Author Nick Epley of the University of Chicago, in his 2014 book “Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want,” contends, according to the reviews, that humans are good at lying and poor at detecting whether others are lying or telling the truth. He says that even married couples/partners are not as accurate at perceiving the truthfulness of their spouse as they believe.
One story in his book prompts this particular column. Dan Ariely of the Wall Street Journal cites a 2009 study by Dr. Epley to discern how people align themselves with God. The researchers asked Americans with a faith background to describe their position on social issues: homosexuality, abortion, the death penalty, etc. Then they asked two related questions.
First, what positions did these people think that prominent Americans (political, cultural, business leaders, the “average American”) took on the same issues? Second, what positions did these people think that God took on the same issues?
Those surveyed could guess fairly accurately the positions of famous persons, but they believed that God held the same opinions that they held. Liberals believed that God held liberal positions. Conservatives believed that God held conservative positions.
Dan Ariely concluded that “God, apparently, is something of a blank slate onto which we easily project our own views. We subscribe to the religious group that supports our beliefs, and then we interpret Scripture in a way that supports our opinions.”
To put it kindly that’s a simplistic, jaded conclusion. We do tend to gravitate towards people who hold beliefs similar to ours, whether in business, politics or religion. As a younger pastor, I thought it might be possible to span the divide between liberal and conservative theology, a goal that will take a person smarter than I. The more one sharpens one’s faith, the more one tends to fall into a particular supportive, encouraging faith community.
But the proposition that God is a projection of our consciousness is hardly original, nor does it fairly describe Biblical faith where men and women from Abraham through Paul struggled to remain faithful to a God who called them to obedience in ways they could not fathom or want to follow. The saints of the church are those who, after deep struggle, conclude, “Not my will, but thine, be done.”
Faith is not about aligning God with one’s pre-conceived notions of life and religion. Faith is about aligning self with the God who says, “My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts.” Christians and Jews through the ages have struggled to find ways to be obedient to the God whose purposes are above all wisdom and whose ways are often inscrutable.
On a daily basis I fear that I have thought and acted in ways that are entirely abhorrent to God. Life might be easier if I could convince myself that God always agreed with me, but such a perspective is one of the oldest, most seductive sins known and practiced.
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.