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Together – Cognitive Dissonance

November 9, 2018

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Continuing from a previous post, I would like to speak of something that comes up fairly regularly when we are together. It can be spoken about in different ways, but I will use a name and definition that, in my view, is most practical and fitting. It is:

Cognitive Dissonance: The mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a belief of a person clashes with new evidence perceived by that person. When confronted with facts that contradict personal beliefs, ideals, and values, people will find a way to resolve the contradiction in order to reduce their discomfort. – Wikipedia

So let me begin with how it connects to the get-together that I was writing about. Well, it was during one of our sessions that a young woman candidly spoke up about this very thing. Having attended our gatherings for the last few years, she explained how at such occasions she detects an undercurrent of nostalgia in almost all that we do and talk about.

She stated the obvious, but it was good to hear it. We do, in fact, come together because we’ve known each other for a long time, the songs we sing go back to our early days and our conversations are often about the past. By contrast, not much of visible significance appears to be happening now.

The promised future that we imagined back then, didn’t really come about. Even the reboot stalled and we had a system failure; to use another analogy, the patient did not survive the operation. That’s our cognitive dissonance, due to past beliefs clashing with new evidence and nostalgia being a clear sign of it.

Put simply, the present does not match the past nor its future expectations. But cognitive dissonance is nothing new, and neither is it our specialty. It has been around a long time, way before psychology invented a name for it, furthermore, everyone experiences it at some time or another, particularly when getting over the prime of life.

I’d like to focus, however, on how it affects us as a group and in our beliefs. As the Wikipedia paragraph points out “When confronted with facts that contradict personal beliefs, ideals, and values, people will find a way to resolve the contradiction in order to reduce their discomfort”.

While before it was the group that provide us with “a way to resolve contradiction”, now we go at it individually and in many different ways. Some of us do it by clinging to the hope that our movement will still resurrect as a significant entity, and still fulfill what we used to believe about it. Others, instead, have directed their hopes towards other groups and churches, and “resolved” that way.

There are also those who still hang on to their eschatological hopes and “resolve contradictions” by constantly resetting their end-time clock according to current events. Then there are those who “reduce their discomfort” by blocking out the past altogether, making fun of it or playing the victim.

All sort of ways of dealing with inner discomfort, and these are only a few samples; but being that we are speaking of cognitive dissonance in a religious context, it might be good to look at how things played out with it in the past. Perhaps we can learn something from those who walked before us.

Let us begin by looking at scriptures, where cognitive dissonance is abundant, starting from Adam and Eve finding themselves out of the garden, then to the Hebrew people finding themselves out of the promised land and into Egypt, then again in Babylon, then under the rule of this or that empire.

Alongside these disappointments, Scripture tells us also how they worked “to resolve the contradiction in order to reduce the discomfort”, so we see how they reasoned things out and found suitable explanations for why things didn’t go as expected.

The New Testament isn’t any different. In fact, it begins in a period in which the people of Israel were experiencing acute cognitive dissonance. Taught to believe that they were God’s chosen people and destined to rule the world, they were living instead under the crushing rule of a cruel empire.

Many tried to resolve this apparent contradiction by clinging to what they believed God had also promises, namely the arrival of the long awaited deliverer or messiah. This powerful figure would soon deliver them from oppression and restore the throne of David. All nations would then pay homage to it in a global theocracy with Jerusalem as its hub.

Some of Jesus’ followers thought that they had found the man and, as Jesus moved towards Jerusalem, they though that the long awaited deliverance had finally come. Sensing the proximity of things, two of his disciples asked if once there they could rule with him, one sitting on the right and the other on the left of his throne (Mark 10:32-37).

That’s how literal their expectations were, and they weren’t the only ones. The records show us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, there were crowds waiting for him and wishing to proclaim him king. They too believed that Jesus was about to fulfill the prophecies.

What happened was exactly the opposite. Jesus was rejected by those who feared a revolt and turned over to the Romans, who crucified him. So, he was betrayed by a disciple, arrested by those who should have recognized him as king, abandoned by the crowds and killed by those he was supposed to deliver them from.

That’s how things looked from the perspective of those who had hoped that Jesus was the messiah of popular expectations. For them it was as adding insult to injury, as pouring more cognitive dissonance on top of that which existed already. Not a pretty picture.

Instead of becoming the new rulers, his followers were then disgracefully driven into hiding or back home, to the jobs and relatives they left to follow a charismatic leader, now executed as a criminal (Remember the scandal of the cross that Paul speaks of? It was indeed an embarrassing scandal).

So now scattered and like sheep having no shepherd, they faced the worst cognitive dissonance ever. Their former and literal interpretations had failed, so they began to reason things out, to process their experience in search for “a way to resolve contradictions and reduce discomfort”.

A story in particular tells us how they did that: Two of the disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, when a stranger accosted them. They spoke with him of how their hopes had been dashed by recent events in Jerusalem and the stranger responded explaining how they had misunderstood God’s plan, how what they had expected wasn’t meant to be (Luke 24:13-35).

The story ends with the disciples recognizing the stranger as Jesus and commenting, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”. The conclusion is within this comparison between the reality of inner experience (heart burning) and the disappointment of imagined expectations.

The bulk of the New Testament then deals with this very thing, with an ongoing dissonance between that which is experienced as real, like the perception of God’s spirit, and that which used to define it but now “clashes with new evidence”.

Paul, as the first Christian writer, dealt with this at length. I could write pages on it but I don’t want to make this too long, so just think of Paul as the stranger on the way to Emmaus. Think of how many words he used to reinterpret scripture in light of what happened to Jesus (new evidence), explaining why things went the way they did and reinterpreting the promises of an old covenant in relation to a new one.

He even went as far as to call the Concision, an earlier and perhaps more original form of Christianity, a false gospel (Gal 1:8). Why? Because for him it was a compromise that didn’t let go enough of the past, that didn’t resolve the dissonance it created.

For him it was a childish thing that needed to be put away (1Cor 13:11), but many weren’t ready for it yet, not even the original disciples. It took a few more decades, the fall of Jerusalem, the expulsion from the Synagogue system and the consequent failure of that compromise, before Paul could be fully accepted.

Then we have the gospel authors, and they too reveal a progressive development in the early understanding of the Jesus phenomenon. But the passage from Jewish messianic expectations to Son of God, then to eternal Logos and universal Christ of faith, was neither smooth nor sudden.

The progression is clear, more or less chronological and especially noticeable on issues such as Christology (the person, nature, and role of Christ), soteriology (the concept of salvation) and eschatology (death, judgement, and final destiny).

On Christology, for example, and particularly the question of Christ’ divinity, we know that from very early on, people began to experience something extraordinary, mystical and divine in connection to the name of Jesus. Explaining it, however, was a real challenge.

Naturally, they began where they were at, from within the existing religious and cultural context, then gradually moved forward. At first, it wasn’t easy to let go of old mindsets or challenge an old orthodoxy, so they didn’t. Instead they moved one step at a time, one explanation at a time, gradually abandoning some in favor of others.

So it was with the divinity of Christ, as seen here in chronological order:

1. For Paul, Jesus became divine at resurrection (Romans 1:4). After all, he only saw the resurrected Christ.
2. For Mark that was not enough, so he moved Jesus’ becoming the beloved Son at baptism, the start of his ministry (Mark 1:11).
3. Matthew and Luke saw a problem with that, so they moved it at conception, the beginning of his life (Matthew 1,2 Luke 1,2).
4. John saw a problem with that too and moved it to the beginning of the world, actually to eternity (John 1:1).

We don’t usually notice it, but it was the dissonance created by earlier assumptions (in earlier gospels and epistles) that gradually gave birth to later ones (as in John). Without John, for example, there wouldn’t have been Nicea (325 A.D.) and the doctrine of the trinity. In arguing for it, Athanasius did in fact rely mostly on John, while Arius relied mostly on earlier gospels.

Written almost two generations after Jesus, John’s gospel stood in relation to earlier ones as Paul stood in relation to the Jerusalem church. It was long resisted by the western churches for contrasting earlier accounts, but it was the answer to some cognitive dissonance existing then.

It is John who resolved some strained explanations about Jesus divinity. Did it happen at resurrection, baptism, conception or birth? John went beyond previous conjectures and put things in a different order, “before Abraham was I am”.

He realized the cosmic dimension of Christ, as the logos of God, as the eternal ground of being from which all things come forth. His Christ was from beyond time, which is why he didn’t need a nativity accounts and the multitude of questions that these had raised.

He rightly called people to move beyond trying to reason things out and into experiencing instead. Except ye be born again, as the wind, knowing in spirit and truth, being one, abiding in the wine or walking through the door, ye cannot see the kingdom, in essence, ye cannot experience God.

He also wrote in a period when may Christians were succumbing to cognitive dissonance because of unfulfilled prophecies. Jesus had not returned and the awaited kingdom had not come, not even when Jerusalem was surrounded by armies and then finally destroyed.

It was a moment of crisis and John answered by entirely omitting the predictions of the previous gospels. Notice how his gospel never speaks of a coming kingdom, a central feature of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Why? Because for him the kingdom was a state of being that was already there (John 3:3,5 and 18:36).

Seeing the failure of earlier predictions, he called people to experience the reality of Christ in the present. In essence, he was saying they had misunderstood things, that the goal was not a future heaven on earth, but a present transformation; it was rebirth, knowing God in spirit and truth, oneness with God and drinking from a fountain that would satisfy for ever and turn people into fountains themselves.

He addressed the failed hope of an immediate return of Jesus by saying that it had already happened, at resurrection and Pentecost, when Jesus “breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). So, a gospel without end-time and with a different Pentecost, why? Because the outward practical aspects did not match previous expectation, yet the inner ones were more real than ever and needed to be redefined.

John had dealt with the cognitive dissonance of previous decades and found ways to resolve it. Others dealt differently with it. There was in fact a new genre of literature, broadly called apocalypses, that began to flourish around the same time. In a period of almost continual persecution, these books attempted to resolve discomfort through visions of imminent judgement and salvation.

There were many such “revelations”, most of them bearing the signature of some great apostle to give it weight and credibility. There was the apocalypse of James, Paul, Peter (two of each), of Steven, Thomas, John and a few others. John is the only one that made it into the Bible canon, but for a while there was indecision between John’s or Peter’s.

If you read Peter’s you’re probably happy that they chose John’s, but you probably also understand why Martin Luther wished to remove even John’s from the Bible canon. They were all very scary books and they were soon forgotten.

So, what’s the conclusion? That cognitive dissonance is normal, good and part of our natural development. That disappointment with earlier stages of understanding is what helps new ones to emerge, and what keeps us from stagnating.

Jesus had to die before his followers could leave the past beyond and understand better. Old Judaic Christianity had to die to realize its universality. Prophetic expectations had to fail to discover the kingdom within, beyond time and in oneness with God.

Each step forward came from the death of a previous paradigm, which is what the story of the cross is meant to teach us. Did we think we would be an exception? That our paradigm wouldn’t need to die? That our prophecies, promises, revelations and interpretations wouldn’t need to fail?

But how could all that fail if that’s where we experienced the very presence of God? Because if it didn’t we would still be there, still expecting the same results and repeating the same mistakes. We would be stuck with childish representations that worked while we were children, but not after that.

The means by which we experienced God then, had to grow small and inadequate. The answers that satisfied us then, had to grow insufficient, and it doesn’t feel that way then we have probably fallen asleep and it’s time to wake up.

So what to do with cognitive dissonance about our movement, our lives in it, past beliefs, ideas, prophecies or whatever? What to do of the fact that things turned out so different from what we expected? And what of the shadow that the past continues to cast upon us, making us feel less than we used to be, not as active, useful, valuable, or worse, that we wasted years of our lives with nothing to show for it?

All sorts of comparisons, some nostalgic, some regretful, but all telling us basically the same thing, that we are struggling with the present. On one hand these feelings are natural and tell us that we are moving, but on the other they tell us also that the cycle isn’t complete, and it can’t be until we accept the present for what it is.

It doesn’t mean that we can’t try to change it, but only that no true change can occur while our perspective remains the same. So we might need to review our past, but with kindness and forgiveness, thanking God for whatever it was and whatever it taught us and then leave it there, without trying to fix it, reject it or long for it. That is the foundational yes that truly resets the present.

To an extent, this is what the folks compiling the Bible were also doing. They were dealing with things from the past but providing a new perspective on it, based on what they believed God was doing at the moment. They did so by compiling a list of books, new and old, that spanned a progressive movement from beginning to end.

When doing so, they did not try to fix the horrors of the past (Old Testament) or sanitize it for future use. There was no effort to eliminate what didn’t fit their new understanding of God, nor to eliminate contradictions from more recent explanations (New Testament). They did not try to harmonize everything into perfect coherence.

Yes, there was one fellow, Tatian, who tried to do that with the gospels, to merge them into a single narrative. It was called the Diatessaron, but it didn’t work. Why? Because differences were meant to be there, cognitive dissonance as well, because it all spoke to people in different ways and helped them come along from wherever they were at.

The people who compiled the canon (list of books that eventually formed the Bible) knew that the past was messy, that some texts from it were better than other, that some parts were incorrect and that nothing was perfect, but they include what they did because it showed a progressive movement in the direction that they believed God was leading.

That was the inspiration and work of the Spirit, in the movement of the text, and not just the words themselves. And let me add here that the greatest obstacle to truly seeing God beyond scripture is the superstitious belief that every word of it is perfect, as if spoken directly by God. No past was ever perfect, not even that of Bible stories, writers and editors.

So what to do with our past? The same as with all past! We do not need to reject it, but we can build on it. True growth does not reject earlier stages of life, but includes them, just like the Bible authors included the texts of an earlier religion and diverse views on a multitude of subjects.

True growth is not bound by the past, but allows it, builds on it and needs it as a reference point, a tradition, and with the good and the bad all mixed in. And why do we need a tradition? To give us a sense of direction, just like scripture, to know the road we’ve been in as a community and to be able to speak of it in a common language.

But tradition alone is not enough; it makes us think that the best is behind us and the present isn’t good enough (cognitive dissonance). So the picture comes to mind of the tricycle, which stands on three wheels, tradition being one of the back ones and scripture the other, but the front one being personal experience.

The back ones must be there for stability, community, a common language, a history, the experience of those who went before us, but traction and movement are in the front wheel, in our personal experience of God, as a present reality.

Scripture and tradition are trails of past experiences, good for balance, but not for forward motion. So it is good to continue with them, but if we wish to get anywhere then we must keep our eyes and feet on our present experience of the kingdom within.

So let us get together again, honor our past, sing our songs, tell our stories and keep our brotherly bonds strong and alive. But while we do that, let us also speak of the God we see today, of the Good News He speaks to us now and how it solves our cognitive dissonance. Let us deepen our communications, compare our experiences, share our bread and water and invite others to the feast as well.

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One Comment
  1. Personally I don’t believe in gods, not in the Christian god, not in Allah nor in any of the other many alternatives on offer, but having said that, I still found you post both interesting & enlightening. Than you for posting it.

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