Calculating human madness is the job of psychological research. I remember taking research methods, and it is really quite difficult to design a study that can truly control all the variables that control human thought and emotion. Research has to account for the placebo effect, that people often feel better because they have a treatment, whether they are taking a sugar pill or an anti-depressant. Medical doctors don’t want to tell you too much about side-effects, because once we know, we are more likely to think we are experiencing a side effect. Behavioral research is fascinating to me, but I am always cautioned to remember that it is just probabilities of something happening, not certainties. And even very definitive research is only helpful if people believe it. No matter how many studies you do that say things like, gun control saves thousands of lives, or children raised by gay couples are healthy and balanced individuals-if these findings don’t fit a world view, they are not taken seriously anyway, even by Supreme Court Justices. (“Gay marriage hasn’t been around as long as cell phones, we better be careful here.” Someone needs to tell Scalia there are now Smart Phones.) In reality, none of us are good at assimilating things that counter our world view, our assumptions or expectations. What is your first reaction to these words: Alabama…Evangelical…How quick people are to label anyone who disagrees with them to be “a Nazi” which is the worst thing we can imagine to be.
One afternoon in 1942, a young boy was playing with his friend in Paris. He lost track of time turned his sweater inside out to hide the yellow Star of David sewn into it, and set to home. He didn’t get far before an SS soldier was coming toward him on a deserted street. There was nowhere to hide. Certain that the soldier was about to notice the star, the boy picked up his pace, but the soldier stopped him anyway. The boy was filled with terror and feared the worst possible torments to befall him. Years later he wrote in his autobiography, “[The soldier] beckoned me over, picked me up and hugged me…He was speaking to me with great emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet, showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right. People are endlessly complicated and interesting.”
This boy, named Daniel Kahneman, survived, studied psychology and math, and his research on cognitive biases and fallacy won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. His book, Thinking: Fast and Slow” shares his ground-breaking work. It fascinates me that his research focuses on cognitive bias, our thinking fallacies. He looks at the ways we sabotage ourselves, the dangers of over-confidence, how bias makes us live in fear, and turns us away from things that make us happy. For example, the development of the brain has led to a pessimism bias. You have nine good things happen in a day and one bad thing, what do you think about? This negative tendency kept us alive when we had to worry about predators. But in the modern world it makes us fearful, reactive, we dig in our heels and resist things as if our very life is at stake, when it is just a new idea.
While Kahneman won the Nobel economics prize, someday I think his work will be worthy of a Peace prize, because this is the problem that keeps much good from happening in the world – we won’t give up our biases, and resist what makes for a better life, and a just and peaceful world.
William Sloan Coffin of Riverside Church understood this truth, saying, “If your heart is full of fear, you won’t seek truth; you’ll seek security. If a heart is full of love, it will have a limbering effect on the mind.” A heart full of love is necessary to accept truth.
I have no idea what his religious beliefs are like, but Kahneman defines the beginning of his life mission back at that moment when a Nazi SS soldier hugged him. This may be why he recently called for Israelis to recognize Palestinian statehood. I cannot say if God created a moment in 1942 where a Nazi missing his son encountered Kahneman, but it has the feel of holy ground. How does God work in the world? So often it is in a brief encounter, a burning bush draws our attention and we hear a call to action. It may come as a still, small voice that beckons and says we are loved…a moment of forgiveness where guilt is lifted and we are free…a healing whisper that helps our grief turn the corner towards life again….the unjust suffering of another touches our heart and launches our desire to make a change for the good in our world….a supposed enemy hugs us. These brief chance encounters are like a spark that ignites the bush, and the Holy fire burns within. This is why so much of God’s work goes unnoticed. It is happens quietly, like a heart-beat, a whisper, the dawn comes when most are asleep and a heavy stone rolls away that was meant to cap a tomb. Who can believe such things? Sounds like an idle tale. Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is risen! Wait, death and taxes are the only certainties. But Mary Magdalene and the other women insist this is so. Will you too doubt the witness of women? He is risen! (whispered) Will you go to the entrance of the tomb and look for yourself? What if he is risen? How then will you live? If you answer that question, then Christ is risen, indeed, in you.