

In his 2005 bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Canadian journalist Malcom Gladwell wrote about the neurological phenomenon of “thin-slicing”–the ability of humans to make remarkably accurate snap judgments about people, objects, and situations based on very little information. Thin-slicing, Gladwell says, helps us navigate daily life by equipping us to recognize friends and acquaintances, avoid danger (like visiting run-down buildings or eating spoiled food), and generally speed up our cognitive process (in essence, bypassing deeper thought about simple matters). Of course, like the rest of human nature, it has its drawbacks too: stereotyping and subjectivity to subliminal advertising messages come to mind.

Our propensity to thin-slice can make a muddle of social discourse. It is difficult for us to see the individual merits of someone who is from a different social class, race, or political party than we are or to rightly judge the merits of a specific action or argument because it is espoused by someone with whom we have profound disagreements in completely unrelated areas. These are not conscious decisions we make, but we can choose whether or not we allow our automatic thin-slicing to drive our slower, more reflective thought processes. We have to be willing to question our snap judgments, to “test the spirits” before we reach conclusions or take action.

In the Church, likewise, thin-slicing can be a blessing (quickly recognizing the fruit of the spirit in a believer’s life, having a “nose” for phony charities, etc.) and a curse (assuming guilt based on circumstantial evidence, interpreting Scripture out of context, etc.). Unchecked thin-slicing leads us into a host of theological, ecclesiastical, and personal prejudices that can often impede spiritual growth and provide justification for sin. I mean “prejudice” here in its classical sense (to pre-judge, to make decisions before gathering sufficient evidence), not, despite its modern connotations, “racist”, “hateful” or simply, “bad”. Neither is it prejudice to have many things settled in advance of evaluating a person or an idea. To hold to the authority of Scripture, for instance, in judging thoughts or behaviors as sinful is not prejudice but prudence–you are simply obeying the “ground rules” for debate and discussion set by the Maker of the universe. By contrast, however, it is indeed prejudice to impute sinful motives to a fellow believer simply because they hold to a position you don’t.

Christians need to be mindful of this tendency and the ways it influences discourse, both between the world and the Church and between believers within the Body.

I. Outside-In
In a culture given to ever more truncated communication, the substitution of cliches and sound-bites for dialogue is the rule of the day. The truth of the Gospel interrupts the noise, forcing everyone to engage with the person of Christ. The world recoils from that intrusion, quickly recognizing both Christ’s difference from itself and authority over it. There have always only been two options–repentance and submission or rejection and assault.

It should never catch us off guard when the world and those in its thrall pigeonhole Christians. We should more or less expect them to do everything possible to shut us down, drown us out, and keep us from applying the truth to their lives. We can either walk back our faith, kowtowing to their side and turning our backs on the God who saves, or we can stand firm. When we do that, the world’s next move is always to attack, and it should not take us by surprise in the least (see Matthew 10).

Nonbelievers often fail to think beyond their knee-jerk association of Christians with “badness”, hurling quick quips and distortions at the Church from a safe distance. They seldom engage in actual reading of the Bible or relationships with actual Christians in effort to discredit us–exposure to those things for many, as we are well aware, can have the unwanted side affect of conversion. Among their favorite tactics is to extrapolate the motives of every Christian’s heart from any example they can find of a “Christian” behaving badly or sharing views that run counter to the fruits of the Spirit. Nevermind that many of their favorite whipping boys were not Christian in any biblically recognizable sense and that most of the worst opinions ever held by Christians are the result of insufficiently sanctified minds (that is, Christians taking their cues from the world rather than from Christ).

In the world’s construct of reality, a Christian who lives out the love of Christ with the greatest of devotion (reaching out to the lost with the only thing that can truly make a difference in their lives: the offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone) is at best “intolerant” and at worst a bigot. Christians are only tolerated by the world when they dance to the world’s tune, pushing aside the demands of Scripture whenever the two are in conflict. Christians are told that we are only being “Christ-like” when we perform duties that any humanitarian would approve of (providing food, water, shelter, education, etc. to the poor or those in crisis). If we try to combine mercy ministries with the proclamation of the Gospel, we are marginalized and called hypocrites for offering those in need a “bait and switch” of some sort. If we focus our ministry on the truth of the Gospel, we are openly derided and constantly reminded about how Jesus was more concerned with actions than “doctrine”.

How should we relate to those who prejudice Christians and seek to tear us down? First, we have to remember that the people who attack us are acting in sin and have been made into agents of the Enemy by their rebellion against God. Our quarrel is not ultimately with them, and when we respond in kind to their thin-sliced judgments and catty harassment, we’re ceding Christ’s hard-won ground and souring them on the hope of redemption. Second, we cannot overemphasize personal holiness–the things we affirm as we seek to honor God and follow Him are going to raise the ire of the world, and it is of crucial importance that we maintain a standard of righteousness in our walk with God so that those who assail us in tearing down the truth cannot find any extra ammunition lying around.

II. Inside-Out
Far more dangerous is the often bitter infighting between Christians over theology, ecclesiology, politics, and the like. Too often, when we feel we have something important to say, we get on an ideological high horse and ride roughshod over anyone who disagrees on that particular point, brushing aside the 10,000 things we hold in common (most importantly the blood of Christ). When that happens, we show the outside world that their convictions are correct–Christians are just a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites on a succession of power trips who have nothing useful to contribute to “society”.

A distinction needs to be made between two types of Christian “infighting”.  The first kind is often just a covert operation of the larger tension between the world and the message of Christ. That is, the fight is not between two branches of Christianity, but between Christians who want to honor Christ above all and people who want to submit Christ to the world’s system and are using the Church as a tool to that end (the conservative/liberal divide in theology is a good example of this). By wearing the mask of infighting, such conflicts are among Satan’s best tactic for tearing down the faith in the world’s eyes. The second strain, squabbling between Christians over issues that are in fact important when both sides are genuinely trying to apply God’s Word and give Him glory, is where I’m addressing these remarks.

When we let our discussion and decision-making begin and end with our thin-sliced assessments of each other, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the intellectual laziness we’re engaging in. When we set up certain trigger words as our shibboleths, beyond which no discussion can pass, we close our hearts to what the Lord may be trying to teach us through debate and disagreement. When we surround ourselves with an echo chamber of only like-minded voices, we deprive the Body of Christ of the challenge of learning and growing, and the joy that comes from submitting our differences to our shared worship of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

Again, there are two primary points we forget at our peril.

First, no one is perfect. I know we’ve heard that before, but I don’t think we believe it–we expect our cohorts in the Church to attain a standard of personal and intellectual purity that is simply impossible this side of glory. When we remember this, however, we can move forward in a more honest dialogue that honors God who alone is holy. The fall means that every good gift of God is distorted, every solution has a dark underbelly, but also that many bad things can be redeemed. If we’re hoping for anything better in our churches than repentant, forgiven sinners, we’re bound to be disappointed. Paul’s words to the Corinthians (about church members suing one another) are instructive: “Actually, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren” (1 Cor. 6:7-8).

Second, remember how Scripture tells us to handle disagreements and sins. Jesus outlines a very specific process (private confrontation, confrontation by a few witnesses, public confrontation in the church, and excommunication if unrepentance persists) in Matthew 18:15-17. Paul, as fierce a contender for the truth as the Church ever produced, urges us in familial terms to rebuke one another in love (1 Tim. 5:1-2) and places very strict standards on how such charges are brought against church leaders (1 Tim. 5:19). What we see is that patience, thoroughness, and charitability are to be the defining features in our public responses to disagreements.

Conclusion
Both these lessons are crucial in today’s high-tech world. The walls between the world and the Church have been dissolved when it comes to online debates. Accountability is replaced by anonymity and darts are hurled from all sides. The pace with which controversies explode in the age of the internet pressures everyone with an opinion to weigh in within a day or two–why? Because they know that if they wait a week to pray, reflect, and research, no one will care anymore. If that is truly the case, we should always wait at least a week before we respond to anything–if we’re still confused, angry, and convinced someone was wrong, then we’ll have firm ground to deliver a well-formed response. If we’ve forgotten about it, it probably means that we should have–it wasn’t important enough to get our knickers in a wad over after all.

The reason this matters is wrapped up in the classic injunction to peace in the Church: “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). I fear that we may be so angry, even if righteously, that we turn from God and bow to a favorite idol of modern man–being right, understood, and acclaimed. I fear that this idol is worshipped more than the God we all desire to serve and worship, and that is on full display when we fight in public. May God have mercy on us all.

Posted by Justin Lonas

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