Your mind is tricking you, making you blind to truth, explains Chris Goswami. But it is possible to think more clearly about God, theology and the Bible. Here's how
I once asked a question in my church: “In the Bible, where do we see Mary riding on a donkey?”
What’s your answer?
If you answered “nowhere”, congratulations! The gospels never mention a donkey, and yet, for most of us, the idea of Mary going to Bethlehem on a donkey seems right. Even when we find out there is no donkey we somehow want there to be a donkey!
This is an innocent example of a mistaken belief many Christians have. We absorbed it through Sunday Schools and countless Nativity plays. We may think it’s in the Bible, but it isn’t.
This article is not about donkeys (sorry!). But it is about the feeling that there should be a donkey. It’s about the idea that, sometimes, our convictions, what we earnestly believe, blinds us to truth.
What convictions are we talking about?
Our donkey friend is harmless and doesn’t offend anyone. But there are other convictions that Christians hold dearly and can cause upset. They are no-go areas, minefields, in many churches. For example, convictions around speaking in tongues, infant versus believer’s baptism, six day creationism, same-sex relationships, or the eternal destiny of people of other faiths.
All this while each of our churches adamantly claims 'we’re the ones that teach the truth'.
I’m not talking about where we stand on such debates. I’m talking about how we stand. It’s good to have an opinion based on reason, experience and especially the Bible. But I often find that Christian beliefs have much more to do with upbringing and identity than anything in the Bible.
Our identity shapes our beliefs
Being part of a church and denomination gives us a sense of belonging. We find friends like us, we fulfil a need to be rooted and connected to other believers. Belonging to this group becomes part of who we are, our identity.
Much of what we believe is then reaffirmed through this group identity. These views may well be true but they may simply be positions that our theological tribe has always held.
Is it possible that we sometimes confuse our facts with our identity? Is it possible that because our group or church has always said one thing, we become closed to, and even angered by, alternative views?
At a recent event, I heard that some people are leaving churches purely because a conversation about same-sex relationships was suggested. They are not interested in the actual conversation, simply the fact that there’s going to be one is bad enough.
A related problem is called confirmation bias. That’s where we actively seek out information that agrees with what we already believe, but discount evidence that goes against our view.
I recently found myself doing exactly this while listening to the Premier Unbelievable? podcast (a program which by its nature tends to uncover our biases). Two Christian scholars were debating evolution. Since I believe evolution is true, I found myself listening hard to the evidence in favour of my view – it was gold dust! But, of course, I shook my head and looked for the holes when the opposing scholar was defending young-earth creationism.
Even when reading scripture, it's tempting to read deeply the parts we find it easy to agree with, but look past the verses that say something difficult.
This motivated reasoning can kick in regardless of topic. In cases where we've adopted dearly-held views from early childhood, they are part of who we are. So, naturally, when they are challenged, our very identity can feel under threat. It’s disorientating.
It's important to recognise there are core beliefs that we hold as truth. They cannot be discussed away. They are summarised in the ancient creeds and include God as creator, Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and second coming. But these non-negotiable beliefs are suprisingly small in number.
Life experience changes our beliefs
Messy life experiences disrupt tidy belief systems.
For example, let’s say our Christian best friend comes out as gay, or a close Christian relative marries someone of another faith, or our kids get divorced. Or simply, that our life doesn’t turn out anything like what we believed God promised us.
If we are unprepared, having the rug pulled out distresses us. In the worst cases it can trigger a house-of-cards tumble, and we can start questioning everything. But instead, we should realise that God is bidding us let go of whatever comfort blankets we are grasping. It is an opportunity to find a richer relationship with him, where we are more content to sit alongside the confusion than know the answers. Where trying to be being Christ like is more important than trying to be right.
Our life stories should not dictate our faith but they should inform it. Otherwise we only have a clinical faith - great in the lab when it’s just me and God, but in the real world it doesn’t work.
The internet was supposed to help all this, but made it worse. It was supposed to widen our experience and knowledge by connecting us with many different kinds of people. Instead we ended up connected to the people who already agree with us – a bigger tribe of people who think like me.
When was the last time you changed your mind?
It’s OK to change your mind, even your theology. As NT Wright said, “Has your understanding of biblical theology changed over the years?…then you are in great company!”.
A few suggestions on how to do this:
- Be curious. When you encounter believers, who hold to different truths, be friends and find out why. If you don’t really know anyone from a different Christian tradition (let alone, a person of another religion or worldview) that’s a problem. It’s too easy to objectify people we don’t know.
- We must learn to hold opposing views in our mind, in tension. I am increasingly convinced that, in the mystery of God, more than one truth can be true.
- And, above all, remember that, ultimately, your identity as a teachable follower of Jesus counts for more than your identity with any church, group, or tradition.
Oh and guess what? There might have been a donkey according to some internet articles. However, owing to my monumental confirmation bias, I refuse to read them...