Tag Archives: Jonathan Haidt

Neither Delusional nor Pretending

This past weekend, I had the honor of preaching at the Door County Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here is the written version of my sermon for that service.

As Nazareth is to Jerusalem, so Door County is to cities like Chicago or New York. Here we are in the relative boondocks holding a service to celebrate and pray for Christian unity. The irony is not lost on me that we do so at a time when in our national life we are so sharply divided that we are almost unable to talk to each other.

And while we’re at it, we might as well put it right out there that even within the Christian Church — perhaps even among the pastors and congregations represented here — our divisions are sharp and deep. We have sliced and diced our traditions, theologies, and practices every which way, Catholics, mainliners, evangelicals. And to you Moravians in the room, I have no idea where the you fit. Pro-life, pro-choice. Some ordain women, some don’t; some embrace gay marriage some don’t. Some of us think the current administration is saving the country, and some of us think he’s driving it off a cliff. Some of us embrace our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, some of us believe their only hope for salvation is conversion to Christianity.

I’ve long been curious about how good people, faithful people can read the same sacred texts and come to such different conclusions. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about that in his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt makes the case that we don’t make our moral decisions rationally. Rather, we make them in our gut, emotionally, intuitively; then we scan the landscape of religion and politics and culture to find substantiation for the decisions we’ve already made in our gut. It makes a whole lot of sense to me in explaining what I see and experience in the church, but it leaves me a bit troubled about the extent to which we as people of God are really listening to the voice of God in our sacred texts.

So, why would we even bother in this context to get together to talk about unity? Are we delusional? Or worse, just pretending? Here’s what I mean about the pretending part: maybe we have this sense, thus burden even, that we really should be unified — after all, Jesus prayed that his followers should be one — but we know deep down that we are not suspect we never will be. But we just go on pretending anyway.

Listen to this passage from Philippians 2. It’s the great hymn to Christ, a grand poem that you likely have heard many, many times. Pay particular attention how Paul introduces the hymn:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus’

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father.

One of the powerful lessons from this grand Christological hymn is that our unity is not a goal to be achieved; it is a gift that has been given. Our unity lies in the reality that we have been given divine life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Too often I admit, that reality is hidden; nevertheless we are one in Christ by divine gift. That divine gift frees us from having to pretend and allows us the joy of celebrating everywhere and always the unity we have in Christ.

The challenge is to live out that unity for the sake of witness to the world. Here’s where Paul’s grand hymn is so helpful. The hymn of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation not only reminds us that our life is in Christ’s death and resurrection, it gives us also the pattern for our own life as church. For Paul, living in Christ means living in surrender for the sake of others. That is only possible when Jesus is Lord and where people call on his name. Only out of the foundational event described in Philippians 2 can community be formed and divisions overcome. Our back-slapping appeals to solidarity, urging us to just be friends, to get along, to acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood are inadequate. The sibling rivalries — our various ideologies, and self-righteous certainties in our own versions of the truth — they’re just too strong.

But if we can live from the dying and rising of Jesus, then we can become something new in the world. Then the differences that normally destroy a community will become our treasures, our wealth. See, there really are differences between us, and not to acknowledge them again is to pretend. In theology, practice, tradition, culture, we are not the same and we don’t want to be. But from our differences, through the power of the Holy Spirit can arise a living community that bears witness to the God who so loved the world that God sent God’s son.

Over and over again, Paul describes our differences in terms of different gifts for ministry. In the Christian community of Door County and beyond, there are a variety of gifts. Some communities have the gift of serving as an entry point for seekers, some care for one another really well, some are places where those with doubts and questions will find a home, some are places where the faith is expressed with more emotion than reason, others with more reason than emotion. Some are seedbeds to meet the needs of the people in our community who struggle. To each is given gifts according to the Spirit.

We are the people of God. We are the the Body of Christ. Even in the midst of our differences, our differing gifts, what binds us together in agape love is something that is not possible on our own, but a gift of the Spirit, that same Spirit released through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The agape love that God has demonstrated for us, that we have for one another is also our posture towards the world. “Let each of you look not to you own needs but to the needs of others.”

In our unity, we become the place where the rich come to the aid of the poor, where the laughing console those who weep, the healthy minister to the sick, those who live in families become companions to the lonely. And we discover in the practice of that love that the converse is also true, something that is more than a mere social institution can muster: the poor teach the rich what it means to trust God; the sick teach the healthy by demonstrating joy in the midst of suffering; the weak have a sensitivity to the needs of the community that they share with the strong.

No, friends, we are not delusional; we are realists; and we are Christians. We understand that what binds us together is not our intentions nor our frail and weak-kneed actions, nor our mealy-mouthed pronouncements. What binds us together, what gives us unity, what makes us one is nothing less than Jesus’ death and resurrection, the life we have in him, the community that has been formed by his love.  Now we are called to live that love. And dear God, does the world need to see and feel and be shown that love, especially at a time when hatred and fear and sexism and racism and xenophobia are bearing such miserable fruit. Our unity is in Christ. Our calling is to love. It’s really that simple.    

What If It’s Not about the Rules?

bibleIt’s like that car crash that we can’t not look at. We all want it to go away, yet we keep looking.

That county clerk in Rowan County in northeastern Kentucky has now become the poster child for what some are calling a courageous stand for religious freedom. Her supporters are cheering for her version of Christianity, citing biblical support for her defiance, claiming that she is a righteous woman who is properly obeying God in the face of a law that would require her to sin were she to follow it. Her cause has been picked up by at least two Republican presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz; they appear ready to canonize her as an icon for what they would like this country to be.

Here I sit. An adherent of the same religion, at least in name. A leader in the church. I see her defiance very differently, not as something that brings honor to her faith, but distorts and diminishes the heart of Christianity. She willfully is disregarding the oath that she took when elected as County Recorder. I don’t have so much an issue with that fact that she disagrees with the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. That is her constitutional right. But if her conscience dictates that she can’t do what her job and her oath of office require, then she should resign. Instead she has chosen to grandstand and drag the whole country into this fake debate about religious freedom and a drama that is mostly irrelevant.

It is so striking to me how adherents of the same nominal Christian faith can come to such polar opposite conclusions about her actions, and more fundamentally, about the issue that prompted her grandstanding. Mike Huckabee is an ordained Baptist pastor and was the pastor of a large, successful Baptist church before going into politics. Ted Cruz grew up in the church; his father was the pastor of a large, successful fundamentalist-leaning church. Cruz is graduate of Princeton first, and then Harvard Law School. These are not stupid people.

While I don’t carry the educational credentials of Cruz, I am a leader in the church and called on almost daily to articulate the Christian faith. I come to vastly different conclusions about Davis’s actions, about gay marriage, and I suppose about nearly every other aspect of Christian teaching and Christian life. How can that be?

Earlier this summer, I read The Righteous Mind, a fascinating book by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a moral psychologist and the book sets out to describe how persons shape their moral universe. The common understanding is that people find their fundamental moral principles — often in their faith and their own sacred texts — and then arrive at actions and beliefs that are reasoned from their fundamental moral principles. So, for instance, if we are adherents of Christianity, we look at what the bible has to say about moral issues, the voice of the bible leads us to our moral principles, and then we determine our actions based on those principles.

But Haidt suggests that this isn’t the way it works. Using a wide array of theories, research and experimentation, he describes how people intuit moral positions and then go in search of a moral framework to support their position. So, for instance, if I have an intuitive disdain for homosexuality, that decision is made “in my gut” as Haidt describes it, and then I go in search of support for my position. Did you get that? Let me say it another way: we go looking for divine support for positions that we have taken intuitively.

I’m no expert on psychology, and so I can’t evaluate Haidt’s thesis as an expert. But he does make a compelling case. It strikes me as a cogent argument for, among other perplexing questions, why adherents of the same religion come to such different moral conclusions.

But it also shakes religious foundations to the very core. What could it mean if we do not, in fact, base our moral principles on our sacred scriptures, but on our intuitions that have been shaped by our upbringing, our culture, and even our personality? What then, could Christianity possibly be about, if not a moral code for righteous living?

As far as I can tell, Christianity has never been a moral code. it’s always been about a relationship and a calling. It’s about a recognition of our brokenness, a transformation that comes through Jesus and results in a dying to self and a rising to a new relationship with God, and then a calling to be in the world in such a way that you love God and love your neighbor. Morality? That’s something different.

That fundamental core of Christianity is so easy to forget. We want to be the good people. To be the good people requires knowing the rules. Knowing the rules means you have to make the rules. Then you can tell everyone else what the rules are. And if you don’t like the rules, then you make a different set of rules. And then we get to the kind of saga that is getting played out on our television screens and Facebook feeds, such a distortion of Christianity that I can’t even recognize it.

Here’s to believing it’s not about the rules.