Honor the Lord with Your Amygdala

November 25, 2019 § 11 Comments

The Oatmeal, an online comic by Matthew Inman, published an amusing and illuminating illustrated treatise on the “backfire effect.” This is the natural, and often sinful, cognitive bias that causes some to resist evidence contrary to their beliefs. The amygdala (the emotional core of our brains) goes into defense mode when we’re presented with “facts” we don’t like. The sin (my observation, not The Oatmeal’s) comes in when we reject ideas without utilizing our God-given reason, or when we spiral into an emotional tirade at the presenter.

Oatmeal GWUsing one of the examples in the comic, the suggestion that our beloved George Washington wore false teeth made from the teeth of slaves may illicit such a response. (There is evidence that Washington purchased teeth from slaves for false teeth, but it’s rather slim and inconclusive despite being presented here as “fact.” Or is that just my amygdala talking? You can investigate the sources cited in the comic yourself on that.)

The author says that the backfire effect “makes sense from an evolutionary perspective” and follows that up with an archetypal caveman scenario. But it also makes sense from a Biblical perspective. We are created to hold firmly to personal convictions. To believe. As fallen creatures though, we often let emotions get the best of us and set aside reason when our beliefs are challenged.

Because “we’re all going in the same direction”, the author concludes with the assurance that he’s “not here to tell you what to believe” before telling us what to believe: that it’s okay to stop, listen, and change. I’m not sure if the “change” encouraged is a change in how we respond—now that we know how our brains often handle new and unwanted information—or a change in our worldview when presented with new ideas about the world or ourselves. Both are good and healthy responses, the latter depending of course on the ideas.

In any case, the only reason to believe anything at all is if we are convinced that it’s true. This includes foundational or presuppositional beliefs, like the existence of God, or the tenets of naturalism, that we ultimately must accept or reject on faith.

Matthew Inman is neither shy nor particularly clear about his brand of atheism, but in this video he masks a sad, nihilistic worldview with plenty of jokes—some either profane, throwing shade at religious belief, or profanely throwing shade at religious belief—all while professing faith in “Jibbers Crabst”.

The overall aim of his post about belief seems to be the awareness of what’s going on when we learn new things, and realization that we don’t have to blow up at others who challenge our deeply held beliefs. Atheism and sarcasm aside, that’s an earnest and respectable goal.Screen Shot 2019-11-25 at 9.54.06 AMSometimes the truth hurts. But the truth is meant to ultimately give us joy. The good news of the gospel—that Jesus Christ died to save sinners—begins with the bad news that we all are sinners who need a savior. There’s a classic example of new information that many an amygdala reject (1 John 1:9-10).

We should keep an open mind, even about our deeper convictions. But as G.K. Chesterton tells it, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. Otherwise, it could end up like a city sewer, rejecting nothing.”

(The “classroom-friendly version” of The Oatmeal comic is linked above, but there is a “regular version” with some profanity that really isn’t a necessary or funnier way to make the point.)

Putting Anxiety in its Place

May 16, 2014 § 2 Comments

As my own anxieties are uncovered lately, I’ve been trying to uncover what really makes me worry, aside from the circumstances of life that at times can seem very heavy. What exactly puts me in a position where I feel I must worry about them? This thinking has resulted in the discovery that, for me, my thinking informs and dictates my emotional response to life’s trials.

Chewed Pencil with path

There’s a lot to be said about the important roles of both your head and your heart and the connection between the two. But what has really helped me is the understanding that what I feel ultimately comes from what I think, so what I think about a situation critically determines whether I will worry about it or not.

Living as a Christian, I have a responsibility to think differently about anxiety than the world does. The world shares certain Biblical principals about anxiety, such as the wisdom of Jesus in Matthew 6:25/Luke 12:25, asking, “who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” In a practical sense, worrying never helps anything, and most people can get their minds around this.

But what the world does not readily consider is the role of God Himself plays in our anxiety. We have promises in Scripture that speak directly to our worries: The Psalmist wrote “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you…” (Psalm 55:22), and Peter later taught believers to Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)

Considering that God wants us to trust Him with our anxieties, I have to humbly consider that my anxious self is not giving Him my trust. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel His presence at times. And if I don’t “feel” God, I need to examine how I “think” about Him. He hasn’t gone away and I know this. If I get my thinking right, I can let what I know about God’s control over this world direct how I feel about my control over the world. If we know God is there and cares about us, that should steer our emotions. If our mind is preoccupied with God and less on our own problems, our attention will be on God and how He promises to deal with our problems.

That’s what we can know about God, but what can we know about our anxieties?  “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Jesus promises we will have trouble in this world, but thank God, they are isolated and temporary. We only deal with them “in this world,” a natural world reeling from the corruptive effects of Adam’s sin, effects that are both physical and mental. There will be no trouble in the next world for those who claim Christ as Lord, so take heart. God is bigger than whatever you are facing. Our anxieties will not win; they lie in defeat at the foot of the cross. “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (See the rest of 2 Corinthians 4).

Garden_called_Gethsemane_Wallpaper_gs7a2We don’t ignore our problems, but can look at them through God’s eternal lens. This doesn’t mean we completely detach our emotions from responding to the present reality of trouble. God doesn’t even appear to do that. The man Jesus knew anxiety, revealed in His appeal to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of His crucifixion: “’Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to Him and strengthened Him. And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44)

Sweat blood lately? The stress Jesus felt was real, but even more real was the knowledge that His Father’s will in saving us from all that is wrong in the world must be done. His anguish and death would, after all, make life and peace available to us all.

Everyone’s anxieties are different, and getting to the right understanding of our worries in light of God’s sovereignty won’t look the same for everyone. For many, medication and counseling are necessary steps. The destination, ultimately, is our right thinking about God and His control, which determines whether anxiety will control us. The culture we live in often confuses thinking with feeling, but we need to be clear about the distinction, and that what we know ultimately guides how we feel. And know the truth: Whatever our circumstances, God knows, God cares, and God rules. That should help us put our burdens in their rightful place, on His shoulders—not ours.

(Related post: Whoa, Feelings! Are We Losing Our Minds Over Emotion?)

 

Whoa, Feelings! Are We Losing Our Minds Over Emotion?

February 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the first Star Wars film (Episode IV), the Reverend Obi-Wan Kenobi preaches Humanistic New Age Theology while teaching Luke Skywalker the ways of the Force aboard the Millennium Falcon. From Obi-Wan’s sermon, we learn that “you must do what you feel is right,” “a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him,” and as a follower you ought to “let go of your conscious self and act on instinct.” Observation is secondary, so “your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them… Stretch out with your feelings.” The Jedi wisdom from the likes of Mace Windu and Yoda also exhort Luke to rely on his feelings.(1)

jedi4

Well, enough with the Star Wars trip. In more recent years, I’ve noticed it seems increasingly acceptable to substitute “feel like” for “think” in normal speech. I work in graphic design and am no stranger to hearing phrases like, “I feel like that blue is too harsh.” Color isn’t a feeling; it’s perceived with the eyes and mind. But “I feel like” commonly precludes descriptions of many types of experiences, mainly ones more accurately perceived by sight and sound. Rooms that look cluttered “feel” cluttered. Music that sounds happy “feels” happy. About people we see who are visibly upset, we “feel like” they’re upset.

An emphasis on feeling has, I feel, been pervasive in many Christian churches as well. Alistaire Begg spoke about knowing vs. feeling in worship(2), as certain churches seem to have given themselves over to Emotionalism and Mysticism, conflating emotional high with experiencing the Holy Spirit and genuine worship. A worship leader at one such church beckoned the congregation, “Hey, how do ya’all feel this morning?” Alistaire says, “Don’t ask me how I feel. Ask me what I know… You have to get yourself under the control of the Scriptures. It is what we know, the verities of the Scriptures which then fuel our hearts and our emotions and lead us on.”

Christian author and philosophy professor J. Budziszewski (3) affirms that “the mind is an instrument for thinking, not for feeling” and that “our modern writers are…confused about the difference between feeling and reasoning…” He suggests a proper relationship and balance between the two: “Am I suggesting that feelings and intuitions are irrelevant to thinking, that they should be ignored? No, they should be taken seriously. To ignore human feelings is as dangerous as to have no human feelings. The right way is to recognize them as part of the data with which any account of human matters will have to reckon. The wrong way is to treat them as though our feelings about a subject proved anything about it all by themselves.”

We have feelings and emotions because God does. Ours is a God of reason (Isaiah 1:18) but also emotion. He loves (John 3:16), hates (Psalm 11:5), has compassion (Gen. 19:16), grieves (Gen. 6:6), and rejoices (Isaiah 62:5).(4) Experiences are meant to be multi-faceted. The fullest experiences involve not only reasoned thinking but feeling emotions. The only reason to abandon reason or emotion is when we’ve lost control of one of them—and then we ought to seek to regain it. Sin can affect both reason and emotion. Obviously, both have value and are needed to assess the world properly, and to worship God in Spirit and in truth.

Our mouths can’t help but speak from our deepest convictions (Matt. 12:34, Luke 6:45). If it comes naturally to say that “I feel like we are drifting toward a more prevalent Cosmic Humanism”, could that actually be true? Maybe that’s an overreaction; language is subject to trends and people often use terms without thinking about the implications, but that in itself may be a sign that we aren’t thinking enough. Feel and think as creatures that were made to use one to keep the other in check.

(Related post: Putting Anxiety in its Place)

1) The Jedi Q, by DT Strain, http://dtstrainphilosophy.blogspot.com/2006/01/jedi-q.html

2) Wretched Radio: Alistaire Begg isn’t nuts about some contemporary worship music, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJhCWrdckpc&sns=em

3) Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law by J. Budziszewski, page 220.

4) Does God Have Emotions? by Matt Slick, http://carm.org/does-god-have-emotions

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