Social psychology talks about two difference classes of explanations for why people do what they do — dispositional and situational. The dispositional explanation relies on the fact that people are who they are; they have certain traits that at least in part, govern how they behave. Situational explanations recognize that certain circumstances in the moment contribute to a response and can override dispositional traits.
In his book, , Daniel Levitan recounts a famous study whose subjects were divinity students at Princeton Theological Seminary. The subjects were asked to come to an office to provide their opinions of “religious education and vocations.” After completing a questionnaire, the interviewer explained that the instrument they had just completed was a bit simplistic and that the second part of the interview would be a three to five minute recorded response to a reading they would be given. One group was given a reading on whether ministering is possible anymore; the other was given the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here’s where it gets interesting. Half of each group was told they needed to hurry because the assistant in the next building over had expected them a few minutes earlier. The other half were told, “It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head over.”
Between the two buildings the experimenters had placed a research assistant sitting slumped in a doorway in obvious need of medical attention. When each student passed by, the confederate coughed and groaned.
What happened? The students who were in a hurry were six times more likely to keep on walking and pass by the visibly injured person without helping than the students who had plenty of time. Even the ones who had just read the Parable of the Good Samaritan!
I know this experiment is not about the spiritual life, so I’m not going to suggest any scientific conclusions about the life of faith. But it does prompt some reflections.
What we believe about the life of faith is that the Holy Spirit, at work in us, continually shapes and molds us into the mind and life of Christ. With the daily remembrance of our baptism, we are called to daily conversion, leaving the old incurved life behind and embracing the life of service to the neighbor.
But what happens when we don’t make space for that? What happens when our lives are so full of tasks and self-satisfying external stimulation that we don’t even notice the injured one at the side of the road or the groaning student in the doorway. What I see around me (and also in the mirror!) are people who are working way too much, spending way too much time on devices and entertainment, carting kids around to a hundred different activities. When it’s all over, we collapse into bed exhausted, only to get up and start the same thing over again six hours later. Who can blame folks if they aren’t coming to church as often as folks did 30 years ago? Maybe Sunday morning is the only time in the week they don’t have to run off to something else — unless it’s a little league sports event.
No wonder the church is anemic in it’s mission. We members of the Body have filled our lives with so many things. The situation overrides the disposition. The slow work of paying attention to what’s going on around us, noticing the opportunities to be kind or helpful, stopping to listen deeply to someone, and caring for creation has become get pushed to the edges. There is no space anymore to live the Christian life.
Which makes me wonder. Maybe the priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan were not the callous, uncaring, cold-hearted characters we have portrayed them to be. Maybe they were just on their way to an important meeting, a few minutes late.