What Do You Want?


What’s on your mind?

Facebook asks me this question every time I log on.  As I scroll down my timeline I feel encouraged to give my thoughts on topics religious, political, and just about everything in between.

“What do I think about this?” I wonder.

Over the last few years, however, two books have made me think twice (ironically) about whether what’s going on is quite so simple as that.

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, uses the metaphor of an elephant and a rider. The elephant represents our subconscious world: our emotions, intuitions, and flash reactions (disgust, attraction, etc). The rider is our intellect and reasoning.

Through much research, Haidt’s conclusion is this: elephant’s rule. We have an intuitive response to almost everything, and our minds then work to justify that response. We think we’ve arrived there by “thinking”, but actually we’re far less rational then that. Haidt puts it like this…

“…the bottom line is that when we see or hear about things other people do, the elephant begins to lean immediately. The rider, who is always trying to anticipate the elephant’s next move, begins looking around for a way to support such a move.” – The Righteous Mind, p83. 

The Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith seems to be on a similar wavelength. He suggests that far too much Christian teaching treats people as if they are “brains on a stick.”

In other words, as if we are all intellects floating in space, un-corrupted by emotion. We simply have to decide, “what do I think about this information?” and away we go.

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith takes issue with this view. He suggests, instead, that our identities are located more in our bodies than in our minds (p 32). In fact, he writes…

“To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.” – Desiring the Kingdom, p51.

The crucial question for us to be asking, then, is not, “What do I think?” but, “What do I love?

…Well, that’s all very interesting, but possibly a little abstract and philosophical. What does it mean in day to day life?

Here are two things I’ve been considering…

First, I think it’s helpful to be aware that emotions and intuitions play a far larger part than we often think in how we react to new information, or different points of view. When we argue about politics, we’re not untarnished minds exchanging ideas. When we listen to a sermon, we’re not evaluating the content in a pure, rational manner.

No, our elephants are leaning all over the place.

We should try to be aware of that in our own reactions, and aware of that in communicating our points of view to other people.

Second, it’s a reminder that the Christian faith is not simply a matter of ticking the right doctrines from a list of options. As James K.A. Smith says…

“Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behaviour; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly – who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.” – Desiring the Kingdom, p32-33.

So, perhaps the better question is not, “What do you think?” but “What do you want?


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