…still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.
One reason I posted the Butterfield speech was her emphasis on the quest for knowledge. “If truth-claims, the scholarly evidence that supports them, and the opportunity to engage in meaningful and testy debate with those who think differently than you do are burning in your heart and mind,” she says to incoming grad students, “then you are in the right place and I have only one thing to say to you: welcome home.” I love this idea, partly because I owe many of my friendships to a mutual enjoyment of “meaningful and testy debate.”
However, the debate often stalls as worldviews clash. Not that we can’t keep talking, but that we start to run up against what Butterfield calls the categories that raise our Big Questions. I can see the same information as you, but interpret it differently and come up with different answers and different ‘truth.’ We’re like the boxer in the Simon & Garfunkel song, hearing only what we want to hear and disregarding the rest. In every worldview, there’s this confirmation bias. It’s why a kid on drugs who doesn’t think he can trust authority figures feels like his only allies are his drug dealer friends, when his parents, teachers and the police might all be trying to look out for his long-term interests. His ideas about authority are greatly mistaken, but he could point to restrictions, punishments and fines to prove that the authorities in his life just can’t be trusted.
So it’s problems everywhere we turn. How do we get out of the loop of thinking as we’ve always thought? How can we know if we’re thinking true thoughts? How do we evaluate our own experiences and those of the people we interact with?
Hopefully we’ll spend more time on these questions later, but what’s clear already, I hope, is that information-based education cannot be the key to examining truth-claims because ‘Ignorance’ is not the banner over the door to be unlocked. We hear what we want to hear, which is to say that the kid in the above example need not disbelieve that the authorities have his best interests at heart, but that they’re mistaken; the drug really is better. What he wants, in this case the high, taints all the information coming his way. So it goes with incorrect and sinful views of God, people, art, politics, the economy, and everything else. Unless we can see past our own categories, we’re as misguided as the addict–perhaps with lesser repercussions, but perhaps not.
The gospel is good news about Jesus’ work and his plans, so there is a sense in which hearing, learning and applying (thus, education) is quintessentially important. But this is no ordinary education, it’s an education that transcends:
…what cannot be destroyed may be dispossessed, and one taste may be made to give way to another and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind…But there is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. The heart’s desire for an ultimate object may be conquered, but its desire to have SOME object is unconquerable. The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is through the expulsive power of a new one. It is therefore only when admitted into the number of God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ that the spirit of adoption is poured out on us — it is then that the heart, brought under the mastery of one great, predominate, and supreme affection is delivered from the tyranny of all its former desires and the only way that deliverance is possible. Therefore, it is not enough to hold out to your people the mirror of their own imperfections. It is not enough to come forth with a demonstration of the effanecent character of their enjoyments, or to speak to their consciences of their follies. Rather, make every legitimate method of finding access to their hearts for the love of him who is greater than the world. (Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection).