Selective Exposure, Confirmation Bias, and Information Overload (Part 2)

So what can one do to avoid falling prey to groupthink, confirmation bias, selective exposure, and being overwhelmed by information overload? Well I had several awesome ideas for this post…. but then I took a few days off, and I can’t remember some of them. But let me see where this goes.

  1. Doubt. Paul Westphal noted that we cannot look over God’s shoulder. God knows the truth, and is Truth, but others are not privy to truth without error. In practice, that means we must be humble and forgiving of ourselves, embracing our own limitations. And the same must apply to others. No human is correct all of the time… and no human is incorrect all of the time (though I swear, some really try).
  2. Respect. Doubt should minimize our trust of individuals as authorities, but if we recognize that every person is right about some things and wrong about some things, it is also likely that a person who is wrong 97% of the time is still right (in that 3%) in something that I am wrong about. That means that pretty much every person on earth I can learn from, if I am open to valuing every person. I believe every person is worthy of respect inherently because each is lovingly designed by a fully capable and creative God. But if each person is someone I can gain by learning something from, I have another reason to respect each person. After all, we tend not to learn from people we don’t respect.
  3. Dialogue. People love to preach, to teach, to talk, and to argue. They don’t like to listen much, and even less to dialogue. Yet it is in dialogue that we tend to learn. That is why people and groups that want to indoctrinate their followers do it first by isolating followers from alternative viewpoints. They also tend to breed disrespect for the people who hold other views. And this indoctrination scheme would be really a great idea if the group was right about everything. But no such group exists. We learn from each other. (I have talked enough about dialogue elsewhere, you can look at DIALOGUE IN DIVERSITY for more).
  4. Reflection. Learning is iterative… but it often takes a certain intentionality. Much religious education (and even civil education) is focused on rote learning… memorizing dogma. There is value in that, but the value is wasted if one is not also is also not trained to think reflective.

I feel like I forgot one of the big thoughts for this post, but I cannot remember. Perhaps someone else has a suggestion to share. I am happy to reflect on it.

Good and Bad Reasons for Theological Blogging

I like to blog. I do believe that those of us in ministry are theologians. I think there are great reasons to blog theologically, but perhaps I should also be realistic about it.

At one time weblogs were the hot new thing, but those times are past. Hotter and newer forms of media are here now. If you want to get views, putting cute animal pics on Instagram, and retweeting some trending conspiracy will likely get you bigger results. Blogposts almost never go viral. In over 10 years of blogging, I have only had one post that snuck up on the periphery of “going viral” and it wasn’t even a post that I liked that much. Some people speak of the possibilities of monetization. While this is indeed possible, it is not a likely trajectory for most people writing in theology. I have known a few who have succeeded in doing this, but in those cases, their blog was treated like a business with staff an advertising budget, and merch for sale. Commonly, they accepted (often quite cringy) advertisements to be on their website (“Anyone wish to talk to their own personal angel?”) I also don’t think that blogs are a great evangelism tool. There is no real substitute for real human interaction combined with compassion through action. Your awesome proofs that Jesus is God are unlikely to be read, much less leading to radical conversion. Nothing wrong with trying, but one don’t let your excitement be dashed by reality.

There are reasons, however, that theological blogging can be beneficial.

  1. It is a good place to record and hone your thoughts. As you read and meditate, you have some good thoughts and some… not so good. Both of these are likely to be forgotten, unless you write them down. The process of writing them down helps on its own, but this is enhanced if you write your thoughts down where they can be retrieved. Having them written down in an electronic form with search functions, tagging, and hyperlinks available, may work better than simply writing in notebooks. And writing to a real (potential) audience can force one to write more thoughtfully and coherently.
  2. It can serve as a repository of research and reflections that may be drawn upon for other uses. Such uses include sermons, training seminars, articles, books, videos, and so forth. I have been blogging on my main website for over 10 years. In that time, I have accumulated almost 1,200 posts that would overflow a 2000 page book. Some of the writing I have done I am quite proud of. Others… less so. But by utilizing categories and tags and searches, I can find things I have collected (with references) and thoughts that can speed up producing other material.
  3. It can be used to influence others. I do think one needs to keep things in perspective here. I average around 1000 views per month. It is okay, but hardly impressive numbers. Some do more and some do less, but if you are talking about theology, generally you will not attract big crowds. But that is okay. There are even advantages to this. If you want to blog on your favorite recipe for strawberry turnovers, or the most beautiful waterfalls in the Philippines, you will have a much larger likely audience. On the other hand, you also have much greater competition. You will not be on the first page of Google search… or second page… or third. Also, the likelihood that you will have lasting positive impact with searchers is fairly low. However, if you search on Google for “transcendental contextualization,” a blog I wrote shows up on page 2, and a slideshare I created based on blogposts I had done is on page 1. The same thing occurs if one is looking at interreligious dialogue based on the missiologist Max Warren. Writing on less common topics does have advantages sometimes.
  4. It can break down barriers, and promote communication. Two thirds of my visitors are either from the United States and the Philippines. The other third are from a large variety of nations and territories— 198 so far in 2020. Many of those locations are considered “creative access” regions. And since blogs can be set up to allow forum responses, one can also learn and grow that way. <And of course, if you find your comment feed is sounding like most youtube comment feeds, you can turn off the feature… no worries.>

I said before that I believe that all ministers are theologians. But not all ministers are good theologians. I believe blogging can help one become better. I also think it allows ministers to provide an alternative perspective to the dubious messages that float around from various other sources— both Christian and non-Christian.

Is Jesus Allah?

Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola recently published a book, “Is Jesus Allah?” with the sub-title “Arab Christians Called God Allah Long Before Muhammed.” I find it to be a valuable book that addresses the issue from a historical path. The book looks at the term “Allah” as a term that well-predates Muhammed. It has been used by Christians, and others, to describe chief deity. However, more of the book looks at Islam as springing out of a centuries old tradition of Christians struggling with the question of “Who is Jesus?” I think the book is definitely worth a read… especially compared to the many books put out by people who don’t really know the subject well, but are good name-calling.

The author asked me to write the Foreward to the book. Here is is:

FOREWARD

David Tracy in his book Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (page 84) notes that a religion (an admittedly loaded term) is seen as having a vision of Ultimate Reality that has been passed on to its adherents in “religious classics” or sacred scriptures. These scriptures lead to two conflicts. One conflict occurs when the sacred writ demands its followers to break free from the status quo— the “as it always has been.” The other conflict is when adherents attempt to interpret these writings. This type of conflict springs from the fact that we must wrestle out meaning that often is clouded by centuries, language, and our own biases.

Christianity shares a common heritage with Islam in identifying God’s breaking into our world through Abraham and Moses, among others, to reveal a sliver of Ultimate Reality. The two faiths also see God revealing Himself to mankind through Jesus or Isa. With so much in common, it seems strange that enmity has defined much of the historical interaction between Christianity and Islam.

This book, by Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola, addresses the two conflicts expressed by Tracy. First, how do we overcome centuries of conflict in history, language change, and biases to draw out meaning from Scripture particularly as it pertains to that most important question— Who is God? Second, in understanding Scripture, what must we do to pull away from the status quo, following God’s self-revelation not our own traditions?

This book asks the questions of Who is God? Who is Allah? Who is Jesus? Who is Isa? These questions have often been obscured by politics (secular and religious) and factions, and by the challenges of understanding what is revealed in Scripture. If, however, we are able to answer these questions based on God’s revelation, we are left with the next challenge: How should that truth affect our lives and our relationships?

In emphasizing these two conflicts, the author is avoiding the more common path of devolving the conflict into historical wrongs and injustices. As important as they may seem from our perspectives, they must fall away to near meaninglessness compared to the nature of and revelation of our Creator.

Robert H. Munson

Social Media and Toxic (Non-)Dialogue

A few weeks ago I decided to leave Facebook… mostly. I still have a few activities that require me to pop in there for at least brief moments. However, I am pretty sure that my time there will continue to decline and not return to its past.

It started in a minor way. A friend of mine on FB had shared a rather silly little cut-and-paste that humorously sought a “divorce” of “real” Americans from various people in news and entertainment (mostly) who tended to trigger political conservatives. It was mildly humorous, but overall I found it a bit annoying. I have become increasingly concerned with tribalism in US religion and politics where there is a tendency to demonize people who hold other views rather than see value in diverse perspectives.

I would have let it go but most of the comments were unabashedly positive not merely to the questionable entertainment value of the post, but the actual idea espoused underlying the humor.

There were a few comments that were less positive, and so I decided to respond in a way that was not at all supportive of the post. I stated that I disagreed with pretty much every sentence in the post (probably an exaggeration), and felt that diverse views were a healthy part of society.

One guy (I will call him “Jay”) seemed really bothered by this response and suggested that I should not talk. I gave some vague response to this. I don’t even remember what I wrote now. He responded, that I should keep my opinions to my self, and then instead of addressing it to me, “Bob,” he addressed it to “Philippines.”

Okay, I felt like I got it. Jay felt that because I lived in the Philippines I really should not share my opinions on US politics. Strangely, I actually get that. I have Filipino friends over here that will, occasionally, express opinions about American politics that in my mind are so out of touch with what is actually going on— often reading or hearing the worst of US op-eds. Several times, I had felt tempted to tell my Filipino friends to stay out of what they don’t really understand. Thankfully, I refrained from it because I really do believe that we learn from each other. But I get the temptation to ignore people who don’t have a direct investment in a situation.

I responded to Jay that I am a US citizen and Virginia resident and serve as a missionary in the Philippines. Jay responded something about me being some liberal socialist something or other who would cause “Virginia Regulars to be rolling over in their graves.” Politically, I am rather eclectic (somewhere in the Conservative-Moderate-Libertarian range of things_. I don’t think my views would fit into the liberal or socialist side of things, but it is true that I have never tried to limit my views to any oneside of any political spectrum.

I got especially annoyed about the Virginia Regulars and their cemetery tumblings. Virginia Regulars were Confederate military. I am not an expert on the political beliefs of CSA military, but I generally thought that would be considered a good thing today to hold views that would decidedly out of synch with the Confederacy.

I wrote some smartass response somewhat clarifying my political stance and insulting Jay for jumping to yet another assumption. (It seems to be his thing.) But after about five minutes I went back on and deleted that post.

That is when I figured out a few things. These things I already knew but I got reminded.

  1. It was a bit foolish of me to make a vague sweeping response to the initial post. I was raised in a church that was part of the Fundamentalist and Separatist movements in the US. That church had (and has) many good qualities. Many people get bothered by the term “Fundamentalist” and picture all sorts of horrible things. However, for me, the FAR bigger concern is actually “Separatism.” It is a tribalizing philosophy and squelches dialogue. It is missiologically suspect and Biblically weak. I would even suggest that Separatism as a secular movement within American society is destructive to democracy. However, given a vague blanket statement actually triggers a separatist response. And of course it would. I someone responds to this post with the statement— “I disagree with pretty much every statement in this post” —- I would not take the writer seriously. It doesn’t feed dialogue, it squelches it.
  2. FB doesn’t really support healthy dialogue. It is not much better than Twitter to discuss important issues. Important issues can’t be handled with one or two or three sentences— or with a GIF or a like or a frowny face. It promotes a stereotyping of views. Also, short bursts of text done in the moment often get misunderstood and feelings get hurt and eventually people move into little echo chambers of mutual admiration societies each trying to one-up each other in greater extremes of view and attacks on others who don’t share those views.
  3. It sucks to not be understood. I remember taking our young child to the emergency room because of a bout of asthma. The nurse essentially accuses us of smoking around our child. It got us mad, especially my wife who was a nurse, because we don’t smoke, had not smoked, have no people in our house who smoke, and have never even had visitors come into our home and smoke. It is annoying to have someone come to a conclusion based on very limited information and act like they figured you out. But it is tempting to do that. Consider Jay for a minute. It is quite tempting for me to make guesses about him. He seemed to be annoyed that I was an Asian sharing opinions about America. When he found out that I am actually a (white) US citizen, he suggested that my Confederate ancestors (of whom I have none) would be horrified by my politics. It is pretty easy for me to GUESS that he is a raging racist MAWA (“make America white again”). But that would only be a guess. If I don’t like having Jay guess (extremely poorly) about my views, I should avoid doing that with him and others.

So I have decided to step away from FB. Not merely because of this rather mundane little conversation but because of years of these silly little problems.

But I do have to recognize the irony. I want healthy dialogue between different groups. I think Separatism is flawed. Yet I am separating myself off by stepping away from Facebook. I am still trying to work this out. I do believe that dialogue is valuable, but some formats don’t promote healthy dialogue. I don’t see FB as a place that promotes healthy dialogue… generally at least.

Not all formats support growth through dialogue. I recently read an article in a Jewish publication that questioned having interviews of Anti-Semites published in their Jewish papers. The reason for publishing these was to help Jews understand the perspective of those with very different views. However, I would agree with those who have expressed concern. While dialogue is a good thing, giving a soapbox for Anti-Semitic “hate speech” may not be a very effective way to promote mutual trust and growth.

Still trying to figure this out. Maybe we just have to accept the limitations of social media. In the end, most all of us really want to be understood— understood in our beliefs and values, and understood in our fears and hopes. It may be too much to expect to be understood on an media platform— at least until we learn to TRY to understand others in a similar way. But I think there is hope.

Back in the 1960s, the Evangelicals separated missiologically from the World Council of Churches. Each started meeting as separate entities. Both groups embraced some views that were pretty messed up, in my opinion. The Conciliar missions tended to reject the uniqueness of the message of Christ and moved from a ministry of evangelism to a ministry of presence. The Evangelicals embraced evangelism but did so by rejecting much of Jesus’s social ministry. Both sides were deeply flawed. Thankfully, there were a few (John Stott being perhaps the most well known of these) who maintained involvement and dialogue in both groups. By the 1970s the worst excesses of these groups were eroded. Both groups accepted that evangelism and social ministry are part of Christ’s call to the church. I can’t help but think that those who kept dialogue going had a role in this.

But if FB and Twitter and Reddit and other social media platforms existed back then would dialogue have improved? Not convinced. I am still trying to figure it out.

The Poisoned Paradise Theory of Communication

Yesterday, I removed the Facebook App from my cellphone. Life feels good. But it got me to wonder how it got to that place. I have a bit of a theory. I am sure there is a better name for it, but I will call it “The Poisoned Paradise Theory of Communication.”

The name comes from the following idea.

garbage on body of water
Photo by Yogendra Singh on Pexels.com

Suppose the Garden of Eden still existed. Perhaps it was discovered fully intact. I think most of us would know what would happen within 10 or 15 years of it being discovered. It would be flooded with tourists who would trample the vegetation, and litter it with plastic wrappers. The Tree of Life would be covered in spraypaint and the initials of people who wanted to “leave their mark.” Hotels, roads, shopping centers, and parking lots would replace much of the greenery. If paradise is not fully destroyed it would only be because a few people with power and money took it over, walled it off, and limited access to the few privileged (who would ruin it in their own ways).

Our tendency to destroy what we love, applies to communication as well. I won’t deal with all forms of mass communication, but here are a few obvious ones.

  1. Mail. Mail was and is such an amazing blessing. For a relatively small amount of money, I can send a piece of written piece of paper to someone almost anywhere in the world. In many places, it can be sent from one’s home and be delivered directly to one’s home. That is truly amazing. Of course, it got abused at times. Hate mail would get sent sometimes, as well as letter bombs, and chain mail, but they were not that common. However, what DID become common was junk mail. When I was young I was so excited to see the mailman stop at our mail box and I would hurry to the end of our driveway to pick up the daily mail. In more recent years junk mail became so common that getting the mail was a chore– something to go, collect, and quickly throw out 80% of it or more. It even got to the point that we moved a couple of times and I did not give the post office our forwarding address. I just told the few who needed to know where we moved to of the change.
  2. E-mail. E-mail was such a boon. Near instant communication, that was “free”— or at least no additional cost. A few years in, marketers started sending advertisements. At first there was a strong reaction against it. However, soon “SPAM” began dominating emails, to such an extent that special filters were built into the email apps to remove the most obvious junk emails. Since, sending out millions of emails is hardly more expenseive than sending out one email, SPAM became dominant… followed soon by SCAM. My Spam filter is flooded with “Dear Beloved” emails, Business Opportunity emails, and Lonely Heart emails. Most of these emails are so obviously fake that one is sickened by the fact that the scam is based on flooding the Internet in hopes of finding the most gullible and helpless. Things have gotten so bad that I have friends who really don’t use their email now much except for online user ID and verification.
  3. Messenger. This application, tied to Facebook, is like some other forms of instant messaging and groupchat, but this is the one I am most familiar with. At first glance, it seems like it has solved the problem with emails. Strangers can’t send you messages… or at least stranger messages automatically go to an electronic dustbin that one can glance in once in awhile. It seems as if SPAM would be solved since only friends can contact you through Messenger. But wouldn’t you know it… friends start sending SPAM. The least eggregious are the emojis and GIFs. Less tolerable are the chain letters, and junk articles and youtube videos that friends think should be shared with all their “friends.” Now, many of my friends immediately leave group chats after someone puts them in. Groupchats do appear to be the worst places for this. For mail and email I understand the motivation— money. People want money and so they screw up channels of communication in hopes of getting some of that sweet sweet cash. But messing up Messenger and other Instant Messaging services seems weird as most of that is not driven by money. Perhaps we simply like to mess up paradise.
  4. Twitter. I dropped out of Twitter some months ago as it seemed to be a place for a few people to talk almost incessantly, and the rest to get overfed with tweets from these garrulous folk and organizaitons. However, I never did figure out the appeal of Twitter in the first place so I won’t mention it here.
  5. Facebook. Facebook was such a blessing. It was like Myspace and many other of these personal blog sites, but where almost everyone I knew had an account. As such, it was such an easy way to maintain social connections. Living 12 timezones from home, it allowed me to maintain social interaction with so many from childhood, church, school, and more. People started sharing silly articles and videos with sensational clickbait-y titles. A lot were fake. I even knew some people who created these fake articles. Others would share quotes falsely attributed to famous people. Usually the quote was a generally positive one incorrectly connected to someone who has reached John Maxwell’s highest level of influence (adding false credibility to the statement). Later, false “bad” quotes were connected to respected people to try to tear those people down. False articles are shared that don’t stand up to even a quick fact check— usually to an echo chamber of people who love the article because of the sentiment, even if the information is untrue.

I have been distinctly disappointed at the number of Christians who have been doing this. One pastor shared a sensationalistic fear-article with a comment that said, “I don’t know if this is true, but it is too important to ignore.” Well, it took me about 15 seconds to verify that the article was not true. And since it is untrue, while pretending to be true, it is NOT too important to ignore. Another pastor would search out every anti-Muslim article he could find online and share them without balance and without fact-checking. Yet another pastor turned his FB page into a political campaign site for a political candidate over here in the Philippines.

It goes on. One pastor shared a picture of Pope Francis looking like he was angry with the caption to the effect of saying, “Reading the Bible is dangerous, Listen to me instead.” When that pastor was told that the source of that semi-quote pointed to Pope Francis actually saying the opposite– Read the Bible it is powerful and important– the pastor defended sharing this completely deceptive lie. This is similar to still another pastor.who shared COVID-19 statistics in late May to show that we are making a big deal about nothing. The problem was that the data was over 2 months out of date, and so gave a completely false impression of the scope of the problem. He also defended his use of the data, despite the fact that his argument was completely undermined by the use of highly deceptive data.

I can deal with that. I can also deal with people who are a bit more clever. They will share articles from sketchy sources, adding a comment like, “Interesting read.” This seems to be a form of plausible deniability because one can find opinions and made-up news reports “interesting.” However, over time one discovers that that person only finds articles that support a specific agenda as being interesting. I suppose that if one found dubious reports from both sides interesting plausible deniability would be justified. But if one only chooses one side, that is no longer the case. I can handle these wastes of time as well.

My children basically stopped using FB, except for Messenger years ago. Most of their friends have as well. I refused to leave FB because I am a missionary and the value it has in connecting me to supporters and people back home in the US seemed to be too big to let go of. But over time, I have changed my mind. Fewer and fewer of my supporters use FB much. Most of them I can reach in other ways. Some don’t use it at all. And there has been a big increase in fearmongery and hatemongery on FB. The strongest comments I ever got against myself was when I suggested that diverse perpectives are good. I would love to say that it is not my FB friends who are doing this. And MOSTLY I can say that. Most of the really horrible, hateful, false, demeaning, un-Christian stuff are from Friends of Friends. FB in the US in particular has become the home of trolls and flamers. Even those that seem to be a voice of reason tend to be electronically surrounded by hoardes of nasty people ready to hit and hurt as they have opportunity. It is not just on one side. Politically for example, I tend to be a Moderate-Conservative-Libertarian type. Most of my friends in the US tend towards being more Conservative-Authoritarian. A lot of hate speech there. But I have some friends on the Liberal/Progressive side as well– some of whom get pretty vicious at times as well.

And that is fine I suppose. But it concerns me that so many of these people describe themselves as Christians. Much of their conversations are so far outside of the example of Jesus, that it would be nice if they simply did not say or suggest that they are Christian or that their words come from any corner of Christianity.

Anyway, I decided to leave FB. I will still keep my account open. I may have to go on once a week to post for our local church. I won’t leave email— my spam filters are generally keeping up with the torrent of SPAM and SCAM. But I don’t expect you to care about any of this. I don’t expect you to care if I have left Twitter and FB, and I am certainly not asking you to leave them or any other online communication service.

I would, however, like to ask you why we tend to poison paradise. I believe saying that we are sinners is inadequate. I suppose one could take the point further and say that Sin is ultimately a breaking of harmony and relationships. Therefore when we are given a tool that helps us connect to more people more easily, we revolt against that by pushing back with fear (and its secondary emotion, anger).

Additionally, I suppose it could be argued that if 90% of us can be civil with each other, then 10% cannot. And if these 10% have access to the same communication streams with the 90%, they are likely to mess things up pretty bad. Maybe as a species we feel that we must destroy what we love.

As Christians, not only do I think we have the ability to do better, we are called by God to do better. We can express love and hope to our friends, relatives, strangers, and enemies.

IRD Intro

I decided to make some minor updates to my book, “Dialogue in Diversity: Christians in Conversation with a Multi-faith World” during quarantine.

I decided to put the Introduction here.

Imagine that you have a toolbox. Maybe you are a carpenter, but in your toolbox you have only one tool — perhaps a hammer. Can you build a house only with a hammer? Poorly at best. Can you hammer screws? Again poorly. Other tasks are likely even worse — leveling, sawing, drilling, and more.. The carpenter would be exhausted and the constructed house would be a disaster.

A wise carpenter has three things:

  • What. A toolbox with a variety of tools associated with his craft
  • How. Skills to use each of the tools effectively
  • Which/When. Wisdom to know the right tool to use for each task

Now imagine that each Christian has a toolbox of skills associated with serving God. Some tools may be spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, witnessing, and meditation. Other tools may be less specifically religious such as teaching, polemics, argument, encouragement, and counseling. Having a wide variety of skills/disciplines is important, but this is not enough.

One must know how to use each tool well. A carpenter may own a power saw, but still need considerable training to use it expertly. A minister may “know how to preach,” but still there is a great distance between this and preaching well or effectively.

Skillful use is not enough. One must have the wisdom to know the right tool to use in each specific circumstance. Some people are very skilled in prayer, but as important as prayer can be, there are times when prayer is the wrong tool… or at least an inadequate tool. A hungry neighbor needs something in addition to prayer. There are times when preaching is needed, and times when it is inappropriate or unhelpful.

This book is about a tool — dialogue. Specifically, it is about the tool of dialogue, and how it can be used effectively as a Christian minister in interacting with people of other faiths.

At a basic level, most everyone knows how to do dialogue. But this does not mean that everyone is equally competent to dialogue well. This also does not mean that everyone knows when to use it and when not.

This book is primarily aimed at missionaries and ministers who work in cross-cultural or religiously pluralistic settings. However, the places on earth that are monocultural or religiously monolithic are decreasing rapidly. Therefore, there are fewer and fewer ministers who can say that they are competent in their ministry without skills in interreligious dialogue.

Philosophically, this book sees interreligious dialogue as seeking understanding. This is in contrast to those who see it primarily in terms of either focusing on similarities (“common ground” or relativizing approach) or on differences (apologetic approach). As such it is consistent with Evangelicals, who take very seriously their own truth convictions regarding religious faith. However, it also challenges the presumption of many Evangelicals that the most effective way to interact with people of other faiths is through preaching, teaching, or arguing.

Sadly, a book is by its nature a form of one-way communication. Since this book is about dialogue, it is my hope that readers will have an opportunity to go through this book with others — and especially with others of a variety of viewpoints. Dialogue, as a tool, is practiced, not simply read about; and is made sharp through practice with those of diverse opinions.

The Turing Test and IRD

crm-turing_test

I have never been a fan of the Turing Test. Alan Turing (1912-1954) proposed a test for determining whether and artificial intelligence can think “like a human.” The test suggests that if a person was communicating with an AI and was unable to distinguish whether or not he was talking to a computer or a person, then one would see the computer as thinking in a manner that a human was thinking. Essentially, if the external behavior is similar to a human, one should assume the internal mechanisms driving that behavior is similar. This is a deeply flawed premise (as the Chinese Box thought experiment has demonstrated), showing that what may appear to be internal intelligence is simply may simply be the intelligence of the outside programmer.  That problem with the Turing Test is well understood.

But there is an even more fundamental flaw as far as I can see. It is the fact that we try to see personality patterns in the words that come our way— even patterns that don’t actually exist.  It is much like how we tend to see faces or other patterns in random dots on a wall, or in the stars in the night sky.

A great example of this is in a video on Artificial Intelligence, put out by the Youtube channel “VSauce.” Only a part of the video relates to this post. It can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZXpgf8N6hs&vl=en

In that video, there was an experiment that mimicked the old show, “The Dating Game.” Female contestants would ask questions of three eligible bachelors on the other side of screen. The answers would be transferred to the host to be read to the woman. Bachelors #1 and #3 were human, but bachelor #2 was a computer program. So, for example, the first female contestant would ask what his body was like. He responded with one word— “toned.” The woman thinks that he is a bit full of himself. When she asks bachelor #2 the same question, “he” responds, “I have two arms, two legs, and one head.” She decides that he has a weird sense of humor. As different women go through the questioning, some end up preferring Bachelor #1, and some Bachelor #3. But two of them preferred Bachelor #2… the computer. Why was this? Some found the answers of the computer to be intriguing, or demonstrating a strange sense of humor. This was a mistake. They were overlaying emotions and personality on a computer simulation that had neither. Even the ones that chose bachelor #1 or #3 were also incorrectly inferring personality in the computer. Some thought the prosaic answers as being condescending or snarky. This was likewise not true.

Why does this happen? As noted above, we look for patterns, and much of those patterns are based on guesses and past experiences. One female contestant determined that bachelor #2 was just like one of her ex-boyfriends. The fact was that the two had absolutely nothing in common. Some answers of #2, however, reminded her in some ways to answers she might get from her ex, and so she embued the answers with her ex’s personality. All of them did this to some extent. Inferring personality, thought processes, and motives from words is a very uncertain art.

So what does this have to do with Interreligious dialogue (IRD)?

When speaking to a person committed to and immersed in a different religion, we are talking to a person who has some serious differences in worldview. They are not aliens or completely inscrutable. However, they hold to perspectives that may seem quite alien to us. We then are affected by several things in these conversations:

  • We are affected by religious prejudices, both positive and negative, that make us guess “what is really going on” inside the other person. It is much like friends of mine who accuse politician A while excusing politician B while possibly even commending politician C for the same identical behavior. They determine the motivations and morality of the person through political biases. Sadly, our prejudices are often dangerously wrong— often leading to demonization of “them” while not holding “us” accountable.
  • We look for commonalities that may not exist. Similar language may suggest similar values and meanings incorrectly.
  • We look for differences that may not exist. Different language may suggest different values and meanings incorrectly.
  • We are affected by transference, seeing similar behaviors and language to someone else one knows may lead one to assume that they are similar. Suppose for example, one meets a Hindu who does not eat meat due to religious convictions. Or perhaps one is talking to another person who chooses to maintain a vegetarian lifestyle because of health issues or having concerns with the meat industry. Maybe talking to one or both of them reminds one of a neighbor who thinks that all omnivores are immoral and stupid. It is easy to presume that their attitudes and values are very similar, when they are not.

This is part of the reason that in both interreligious dialogue and in intercultural encounters, one should be slow to judge. We are generally incompetent judges of what is going on inside of others. When Jesus said, Judge not lest ye be judged, I believe it is not simply an issue of love or mercy, it is also a statement of competence. We see the external, but only God sees the heart.

3 H’s of Persuasion

I have been going over different Asian religions in my Dialogue in Asian Religions course. I started with Judaism in Western Asia and worked my way across to Shinto in the East. Now I am looking at Atheism. Atheism has deep roots in Asia. Some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism could be described as Atheistic, as can some modern political movements in Asia such as Bolshevism and Maoism. Of course, Atheism is so diverse that it is hard to find commonalities between many atheistic perspectives. That, however, is the point. One doesn’t truly know what another person believes simply by knowing the label they use to self-describe. One must talk with them.

Image result for captain disillusion

I decided to use some comments from my favorite “skeptic” online. His name is Alan Melikdjanian. He is more commonly known as “Captain Disillusion” on Youtube. He is a debunker— particularly of videos that seem to show the impossible. He shows how many of these are made through special video “tricks.” Very interesting. However, I am bringing him up for a talk he gave at Skepticon Australia (2018 I think). The title of his talk to a group of skeptics was “The Unbearable Loneliness of Being Right on the Internet.” While he doesn’t say it directly, the talk is essentially a critique of the “New Atheism” movement that developed in the early 2000s. I really don’t think the movement truly exists. Rather, it was a term coined by a journalist around 2003 (I forgot the journalist’s name) to refer to a rather aggressive evangelistic form of atheism that often shows itself in seeing belief in God or in a religious belief system as a sign of mental deficiency or delusion.

Melikdjanian does not seem to have problems with the evangelistic fervor of these people, but rather that their method often has the opposite effect of what they are seeking. The aggressive negative stance of the “new atheists” tended to lead to pushback seeing these skeptics as jerks (or as Melikdjanian said, falling into the “black hole of assholery”).

He suggested three H’s to describe how skeptics (a term that itself is generally understood as rather negative) can be more persuasive.

H is for Humor. Melikdjanian commonly uses humor to entertain and to educate. Good humor builds bridges between people. Bad humor such as sarcasm (“cutting of the flesh”) drives a wedge. Humor also makes one’s message more interesting, grabbing the attention and sympathy of the respondent. Such humor must be humor that resonates with people outside of the echo chamber of the skeptic community. When humor is used in a self-deprecating fashion (pointing out one’s own weaknesses or mistakes), it can lead into the second H.

H is for Humility. In theory a skeptic is a doubter (even though it has often been used to describe those who are rather uncritical of a naturalist worldview). As a doubter, one should be ready to admit one’s mistakes, and express uncertainty and a willingness to learn. Skeptics too often have been known for embracing a certain “know-it-all” attitude with an associated condescension of other’s views. This seeming lack of humility is not a popular attitude, and even less so in a time being dominated by post-modern thought.

H is for Hope. Melikdjanian notes this is very important. Many people hold to faith beliefs that are out of line with the beliefs of skeptics. Many such believers do so, in part, because it provides a source of hope for them. For a skeptic to encourage a person of faith to leave that faith, the hope lost must be replaced with a new hope. The goal should never be to replace hope with hopelessness.

I think there is a lot of wisdom here, and I believe it applies as much to Christians as anyone else. Christians need to be able to express their faith in a manner that is humorous… entertaining, and enlivening the interest of those who are not Christians. Far too much Christian media is designed to be consumed only by Christians or those who are fully immersed in a Christian worldview. Much of it is boring or nonsensical to those outside of the subculture. It is maddening at times the Christian productions out there. Much of it is low quality. That is worthy of complaint. Worse, however, is that it is often marketed as Evangelistic, and yet uses language and cultural references that are only meaningful to insiders. To insiders, it may be seen as simplistic and boring… but to outsiders, the reaction can be far worse. The Gospel poorly presented CAN be do worse than the Gospel not (yet) presented.

As Christians, we recognize that God knows all things, and that we are not God. As such, we have every reason to be humble and joyously embrace our own ignorance. This should not mean that we revel in ignorance (it is good to study and try to understand), but we should not assume that we know it all and that we are always right about everything. Christians are supposed to be humble, so why not embrace that role? We also should avoid espousing the lie (or at least mistaken belief) that doubt is the opposite of, or contradiction of, faith.

As Christians, we need to help others know that we offer a message of hope. Often we do the opposite, spending more time on judgment than on hope. Why? I think there is still a part of us that think that the Medieval practice of the Morality Play (scaring people into formal adherence) is still a good method today. I am not sure it ever was. We must realize that the Gospel message is an offense to some and foolishness to others. It also undermines much of what others base their lives on. Therefore, when we express the Gospel message, the focus should be more on hope.

 

 

Is Dialogue Contradictory to Evangelism?

Dialogue is in contradiction to Evangelism. Or is it?  Dialogue is generally thought of as conversation between two equals (certainly equals in terms of roles in conversation) so as to achieve mutual understanding. As such it is not driven by a desire to coerce another, or change another’s mind. From this standpoint, it is certainly understandable if Dialogue is seen as contradictory to Evangelism. Some even explicitly (or at least implicitly) say this:

Leonard Swidler:    The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn; that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly.

Peter Feldmeier:   Be without covert or ulterior motives.  Do not secretly be trying to convert them or prove yourself superior.

Frankly, I agree with them. Dialogue is not to be manipulative. It should be built on mutual respect and openness to learn.

So does that put it at odds with proselytizing? Does it work against evangelism?

No, I don’t think so:

Dialogue IS NOT Evangelism… but it IS Foundational to Evangelism

Dialogue helps one…

  • Understand each other  (head level)
  • Have greater insight with each other (heart level)
  • Reduce social distance (relational level)

So consider three forms of evangelism

#1.  Testifying. Sharing one’s own experience (serving as a witness of what God has done in one’s life).

#2.  Proclaiming. Sharing the gospel message and Christian dogma.

#3.  Arguing.  Seeking to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian faith over the faith of the other (two-way conversation where each is seeking to change the mind of the other).

Now consider these.  Testifying is a more personal form of evangelism and that certainly is helped by a reduced social distance. It would also be aided by an understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, and values of the other so that the testimony can be presented in a way that would be understood well by the other and be relevant to the other.  The same could be said in terms of proclamation and even argument.

So, dialogue  is not evangelism. the process and goals are different. However, healthy dialogue helps to bring connection between the two and better understanding of each other which is pretty necessary to effectively evangelize.

Let’s be honest here. Most of the evangelisitic methods that have been created are based on the presumption that the other person is already (essentially) Christian. For example, the Romans Road presumes that the respondent accepts the authority of the Holy Bible, and essentially has a Biblical understanding of who God is, who Jesus is, and what sin is. The respondent may or may not be “born again” (having allegiance to Christ) already, but probably already is already at least nominally or culturally Christian. Hardly surprising that such methods don’t work well with those of distinctly non-Christian religions or cultures.

If you are interested in knowing more about Interreligious (or Interfaith) Dialogue, consider clicking on the menu above for “My Books” and look at the book “Dialogue in Diversity.” It can be clicked on to purchase, or simply to preview some of it.

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Reflective Book Review: “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ”

I don’t do book reviews very often. Frankly, I usually read through or skim through books rather than deeply read a book. And I even more rarely read a book in the manner appropriate for critique.  However, the author of “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ” was one of my students, and I did work through the book cleaning up some aspects. Anyway, here is my rather lengthy review.

The book, “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ: Effective Contextualization and Dialogue for Transformation and Discipleship,” was written by Adesegun Hammed Olayisola. He is a Nigerian who was raised as a Muslim and trained as a Muslim, before coming to be a follower of Jesus when he was college age.

I find the book has several strengths, one weakness, and one or two things that fit in a gray zone between these points.  I will start with strengths:

1.  It is written from a position of sympathy and love for Muslims. Much Christian writing regarding Muslims tends to embrace negative stereotypes. I once decided to electronically cut ties with a pastor friend who essentially used his FB account to promulgate every hateful click-baity story put out there that degrades Islam or its adherents. The author finds much that is commendable in Islam and its adherents, and chooses not to pander to his primarily Christian audience.

2.  He takes up more space bringing awareness of Islamic teachings over Christian responses to those teachings. Some of this is because of the next point. However, in addition he notes that Christians often have a stunning ignorance of Islamic beliefs (and I would add beliefs of almost all other religions). Effective interaction with Muslims begins from a foundation of understanding, rather than ignorance.

3.  Olayiwola recommends dialogue built off of a foundation of mutual understanding over the utilization of argument,  or special plan or technique. Argument generally drives people further apart and special techniques or procedures often are ineffective because they completely fail to take into account the individuality of belief, personality, values, and situation of the person one is talking to. He recommends using a clarification form of dialogue (as opposed to argumentative or relativizing dialogue), and finds value in the 7 principles of Max Warren for interreligious dialogue.

4.  He emphasizes what needs to be done with those Muslims who decide to follow Christ. He speaks particularly of those Muslims who, like himself, find themselves ostracized by family and community (and for some by nation) because of this change of faith. He gives a lot of good advice as to how to bring them into the community of faith. He does not recommend C5 or C6 groups, but does see the need for churches who are MBB (Muslim Background Believer)-friendly. Ideally, it is pastored by an MBB. He speaks of some of the difficulty and rejection he had with Christians and Christian groups for some trivial things such as his name (an “Islamic” name) and whether being a Christian requires a Muslim to start eating pork, or reject part of his (polygamous) family.

The major negative aspect of the book is that it is roughly edited. I have to bring this back on me. I helped with the editing, but Olayiwola lacks to resources for professional editing. It does show, but I don’t believe that it undermines the book, but readers should be aware of this. <As a person who cannot afford professional editing, and as one who likes to put out books first, and fix some problems in later revisions, I am quite sympathetic of this.>

There are some other things that I consider neither negative or positive, but are worth noting.

  1.  The book arguably is not clearly written to any specific target demographic. The early part of the book spends considerable time talking about the story of Sarah and Hagar. This is shared because it is an important issue for many Muslims. However, for most Christians, Hagar and Sarah of Old Testament characters, and a rather obscure New Testament metaphor for salvation. For many Muslims, the story is much more. The author spent considerable time on this because it is important to Muslims and an important separation point for Muslims and Christians. The likely readers, Christians, should embrace this focus rather than seeking to undermine this focus. (I remember when the author presented this topic in one of my classes, and students began to try to argue with him. It was as if they forgot that the presenter is a Christian who is trying to present Islam from an insiders perspective for the benefit of the class.)  Additionally, context of Islam and Christianity is heavily skewed towards Nigeria. As such he focuses on concerns such as “white weddings,” polygamy, prosperity churches, and shariah. While many readers wouldn’t connect with some of these issues, it is unlikely to be beneficial to speak of Islam and Christianity only from a supracultural, decontextualized, setting.
  2. His principles of leading Muslims to Christ point to the idea that there is no set method. The title of the book should hint at this, but Christians are so used to focusing on methods, that they often struggle with focusing on principles or on process. However, once one embraces a method, one often disregards relationship. Additionally, whatever method works in one context is likely to be unhelpful in many (most… nearly all) other contexts.

I do think this book is valuable to Christians who love their Muslim neighbors. But expect to be challenged.

Olayiwola’s book is available at this time in online sources such as Amazon.com.

NOTE:  Olayiwola used some of what I had written on Interreligious Dialogue. If you want to read up more on this topic, consider my book:

Dialogue in Diversity