In the last blog entry, I briefly introduced one of the main ideas from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. In this entry, I’d like to pair Haidt’s assertion that we arrive at our moral conclusions more from gut intuitions than sound reasoning by reminding us of
a Christian doctrine and our biblical story that will perhaps be more persuasive. Let’s start by acknowledging that most people’s working assumption is that people are rational beings (at the very least, we are rational; others, well?). Since the time of Adam Smith, the rationality of human beings was a prevailing view among
economists (though this assumption is falling on hard times with the rise of behavioral economists). We like to think that we have arrived at our stance on social issues because we have reasonably thought out our conclusions, because we are faithful interpreters of Scripture, because we take Tradition (large T) of the church seriously, and because our experiences have led to us these conclusions. (In case you didn’t catch it explicitly, I just named the four sources of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.)
But there’s at least one fault in this exercise. We are not rational beings. This belief comes more from the philosophy of the Enlightenment and economics than
from the anthropology of the Bible. Instead, people are a mixture of desires and emotions, and many of these are not healthy and rational. Now before I lose you, if I haven’t already, let me make my case biblically. (Of course, you can decide whether I’m just justifying my previously held belief from Scripture or deriving it from Scripture.)
Scripture declares that we are made in the image of God. Scripture also observes that the image has been marred by sin (a doctrine we seem to forget or not take seriously enough). When we look at the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs closely, we see that they, too, were driven by selfish desires. Abram lied about his wife to preserve his life; Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup; Rachel and Jacob deceived Isaac for favoritism; and we could go on —David and Bathsheba. Least we think this is merely an Old Testament phenomenon, Peter denied Jesus; James and John wanted to sit in seats of power and used their mother to make their request. Paul named it even clearer: all have fallen short of the glory of God. The biblical model of a human is not a rational being making ethical choices based on Scriptural mandates. The biblical model of a human is that we are given worth because we are made in the image of God, but our decision making and moral judgments are easily twisted, and we are quick to rationalize our decisions to make us appear holy, even when the substance of holiness is missing (see the Pharisees and Sadducees).
Interestingly, here’s the way Haidt states a purpose of his book, “I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition” (xix-xx). It is as though this moral psychologist is rediscovering what the church has confessed for millennia: we are radically marred by sin. Equally part of the human condition is that we are prone to forgetting just how deeply we are afflicted by sin.
I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition”
To take this one step deeper, Haidt contends that the moral values we hold “bind us and blinds us”; that is, we naturally form and stay in groups (binding) that reinforce our morality. Consequently, these become our “teams” from which we view the world (blinding us to alternatives).
All is not lost, however. Even Haidt concedes, “We may spend most of our waking hours advancing our own interests, but we all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply a part of the whole” (370). Again, I think our theology would add that the restorative grace of God gives us a foundation to proclaim that by God’s power we can be freed to love God and love neighbors as our selves. Beyond even that, the community of believers is to be known by how we love – by how we forgive, reconcile, and experience Shalom. In the next part of this series, we’ll explore the practical implications of these ideas.