A Taste of Our Own Medicine

Michael Metzger

It was the taste that changed his tune.

For years, Dr. Edward Rosenbaum dismissed critics of the medical community. Then he contracted cancer. Doctor became patient. Then he got a taste of his own medicine. He changed his tune. This might be just what the doctor ordered for those who believe culture-change is from the bottom up. They need a taste of their own medicine.

Rosenbaum’s story is best known by the film “The Doctor” featuring William Hurt in the title role. It was based on his autobiographical book, A Taste of My Own Medicine. In the book and movie, he goes from doctor to throat cancer patient. By being on the receiving end, rather than simply prescribing, Rosenbaum got a taste of what it was like to be a patient in an indifferent medical community. It changed his tune.

For years, a passel of popular Christians has dismissed critics who claim cultures do not change from the bottom up. One of these Christians (who shall remain anonymous) has been pointedly dismissive of a critic of the bottom up approach, James Davison Hunter. In his book, To Change The World, Hunter says all world-changing movements are top down. The popular Christian spokesperson on the other hand disagrees. He was recently asked whether Christians should be in politics and made a dig at Hunter: “I’m a great believer in what Naisbitt said. ‘Fads start from the top down. Movements start from the bottom up.’ There are people today saying we Christians shouldn’t be involved with these things and to just be a faithful presence where we are. That’s bad advice.”

That’s actually a bad recap of “faithful presence.” Hunter coined the phrase in calling for the church to once again be a “faithful presence within society”—changing the institutions and individuals who shape culture. Hunter offers examples of what can be accomplished through the practice of “faithful presence,” including wise involvement in the political realm. He doesn’t say Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics.

But this is beside a larger point. Good people can disagree. But good Christians ought to agree that strategies matter and resolving bottom up or top down is worthwhile. Since both sides prescribe the Cultural Mandate, a taste of our own medicine might help.

Prescribing the Cultural Mandate means stipulating it’s the main means for changing the world—making culture. No disagreement there. But tasting our own medicine would mean recognizing a sense of: “No way!!!” is an impulsive yet often incorrect feeling. The human brain processes unconsciously about 95 percent of the bundled images it receives. We only consciously process of about five percent. This means 95 percent of our brain function produces what neuroscientist Robert M. Burton calls our unconscious feeling of knowing.1 It’s described in his book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. Cultural conditioning produces reflexive feelings such as: “This feels right” or “There’s no way that’s correct!” In a perfect world, it would always be correct. In a fallen world where culture is imperfect (not as it ought to be), an individual’s reflexive feeling is more often wrong than right.

This means cultures are the key to shaping impulses—for good or bad. Burton points to findings from neuroscience research indicating that the higher degree of certainty of your beliefs, the lower the capacity to consider contradictory evidence. Certainty is a relatively recent idea in history, not grounded in scripture but in the Enlightenment.2 It’s the philosophical framework for initiatives such as “truth projects.” We’re all for truth, but these initiatives reduce the brain’s capacity to consider contradictory evidence. Older faith communities instead held to “proper confidence.” This holds truth in tension with the human capacity for self-deception and it’s impulsive resistance to contrarian views. Only properly shaped cultures produce a healthy degree of self-suspicion and intellectual humility.

In the past this was widely advocated. William Wilberforce urged his 15 year-old daughter, Elizabeth, to “accustom herself to self-suspicion.” He based this on Jeremiah 17:1-9, where the heart—a synonym for conscience—is deceitful. Wilberforce prescribed the Cultural Mandate but also recognized we live in a world of malformed cultures. Christians can be wrong on a few things. In Guilt: The Bite of Conscience, Herant Katchadourian reinforces this point. “Conscience is divine,” he writes, and as “a witness to our actions, as like any other witness, it can err.”3

These three lessons—incorrect feelings, the need for contrarian cultures, and self-suspicion—are the result of being on the receiving rather than the prescribing end of the Cultural Mandate. They tell us that our feelings toward top down or bottom up ought to initially be held in check. They challenge us to consider whether we operate in a faith community that prescribes the Cultural Mandate while inviting “push back” and contrarian views. This is rare in the modern American faith community. But it’s a sobering reality. Burton says the odds of someone changing their tune in cultures lacking contrarian voices “is a low probability uphill battle.”4 These two lessons lead to the third: self-suspicion. A virtue that is further diminished in a celebrity culture.

These three also indicate that our popular Christian spokesperson has probably never tasted his own medicine. James Naisbitt is a populizer, not a serious source for culture-change (he’s the author of the Megatrends books). Even political pundits recognize that bottom up movements do not produce long-term cultural change. They are like bees—they sting, then die. Naisbitt’s statement that “fads start from the top down” is an assertion without evidence. Where’s the self-suspicion toward this source?

Our Christian spokesperson also fails to honestly engage James Hunter’s citing of Randall Collins’ research on how cultures change from the top down. In Collins’ 1,500 page book, The Sociology of Philosophies, he cites extensive research supporting the claim that every culture-shaping movement has been top down. That’s not a “fad.” Hunter offers nuance, noting that it is sometimes true that political revolutions and economic revolts occur from the bottom up but on their own terms, they are almost always short-lived. If the goal is to change the world, it has only happened in a top down fashion. Our popular Christian spokesperson fails to engage the debate on this level, probably because he operates in an environment where “push back” and contrarian views are not the norm.

It’s easy to dismiss your critics when you haven’t tasted your own medicine. Put another way, if the bottom up approach is the better way to change the world, it is up to those who prefer it to produce an account from history that supports their claim. The reality is that there are too few of us prescribing the Cultural Mandate. We need to work together. But we need to do so in a wise and winsome manner. No cheap shots. Perhaps a taste of our medicine is the best way to change our tune and work together for the good of all.

______________________
1 Robert M. Burton, M.D., On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008)
2 For further reading on this important topic, I suggest Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi, Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin, and The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor.
3 Herant Katchadourian, Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 143.
4 Burton, On Being Certain, p. 183.

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7 thoughts on “A Taste of Our Own Medicine”

  1. This is the first time in a while that I haven’t tuned into or really understood what is trying to be said here. Can we not be certain that abortion is wrong? Can we not be certain that in the history of the Judeo-Christian ethic that marriage is between a man and a woman? Can we not be certain that cheating on a test in school is morally wrong? Do I need to hear the other side on these issues or be certain that there is a moral law and advocate for it.

    Please explain

  2. One question I’m left with is: what happens if institutionally culture changes enough so that bottom-up approaches can work? Do recent and seismic technology changes (namely, the Internet) challenge Hunter’s assertions?

    In other words, does Twitter matter in this discussion?

  3. Mike Metzger

    Hard to say. Recent research (c.f. “The Shallows”) indicates that Twitter (et al) “shallow” the capacity of the brain to assemble patterns from data. Instead, most everything remains particles. This is where we get our current bumper crop of people known as “factoids.” No real wisdom, just the ability to recite the price of tea in China. It’s hard to imagine these kinds of people and institutions shape culture as much as they “ride” it.

  4. True.

    But you can certainly see my point… individual people are more equipped now than ever to have influence as an individual.

    Barriers to entry are lower. It’s easier to get to a institutional level of efficacy.

  5. Mike Metzger

    Not necessarily. You are confusing entry with the necessary gravitas to change the world over the long haul. Lady Gaga can garner attention because some of the barriers to entry are lower. But she is, in no way, better equipped to have the kind of influence that creates the kind of culture-shaping movements that Hunter talks about. Sure, she enjoys a level of influence, just as the Tea Party does. Both however lack the depth of ideas and institutions with enough oomph to be taken seriously in the wider world. Popularity is not the same as culture-shaping influence.

  6. Mike Metzger

    Hey Old Fly Boy:

    This is more a discussion of how we ascertain what we hold to be true – less about what we ascertain to be true. It is often the case that premature certainty clouds the ability to consider competing tensions or opposing views. What’s lost is our appreciation for complexity and nuance. The main issue I’m addressing is the all-too-common approach of elevating cognition above cultural influences – as though our thoughts bob atop the currents of culture like a beach ball, wholly unaffected by the ebbs and flows.

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