I can remember the first time I really began to notice it.
The whole thing began innocently enough. A friend of mine started a discussion board to create a space online for a group of us who had been in a small group together. Several members of the group had since moved to other parts of the country, and the discussion board was a way for all of us to keep interacting about important issues even from a distance.
This was in 2003 or so—certainly before the great rise of social media and also back in the day when many of the changes we have now seen come to fruition within evangelicalism were then nascent. A very fresh, a very energizing, and also a very uncertain time.
Someone from the group posted a quote from a book that he found compelling. This person was excited about what they had read and wanted some healthy dialogue from the group on it. It didn’t take long before the discussion burst into flames. Within an hour or so, dividing lines had been drawn, accusations of heresy and stubborn fundamentalism had been hurled back and forth, and the once-happy emotional feng shui of the group soon lay in shambles. Not until a great deal of repenting had taken place did the group find its equilibrium again.
The discussion board was soon abandoned.
Little did we know it at the time, but that episode represented a sort of portent of where our society as a whole was soon headed. Now, 15 years later, that kind of emotional reactivity has become, sadly, commonplace—and often much more explosive and violent. On social media to be sure, but also within families and churches, and across campuses and communities, it seems that now more than ever we are seeing a society ready at the drop of a hat to abandon any semblance of civil discourse and come to blows.
The question is, why? And what are we, the people of God, to do about it?
Three Bad Ideas That Brought Us to This Contentious Moment
In a recent book entitled The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin Press: New York, 2018), authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff suggest that this widespread and often violent reactivity can be traced back to three “bad ideas” that have taken root in our culture. I want to offer them here to you in summary, and then describe why I think God’s people are in the best possible position to show our culture a better way.
Now more than ever we are seeing a society ready at the drop of a hat to abandon any semblance of civil discourse and come to blows. The question is, why? And what are we, the people of God, to do about it? Read more here. Click To Tweet
Bad Idea #1 The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker.
Human beings are designed to grow stronger in the face of challenge. Our immune systems become more robust when when confronted with potential threats. Our muscles become stronger when subjected to rigorous physical exercise. Our minds expand and grow when presented with new ideas. What is true of human beings individually is true of society generally. The idea here is “antifragility”, which the authors borrow from Lebanese-born statistician Nassim Talib, who argued in his book Antifragile:
Many of the important systems of economic and political life are like our immune systems: they require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow. Systems that are antifragile become rigid, weak, and inefficient when nothing challenges them or pushes them to respond vigorously (p. 23).
Ergo—challenge is good.
As intuitively obvious as the notion of “antifragility” is, it seems that nowadays (Haidt and Lukianoff argue that this is particularly on display in our parenting practices) the opposite is widely accepted as true: “What doesn’t kill me makes me weaker.” The result of this is a rising culture of “safety-ism” in which we expend great amounts of effort trying to protect ourselves not only from physical threats, but also emotional threats. Anything—whether people, situations, or even ideas—that makes us feel unsafe is unsafe, we now believe. Which ties in to the second “bad idea.”
Bad Idea #2 The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings.
Haidt and Lukianoff begin their chapter quoting from the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus who said:
What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance (p. 33).
Epictetus is drawing attention to the power of the life of the mind in shaping our engagement with reality. When our perception of reality is sound, generally speaking we are sound. But when we allow our emotions to hijack our minds, we court disaster. The authors note that “feelings are always compelling, but not always reliable. Often they distort reality, deprive us of insight, and needlessly damage our relationships” (p. 34).
What is required for maturity and healthy relationships is “learning instead to question our feelings.” Unfortunately, in our society, we are doing this less and less. For many today, feeling threatened automatically means they are threatened. Feeling attacked means they are attacked. Feeling marginalized means they are being marginalized. Such thinking is regressive in the extreme. Not only does it automatically make victims out of those who fall prey to it, but it reduces the number of possible responses including the relationally crucial generous response that assumes the best rather than the worst about other people’s intentions and opens the door to ongoing, constructive relationship. Which, of course, ties into the third and final “bad idea.”
Bad Idea #3 The Untruth of Us vs. Them: Life is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People.
The human mind, we all know, is prepared for tribalism—which Haidt and Lukianoff describe as “our evolutionary endowment for banding together to prepare for intergroup conflict” (p. 58). That is, we are, so to speak, “hard-wired” for seeking out those who are like us in order to create a ring of safety against the potential (or actual) threat of those who are unlike us.
But being so “hard-wired” does not mean we have to live tribalistically. And in an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is all the more crucial that we rise above our tribalistic instincts.
When a community succeeds in turning down everyone’s tribal circuits, there is more room for individuals to construct lives of their own choosing: there is more freedom for a creative mixing of people and ideas (p. 59).
But, once again, we are doing this less and less. Having embraced the “bad ideas” of fragility and emotional reasoning, we are all the more prepared for banding together in what the authors call “Common-Enemy Identity Politics,” where my tribe (whatever group that may be: republican, democrat, conservative, liberal, black, white, brown, etc.) has the automatic moral high ground over your tribe, which simultaneously energizes my tribe (in a perverted sense of self-righteousness) and tragically locks it in an antagonistic, zero-sum game with the tribe(s) it is set against and needs to see eliminated if it (supposedly) hopes to thrive. In life, there are winners, and there are losers. Full-stop.
The result of these bad ideas going to seed, according to Haidt and Lukianoff, is the rise of a culture of intimidation and violence and an ever-increasing prevalence of “witch hunts,” which of course we see written across our headlines and in our communities daily. Mortified of challenge, slaves to the ebb and flow of our emotional distortions of reality, and beguiled by our tribalistic instincts, there is simply no way to escape the antagonisms we find ourselves locked in.
As I read Haidt and Lukianoff’s book, I couldn’t help but thinking that the Church surely is in the best possible position to offer a better way for our culture. Unfortunately, these bad ideas have a way of seeping into our “water supply” too, and before long we can find ourselves swept up into the madness of our times. Brothers and sisters, this should not be.
Three Truths To Be Reminded Of in These Divisive Times
On this day of midterm elections, to say nothing of the ever-present possibility that yet another presidential tweet or public scandal will create a vortex of social insanity tomorrow that will threaten to pull us into its wake, let me remind you…
Truth #1 We are the those whose lives are hidden with Christ in God, which means that we have nothing to fear from challenge.
Actually, at our best, we relish challenge. Scripture says that the “testing of your faith produces perseverance” and that “perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4). Challenge, we think, is good.
Moreover, while we are confident that we have come to know the truth of who God is in Christ, we are also humble in our apprehension of the total outworking of that truth. We see in a glass darkly, which means that we always have more to learn. The voice of God can and often does come to us through the voices of those whose perspectives differ most profoundly from ours. If, as it is said, all truth is God’s truth, then learning to see as others see, to understand as others understand, to know as others know (so far as we are able) can only our sharpen our apprehension of the Truth that God is in the multiplicity and variety of the human experience.
At our best, we do not run from challenges to our ideas, perspectives, or way of life. Rather, secure in Christ, we run into challenge. We relish it.
On this midterm elections day, let me remind you: we do not run from challenges to our ideas, perspectives, or way of life. Rather, secure in Christ, we run into challenge. We relish the opportunity for an outworking of truth. Click To Tweet
In addition, brothers and sisters, let me remind you…
Truth #2: We are those whose lives are hidden with Christ in God, which means that we do not need to trust our feelings.
Our feelings are not the truth of our existence. Christ is the truth of our existence. Paul’s words are as poignant now as they were in the first century: “Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” he wrote, with the result that “you will be able to test and approve what is the will of God: his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Rom 12:2). Elsewhere he wrote that “we take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
In great contrast to our culture, the biblical witness does not lionize our thoughts or any of the emotions that go with them (for in truth, our “emotions” are generally “thoughts” first and foremost—perceptions of reality that give rise to certain kinds of feelings). Far from it. Instead, Scripture and the greater part of our tradition sees our emotions, our passions, our “thoughts,” as elements of our humanity that need to be submitted to the Lordship of Christ.
This does not imply—let it be said—that we are called to bury or deny the reality of our emotions any more than it calls us to bury or deny any aspect of our creaturely existence. Rather, recognizing them for what they are—at best partial or incomplete witnesses to the truth, at worst distortions of that same truth—we are liberated to no longer be defined by our emotions; even, at times, to gleefully mistrust them, especially when they do not accord with the way that things are now that Christ is risen from the dead and is the gracious Lord of all. When victimizing, demoralizing, dehumanizing, or alienating thoughts and emotions begin to drag us away from God and others, we are freed by the Spirit to say “no” to them and to joyfully and courageously move in another direction—towards God, towards others, in reconciled and reconciling postures of empathy, healing, hope, and truth.
And that leads to my last reminder. Brothers and sisters, let me remind you…
Truth #3 We are those whose lives are hidden with Christ in God, which means that our identity is always greater than whatever “tribe” we happen to find ourselves in at the present moment.
As if it needed restating, the community of faith is that group of people who believe that in Christ Jesus every barrier between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, red and blue, and every other identity-group we fallen creatures are tempted to make ultimate has been broken down, transcended, relativized to the reality of the kingdom of God in Christ.
This means in part that (in theory at least) no group should be better positioned to embrace the kind of “Common Humanity Identity Politics” that builds up rather than tears down society than the Church of Jesus Christ. Of course, we never stop being what we are. I never stop being a 30-something white male from central Wisconsin. But because of what I have experienced in Jesus, my 30-something white maleness does not define me. Still less does it lock me into some kind of antagonistic, zero-sum game with its “opposites,” whatever those may be. God forbid!
Liberated by the Spirit from the tribes of my ancestry and upbringing, I am free to love and embrace and advocate for the humanity of others in ways that seem wisest and best to me. Moreover, the gospel itself liberates me from the dangerous illusion that life is a battle between “good” people and “evil” people. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” writes Paul, “and are justified freely by his grace” (Rom 3:23-24). There are no “good people” and “evil people.” There are just people, in need of grace.
No one has cornered the market on goodness. No one has the moral high ground. And this is good news for the world. Karl Barth wisely remarked (commenting on the Romans passage I quoted above):
There is no positive possession of men which is sufficient to provide a foundation for human solidarity … Precisely when we recognize that we are sinners do we perceive that we are brothers (The Epistle to the Romans. Oxford University Press: New York, 1968, pp. 100-101).
Brothers and sisters, I plead: can we remember that? I have long argued that the integrity of our common life in Christ is the greatest “export” that we have to give to the world. And so it is here.
Secure in Christ, let us give what we are away to a world that desperately needs it.