The World in Which We Think

While we often like to tell ourselves that we are in control of our lives, we are the arbiters of what we think and do, there are many intersecting areas of influence on our lives, which affect every aspect of our decision making process, from the physical to the intellectual. Without mitigating our responsibility for the decisions we make, the positions we take, or the things we believe, all of those important choices are impacted by the gestalt in which we think.

I am at my root an historian (my degree is in Ancient History) and because of that I have learned the importance of context and interpretation. Everything has context, which affects interpretation, including (this is very important) the context of our own thinking. The world around us and how we perceive it (our worldview) has radically changed in the last twenty years. No matter how hard we try to maintain our objectivity, to insulate in our decision-making process from bias, everything we consider is influenced by the world in which we think, the gestalt in which we perceive everything. None of us is the island of objective rationality that we tell ourselves we are. We are all extensively subjective, no matter how hard we try not to be (see aside below).

This fact was brought home again for me yesterday as I read a 2004 article by Don Feder, Why Hollywood Hates Christians. Through the interest sparked by that piece, I was led to another article, Hidden Gospels by Philip Jenkins, a Religious Studies professor at Penn State. Jenkins got me to start asking myself some serious questions when he said:

This Jesus [Gnostic, multicultural] meshes very well, indeed, with contemporary concerns, but the whole “hidden gospels” theme also echoes older traditions in American society, particularly its thoroughly Protestant assumptions. Even people reluctant to identify with historic orthodoxies still need the comfort of knowing that they are acting in the traditions of “real” Christianity and that there are genuine early Gospels, written texts, to validate these beliefs: Protestants have long been stirred by the dream of restoring the true church of the apostolic age. Also, quintessentially American is the distrust of external authorities like the clergy and the sense that through their affected learning, the priests have hidden the truth from the people. [Emphasis added.]

As I thought about it, I realized how strongly and in some unexpected ways those “thoroughly Protestant assumptions” have influenced my thinking, often without my knowing it. Since my “born again” experience, some form of Protestantism or another has been the primary milieu in which I have purposely immersed myself. Over time, I moved from a relative liberal to an outright orthodox conservative. There was a conscious decision to move in that direction, along with reading and studying those who supported that decision. That does not mean I did not deal with counter arguments to my positions, but my fundamental a priori then and now continues to be defined by a distinctly Protestant understanding of Jude 3:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

Over the years, I have taken the contending part seriously (ask anyone who knows me ;-)). But more importantly, I have been guided by the belief that there is a faith, a singular system of true belief, that God gave to the Church, his saints, once for all time. It is primary and unchanging. By accepting that fundamental starting point, everything I see, hear, and think is influenced by the demands it makes on me.

However, I am also a technologically savvy inhabitant of the modern world. I watch television and movies, especially sci-fi. I explore the Internet and read a wide-ranging hodgepodge of writers and thinkers. I am an American, and as such tend to a rugged individualism with a resistance to unthinking conformity.

Much of this input attacks my a priori, some subtly, some with a full frontal assault. Recently, I have begun to wonder about the effects of this infusion into my system. Have I been lying to myself about the consequences of immersing myself in the less destructive gestalt of my time (I avoid all pornographic and horrific sources)? Can one really remain unaffected? Of course not. But, to borrow from Francis Schafer, how then shall I live?

That question begs the even more important question: how can one live, especially if you try to take seriously Jesus’ idea of sending us into the world while telling us to not become part of the world (John 17:81, 15:19, 1 Corinthians 3:18,19)? This is not easy. How can we engage what we do not know? How can we be responsible citizens, without understanding the matters of the day? (See what demands democracy has placed on us.) Where do we draw the line on the influence of the world around us ? How do we protect our a priori and deal with the “in” and “not of’ approach the Scriptures demand from us?

Here is where I am at the moment. Minimally, I think we need to regulary disengage from everything, at least for a time, to allow us to reassess our condition, to houseclean our understanding of God, the world, and ourselves, and to realign our sensors so we can detect the erroneous as well as the destructive. Figuring out how to accomplish that is one of the tasks I have given myself for the remainder of this year. This is more than a retreat, it seems to need something akin to a fast, but a mental fast from worldly input.

However, underneath that goal lies the fundamental understanding that no matter how hard I try, I will never become fully objective, but will always be affected to some degree by the gestalt in which I live, in which I came to be me. In the end, my hope for any success lies in Paul’s words to the Athenians about the God with whom we all have to do:

…so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being… Acts 17:28

Remember me in your prayers and may the God in whom we live and move and have our being grant us the grace and understanding to deal with the issues that face us.

Aside: While many of us pride ourselves in being truthful, going to great lengths to maintain our honesty, there is one area where that breaks down for all of us: ourselves. The first lie is always told to ourselves and it is the most difficult to detect. That said, the area where most of us end up lying to ourselves is when we address the integrity of our thought process, the honesty of our conclusions. God was brutally honest when he directed the prophet Jeremiah to state:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
Jeremiah 17:9

We should always remember that God and God alone understands the human heart, He alone sees through all of the deception and self-serving arguments we make with ourselves.

I the LORD search the heart
and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds.”
Jeremiah 17:10

Therefore, in the end, it is only God who can show us when we are deceiving ourselves. In order to see that we have to be able to listen to that still small voice, something very easily overwhelmed by our self assertions, our desire to be right. It is not easy, but it is utterly necessary.

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