He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“ ‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.’
-Luke 8:10 (NIV)
If you’re having trouble thinking clearly, don’t worry. It’s probably just your faith getting in the way of your thinking.
Or so suggests a study published last week the Journal of Science.
The study, authored by University of British Columbia social psychologist Will Gervais, assumes a theory of human thinking in which the brain processes information using two systems. The first relies on mental shortcuts by using intuitive responses — gut instinct, if you will — to quickly arrive at a conclusion. The other employs reason to arrive at a conclusion. While both systems are useful and can run in parallel, analytic thinking, when called upon, can override intuition. Since other studies suggest that religious beliefs are rooted in this intuitive processing, Gervais wondered if thinking analytically would undermine religious belief as it overrides intuitive thought?
In short, Gervais sought to measure to what degree rational thought might undermine faith.
His methodology would take more space than I have to describe. (This story describes it in some detail, if you’re interested.) It seems like a fairly comprehensive study, however. And the conclusion Gervais and his colleagues came to?
Well, what they discovered was that people who tend to think more analytically score lower on questions like “In my life I feel the presence of the Divine” or “I just don’t understand religion.” Of course, you might rightly wonder how those people might have scored if the “faith” questions were worded a little more, well, analytically. Someone who’s a really analytic thinker, after all - even an analytic thinker with great faith - might not be all that eloquent in describing whether or not they can feel God’s presence.
For his part, Gervais doesn’t seem inclined to say that analytic thinking and faith are incompatible; in fact, he says the study is intended to explore the cognitive origins of belief and disbelief with academic rigor. He wants, as he puts it, “to understand religion and why our species has the capacity for religion.”
What strikes me, though, is that the whole study begs the question of what knowledge and understanding really are.
Most of us have been heavily influenced by Enlightenment and modernist definitions of knowledge. Knowledge is information: information uncovered, tested rigorously in a lab, and applied practically. Knowledge involves analytical thinking, which is to be strictly held in opposition to intuition. Certain knowledge involves repeatable, observable results in a lab, which is why the presence of the God Particle is considered science and the presence of the Holy Spirit is not, despite there being roughly the same number of sightings of each on record.
Jesus, of course, didn’t enjoy the benefits of living in a post-Enlightenment world. Maybe that’s why he spoke of knowledge in way more similar to how we’d speak of revelation: as something that can be given by God, and that can’t be had for the price of exploration or study or experimentation or even deep analytic thinking. This kind of knowledge comes as a gift of God, maybe at the level of what we’d call intuition these days.
Paul goes so far as to say, in the words of Isaiah, that the Holy Spirit reveals things to believers that “no eye has seen... no ear has heard...no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him. He goes on to say:
“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’
“But we have the mind of Christ.”
None of this is to minimize or dismiss what we call knowledge today. The scientific method has given us many blessings. The stakes of medicine, manufacturing, food production, and such for our world are too high to depend on unverified research and gut feelings. Education is a positive thing, and believers have nothing to fear from becoming educated people. (Though academics and academic institutions should never be allowed to create a hegemony of the educated over the uneducated.) The Bible, in affirming a knowledge from God, given by him, about him and his world and his kingdom, isn’t resisting what we call “science.” It’s just pointing out that results that are repeatable and observable in a lab don’t necessarily comprise the sum total of what we human beings need to know. And that the kind of knowledge that is valued by our world can even become destructive when it isn’t held in conjunction with - and even placed under judgment by - the kind of knowledge God gives us through his Spirit, in response to faith.
So if this comes across as anti-education, or hostile toward science, then I haven’t communicated what I intended to communicate at all. Historically, of course, the church has gotten in the way of much of the work of science. But it’s also true that much of the work of science in history has been done by people of faith, seeking to fill in the gaps of the knowledge that God hasn’t revealed to us about his world. They didn’t view science and faith as incompatible, or fundamentally at odds, but as two sides of the way God reveals himself to us.
So as we seek to know, to understand, to learn, through science and through the work of other human beings, let’s don’t neglect to seek the knowledge that God wants to give us. His lab is this world, his experiments the events of our lives, his catalyst the Holy Spirit. While we use the rational minds that our Creator has blessed us with, let’s be sure not to allow our spiritual minds to atrophy through disuse. In Christ, we are new people, being “renewed in knowledge in the image of our Creator.” And so we should live like the new people we are, as the knowledge God gives in Christ reshapes us, redeems us, and renews us.
In short, maybe we need to be less worried about our faith undermining our ability to think rationally.
Maybe the deeper concern is that our irrational belief that rational thinking is the only path to knowledge will undermine our faith, render us unable to see or hear what God would show us and tell us through Jesus. And so leave us poorer, with less understanding.