Misplaced Jesus, Theology — March 8, 2011 at 11:26 am

Why Love Rarely Wins (Sorry Rob Bell)

by

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

17 Comments

  • “In theory, our common group membership as Christians should supersede theological distinctions, thus overriding these nasty group processes.”

    What a liberating thought. :-)

    On another note, Rob Bell really isn’t saying much new. To take it back thousands of years he’s just teaching what Jesus taught? But, to take it back only just a year, lol, I read two books last year that were of the same vein: “It’s really all about God” by Samir Selmanovic and Phil Gulley’s “If the church were Christian” I guess they didn’t have a large enough following to incite enough anger from folks who didn’t share their beliefs?

    At any rate, I wonder, what God thinks about the silly theological distinctions we get ourselves bogged down in. With all of the work that has to be done, theological divisions just tire me.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Perhaps our disagreements are merely convenient excuses for us not working together to DO what Jesus calls us to do. After all, it is much easier to criticize and sit at home, comfortable, than it is to take Jesus’ commands seriously and WORK for justice. (Just because we call ourselves Christian does not change our basic self-seeking natures, unfortunately!)

    Ambiguity is part of the scriptural record – God is recorded differently in different passages. It’s part of what the Church has historically called the “mystery” of God. Just because it makes us mere mortals uncomfortable doesn’t make God any more understandable. It makes more sense to believe the finite (us) cannot comprehend the infinite (God) than it does to believe we really can hope to understand God. As Karl Barth would say, anything we propose as God which is comprehensible to the human mind is really only an idol, a placemarker for God, the totally Other who we cannot comprehend.

    So all our arguing over theological points is more harmful than we realize, because instead of maintaining what we consider “truth,” it distracts us from the REAL work – the Kingdom of God. While we speak against one another, the Church lies in ruins, as God revealed to St. Francis.

    I believe God is revealing to us what is important to Him today – compassion, justice, peace. I applaud you and your organization for bringing these to center stage for the Church to address…together.

  • “We want to quickly close the door to ambiguity because it threatens our grasp on control.”

    Zing! Control is always an illusion. It’s also a way of saying, “Hey, God, I don’t trust that You’re gonna work this out…”

    Thank you for this. Better than my afternoon cup of coffee.

  • God will win a person over to Him when in His love He regenerates us, enabling us to repent and trust in His crucified and risen Son, the Lord Jesus Christ…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h89-3_kIRDA

  • On the second point, I see an anthropological reality (and would point to Miroslav Volf’s excellent book, “Exclusion and Embrace”) – it has to do with identity, and with in-group / out-group dynamics. We define our group with certain boundaries, and build walls, and push out anyone who blurs the line. The wall phenomena is particularly evident these days between Christians and Muslims. It’s sad, though, that the dynamic is strongly at work within Christian circles (and it seems to me that evangelicals are the worst).

    Personally, I think evangelicals err in defining Christian faith cognitively more than relationally or affectively or behaviorally. I think that Jesus taught that he saves – through relationship, and clearly indicated by our emotional (affective) and behavioral response to him (do we love him, obey him, follow him, cling to him, feed on him, etc.). And that our relationship to him creates relationship with all others who love him and are in relationship with him.

    You’re right in pointing out that we are failing to love, and to me, this is an almost total failure of our faith in Jesus, because love of neighbor is the second great commandment.

    • Thanks for your comment, Doug. Volf is one of my favorite theologians and Exclusion & Embrace is one of my favorite books. It really is quite profound!

      It does seem to be the case that Christians tend to value principles over relationships – which leads to some pitfalls. We have more “deal-breakers” than we should.

      Thanks again!

  • On the second point, I see an anthropological reality (and would point to Miroslav Volf’s excellent book, “Exclusion and Embrace”) – it has to do with identity, and with in-group / out-group dynamics. We define our group with certain boundaries, and build walls, and push out anyone who blurs the line. The wall phenomena is particularly evident these days between Christians and Muslims. It’s sad, though, that the dynamic is strongly at work within Christian circles (and it seems to me that evangelicals are the worst).

    Personally, I think evangelicals err in defining Christian faith cognitively more than relationally or affectively or behaviorally. I think that Jesus taught that he saves – through relationship, and clearly indicated by our emotional (affective) and behavioral response to him (do we love him, obey him, follow him, cling to him, feed on him, etc.). And that our relationship to him creates relationship with all others who love him and are in relationship with him.

    You’re right in pointing out that we are failing to love, and to me, this is an almost total failure of our faith in Jesus, because love of neighbor is the second great commandment.

  • Thanks for this excellent piece, Christena. To me, it seems that evangelicals are particularly prone to this type of “in group/out group” anthropological reality, our very roots being found in a prime example of this phenomenon – the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy. I wonder, then, if for evangelicals what is at stake is not only the threat of ambiguity (though this is certainly a real threat) but also an identity crisis. If we cannot with absolute epistemological certainty assert that we have the key to the foundational reality, then we must radically redefine ourselves. Personally, I think it would be healthy to do so and there are many evangelical theologians who are attempting to do this – I see Volf is mentioned in this thread, and he is a prime example. However, it is difficult for theologians to make it past the “goalies” of “neo-reformed orthodoxy” such as John Piper.

  • Thank you, Christena. This article is very well written, and it really hits home. I experienced this first hand, being an active member, in leadership, of a church plant that has become a leader in the “multi-ethnic church movement”. I was one of a great many who have had to make the difficult decision to walk away, after facing backlash when we dared to question or disagree with the man who “started” and “led” the congregation. Diversity only takes us so far, our need to receive and extend grace is critical.

  • This sums up rather well, I think, what I am presently going through. I’ve recently been shown the door at the church where I pastor for writing the following piece:

    http://www.emergentvillage.com/weblog/Chad-Holtz-What-I-Lost-Losing-Hell

    You wrote:

    “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.”

    Bingo.

  • thank you. outstanding article. helpful.

  • The idea of needing cognitive closure seems very true, and I am happy to see that you found an article that argues for it.

    I sometimes feel that evangelicalism buys what is sold to it. It gets what is the easiest to digest. Then an ideas becomes a safety blanket.

    I have been the black sheep in evangelical communities, and it’s a hard place to be.

    • Why would Jesus say: “Love your fellow being as yourself”, if he didn´t know, that love always wins?
      We say that God is love. Doesn´t God always win?

      The problem is, that we have separated us from God and have put him outside of ourselves. We have thought of him as a person and have made him in our
      own image: Angry, not forgiving (until he send us his ONLY son to be a sacrifice for our sins, so he would
      able to be a loving Father again). If God is love, he is so eternally.

      In Jesus´parable about the prodigal son, there was no
      big brother sacrificing anything so that the father could
      be able to come running towards his child, who had
      decided to return home again. Jesus repeatedly was
      pointing out that the kingdom of heaven is inside of us.
      Seek it and you will find it. By sitting alone in your
      chamber you will find the Father within you. What did
      he mean?

      Jesus talked about himself as one with the Father and
      said: “I am the son of God.” When the rabbies got angry
      he said: “Do you not know, that it is written: “We are all
      sons of God.” He knew that in the same way as he had
      “got contact” with God inside himself, the same was
      possible for every human being. And that was his
      message. And it was also the message of Buddah, who
      found the unity with God, sitting under a bodhitree.
      And to Mohammed the call to unity was also his most
      important message. Don´t hate your brothers, you are
      all one.

      We are all made of the same energy by our Maker. We
      are conscious beings and can choose which thoughts
      we want to manifest in our lives. But we are not told
      to be the conscious observer of our thoughts, who can
      choose positive thoughts that create harmony in our
      lives. We are never told that we are not our thoughts, that they are tools only, bringing us different options.
      Our real identity is beoynd our thinking.

      Another problem is that, as we think we are our thoughts, we use them in making illusions of who
      we are. We are White, Black, Chinese, American, German, Muhammedan, Christian, Lutheran, Babtist, Metodist, Catholic, Buddhist, liberal, democrat etc.
      etc. We are split in thousands of pieces, all made up
      by our EGO-thoughts wanting to be “right” or “better” or “special” not knowing that this means building high
      walls between us.

      Are we interested to be excellent observers of our
      thoughts and thus break down the illusion-based
      walls built in so many ways. It is up to everyone of
      us to wake up from old belief systems and begin to live in the NOW which is the only time there is. God
      IS in us and everyone and only when we ARE in the
      present moment. By living this way LOVE WINS.

  • Why would Jesus say: “Love your fellow being as yourself”, if he didn´t know, that love always wins?
    We say that God is love. Doesn´t God always win?

    The problem is, that we have separated us from God and have put him outside of ourselfs. We have thought of him as a person and have made him in our
    own image: Angry, not forgiving (until he send us his ONLY son to be a sacrifice for our sins, so he would
    able to be a loving Father again). If God is love, he is so eternally.

    In Jesus´parable about the prodigal son, there was no
    big brother sacrificing anything so that the father could
    be able to come running towards his child, who had
    decided to return home again. Jesus repeatedly was
    pointing out that the kingdom of heaven is inside of us.
    Seek it and you will find it. By sitting alone in your
    chamber you will find the Father within you. What did
    he mean?

    Jesus talked about himself as one with the Father and
    said: “I am the son of God.” When the rabbies got angry
    he said: “Do you not know, that it is written: “We are all
    sons of God.” He knew that in the same way as he had
    “got contact” with God inside himself, the same was
    possible for every human being. And that was his
    message. And it was also the message of Buddah, who
    found the unity with God, sitting under a bodhitree.
    And to Mohammed the call to unity was also his most
    important message. Don´t hate your brothers, you are
    all one.

    We are all made of the same energy by our Maker. We
    are conscious beings and can choose which thoughts
    we want to manifest in our lives. But we are not told
    to be the conscious observer of our thoughts, who can
    choose positive thoughts that create harmony in our
    lives. We are never told that we are not our thoughts, that they are tools only, bringing us different options.
    Our real identity is beoynd our thinking.

    Another problem is that, as we think we are our thoughts, we use them in making illusions of who
    we are. We are White, Black, Chinese, American, German, Muhammadan, Christian, Lutheran, Babtist, Metodist, Catholic, Buddhist, liberal, democrat etc.
    etc. We are split in thousands of pieces, all made up
    by our EGO-thoughts wanting to be “right” or “better” or “special” not knowing that this means building high
    walls between us.

    Are we interested to be excellent observers of our
    thoughts and thus break down the illusion-based
    walls built in so many ways. It is up to everyone of
    us to wake up from old belief systems and begin to live in the NOW which is the only time there is. God
    IS in us and everyone and only when we ARE in the
    present moment. By living this way LOVE WINS.

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