Who Are We?

FingerprintOne of my favourite smart people in all the world is a fellow by the name of George Lakoff. I like Lakoff for a number of reasons, but mostly because of his knack to trace ideas and opinions back to their origins – origins that most of us are blissfully unaware of.

In his 1996 book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, (I blogged about it here) Lakoff refers to American politics and makes the point that the real difference between “conservatives” and “liberals” has to with their understanding of morality: Conservatives hold to a “Strict Father” morality and liberals to a “Nurturing Parent” morality. Everything else is commentary.

One logical conclusion (there are many others) of Lakoff’s insights is that we bring our ideas to the party of our choice – a choice that has first been made based on those very ideas. Thus, our ideas are not shaped by our party, but amplified by it. Politics becomes an extension of our ego. This explains why so many of us are willing to lay down our lives for the party’s cause.

What we learn from experience…

C S Lewis relates a fascinating story in his 1947 book Miracles: “In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves… If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy that excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.”

Lewis is not alone in his observations. Demosthenes said: “Nothing is easier than self deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.” Aquinas pointed out that “we construe the world according to the principles of our own constitution.” Aldous Huxley confessed: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.”

As the old adage goes, we see the world not as it is, but as we are.

We See Jesus…

All of this becomes rather scary when we apply it to the realm of the Christian religion. In short: We see Jesus not as he is but as we are.

According to Rastafarians, Christ was a black man. The flower children thought of him as the first Hippie. Cuban freedom fighters drew paintings of him holding an AK 47. John Avanzini and the proponents of the prosperity movement teach that Jesus was a wealthy man who wore designer clothes and lived in a mansion. The Ascetics saw him as the great mystic. The Zealots wanted to turn him into their political liberator. The Pharisees expected him to be a Pharisee.

The list goes on and on: Jesus the apocalyptic prophet, Jesus the travelling sage, Jesus the inspired Rabbi. It seems as if everyone who has ever been excited about anything, has also, in the process, enlisted Christ as an apologist for their cause.

As William Blake wrote:

The vision of Christ that thou dost see

Is my vision’s greatest enemy:

Thine has a great hook nose like thine,

Mine has a snub nose like to mine….

Both read the Bible day and night,

But thou read’st black where I read white.

The Heart of the Matter…

This brings me back to Lakoff. If we dig a bit we will see that the great and seemingly complicated schisms of the Christian faith can be traced to a few basic presuppositions that are at odds with each other.

This is a book in itself, and we cannot explore it here. Suffice it to say that our doctrinal idiosyncrasies are oftentimes nothing but vehicles for a basic and rudimentary self-expression. The theology that resonates best with us is the theology that we most want to hear, and we most want to hear it because it best expresses who we are and where we see ourselves going.

This means that denominationalism is a social/cultural phenomenon rather than an ecclesiastical one. Jesus said: “There will be one flock with one shepherd,” (John 10:16). We say: “Birds of a feather flock together.”

But note the words preceding Jesus’ statement: “They will listen to my voice…” Here is the crux of the matter. Only when we listen to his voice will we be delivered from the dominating influence of those convictions and assumptions that we have been adopting and nurturing since early childhood – all in the hope of constructing the semblance of a real and lasting identity.

Of course this is what idolatry is all about, and the totem pole with its carved images is its perfect metaphor. But note: The price that we have to pay for this adventure is the inevitable dissociation from those who identify with a different series of images. As we learn from both the Babel story and the history of the church: It is the yearning for an identity and a name, expressed in a monument, that underlies all division, factionalism and partisanship.

To listen to his voice is the beginning of real and lasting fellowship. It is to depart from the traditions and opinions of men, even those ideas that are so profoundly and eloquently stated that they leave the hearer in awe.

To listen to his voice is to die to your own, and a good place to start is to acknowledge your own as but an echo of the voices of others. It is to step out of the constructs of human scheming and ingenuity into the glorious freedom of God’s thoughts, the fullness of which is found in Christ.

Are we liberals or conservatives? Calvinists or Arminians? Reformed or Orthodox? Pentecostals or Cessationists? The list goes on and on, with each category expressing allegiance to some or other formulation in space and time of that mystery which can only be grasped in union with Christ.

And so we are none of these, and we do not need them as categories for self-identification.

No, our identity begins and ends with Jesus Christ, the perfect expression and representation of the One True God.


Theologian, Interrupted

DalmatianSo where is the elephant? (If you think I’ve lost my mind, you may wish to refer to the previous post.)

To answer this, look at the picture on the left.

Do you see the Dalmatian? If not, take another look. If you still cannot see it, scroll down to the end of this post and look at the same picture, this time with the contours connected. Then return here. The dog should now emerge from the black blobs.

Once you “see” the Dalmatian you are confirming something that has both fascinated and puzzled scholars for a very long time, namely the human brain’s propensity to deceive its owner.

Why am I saying this? For the simple reason that THERE IS NO DALMATIAN in the picture. At least not according to the normal accepted definition of a pictorial representation of an animal. The contours of the dog are illusory, which explains why some of you had to have a kick start before you could see it.

So what do you see then if not an actual Dalmatian? You are in fact seeing an image that is inferred by your brain based on all its prior experiences with Dalmatians that were real. Your exposure to certain objective connections in time and space created neural pathways in your grey matter that now cause those very connections to be made when you see a mere few clues associated with them.

Compare the following two pictures:


Would anyone say that the lines in the left picture represent a bird? Surely not. Yet most people immediately see a bird in the picture on the right. Why? The lines in the two pictures are exactly the same, but in the picture on the right they are arranged in such a way that they recall the form of a bird that is stored in your mind.

This habit of the human brain may be fascinating, but it is hardly innocent. If you look at the picture below you will understand why:


This is not a bird. It is a face of a man, drawn on the lines of the “bird” above. By connecting them in a way that does not conform to the strong associations of a little feathered creature in our minds, a completely different picture emerges. If I were to say a moment ago that the “bird picture” represented the face of a man you would have thought that I was a bit confused. Yet I would have been no more wrong or right than those who said it was a bird. I simply chose to connect the lines according to a different association.

Examples of these mind tricks abound. There is a triangle in the picture below, right? Wrong. There is no triangle. It is inferred based on a game your brain started playing when you first picked up those little red blocks in kindergarten.


Instead of seeing a triangle I much prefer to see 3 angry Pac-Men attacking one of those little critters from the beloved eighties arcade game. Why not? It’s much more fun than a triangle that is not even there.

Triangle with Pac

(If you struggle to make the interfering triangle disappear, squint and focus on the top Pac-Man until the black in the picture becomes dominant over the white. The triangle will vanish and you will see a completely different picture.)


We will get back to our elusive elephant in a moment, but before we do so, let us consider another way in which our brains employ the very mechanism above to make sense of bits-and-pieces information and turn them into cohesive wholes.

You may not be aware of it, but when you recall past experiences you are also joining dots. The human memory does not retrieve an entire file associated with an event in the same way that a clerk would retrieve a law office file containing all the information associated with a case. Rather, it dips into the file and selects the highlights of the event. “Highlights” typically include the beginning of the event, the end, and any extraordinary or emotionally high-impact occurrences in between.

This leaves us with the job of connecting the bits by filling in the blanks. As with the picture of the “bird” above, we tend to do so in the way that seems most obvious to us. The result is that we oftentimes reconstruct our memories according to our own biases and preferences instead of the way in which the actual events took place. We impose an “idea” of sorts on the bits of information our brains feed us, and in the process we become poor witnesses and excellent storytellers.

One of the best examples of the “connection” phenomenon is the illusion of motion that is created by looking at a movie. A series of separate pictures played at a certain speed on a projector causes the stationary images to disappear and to be replaced with a lifelike rendition of the events that were filmed. Few people actually pause to think how strange this is when they watch a movie. They don’t realise that they are, in fact, witnessing a powerful demonstration of the mind’s determination to connect loose bits of information into a cohesive and sensible whole.

The Principle of Gestalt

The habit of relying on some or other “big picture” in order to make sense of the information presented to us pretty much dominates our lives, and has been noted by scholars for centuries.

The line of study that is most commonly associated with these principles is known as “Gestalt theory” or “Gestalt psychology”, the German school of psychology that traces its origin to the early twentieth century and to the work of the Czech-born psychologist Max Wertheimer.

Gestalt is a German word for pattern, form or shape and is employed in the English language to refer to the concept of wholeness, especially in the sense that it is used in the Gestalt motto: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”.

What distinguished the Gestalt school of psychology from its counterparts at the time was its insistence that perception is not a passive apprehension and mental storage of observable details, but an active and dynamic process of seeking some sort of order, pattern or form of which the details would only be a part.

As Wertheimer put it in the introductory sentence of one his famous papers: “I stand at the window and see a house, trees, sky. Theoretically I might say there were 327 brightnesses and nuances of colour. Do I have “327”? No. I have sky, house, and trees.”

The Sum, the Parts and the Elephant

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see how the predominant “gestalt” or “big picture” held by your mind can actually obliterate the intended message of a single bit of information.

Which finally brings us to our elephant (phew). The six men in Saxe’s poem each made the same mistake. They allowed a strong existing association to impose itself on their sensory experiences and so provide the illusion of a final understanding. Their existing insights, valid as they were, caused their exegesis to be “interrupted” and turned them into heretics.

Interrupted theologians are all around us, and it is not difficult to see why. The moment the brain detects a suitable pattern from its storehouse for making sense of the bits of information presented to it, it sees no need for further exploration. Needless to say, this illusion of a final insight is the breeding ground for heresy.

I may make myself unpopular here, but it is my firm conviction that Confucius’ tormentors (See previous post) all suffer from this malady. By allowing themselves the luxury of a preferred theological gestalt (a “pet doctrine” in plain English), they have shaped the entire gospel into a form that resonates deeply with them but that is in fact a caricature of the real thing.

This issue is so huge that it needs to be addressed separately, which I hope to do at some stage in the future. Until then, take some time and consider the following verses in light of the above:

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. Matthew 6:22-23

To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. Titus 1:15

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions. Proverbs 18:2

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:17

Dalmatian connected

On Big Picture Thinking

As some of you know, I make a living by drawing funny little creatures. I started drawing cartoons in my first school year and have never stopped. I also have a keen interest in mnemonics, and so at some stage these two passions converged and became the “Bigpicture” concept. If you are interested, you can visit my Bigpicture Website here and, in the process, check out the Gallery.

Big Picture Thinking, or “Gestalt Theory”, is a fascinating but mostly misunderstood phenomenon. To put it in a nutshell: The Gestalt principle is really nothing but a very obvious display of humanity’s yearning for God. We are forever looking for the whole, the context, the pattern, the paradigm, the structure that binds the detail together. And so parts have this tendency to form clusters which make up bigger clusters which make up bigger clusters… Guess where it all ends.

I’ll blog about this again in the future. There is much more to Big Picture Thinking than meets the eye!