No Way!

Christians are often puzzled as to how the Jews missed Jesus. The prophecies point to Christ, yet Jewish leaders reacted, No way! Recent findings from neuroscience might add insights into why people reject uncomfortable realities. They might also account for why many church leaders reject an uncomfortable reality today.

The neuroscience I’m referring to comes from Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist who has been studying human judgment since the 1960s. The story starts when he and his wife were debating whether to move from Berkeley, California to Princeton, New Jersey. His wife was against it, claiming that people were less happy on the East Coast than in California. Kahneman thought this unlikely. But he didn’t think further debate would resolve anything. So he conducted a study. Sure enough, while most people in California – and elsewhere – believed that Californians were happier, Californians themselves reported being no more satisfied with their lives than people in Ohio and Michigan. When Kahneman reported this to his wife, she reacted, No way!

She’s not unique. Beginning in 1969, Kahneman teamed with Amos Tversky, a fellow psychologist, to study human judgment, decision-making and choice. It turns out everyone has a tendency to automatically reject uncomfortable realities. These findings are explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow – a book Kahneman wrote and probably would have co-authored with Tversky had he not died prematurely in 1996 at the age of 59.

Kahneman and Tversky discovered that we have two interrelated systems running in our heads. “System 1” is fast, automatic, and unconscious. “System 2” is slow and deliberate (our conscious reasoning). System 1 accounts for as much as 95 percent of human judgment.1 System 2 accounts for about 5 percent. This is where the two systems can present problems. System 1 operates by coherence and comfort. Only the facts that fit how you imagine reality make sense. Anything making you uncomfortable is kicked out – unless System 2 says, Wait a minute… slow down and think about this. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen very often. That’s because System 2 is lazy.2

These two systems together explain why horrific highway wrecks happen. System 1 says drivers are largely unconscious of the millions of decisions their hands and feet make every second. When something unexpected happens – a thick fog bank suddenly appears on a sunny day – System 1 doesn’t immediately fit this fact into a “sunny day” frame. No way! The brain takes comfort in assuming it’s only a wisp of haze wafting over the highway. Once a driver realizes he or she is flying 70 mph through a fog bank, System 2 kicks in, screaming Slow down!!! But it’s often tragically too late.

System 1 and 2 explain why Jewish leaders reacted with disbelief when told the nation had been sent into exile in Babylon. Exile should not have come as a surprise. For hundreds of years God had prophesied the fall of Jerusalem. Exile was an indictment of idolatry (2 Chr. 36:17-20). This fact however didn’t fit how Jewish leaders imagined “sunny day” reality. They assured everyone Babylon wasn’t exile. It was a brief excursion and would prove temporary. One such leader, Hananiah, predicted that within two years the Jews would return to Judea and Jerusalem would be restored. God disagreed. He served as the Jews’ System 2. Through the prophet Jeremiah, he explicitly called the Jews “exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer. 29:4). He told the Jews to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (29:7). He told the Jews to ignore their leaders. “Do not let your prophets in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them” (Jer. 29:8-9).

These two systems together also explain why church leaders often react with disbelief when analysts suggest the Western church is in exile. These analysts include Richard John Neuhaus, Walter Brueggemann, Michael Frost, and James Davison Hunter. Just as the Babylonian exile of 2,500 years ago was an indictment of Jewish idolatry, they say much of the modern church is also under indictment for idolatry. Hunter writes, “Ours is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture, and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever – spiritually speaking – exiles in a land of exile.”3

One of the idols most often mentioned is American individualism and consumerism. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City writes how Charles Finney introduced a form of faith that put an inordinate weight on an individual’s personal decision for Jesus. Faith shifted from church-centric to individual-centric. The church began to hire larger numbers of staff to cater to Christians’ increasingly consumerist demands. “And this is one of the reasons (though not the only reason),” writes Keller, “that we have the highly individualistic, consumerist evangelicalism of today.” Of course, if you try to point out this dark reality, many church leaders react, No way!

The good news is there are two ways to strengthen System 2. The first is including “the outsider view” Kahneman writes. This is someone who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. I only know of a few churches or companies that have an outsider, prophet, or what Ernest Hemingway called a crap detector, on the board. In these churches, if someone suggests the church is in exile, their leaders say, Let’s slow down and think about this.

The second way to strengthen System 2 is to write a premortem. Postmortems are written after the corpse is cold. A premortem calls for leaders to write a one-page story of why – a year out – a project failed. What might have happened if Jewish leaders had written a premortem hundreds of years before exile? I don’t know. And what would happen if a church’s leadership team wrote a story about why – a few decades out – their church was reduced to utter irrelevance? I’m not sure. But I bet their System 2 would be strengthened – and that would be a very beneficial thing.

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1 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 13.
2 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), p. 44.
3 James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford Press, 2010), p. 277.

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7 Comments

  1. It is human nature to attempt to fit life’s ongoing observations and lives “data points” into ones established worldview. It is probably the main reason we struggle under many different interpretations of the same scriptures. The person who can break out of his self-made paradigm is rare and precious!

  2. Mike;
    Thanks for this essay.
    Alan Hirsh & Michael Frost who authored “The Shaping of Things To Come”, I believe can present an outsider’s view. Alan’s an Australian who relocated to the United States, now assisting mega-churches in recovering their sense of mission–the mobility of the gospel–based on Jesus’ model for the Church in Ephesians 4.
    He couples this with Gladwell’s theories on the tipping points in culture, and provides the most encouraging perspective I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s worth a look if you are not familiar with his body of work.
    Rochelle

  3. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your faithfulness each Monday morning to provide food for thought.

    Question: Is system 2 largely responsible for calibrating system 1’s definition of reality (system 1 relies on system 2 for what is true and then ‘unconsciously’ lives accordingly)?

    If so, I reckon system 2 is where Abraham was fully persuaded by God and then system 2 (hope believed) informed system 1 of how to live day to day, including offering Isaac as a sacrifice.

    Am I on the right track?

  4. Gerard

    I think so… system 2 recalibrates system 1 as much as it calibrates it. It more calls into question reigning assumptions that clarifies existing assumptions – which Chris correctly notes is very difficult to do on your own.

  5. I am reminded of Proverbs 15:32: He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, But he who heeds rebuke gets understanding.

    If we are aware of the two systems of thinking then, hopefully, we can activate slow thinking more often and gain wisdom from it. I always accept criticism from others no matter how outlandish it may appear to me because I recognize there may be a grain of truth to it.

  6. Thanks for this Mike. My favorite novel by C.S. Lewis deal with this very issue. “Til We Have Faces” does an incredible job of showing our personal capacity for self deception.

  7. In our modern day, I believe the “System 1” thinking gets aid in leading us astray because of the overwhelming fog of information that cascades upon us. This noise from the system makes slowing down or getting silent enough to really hear the “System 2” thinking almost impossible. When was the last time any active church member, or especially church leaders, actually embraced weekly Sabbath of being quiet, being still?

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