…what do you know, anyway?…

After a rather demanding school semester I have been able to re-engage the books that I have been, and choose to, read. One of the books that I have been able to pick back up in the last couple of days is “The Invisible Gorilla” by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. Though I am not quite finished with it, unless they were to drop a literary pile in the remaining pages, I highly recommend the book. Very interesting and applicable non-fiction. The premise of the book is based on a psychology experiment that simply points out just how common it is for us to miss things in life. They deal with several illusions that the majority of people in the world live with.

Something that I was reading this morning was very interesting. The chapter is pointing out that we have a tendency to live with an illusion of understanding, or more simply, that we think we know more than we actually know. They suggest:

You mistake your knowledge of what happens for an understanding of why it happens, and you mistake your feeling of familiarity for genuine knowledge.

The testing they did to experiment with this idea is something they referred to as the “why boy” test. The test administrator basically took on the agitating role of a 5 year-old and continually asked “why” with every answer the test subjects gave. And before you take offense and assume that they were unfairly placing expectations on people the way the test was set up gave the subjects full control of what they would be questioned about. From a bicycle, to a cylinder lock, to the reason the sky is blue options were presented and the subjects were allowed to choose something that they said, “I know about that well enough to explain it” or “I know how that works”. They then proceeded to fail miserably at answering the “why” question.

Before you tried this little test, you might have thought intuitively that you understand how a toilet works, but all you really understand is how to work a toilet – and maybe how to unclog one.

The reason Chablis and Simons give for this disconnect between what we think we know and what we actually know is our persistent lack of self-testing. Part of the mixture of sociology and psychology that comes into play here is our culture’s incredible addiction to saving face. We hate to admit that we are either wrong or don’t know something, even to the extent of ignoring anything that might suggest those things to us. This could be, if I may suggest, the disproportionate popularity of television over books. Books are more difficult to engage for any number of reasons, but in that effort we are assaulted with our own weaknesses and insufficiencies, which we hate.

I have to wonder how this affects us spiritually. How much are we telling ourselves that we “know what we believe” when in reality we actually only know that we believe in “something”. How often are we seeking out hard conversations with people who would be able to challenge our faith? Are we avoiding those dialogues that we may “lose”? The illusion of knowledge and understanding is alive and well in the church as much as anywhere. While this doesn’t shock me it does seem profoundly odd because what we believe as Christians is far more consequential than knowing how a bicycle or a toilet works. We claim to know about things that have to do with our eternal destination, about things that relate to the quality of our lives here on this earth, and about things the human heart has been searching for since Eden. Doesn’t it seem foolish to commit things of that importance into the hands of someone else? Does it make any sense to claim something eternal merely because it sent a shiver up your spine when a gifted orator delivered it in a charismatic way?

We fall prey to the illusion because we simply do not recognize the need to question our own knowledge.

In our day-to-day lives, do we stop and ask ourselves, “Do I know where the rain is coming from?” We probably don’t do it without provocation, and it only happens in appropriate social and cognitive contexts: a five-year old asks you, you’re having an argument with someone, you’re trying to write about it, you’re trying to teach a class about it.

Friends, I encourage you today not to confuse “faith” with “excuse”. It is not enough to answer every deep question regarding your Christian beliefs with, “I believe it by faith”. While there are some things that we begin believing solely by faith, there is nothing that we are not supposed to investigate and strive for understanding of. Faith is a beginning for us, not an end.

Don’t avoid hard conversations. Don’t shy away from those who may be more intelligent than you or better spoken than you. Step into those discussions and use them as tools to show you where you need to understand more. I believe we should come to the Scriptures with the intention of letting the Spirit of God teach us, not merely confirm His promises to us. Theology is not a word to be avoided, but a pursuit to be embraced.

I have “lost” plenty of casual debates with Christians and non-Christians, and while I hate walking away from a conversation without having “all the answers” I have a choice to make in that moment: will I set my mind to learn and day by day prepare for other such encounters, or will I sulk in defeat and grow satisfied in my ignorance.

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