Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Jan. 17, 2021
As Jesus began to call his disciples, they had varied responses, one of which was quite sceptical. After Philip became a disciple, he told his friend Nathaniel about Jesus, hoping that Nathaniel would join them. When Nathaniel heard that Jesus had come from a small, secluded village called Nazareth, he scoffed at Philip asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip ignored his derision and simply responded, “Come and see.” Nathaniel’s curiosity got the better of him and so he went with Philip to see Jesus. Nathaniel was astounded when Jesus already knew about him and Nathaniel became a believer in an instant. Jesus replied that he would see much greater things than this.
Jesus invites us, “Come and see what is so much greater than you could ever imagine.” The challenge for us is that we have a very difficult time seeing what is set before us. Even more, we each see things differently and we each call what we see “truth.” We end up with a very confusing mish-mash of competing truths and we are beginning to call the truths of those who see differently “fake news.” We could try to let our separate truths exist independently, each in our own world, but we don’t live that way. Our lives interact because we live in communities where we need to hold at least some truths in common. If not, our society would fall apart.
As you may know, I’ve become very frustrated with churches which supposedly read the same Bible as we do and support individual rights over communal welfare. Yesterday’s rally in Steinbach, supported by only one church, is an example. That, to me, is in fundamental opposition to Jesus’ teachings of sacrificial love and the priority of the needs of the most vulnerable. When I hear Jesus saying to me, “Come and see,” what I see is so very different from what some other churches see, and yet we are all reading the same Bible. How can this be?
I finally came across something that helps me understand this and gives me a wee bit of compassion for those who see so very differently. Brian McLaren, a popular theologian today, just published an ebook called Why Don’t They Get It?
McLaren describes 13 biases that we all have which affect the way we see. He defines bias as a pattern of distortion in our ability to see what is there. (If you’re like me, you’ll want to write these down, as I began to do when I was listening to McLaren’s podcast until Nancy saved me by giving me her list. Remember that my sermons are all posted on our website, which might save you from trying to write them all down. Even better, you might want to buy McLaren’s ebook.) Here are Brian McLaren’s 13 biases that are subconsciously at work in all of us.
- Confirmation Bias—the human brain welcomes information that confirms what it thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks. The other day, I was reading in the paper about Apple being questioned again about its human rights record in its factories. I found myself dismissing it, because I use Apple products and I realized that if it was about another company that I didn’t like, I would embrace the critique. Yikes!
- Complexity Bias—the human brain prefers a simple lie to a complex truth. Lately, we’ve had beautiful, warm sunny days. That’s what my brain thinks when it’s above zero in January. But the complex truth is that it is not as beautiful as it is troubling to be this warm with forecasts of rain at this time of year.
- Community Bias—the human brain finds it very hard to see something your group doesn’t want you to see—we put tribe over truth.
- Complement Bias—if people are nice to you, you will be receptive to what they say. If they aren’t nice, you won’t be receptive. We mirror back the attitude we receive from others—that makes us open or closed to what they have to say, whether it’s true or not.
- Contact Bias—if you lack contact with someone, you won’t see what they see. It wasn’t until I heard first-hand stories of police violence to Black and Indigenous people in Winnipeg that I had to finally admit that it is a reality right here.
- Conservative/liberal (political) bias – our brain likes to see as our party sees and we flock with those who see the same as we do. If some data challenges the thinking of our political allegiances, we will be more likely to dismiss it, whether or not it is true.
- Consciousness bias – our level of consciousness or cognitive maturity makes seeing some things possible and seeing other things impossible. The more mature we are emotionally and spiritually, the easier it will be to admit we are wrong and welcome truths that challenge us.
- Competency bias – our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average. We fool ourselves into thinking that we know better and are more competent than others.
- Confidence bias – our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth. We mistake confidence for competence. A doctor once told me that he would never look something up in front of a patient, because the patient would lose their trust in him if he appeared unsure. That was scary for me to hear, but he might be right!
- Conspiracy bias – our brains like stories when we’re the hero or the victim but never the villain, so when we feel shame or even fear, we are particularly attracted to conspiracy theories that portray us as innocent victims. It’s never our fault.
- Comfort bias – we accept data that allows for comfort and happiness (such as studies that regale the benefits of dark chocolate!) and reject data that inconveniences us or requires us to act. I really appreciated the series in the Free Press on homelessness in Winnipeg, as it helped me to better understand the underlying conditions. However, I began to grow weary of the articles because they were uncomfortable and required me to think about my own response. In a nutshell—I lazily didn’t want to have to consider one more piece of work.
- Catastrophe bias – Our brains are wired to notice sudden change, but we easily miss subtle or slow change, such as climate change or a spread of a virus. When it is subtle or slow, it comes to be seen as normal, not as a catastrophe, and therefore a reality that simply needs to be accepted, not resisted.
- Cash bias – we see what helps us make money and discount what will cost us.
That’s a lot of biases that shape what each one of us sees as truth! It’s no wonder that we cannot see the same thing. In fact, it’s amazing that we can share any common insight and truth. These biases help me understand why we have opposing truths, but what do we then do?
For me, it’s not enough simply to understand. Jesus’ call to us to come and see is not just a call to open our eyes and accept that we see things differently. It’s a call to be transformed so that what we see changes. It’s a call to a spiritual maturity that is able to see something that challenges the very things we see at present.
Sometimes we are so focussed on something that we cannot see anything else. As Brian McLaren says, what you focus on determines what you miss. There is a famous Harvard experiment where participants were asked to watch a video of two teams throwing basketballs to their own teammates. One team wore white shirts while the other team wore dark shirts. The participants were asked to count how many times the team wearing white shirts threw the basketball to one of their team mates. In the middle of the video, someone dressed as a gorilla walked into the middle of the game, turned to the camera and beat their chest and then walked off. When the video was finished, everyone was asked how many times the white shirts passed the ball. After the various scores were recorded, they were then asked how many saw the gorilla. Only half of the participants saw it. The other half could not believe that a gorilla walked across the room until they saw the video again.
We see with clouded eyes. Our focus and our biases limit our sight. As I Corinthians 13:12 reads, “we see in a mirror dimly.” Jesus invites us to open our eyes anew; to come and see things we could never imagine.
How do we do this? We could meditate on this list of biases and try to be honest with ourselves. When I react to someone else’s story about racism or abuse of authority, I might want to look over this list of biases and see if something in that list has been triggered for me. If so, that triggered bias may be preventing me from seeing someone else’s truth.
Richard Rohr adds one more bias to this list that may be the most powerful. It is a bias of certitude. When we are able to loosen our grasp on being certain, we begin to mature in our faith. Rohr says that the opposite of faith is not doubt—it is certitude. It takes maturity and courage to doubt the things that make us comfortable, that help us fit in with our group, that benefit us. If we welcome doubt into our lives, we will begin to see what we couldn’t see before.
What about others? Are we called to help other people see our way? Possibly—that’s what evangelism is all about—telling the good news to others so that their eyes may be opened to healing and wholeness—shalom. But if we try to convince the other, we must remember that they, too, have biases that may prevent them from hearing us. That is why persuasion of argument rarely works. But if we tell our own stories of personal transformation, we are not directly challenging them. Our stories of failure and learning, of changing what we see may be the most effective way to help others understand our truths.
Jesus invites us to come and see, to open our eyes to new truths and new vision that will change our lives and our world.