Our lives are mysteriously complex. There is so little in life that we have any control over. Our birth, our sex, our sense of gender, our mental, physical, or psychological make-up, our place in history, our name, our parents, our race, our ethnicity, and more are all beyond our control yet so deeply shape the person each of us develops into. Yet we are often inclined to judge others about how they deal with their “makeup” simply because they are not made up the way we are.
Judgment of another person is God’s domain. Why? Because only God knows what we are made of—better than we know even ourselves. None of us has the wisdom to dictate to others how they should live their lives with what they have been divinely endowed, and to resolutely want to do so with our limited human understanding of Scripture can get us to commit grievous sin.
One phenomenon that plays an outsized role in how we understand the Bible and God’s will is cognitive dissonance. Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright refers to it in his book Surprised by Hope: “Cognitive dissonance is what happens when people who badly want something to be true but are faced with strong evidence to the contrary manage to leap over the data that point the wrong way and become even more strident in announcing their claims.”
I believe we all suffer from cognitive dissonance to some degree. It clearly influences the political and religious views we tend to tenaciously commit to. Furthermore, it influences how we Christians try to understand the Bible and strive to apply that understanding to ourselves and to our neighbors.
John Polkinghorne was a world-renowned physicist and a bishop in the Anglican Church. In his 2011 book Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, Polkinghorne cautioned that “finite minds will never be able to capture the Infinite adequately in their logical nets. There is a tradition in theology, called apophaticism, which warns against the hubris of claiming exact knowledge of deity.” This does not mean theology cannot give us true knowledge; rather it is “simply a caution about the degree of success that theology can expect to attain.”
“Religious knowledge is much more ‘dangerous’ than scientific knowledge,” Polkinghorne also said, “for it can imply consequences for the way we live our lives, requiring not only the assent of the intellect but also the assent of the will.”
Let’s do our utmost to avoid the spiritual pride of claiming exact knowledge of God’s will on any subject under consideration in our religious deliberations with a divine sense of certainty. Certainty is God’s domain, not ours. Jesus taught us to pray to our Father in heaven, “Your will be done.” If we are not very careful in our deliberations concerning God’s will, we might be mimicking what the Pharisees in Jesus’ time did with the very best of intentions.
There are many passages in the Bible that lend themselves to cognitive dissonance. I don’t throw any of these passages out. Instead, when I reflect on them I ask myself three questions: What does it say? What does it mean? And how does it apply to my life or our lives? To properly read the Bible requires us to be prayerfully humble and guard our hearts against misunderstanding and what Polkinghorne called “the hubris of claiming exact knowledge of deity.”
- Do you agree that “judgment of another person is God’s domain”? Why or why not?
- Have you ever experienced cognitive dissonance before? What was the situation, and how did it affect you?
- How do you think cognitive dissonance might impact our reading and understanding of the Bible?
- Do you agree with “certainty is God’s domain, not ours”? Why or why not?