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The Anger of Man Does Not Achieve the Wisdom that God Requires
Our public epistemological crisis matters to God
Longtime readers will know that I keep coming back to one particular topic: the way we form our beliefs in this hyper-digital, hyper-polarized age. I’m sorry for the way my repetition probably tires those blessed number of you who read me regularly. My only excuse is the words of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone: “Just when I thought was out…they pull me back in.”
I knew one year ago that this essay by Emma Green was going to be written eventually. I didn’t know who would write it or where it would appear. But it didn’t take long into the COVID pandemic for me to realize that for many people, perhaps especially many journalists, this whole global catastrophe was really about sticking it to Donald Trump. I believe masks have made a difference. I also believe a healthy chunk of those who past mask selfies on Instagram would wear their mask in the face of unanimous scientific consent that they accomplish nothing, if only by wearing them they could send an unmistakeable message that they are #NeverTrump.
I believed this a year ago because back then the journalistic coverage of the pandemic was totally, inarguably, and irreparably jaundiced by the election year. There was no way for a serious person to deny it. I watched on social media as the epistemological sorting hat of politics created multiple realities:
If you liked Trump, you made a big deal about how Anthony Fauci dismissed masks in January 2020, only to insist on them a couple months later.
If you didn’t like Trump, you made a big deal out of how he promised an end to the pandemic by Easter, and the laid the deaths that accumulated afterwards squarely on him.
If you liked Trump, you made a big deal about how the vast majority of the American population was not at risk for death.
If you didn’t like Trump, you made a big deal about how much better Andrew Cuomo was at governing a pandemic.
If you liked Trump, you took off your mask, went to church like normal, and resisted government meddling.
If you didn’t like Trump, you wore your mask, livestreamed (at least for a while), and loved your neighbor.
On and on and on.
Until I read Emma Green’s essay, though, I didn’t have a reporter’s case for all this. I knew that opposing or supporting Trump was creating separate reality distortion fields because I could see it happening, but I didn’t have a 30,000 foot view of it all. And of course, the tyranny of the present makes it almost impossible to think meaningfully about things in the moment.
Green’s piece lays a big part of the puzzle bare in a way that I’ve not seen from almost any other media organization. I have to give Green and The Atlantic credit for printing a narrative that probably has cost them subscriptions and (even worse) credibility among progressive peers. It’s likely to be something of a victory lap for conservatives and libertarians to see a center-left pub unequivocally label certain responses to COVID as progressive virtue signaling, but that’s not really interesting to me. I knew the pandemic was empowering virtue signaling everywhere I looked. What Green’s essay tells me, however, is that there are at least a blessed group of people who realize the disaster we as an American society are careening toward.
The disaster is this: We are rapidly becoming a public square that cannot tell the difference between ideas and personalities. We choose what we believe based on the opposite of whatever the people we dislike believe, and we tell ourselves that the Other Group is doing this but not us.
A couple quick points about this:
1) Note that this is different from choosing beliefs based on wanting to belong to a particular tribe. Yeah, we do that too, but we’ve always done that. Belief is a communal activity. What I’m calling a disaster is the way this dynamic has become overwhelmingly negative: not believing in order to belong, but exiling others as belief.
2) The worst part of this is not that it makes people mean to each other, though it certainly does that and we should grieve the flailing of civility. The worst part is the first part: we have confused personalities for ideas.
I say this is the “worst part” because of what Green’s essay clearly shows: There are very real, very serious choices that people make when their value-formation becomes captive to negative association. These choices can not only become absurd—for example, continuing to wear a mask and social distance even among vaccinated friends, despite not a shred of medical evidence that this is necessary—they are almost invulnerable to any logic so long as the outer ring continues to exist. The existence of the outer ring gives the belief its primary meaning, but far from this making the belief flimsy, it gives it astonishing staying power, since of course the outer ring will always be there. Everything the people you dislike do can become evidence for the truth of your beliefs.
The results of this have been devastating for how this country has navigated issues of the pandemic. Scientific research grows, consensus changes, information adjusts. Reasonable people do not see a conspiracy where simple correction is a legitimate explanation. But if what looms most in your mind and heart is not a desire to know what’s true, but a desire to see your opponents crushed and driven out of polite society, then to not believe in conspiracy when you see people change messaging is a kind of betrayal. That’s why folks like Tucker Carlson can’t simply say, “The scientific evidence says the pandemic is weakening and most mask mandates will be unnecessary soon. Hooray for limited government again!” No, what Carlson has to say is that the COVID-19 virus was always a fabrication, it was always nothing more than a flu, and vaccines will probably kill more people than the virus. He does not say this because the information he sees points him in this direction; he says this because it infuriates the people he thinks are existential threats to America, so it must be true.
And that’s exactly how the people Emma Green profiles behave as well. They hold onto strict social distancing guidelines even after vaccination, because, well, Tucker Carlson hates those guidelines, and he is awful. That means the guidelines must be valuable. If you’ve ever wondered how “we believe in science” people can be so anti-science, or how “values voters” can stump for Trump, here’s the answer. All’s fair in war. What your enemy hates must be treasured.
You better believe this happens in theology. Take the utterly dysfunctional state of the Southern Baptist Convention. I don’t care what you believe about critical race theory (CRT); for my part I can never find two people who agree on what it is or who holds to it, so I have no idea how any rational being gleans insight from these arguments. But leave that aside.
Do you really think CRT is an ideological iceberg in the denomination that is going to cause massive rupture? Do you really see churches like First Baptist Covington, Kentucky or Murfreesboro Baptist splitting right down the middle over how much guilt white people should feel day-to-day and whether they should say “Latinx” and support reparations? Give me a break. The debate over CRT in the Southern Baptist Convention is not a debate over CRT; it’s a personality war between tribes that dislike each other’s leaders, have unspoken resentments and fears, and believe that whatever the opposing tribe is OK with must be a dire threat and whatever they are frustrated by must be sniffing the truth. Go to the list I made earlier in this piece swap out the COVID-related content for CRT-related content, and see just how realistically it describes what you see in the SBC right now.
I believe with all my heart that it matters to God why we believe what we do. For one thing, the Bible actually has quite a bit to say about how desires can shape and twist our willingness to accept reality. Jesus asked some of the Jews who were seeking to kill him, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44) In other words, seeking the glory of man preempts and prevents them from believing. Their wrong interpretation of what they see and hear (miracles and teaching) is downstream from their defective desires. Proverbs 26:13 says, “The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!” What created this reality distortion field? Laziness. Bad desire. Jonah’s desire to see his enemies destroyed gave him the nonsensical idea that he could sail out of God’s vision. He didn’t randomly wake up one day and decide the Scriptures taught that all boats departing Joppa float magically out of the Lord’s presence. He woke up one day, was given a command to preach to people he hated, and then chose to believe nonsense because it accommodated his hatred.
We are experiencing a public epistemological crisis in large part because we’re self-deluded about how desires drive belief. The most important thing for you to want is not for your political, social, or even theological enemies to be marginalized and stripped of power. In fact there’s not a shred of evidence in the Bible to suggest that should be important to you at all. To the degree that fear fills your imagination and you cannot rest without assurance that the libs or the complementarians will be owned, you are letting bad desires master you, and you almost certainly are believing things right now that are wrong, for no better reason than it separates you from those you dislike.
Calm down. Check your eschatology. What do you believe really matters in the end? Once you get that question right, you will be miraculously freed up to believe all sorts of things that don’t give you a leg up over the Others. We desperately need more people who are freed in this way.