The Shifting Sands of Belief

I finished reading, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, by Alan Nobel. He bounces many of his thoughts off of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and does so with skill. He helped me organize my thinking about why this age is so difficult to awaken to the truths of the Gospel. The first half of Nobel’s book is excellent; however, his prescriptions for addressing the problems he defines, are less satisfying. Nonetheless, it was well worth the Kindle price! Here are some excerpts:

“I believe the convergence of two major trends in our own time calls for a new assessment of the barriers to faith. This assessment involves much more than how to overcome objections to faith, but also the extent to which the church in America has accommodated ideas and practices that make it difficult for us to bear witness. These two major trends are (1) the practice of continuous engagement in immediately gratifying activities that resist reflection and meditation, and (2) the growth of secularism, defined as a state in which theism is seen as one of many viable choices for human fullness and satisfaction, and in which the transcendent feels less and less plausible. One result of these trends is that, as evangelicals, when we speak of Christianity we cannot assume that our hearers understand the faith as anything other than another personal preference in an ocean of cultural preferences. In such a world, the work of witnessing and defending the faith must involve rethinking how we communicate. The electronic buzz of the twenty-first century combined with the proliferation of personal stories of meaning (what I call “micronarratives of justification,” as opposed to “metanarratives”) has helped create what we may call distracted, buffered selves. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor coined the term buffered self to refer to the way modern people imagine themselves to be insulated from forces outside their rational mind, particularly supernatural or transcendent forces.1 The buffered self is a particular result of living in the closed, physical universe (Taylor calls it the “immanent frame”), in which everything has a natural explanation. Nearly all contemporary Western people, including Christians, use this frame to interpret the world…

The modern person experiences a buffer between themselves and the world out there—including transcendent ideas and truths. The constant distraction of our culture shields us from the kind of deep, honest reflection needed to ask why we exist and what is true. The value of individual choice and the multiplication of micronarratives shield us from committing to a consistent and coherent worldview. This allows the modern person to debate religion and politics freely, without any anxiety about what is at stake—because very little is at stake…

We are addicted to novelty, and as with most addictions, it takes a toll on our bodies: we become mentally fatigued, “scrambled,” as Levitin describes it. In this way, the modern mind is often not prepared to engage in dialogue about personally challenging ideas, particularly ones with deep implications. The fatigued mind would rather categorize a conversation about God as another superficial distraction, requiring little cognitive attention, than a serious conversation that ought to cost us, at least cognitively. The shape of our engagement with ideas forms how we interpret and categorize these ideas. Both the kind of technology we use and the way we use it can lead us to mislabel information…

A lifestyle of distraction will shape the way we interpret and respond to questions about basic beliefs—how we conceive of human worth, what transcendent hopes we have, what we believe about goodness and beauty. The distracted age has three major effects on our ability to communicate about matters of faith and ultimate meaning: (1) it is easier to ignore contradictions and flaws in our basic beliefs, (2) we are less likely to devote time to introspection, and (3) conversations about faith can be easily perceived as just another exercise in superficial identity formation…

The Christian faith requires a belief in a risen and living Savior, one who lived in this immanent world and transcended it both on the cross and in his ascension. But for our neighbors, the experience of modern life is something like what Peter described in 2 Peter 3:4: “They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation. ’” The world simply does not feel like a place where the supernatural intervenes. The cognitive barrier facing us is, How do we speak to people who feel that things are continuing as they have from the beginning? Who believe that the divine doesn’t interrupt our lives and there will be no second coming to interrupt this march of mechanical time. Our witness must work to disrupt the normative experience of life in a closed immanent frame.

How can we hold such a motley collection of perceptions and ideas together without great cognitive dissonance? To some extent, we can’t. And we don’t. Instead we continually jettison some ideas and adopt others, so there is rarely time for sustained, thorough reflection about what we believe to be true about the world. A shifting sand can never be measured for angle. To whatever extent that we hold these contrary beliefs without troubling dissonance, it is because we feel that there will always be dissonance. That ache in our stomach that we are wrong about something doesn’t really disappear, no matter what. Because even if we somehow found better, more consistent beliefs, we would always feel that external pressure to consider some other idea.

Noble, Alan. Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age. InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

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