Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Theology of "Blink"

During the last couple of weeks I have been reading (actually listening on my longish commute each day) to Malcolm Gladwell's best seller, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Gladwell's thesis is that intuition and first impressions should be taken more seriously than most of us do. Steering us through a number of events and circumstances, he builds a substantial case.

In the Myers-Briggs I am literally off the graph when it comes to being intuitive so I listened with glee to Gladwell's catalogue of notions, but there was also something else going on at the back of my mind. This was because I received a pretty traditional, reason-based education, and that got me asking some substantial questions of the data he was coming up with and the manner in which he was using it.

For example, he launches his book with the example of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles which bought a Greek statue for a phenomenal sum of money after months of painstaking research into its provinence, only to discover that art experts from all over when wheeled in to admire the acquisition had first reactions that were not what the museum wanted. The experts' instincts and intuitions told them that there was something amiss about this piece of sculpture.

Eventually, it was discovered that this item for which they had paid millions was actually created in the 1980s in a workshop in Italy and the aging done had just been enough to bamboozle the examiners who the Getty made use of. Yet even as I listened to this entertaining tale I found myself asking questions. At the heart of them was why was it that only the intuitions of experts immediately questioned whether this was a wise purchase?

The answer is simple -- only experts had spent years and years immersing themselves in the disciplines necessary to recognize the genuine from the fake. These so called intuitive reactions were the product of education, training, experience, the examination of thousands of artifacts, and so forth. There was a lot of sweat, discipline, categorizing, and hard work that led them to make these kind of decisions. We should not minimize the importance of the discipline of such training in the assessments that they made, and were proved to be right.

There is, one of Gladwell's detractor's comments, a kind of New Age attractiveness about saying intuition enables us to by-pass disciplined thinking and training, and this reflects the backing away from disciplined thinking and problem-solving that have become normative in our culture. American children are some of the worst in the developed world when it comes to rationally and constructively handling information and solving issues that are presented to them, and this seems to be becuase school spend little time teaching such disciplines.

Not only do we see it is schools, but we see it in every facet of our lives. Certainly this is true in the battles that we have been having in the church, and in this the church reflects the culture. Stances are taken and statements are made that are based more upon culturally-biased instinct and intuition than upon the basis of disciplined thinking.

Words, for example, are used in such a manner that they are subtly (or not so subtly) redefined in order to make a point. Recently Presiding Bishop Schori has started talking about affirming the Millennium Development Goals as an example of "deed-based evangelism." She does this on the basis of the much-vaunted Baptismal Covenant that we proclaim "by word and example the good news of God in Christ." This, quite honestly, is sloppy use of the word and notion of evangelism, a stretching of the essence of this less than adequate Covenant to its limits, and then putting two and two together so that we come up with the five of "deed-based evangelism."
Evangelism has to do with the proclamation of Jesus Christ by word and action, the Crucified One, who brings in his Kingdom, and a fundamental component of this is surrendering of our lives to his risen Lordship. While it might be admirable and right as disciples for Christians to invest time, treasure, and talent in activities that come under the various headings of the MDGs, to call them evangelism is to be sloppy with language, or not to understand what evangelism is.

It is also an attempt to divert our attention from the fact that the direction being taken by the Episcopal Church has been disasterous when it comes to the multiplication of disciples and followers of Jesus Christ. Evangelism by word and action is about living Christ and talking Christ is such a way that lives are transformed and brought under the reign of Christ. While it might compassionate and right to enable an infected woman in India to have medication to help treat HIV-AIDS, we kid ourselves if we think this is evangelism, for we have not shared Christ with them in a personal mannerv at all.

What the Presiding Bishop says sounds nice, but when we dig under the surface it is obvious that her understanding of the revealed faith (and evangelism) is limited, to say the least. What is baffling is that Bishop Schori was trained as a scientist, and one of the components of the scientific methods is clarity of definition -- but when it comes to theology and the response to the fundamentals of belief, she does not seem able to bring her scientific disciplines to play in her theological reasoning. One of the things this reflects, of course, is the total inadequacy of her theological education.

We have in the mainline churches much too much theology of Blink and far too little that is based upon the systematic and disciplined principles of the believing. Carefully developed dogmas are blithely abandoned in favor of notions that are grabbed out of the progressive atmosphere of our times, notions that under examination either stagger or do not stand up, yet they are presented as givens, sometimes givens that are not under any circumstances to be questioned.

The fact is that we have gone on like this for too long. I would pray and hope that those who shape the lives and ministries of future leaders would make sure that they are formed to think and use information in a reasonable, logical, consistent manner.

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