By Donald Schell
Bicycling past a parked car, the bumper sticker caught my eye, ‘Don’t believe everything you think.’ I stopped to write it down.
Someone got it right – The bumper sticker’s ‘believe’ resonated with faith, not because faith is irrational, but because faith (trust) is inherently relational. Not irrational, relational – our thinking alone will never get us to what our believing (especially believing formed in community) somehow senses and ultimately knows.
All of us have all kinds of thoughts about all kinds of things (including religious and theological things), random thoughts, thoughts all over the map, opinions, tightly held certainties, ‘common sense’ and things “we all know.” But that bundle of thoughts and opinions is just that – our own bundle of opinions and thoughts.
Faith’s path of knowing (can I say “trust’s path of knowing”?) engages the world we see and know and feel and taste with our relationship to other people and our interactions with them. Trust’s path of knowing values sense, intuition, and hope.
A good dinner party, a holy liturgy, falling in love, a funeral, or any passionate, concrete commitment to work with and alongside other people in need offer us vibrant un-rationalized glimpses (touches, whiffs…) of an elusive something that looks and feels compellingly real. Our collage of those many glimpses guides our trust. But is relational knowing really knowing? I hope so, because it’s actually the knowing we’ll stake our lives on.
A simple example: what has changed straight people’s minds about the rightful, graced place of LGBT people in the church? What is moving our whole country toward support of gay marriage? I’ll speak for myself as an old straight, white guy. It’s personal knowing and relationship, knowing gay friends – it’s working and being in friendship and community with couples whose lives make sense, and welcoming love and support and understanding from what gay friends find in their relationship.
What changes our mind is our heart, not argument. The experience of knowing people changes our mind.
Have you noticed how our most compelling arguments on this or almost any other subject seem to fall on deaf ears when we’re arguing (no matter how well we argue) with people who disagree with us? Why do our eminently reasonable arguments provoke half-truths and irrationality from those who disagree with us? Why does their disagreement exasperate and provoke us so? And why does it seem to them that we’re doing the same?
We learn to care and respect other people by listening to their lives. We feel our way toward their experiences, and find something unfamiliar that nonetheless lives that looks and feels like the best self we know in ourselves. Sometimes it’s not best self but the most ordinary self we know in ourselves, so compassion for others comes from exercising the measure of forgiveness that we’d hope for ourselves.
How do we trust? How do we communicate? We have all heard the arguments for the ‘selfish’ character of the gene, arguments that our human character was simply shaped by competition. It’s a reductionist version of Darwin that claims that what survives most fiercely is what survives in the world.
The more we learn about the neural structure of the brain and as we continue to observe our near primate ancestors the hypothesis of ‘selfish genes,’ the inevitably selfish character of genes in a competitive evolutionary system faces overwhelming challenge from new observations, new contradictory evidence. Like us our primate cousins have innate tendencies to empathy and sympathetic. Researchers frame experiments to witness people and primates acting to help, care for, or serve others including strangers not in their own gene pool. This openness to others and care for the unrelated stranger gives us the receptivity that makes listening and collaboration possible.
But what about our violence? What about selfishness? What about the fall? Isn’t that really what defines us?
Well yes and no, we and our nearest primate relatives do have a strong tendency to competition, and any of us are capable of violence and surprising, deliberate cruelty to our own.
And yes, war and conflict with our own kind was among the evolutionary forces that shaped our consciousness, but it’s not our sole, defining character.
We’re also deeply predisposed and neurologically wired to feel one another’s pain, to help, to collaborate, to comfort, to grieve. Love isn’t a cultural invention and it’s not confined to near kin. Reflecting on our own experience of love, any of us could refine and nuance this list of how we and other mammals are connected with each other.
The New York Times recently offered us another piece in the puzzle. It supports the wisdom of not believing everything you think.
In Patricia Cohen’s article “Reason seen more as weapon than as path to truth,” we learn that French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber are developing observed argument and data to crack the old puzzle of why logic so rarely leads to change of heart.
In fact arguments that are clear and satisfying to us will provoke resistance and skepticism in the listeners, even in sympathetic listeners, and certainly in people we think our arguments ‘should’ most appeal to. Mercier and Sperber’s science warns us (like the bumper sticker) that “Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions. It was [i.e. it emerged in evolution as] a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” In the summary of their research Times reporter Patricia Cohen says, “Truth and accuracy were beside the point.”
Mercier and Sperber offer their own summary in their abstract of a recent article – “Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis.”
The truths we sing and touch, the truths that move us and in which we move (and even dance) together are not the truths of win/lose competition. They’re glimpses of the great Truth of relationship of inclusion, of blessing one another. These are the truths we believe because we pray and think them with our mind in our heart.
Parker Palmer coined that phrase, ‘thinking with the mind in the heart.’ Any reader and friend of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Early Christianity or of the Philokalia/Jesus Prayer tradition will recognize that Palmer has adapted from those ancient teachers’ injunction that we should pray ‘with the mind in the heart,’ a prayer that’s fully embodied, that rides on our breath and in God’s Spirit.
Why does our consciousness sometimes draw us to others? What makes us discard old thoughts and believe good of strangers and those we’d previously judged ‘unlike’ ourselves?
What of the thinking that divides, the thinking the bumper sticker warns us not to believe? Why does some thought push us to make bloody competition an article of faith? Why do some people put Scriptural arguments together to convince themselves and others that God’s wrath is the source of hurricanes, that “God hates fags,” that “Muslims are the enemy.” And why can’t we convince people that the real God is the
One whose “property is always to have mercy”?
We know the loving mercy of God in our experience of giving and receiving love and mercy. The thoughts we trust most deeply are those we think with the mind in the heart.
I wish I could thank the writer of that bumper sticker. Try it on for the day. Savor it as we continue on our way, ‘Don’t believe everything you think.’
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.