Michael Metzger

Four-on-five basketball produces a predictable result. With summer vacation, our weekly neighborhood game rarely fields a full complement of ten players. We could play 4-on-4, but that would require someone sitting out a game and getting stiff (we’re getting older). So we play 4-on-5 with the four-player team rarely winning. In the wider world, this is the game most faith communities are playing – 4-on-5. It’s why they rarely win.

The church originally featured a five-player roster, featuring knowledge of reality, belief, commitment, profession, and adherence. The pivotal position however was knowledge of reality. For “most of Western history, the basic claims of the Christian tradition have in fact been regarded by its proponents as knowledge of reality,” University of Southern California professor Dallas Willard writes.1 The Western church taught what was considered real and right as a “public resource for living.” This knowledge “was made available to people in general through institutions of one kind or another.”2

In the 19th and 20th centuries, knowledge of reality came to be reserved to the subject matters of mathematics and the “natural” sciences – as well as the “social” and “human” sciences. Today, only institutions in the wider world feature a five-player roster: knowledge of what is real and right, belief, commitment, profession, and adherence. The Western church was reduced to the “final four.” Belief, commitment, profession, and adherence are incomplete and inconsequential if they are not grounded in a knowledge of reality.

Belief, for example, “has no necessary tie to truth, good method, or evidence,” Willard writes. It is, in its basic nature, a matter of tendencies to act. “Commitment, made so much of today in churches and in life, need not involve belief, much less knowledge,” Willard adds. “You can commit yourself to something you don’t even believe.”

An even greater gap from knowledge is profession. Sometimes people profess to believe things that they are not even committed to,” Willard notes.3 Furthest removed is adherence. Adherence to beliefs has no necessary relationship to what’s right and real. Stripped of the knowledge of reality, the Western church now plays 4-on-5.

Check the results in our leading educational institutions. When Harvard University recently reviewed its general education program, professor Steven Pinker criticized the report for inadequately stressing the “ennobling nature of knowledge” of “the way the world works” while objecting to the report’s reference to “faith.” “Faith – believing something without good reasons to do so – has no place in anything but a religious institution,” Pinker complained, “and our society has no shortage of these.”4

Check the results in Washington. A key component of President Obama’s financial-reform package is the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would apply findings from the science of human behavior to ensure “transparency, simplicity, fairness, and access” for borrowers. The President’s proposal is an outgrowth of Nudge, the outstanding 2007 book published by two University of Chicago scholars, economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein. Sunstein has been nominated by the President to head the new agency. Do you think Obama was moved by Sunstein’s beliefs and commitment? Of course not. Sunstein has knowledge of reality. And, in fact, he does.

Thaler and Sunstein say most economic models ultimately fail because they’re based on a faulty assessment of human nature. Their solution is a “choice architecture” – the context and framing of how decisions are presented to consumers. For example, a great deal of economic theory assumes we’re rational beings. We’re not. The authors conducted studies showing you will eat more nuts from a big bowl than from a small bowl. You will choose surgery if you are told it offers a 90% chance of survival; you will reject it if you are told there is a 10% chance it will kill you. There are limits to rationality.

Their model says human nature operates by two cognitive systems – the Automatic and the Reflective. “The Automatic System is rapid and is or feels instinctive,” they write. “The Reflective System is more deliberate and self-conscious.”5 The Wall Street Journal describes Nudge as a “realistic view of human behavior, not fantasy.” It’s how real human beings behave. As such it is knowledge that has public traction.

But it’s equally true of creational reality. God created a garden with “choice architecture.” Adam and Eve were free to choose between good and evil. But there were limits to rationality (“do not eat of the tree…”). Human nature therefore operates by two cognitive systems – identical to Sunstein and Thaler’s Automatic and the Reflective. The Automatic is the ought-is-can-will code, or what we might call “worldview” or the embedded “four chapter” gospel. The Reflective is what scripture calls conscience, being self-aware and deliberate. Scripture presents this model of human behavior as knowledge of reality.

“Pastors now are mistakenly seen, and perhaps even see themselves, as teaching what Christians are supposed to believe (perhaps what we had better believe), not what is known and what can be known through fair inquiry,” Willard writes.6 In the wider world, being a follower of Christ is thought to be a matter of what one believes, is passionate about, or professes – “not something essentially involving knowledge of truth and or a reality that everyone must come to terms with.” Lacking the pivotal position, knowledge of reality, we’re reduced to playing 4-on-5 in the wider world. With these odds, is it any wonder why we’re not taken seriously by the wider world? Is it any wonder that we rarely win?

1 Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 8.
2 Willard, Knowing, p. 200.
3 Willard, Knowing, pp. 16-17.
4 The Harvard Crimson, online edition, October 27, 2006.
5 Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New York, NY: Penguin, 2007), pp. 19-20.
6 Willard, Knowing, p. 203.


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  1. the word “believe” really isn’t used anymore except when it means something like a leap of faith – i think that maybe Christians ought give up on that word and try using “know” more often

  2. Good post, Mike. It’s amazing to me how you connect pick-up games to the greater issues of the day. I always enjoy the creative approaches.

    I think signs of the Christian “knowledge of reality” are now showing up in quantum physics (see the film “What the Bleep Do We Know”) and in the new biology which are both now reinterpreting reality as not being separate from our perception of it. In the words of Dr Bruce Lipton in “Mind over Genes: The New Biology,” he explains, “This new perspective of human biology does not view the body as just a mechanical device, but rather incorporates the role of a mind and spirit. This breakthrough in biology is fundamental in all healing…”

    This seems to be approaching an earlier knowledge of reality revealed by Jesus and his disciples in healing the sick. It also strongly echoes the writings of a 19th century Christian author, Mary Baker Eddy, in her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Her insights show a direct connection between a knowledge of God and human experience. And healings resulted from her prayerful approach, definitely showing proof of a knowledge of how things really work.

    Maybe the sciences are now helping us to understand a deeper sense of reality that Jesus taught. Even so, they are lagging what Christians been proving from the beginning as they catch glimpses of the true sense of things: spiritual reality trumps the naturalistic one. Not merely as a tenet of faith but as an experiential phenomenon.

  3. Great post, Mike! As a social scientist, I’ve long struggled with the notion of ‘conscience.‘ Though being ‘self-aware’ and ‘deliberate’ are highly valued in our professions, conscience as a means of describing them is not. Indeed conscience is viewed by most as the root of all that is wrong with our self-perception, our perception of what is good, and of what troubles our most significant relationships. Conscience is not only too soft, too squishy even for the so called ‘soft sciences’; it is too wrong-minded. It seems to me that what Thaler and Sunstein have done with their theory of Automatic and Reflective cognitive systems is re-introduce the concept of conscience as integral to a right understanding of human nature. I’ve also struggled with how we holistically connect the code of ought-is-can-will to conscience. If we listen carefully, I think we will hear one of Peter Berger’s ‘signals of transcendence’ in Thaler and Sunstein’s theory. This is fertile ground for faith communities.

  4. Nice post. Occasionally I feel like the missing “knowledge of reality” is worn as a badge of honor by some in the church. In some cases, there is an outright effort to subvert knowledge, like in the field of Cosmology.

  5. Larry… your comment is intriguing, but as I did last week, I’m failing to follow.

    What culturally-accepted norms make conscience “too squishy… too wrong-minded”, and what exactly do you mean by wrong-minded? I would agree that Mike’s summary of Thaler and Sunstein’s theory seems to be fertile ground for faith communities who are attempting to point wandering souls to “signals of transcendence”… so are you simply saying that Mike’s re-phrase of their theory leaves something to be desired after our culture interprets the language he uses?

    Language is important. It is often what gives ideas strong, athletic legs rather than wobbly-kneed ones. Thanks for the challenge.

  6. Kyle, thanks for asking. The reference to conscience being “too squishy” was a veiled one. The social sciences are regarded as ‘soft sciences’ as opposed to the ‘hard sciences’…chemistry, physics, biology, etc. The view that conscience is ‘wrong minded’ (my words) is widely held among social science/human science professionals (psychologists, clinical social workers, therapists, etc.). Simply stated, conscience produces guilt and guilt (as they perceive it) is unhealthy. For that reason, much has been done within these disciplines to discredit conscience. Personally, I hold a high view of conscience. My struggle isn’t with conscience per se. It is with the conflict (internal and external) I have experienced because of my view. I’ve not read Nudge, yet, so I cannot comment on Mike’s “re-phrase” of their theory. I am eager to read it, though.

  7. Mike,

    Excellent column as always. You confused me on the last paragraph. If the 4 chapter gospel is the automatic ought-is-can-will, are you suggesting that pastors should be teaching on the conscience and not the 4 chapters? To me it seems that you must have both, but where is the emphasis? I would think that with the loss of knowledge, we need more Reflective lessons. I think what is lost is the language of the day. As I sit in church, I don’t always hear the language/story/message that makes it applicable to my daily life and usually it is a “refresher” on how I ought to be living.

  8. Troy:

    I agree. We need both. I think what most faith communities fail to appreciate is that everyone lives inside the “four chapter” gospel – that is, the reality of a created world that is fallen. If we saw the gospel as a definition of reality, then – by simple deduction – everyone must be operating inside of one story. That doesn’t, however mean that everyone embraces the gospel and lives accordingly. I’m not a universalists. It simply means everyone operates – wittingly or unwittingly – inside of reality. Every person, for example, is made in the image of God. But not everyone has embraced the “kingdom of reality.”

    If this is so, then the game changer is how an individual perceives that “code,” or reality. That is a function more of imagination, which is shaped by human conscience. Animals don’t have a conscience. Humans do – it’s what demarcates us from the animal kingdom. Hence, faith communities need to teach both – the “four chapter” gospel and conscience.

    Again, good point Troy.

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