Toxic Versus Healthy Skepticism

Earlier today, I shared an article written by David French on my Facebook page titled Coronavirus, Conspiracy Theories, and the Ninth Commandment. He offered us a lot of food for thought regarding political theology, conspiratorial thinking, and the connection with the ninth commandment, which tells us not to spread falsehood about others. The article stirred some great conversation and questions amidst my friends. My friend Tim offered some great push back and I suggested that it is good for us as believers to differentiate between healthy and toxic skepticism. He wrote, “I ask for you to help me differentiate healthy skepticism and toxic skepticism within myself.” I thought, “yeah…how do we differentiate?” So let me offer a few incomplete thoughts about how to recognize toxic skepticism within ourselves.

First, I think it is always good to start with ourselves, though so much of our culture invites us to look externally when things go wrong. I frequently encourage people to ask the question “Is it possible I am wrong?“, though I suspect that for many of us, our initial motivation is to question the truthfulness of others when there is disagreement. It is easy to assume that our assumptions and influences come from a pure heart while consciously or subconsciously assuming that others are motivated by evil, emotion, or ignorance.

The second suggestion relates to the first. We need to get in the habit of asking “What are the costs and benefits of accepting a viewpoint?” For example, 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. There have been substantial costs to those of us in the 19%, especially when we have continued to express our dissent. For me, the most notable cost has been relational. Yet, there has also been benefit including finding a community of like-minded people who have a vision for what can be.

Third, I think it is good to ask how outlandish a perspective is? For example, known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones once said that the Sandy Hook school shooting that left 26 people dead was completely fake and was staged to promote stricter gun control policies. Jones was not merely offering an alternative viewpoint, he was spouting evil falsehood yet some people believed him. We need to ask ourselves, “Is it possible?”, “Is it plausible?”, and, based on the preponderance of the evidence, “Is it likely?”

Fourth, if we are considering rejecting the majority, or consensus, opinion, it is good to ask ourselves why we would do so. If the majority of epidemiologists, infectious disease doctors, and medical organizations suggest that wearing a mask represents current best practice in regard to COVID-19, it is good to ask ourselves, “Why am I willing to reject the majority in favor of minority opinion?” Some people are skeptical of scientists because they seem to change their recommendations, which fails to acknowledge that best practice in science allows for adaptation as new information comes to light. They were not lying to us; they were offering the best evidence at the time. Scientists are not only willing to ask, “Is it possible I am wrong,” it is crucial to the scientific method. I agree that it is frustrating when recommendations change, but it should not lead to the logical conclusion that we should then ignore them altogether.

Fifth, I think we need to be careful about confusing anecdotes with evidence. All of us hear counter-examples that stir skepticism. In my mind, that can be a healthy skepticism, but if we ignore mountains of data because someone we know said something different, it can be toxic. For example, if I know someone who developed COVID-19, had mild flu like symptoms, and recovered, it does not follow that I should then assume that that this coronavirus is not a big deal and ignore the recommendations from the scientific community. I must also consider the world-wide reporting about its seriousness.

Sixth, for those of us who are Christians, there are a whole host of questions that humility and prudence demand we ask of ourselves.

  • How do my theological presuppositions affect my understanding of the issue at hand?
  • Is it possible my theological presuppositions are wrong? How did I come to believe the things that I accept as true? Does my viewpoint line up with the Jesus’ moral teachings, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7)? Is my understanding of politics (or whatever issue is currently at hand) informed by the Bible, or is my understanding of the Bible informed by my politics?
  • Does the way I communicate my skepticism reflect the manner of Jesus? Let me suggest that smugness, pride, vitriol, and name calling do not reflect the manner of Jesus. I anticipate that some of you will bring up Jesus turning over the tables in the temple or calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers, but remember that in those cases it was religious people he was confronting. As believers, we are called to gentleness, patience, respect, love, and truth.
  • Am I more likely to believe religious leaders or news personalities than experts? If so, how did I come to those conclusions? Is it possible that I am susceptible to propaganda? Too often, I am afraid, well meaning Christians accept as true information they hear from people who claim to be Christian. It seems to me that the apostle Paul’s greatest concern regarding falsehood and deception was inside the church.

Seventh, it is good to ask whether we are adopting an adversarial mindset versus a cooperative mindset. I have elsewhere written about the difference between an “against mindset” and a “with mindset.” When we approach others from an “against mindset,” we view them as our enemy, which shapes our presuppositions about their motives. When we approach them from a “with mindset,” we recognize that we are interconnected and we become less likely to assume that they are out to deceive, manipulate, or control us.

Skepticism in and of itself is not evil; indeed, I think a measure of skepticism is good and healthy for believers who are encouraged to be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents (Matthew 10:6). However, let’s not reserve our skepticism only for those outside of our camp. Instead, let’s be willing to ask:

  • Am I presenting this story or idea as incontrovertible fact and, if so, is there sufficient support for doing so?
  • Is my skepticism grounded in an honest wrestling with all of the facts or because “my people” told me what is true?
  • Have I done due diligence in confirming whether something is true?
  • Am I honoring others as people of value even if I disagree with them?

This world is not as it should be. Let us live as Christ’s ambassadors, committed to the truth and love he revealed to us.

Is it a difference of opinion?

Recently, I have been thinking about the phrase “difference of opinion.” In disagreements when we are seemingly at an impasse, we might say to another person, “Well, I guess we have a difference of opinion.” But here’s the thing: differences in opinion apply to subjective choices. If I like tulips, but you prefer lilies, we have a difference of opinion. Because each of our opinions are based upon our individual preference as “subjects,” neither of us is wrong.

On the other hand, there are objective truths. The earth is objectively round. It does not matter if it is your opinion that the earth is flat. It doesn’t even matter if you believe it with all of your heart. The earth is still round because the truth is based upon the object (earth), rather than the subject (you or me).

This implies that if you and I are in a discussion about the shape of the earth and I insist that it is round, but you insist that it is disc shaped, only one of us is actually right. We can actually verify it. If you say to me, “well, I guess we’ll have to chalk it up to a difference of opinion,” that phrase carries no meaning because we are discussing something that is either true or not true independent of our preference, opinion, or whim.

Obviously, some things are more clear cut. If you say that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United states and I say he wasn’t, we do not need to do much digging because I am clearly wrong. But every day, we face issues that seem less clear cut, for example around issues like global warming or the benefit of social distancing and wearing masks for COVID-19. When it comes to these issues, we may have “differences of opinion,” but our opinions do not determine what is actually true. We may not completely understand what is true, but it does not then follow that truth is relative.

It becomes even more murky when we get into interpersonal issues. Consider abuse. People may have radically different interpretations about what transpired in a relationship or an organization, but it still does not come down to difference of opinion because there are again objective facts to account for, even if those facts seem murky.

For my part, I think it is important to determine whether each “truth” being discussed is subjective or objective. If subjective, let’s celebrate one another’s preferences. If objective, let us treat one another with kindness and respect, but not write our disagreement off to a difference of opinion. We should also be willing to consider perspectives that are different than our own, while remaining committed to seeking after objective truth. Sadly a lot of the information we encounter on social media is neither science nor opinion, but propaganda posing as truth. Unfortunately, too many of us lack sufficient understanding of science, logic, and rhetoric to adequately determine whether or not information is trustworthy so we double down on our opinions, even if the results may be harmful to us or others.

I’m not a racist!

“I’m not a racist.”

I’ve heard or read multiple variations of this phrase recently. One meme stood out to me; it read, “We have some racists, but 99% of the people you meet are color blind and don’t have a racist bone in their body.” Even in that one sentence, there is a lot to unpack, though that is not my purpose today. What has been stirring for me has been pondering the impact of saying, “I’m not racist.”

Before I get to my thoughts, I want to say I understand. None of us wants to admit that we have biases and presuppositions, some of which are based upon race and some of which are negative. Racism is an ugly word because racism is ugly. If you are like me, hearing the word racist conjures up grainy images from generations past and we think to ourselves, I am nothing like those people. I was raised to treat everyone the same. A person’s color does not affect how I see them or treat them. I believe all lives matter. Therefore, I am not a racist.

But here’s the thing: Insisting that you are not a racist communicates several things. First, it communicates an unwillingness to listen to others and hear their stories. In every generation, people of color have been trying to reveal their pain and tell us their stories. They are saying to us, “Please listen! Even though slavery was abolished in the 1860s and the civil rights movement reached its peak in the 1960s, racism still exists. Let us tell you our stories.” Friends, when we say, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” what we are communicating is that we don’t need to listen. “I’m just fine and I love everybody, thankyouverymuch.” Let me suggest that is much more loving to say, “Tell me your story. Tell me about your pain” than it is to retreat to clichéd phrases that shut down conversations leaving people unheard.

Second, it shuts down dialog. I believe one of the greatest tragedies during my lifetime has been the increased polarization between groups of people. Perhaps we have always been this polarized and it only seems to me that it has been worse. Civility has been replaced with name calling, listening with assuming, and unity with division. We talk about those who think differently than we do rather than talking with them. We start with the assumption that the problem is other people, which short circuits respectful, fruitful conversation from the start.

Third, it communicates an unwillingness to examine our own hearts. We Americans, and perhaps especially those of us who are Christians, are great pretenders. We assume that because we believe in God, no darkness remains within us. I have been in the church long enough to know that our public image rarely matches the state of our hearts. It is not just our nation that is divided, our hearts are divided as well. In Matthew 23, Jesus confronted the Pharisees telling them that they were experts in washing the outside of the cup, but that their insides were full of death. In other words, their external appearance did not match their inner life. One day, the divisions both within and between us will be reconciled (Rev. 5:9), but we aren’t there yet. We still have a lot of heart work to do.

Jesus’s brother James encouraged us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Friends, can we seek to listen? Are we willing to face the shadow that lurks within each of us? It is only in facing our shadow selves that we can begin to heal our divided hearts and the divisions between us.

Unencumbered

you began your life
unencumbered
breaking into the world
naked and needy
fully dependent

as you grew
you developed a curious mix
of freedom and dependence
you welcomed
creativity and exploration
emotions too
young children express
feelings unmasked

eventually
someone gave you a suitcase
you radiated excitement
because you felt
grown up

they told you
there was plenty of space
to put your anger
your shame
your curiosity
your creativity
so you began packing

as you grew
you kept your case with you
filling it with
dashed hopes
and relational wounds

year by year
your suitcase grew so heavy
that a child could no more move it
than she could lift a boulder
but over time you adapted
because that is what grown ups do

perhaps you will be one of the lucky few
who finally recognizes
that your suitcase
was not an invitation
to greater freedom
but a millstone
shackling you

toss it into the ocean
and step once again
into yourself

Rehumanizing

I have a hard time seeing anything good in some people. If you were granted a window into my private thoughts and even some of my private conversations, you would learn how judgmental I can be. In my desire to be an advocate for goodness, truth, and beauty, I sometimes fail to distinguish between a person and their behavior, and that gets to be a slippery slope. I’m fairly certain I am not the only one.

Every day, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with anger, name calling, and general dehumanization. It seems there are no segments of society that are excepted from dehumanizing others–politics, media, religion. We too easily choose sides and go to war. Our chosen weapons disintegrate and dehumanize others.

When we read about the kingdom of God that Jesus told us about, it is a rehumanizing kingdom. When Jesus healed, he not only healed physical maladies, he rehumanized people, reminding them who they were. How can you and I carry that same message into the world?

Let me offer a few thoughts:

  1. Start with prayer. When you find yourself stirred and upset, pray for the one who upset you, asking God to bless them. Confess your self-righteousness, asking God to forgive as you also forgive (Matthew 6:12).
  2. If you choose to engage, take a page from Francis Schaeffer’s book and seek to deal with ideas rather than people, or even groups of people. For example, it can be good to discuss ideas such as injustice, deception, or media bias, but seek to do so without allowing yourself to devolve into name calling. Every person you meet is loved by God. Every politician, every media personality, every celebrity, every person on Twitter and Facebook bears the image of God. Start there.
  3. Develop sacred curiosity. Be willing to inquire where people have come up with their ideas. Ask them what stirs in their souls. What are their hopes or fears. Recognize that every one of us longs for truth, goodness, and beauty even if we get lost along the way. Seek truth not as enemies but as companions on the journey.
  4. Actively look for the humanity in others. Keep looking until you find it, praying that God would open your eyes to see others as he sees them.

I believe that God is in the process of reintegrating all that has been broken and damaged by evil. He invites us to join him as advocates of a better way, the way of agape love. Each day, we will have hundreds of opportunities to choose the way of reconciliation or disintegration, dehumanizing or rehumanizing.

Which will be choose?

The Unselfing of America

Why are the nations so angry?
Why do they waste their time with futile plans?–Psalm 2:1

Eugene Peterson published Earth and Altar: The Community of Prayer in a Self-Bound Society in 1985, which as far as I can tell is now out of print. Peterson’s core message in this book is that America was a “self-bound society” in need of unselfing. Its message is as relevant today as it ever has been. His prescription–prayer–also seems as relevant as ever.

In the book, he presented eleven psalms as frameworks for prayer, encouraging his readers to gather together eleven times to pray for the “unselfing of America.” Although we cannot now gather as we once did, I would like to invite as many of you as are willing to commit to praying each of the psalms at least once per day for a week. Each weekend, I will share a link to the Psalm in the New Living Translation, but feel free to choose whatever one you might like or, each day, pick a new translation. Read it slowly, meditatively, and prayerfully.

I will also include chapter highlights that might help with understanding Peterson’s thoughts on the Psalm and, for the particularly adventurous, I will include a link to the audio of the chapter read by yours truly.

The first is Psalm 2, which you can access here.

Some thoughts from Chapter 1 (here is the chapter audio):

  • America is in conspicuous need of unselfing. Concerned citizens using the diagnostic disciplines of psychology, sociology, economics, and theology lay the blame for the deterioration of our public life and the disintegration of our personal lives at the door of the self: we have a self-problem and that problem is responsible for everything else that is going wrong (p. 13).
  • The only way to escape from self-annihilating and society destroying egotism and into self-enhancing community is through prayer (p. 15).
  • The self is only itself, healthy and whole, when it is in relationship, and that relationship is always dual, with God and with other human beings (p. 16).
  • Prayer is a repair and a healing of the interconnections (p. 23).

If we are to correct our abuses of each other and of our land, and if our effort to correct these abuses is to be more than a political fad that will in the long run be only another form of abuse, then we are going to have to go far beyond public protest and political action. We are going to have to rebuild the substance and integrity of better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities.

Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony

Birdsong

I leave my window open
just a crack
just enough to hear
the birds singing in the day.

Their chorus begins in the dark.
Like me,
the sun loves their song
and rises to listen.

Too soon, their melodies
will be silenced
by discordant tones
as the rest of the world gets up
beginning not in song,
but getting their daily briefing
on what to be mad about
who to fear and
who’s to blame.

The birds’ midday silence
makes me sad.
It seems they know my sadness;
they feel it too.

At dusk, as another day closes
the gay melodies
that woke the sun
are quiet.
I hear only
a lone dove mourning
yet another day
when fear and hate prevailed.

Tomorrow
Tomorrow we will do it again,
for we choose not to live
as those who have no hope.

Instruments of Peace

I was pondering this wonderful prayer often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. May it be the prayer of all of us.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy

O Divine Master, grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
And it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to Eternal Life
Amen

It’s getting so close. Only two tabs missing—Acts and 2 Timothy, which will probably take a couple of months. And then editing. #amwriting #bible #relationaltheology

Our Soul Pandemic

Our country is in the midst of a pandemic, a plague that is crippling both citizens and society. I am not talking about COVID-19. The virus that I am thinking of has a much wider reach, but it is not our bodies that are getting sick, but our souls.

In light of COVID-19, our world has drastically changed. Nearly everything that we do has been touched by the virus–our economy, our social lives, our religious observances, our mental health. As the weeks pass, our fragmentation becomes more obvious. As stresses build, those dark parts of us rise to the surface and they play out not only in our homes, but across social media which, it seems, is now our principle form of connection.

This pandemic of divisiveness and hatred dwarfs COVID-19 in both its effects and its reach. Although many of us may not get COVID-19, if my Facebook and Twitter feeds are any indication, many of us have been showing symptoms of hatred and division, more and more each day. Unfortunately, we are a whole lot better at seeing these things in others than in ourselves. We are much more capable of justifying our anger and name calling in the name of justice. When we have no doubt that we are correct, everything is permitted.

Just in the last few days, I’ve seen people I love calling Governor Evers an idiot or, alternatively, President Trump. I wish I were immune. I’ve seen boatloads of misinformation disseminated, but we believe these “facts” because they come from “our side’s” media outlets and experts. We use this misinformation to justify our righteous indignation. Suddenly, it seems that all of us are experts in virology, epidemiology, economics, and constitutional law.

Friends, this hatred, animosity, and division is killing us. Anger can make us feel alive, but too often it is stoked by toxicity. Many of us are thoughtful about the food we consume, trying to keep our bodies healthy, but we allow these viral thoughts to take hold and our souls get sicker and sicker. I pray we begin to wake up to the effects this soul pandemic is having.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Galatians 5 recently, which is one place where Saint Paul contrasts flesh and spirit. In each of us, there is this battle between flesh and spirit and they do not lead us to the same outcome. Starting in verse 19, Paul identified a number of “works of the flesh,” which are opposed to a Spirit-filled life. I won’t mention all of them, but I was struck by “enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.” Sadly, this list seems to characterize so much of what I read every single day. Paul is clear that these things do not represent the Kingdom of God. But he also said that when we are walking by the Spirit, there are different evidences in our lives. A Spirit-led person shows love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, not perfectly, but I believe in increasing measure.

I invite each of us, myself chiefly, to regularly ask ourselves, “Who am I? Are my thoughts and actions characterized by fits of anger and division, or am I increasingly gentle and peaceful?” This soul pandemic has a cure, love.

God,
The evidences of fragmentation and division are growing day by day,
both without and within.
You call us to peace, but we are in turmoil;
you call us to grace, but we are full of judgment;
you call us to love, but hatred consumes us.

We are a double-minded people.
How can we be for peace when this war rages within?
We do spiritual violence to others and ourselves
when this plague of strife takes hold.

We are afraid.
We are angry.
We are confused.
Too often, we let our flesh lead,
forgetting both who you are
and who we are.

Forgive us.
Heal our hearts.
Make us whole.