Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Need to be Right Often Makes Us Wrong

Kathryn Schulz is a wrongologist; she studies being wrong.

When we're wrong we don't feel like we're wrong. The feeling of being wrong, according to Schulz, is exactly like the feeling of being right. It's not until we know that we were wrong that we feel that wrongness, but by that time we've stopped being wrong.

Confused yet? Watch her 20 minute TED talk (below) and hopefully things we become more clear.

Equating being Right with Being Good

In life, and especially in church, we can fall into the trap of equating rightness with goodness. It's not our fault, really. So much of our culture and even our language agrees with that assessment. The same root word for rightness is also in righteousness. Conversely we equate being wrong with being bad or evil. Rightness is a moral success while wrongness is a moral failure -- or at least that's the way we see it. 

How do We Learn without being Wrong? 

Our natural learning process is one of observation and experimentation. That's exactly how a baby learns to talk. They observe the communication of adults, they try to mimic it, they fail, but they persist in failing until they figure out what they were doing wrong. On that magical day a baby speaks her first word. And from there on out that child is never wrong again. 

Sometimes it feels as if that's the standard we've set. We don't. We let the babies run through countless iterations of failure, which they check against their observations, and eventually they learn to speak. But that process never stops. We are constantly rechecking our speech through testing. Failure is more rare for adults, but not out of the question. 

But somewhere along the line we flip a switch and children from that point on are no longer allowed to be wrong. Usually it's when they get into school. The teacher is the font of all knowledge and the student is asked to accept that knowledge without question, apply that knowledge without doubt, and repeat that knowledge without hesitation. 

Mistakes aren't Sins

No one would accuse a baby of sinning if it, through pure chance, spoke awful words as it was trying to learn to call out to its mother. It would would simply be a mistake, an error, an experiment that wasn't successful. 

But if an adult were to speak the same awful words, we might want to call that a sin (I don't know what words, I'm making this up to go along with a baby learning to speak). The adult can know how words will affect others, the adult can weigh their actions, and the adult knows what the words mean to begin with. 

Belief as Intellectual Assent

In the history of belief there has been a shift from seeing belief as a holistic state that requires intellectual assent as well as spiritual and physical action (see the book of James in the bible) to just seeing belief as intellectual assent. 

As the understanding of belief as a purely intellectual pursuit grew, so too did the stakes of belief. Instead of being able to say "I believe, help me overcome my unbelief," with the distraught father in Mark 9, we are pushed to adhere to a creed or code without question or doubt. 

But the very God who made us to explore, experiment, and fail as we learn is the one to whom we are attributing this standard of intellectual assent. 

Don't be Afraid of being Wrong

You were made to be wrong -- and to learn from it. You weren't made to jump into the world and get everything right from the beginning. When we're afraid of being wrong, quite often we will avoid any chance of being proven wrong. That is exactly what we need to learn. Unless we seek out opportunities to be wrong we won't ever know if our ideas are right. But when we equate wrongness with sin and rightness with good, it's altogether tempting to avoid poking any holes in our ideas so we will continue to feel right. 

But the feeling of being right is exactly the same as the feeling of being wrong. It's not until we test and explore our ideas that we can know if they are actually right or wrong. 

Experimenting with the Bible

The bible is, very often, seen as off-limits for experimentation. But why is that? Why don't we let people observe what it says and then test out possible applications? 

Because the bible is meant to keep us from sin (right?).

The idea is that sin made us wrong so God gave us the bible to fix our wrongness. 

But that's not what the bible says about sin, nor about God's attempts to fix the problem of sin. The bible sees itself as being functional (i.e. useful for teaching, reproving, correcting, and training) so that we can live well. The point of the bible and God's work isn't to keep us from being wrong, but to teach us how to be loving people (love God and love your neighbors). 

Some of that love involves avoiding things. We shouldn't kill people or take their stuff or sleep with their spouse. But far more of that love involves engaging in things. We should feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, give to the poor, and use what we've been given well. 

The best way to learn how to do things is to experiment. The best experiments show us when we've been wrong. 

Let's be Wrong

That's one of the major projects of this site: experimenting to see where we've been wrong. We won't know until we try. Until then we'll just keep feeling like we're right even though we arent.