Friday, January 22, 2016

Two Problems with The Way We Think: Confirmation Bias and Statistical Outliers

In my recent post on “The Seekers Who Aren’t” (that is, that people outside church walls aren’t really seeking the church to find answers), I wrote, 
“As proof we [church leaders] offer isolated anecdotes of those who were searching and found our churches.” 
Here I offer two reasons that anecdotes don’t prove what they promise.

There are two problems with anecdotes as proof. The first is “confirmation bias,” which the thoughtful and bestselling psychologist and author Daniel Kahneman takes on in Thinking Fast and Slow. We tend to look for evidence to confirm what we want to be true. For example, we tend be afraid of natural disasters over health risks, Kahneman writes
“Strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80% of respondents judged accidental death to be more likely.”
Many people look for the first sign to confirm their fears and visual representations—as well as media reports—inflame our fear. How often do we read about death by strokes versus natural disasters on the NBC Nightly News or Facebook news?
More specifically, as Kahneman writes, 
“Tsunamis are very rare even in Japan, but the image is so vivid and compelling that tourists are bound to overestimate their probability” (333).

For this reason, we remember and retell stories that tell reinforce confirming, and therefore comforting, preconceptions.

Second problem is misunderstanding outliers. Here’s the issue: I tell you that smoking, drinking, and being obese are all factors that tend to decrease life span. And then someone responds, “Ya, right. My uncle smoked two packs a day, had six beers every night, and weighed 350 pounds—he lived to be 95.” Of course, it’s possible, but it’s not counterproof. We’re not talking about one person, but a population sample of millions. Smoking, drinking, and being obese are all factors that tend to decrease life span for people as a rule. On every statistical distribution, which can be mapped on a “Bell Curve,” there’s the percentage of people on the outside ends or “outliers.” And that's where your miraculously long-lived uncle fits.

Bottom line: We might tell an anecdote or two of “real seekers,” as an antidote to evidence points in an unpleasant direction. That, however, is not good proof. We want our conclusions to be true so we seek whatever supports our convictions (confirmation bias), but exceptional stories don’t disprove the rule (misunderstanding outliers). I leave this as a question, Do we telling ourselves stories to make us feel better when feeling bad might be what’s needed?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Exegetical Notes on Divine Kenosis (God’s “Emptying”)

Theologian (and friend) Tom Oord just sent me his new bestselling book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, and I’ve been happily reading it. Tom promotes the concept of “essential kenosis” in God. For him, kenosis is “not so much about how God became incarnate as to understand God’s nature in light of incarnate love” (156).

This led me to reflect on the Greek word kenosis and what it means in the New Testament. I have to admit I’m not yet sure how what follows would affect Oord’s project directly--perhaps that connection will appear in a subsequent post--nonetheless, I have discovered that theologians have often misunderstood kenosis in the key passage, Philippians 2:7 because they have not taken Paul’s rhetorical structure seriously. (I have not yet seen a commentary on Philippians that engages the structural set-up and denouement for kenosis, but one exists, let me know.)

The Greek word kenosis only occurs five times in the New Testament, where it means in
Philippians 2:7 (which I’ll quote below), “empty” or “make empty”; “to make void” (Romans 4:14; 1 Corinthians 1:17); and “to cause a thing to be seen to be empty, hollow, or false” (1 Corinthians 9:15; 2 Corinthians 9:3). Only in Philippians is kenosis about Christ. Since this one passage has been central to kenotic theologies, the context is critical for the meaning of the word.

In Philippians 2, Paul moves from kenodoxian conceit or two words, “empty glory” (3) to ekenosen “emptyied” (7) to doxan (“glory” in this case, God’s) (11). So just to be obvious, Paul takes a compound word, kenodoxian and breaks it into two words in their related grammatical forms, ekenosen and doxian. This structure has interpretive (or more precisely, exegetical) payoff. 

I’ll have to quote the passage at length (with those three words in bold) so you can see it.
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
 6   who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
 7   but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
 8   he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9    Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
 10       so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 11       and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

If you’re wondering where all this leads, here’s the bottom line: this passage is primarily about serving—not seeking our own way—for the purpose of creating true community. In a phrase,
Be like Christ—Don’t seek empty glory, but empty yourself of privilege, and God will be glorified.