“I Used To Believe X For Reason Y…” And the Failure of Intellectual Imagination

thinking homerWe seem to live in an age that lacks intellectual imagination; at least when it comes to the thought processes of others. One of the most glaring (and personally annoying) examples of this is on display in many modern “intellectual conversion” narratives. It could be about any issue really, whether politics, or religion, or broader ethical issues. It’s very common to find a thread along the lines of:

“I used to believe position X for stupid, hateful Reason Y.  Reason Y must be only reason to believe position X.”

While it’s the kind of argument you can find in just about any type of conversion article, I see it most often with stories about conversion on the issue of same-sex marriage in the church, or just in the culture at large. It’ll be an article by a post-Evangelical, or someone else, that goes something like:

You know, I used to be like the rest of my coreligionists. I used to hate gays, and was taught that they were worse than anthrax. I was very insecure about the issue because I felt that they threatened my whole way of being. If I admitted they were properly human, or whatever, then, my whole world would collapse. But that was because I’d never actually met one. Now I have and I realize that they’re kind, gentle, loving people. Also, I found out there are books with Christians who say that same-sex relationship are okay according to the Bible. I never heard any of these arguments, but now I have. So, I’ve changed my mind.

Now, I don’t bring this up to settle the issue of same-sex marriage here. (Honestly, if you try to argue about it in more than a tangential way in the comments, I’m simply going to ignore it or delete it. That’s not the point.) Nor am I saying there isn’t a case to be made along those lines. What I am saying is that the move that comes next is simply a failure of intellectual imagination. You see, what often follows is something like:

See, that’s where people are. This is the only place they can be. These are the only reasons that someone could hold the position that I used to hold.

Because they used to be hateful and insecure in their former intellectual position, everybody must be. Because their opinion was held on the basis of flawed, prejudiced reasoning, everybody’s must be. What never seems to occur to them is that you could hold a moral opposition to same-sex marriage all the while having no lack of personal warmth, goodwill, and so forth towards gay people. Or, that you could read some of that same scholarship and simply disagree on other intellectual grounds. And yet that really is the case. It’s like a child who only used to believe the earth revolved round the sun because his mom told him it was spun about by great strings and wires, but upon discovering that there were no strings and wires, thereby came to believe there were no other reasons to believe such a notion.

Again, this happens in other areas too. There’s many an article on Calvinism or Arminianism that covers the same, familiar steps. “I used to be an Arminian because I thought Calvinists were mean and I’d never read Romans 9. But then I read Romans 9 and met a nice Calvinist.” Or, “I used to be a Calvinist, but then Roger Olson told me about free will and John 3:16. If only people would read John 3:16 and read Roger Olson, nobody would be a Calvinist.”  Of course, these are ridiculously simplified, but you get the point.

This, as I said, is a failure of the intellectual imagination, and for reasons I’m not entirely sure of (and I’d love others to weigh in on), it’s one that seems increasingly common. I will say that I’m fairly sure it has something to do with the narcissism of human experience. The story we know best is our own and our human tendency is to shrink the world to fit our experiences. We take our personal stories, and instead of seeing them as one, particular, unique experience, we expand them out and unjustifiably universalize them. Did you have a bad time in a repressive, stale, and abusive Evangelical church? That must be all of Evangelicalism. Did your belief in God’s sovereignty collapse in the face of tragedy? Everybody’s must.

I suppose this is merely another angle on the problem with the absolutizing of personal experience that Alastair Roberts has brought up before, and serves to reinforce his argument that we maybe need to pump the brakes on how much we press the importance of personal narrative in theologizing. Still, I don’t want to entirely rule out the valid place that our own story has to play in the discovery of truth. My friend Preston had a very thoughtful post yesterday on the idea of midrash in exegesis. Ironically enough, though, it highlighted from a different angle the danger that occurs when we place an overemphasis on our own story as the locus of truth and meaning. By assuming everyone’s intellectual experience must be just like ours, we end up invalidating the intellectual and moral experiences of others that don’t fit our paradigm.

This, as I’ve mentioned before, is another reason to prioritize Scripture in our theological reasoning. As Bavinck reminded us, personal confession and experience is inevitably part of our reflections. Still, by focusing our reasoning and reflection on Scripture, we are submitting our own experiences, logics, and so forth, to the only Story or Word, that has any claim to be comprehensive enough to include, correct, and make sense of them all–God’s own.

Well, once again I’ve rambled far longer than I intended. For what it’s worth, don’t be an intellectual narcissist. Before you go extrapolating your own former experiences, thought processes, and prejudices to those who hold positions you used to, stop, have an actual conversation with them. You might be surprised at the results.

Soli Deo Gloria