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Intellectual Crisis

Only someone returning from a Vanwinklian nap would not be aware of the incredible and brittle factiousness permeating our culture. Nearly everyone you talk to will shake their head with sorrow at the cracks throughout Western society, and then just as quick point to this or that group as the ones primarily responsible. In a NYTimes review of a new book, The Anointed, the divisive debates roiling in Christendom are brought to fore from the apparent perspective of someone from a more secular worldview to an audience largely outside of the Christian worldview.

The review describes much of the intellectual conflict in evangelicalism, particularly in the States. Old earth versus theistic evolution, whether the Founders were Christian or Deist (or pre-Darwinian humanists, as some now affirm, with credible arguments), the relative value of academic credentials versus a strictly common-sense/sola scriptura based faith are some of the issues, even asking the fundamental and completely academic question of whether or not the Enlightenment was a good thing.

A more charitable rendering would have been for the article to describe the debate as a rich diversity of opinion rather than the actual description “that evangelicals disagree wildly among themselves about almost everything,” which, however, is fair, and goes so far as to say, “The authors make a strong case that serious scholars are prophets without honor in a culture in which successful leaders capitalize on ‘anti-intellectualism, populism, a religious free market, in- and out- group dynamics, endorsement by God and threats from Satan.’” I’m afraid the last assessment has more truth to it than I would like to admit.

The resolution to these issues is challenging. There are evidence and data that all sides use to support their views, some with greater scholastic rigor than others. However, I believe the crux of the problem is that there isn’t time for most people to spend the necessary time and effort to study each and every one of these issues, so they reach for pre-distilled resources recommended by those around them whom they trust, usually trusted because they are like-minded. This is a very normal and reasonable thing to do and all of us do it to some degree or another.

The question arises naturally from this is, if this is a normal human response to information, why has it become such an issue? This is easy—the ease of dissemination of ideas coupled with the increasingly global impact of relatively minor political decisions on the daily life of individuals and their families mean people are paying more attention to more issues and trying to decipher the impacts on their lives. When people feel threatened by something, they naturally raise their defenses, and all the more if it potentially threatens their children. This defensiveness increases when cultural authorities dismiss this reaction as paranoid.

Please note—the evangelicals are not the only ones to react this way. Just look at Michael Newdow, the California atheist who reacted with litigation to his daughter being required to say “under God” during the Pledge. Also, consider the reaction of various groups to Christian attempts to discuss alternatives to evolution in public school biology classes. When parents perceive a threat to the welfare of their children in some way, responses tend to be less nuanced and more reactionary.

Another factor making it more challenging to discern truth in various aspects of society is actually rooted in our deep seated sense of democracy. Even though we live officially in a republic, most of us think of it as a democracy, where the majority rules. Thus, there is an impetus to make one’s position as appealing to as many people as possible, and to do that effectively, a message has to be simple to reach the broadest audience. Nuance tends to be lost when putting an argument outside of an academic setting, and further when it is reduced to an, at most, 30 second newsbite.

There is also cultural inertia. Even in these times of rapid change, and actually, partially because of it, most people tend to hold on to what they have always understood, and resist new information, especially transformational information. Information and technology have changed so dramatically, so fast, that for most people, unfortunately especially those in more rural areas, it really is like drinking from a fire hydrant. We tend to shut down from any kind of sensory overload.

To overcome this overload, it takes, like any type of persuasion, relationship and patience. This is all the more true when the issue at stake is one’s worldview. Since a worldview is the most basic fundamental filter through which a human being filters everything they perceive, demanding radical change is akin to demanding they become a different person.

With the abundance of information sources available to us and with each of them seeking to rise to prominence, often by discrediting the others, most of us view nearly all new information in a more jaded sense than we used to.

Again, these factors are not unique to evangelicals. Progressives, secular humanists, and plenty of others deal with the same struggles. Just because many evangelicals seem to hold to “simplistic” or “dogmatic” views without the sophistication of ‘nuance,’ doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to those views that should be examined, considered and possibly even adopted as being an accurate representation of reality and/or at least partial solutions to some of societal ills. Nor are the progressives, et al immune from simplistic and dogmatic viewpoints either. They just tend to put a more sophisticated spin on them.

We tend to define a worldview in rather binary terms on various issues. If you are a conservative evangelical, you can be expected to hold to a slate of viewpoints, and if you are a progressive secularist, you simply hold the opposite views. This is how elections are defined, and candidates line up and exaggerate the divisions and their exclusivity for the sake of winning office. Actually, anyone seeking influence in the culture benefits from many of the same strategies. Again, it is based on an understanding of human nature, especially when people have so many demands on their time.

The intellectual crisis in our culture (and as I hope I’ve shown adequately, it is not merely a crisis among Christians but in the entirety of our culture) is going to continue until either it comes to a catastrophic head (which I believe to be the most likely) or until the movers and shakers can put aside a quest for influence, and discuss societal goals with an open-minded listening to mutual dialogue. This will require truly educating their followers about the nuances of each viewpoint and being willing to admit lack of omniscience.

People need confidence in their leaders. Unfortunately, for most leaders today, this is interpreted to mean they can’t admit to being wrong or changing their minds over time as they get new information, and if they do, they are excoriated for it, and their rationale is rarely heard out.

As technology compresses the time we are willing/able to take to absorb information and make reasoned evaluations, the crisis will continue to elevate, as the sound bite messages get shorter and shorter. As a solution, I recommend developing friendships with people you passionately disagree with. Make time to spend time with them as human beings. Discuss troubling issues with a mutual refusal to take or give umbrage, and see where there is actually surprising amounts of common ground.

I have found repeatedly that when someone appears to make a leap in logic, and goes from step A to step Q, it is because, they have already worked out B-P in their minds so often they don’t realize there has been a leap. It is through discourse that all parties can explore A through Q, and see maybe where F was skipped or written backwards, or if K now exists where it didn’t before.

I recently had a conflict over the phone with my folks when I was explaining (in isolation of other factors) an idea I had, and they worried that I wasn’t aware of the other factors. Not only was I aware of them, I saw how this idea possibly fixed a hole in them, but because I didn’t explain that, they thought I was going off half-cocked. As I had time to explain more fully, much of the conflict resolved itself, but what I thought was a five minute, “Hey, isn’t this cool” conversation turned into a 45 minute frustration and resolution. It was further real world proof that humans do not function well in a sound bite society.

A bumper sticker slogan conveys a LOT of information to readers, but it is rarely the same set of information to people starting with different assumptions. Therefore, bumper stickers are not typically good ways to bridge those starting assumptions. Identifying the assumptions and checking their validity on each set of facts is a good start. It is also important to realize that assumptions are rarely right or wrong. If someone holds an assumption about how the world works, that means to some extent it conforms to reality. Therefore, simply trashing those assumptions held by another is rarely productive because you are tending to throw out a point of commonality.

Most of us agree that many of the world’s problems are complex and quite interrelated. It makes sense then that solutions to these problems will mirror that complexity and interrelation. Deeply intellectual discussions with an understanding of human nature, humbly engaged in by people with very different perspectives offer a good shot at making progress.

Any takers?


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