Two of the deepest yearnings in a person are: one, to be right.
The feeling is instinctual. We cling to our position even when all reason tells us we are mistaken.
For several years, I had been umpiring youth-league baseball games and freshman and JV high school games — but not yet varsity. To better prepare, I attended an umpiring clinic. My supervisor watched me call a few innings of a scrimmage, and then both TOLD me and SHOWED me (a video) that I was crouching too low behind the catcher and wasn’t able to see the outside corner of the plate. I argued with him — “I can see it!”
This is how badly we want to be right. I was attending the clinic to improve my technique as an umpire — I was being TOLD how to improve my technique by a much more experienced umpire — I was PAYING him to help me — and yet I was still resisting. Because to accept what the supervisor was saying, I had to admit that I had been doing it wrong all along.
He explained to me further: He had attended a clinic in Florida run by Major League umpires. One thing they did was, they had him crouch behind the catcher, and then somebody stood near the outside corner of the plate holding out a tennis ball at the end of a stick. The tennis ball had numbers written on it: 5…turn the ball…3…turn the ball…7. He was asked several times, “Can you read the number?” If not, then you are crouched too low to be able to see the outside corner.
The next time it was my turn behind the plate at the scrimmage, I gave myself the test. Not with somebody holding a tennis ball. Just taking a moment before the pitch. I would steal a look. Could I could see the outside of the plate from where I was crouching? I was surprised. The supervisor was right!
That didn’t feel good. We like to think that we know what we’re doing. We can even explain our wrong way of doing things. This is called “self-justification.” It is a powerful instinct.
There is a second yearning inside of us. And that is — the desire for an absolute in our lives.
As much as we resist being told we’re mistaken, we resist being told it by fellow humans — but we do not resist being told by God. Indeed, we are eager to link our behavior with the certainty that we are doing God’s will. No equivocation. This is it! “GOD tells me to do this.” Life becomes so much easier. As complex as life is, we find the easy way out, and the easy way is to insist there is no complexity–there are no exceptions — we want absolutes. GOD is our absolute — or at least the way we believe about God. “GOD tells me to do this.”
This is the ease of being pro-life. No complexity, no exceptions.
This is the ease of being anti-immigration. If someone is “illegal,” there is no complexity to their situation — there are no exceptions. Back they go!
In conservative religious circles, the person who admits complexities and exceptions is judged to be surrendering to “relativism.”
“Relativism” (to them) means: There ARE no absolutes for you. Everything is relative. If it’s right for you, it’s right for you. If it’s right for somebody else, it’s right for them. There are no absolutes. Its all relative.
This is the condemnation that fundamentalists heap upon believers who support gays. Believers who support gays are thought to be caving in to a cultural fad rather than adhering to the absolute — the will of God.
And how do they know the absolute will of God? Because it’s in writing! The Bible, they insist, is the Word of God. The command of God. Absolutely. No complexity, no shades, no exceptions.
The insistence on the Bible as the inerrant, inspired, direct Word of God unveils the second of these deepest of human yearnings: a desire for the absolute in one’s life.
Before the Bible was accessible to everybody — that is, before the Protestant Reformation was ignited by Martin Luther in the 1500s — there had been previous attempts by reformers to make the Bible easy to read and easy to obtain. Best-known among these early reformers was the Oxford professor Wycliffe in the 1300s.
Wycliffe wound up being condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, and would have been burned at the stake — had he not gone through the inconvenience of dying in bed (after a stroke). Over a century later, when another reformer, Jan Huss, was condemned and executed, the authorities dug up Wycliffe’s remains, burned them and scattered the ashes in a river.
THAT is how alarmed the higher-ups in the Roman Catholic Church felt about people having access to the Bible! Because if the masses could read the Bible on their own, that would undermine the absolute in their lives — the absolute being the Pope.
The word of the Pope was thought to be more powerful than the words of the Bible. The Pope could uphold not only the teachings of the Scriptures but church tradition (like belief in purgatory). The Bible and tradition could be upheld by the Pope as equal truths. They were absolutes. And what made these matters absolute was — the Pope himself. HE was absolute. Infallible. Inerrant. Directly in touch with the divine. The Vicar of Christ on Earth.
With the Protesant Reformation, however, the authority of the Pope was ridiculed. Churches broke off. They formed their own denominations. What, then, about the deep human yearning for an absolute in one’s life? The Protestants simply switched the certainty from the Pope to — the Bible! The Bible became their absolute: infallible, inerrant, directly inspired by the divine.
The Bible had become the Protestants’ “Pope.” Theologians today call such a view of the Bible — “the Paper Pope.” The fundamentalists’ Pope is a writing rather than a person.
But this is today known to be a human weakness — to need an absolute in one’s life. Life is complex. New information is always coming to us. In the days of the Reformation, Copernicus broke the news that the Earth circles the Sun. Martin Luther, as rebellious as he was against the Pope, refused to believe this other rebel, Copernicus. Why? Because, Luther explained, in the Book of Joshua, during a battle, Joshua commands the Sun to stand still. It wasn’t the Earth that needed to stand still — it was the Sun that needed to stand still. The Sun was the body in motion — not the Earth. So, the Sun goes around the Earth.
Luther couldn’t take it — he couldn’t take new information. It would make his life more complex. Specifically, his absolute would be shaken. He stuck to his belief in the Bible as inerrant.
Today we have the benefit of psychology to help us with insights as to why we do the things we do. We know about needing absolutes. We know about the deep desire to believe we are right, even when all reason shows we are mistaken.
People who believe the Bible is the inerrant, directly inspired “Word of God” can be shown evidence from science–geology, paleontology, astronomy, anthropology, archeology. The findings of science show that there are mistakes in the Bible. The Earth was not created in six days. There was never a Flood that encircled the planet. Adam and Eve were not the first Homo sapiens. The Hebrew people did not originate from one, lone ancestor (Abraham). Heaven is not a place, located like a balcony atop the universe. Indeed, the latest information is that there is no “end” to the universe. If anything, it circles back on itself, rather than going to a certain extent and then ending.
Doesn’t matter. Fundamentalists stick to their position. The Bible is their Pope. Absolute. Infallible. The renowned paleontologist Niles Eldredge, curator of fossils at the American Museum of Natural History, calls this rigidity on the part of fundamentalists who refuse to accept new information — “willful ignorance.”
Believers can be shown all of the evidence — they can be shown all reason — but they will still resist changing their mind. Why? They insist they are resisting social pressure. They alone are adhering to the Word of God, and thus the will of God.
But we know that there are other factors at work in their lives: the deep desire to be right, and the deep desire for an absolute in life.
Aside from evidence outside of the Bible from the sciences, believers can be shown evidence inside of the Bible: to be shown that they are mistaken in thinking it is the absolute Word of God. The fact is, there are errors.
The Gospel of Mark begins with a quote that is said to be from the writings of the Book of Isaiah: “I will send my messenger ahead of you. who will prepare your way — a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ”
This is an error. The quote is not from the book of Isaiah — only half of it is. The second half of the quote (“Prepare the way for the Lord…”) is from the Book of Malachi.
This finding is nothing new. In fact, if you look at any Bible, there will be a footnote at the end of Mark 1:3 showing that this part of the verse is not from Isaiah but from Malachi. Thus, a mistake! Is the Bible no longer to be thought inerrant?
Fundamentalists have an answer. It enables them to cling to their position: The Bible is still inerrant; the mistake was made on the part of the persons long ago who were copying this Gospel. The original book of Mark, however, had it right.
The absolute remains safe.
But how about Matthew 2:23? It says of Jesus, “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’ ” That is, a Nazarene is a person from Nazareth. Jesus grew up in the town of Nazareth.
But nowhere in the Old Testament does this prophecy exist! The Messiah “shall be called a Nazarene.”
Perhaps the Gospel writer was thinking of the term “Nazirite.” A Nazirite is a person who takes a vow — like a monk — to dedicate himself totally to God. Samson was a Nazirite — which is why he didn’t cut his hair nor drink alcohol. But Jesus was hardly a Nazirite. In fact, critics complained that he partied too much! But changing a Nazirite into a Nazarene — that’s taking a liberty with the untouchable Word of God.
Furthermore, believers in the Bible as their absolute can be shown in the story of Noah that there is a contradiction. At one point, Noah is told to take animals on board the ark two-by-two. Elsewhere, Noah is told to take animals on board the ark not by 2’s but some by 7’s and others by 2’s.
In Genesis 1, God creates human beings all at once–male and female simultaneously. In the very next chapter, God creates the man first, and only several verses later (after creating fish and land animals and birds and trees) the woman. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are opposites!
Doesn’t matter. Believers cling to their position — the Bible is inerrant, directly inspired by God. They cling to their absolute.
New information doesn’t matter.
The psychologist Carl Rogers wrote in his classic work On Becoming a Person: “Facts are always friendly.”
In other words, new information is always friendly. It may at first seem uncomfortable to be told we are mistaken. But moving on to a new understanding is a much healthier way to go through life than rigidly holding onto an absolute.
And worst of all is when a believer has an inkling of yielding that others may be right. Maybe there are mistakes in the Bible. Maybe it is not inerrant, nor directly from God.
But they shake off the thought. They suppress it. They justify the suppression by insisting, “I’m following the will of God by sticking to the Bible as the Word of God.”
This is unhealthy. Mental health (states Scott Peck) means: If you have a choice between what is comfortable but a façade vs, what is uncomfortable but true — always pick what is uncomfortable. It will prove to be the path of becoming a healthier person.
“Nothing is at last scared,” wrote Emerson, “but the integrity of our own mind.”
By the way, after discovering in the quiet of my own thoughts that I was indeed wrong about being able to see the outside corner of home plate, I went back to my supervisor and said, “You were right. I couldn’t see it.”
Admitting that to him was an expression of admitting it to myself. That confession actually felt good. It felt better than sticking arms-crossed to a position that I knew in the privacy of my thoughts needed to change.