In my work with churches, I find that most Christians agree that we should unite across ethnic, linguistic and socio-economic lines. Few people have a problem with this idea (at least in theory). However, Christians bristle at the suggestion of unity across theological divisions. Armed with the belief that our perspective is entirely right, we easily come up with reasons why other perspectives aren’t valuable and why dissenting voices should be extinguished.
Our tendency to do this was on spectacular display last week when Christians heard wind of Rob Bell’s controversial new book and swiftly sided with either Rob Bell or his critics. A humble appreciation for different perspectives was conspicuously absent from the conversation. Rather than giving serious, respectful thought to the viewpoint with which we disagreed, we dug our heels even deeper into the ground of our pre-existing theological beliefs, unwilling to consider other ideas. An event that should have triggered respectful conversation across theological lines led to divisions that are even more dogmatic and deaf than before! It was both predictable and sad.
The metaphor of the body of Christ preaches the need to value different perspectives – to be ideologically interdependent. Hans Boersma, the J.I. Packer Professor of theology at Regent College, agrees, writing “The idea of direct and complete access to [truth] is an arrogant illusion that violates the multifaceted integrity of the created world.”[i] We need each other’s perspectives. So why are we so stubbornly opposed to the idea that we might learn something from another theological viewpoint?
1) We hate ambiguity.
Back in the 1950s, Fritz Heider referred to all humans as naïve psychologists. Whether we are trained in psychology or not, we have a strong need to make sense of this confusing world so that we can exert control in our lives and make informed choices about the future. To this end, we are constantly analyzing situations, trying to predict the behavior of others and pinpoint answers to complex philosophical questions. As a result, we have a strong aversion to ambiguity.
More recently, social psychologists have studied a phenomenon called need for cognitive closure which is defined as an individual’s “need for a firm answer to a question, any firm answer as opposed to confusion and/or ambiguity”.[ii] The idea is that we’re so uncomfortable with ambiguity that if we can find a concept to help us make sense of the world, we will cling to it – even if the concept is inaccurate or incomplete. We want to quickly close the door to ambiguity because it threatens our grasp on control. So, we often settle for an answer even if it’s not the answer.
For example, our need for cognitive closure can help us understand why our theological clan, when trying to make sense of a difficult and mysterious concept like atonement, might cling to a single metaphor of atonement and resist acceptance of other metaphors. To acknowledge that other useful metaphors might exist is to risk opening what we have already cognitively closed. Naturally, group situations often trigger a high need for closure. In the interest of differentiating ourselves from other Christian groups, we cling to our beliefs and remain closed to other points of view even when it simply does not make sense to do so.
2) We hate black sheep.
Social identity researchers have found that ideological distinctions are so crucial to differentiating groups that groups have a special hatred for other group members who for the most part act like normal group members but do not “toe the party line” on one or two issues. This effect is called the black sheep effect[iii] and is based on the idea that nongroup members are supposed to disagree with us. As such, we are not as threatened by their disagreement. If anything, their disagreement with us further distinguishes us from them.
Fellow group members, on the other hand, are supposed to agree with us, so we are shocked and appalled if they express disagreement. Further, their disagreement with us serves to blur the ideological lines between our group and other groups and this makes us feel angry and threatened. Within the context of the larger body of Christ, any time we interact with fellow Christians with whom we disagree on one or two issues, we are interacting with what we perceive to be black sheep. The mere existence of these “black sheep” threatens to blur the important beliefs that differentiate Christians from everyone else. Rather than remaining cognitively open to our fellow followers of Christ who might offer a much-needed perspective, we dig our heels in and seek cognitive closure. In doing so, we tell ourselves that these people are black sheep who deserve the black sheep treatment – and we are happy to oblige by calling them a heretic.
In theory, our common group membership as Christians should supersede theological distinctions, thus overriding these nasty group processes. However, anyone who spends any time on Twitter knows that this is not yet the case.
[i] Boersma, Violence, Hospitality and the Cross. [ii] Kruglanski, 2004, p.6. [iii] Marquez, Yzerbyt & Leyens, 1988 – An example of a black sheep is a pro-choice Republican or pro-life Democrat. This individual subscribes to the majority of their respective party’s ideology, but fails to “toe the party line” when it comes to the question of abortion.