by C Michael PattonMarch 26th, 2012 40 Comments
Those who know me, know that I am an easy target for a good laugh. There is a certain part of my brain that I am convinced has never functioned. It is that part which has to do with remembering, among other things, names and faces. I remember when I watched Grease as a kid. I liked the movie, but I could not understand why “Danny” (John Travolta) ended up with a new girl other than ”Sandy” (Olivia Newton John) at the end of the movie. I came to realize many years later that it was not a new girl, just Sandy with a different hairdo! Then, the movie made much more sense.
The other morning, I came into the Credo House and made my way back to my office. I mingled with all the people at different tables and finally sat down at my desk. I opened my computer to find an email that had just come in from a guy who wanted to say how nice it was to see me again (the first time since our time at seminary together) and, how happy he was that I started the Credo House. I did not quite remember who he was, but I was determined to express cordial words in a way that would not undermine our renewed “friendship” that must have been forged recently. Immediately, I wrote him back (why couldn’t I have waited for just a couple of hours?), “It was great to see you again too. You should stop by the Credo House sometime.” His reply came back two minutes later, “I am here right now.” My face turned red. I got up and peeked outside my office door, looking at all the people with whom I had just mingled, wondering which one he was. Finally, I just shut the door and sighed, wondering once again why this part of my brain does not work. I have dozens of other stories just like that.
This begs the question: Who do I think I am teaching eternal truths, when I can’t even remember the most basic, everyday, temporal happenings? If I don’t really trust my memory, can I trust my theological “scholarship”? So much of what I believe and teach is built upon stories, information, and “facts” that I don’t even really know are true, since I can’t, for the most part, remember exactly from where they came. I have just said some things, told some stories, and relayed some information so many times that I don’t think about it anymore. For example, in class session 4 of The Theology Program, I talk about the rise of Modernism through the story of Rene Descartes (the “father of modernism”). I tell about his “Dutch oven” epiphany. I tell about how he would not come out of this oven until he found a legitimate (indeed, indubitable) source for his knowledge. Ironically, I don’t know where I first heard this story about the Dutch oven. I am not sure about the legitimacy (much less indubitability) of my source! I am fairly certain I did not make it up out of thin air, but the fact remains that I don’t really remember from where it came. But even if I could remember it came, for instance, from a book, encyclopedia, or biography, this fact would not guarantee that the person from whom I originally received this information was accurately remembering or representing his sources. Even if it was an autobiography, I have no guarantee that Descartes, himself, remembered things correctly.
But don’t get too haughty. I know that I may have a personal memory ”condition” (which I am calling prosopagnosia, for now!), but I don’t really trust your “scholarship” that much either. You have a memory condition. After all, you are not perfect. You have bias, age, lifestyles, hopes, legacy, commitments, and pride (not to mention the glue you sniffed when you were a kid) which affect your memory. Furthermore, even if you had a perfect memory, that does not mean you have the ability to process information with impunity. You are selective in what you choose to know, focus on, and evangelize. Some things you will choose to forget. Others will become part of the story you tell people. However, you really don’t have an objective basis to know which things deserve to be timeless and which can be discarded. You have plenty of Rene Descartes’ Dutch oven stories too. These are all the things, personal or academic, which you have repeated so many times that, by virtue of their mere repetition, have become fact in your mind.
The problem is that we often carry these stories with an incredible amount of confidence, being unwilling to critically examine their credibility. There was a recent book by Kathryn Schulz called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error in which she argues that our perceived personal certainty is not as sure as we often like to think. (Watch an intriguing video here that will give you the essence of her argument.) In it she gives the example of what psychologists call “flash-bulb” memories. For example, where were you when you first heard about 9/11? I have been asking this question all morning to people at the Credo House. Just about everyone can answer without hesitation. Tim, my executive director, went into great detail (exhausting detail!) about what he was doing. Why? Because these things represent impactful events, and our brain registers them differently. Even I can remember where I was! (I was at my apartment on Preston Rd, just about to leave for work.) Well . . . not according to Kathryn Schulz. I just think I remember, but there is a ninety-three percent chance that my memory is not serving me correctly. That is right. Studies of “flash-bulb memories” – the type of memories about which we are most convicted – have shown that only seven percent of these memories are accurate. After 9/11, this was tested. People were asked to describe what they remembered about the event the day after 9/11. Three years later, the same group was brought in again and asked to recount a second time their memory of the same event. The result was that only seven percent had the same stories the second time around. Schulz’s point is that trusting too much that you are correct in a situation like this is dangerous.
She is not the only one who makes such observations. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson make similar points in their book Mistakes Were Made but Not by Me. About our memories, they say:
Memories are often pruned and shaped by an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, and softens culpability, and distorts what really happened. . . Over time, as the self-serving distortions of memory kick in, we forget or distort past events. we may come to believe our own lies little by little. (p. 6)
Tavris, Aronson, and Schulz all have brought to mind our own subjective cerebral frailty. They have called for epistemic humility and self-criticism due to the fact that we are so often wrong. What is the solution? Tavris and Aronson call on us all to “fess up” to our mistakes and ignorance. Schulz pleads with us to open ourselves up to the contributions of other minds, instead of letting our own subjective emotional convictions cement our beliefs. According to her, knowledge needs to be “open source” as we invite critique. They have all brought into question much more than just accuracy in our knowledge of names, faces, and plots of classic movies. Admission of our own ignorance needs to be applied to family life, the medical field, science, car sales and, God forbid, politics. But, what does this mean for Christianity? What does this say about our assurance of Christ? How can we be asked to hold on to our most assured and precious beliefs more loosely?
Unfortunately, the much needed critique can be spun. Some of the more liberal side will take this information and say, “See, we can’t really know anything at all.” Others on the more conservative side will feel threatened and retreat to the “burning in the bosom” justification. However, not only will Christianity absorb such a call for humility, it continually calls for it. Let me give a few points here:
1. Christians need to be honest with themselves.
We don’t know that much. And I don’t just mean Christians don’t know that much. I mean man doesn’t know that much. Our delusions of grandeur often outweigh our three pound brain (two and a half pounds if you are a girl – sorry, just reporting the facts as I . . . ahem . . . remember them). Paul tells the Corinthians: ”Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). There is a whole lot which we may be wrong about, individually and corporately. Maybe “wrong about” is not where I want to go right now. How about this: There is a whole lot on which we are out of focus. Therefore, it is only “dimly” perceived. In life and in doctrine, we can overstate our case. We need to open ourselves up the the possibility that we could be wrong.
2. Christians need to speak with disarming honesty.
We need to be able to admit when we are or were wrong. And this is not simply a “be-ready-just-in-case” thing. We are and have been wrong and others know it already. As Tavris and Aronson say, “Would you rather admit you’re wrong now or wait until someone else proves it?” (p. 221). How many arguments are lost mid-argument, but the losing arguer continues pressing his point to preserve his pride? How many people have you ever seen concede a formal debate? Think about it: what if you were watching a debate and one party stopped and said, “You’re right.” No, “buts…” Not even a, ”You won the debate, I lost” (as that is not saying enough). But a “You’re right; I’m wrong.” I don’t know about you, but that type of honesty would completely disarm me and endear me to the one who conceded. Why? Because I would then perceive that the person was more concerned with the truth than their reputation. Ironically, their reputation would gain ground in ways that all the right answers in the world could never achieve. I think some of us Christians need to do some serious rethinking. I’m beginning to think it is equally important not just to have the right information, but to go out of our way to admit when we have the wrong information.
3. We need to admit our need for others.
Before I come across as a wholesale advocate of Tavris, Aronson, and Schulz and the ideas they offer, let this point and the next buffer such thoughts. This stuff is nothing novel for Christians. I know I have already said as much, but it bears repeating. We have not just discovered that we have been wrong, with a great gasp. The Bible offers many of these same encouragements. In fact, in support of Schulz, I seem to remember somewhere in the Bible that says, “The fool is right in his own eyes; but he who is wise listens to counselors” (Prov. 12:15; cf. Prov. 3:7; 14:16; ). Only the Lord knows the truth in an infallible way. We don’t even completely know ourselves at present, much less in the past. (Prov. 16:2; 30:12). We need to seek the help of others and to give them permission to correct us at the deepest level.
4. Saying that we have some things wrong does not mean that we have everything wrong.
Lest we sink into despair, we need to remember that being wrong about some details does not translate into being wrong about the main events. Mike Licona, author of The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, tells the story about the sinking of the Titanic in relation to the certainty that we can have about our faith even in the face of (what seems to some to be) conflicting testimony surrounding the events of the resurrection of Christ. When the Titanic went down, some of the survivors say that it broke in two and then sank. Others said that it went down intact. Which was it? Well, until explorers took underwater pictures, the conflicting testimony left us without assurance. Later, we found out that the Titanic did indeed go down in one piece. How could two groups of people watching the same event have been in disagreement about such a detail? One group was wrong and the other was right. However, we must stop and realize that while some were wrong about this detail, no one was wrong about the main event: the Titanic sank that night.
I have not seen the studies Schulz referenced concerning “flash-bulb” memories, but I think these two observations need to be made: 1) Though only seven percent of the people remembered what they were doing on 9/11 with perfection, it goes without saying that one hundred percent remembered 9/11. In other words, 9/11 did happen, and everyone interviewed agrees about this central fact. As well, I imagine that if we were to look at the study closely, we would see that most of the major details were still the same. It is probably just some of the minor details that were inconsistent between the two interviews. Still fascinating? Sure. But it lacks the intrigue (or provocativeness) of an unqualified “only seven percent remembered correctly.” And (just throwing this out there) doesn’t the unqualified “only seven percent remembered correctly” manipulate the data in precisely the way that we are talking about? It serves as a good illustration for Tavris and Aronson’s “mistakes” and manipulations that are not easy to admit. 2) Why should I trust what Schulz says about the seven percent anyway? After all, if the best memories we have have a ninety-three percent chance of being wrong, what does that say of her memory of the study she sources? What is ninety-three percent of ninety-three?!
In short, I think the authors of these books make some incredibly biblical observations with which Christians need to wrestle (though, to my knowledge, they are not Christian). I appreciate intellectual honesty quite a bit. But I don’t like it when it turns into the “we can’t know anything at all” type stuff. My memory does play favorites and I don’t have perfect cognitive discernment on all things. Sometimes, I trust my “scholarship” and, sometimes, I don’t. I need to be able to admit when I am wrong and recognize that I need help. However, I think I am justified in believing that Danny did end up getting the girl, Descartes did have an epiphany, the Titanic did sink, and 9/11 did happen. And, most importantly, I am justified in teaching eternal truths. Why? Because the possibility of being wrong does not equate to the probability of being wrong. When it does, we have adopted the insanity of hyper-skepticism that won’t function in any area of life.
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