July 2018


July 31: The Anchoring Heuristic

When I served my previous church in Illinois, I invited a friend who pastored a new church start-up to visit and preach. Later he said, “Wow, your church is really old.” His church was made up almost entirely of people under 45. A few weeks later, a Lutheran pastor helped with a worship service. His church was older, shrinking, and consisted mostly of retired people. After the service he said, “Wow, you have so many young families and children in this church!”
 
How could two people seeing the exact same church come to such different conclusions? They brought two different anchors to their experience.
 
Last week I wrote about heuristics, which are simple rules or shortcuts employed by the automatic part of the brain to render a judgement regarding a perception. The anchoring heuristic helps us make quick estimates. The anchor refers to the most available known number that seems plausible to the brain. Then, comparing the unknown number, the brain adjusts the guess up or down relative to the anchor.
 
When you’re trying to remember the date for some obscure event you may first draw upon a well-known date, like D-Day or the assassination of JFK, and then estimate the date based on its proximity to the known anchor date.
 
Like the availability heuristic, the anchoring heuristic is great when it works. But just like the availability heuristic, the anchoring heuristic can lead us astray. The great challenge of the anchoring heuristic is the power the anchor has over our automatic thought processes. Rather than steering us in the right direction, an anchor can, as the word implies, weigh us down, preventing us from moving in the right direction.
 
I have a friend who teaches this in seminars by asking participants the population of the Philippines. What the group doesn’t realize is that half the group has been primed with the fact that Australia has a population of 23 million, the other half with the fact that Indonesia has a population of 247 million. The important thing here isn’t the population of the Philippines—100 million as of 2014— but the influence the anchor has on each group. Groups primed with Indonesia's numbers estimate the population more than twice as high than groups primed with Australia's. Anchors make a huge difference in how we see the world, and therefore in how we make judgments about communities, people, groups, economics, and complex social issues. 
 
My two pastor friends had two very different reactions to the makeup of my church. Their anchors—their own church communities—caused them to see the exact same place with very different eyes. Our context largely determines how we judge what we see. The anchoring heuristic reminds us that “facts” are never just facts. Facts are always interpreted, and our anchors, whether we know it or not, affect the way we process facts and experiences. We need to be aware of our anchors and consider how they may be affecting the judgments and decisions we make. 
 

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker

 

July 24: The Availability Heuristic

I went snorkeling in the Caribbean as a child. The guide asked if we were more afraid of coconuts or sharks. We all said sharks, but he informed us that more people die each year from falling coconuts than shark attacks. So why is fear of sharks more common than fear of coconuts?
 
This illustrates what is known as the availability heuristic, a mental shortcut that helps you make fast, but sometimes incorrect, assessments. There are all kinds of mental shortcuts, but one common one involves relying on information that comes to mind quickly. This is known as the availability. If you can quickly think of multiple examples of something happening — such as shark attacks — you will believe it is more common.
 
The more often we hear of an event occurring, or the more emotionally charged the event, the more available it is to us and the more likely it is the brain will think of such events regardless of the actual numerical rates of incidence. The more the media or politicians talk about a threat, the more likely we will think that threat is common, despite what evidence suggests.
 
The availability heuristic also means that we overestimate the risk of clear and present dangers that appeal to our most visceral emotions, and we underestimate the risk posed by complicated threats that develop slowly.
 
Climate change is an example of a complex problem that suffers from the availability heuristic. This is a complicated problem that does not present itself in readily available and dramatic ways. Therefore, we tend to focus on what we believe are larger threats because they are more available to our everyday senses.
 
The availability heuristic makes it easy for people to know intellectually a situation is threatening, but without the physical sensation of fear, we lack the drive to act. The availability heuristic affects church mission work, too. It is easy to motivate people to give to some big disaster that consumes the news like a hurricane or earthquake. The threat and need are very tangible and right in front of us in stark pictures. But trying to raise money and resources to fix a systemic problem like generational poverty or illiteracy is much harder to do. It's easy to solve what seems like an immediate problem than to act upon the larger, and more complex, systemic problem that doesn’t get sensational media coverage.
 
Heuristics play an important role in how we make decisions and act upon information in the world around us. The availability heuristic can be a helpful tool, but it is also important to remember that it can sometimes lead to incorrect assessments. It may lead us to fear things we don't need to fear, while we act on needs or threats that do not need immediate action and ignore bigger problems.
 

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker

 

July 16: Complaining to God

Walter Brueggeman is one of my favorite Biblical scholars. He talks about what he calls “God’s infidelity”: those times when it seems God does not show up or fulfill God’s promises, or when it seems God otherwise acts in ways that are inconsistent with how we believe God should act.
 
The psalms that address this sort of scenario are called “lament psalms," which is a nice way of saying, “give God an earful.” In Psalm 44, Israel is in a national crisis. The people expected God to show up and help, but God didn’t.
 
The psalmist reminds God that Israel has always trusted God, but now God has,
 
“rejected us and abased us”…
“made us like sheep for slaughter”…
“sold your people for a trifle”…
“made us a taunt…a byword…a laughingstock”
 
Thanks a lot, God. All this has happened, even though Israel has “not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant.” Therefore, the psalmist shouts at God: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever.”
 
The psalmist is saying, “God, you’re asleep at the switch. It’s your fault. Don’t even try to blame this on us.”
 
The Bible is full of psalms and stories where people question God’s faithfulness because it appears God has abandoned them or not kept up God’s end of the bargain. The Bible is full of laments; there’s a whole book of laments called Lamentations.
 
We lament when it feels like God is unfaithful, but Scripture affirms God’s faithfulness to us and to God’s covenant again and again.
 
The Israelites sometimes felt God was unfaithful to them and took their grief and anger and stuck it in God’s face. They lamented and complained to God.
 
God heard their lament and did not strike them down with plagues, famine, or thunderbolts for daring to oppose God's sovereign might.
 
What can we learn from this? Brueggemann says: “Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town.”
 
Maybe we have lost the “art of lament" where complaining to God is part of the deal. We are too often taught that if anything goes wrong, we should just smile and say we trust God’s plan. Spoiler alert: God doesn’t plan out every little thing in our lives (that’s another article). The Bible proclaims that a vital dimension of the spiritual journey is giving God an earful now and then. God can handle it. God is big enough to hear our lament and complaint; it means we’re still invested in the relationship enough to care so deeply. George MacDonald, a spiritual mentor of C.S. Lewis, wrote, “Complaint against God is far nearer to God than indifference about Him.”
 
If you’re angry with God now and then, you’re normal. That’s part of being the people of God. It’s clearly a part of the Bible, so we should allow it, even encourage it, because the complaint can be the way to the resolution.
 

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker

 

July 9: Let Justice Roll

​Back in the 8th century BCE, Bethel was a prosperous city—for some. Many people enjoyed fine luxuries, nice privileges, safe homes, and healthy food. But God had a message for them, and God chose Amos, a tree-herder, to deliver it.
 
When Amos arrived, the economy was booming, worship attendance was high, the number of sacrifices on the altars was on the upswing, the budget was healthy, and many children came to Vacation Torah School. Things seemed great.
 
Messages from God in the midst of great wealth and prosperity historically have not sounded like this: “Great job, guys. Keep up the good work. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re all doing great.”
 
God sent Amos to Bethel to invade the complacent security of its upwardly mobile citizens and to disturb the false piety of the devout who patted themselves on the back for their religious appearance. The prophet's task matches what R. G. Collingwood said of the artist's job: "The artist tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts." 
 
Amos practically begs for Bethel’s displeasure and antagonism by putting words to God’s truth: "I hate the noise of your worship, your songs, and your fellowship. Instead, let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
 
God is upset that while the most vulnerable in society are suffering, the religious in Bethel make a show of worship. God says that worship without justice is just noise, no matter how beautiful the choir or how eloquent the prayers. Throughout the Bible, God declares that the worship God desires is acts of justice.
 
In the Hebrew Scriptures, justice means that the community cares for the neediest in society: the marginalized, the young, the old, the orphan, the widow, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the preyed upon. Justice is an act of providing a space for equal access to God, to the necessities of life, and to the rights God affords to all people, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the truths we celebrate in our nation’s Declaration of Independence.
 
Justice, or taking care of each other, is God's demand. To do justice is to correct abuse and meet needs. God’s message through Amos and the other prophets, is that justice and righteousness should be the outward signs of our faith—not worship attendance, pledges, prayers, or how many decorative crosses we have in our house.
 
Great justice workers have declared that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. We’ve become very good at moments of silence. We’re too good at silence.
 
God declares that our neighbors in our communities and around the world who are suffering, who are hungry, who are desperate, who desire equitable opportunity and treatment under the law all deserve justice. So let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
 
If you wish to truly worship God, then live in a way that proclaims that every person's life is as valuable and meaningful as your own.
 

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker

 
 

July 2: Whose Image Do You Bear? 

A few days before his eventual arrest and death at the hands of an empire, Jesus is confronted in the Temple by religious and civic officials. These colluding representatives of church and state try to trap and discredit Jesus with a question: “Jesus, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”
 
They want him to say something that will get him in trouble either with the state or the church, but that sort of dualistic thinking is always beneath Jesus. Dualistic thinking is either/or, black or white, one or the other. It's is the lowest form of thought, and Jesus never gives in to it.
 
Jesus asks the group to show him the coin, and they present a Roman denarius. This coin showed the image of Emperor Tiberius, accompanied by the words “Son of the Deified Caesar.” The reverse side of the coin referred to Tiberius as the High Priest. Use of this coin was an act of economic enthronement that proclaimed Tiberius the Son of God and the High Priest, the mediator between heaven and earth. This coin was blasphemous in the Jewish faith, yet Jewish faith leaders were carrying it.
 
Jesus replies, "Give to Caesar to what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s." It may sound like Jesus is putting God and Caesar on the same level, but Jesus knows the truth of God and the truth of empire. "The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it," proclaim the Psalms. It all belongs to God—even the emperor.
 
The image of Caesar could be contained in a coin, a coin that could be held in the palm of a Pharisee’s hand. We sing of God, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” We can’t hold God in our hand, but God holds us in the palm of God’s hand and upholds us with God’s righteous right hand.
 
Because the coin bore Caesar’s image, Jesus said it must be Caesar’s. If coins with Caesar’s image belong to Caesar, then we must belong to whoever’s image we bear. Genesis proclaims that God made humankind in God’s image. Every single one of us bears the image of God, so we must all belong to God. We must give ourselves to God. While we may divide our budget, we must not divide our allegiance, for we belong entirely to God.
 
Paul writes to the Romans that we must present our whole selves to God—not just our Sunday selves, not just our faith selves, not just our private selves. We must present our whole selves to God. We must pledge allegiance to the God whose image we bear and that allegiance is whole-hearted: it is not shared. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s."
 
Whose image do you bear?
 
In common calling,
 
Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker
 
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