Courting Disaster?

The 90% solution.
Millvina Dean might suggest we pay closer attention to what’s below the surface. She was two months old and a passenger on the Titanic when it struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912. Today she’s the last living survivor. Everyone knows that 90% of an iceberg is below the surface. But what does this tell us if human nature is like an iceberg?

Icebergs have three strata — a tip, the waterline, and the bulk beneath the surface. So does human nature according to Richard Weaver. The tip is our behaviors or “specific ideas about things.”1 These are daily things like work and play and friendships. The second stratum down bobs along the waterline as our beliefs. These two are important but if human nature is like an iceberg, behaviors and beliefs only constitute 10% of who we are. What’s the other 90%? For if we fail to pay attention to it, we court disaster.

Scholars often call the other 90% “worldview” — and that’s a problem. You don’t hear “worldview” around the dinner table. Try this instead: basic assumptions. My parents started with a 1,000 square foot home. As their income grew, so did the house — but this is not a right enshrined in the US Constitution. It’s an assumption, “an intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality, and this is the sanction to which ideas and beliefs are ultimately referred to for verification.”2 Did you catch that? What’s below the surface is what supports my beliefs and behaviors. Not so much Scripture verses. Don’t believe me? Take a quick quiz. Quote John 3: … 13.

Gotcha. You assumed John 3:16. I popped this quiz in a Bible study two weeks ago. Silence. Yet where did God ever say: “Nail John 3:16 and ignore 3:13?” He didn’t. That’s your assumption. Just like “have it your way.” You can’t layer a belief in the sanctity of marriage over an assumption like “have it your way” and expect to behave differently. This is why the divorce rate for born again adults is statistically identical to that of non-born again adults: 32% versus 33%.3 You can’t unwittingly absorb advertisers’ assumptions — through TV, Internet, music, and film — and then expect Bible beliefs to translate into better behavior. I’m not saying throw away the TV. I am saying we’re naïve about human nature. No doubt to the disappointment of many youth pastors, evangelical Protestant youth for example are more likely to be sexually active than those who do not attend church.4 We’re not paying attention to what’s below the surface.

We’ve bought into a 500-year-old Enlightenment assumption that says education is the answer. Right beliefs yield right behaviors. Stuff their minds with sermons and Bible studies. “Ethereal” things like worldviews can be safely ignored since they cannot be measured. Not so, countered Albert Einstein. “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”5 “Most ordinary Americans don’t think about the power of ideas,” says Librarian of Congress James Billington. “We’re practical. We’re instinctively skeptical… But with that skepticism often comes an inability to understand the ideas that impel people.”6

Here’s how paying attention to worldviews gives you the ability to understand the ideas that impel people. In 1846, abolitionist Adin Ballou abhorred a new assumption emerging in America: might makes right.7 He and others like Abraham Lincoln embraced an older assumption that Lincoln recalled in his landmark abolitionist speech at Cooper Union in 1860: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Five years later, on the morning of April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth learned that Lincoln would be attending a play that evening in Washington and wrote a note to his mother justifying his beliefs and behavior: “Might makes right.”8 This was the premise that pushed Booth. At 10pm he slipped into the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre and fatally shot Abraham Lincoln. Yet if Richard Weaver and James Billington are correct, Booth didn’t choose to assassinate Lincoln as much as he was driven by an idea he had absorbed like nicotine from a Nicorette patch.

Evangelical Protestants tend to focus on right beliefs, believing they yield right behavior. But this means we’re often unable to understand the invisible ideas that impel people. The shift from worldviews to beliefs and behaviors began in the 1700s when Protestants like John Wesley made great changes to religion including elevating “human free choice.”9 This is when the altar call and “make a decision for Christ” emerged. Yet the fact is, “at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over,” said Irish born writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch.10 Imagine for example God asking you to run a marathon right now. Could you choose to do it? Even with good intentions, I couldn’t. That “choice” was made long ago. The same goes for losing my temper. It’s not so much a choice as it is an impulse from churnings deep inside. I’m still responsible for my behavior but I ought to pay closer attention to what’s below the surface—as the Titanic lookouts failed to do.

When people are invited to “choose” Jesus, most of the business of choosing is already over. Why not invest 90% of our time shaping 90% of human nature? You can begin by digesting Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines and Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. And then start paying closer attention to what’s below the surface.

___________________
1 Richard Weaver, Ideas have Consequences (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 18.
2 Weaver, p. 18.
3 www.barna.org
4 Mark D. Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2007), pp. 205-206.
5 Cited by Scott Thorpe, How to Think Like Einstein: Simple Ways to Break the Rules and Discover Your Hidden Genius (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2000), p. 3.
6 Christine Canabou, “Fast Talk: Books That Matter” Fast Company, Issue 73, August 2003
7 Adin Ballou, Christian Non-Resistance: In All Its Important Bearings, Illustrated and Defended, 1846.
8 James L. Swanson, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (New York, MY: Harper Perennial, 2006), p. 7.
9 William C. Placher, Readings in the History of Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988), p. 82.
10 Heather Widdows, The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p. 109.

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9 Comments

  1. Good insight. I wouldn’t mind more on this subject. You could occasionally run a whole blog on one of our core assumptions. I think they tend to be so powerful because they are so invisible. The “might makes right” and “I can have it my way” are but two. What are some of the core assumptions that keep us from connecting Sunday to Monday better than we do?

  2. I had a few talks with my son over the weekend about the assumption of the theory of evolution and how the schools, sciences, and society of today (vs society prior to 1860’s) accepts that “theory” as truth and completely tries to ignore Creationism. If we can not get back the TRUTH of CREATION in Genesis (as we OUGHT), where does that leave us with the people around us –> LOST is a black hole? I say look at Spring, DNA, the mind of a man – what IS it? That worldview difference is really hitting me across the forehead the last few months. Can we reframe with the help of the TruthProject, the movie eXpelled (due out this Fri, 18 Apr), Blue Ocean conversation? What do you think?

  3. Chuck Colson has developed a program designed to enable leaders to understand their own world views, examine them in the light of Biblical teaching,to equip them to teach the Church and to work within society to bring reform and justice.

    This, the Centurion’s Program, can be examined in detail at http://www.breakpoint.org/generic.asp?ID=2748

    While it is not the only program, it is well designed to accomplish its goals.

  4. And let’s not leave Jesus Christ and Him crucified out of the discussion of what our basic assumptions need to be.

  5. Let us have faith that God’s stories provide wisdom for living, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it. Let us challenge our own assumptions, an in the humility of the realizing that we have very few answers… point in awe toward the one who holds them all. Thank you Mike for the challenge in your quiz.

  6. Mike this is brilliant. But I have two followups. The first is that in practical terms it seems that the distinction between belief and basic assumption is pretty fuzzy. Isn’t “have it my way” as much a “belief” as my belief in the sanctity of marriage.
    I ask that for pragmatic reasons because the next thought would be to ask exactly how we drill down to those basic assumptions and start changing them? Is it that basic assumptions are mostly unconscious or subconscious? In other words, “have it my way” may be a belief in one sense, but maybe there is a process by which it submerges into the unconscious realm and becomes a basic assumption that drives and overpowers specific beliefs. Am I on the right track here or hopelessly missing the point? And, how do we specifically address these basic assumptions if they are so hard to see?

  7. I once taught a 13-week study about worldviews and how they shape our actual actions… at the end of the study, almost everyone acknowledged paradigmatic shifts in their thinking. As the months progressed, however, out of a class of 20 adults… I saw very little actual change.

    The flaw was mine. While I’m thankful that God used this class to to challenge the worldview of those attending (and my own), the flaw comes in my assumption that people can change something so deeply entrenched in their hearts and minds.

    Worldview is mostly subconscious – something we’ve acquired from experience and our own fundamental “understanding” of how the universe “works.” 13 weeks is a good start… but as teachers we have to take this to the streets with our brothers and sisters – and as iron sharpens iron – seek to challenge assumptions and have our own assumptions challenged in the light of scripture.

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