Word on Wednesday – by John Mason
‘Irrational…?’ – October 18, 2017
In a New York Times article (October 10, 2017), David Brooks commended Richard Thaler the recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics. ‘Thaler,’ Brooks commented, ‘took an obvious point, that people don’t always behave rationally, and showed the ways we are systematically irrational…’ He went on to observe, ‘Thanks to his work and others’, we know a lot more about the biases and anomalies that distort our perception and thinking,…’
Furthermore, David Brooks continued, ‘It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, “the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.” And when we don’t really know a subject well enough, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts,” and go with whatever idea makes us feel popular.
Brooks continues, ‘This is where Alan Jacobs’s absolutely splendid forthcoming book “How to Think” comes in. If Thaler’s work is essential for understanding how the market can go astray, Jacobs’s emphasis on the relational nature of thinking is essential for understanding why there is so much bad thinking in political life right now…’
And, I would add, this helps us to understand from a human perspective, why there is so much bad thinking when it comes to the matters of God and faith. Consider for example, the way in which commentators and television shows constantly belittle and write off anyone who expresses a faith in God. People of faith are dismissed without any reasoned thought. We are tempted to remain silent because we want ‘the pleasure of sharing an attitude we know is socially approved’ (to paraphrase Marilynne Robinson’s words).
How important it is to keep the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 at the forefront of our thinking: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
The stress on the oneness of God and the need for us to be single-minded in our love of God and our loyalty to him is more important than we might at first think.
What these words are saying, and what Jesus himself re-iterates, is that behind all the diversity and complexity of the universe there is one God – one God who holds everything together and unifies it. We live in a meaningful, ordered world, because everything that happens is all part of the one creation – all part of the one picture puzzle. Is it truly rational to say that the vast nature and complexity of the universe all came about by chance? Consider for example, what the very recent discovery of gravitational waves and neutron stars tells us about the fine-tuning of the universe.
Furthermore, the oneness of our creator God helps us begin to answer to the question, “Who am I?” Like the hub of a wheel he stands at the centre of our very existence. Strip him from the universe and from our lives and we’re left with emptiness and meaninglessness.
Yet consider what has happened. Our Western world has cavalierly and we could say, irrationally, dismissed the idea of God, focussing only on the here and now. Issues such as security and peace, justice and the environment now dominate the conversation. While these subjects are important, they are not the be all and end all of life. As many New Yorkers commented to me over the years, ‘We know there is more to life’.
Sadly, because society has created a vacuum in people’s hearts many use drugs and sex and the world of cyberspace in the attempt to fill the gap. This is a price we pay when we discard the core truth of Deuteronomy 6:4-5: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
So, what can we do to begin to reverse what David Brooks calls ‘the biases and anomalies that distort our perception and thinking’?
Towards the end of his article he makes the following observation: ‘But I’d say that if social life can get us into trouble, social life can get us out. After all, think of how you really persuade people. Do you do it by writing thoughtful essays that carefully marshal facts? That works some of the time. But the real way to persuade people is to create an attractive community that people want to join. If you do that, they’ll bend their opinions to yours. If you want people to be reasonable, create groups where it’s cool to be reasonable.’
Jesus himself taught: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com