“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

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

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful and challenging post, Derek. There are two things that come to mind here.

    First, most young people who move away from their evangelical church/theological context of origin have had little exposure to the depths of the tradition that they left. Very few 16-25 year olds have a deep grounding in and awareness of the theological treasures of the evangelical tradition. Rather, their perception of evangelicalism is disproportionately shaped by a local congregation of people of middling education and limited theological acumen, by the relatively simple teaching delivered in this context, by the retrospectively embarrassing goofiness of their youth group and its leaders, by the wide-eyed and faddish spirituality of their teenage years, and the accumulating moments of disillusion that attend the process of moving beyond childhood into adulthood. Attending a larger college, suddenly they are exposed to lots of smart people, to profoundly articulate and intellectually brilliant forms of faith, to the aesthetic splendour of refined liturgy, to churches of highly educated and self-aware professionals who make them embarrassed of their backgrounds.

    Everyone who wants to grow up must experience a conversion from a teenage faith to a young adult faith (and later to more mature forms of faith still). However, for many, this conversion is conflated with a conversion from evangelicalism to a more ‘sophisticated’ form of faith. What is lost in the process is the realization that evangelicals themselves can provide for such a conversion. Young people can too easily presume that their childhood and teenage experience of evangelicalism is the full measure of what the tradition offers.

    Second, I like Daniel Silliman’s observations here about our gullibility when it comes to beliefs about other people’s beliefs:

    when someone says “there’s a sucker born every minute,” everyone knows it’s true, but no one ever identifies themselves as the sucker, which is exactly what makes it possible to sucker them.

    The structure of disavowal and displacement is exactly such that it makes the disavowed and displaced thing possible, by hiding it.

    This can even be seen just in the structure of the statements of skepticism. Statements that, while on one level are disavowals, so we say, e.g., “some people believe (but I don’t),” are, in another way actually structured as statements of belief. The third person statements about other people also necessarily involve implied first person statements.

    That is: “(I believe) some people believe but I don’t.”

    This second-degree belief allows for and enables intense belief. Unquestioned belief, totally unsupported, hidden in the frame of skepticism.

    People are gullible, but gullible specifically in the way they can read that phrase “people are gullible” and agree with it and imagine it not to be about them. In accepting that phrase in the third person: as “people,” “other people,” “people out there” but of course never, never “you,” and certainly definitely not me. It’s so easy to assent, and in that exactly prove the point about gullibility.

    This idea about belief by disavowal sounds, I know, ridiculous and ridiculously complicated. I think, though, that it’s complicated because of how simplistically we conceive of belief, and how systematically we hide our own believing even from ourselves, and how complicated that actually makes actually doing it in practice today.

    We are far too easily prepared to believe that other people are gullible, stupid, or vicious. However, ironically, this generally serves to expose our own ignorance and naivety.

    • I appreciate this post and this comment. Just want to engage this bit, briefly:

      “Very few 16-25 year olds have a deep grounding in and awareness of the theological treasures of the evangelical tradition. Rather, their perception of evangelicalism is disproportionately shaped by a local congregation of people of middling education and limited theological acumen, by the relatively simple teaching delivered in this context, by the retrospectively embarrassing goofiness of their youth group and its leaders, by the wide-eyed and faddish spirituality of their teenage years, and the accumulating moments of disillusion that attend the process of moving beyond childhood into adulthood.”

      1) I’m not sure how this is the fault of those who leave evangelical Christianity as young adults. Seems like the burden rests on the pastors (and youth pastors) of local congregations and the seminaries from which they a hail. If “true evangelicalism” – (or at least an evangelicalism that is theologically & intellectually rigorous and missionally challenging) – isn’t reaching regular laypeople at the congregational level, then what good is it? Seems like a failure of the leaders of the movement, not the young people raised in it.

      2) You run the risk of bumping into something akin to the No True Scotsman fallacy here by suggesting that evangelicalism as it manifests itself culturally, among non-academics and laypeople, is not in fact “true evangelicalism.” Like it or not, evangelicalism is as much a cultural movement as it is a theological one, and Kirk Cameron and Mark Driscoll are just as much a part of it as Scot McKnight and Tim Keller. I know of many, many people who understandably check out of evangelicalism because of the cultural baggage it entails.

      [That said, I also understand and can relate to your frustration. The recent “Women Against Feminism” campaign boasted women holding signs that said “I Don’t Need Feminism Because I Like to Shave My Legs” or I Don’t Need Feminism Because I Don’t Hate Men.” On the one hand, it was easy for those of us who have actually studied feminist theory to roll our eyes and say “Clearly, these ladies just need to educate themselves on what feminism actually is.” But on the other, the popularity of the movement, and some of the examples it cited, revealed that there is indeed some cultural understandings and expressions of feminism that are problematic and need to be addressed.]

      I’m just saying it’s easier to say “Well that’s not true evangelicalism” or “Well that’s not true feminism” than it is to confront the reality of a movement’s varying expressions and the lived experience of those within them.

      Sometimes I sense a sort disinterest among evangelical academics regarding the reality of evangelicalism “on the ground,” for regular people. They scoff at folks like Mark Driscoll and say “that’s not true evangelicalism so it’s beneath me to engage it,” forgetting that many thousands of people are under his pastoral leadership and influenced by his teachings. In other words, for many people, this is the only evangelicalism they know and will ever know, so maybe we need to work on improving the culture rather than ignoring (or disparaging) the reports from it.

      That said, I think Derek’s point still stands. We’re more likely to project immaturity or simplicity onto the faith we held when we were more immature and simplistic. And I know for certain that I, and many others, can fall into the trap of overcorrection, defining my faith by what it is not rather than what it is. I’m perhaps not as convinced as Derek is that we can leave our culture and our experiences behind and just submit to Scripture objectively – my evangelical upbringing (as well as my gender and my education and my culture and my ethnicity) will forever impact how I read Scripture and how I see the world, for better or worse – but becoming aware of how we might be prejudiced in this way is really helpful.

      Hope all that makes sense.

      • Oh, and I should add that my experience growing up in evangelicalism was far from anti-intellectual. My father had an MDiv as well as a Phd and he and my mom raised both their girls to be theologically curious. I was reading C.S. Lewis and A.W. Tozer in middle school, and studying every apologetics book I could get my hands on in high school. Both my pastor and youth pastor were well-educated with seminary degrees. I had lots of lingering questions – particularly about science, gender, and the theology of hell – but I figured those would be answered when I attended a (nondenominational) evangelical Christian college where my professors came from everywhere from Harvard to Westminster to DTS.

        But that was when it all started to fall apart for me.

        And it fell apart because, for all their education and training, my professors still had to honor these…boundaries….regarding just how much truth is really “God’s truth.” Take young earth creationism and intelligent design, for example. Even my professors admitted that they could present no testable creation model that in any way rivaled evolutionary theory, and yet they insisted that belief and old earth and evolution were “not an option” for professing Christians. That’s when evangelicalism began to lose its appeal for me, when I saw that even in an academic setting, inquiry was dictated (and sometimes drowned out) by predetermined beliefs, and reality was shaped to fit those beliefs rather than the other way around. I had to find theistic evolution (Francis Collins, BioLogos, Deryl Falke, etc.) on my own, without the help of my evangelical pastors and professors, who questioned my commitment to my faith for doing so.

      • Thanks for the response, Rachel. Yes, that does make sense.

        My comment wasn’t concerned with the assigning of blame. Both of my points were about the limited horizons of many people’s understanding of the evangelicalism they left: their limited understanding of its theological tradition and their limited understanding of the religious subjectivities of other evangelicals. If blame were to be assigned, much would fall upon the shoulders of pastors, other church leaders and teachers, and evangelical schools and seminaries.

        However, in the often febrile atmosphere of evangelicalism on the ground, many of the ideas that circulate do so entirely independent of actual church leadership. There is a sort of evangelical folk religion, much of which is completely unauthorized by pastors or elders, a folk religion driven by such things as TV preachers, purity movements, uninformed theological speculations in democratic Bible studies, Chick tracts, that teenage kid who led the dorm prayer meeting on summer camp, Christian kitsch, Kirk Cameron movies, Left Behind books, VeggieTales, Focus on the Family literature, blogs, CCM, Answers in Genesis, sappy mass-produced devotional literature, study Bible notes, etc., etc. As people often fail mentally to footnote their beliefs, many attribute the bulk of the weird and wacky things that swam in the rich theological soup of their evangelical upbringing to their church, presuming that it all received the imprimatur of Evangelical Central Headquarters. Parents are probably the persons with the most to answer for here. Most of the pedagogy of young evangelicals is received from sources other than their pastors.

        Where those who leave evangelical Christianity can be to blame is in making blanket judgments upon evangelicalism on the basis of their limited experience of it, in presuming that their experience is the measure of the movement, or that their experience is universal. It is quite possible to leave one theological tradition for another in which one’s faith can find a deeper root without making unfair judgments about what one left beyond.

        I didn’t refer to ‘true evangelicalism’ in my comment. Nor did I suggest that the experience of such young persons was an experience of something other than evangelicalism. All of the weirdness, goofiness, craziness, kitschiness, ignorance, reactivity, and even the abuse: it’s all evangelicalism. However, it is by no means all of evangelicalism. And that is the point.

        Also, while it can be tempting to look back upon the evangelicalism of our upbringing with a jaundiced vision, I think that it is important to recognize its goodness too. There is a poisonous cynicism and bitterness in many who have left evangelicalism, which blinds them to the devoted godliness of many within it, to many evangelicals’ desire to be whole-heartedly committed to God’s truth, to their radical and self-sacrificial Christian service.

        I saw plenty of weirdness in my evangelical upbringing. However, every morning when I got up, I also saw my mother on her knees praying for our family. I saw my father devoting himself to continual and intense study of Scripture and theology (amassing almost 10,000 books from a range of theological positions in the process), to rigorous questioning of himself and God’s truth and to developing his understanding. I saw my father dedicate his time to getting Christians reading widely and thinking deeply, engaging with different and opposing positions first hand and at their best in order to sharpen their minds. I saw my parents welcoming homeless people off the streets into our home, for months at a time. I saw them working with drug addicts and prostitutes, providing a refuge to families facing vendettas. I saw an intense love of Jesus reflected in the lives and behaviour of the people in my church. I saw commitment to trust and obey him at any personal cost. I saw astounding acts of forgiveness and remarkable transformations in families. I saw the reality of holy lives that still humbles me as I think of them. I saw a depth of biblical knowledge that I have seldom encountered elsewhere. I saw the passion of preachers who lived what they preached. All of this is evangelicalism too.

        I can quite understand why people would leave evangelicalism. I’m more Anglican than evangelical now myself and have moved some distance away from the baptistic evangelicalism of my upbringing. I am relatively ambivalent about identifying as an evangelical (save perhaps as the term modifies ‘Anglican’ and, even then, my approach to the sacraments and liturgy is relatively high church) and have written extensively and fairly critically about the nature of the movement. All of this said, I find much of the wholesale dismissal and bad-mouthing of evangelicals (and fundamentalists) quite shameful and will speak up for evangelicalism and against its critics on such occasions. I have no problem with more carefully targeted criticisms.

        As for people like Driscoll, much of their profile arises from the disproportionate attention that their critics give them and how seriously they are taken. One of the best ways to improve the culture is to remove the spotlight from the figures at the extremes and place it on those who really represent the best of the tradition of which they are part.

        There are definitely boundaries and principles that shape and guide evangelical inquiry, much as with almost every movement. To some extent this is an unavoidable dimension of maintaining the integrity of a particular tradition of inquiry: it would be difficult to have meaningful traditions of inquiry if everything was up for grabs and there were no sort of ‘orthodoxy’ whatsoever. As many of us have argued in various ways, it is fair to say that, in many contexts, evangelicals approach these things in a very unhealthy fashion. Evangelicals are often very poor at carrying out productive discourse with those who they perceive to have compromised on their fundamental principles, such as their doctrine of Scripture (although, as on the creation issues, there is much more breadth in evangelicalism in the UK—many of the advocates of theistic evolution I know personally here are evangelicals).

        Having read plenty of primary literature on the subject and having following several popular and academic feminist blogs for years, I think that it is fair to say that schools of feminist thought can be no less doctrinaire and restrictive when it comes to many lines of inquiry and no less inclined to impose ideology upon reality. Schools of feminism have their predetermined beliefs and shibboleths too (it is also interesting to observe the way that positions on same-sex marriage are solidifying into an unassailable orthodoxy in many progressive circles). Like evangelicalism, they have a tendency to pathologize their critics. Difficulty opening up to critical dialogue around and challenge of core principles is fairly characteristic of feminism too, even in its most academic forms—certainly in what I have witnessed over many years. Our tolerance for and level of awareness of the restriction of inquiry by predetermined beliefs generally has a lot to do with whether or not the beliefs in question are beliefs that we share. Either way, it is a practice with considerable risks and problems and our failures in the area are never justified by those of our interlocutors.

        In recognizing the failures of our own and other movements, rather than settling for mere tu quoque rejections of criticism, I think that we can appreciate the fact that most problems of ideological and discursive form and dynamics tend to replicate themselves fairly predictably in the contexts of many sharply varying belief systems and institutions. With the recognition that these are shared problems, I think that we can start to get somewhere. The most important result of this recognition is that it enables us to draw a measure of a distinction between an ideology’s principles and beliefs and their discursive and institutional expressions. This distinction can reveal unrealized potential and strength in an ideology’s principles, absolve them of much of the blame for the dysfunctional dynamics of the discourses and institutions within which they are currently vested, and imagine ways in which they could rise to a fuller stature. All of this frees us to believe better of opposing points of view.

        Thanks again for the response.

      • “Also, while it can be tempting to look back upon the evangelicalism of our upbringing with a jaundiced vision, I think that it is important to recognize its goodness too…”

        Many of us who are critical of certain elements of evangelical culture do this often. I devoted several chapters to it in “Evolving…” and even more in my upcoming book on church. I’m glad I was raised evangelical. I’ve seen beautiful faithfulness, wisdom and grace among those who identify as evangelical. My parents are my heroes, and they are evangelical. Were it not for evangelicalism, (and AWANA!), I might not know my way around the Bible like I do, I might not long for an intimate, experiential, and missional faith like I do, and I certainly wouldn’t know every lyric to every Stephen Curtis Chapman song ever like I do. 🙂

        But for whatever reason, those chapters and blog posts just don’t get the same attention as the ones about leaving evangelicalism. Perhaps because conflict is just more interesting for people, or perhaps because this is the part of the “journey” in which they feel the loneliest.

      • Thanks for the response, Rachel, and for sharing some of your positive memories of evangelicalism. I have read and appreciated your comments on this on your blog and in your books in the past.

        As for the attention that such things receive, I suspect that many of us who have a blog can relate. Seeing our hits and the extent of the sharing of our posts on social media is a constant reminder that, while we are speaking into a powerful microphone, our readers are constantly fiddling with the volume controls. Our most provocative pronouncements are generally amplified, while much of what we say when we are going about our more regular business of exploring the Bible or encouraging Christians in practical service is muffled. The result can be a rather distorted image of what we actually stand for and the sort of people that we are.

  2. This reminds me of Ken Wilber’s breakdown of the pre-rational/trans-rational fallacy. https://integrallife.com/video/pre-trans-fallacy

    Basically, folks can arrive at a the same conclusion by taking very different routes. This also goes both ways. For example, there are more ways to arrive at the conclusion to approve of same-sex marriage than by merely blowing with the secular wind. In the end, what ultimately matters is that we articulate sound arguments for why we believe what we believe.

      • I remember Wilber using the example of Vietnam war protests. Some protested the war because they didn’t want to fight, motivated ultimately by self-preservation, self-interest (pre-rational). Other protested the war on moral grounds, arguing that it caused unnecessary harm to both sides, motivated primarily by compassion (trans-rational). They’ve all arrived at the same conclusion but the differences between their motivations are meaningful and have lasting effect. So I’m with you here. How we get there matters and we should be open to being challenged on our thought process.

  3. Speaking of Roger Olson and the Bible…it just blows my mind that he and his ilk are unable to read and understand it when the Gospel of John says, and quite clearly, that “we are born NOT OF THE WILL OF MAN…BUT OF GOD.”

    And then Jesus explains all this to Nicodemus, that it (being born again) has to come from above.

    But all that (and more) makes no difference to those who would rather ‘imagine’ (how’s that for imagination?) themselves as little gods with the ultimate power to save themselves as long as THEY make the correct decision.

    • This sentiment seems self-refuting. If Roger Olson can’t take credit for making the “correct decision” to save himself, why would he be discredited for being “unable to read and understand” the Bible. You can’t have it both ways here. If it’s all God’s doing, then it’s all God’s doing.

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  6. An important feature of this kind of claim is the predication of the reason with ‘stupid’ or ‘hateful’. The issue is not just whether or not the reason, to use your example, for opposing homosexual acts is stupid or hateful but that no matter what the reason, it must be stupid or hateful. The failure of imagination, then, goes beyond simply not seeing alternatives that are not stupid or hateful, but a way of thinking (we might call it ‘ideologically’) that cannot see anything but reasons that are.

  7. Last week I preached on the “testing of the spirits”, ala. 1 John 4, and used the twofold explanation offered by John Calvin, with whom I agree when he notes that any Faith that seeks to be genuine must be tested. That testing happens on two levels, he said. First, personal – viz. where a person must determine for herself that what she believes is truly “of God.” This happens through personal examine, reflection, prayer, study, etc. However our faith is never just a personal but a shared experience in community. Thus Calvin said the second part of testing was public – viz. a group discerning together what can be considered common consent and will lead to the strengthened polity of the church.

    The core of your post seems to be a static situation where Faith is fixed rather than tested in this way. Where a person claims that his personal convictions should be held by all, whereas what is needed are persons who are aware of their personal beliefs while finding consent and strength in community, which by nature is a gathering of personal convictions seeking a common good rooted in the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Savior (at least I would hope so).

    It’s why I’m presbyterian. Because I can lead a church with persons who may have strong conservative our liberal convictions, but can still come together about how to best live God and our neighbor, as Jesus loved them.

    Thanks for the post, and to all the commenters above!

  8. ‘As for people like Driscoll, much of their profile arises from the disproportionate attention that their critics give them and how seriously they are taken.’

    I would say that their profile is raised mainly by groups like Newfrontiers and Hillsong inviting him to speak at their events.

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  11. Great post, Derek.

    One of Alastair’s comments sparked a conversation with my assistant pastor. One of the things we noted was how important the liturgy can serve as a go-to benchmark for our people as to what should inform our central convictions regarding the evangelical faith. Even though we’re confessional, we realize that the Westminster Standards will never be owned by our congregants at the same level that the weekly liturgy is owned. So often as pastors, our job seems like one of correcting people’s misconceptions, which are picked up by the kitsch evangelical culture. But the liturgy always serves as a reference that we can easily point people to and one that they have no problem understanding. Not sure if my point is clear, but there you go. 🙂

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  15. Insightful post (and comment thread) that touches on the intellectual laziness evident in discourse today. I think this form of argumentation is accepted because the rule of logic has been displaced by pop ridicule of the sitcom variety. I would assume that pretense and vanity have as much to do with this as laziness does.

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