Once on a Damascus Road
by Larry Downing, April 23, 2017:
“‘You hear your fate,’ said the Sphere to me…‘Death or imprisonment awaits the
Apostle of the Gospel of Three Dimensions.’” (Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, 1884).
“That’s What You Think” Subtitle: “Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds.” The subtitle by itself was reason enough to look further. Why do we, despite evidence that counters what we believe, find it so difficult to change our minds? This question, and others like it, is addressed in three books reviewed by Elizabeth Kolbert in the February 27, 2017, The New Yorker (pp. 66-71).
As a pastor, I’ve puzzled over why it is people of other faiths do not value and accept the beliefs we Adventists hold important. As a novice pastor, I spent hours with thoughtful Christians pulling out one text after another with the intent to prove that the seventh day is the “true” Sabbath. Scripture, I assured those on the other side of the debate, does not support the first day of the week as the proper day of worship. More times than not my careful logic proved ineffectual. For the record, experience led me to reject the proof system. It finally sank in that, as the subtitle to Kolbert’s article states, reason and evidence do not change minds. We should not be surprised that verifiable statements fall on deaf ears. The research by the three authors of the books Kolbert reviews leads to the conclusion that denial of evidence is common and widespread among all levels of society.
President Donald Trump, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt and other high government officials, despite protestations from the scientific community, continue to deny that humans share significant responsibility for environmental degradation.
The Cargo Cult, a religious cult in the South Pacific that originated during and after World War II, proclaimed that one day, very soon, from out of the blue, generous gifts would rain down from heaven. The adherents constructed crude models of airplanes and airports out of sticks and made sounds like airplanes in the belief their actions would hasten the day when the gifts would arrive. In an effort to counter the cult’s teaching, the Australian government took a cult member to Australia to show him that the expectations promoted by the cult were false. In the process of indoctrination, the government authorities gave the man a tour of a World War II museum, where he saw displayed the stick airports and airplanes. He returned to his homeland to announce that the Australians had stolen their sacred objects and put them in their own temple. That is why the gifts had not arrived. A new branch of the cult was formed that followed this new light. Evidence does not a believer make.
Adventist church administrators have spent tens of thousands of dollars, countless hours of debate, and produced numerous documents in attempts to support an untenable policy that forbids women’s ordination to the gospel ministry. Church theologians and administrators on all levels affirm there is no theological reason to support the administrative policy that forbids ministerial ordination to qualified women. Those who deny the findings of their own authorities continue on their endless track that advocates a men-only ordination policy, a policy that leads to a dead end street. If the GC sanctions or takes over “rebellious” union conferences, such actions may well result in a split within the Adventist church. History records that religious bodies have separated over lesser matters than who is and who is not a “genuine” ordained minister.
Empirical evidence leads to the conclusion that the earth and life on earth is considerably older than six thousand years. Our scientists and theologians risk job and career if they share this information with students and others. Church administrators continue in their quest to establish “scientific” alternatives to what are commonly accepted scientific facts. Evidence that does not support what they believe and proclaim is ignored or denied.
Church officials denounce textual and higher criticism and warn our theologians to eschew reference to or use of the methods church authorities believe are the product of “liberal” theologians. Is there no awareness that when they examine the social and historical context in which Ellen White wrote and research the linage of her writings, all done in efforts to better understand what she wrote, they are applying the scholarly methods forbidden to our biblical scholars?
Researchers at Andrews University, and others, report that a significant percentage of our youth have left the church. Studies have shown, for example, that Millennials do not find numerous of the unique Adventist doctrines applicable to their life-experience. If we want to keep our kids, it is vital that we learn to address life where they are. The positive response from young adults to the One Project is powerful evidence that practical, Christ-centered presentations catch people’s attention. Consider the benefits these programs provide the church. What an opportunity for church administrators to offer their encouragement and support! The negative response from GC personnel toward the One Project and its organizers is a conundrum.
In their recent book The Enigma of Reason (Harvard University Press, 2017), Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber offer evidence that one reason for our persistence in holding to our views relates to our desire to cooperate with each other. This is not instinct, as is seen in an ant colony or bees in their hive. They call attention to what is known as the “confirmation bias.” We are drawn to, and embrace, information that affirms what we already believe and reject that which challenges what we promote or believe. We can tag this group with the label, the “Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts” group.
Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach in their book The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Riverhead Books, 2017) believe that sociability is the key to understanding how our minds function or, perhaps more accurately, malfunction. When people encourage and affirm us in the beliefs we hold, we feel good. We like to think that in the community we have created there is unity of thought. Though we have various responsibilities, there is a oneness in the ideas we hold and promote. “One implication of the naturalness with which we divide cognitive labor is that there’s ‘no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge’ and ‘those of other members’ of the group.”  We might call this the “You Scratch My Beliefs and I’ll Scratch Yours and We’ll Both Feel Good” group.
The third book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us” (Oxford University Press, 2016), is by psychiatrist Jack Gorman and his daughter, Sara Gorman, a public-health specialist. The authors examine the gap between what science informs us and what we tell ourselves. The authors suggest that when we find information that supports our beliefs, the discovery brings about euphoric feelings, brought about by a rush of dopamine. The enjoyable feelings encourage us to stick to our guns, come hell or high water, even if we are wrong! We might call this, the “Tell Me I’m Right It Makes Me Feel Good” group.
A couple days after reading the review of the three books referenced above, I spent an afternoon watching the live-stream GC Spring meetings. Heads of various departments gave reports. A man preached a sermon. A PowerPoint presentation displayed the font that was recommended for use by the world-wide Adventist church. Several people offered their opinions for and against the proposed sans-serif font, Noto Sans, which has been dubbed “Advent Sans.” The recommendation was moved and passed. I observed as delegates responded to the GC Transgenderism statement. It was adopted, as presented, with no negative votes.
The presentations I watched, the discussions and actions that followed, stimulated the little gray cells to act. What does it take for us in the church to change our minds? If we find our methods are not effective, why do we find it so difficult and threatening to pursue an alternative course? As I contemplated these questions, several what ifs percolated into my consciousness.
What if one of the delegates had moved that the GC change the ordination policy to affirm that ordination to the gospel ministry is open to all qualified individuals, irrespective of gender? What if the motion passed!
Thoughts carried me beyond the Spring meeting. What if we encouraged our scientists and theologians to apply the tools and skills associated with their areas of expertise, in classrooms, labs and lecture halls? What if we trusted our teachers to be judicious in what and how they transmit information to students and others? What if we encouraged our scholars to follow where their studies take them?
What if we acknowledge that truth is progressive? New information may bring about change. What once was important in a specific time and place may not now speak to us. Granted, women and men of good will hold to differing, and at times, conflicting beliefs. Modifying or rejecting one’s belief system is not the natural response. What if we allowed others to hold to their beliefs and allow them the freedom, without threat, to express their views? Risk? Yahweh is a God of risks
While I was still in the “what if” reverie, the wall of reality arose. Didn’t Kolbert state as fact that reason and evidence will not change minds? or will they? People do respond to new information. To paraphrase Acts 26:14: “It is uncomfortable, even painful, when information challenges our beliefs.” Much of what the man on a Damascus Road believed and held dear came under threat. He heard with new ears; he saw with new eyes and the world has never been the same! Our journey may take us down a Damascus Road. If we have eyes to see; ears to hear….Who can predict where that road may lead?
 Elizabeth Kolbert, “That’s What You Think,” THE NEW YORKER, February 27, 2017, p. 68.
Lawrence (Larry) Downing, D.Min., is retired after more than 40 years as a parish minister serving Seventh-day Adventist churches on both Coasts. He was also an adjunct faculty in the School of Business and the School of Theology at La Sierra University. He is married to Arleen. Together, they have three grown children and six grandchildren. Larry and Arleen reside part time in Rancho Cordova, CA and in San Luis Obispo, CA.