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Finding the Words

Why is it so hard for Adventists to achieve theological consensus when it comes to deciding what to do when presented with old problems in new settings? Is it that we make decisions based primarily on “prior emotional commitments” rather than a careful review of the evidence? And is the language we use an inadequate vehicle for solving problems? Chris Mooney and a Franciscan monk suggest that both make civil discourse difficult.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion — what researchers often call “affect.” Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds — fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of them…


In other words, by the time we’re consciously ‘reasoning,’ we may instead be rationalizing our prior emotional commitments. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers. Our ‘reasoning’ is a means to a predetermined end — winning our ‘case’ — and is shot through with biases. These include ‘confirmation bias,’ in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and ‘disconfirmation bias,’ in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial…


Modern science originated from an attempt to weed out such subjective lapses — what Francis Bacon, that great 17th-century theorist of the scientific method, dubbed the ‘idols of the mind.’ Our individual responses to the conclusions that science reaches, however, are quite another matter. Because researchers employ so much nuance and disclose so much uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading. Giving ideologues or partisans scientific data that’s relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store…


The upshot? Left or right, conservative or liberal, we all wear blinders in some situations. Then the question becomes: What can be done to counteract human nature itself? Given the power of our prior beliefs, one idea is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction…In other words, paradoxically, don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. Lead with the values — so as to give the facts a fighting chance.

I was reading The Monster of Florence when I came across the following adapted quote. It suggested another reason why we as church members find it so difficult to achieve consensus beyond the most rudimentary and grudging affirmation of Christian ideals. Brother Galileo, a Florentine Franciscan monk turned psychoanalyst:

There is no longer true communication among us, because our very language is sick, and the sickness of our discourse carries us inevitably to sickness in our bodies, to neurosis, if not finally to mental illness…


When we can no longer communicate with speech, we speak with sickness. Our symptoms are given life. These symptoms express the need for the soul to make itself heard but cannot, because we don’t have the words, and because those who should listen cannot get beyond the sound of their own voices. The language of sickness is the most difficult to interpret…


Mental illness lies at the very end of this struggle to be heard. It is the last refuge of a desperate soul who has finally come to believe that no one is listening or ever will listen…

Jesus taught his followers to use language with a new emotional and linguistic mindset, one that would not lead to acrimonious debate and “inevitably sickness.” I offer the words of Jesus’ as he taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount as paraphrased in the Message Bible:

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.


You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One dearest to you.


You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.


You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.


You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.


You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.


You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.


You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.


Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.

Image: Fra Angelico, The Sermon on the Mount, c. 1436 -1443.

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