The Psychology of Invisible Prejudice

My academic project leaves me very little time to reflect on current events or to comment in public on them. But I take up pen in this instance to provide a short stab at what I take to be one of the most fundamental misunderstanding in the ongoing conversation on interethnic reconciliation. On the one hand, white Americans don’t tend to think of themselves as racist and don’t ascribe racist motivations to their actions. On the other hand, minorities see very clearly the lingering racism, prejudice, and privilege. Can the two viewpoints be reconciled? Perhaps I can provide one step toward it (there are certainly other aspects that need to be addressed).

My research has enabled me to dip my toe into the emerging research on the “adaptive unconscious” (Timothy Wilson’s terminology). The adaptive unconscious is roughly our lower level cognition especially at the level of perception, involving filtering white noise and  reflex evaluations of our surroundings. There is a strong link between our lower cognition and our emotional states (see Jesse Prinz). So, for instance, lower cognition enables my to be “aware” of dangers and react before I am even conscious of them. The difficulty with lower cognition is that it has a complicated relationship with our conscious thought. For instance, I talked with a man recently who had debilitating fear of barking dogs as a result of an attack as a child, but could not “think his way out of it.” The “irrationality” of our fears is no reason for us not to have them, since they operate at another level of our consciousness. Some people talk about this as the intentionality of the body (e.g. Merleau-Ponty).

So, to make a step toward reconciling the opposing views. I suspect that the many white Americans who say they are not racist are being sincere in the sense that they do not consciously entertain ideas of inferiority towards other racial or ethnic groups. But, at the level of the body, or at the level of their lower consciousness, the fear and disdain may exist very plainly and visibly to others. This is not insignificant. Our gut reactions to others form a major aspect of social intercourse. We like people who are “open” and “warm”, even though we may not be able to say explicitly what we mean by these metaphors. What we mean by “open” may be 1,000 small types of behavior, speech, or expression that are hard to specify. Minorities can face a world where nearly all of the people they come into contact with on a daily basis are “closed” and “cold,” or hostile. And conscious intentional hostility is not the only type that produces violence. Our heads say we are open and welcoming, but our bodies and our hands may tell a different tale.

So, the police officers who have been in the news racist? They certainly are reacting with excessive force. Even if their thinking is not prejudiced (though perhaps it is), their bodies 2016-07-12 11.27.48 am.pngare. And this state of affairs is legitimately terrifying and sometimes deadly for those against whom this prejudice is directed. I grieve the lives these officers have taken.

So what can be done about invisible prejudice? The raises another feature of our “body-intentionality,” that it is largely affected by our experience. How did my friend fight his fear of dogs? He held puppies. It is absolutely essential for building racial peace for all of us to intermingle our lives with those who are different from us. We must experience the humanity of the other through hospitality to teach ourselves to love. We cannot be content with affirmations of equality but no bodily action. The role of the Christian church in this is especially important. We must take seriously our responsibility to build diverse, hospitable communities that are capable of ministering reconciliation both on a Spiritual and social level. We are to be a city set on a hill, a City of God where there is one body, as well as one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Overcoming Seduction Hysteria

The video below is Yann Dall’Aglio, “Love–You’re Doing it Wrong.” It’s really worth a watch. It touches on the problem that is created as modern man has lost his sense of significance from being situated within traditional roles. A man or woman could feel valued, loved, and belonging as a son, or a wife, or a citizen. But in our day, when traditional roles have been cast aside, we are all part of a continual race to be valued or loved, what he calls “Seduction Hysteria.” We acquire “seduction capital” like clothing, possessions, or internet presence to garner admiration. He says,

“We all pretend to have an idol; we pretend to be an idol for someone else, but actually we are all imposters, a bit like a man on the street who appears totally cool and indifferent, while he has actually anticipated and calculated that all eyes are on him. I think that becoming aware of this general imposture would ease our love relationships. It is because I want to be loved from head to toe, justified in my every choice, that the seduction hysteria exists. Therefore I want to appear perfect so that someone will love me.

What I find particularly fascinating is the 30 seconds that he devotes to his solution, self-mockery. He says, “For a couple who is no longer sustained, supported by the constraints of tradition, I believe that self-mockery is one of the best means for the relationship to endure.”

(As the kids might say) WHAT. A. LETDOWN.

Hasn’t it occurred to him that self-mockery is itself just another means of acquiring love through humor. Self-mockery is seduction capital. (Perhaps this is obvious only to a religious person, having seen countless examples of humility being used as seduction capital?)

It seems to me that a better answer, a better escape from this seduction hysteria is gospel oriented covenantal relationships in which people’s identities are formed around the notion of being “beloved of God” and find their purpose in his mission.

Church Matters: Church Seminary Divide

or, tongue firmly planted in cheek: 7 Shocking Reasons Seminary Students Feel Alienated from the Local Church

See also:
Church Matters: Traditional and Contemporary Types
Church Matters: Truncated Biblical Authority

Not all seminarians feel the angst of the church/academy divide, but many do. This post is a mental exercise in thinking about why. The point is to provide a springboard for more thinking on the issue, not to provide an exhaustive treatment. Please do not treat my generalizations as anything but generalizations (which by definition are not exhaustively true). If this is not your experience, then give thanks and keep plugging. A related goal is again to reinforce my nagging suspicion that the church needs a location and time for the practice of good thinking. Seminarians might be a good resource for this.

1. DIvergent approaches to questions

Fundamentally, local churches often look to close questions as soon as possible and scholars look to keep them open as long as possible. That scholars do not close questions has to do with the nature of questions; they are the objects of intellectual passions. In other words, they fuel inquiry by providing motivation for study. So a scholar may pursue a question for a lifetime, which a minister may want to answer with a five minute rabbit trail from his lesson. Questions are often at best “off topic” and at worst “impudent.” Granted there might be practical reasons for the church not opening every question. But a culture of all the “answers” needs to be avoided.

2. Ignoring or ignorance of contemporary challenges to the faith

Often local churches have (understandably) little interest in the big questions which threaten to undermine or derail the Christian faith ideologically, since their primary work is local. For example, churches have no interest in the metaphysical challenge of panentheism. Perhaps readers may not even know that this is “an issue.” But there are a whole host of issues that are relevant either in the wider theological or secular world that theologians need to address, but often are only very tangentially related to the life within church. Pastors largely do not concern themselves with this issues, and seminarians may notice them under every rock as the hidden cause for troubles X, Y, or Z. It seems to me that seminarians are myopic in thinking that modalism is the cause of all vice in the church or that it is vital that grandma not express herself in a modalist fashion.

3. “The First Year Philosopher Phenomenon” (or the Socrates problem)

It has been said that the most annoying philosophy student with which to dialogue is the one that has had only one year of philosophy. Critical thinking in small doses leads to a nascent awareness that things are wrong in a world that formerly seemed roughly OK. Usually, the first problem of which one becomes aware is attacked with such foolish zeal that people are hurt. The professors are “corrupting the children.” The truth is that the fourth year students might have a large store of valuable insight to offer, but often have learned to shut their mouth. Therefore, the vocal minority are foolish and the church stops asking seminarians for insight when they might be able to offer it.

4. The resulting mistrust

Local churches tend to become a bit lukewarm about seminarians in general because seminarians are critical and seem to know it all (the first years are foolish and the third and fourth years are more measured, but sometimes “angsty”).

5. The pastor may threatened; the seminarian may be threatening

Sometimes pastors who lack seminary training or whose training came in the 70s can be threatened by the young seminarians. Rather than looking at them as a valuable resource for the church, they can completely ignore them while secretly wishing they’ll finish and move to another church. The quickest way to get pushed out of a ministry is to ask questions about things that are already decided. When seminarians tend to do this, leaders can feel threatened and frustrated. Further, seminarians need understand that the pastor likely possesses a large store of pastoral wisdom that can only be acquired in shepherding people from birth to death.

6. The “You Need to Work Your Way Up” phenomenon

Most large churches have few needs in positions of teaching or authority. The needs they do have are filled by people who have “worked their way up,” often starting with a ministry like set-up crew. Since many seminarians are balancing school, work, and family responsibilities (sometimes full time at more than one of these), they can sometimes see these lower ministries as valuable, but not a good use of their time. This might not be arrogance, but rather wise stewardship. But without these “starter ministries,” the student may not have opportunity to exercise his or her gifts anywhere. From the church’s perspective, it is perhaps a warranted concern to reserve positions of teaching positions or authority for those who are committed to the church in the long term, but it does fail to recognize unique gifting and ability as well as the church’s own responsibility to its members who are training for ministry, especially in cultivating their gifts (it takes years to find one’s voice) and confirming (or not) their calling.

7. General lack of intellectual virtue in the local church

There is often no place or time for asking questions in the local church. To carry on glibly unaware of the fact that disagreements exist, vaguely contented in one’s own view, is vice. Dialogue is crucial for truth seeking and unity, because only in dialogue are one’s own ideas really tested and positions nuanced. The fact that the church mostly has no space for dialogue on really important issues has some really awful consequences.  All of the dumbest decisions I have witnessed either in business or in the church have occurred within the context of the latter institution. My heart breaks for now defunct local churches and institutions that have been ruined by poor thinking.

My prayer is that these observations and generalizations may foster further dialogue on these issues. So if you agree or disagree, kindly post below.

Church Matters: Traditional and Contemporary Types

The contemporary/traditional divide among evangelical churches is not new; yet, it is disconcerting to note that little progress has been made in the advancement of real dialogue about the nature of church practices among evangelicals. A central issue is, as Rosaria Butterfield has quipped, the Bible is used to end the conversation, not to enrich it. Setting aside the nature of biblical authority for the moment, this practice–of ending conversations by appealing to Scripture–may manifest both a lack of seriousness regarding church practices and a lack of intellectual integrity. My fear is that neither side of this divide is seriously listening, but is rather repeating clichéd rhetoric aimed at fortifying their positions. The aim of this post is simply to serve the conversation by noting the merits and shortcomings of the arguments.

Typology

Granted, not every church fits neatly into one or the other side of this debate. Some are very balanced in general orientation toward text or context. However, some general observations can be made of the types of churches in the American context that I am referring to as “contemporary” or “traditional.”

Contemporary Traditional
Generally moves from cultural context to textGeneral sensitivity to popular context, that is, the people among whom the church exists, especially to cultural distinctives Generally moves from text to cultural contextGeneral sensitivity to theological context, that is, the ideas among which the church exists, and their threats to the church or the gospel
Strong practical principles Strong theological principles
Preaching that methodologically begins with application (i.e. The question, “What should I preach on?” is answered topically from a sensitivity to context) Preaching that methodologically begins with scripture (i.e. The question, “What should I preach on?” is answered with a scripture reference)
Highly polished programatic or aesthetic elements (setting, traffic flow, conveniences, sound, signage, food, etc.–if this were a restaurant, one would want to come back) Purposeful lack of concern for aesthetic elements
Elements of pop musical concert in public singing (typical “band” instruments, lighting, stage set up, video feed, etc.) More traditional musical elements in public singing (can range quite a bit, but even with typical “band” instruments, other elements are intentionally passed over)
Strong presence of a screen or screens Intentional minimization of screens (e.g. only used for the words to songs)
Strong focus on “the leader” Luddite aesthetic for the purpose of drawing awareness to the gathered
Strong organizational health–special focus on leadership training and awareness of gifting Lack in good practical reasoning about a variety of issues from organizational health, community integration, leadership development, to building management
Loose or no denominational tie Strong denominational tie, or at least strong creedal or historical ties
Tend to see the “worship service” as a human event Tend to see the “worship service” as a divine event

A Sampling of Arguments

Contemporary

The single biggest argument against the traditional model is that it lacks evangelistic concern, that it makes very little difference in contemporary society. This argument is extremely difficult for a traditional church to deal with because it largely hits its mark. The five largest evangelical churches (not considering Lakewood Church, Houston, TX) are all “contemporary” (1. North Point, Alpharetta, GA, 2. Willow Creek, South Barrington, IL, 3.NewSpring, Anderson, SC, 4. Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, AL, 5. Saddleback, Lake Forest, CA). The most common response to this criticism is a deflecting mechanism of the following sort: “we’re unwilling to compromise our [theological] principles to attract people.” Vague condemnations of this sort merely distract from the fact that traditional churches have been ineffective by any measure (not just comparatively) in spreading the gospel in the American context.

An argument that is less common, is that contemporary churches share the theological commitments of traditional ones, but merely do things better practically. In other words, they are in other respects the same as traditional churches, but practically superior (hence, more conversions and attendance). Traditionalists can respond to this by arguing that so called “practical superiority” always involves “theological inferiority” (and in serious ways). Another way of putting this is that attention is zero-sum in the sense that to attend to practical concerns is to leave necessary theological considerations unconsidered.

Traditional

The single most common traditionalist charge against contemporary churches is that that they are willing to sacrifice theological faithfulness for numerical success. But this sort of charge tends to be pretty severely uncharitable, especially insofar as it gives the impression that there is intent to sacrifice theological faithfulness for success–a devil’s bargain (never mind if the traditionalists are right about what they charge). This charge seems to be the most serious area where the conversation is a non-starter, just where it would be most helpful to continue dialogue. The fault is on both sides. It would be helpful for the sake of discussion to assume that everyone is trying to be faithful to God’s commission and charge to the church, and talk about the particular risks of particular approaches. For instance, might it not be helpful to discuss constructively with both sides the hidden implications of preaching without the actual presence of the pastor.

Another common charge against the contemporary type is that these churches do not recognize that the “worship service” is not a mere human event, but also a divine event, that God meets us in worship and is also an actor. The difficulty with this charge is twofold. First, it has been difficult to find consensus about the definition and significance of the church’s gathering for “worship.” The liturgical tradition has a very well formed idea of this, but many evangelicals remain unconvinced (or are unaware of that tradition). This is an area where the discussion needs to be continued rather than cut off. Second, the implications of worship being “a divine event” are not clear. For traditionalists, the argument is generally left unstated between the premises “worship is a divine event” and “worship should be like ours is.” Granted, the regulative principle complicates this discussion. But among traditional churches that do not hold the the RP, the implications of God meeting the church in worship often are largely unspecified. For example, in a recent podcast titled “Bully Pulpit: Gobbledygook” Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt discuss some quotes on preaching from Mark Driscoll and Andy Stanley. Todd Pruitt makes the point that to suggest that the preacher eliminate theological language from a sermon is an implicit denial of the sufficiency of Scripture because God promises to produce faith in the hearts of the hearers (God event), therefore, “my methodology becomes less important than God’s program of the word being preached and made plain.” (Todd Pruitt, Mortification of Spin podcast, September 24, 2013). Again, it is not clear what God’s activity might mean for the preacher’s activity, but in this case it is supposed to mean he should use “theological language.”

Another common charge is that the church is not for unbelievers. I’ve never heard a response for this charge from the contemporary folks. I suppose it is worth noting that there is New Testament precedence for acknowledging that unbelievers may be present. Paul seems sensitive to outsiders in 1 Corinthians 14:23 where he says, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” And yet, the traditionalist complaint seems to be deeper in the sense that they assert that the purpose of the weekly gathering is believer oriented, while they charge contemporary churches with being primarily unbeliever oriented. I think at least theoretically the complaint misses its mark because both would say the primary purpose of the weekly gathering is believer oriented, but the disagreement normally lies in what level of accessibility to unbelievers is appropriate and the degree to which this accessibility sacrifices the promotion of maturity in believers.

Some Concerns that are Not Commonly Raised

A related, but relatively undeveloped concern to the last one mentioned is the fact that accessibility is not merely a function of theological language. Some traditional churches (surely not all) are inaccessible intellectually as well as well as theologically. This raises the question, to what extent is the church responsible for the intellectual care of church members? Perhaps there will be a temptation to say, none. But this misses a crucial connection between intellectual virtue and general Christian virtue. This connection can be illustrated with two examples. First, Christian revelation is word revelation. It requires interpretation. Interpretation is only possible with intellectual virtue, otherwise heresy is common. Second, the moral field of the church is constantly changing, leaving new moral issues to be ironed out almost constantly. For this reason, intellectual virtue is necessary for acting wisely in the world. Boiling all Christian teaching down to “a third grade level” has obvious doctrinal and moral consequences.

Second, within the American milieu particularly, capitalism and consumerism are major factors. Traditional churches, since they move from text to cultural context, tend not to place a high priority on the cluster of activities involved with advertising the church. Furthermore, intentional disregard for aesthetic elements also reflects this philosophical commitment. Traditional churches will argue that evangelism is not advertising, and advertising should not be viewed as the paradigmatic approach toward evangelism. This is an area where the contemporary church needs to be especially wary, since to “advertise” reinforces consumerist assumptions that run contrary to the Christian faith in a significant way. God is not the ultimate product, the solution to all our needs. God is the sovereign Lord of the universe against whom we have sinned. To present God in the former way runs the risk of talking about a different God entirely, a sort of fawning obsequious figurehead who just wants everyone on his side.

Third, again, since traditional churches tend to move from text to context, they have the tendency not to utilize technology. The war over technology is heated, some arguing that every technology carries with it unintended consequences, others arguing that there is no point in pretending that technology can be avoided. Probably both positions are true. Technology certainly brings with it unintended consequences, and therefore, leaders must ask what these are and how to mitigate them. But certainly cars and cell phones are here to say. Some may argue that this is not a moral argument for cars or cell phones, and this is true, but the church must deal effectively with the real ever changing moral field, of which technology is a part.

Conclusion

In the end, it may seem that the divide relies on a basic tendency to adopt theological or practical ways of both interpreting situations and addressing them. And yet, the church is both a human and a divine construct. God works through human means. So perhaps the two most important questions are: 1) Does (and to what extent) the fact that God acts in the church affect my methodological commitments? 2) What is the theological freight of my particular practical decision?

Church Matters: Truncated Biblical Authority

One of the really valuable elements of the theological turn in the resurgent Calvinist movement is the application of the theological implications of the gospel in preaching. I take it that the point of preaching on this view is a sort of interpretive conditioning for the congregant, aimed at helping one to see reality rightly. The Spirit works through the gospel to convince me of the truth about who I am, what Christ is for me, and what I am in him. This sort of rehearsal of the implications of the gospel is really significant for everyday life because these truths form the background for how we perceive mundane realities from struggles at work to dealing with children (it deals with our hearts).

And yet, I have a growing concern about truncating application to theological implications, namely, that it truncates biblical authority to the general orientation of the Christian mind. If preaching mostly pertains to theological generalities, there are a whole host of significant issues that have no place for being considered theologically in the church. Issues like global politics, economics, education, psychology, or even technology have no possibility of being addressed with theological nuance because there is no platform for talking about them. Thus, practically, the Bible’s authority does not extend to them.

I think the worry from preachers is that one does not preach on “economics” because to do so is to step too far into the theological debatable or speculative. Without commenting on the merit of this argument for preaching, it is at least worth noting that this avoidance of the debatable or speculative has the practical effect of fostering terrible thinking about these issues in the church.

Communal Breakdown

The following is a strong start to a book I have been looking forward to reading for some time:

“This breakdown could have been avoided. But then, few breakdowns in community are inevitable. In this case, some folks made poor decisions. Other people responded poorly to the poor decisions. More decisions, more responses, more trouble. Words were exchanged, positions hardened, sides drawn up. Rumors flew, and even when folks knew they were rumors, they repeated them until it was very difficult to discern wheat had ‘really’ happened.

People were angry and hurt; some conversations stopped, and new alliances were formed. Only certain people knew about key meetings. A lot of energy was expended in determining motives, justifying decisions, and anticipating ‘the opposition’s’ next move. Regular activities continued, but the life was drained out of them; everything seemed hollow. Small acts and casual comments were freighted with huge symbolic meaning. Everyone felt undervalued and betrayed by someone; a number of people threatened to leave. The meltdown had taken on a life of its own.

Friends questioned one another’s commitments; grumbling and weariness became highly contagious. Disagreements took strange turns; old differences and hurts came to the surface and played into the present trouble in unpredictable ways. Some people ducked, determined to weather the storm without being drawn into it. Others ‘defected in place’ — showing up when the occasion required it, but emotionally and relationally absent or detached. A few seemed to add fuel to the fire, reporting the latest outrageous development and speculating on what might happen next. Still others tried to keep conversations going and looked for resolution, but were often battered or sidetracked in the process. Several years later, members of the community continue to live with the wounds, even as they move forward.

Is this a description of the a church? A school? An intentional community? A parachurch organization? An extended family?”

Living into Community, by Christine Pohl

If this sounds familiar, perhaps you should order a copy.

Attenuated Attention: Relationships

“We have all been at a party and noticed new acquaintances scanning the room, looking for someone more interesting to converse with. Steven Levy says that we now live in ‘a never-ending cocktail party where you’re always looking over your virtual shoulder for a better conversation partner.’ We cannot build deep and lasting relationships if we turn away from others the moment they become boring, irritating, or challenging. Neither cocktail party practices nor television-viewing habits are helpful for growing in friendship, intimacy, and love.” (Boers, Living Into Focus, 88.)

There are many facets to the problem of attenuated attention; yet, especially within Christian circles this one manifests itself powerfully and dreadfully. The truth is as Arthur Boers says, real relationships that provide crucial sustenance and provoke personal growth occur not too far after most people give up on them. What makes a person a good friend is not that the person is interesting. The most satisfying relationships I’ve had have also been the most difficult; but they are the ones where the difficulty was born patiently and persevered.