When Charlie Brown learns that his dog, Snoopy, is writing a book on theology, he says “I hope you have a good title.”
Snoopy’s confident response is captured in a thought bubble: “I have the perfect title… ‘Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?”
Unfortunately these days, the attitude of humility is often missing from our theological (as well as political) conversations. Often we human beings tend toward certainty even when the grounds for our conclusion are tenuous at best.
The “Dunning-Kruger effect” is a term for the all-too-common inverse relationship between an unskilled person’s ability to accomplish a task and their confidence that they know what they are doing.
The truth is, they simply don’t understand enough about the topic to realize how little they know. As a result they (or we) are likely to repeat error after error in the execution of a given task. When we are faced with unknown or uncertain situations, humility and skepticism may be healthier approaches to take. But that isn’t our natural inclination.
One of my favorite teachers in high school wanted us not only to learn something about biology, but about the scientific method as well.
Mr. Brown had us read an essay by Karl Popper, a philosopher of science, about how it works at its best.
In developing a theory, a common understanding is that we begin with a hypothesis, and then go looking for evidence to back it up. Popper offered a different take.
Popper argued the best way to strengthen a hypothesis is to go looking for evidence that would refute it. It is when we fail to discover anything that contradicts our initial idea that our hypothesis gains credibility. Then we may really have something.
He offers the example of someone looking for evidence of the boiling point of water. If we stay at sea level, we can show that it boils at 100 degrees Celsius pretty well around the world.
It’s only when we change our elevation that we learn that water boils at a much lower temperature, when the altitude is higher.
In the years since I have often tried to apply Popper’s approach not only to matters of science, but of theology, philosophy, and even politics.
When someone offers a thought that seems obvious and true, I find myself asking “What if that’s not right?” This is even more important when the idea is something I am already likely to agree with.
“Confirmation bias,” the tendency to prefer information that agrees with our already held opinions, operates within all of us.
At an individual level that can be amusing or dangerous, depending on the situation.
At a cultural or societal level, it leaves whole communities of people, who live side by side with each other, entirely separated from one another.
Whether our divisions are matters of religious faith or political persuasion, if we only hear from people who agree with us, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn and grow.
Often in person, and especially on social media, I see that lots of us are inclined to make points, or even score points, rather than listen to a person with another perspective. What they are saying may seem impossible to us, or even incoherent. But if we listen only to rebut, rather than to understand their insight or experience, are we really listening at all?
Some years ago the writer Anne Lamott observed “you can safely assume that you have made God in your image when it turns out that God hates the same people you do.”
It seems there is a lot of that going around these days.
Many of us are pretty sure that God agrees with us most of the time. And why not?
Over the ages the community of faith has been strengthened and deepened by persons who called into question long-established and cherished ideas. We look back over the centuries and revere people who were ridiculed and rejected in their own day.
We owe one another rigorous and honest debate about the things that matter in our lives and in our world.
But as we engage with one another, we do well to consider Snoopy’s piercing theological insight: “Has it ever occurred to us that we might be wrong?”
Jonathan Chute is Senior Pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church. Jonathan can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org