Seeing into the Circle
I’ve been riding my bike. Four weeks, three thousand kilometres, and no church. I planned, or at least hoped, to write my First Impressions as I went. Instead, I discovered a complete disinclination to do this. I still blogged. I wrote a short piece most evenings about my journey for the day. I mused on wind, weather, road surface, and the oddities of Australia as seen from a push bike; it was not fatigue which kept me from my Bible.
As a clergy person I am still perplexed by my response. How much am I at fault because I abandoned my daily disciplines? How much did my overwhelming sense of irrelevance of the weekly lectionary, point up the irrelevance of what we do in church? My daily ride seemed far removed from Sunday worship. I wrote just one piece of theology in the whole month.
And now, arriving home, I feel far outside the theological circle. I have not been thinking about Lent. I have been thinking about having enough water, and finding a place to sleep, and how much food to carry, and staying alive on the road.
I constructed a little piece of doggerel because the Doxology seemed so far away from my reality as I crossed the desert.
Praise God, creation all around
beyond our sight and stretch of mind
Praise God the endless deep within
Praise God the Hope that we shall find.
God seemed very far from church. In fact, coming back into church is a somewhat depressing thought!
From my position outside, John 9 seems a weird and unlikely story. This truly is a story for insiders, for those in the know; perhaps, for those who see. But as an unchurched cyclist there is nothing here, on first glance, which captures my attention. Religious and odd- who cares?
But if I look at the story as literature, and forget the religious stuff, I begin to see things: Will you accept the obvious things that your eyes show you to be true and actual? Or will you insist on adhering to doctrine and models of the world which are no longer adequate representations of reality? These are not specifically religious questions.
We see the challenge of those questions in the response of the onlookers.
The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ 9Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’
Looking at what actually is, is so different to a local church sign board which offends my family on an almost weekly basis. This week it has said, “Trust yourself, troubles grow. Trust God, troubles go.” And, as usual, the person who posts these pious platitudes could not get the letters in a straight line.
The man trusted himself. He repeated what had happened. He did not say what he was supposed to say.
10But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ 11He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ 12They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’
There was no doctrinal or systematic world view statement. Instead he says, “This is what happened.” And he rests in the suspense of not putting it all together in a neat comforting system. “Where is he?” they asked. “I do not know.”
By contrast, the Pharisees do know. They hold an investigation, from verse 13 on. It sounds like one of those government commissions which rabbits on until the facts can be made to fit the desired outcome! Perhaps these verses are a way into the story for us today. We still live with such politically motivated “investigations of the facts”, and instantly recognise the scene.
The problem for the Pharisees, of course, is that the investigation does not silence the man. That’s what many such political commissions are meant to do, if we think about it; silence the opposition so we can get on with what we always intended to do. The man refuses to remain silent. Instead he becomes like Jesus and becomes fearless in the face of all their intimidation. And, as we know Jesus will be, he is driven out. (The scapegoat was driven out of the city, too. cf Leviticus 16)
Viewed outside the circle, Jesus is an enigmatic figure. I like the Jesus who walks with impunity among the Pharisees, who are busy threatening and expelling people, (22, 34) and who is so confronting they cannot abuse him (“You were born entirely in sins ...” but are still challenged and forced to engage with him: ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ (40).
I like his blunt dismissal of the idea that sin causes disease: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned ,” (3) but am repelled by the notion that he would be born blind and live in misery, for God knows how many years, simply to reveal God’s works. Shit happens. I know this. I can live with this. But God makes shit happen to glorify God!??? Jesus had no more idea about some of this stuff than we have, and any perceptive person will see that. On the other hand, Jesus does heal the man. He acts instead of pontificating.
In this story we see a blind man beginning to see. The facts change his mind and his allegiances about life. Jesus presents him with a new reality. I’ve been reading Joe Keohane in The Boston Globe:
Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
[People....] already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.
We can see the Pharisees in this description, if not ourselves.
Keohane goes on to say,
This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.
He comments elsewhere
Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic.
The studies to which he refers are about political views, including issues around “education, health care reform, immigration, affirmative action, gun control, and other issues that tend to attract strong partisan opinion.” The researcher James Kuklinski says that not only will “most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”
I take it as axiomatic that as a preacher and teacher I want people to change their minds about the world and themselves. I want them to find the world is a better place and that life can be better than it often seems to be. I doubt if the changing of religious viewpoints is much different than changing political viewpoints, except that the “facts” we deal with are even more open to debate. This is why I like the response of the man who was formerly blind. He does not dress up his experience in orthodox Jewish theology, (or transform his story in the accepted form of his particular congregation or youth group: I was a miserable sinner and I met Jesus and now everything is lovely...) He merely repeats what happenned.
So often we oversell what Jesus offers by wrapping it up in six impossible things before breakfast instead of just saying,
‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ 12They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’
Keohane reports some explorations of how to help people change their mind.
One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.
We can see descriptions of several kinds of church here! Are we making “progress” by making people feel threatened? How much did Jesus actions affirm the man through his direct personal engagement?
There are also some cases where directness works. Kuklinski’s welfare study suggested that people will actually update their beliefs if you hit them “between the eyes” with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas.
Keohane noted that this kind of direct conversation did not carry over to presentation of the same facts in newspaper articles. The directness he was talking about was personal conversation. As I was riding, my friends responded to my blog posts. They affirmed me, and encouraged me. No one preached to me, or quoted bible verses. That, more than anything else, is what draws me back into the circle of church.