Talking Past One Another

One has only to observe a religious liberal and a religious conservative in dialogue to notice that world views have not been strikingly altered.

Shouldn't the exchange of ideas lead to alterations in viewpoints?

I suggest that there are two, not incompatible, reasons for mental resistance to change. One insight is provided by the neurologist, Ramachandran; the other by the Christian psychologist, Fowler.

When I was in rehabilitation therapy for my brainstem stroke of late 1997, I was shown simple drawings of faces by my psychologist. In one the left ear was missing. In another the nose was missing. And in another it was an eye missing. At the time, I could see nothing wrong with the drawings. They looked perfectly normal to me. My brain was filling in the gaps.

In “Phantoms In the Brain,” V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., PH.D., describes the actions of a woman exhibiting the characteristics of a not uncommon condition that follows strokes in the right parietal lobe of the brain. (The condition usually clears up in a few weeks.) The syndrome is called hemi-neglect. This woman had applied makeup (lipstick, mascara, and rouge) to the right side of her face only. As she inspected herself in the mirror she looked perfectly normal to herself. Imagine a woman who has just applied makeup looking in a mirror and thinking everything looked normal when in reality the makeup was applied only to the right side of her face. How could a woman apply makeup to half of her face? How could such a woman examine herself in a mirror and think that she looked normal? She would also ignore her son if he appeared on her left side.

There is also a condition where patients think that one side of their body does not belong to them. Some patients will get agitated and think someone has placed a dead body beside them.

The mechanisms of the brain seem adept at “filling in” information and "rejecting" information. Dr. Ramachandran says that in denial patients one can see all of the kinds of self-deceptions articulated by Sigmund Freud. Such a confluence of the theories of psychology and the observations of Neurology convinced him of the reality of psychological defenses and how central a role they play in human nature.

We all like to feel that we are “in-charge.” Ramachandran’s researches have convinced him of the wisdom of Darwin’s remark “…that everything we do in life is governed by a cauldron of unconscious emotions, drives and motives and that what we call consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg, an elaborate post hoc rationalization of all our actions.”

Based on what he knows of neuroscience Dr. Ramachandran conjectures that our left side brain filters out information that is not compatible with our worldviews. It is not that we ponder information and reject it but that the information is somehow unavailable to us – we just don't "see" it - we are hardwired to preserve our status quo.

Another possible, not incompatible, reason for our resistance to alterations of our worldview comes from the Christian psychologist, James W. Fowler, who authored “Stages of Faith – The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest For Meaning.”

The psychologist, Piaget, noticed in his studies of childhood development that there were a series of stages of behavior that followed one another in the growing child. The completion of one stage was necessary for the next. Fowler proceeded on these lines of research to identify somewhat parallel stages in faith development.

While these levels are sequential and are followed in specific progression, Fowler cautions that an individual at any stage can function authentically and that we should see level as a means of understanding why people reason, think, and believe as they do and why they sometimes find it almost impossible to understand others who might happen to be at a different stage at the moment while progressing along life’s journey.

Level is about structure rather than content. It has to do with our current orientation concerning religion. Just as each of us must be at some chronological age we will each be at some stage in our faith development. Fowler makes us lesser mortals humble; he makes us realize that we do not have all insight into the nature of faith.

Stage III – Synthetic-Conventional Faith

As Fowler explains, “The Stage 3 individual's faith system is conventional, in that it is seen as being everybody's faith system or the faith system of the entire community. And it is synthetic in that it is nonanalytical; it comes as a sort of unified, global wholeness.” Morality is simply a given of life. The individual can articulate and defend his positions and he likely feels deep emotional investments in them but has not made his value system the object of reflection as a system. He knows what he believes but as to why, he can only cite an authority. Authority defines morality.

Stage IV – Individuative-Reflective Faith

The stage four faith system involves critical reflection on its systems of meanings; in stage four, meanings are separable from the symbolic media that express them.

Some never proceed to a Stage 4 faith system. Fowler argues that individuals must “encounter and respond to situations or contexts that lead to critical reflection on their tacit value systems” to develop a Stage 4 orientation. If one is completely content with the conventional ethical and moral system in which he has grown up, if there is no conflict, there will be no development toward a Stage 4 faith system. One becomes locked into a Stage 3 faith when there is no impetus or urgency for change. Morality will be accepted rather than systematized.

For "a genuine move to Stage 4 to occur there must be an interruption of reliance on external sources of authority.” There must be a relocation of authority to an authority within the self.

A way to understand this transformation is to examine how Jesus understood morality.

Remember that an appeal to a rule such as one of the commandments in Scripture, as a source of a moral imperative, is suggestive of stage three faith.

Jesus had a framework...

Jesus had a framework - a benchmark - for determining what might be sinful or not beyond proscriptions in Scripture. He was perfectly willing to "violate" one of the Ten Commandments when he wanted to heal on the Sabbath. He did not pull rank saying he was God and could do what he wanted, nor did he deny that healing constituted work, instead he pointed to a principle for his action when he said: who with a sheep stuck in a crevice on the Sabbath would not retrieve it? He was saying that healing is more important than Sabbath rest. He was using a principle to supersede a law. Elsewhere he asked: Was man made for the Sabbath or the Sabbath made for man?

Jesus saw morality contained not in external injunctions written in a book but in a universal internally consistent principle. He said that the love of God and neighbor were the highest virtues and all the law and prophets should be thought of as attempts to bring this objective about.

Paul concurs with the insight of Jesus because he repeatedly reminds us that we are above, beyond, exempt from the law. Paul wasn't eschewing moral behavior but he agreed with Jesus that the summary and intent of the law and prophets was to inculcate the love of God and humankind in our hearts. Consider that he says in Galatians 5 verse 14: "For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."

An individual in a stage three faith development would ascribe the actions of Jesus, not to a comprehensive moral system, but to the fact that God would be exempt from human laws. Such a person might reason that Jesus’ actions would represent an exception to the law or that healing is not work.

In the above discussion I am not trying to say that Jesus was at Fowler’s Stage 4 level of moral development. In Fact, Fowler locates Jesus at his terminal Stage 6, the Universalizing Faith stage.

I am primarily concerned with the transition to Stages beyond 3 because a transition out of 3 represents the line of demarcation in the culture wars. It is at stage 4 that the individual starts to make his value system the object of reflection as a system.

Individuals in Stage 3 tend to look to an external authority formulated in creeds and dogmas for the answer to questions of morality – a readymade religion handed over on a silver platter. Hence there is a great temptation to believe in an inerrant scripture and the propensity to interpret it literally where possible as sort of a rulebook.

A cursory reading of Fowler suggests that:

In Matthew 22:37-40 we find:

Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

At stage three one understands the line, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” to mean that one should pay attention to the specifics of the law.

Beyond stage 3 a Christian begins to understand that the Law and Prophets were the mechanism used to inculcate the love of God and neighbor in our hearts. He begins to understand that specifics of Biblical law can sometimes be counterproductive of this principle.

This ethic of Jesus is truly a stage 6 ethic; how one responds to it varies with one’s stage of religious orientation. Fowler's stages are tools for helping us to understand ourselves and one another and the gulfs that separate us; they are not deterministic ontological categories by which we pigeonhole each other.

In matters of religion, why do we seem to “talk past” one another?

  1. Ramachandran tell us that our brains may be hardwired to resist change.

  2. Fowler suggests that people find it difficult to communicate in matters of religion when they are at different stages of faith development.

Which seems to you to be the reason why religious liberals and conservatives seem to talk past one another?

Ramachandran is right; our brains are hardwired to resist change.
Fowler is right; differing faith stages prevent effective communication.
Both Ramachandran and Fowler have valuable insights concerning the "talking past" problem.
Neither Ramachandran nor Fowler adequately account for the "talking past" phenomenon.

Your anonymous response will reach me.