“When you have to stop and think about things is when they go wrong.”
When San Antonio Spurs’ forward Tim Duncan is playing well, he’s feelin’ it. Think too much and things go wrong. You might not be involved in high-speed sports, but you do experience high-speed decision making everyday. Why then does the Western faith tradition depict decision making as relying only on thinking?
Traditional Western thinking depicts decision making as a cause-and-effect temporal sequence—first the thought, then the assessment of the thought, and then the feeling of correctness. This however is not how we make most decisions, writes Dr. Robert A. Burton. If you haven’t played high-speed basketball, consider a baseball pitch.
Professional baseball pitchers throw with velocities in the range of 80 to 100 miles per hour. Elapsed time from the moment of release to the ball crossing home plate ranges from .380 to .460 milliseconds. It takes approximately 200 milliseconds for the image of the ball’s release to reach the retina of the batter and to initiate the swing. The swing takes another 160 to 190 milliseconds. Hitting a high-speed pitch is mostly a matter of feelin’ it, since the combination of reaction and swing time approximately equals the time it takes for a fastball to travel from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.1 This however is not how the Western faith tradition sees decision making.
The easiest way to understand the tradition’s take is to read one of its most popular gospel tracts, The Four Spiritual Laws. It reads: “The promise of God’s Word, the Bible—not our feelings—is our authority.” Decision making is depicted as a train. The engine is Fact, the coal car is Faith, and the caboose is Feeling. “The train will run with or without the caboose. However, it would be useless to attempt to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way, we do not depend on feelings or emotions, but we place our faith (trust) in the trustworthiness of God and in His Word.” The Four Laws properly distinguishes between reason and emotion. Depicting thinking preceding feeling is relatively recent in history, however.
In How We Decide, author Jonah Lehrer says Plato pictured decision making “in epic terms, as a pitched battle between reason and emotion, with reasoning often triumphing. According to this classic script, what separates us from the animals is the godly gift of rationality. When we are deciding what to do, we are able to ignore our feelings and carefully think through the problem.”2 As Plato’s ideas played out, they proved to be particularly popular in the West.
In his Discourse on the Method for Properly Conducting Reason and Searching for Truth, René Descartes described humans as having a holy soul capable of reason and a fleshly body full of “mechanical passions.” Francis Bacon and Auguste Comte agreed, seeking to shape society around “rational science.” So did Thomas Jefferson, hoping that “the American experiment would prove that men can be governed by reason and reason alone,” writes Lehrer. This idea that thinking precedes feeling sounded scientific until science began to discover that feelings in fact trump reason.
In 1982, a man walked into the office of neurologist Antonio Damasio. His name was Elliot. A few months earlier, a small tumor had been removed from the frontal lobe of his brain. Since the operation, Elliot could not make a decision. Damasio decided to run a series of tests measuring Elliot’s emotional state. “The results were clear,” Lehrer writes. “Elliot felt nothing.” What Damasio demonstrated is that when we are cut off from our feelings the most banal decisions become impossible. A brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind. The train diagram isn’t true.
“The Protestant tradition has taken on board a picture of the human person that owes more to modernity and the Enlightenment than it does to a holistic, biblical vision of human persons,” writes Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith in his book, Desiring the Kingdom.3 We operate by desire, and we feel our desires. “I don’t think my way through the world,” Smith writes, “I feel my way around it.”4
The Enlightenment take on decision making might explain why many Christians struggle to do well in the high-speed world. In Tom Wolfe’s novel about contemporary college life, Charlotte Simmons loses her faith and virginity by the end of the first semester of her freshman year. The problem wasn’t cognition. It was the high-speed college culture. William Wilberforce describes this process in his book, Real Christianity. He writes that, over time, more than one college student will “gradually begin to doubt the reality of Christianity.” How do they become skeptics? “Reason, thought, and inquiry have little to do with it.”5 It’s more a matter of not feelin’ it.
It turns out the brain operates like a calculator and computer working in parallel. Reason is the calculator, using math for making simple decisions. Any problem however “with more than four distinct variables overwhelms the rational brain,” Lehrer writes.6 High-speed decisions require a high-speed computer performing the complex algorithms—feelin’ it. Feelings work in parallel with reason. Data points matter. The good news is that the ancient gospel has four: creation-fall-redemption-restoration.
On a good night, “it seems like you don’t think,” says Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom. “On an off night, you may be thinking too much.” Athletes make decisions the same way we drive cars, doctors perform surgery, and baseball players hit fastballs. Feelin’ it is most important… and how Tim Duncan knows he’s playing well.
1 Robert A. Burton, M.D., On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), p. 70.
2 Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), p. 9.
3 James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), p. 31.
4 Smith, Desiring, p. 12.
5 William Wilberforce, Real Christianity (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1982), p. 128.
6 Lehrer, How We Decide, p. 244.