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Right and Wrong

This morning I came across an interesting lecture over at TED Talks by journalist, author, and “wrongologist” (apparently there is such a thing!) Kathryn Schulz called “On Being Wrong.” If you’ve got 18 minutes to spare, it’s well worth checking out.

As I watched this talk, my thoughts immediately turned to conversations we’ve been having on this blog about the sometimes unpleasant nature of online discourse. But I think the application of Ms. Schulz’s ideas here is very broad. Often, there is a decided unwillingness to admit that we might be wrong when we are exchanging ideas with others, whether in cyberspace or across the table at a coffee shop.

We don’t like to be wrong, after all, or even entertain the possibility that we might be. The correctness of our views—whether political, religious, or whatever else—is all too easily associated with our identity as human beings. Being right is thought to equal being good or virtuous or competent, or some other desirable trait. If we admit that we might be wrong about something—especially something that matters deeply to us and which we have poured significant time and energy into—what are we saying about ourselves?

Being right matters to us. Almost all of us, whether implicitly or explicitly, walk around pretty convinced that we are right about our views. And so we have to figure out how to explain the existence of so many people who don’t think like we do. In the lecture, Schulz almost perfectly describes the trajectory that many of us take when trying to convince others of our point of view:

  • We begin by assuming that our conversation partners are simply ignorant. They don’t have all the facts, obviously. Once they are presented with the same facts we are currently in (crystal clear) possession of, they will surely come around to our side.
  • If this fails, we move on to the next explanation. They are clearly idiots. They have the facts, but don’t seem to be able put them together or interpret them correctly.
  • Finally, if they are presented with the facts and shown how to interpret them correctly, and still don’t change their minds? Well then they are simply evil. They are distorting the clear truth (that we apprehend perfectly) for their own (clearly malevolent) purposes.

On one level, this sounds comical, but I have been part of conversations where this progression was followed almost to the letter. This seems particularly to be the case in the realm of religious discourse. Perhaps it is because we think the stakes are higher here. If you’re wrong about the meaning and destiny of life, after all, the consequences could be extremely dire! Often, it seems like the main goal of this or that religious tradition is to install the “right” view of the world as early as possible in life, and then simply preserve this view, untainted, until the end of life. “Faith” is often synonymous with “being right” about things like God, morality, meaning, eschatology, etc.

I don’t think this is a very helpful way to look at the goal of religious life. I don’t think that our reason for being is to become as right as possible about as much as possible before we die. I don’t think this is what God wants or expects of us. I think it is important to admit that we might be wrong about things—even big things, things that we care deeply about, things that give our lives meaning and purpose and direction. I think, at the very least, that we have to be able to come to a place where we are able to move beyond the “ignorant, idiot, or evil” explanation for why people don’t see the world just as we do. I think that our limitations as human beings ought to make us more humble about what we think we know and more gracious with those who see things differently.

But… I also think that we are hardwired to crave solidity and certainty. Amidst the ocean of complexity that characterizes our lives, we need something firm to grab onto. We need something like genuine answers. I don’t think we can just walk around being completely open-minded about everything in our world. Nobody does this. Even Ms. Schultz, presumably, thinks that she is right that we ought to be more willing to admit that we might be wrong. It’s one thing to acknowledge the ambiguity and limitation of the human condition; it’s quite another to claim that embracing or celebrating this is a solution.

As informative and articulate as Schulz’s lecture was, I found myself profoundly dissatisfied with how it ended. She urged her audience to “look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe, and be able to say: ‘Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.'” Cue rapturous applause… Or confusion. As humble as this statement sounds, and as moving a way to end a lecture as it might be, this simply cannot be where we stop. We need to be able to say, “even though there is much that I don’t know, and even though I have much to learn, I am convinced of… x.” We are creatures who don’t seem to be able to live without hope or meaning, and it’s tough to squeeze either out of “Wow, I don’t know.”

This week is Holy Week. Christians around the world will participate in services throughout the week that affirm our belief that certain things really did happen two thousand years ago, and that we really do have some kind of a clue as to what these events mean. In the context of the strange stew of postmodern relativism that characterizes large swaths of Western culture, we actually believe (gulp) that we are right about certain things—that Jesus really was crucified on a Roman cross, that he really was resurrected three days later, and that somehow God really has seen fit to reconcile all things to himself through these events.

Christians might be wrong about these things. Easter might be a giant exercise in wish-fulfillment. But based on what (and who) I think I know, I don’t think this is the case.

I might be wrong, but I am convinced. I think this is enough.

39 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Re: “we actually believe (gulp) that we are right about certain things—that Jesus really was crucified on a Roman cross, that he really was resurrected three days later,”

    Never mind atheists, liberal Christians believe Jesus was crucified, but not that he really was resurrected. Liberal Christians are convinced Jesus was not resurrected.

    If you lost your conviction about this, would you stop calling yourself a Christian?

    April 19, 2011
    • Yes, I’m aware of what liberal Christians are convinced of.

      To answer your question, yes, I would stop calling myself a Christian if I lost my conviction about the resurrection. I’m with Frederick Buechner (from The Magnificent Defeat) who had this to say in response to how people of “our age” often view the resurrection:

      But when we are pressed to say what it was that actually did happen, what we are apt to come out with is something pretty meager: this “miracle” of truth that never dies, the “miracle” of a life so beautiful that two thousand years have left the memory undimmed, the “miracle” of doubt turning into faith, fear into hope. If I believed that this or something like this was all that the Resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. Or at least I hope that I would have the courage to.

      (With the caveat that I’m not ordained, so I couldn’t do anything quite that dramatic :).)

      April 19, 2011
  2. Ken #

    May your conviction always be strong.

    April 19, 2011
  3. Ken #

    The first time heard someone refer to evangelicals as “certain” in their beliefs was in a liberal or radical seminary that I attended. In context it was a put down. Later I realized that this was a common criticism of evangelicals by liberals, or at least among liberals (who do not believe in the resurrection, for example) who were once evangelical (and did believe in it.) It now seems that this is a sensitive topic within evangelicalism itself. It seems that no one wants to admit certainty or be accused of being too certain. Everyone wants to claim humility.

    Do you know the history of this situation? Did it start with a particular philosopher or theologian? Did it start within evangelicalism?

    Was this discussed at your seminary?

    In my own experience, I have not found greater certainty among evangelicals than among other human groups.

    April 20, 2011
    • My knowledge of the history of claims to certainty is a little sketchy, but I would guess its origins (at least as currently expressed in the North American context) could be largely traced along similar lines to the history of American Protestant fundamentalism (as Larry indicates below). I don’t know about any particular philosophers or theologians to point to… As I understand it, the movement was, at least in part, a reaction to the influence of Darwin’s ideas.

      I don’t recall too much discussion of any unique claims to certainty where I studied (apart from the odd history lecture covering the American fundamentalist scene). As you say, the desire for certainty can be found across human groups. In the broadest terms, it’s not a new phenomenon.

      April 20, 2011
      • Ken #

        What about the criticism of others for their certainties? I don’t think it started in liberal protestantism.

        April 20, 2011
      • I would start where Larry does—a belated appreciation of some of the implications of postmodernity combined with higher and, possibly, broader education.

        I don’t know if it’s necessarily a critique of others’ certainties as much as just a more honest assessment of the limits of human knowledge.

        April 20, 2011
  4. James #

    Very interesting video, Ryan. She is articulating [whether she is aware of it or not] what is called Pyrrhonian skepticism- not the caricaturized skepticism that we are so used to. It was the skepticism that was very alive when the New Testament was written. The most telling part of her talk in this regard was her description of a peace she came to when she realized she didn’t have to be “right” about everything. The Pyrrhonian skeptics spoke a great deal of this peace and called it by the Greek word “ataraxia”. That peace was their goal.
    In my view this type of skepticism is deeply embedded in the NT. It is captured in places like 1 Cor 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly . . .” As Christians we have peace- the peace the skeptics crave. But Christ’s peace runs much deeper than simply knowing knowledge is incomplete. It is however still a relief to know that having a relationship with God is not dependant on our ability to grasp Him.
    Anyone wanting a scholarly look at this could read “The History of Scepticism, From Savonarola to Bayle” by Richard Popkin. Particularly the introduction and early chapters nicely lay out early skepticism.

    April 20, 2011
    • Perhaps segments of the evangelical world could stand to get a little more Pyrrhonian :). So often defensiveness, rather than peace, seems to characterize the Christian world in postmodernity.

      April 20, 2011
  5. larry s #

    Ken wrote: “It now seems that this is a sensitive topic within evangelicalism itself. It seems that no one wants to admit certainty or be accused of being too certain. Everyone wants to claim humility.”

    Ken, within certain parts of Evangelicalism (or perhaps the better term might be Fundamentalism) certainty is energetically embraced. Check out Southern Baptist blogs (Denny Burk – a SB college professor hosts such a blog) or the Grace to You Blog (John MacArthur Master’s Seminary gty blog).

    However, there is a being “certain” shift within Evangelicalism which you note. I would put it down to higher education and post-modernism (I think personality also plays a part in all this).

    I’d answer the question you asked Ryan in somewhat the same way he did. I may stay within the church for family peace. However, I believe that losing belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus moves a person into something other than Christianity (off the reservation).

    Ken, I deeply appreciate your perspective/contributions to Ryan’s blog. Your probing comments and questions have given me a view into Liberal Christianity. At times, my initial reaction to some of your comments is negative (I trust I work through that reaction prior to posting). But it helps me understand how my more conservative brethren respond to some of my musings.

    April 20, 2011
    • Ken #

      Thank you, Larry. Your reactions to my comments have always been helpful. Where they have caused tension, I think we have been honest in our discussion without wanting to cause harm.

      Re: “I believe that losing belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus moves a person into something other than Christianity (off the reservation).”

      I have wondered what it means to say that I am a Christian. It is not just disbelief in the resurrection, but even disbelief in God that makes me wonder. It is not that I once believed in the resurrection but lost it, it is that I never really had it.

      I think most liberals believe in God in some way or another, but not much in the divinity of Christ. Chardin is an exception, I think, because his theology remains so centered on Christ, even while his view of divinity is far from typical of other Christians who are so centered. As for myself, I think of the divinity of Christ as being related to the claims in the Bible that he is the messiah. And I work with that, rather than with his resurrection. Still, it probably true of me to say that I think more about God than about Christ as is typical in liberalism.

      In Moses’ blessing, Deuteronomy 33:27, he says to Israel, “The eternal God is your resting place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” I think that perhaps words like these have a meaning and importance to me that is not unlike the meaning and importance of the resurrection for so many other Christians. It is through Christianity that I learned this. So, if there is a reason for me to seek to stay on the reservation, at least on the margin, it is that.

      My faith is small. I know this. But I am thankful for it nevertheless.

      April 20, 2011
    • For what it’s worth, Ken, my faith often seems small too.

      It’s a pretty precarious thing to be evaluating one’s faith in quantitative terms, in my view, and I certainly don’t think that one’s faith is “large” to the extent that we are able to conjure up conviction in miracles or doctrines or the historicity of this or that story from Scripture or whatever. For me, I demonstrate my faith to be small when I don’t treat people as I ought to. I think this is more important to God than the fluctuations of my cognitive states pertaining to the things I cannot see or prove.

      Thank you for pointing to the Deuteronomy verse. It is a beautiful hope.

      April 20, 2011
  6. Paul Johnston #

    How small, Ken? Mustard seed size? 🙂

    Many contemplatives think that spiritual poverty, a sense of abandonment bordering on unbelief is essential to developing a living faith; a dependence on God.

    If I read you correctly you have the heart of contemplative.

    April 20, 2011
    • Ken #

      I enjoy the writings of contemplatives and mystics. Lectio divina and music.

      April 20, 2011
  7. Paul Johnston #

    I know more about post cereal than I do about post modernism. Still I’ve never let relative ignorance of a subject matter stop me from having an opinion before…

    Wouldn’t the very nature of PM make it incompatible with the the Christian meta-narrative? Any meta-narrative? Post modern skepticism (PMS) is an anathema to faith. It’s embrace by some here, I exclude Ken, who I suspect though influenced by it’s methodologies has moved well beyond it’s meager potentials, is what tends to make me cranky.

    Christian or PMS. Either/or. Can’t be both.

    April 21, 2011
    • Who do you think embraces, ahem, “PMS” here?

      I think it is entirely possible—obligatory, even, from a Christian perspective—to embrace some of the insights of postmodernity.

      April 21, 2011
      • Tyler #

        I’d question if anyone can even escape the influence of post modern skepticism… it is just a matter of where, when, and what we apply it to.

        April 21, 2011
      • Yeah, I think you’re right Tyler… Nobody is untouched by postmodernity.

        The question, as always, is what do you mean by… x? “Postmodern skepticism” probably means something functionally equivalent to atheism/agnosticism to some (i.e., no such thing as a “big truth”/metanarrative), while others would define it as a challenge to how truth claims are framed and presented. I would lean more towards the latter.

        April 21, 2011
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Once the PMS crowd has it’s way they’ll be nothing left for us but Huxley’s vision of the “Brave new World”. Well they’ll be no swinging from the ceiling at the end of this man’s story. Gimme an M-16 a few friends like Norris and Stallone and let’s go pay “Our Ford” a little visit. THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN’ ABOUT BABY!!!

    Have a great day. 🙂

    April 21, 2011
  9. Paul Johnston #

    My perspective of postmodernism, for the purposes of our discussion, goes something like this. Culture conforms Christianity. This is antiethical to the Christian message. Christianity is supracultural. It is meant for all peoples, for all times.

    If we don’t believe this, I say we don’t believe in the resurrection.

    April 21, 2011
    • How is postmodernism antithetical to Christianity? Which aspects of it? In what way? Are you thinking of postmodernism as an ideology or a sociological description of a particular cultural phenomenon?

      I don’t think conceding that postmodernism tells the truth about some things is remotely equivalent to saying that it somehow means that Christianity is not meant for all people, much less that we don’t believe in the resurrection!

      April 21, 2011
  10. paul johnston #

    As Ideology.

    Postmodernism – A Description
    Postmodernism is difficult to define, because to define it would violate the postmodernist’s premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist. In this article, the term “postmodernism” will remain vague, since those who claim to be postmodernists have varying beliefs and opinions on issues. (From Web site all about philosophy)

    Christianity- “I am the way, the truth and the light.”

    If both these definitions are accurate, they are antethical one to the other.

    As a social description of a cultural phenomenon.

    Vis a vis the truth, as in what is meant to be lived as truth, can a cultural phenomenon be true if it exists apart from Christ? Yes or no?

    Let me rephrase my last observation. Anyone who does not subscribe to the supracultural nature of Christianity, that being that it is meant for all people for all times, seriously underestimates the implications of the resurrection.

    April 21, 2011
    • Tyler Brown #

      Paul, this is just my opinion of course, but I don’t think the two positions are contradictory (at least to such a binary extreme) for one simple reason… faith.

      It is one of my favorite scenes from Augustine’s confessions, where after years of skeptical beliefs and reasonable discourse he finally surrenders to faith. He doesn’t abandon reason and skepticism, but realizes that only faith can pull him along the next part of his journey. Or, along similar more simpler lines, as the great philosopher Dylan once said, “You gotta serve somebody.”

      April 22, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Well I certainly subscribe to your “transcendence of faith” argument. Though I tend to think that what I would call faith the post modern would see as myth at best; superstitious prejudice at worst.

        April 22, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        As for Bobby D. I don’t know. 🙂

        We gotta serve somebody. Duh! Yeah!!

        Does he mean to offer choosing Satan as a contrasting and equally valid option to choosing God? Sounds like it to my ear.

        I’m more of a Brandon Flowers, “Killers” kind of guy when it comes to faith understandings, such as they are present in rock music. ” I got soul but I’m not a soldier…you know you gotta help me out.”

        April 22, 2011
      • I think Tyler has nicely offered an important reminder (and with a much more economical use of words :)). Whether we are living postmodern 2011, medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire, faith is a necessary part of the journey. Reason only takes you so far. Postmodernity is not as unique as postmoderns sometimes think it is.

        Having said that, again, I do think that postmodernity (as a descriptor of a cultural time and place) highlights a number of important things—the role social location plays in knowledge, the limitations and biases of human knowers, etc, etc. These are important components of a Christian anthropology. Postmodernism (as ideology) takes the further step of saying, “therefore there is no singular truth.” Here, we obviously part company with Christian orthodoxy.

        April 22, 2011
  11. Paul Johnston #

    Speaking for myself, I am certain you are right, Tyler. I cannot escape post modern skepticism. I simply affirm it to be false. Let me offer you another alternative with regard to doubt as written by Fr. Thomas Merton in his book, “Seeds of Contemplation”…

    “When can we suppose that the true interior gift of faith has been received? This is, of course, a very delicate question, because it often happens that where there is deep faith, accompanied by a true consent of love to God and to His truth, there may yet persist difficulties in the imagination and in the intellect.

    In a certain sense we may say that there are still “doubts” if by that we mean not that we hesitate to accept the truth of revealed doctrine, but that we feel the weakness and instability of our spirit in the presence of the awful mystery of God. This is not so much an objective doubt as it is a subjective sense of our own helplessness which is perfectly compatible with true faith. Indeed, as we grow in faith we also tend to grow in this sense of our own helplessness, so that a man who believes much may, at the same time, in this improper sense, seem to “doubt” more than ever before. This is no indication of theological doubt at all, but merely the perfectly normal awareness of natural insecurity and of the anguish that comes with it. “….

    Doubt, not as skepticism but as humility.

    I’m with Fr. Merton.

    April 22, 2011
  12. Paul Johnston #

    lol, interesting what we both just wrote, unknown to the other.

    April 22, 2011
  13. James #

    Hi Paul, what you call humility sounds a lot like skepticism to me.

    April 22, 2011
    • Paul Johnston #

      Hey, James. How so? Self skepticism?

      April 22, 2011
      • James #

        Seems to me that is what it boils down to. True dogmatists don’t have any room for doubt of any kind. Mystics do. I’m not overly familiar with Merton so I don’t know if he would call himself a skeptic but “a subjective sense of our own helplessness” underlies the skeptics view of the cosmos. There are of course skeptics who try to make skepticism a dogma. That might be what you call post-modern skepticism. There is nothing modern about it though.

        April 22, 2011
  14. Paul Johnston #

    Interesting thoughts, James. Though I am a big fan of Merton, ( I read him more than I do my bible…shhh don’t tell) I wouldn’t pretend to be able to speak for him. I can only tell you that I interpret him, rightly or wrongly, to be saying that he is certain that he knows that he doesn’t know. Perhaps we can say he is post skeptical :).

    April 23, 2011
    • James #

      Well, I guess makes as much sense as “post” modern 🙂

      April 23, 2011
  15. Paul Johnston #

    Merton doesn’t seem to make the same distinctions between dogmatism and mysticism , as do you, James. In fact he is unequivocal that the understanding of right dogma is the “proximate and ordinary way to contemplation.”

    “Everybody who can do so ought to acquire something of a theologians’ accuracy and sharpness in appreciating the true sense of dogma. Every Christian ought to have as deep a comprehension of belief as his state will allow him. And this means that every one ought to breathe the clean atmosphere of orthodox tradition and be able to explain his belief in correct terminology-and terminology with a content of genuine ideas.

    Yet true contemplation is not arrived at by an effort of the mind. On the contrary, a man could easily lose his way in the forest of technical details which concern a professional theologian. But God gives true theologians a hunger born of humility, which cannot be satisfied with formulas and arguments and which looks for something closer to God than analogy can bring you.

    April 24, 2011
    • James #

      I don’t know much about Merton besides these quotes, but I think he is actually making the same distinction that I do. He seems to be very careful to try not to antagonize the dogmatic theologians but seems to me that dogmatics is exactly a project of the mind. It seems to me that he would agree with that statement. Mystics and skeptics don’t have to dismiss the “project of the mind” [though some do] but see its limits more explicitly than dogmatic theologians tend to. Merton is stressing the limits of “the project of the mind” in this quote. That is the essence of skepticism in my understanding.

      April 24, 2011
  16. Paul Johnston #

    skep-tik] Show IPA
    a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.
    a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others.
    a person who doubts the truth of a religion, especially christianity, or of important elements of it.
    ( initial capital letter ) Philosophy . a.
    a member of a philosophical school of ancient Greece, the earliest group of which consisted of Pyrrho and his followers, who maintained that real knowledge of things is impossible.
    any later thinker who doubts or questions the possibility of real knowledge of any kind.

    If these are acceptable definitions then I would understand a skeptic to question the validity of any “project of the mind”. Though it may not be clear through the quotes I’ve offered you, Merton as a believer, thinks them to be essential but incomplete.

    April 25, 2011
  17. James #

    I think we’re talking past each other, Paul. But let me try again. Merton is a believer. I am a believer. I also call myself a skeptic, in keeping with #4 of these definitions and to some degree #2. I m not a skeptic according to #3.
    I believe because I choose to- not because the “project of the mind” has answered all my questions. That is not to say, as some mystics and skeptics do- that the “project of the mind” is irrelevant. I wouldn’t be engaged in these types of discussions if I thought that.
    I engage this discussion because I think that really understanding skepticism helps us understand the Gospel because skepticism #2 was a dominant world view in the NT world. The dogmatism that became the Christian norm after Nicea was not the context of the NT. I think that is an important piece of historical information. I also think it helps us understand “post modern” skepticism.

    April 25, 2011
    • Paul Johnston #

      Maybe so James, but I’m struggling more with what I think the right interpretation of skepticism is than I think I am with you. As I understand Pyrrho and his brand of skepticism there is no way for us to discern truth, truth is only what it appears to be (relativism), relax and make peace with your perception of reality.

      My translation…It’s all bs and then you die. While your waiting smoke the red columbian, it’s killah.

      No wonder the Greeks went nuts for Jesus!!

      Don’t be trashing my Nicea homeys. After some three hundred years of waiting for the 2nd coming people started to realize we were in for the long haul. Right dogma became essential. Everybody knew the Protestants would show up someday. 🙂

      April 25, 2011
      • James #

        Thanks, Paul. I never understood Nicea as the preparation for Luther until now 🙂

        April 25, 2011

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