Friday, April 30, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: That Sync-ing Feeling

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University (“CRC”) has released yet another study on the beliefs and values of the American public. We have commented on and critiqued a few of these polls before in this forum with respect to their findings, and our concerns about possible shortcomings in the methods employed by the data gatherers.

Tom: I don’t really want to get into all that again, IC. But there is a word that came up in their first press release concerning this new batch of data that interested me greatly, because I believe it’s a pretty accurate way to describe the general direction of the evolution of public thought over the last century or more.

The word is syncretism, by which Director of Research George Barna means “a patchwork of conflicting, often irreconcilable beliefs and values”. Barna’s group of pollsters tell us as many as 88% of Americans embrace this “impure, unrecognizable worldview” that blends ideas from as many as seven different perspectives: Biblical Theism, Secular Humanism, Postmodernism, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Nihilism, Marxism (in the form of Critical Race Theory) and Eastern Mysticism.

Whew! That’s a kitchen sink full of conflicting concepts, isn’t it?

Buffet Religion

Immanuel Can: It certainly is. I’ve heard this kind of thing called “buffet religion”, and if you’ve ever been to an all-you-can-eat buffet, you get the image. Often one gets a plate full of odd things: a scoop of potatoes, a square of jello, three shrimp, some artichokes, a slab of beef, a few won tons … individually, all good things, perhaps, but together the result isn’t really so appetizing, and the plate as a whole is often nothing you would ever think of serving to a guest, because it just doesn’t make sense together. That’s what happens when impulsive taste guides our choices.

Tom: Now, when I say — or when George Barna and his group say — that the dominant current American belief system is this thing called “syncretism”, I don’t want anyone to think for a moment that means that the vast majority of Americans would characterize their own beliefs as syncretistic. Most probably don’t even know what the word means, and wouldn’t think of their current belief systems as a philosophy or theological system at all. Rather, they have absorbed a bunch of contradictory ideas that they hold in their heads simultaneously without recognizing or caring about where they came from or about the fact that they cannot possibly all be true at the same time. As Barna puts it, “Worldview in America develops by default. Most adults in America don’t even know what a worldview is.”

What it looks like to me is that the CRC asked a bunch of people a bunch of questions about what they believe that were designed to show where their ideas were coming from, the answers to which were then classified under the seven aforementioned perspectives. If the respondents expressed beliefs that were mutually contradictory, or that were obviously derived from radically opposed worldviews, then those people’s beliefs were classified as syncretistic rather than wholly one perspective or another.

Feelz and Realz

IC: Well, to me, it doesn’t actually sound like much more than the routine observation that people often believe contradictory things, and don’t realize the utter impossibility of both of them being right. And again, that’s what happens when “This feels good to me” replaces “This makes actual sense.”

Tom: I agree with you that people often believe contradictory things, and that this has always been the case. They also act inconsistently with their own belief systems, and always have. And believers are not immune. King David, for example, got hugely riled up (“The man who has done this deserves to die!”) over a hypothetical neighbor’s pet lamb being served for dinner, when he himself had sinned much more seriously along the very same lines. Total inconsistency there.

But the difference is this: it used to be that consistency of belief itself was a widely-cherished value, as basic logic demands. So David is stricken with remorse when Nathan says to him, “You are the man!” Nathan has made a rhetorical argument that illuminates the inconsistency in David’s conduct, and David immediately admits his error and seeks repentance. Likewise, when I was growing up, if you pointed out that someone was being a hypocrite — saying one thing and doing another — that person would be shamed and silenced. They would either become contrite, or at very least they would defend their actions by providing more context to demonstrate that you had misunderstood, and that their actions were not really hypocritical. Because if they were ... well, we all knew hypocrisy was bad. Or if you pointed out a contradiction in a person’s belief system, they would actually experience a moment of cognitive dissonance, and would seek to resolve the inconsistency. Inconsistency of belief, once pointed out, was indefensible.

The Argument Continues

But today, in a society where so many have absorbed post-modern, secular and Marxist assumptions by default, pointing out that a person’s beliefs are inconsistent or their conduct hypocritical doesn’t silence anyone. It doesn’t end the argument at all. Because Postmodernity admits no truth, Secularism acknowledges no ultimate Judge, and Marxism openly promotes the tactical utility of brazen lies. So in this brave new world, the argument continues until Nathan the prophet gives up and goes home, because the lessons of history have not been learned and logic doesn’t matter anymore.

IC: It’s not quite like that, I think. It’s not that people have stopped believing in logic and consistency; it’s more that they’ve stopped thinking about it, and they prefer to take for granted that whatever beliefs they hold are at least as consistent as anybody needs to be … and should not be examined further. I say it’s like that because when you DO force them to realize the inconsistency between two or more of their current beliefs, they still get very irritated and defensive. It’s not so much ignorance and confusion as what the Bible pegs as willful unbelief. They don’t even want to think about it. And they refuse to. Their first reaction of ire and hostility is simply taken as proof positive that you’re a bigot and an oppressor for having even brought rational consistency into the discussion as an issue.

Tom: I think that’s true in some instances. In other cases, I think “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers”. They are so deeply deceived that they genuinely believe hypocrisy and inconsistency are bad when you do them but perfectly fine when they do. Either way, the net effect is the same: there is no acknowledgement of being wrong, no concession made to their position.

Profitable Engagement

So let’s say you’re right, and the irritation and defensive posture you see coming from the other side is not merely evidence of impatience and reluctance to engage but evidence of actual, Spirit-driven conviction of sin: how do you engage profitably with people who do not accept scripture as the final word in any conversation because they have absorbed so many other influences they view as equally authoritative, or of greater authority?

IC: This will maybe sound a bit mystical, but I truly think the answer is, “Quote scripture again.”

Tom: The power is in the Word ... no, I don’t think that’s mystical. It’s a very good point.

IC: Even when dealing with rank atheists, which I do a lot, I find that a sort of stunned silence follows when you quote scripture. You’ll notice that. When you make your own arguments, they come right back at you, right away. When you quote scripture, they struggle, they whine, they have to fight it off. The word of God still works, even on people who don’t believe it. They hate and fear that more than anything you can possibly just make up to say.

Tom: You know, when I think about it, that’s what I do too; not because I’m terribly calculating, but probably because it’s the only way I ever learned how to disagree with anybody about anything that matters. I do it with Christians, so I kinda do it reflexively with unbelievers as well. I haven’t had quite the same reaction you’re describing — no stunned silence yet — but at least I’ve yet to hear anyone say, “That’s not a legitimate form of argument!” After all, if they can argue from their worldview, we can argue from ours. And really, it IS the only valid reply to a Godless intellectual position: that God himself says otherwise, and in case you didn’t know, he’s put it in writing for you.

God Says

IC: Well, try pointing out to people the passages of scripture that show definitively that there’s no way to God but Christ, or that judgment is coming. If you want to see stunned silence, those will get it for you.

Tom: Not having ever talked about the state of his soul with an avowed atheist, I can only imagine. I don’t know a single person who claims to be one. But the thing about atheists is that the highest authority to which they can appeal is their own opinion. “Science” can’t help them. To hear “God says” in response to their arguments is probably fairly shocking. It’s less disturbing to people who say they believe God exists, or who simply don’t know, because they have at least heard something of the truth but have yet to really come to grips with their personal need.

In any case, I think you’re right on with that one. I would add that backing up my words with kindness seems to matter, not in that it wins souls in itself, but it makes it hard for the recent recipient of a loving act to become venomous when you mention the Lord. Even if he still thinks you’re totally wrong, he generally understands you mean well. Of course, I’m not talking to people in online forums about salvation, which makes doing things for them a little easier.

IC: Well, here’s my thinking: this world came into being in response to the word of God. The word of God establishes the very foundations of reality themselves, and now sustains them. And I think that on a very deep level, as Romans 1 suggests, people know this … or rather, I should say, they feel it. There’s a low existential rumble right down in their bones when they hear the words of God spoken to them. And it’s not so easy to get away from that, no matter how hard you try. That word is powerful. That word divides, and mostly, it divides the things that cannot be shaken from those that can. The atheist worldview not only can be shaken, but stands on sand. So I say, speak the word, and let the Lord speak through it, no matter what the other person thinks or says.

Taking a Reasonable Position

Tom: Yeah, I think that gets to the heart of it right there. I’m curious: Do you think it’s really 88% of the population that embraces some sort of syncretistic theological position? I don’t. I believe it’s high, but not quite that high.

IC: I can’t really say. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was quite high. But I think a lot of this syncretism is sort of unconscious … people are not thinking through their beliefs to rational conclusions, and so may perhaps not even be aware that the thing they’re believing at one moment is diametrically opposed to, or exclusive of, an idea they hold at another minute. But that’s our own fault, if it’s true. We owe it to us, and to other Christians, to be thinking these suppositions through, and taking rational positions on them.

After all, what is obedience but to hear the word of the Lord, and then to reason out how to apply it to the particulars of our own circumstance, and then put that into action? How can we do that if we are never really thinking through the meaning of what we are doing? So semi-consciousness is the enemy of obedience, isn’t it?

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