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.