The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room

Mark 3:13-19

by Daniel Harrell

I want to say again how thankful I am to this congregation for the opportunity to so fully enjoy a three-month sabbatical at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. A lot happened, so I’m taking these Eastertide sermons to share some of what I learned. As I mentioned on Easter, Fuller Theological Seminary includes both a School of Theology and a School of Psychology, which was a good fit for a geek like me. My sabbatical plan included theology and psychology, specifically evolutionary psychology—an approach to understanding human personality and behavior by way of variation with natural selection, aka evolution, versus other psychological theories, such as trait, type, social learning or psychodynamic.

My plan proved unfit for survival, you might say, due to cancellations and program shifts. But I adapted in good Darwinian fashion, and enrolled in an excellent class on the psychology of spiritual formation. In this class I explored cognitive aspects of prayer, religion as a contributor to self-regulation, the influence of gratitude on well-being, psychologies of stewardship and sabbath and conversion as well as the transformative effects of worship on personality. Our minds, it seems, are predisposed to make meaning and ascribe agency; we have a bias toward belief in the holy. One experiment offered married couples identical wedding bands to replace the ones they wore, along with a thousand dollar incentive if they would exchange. Every couple and even widows and widowers declined. They regarded their metal rings as sacred.

My interest in psychology grew out of a failed attempt at a business major. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina—still recovering from last Monday night—I initially pursued a business degree with a plan to pursue a career in marketing and graphic design. But after failing an economics course, my advisor suggested I might be better off “working with people.” So I defaulted to the all-purpose psychology major which at Carolina meant a lot of time spent experimenting on pigeons and rats. This eventually led to my decision to become a minster.

Many years later, serving as a minister in Boston, my curiosity about faith and moral development led me to Boston College and an eventual PhD in Developmental Psychology with a Minor Emphasis in Counseling. My doctoral thesis studied how we might manage stress in situations of uncertainty, which I guess you could say is vaguely related to faith. My conclusions were fairly common-sensical: When you’re feeling stressed, take a deep breath. I learned at Fuller that prayer helps too.

I studied psychology during a period when the dominant models of personality and behavior were computational. Psychologists regarded the mind as a kind of personal computer, with hardware and software, inputs and outputs; an operating system subject to upgrades and rebooting as we work our way through life. Yet as more was being discovered about neurology and brain function, computer analogies were giving way to biological realities—the mind as a function of brain function, organic and malleable and adaptive, influenced by genetics and inheritance, environmental forces and development, meaning, of course, evolution.

Dr. Justin Barrett, a devoted Christian and evolutionary psychologist, arranged for my coming to Fuller as a visiting scholar. Justin and I have worked together on various faith and science initiatives. His speciality in the cognitive science of religion, and specifically, how evolution renders human beings especially susceptible to belief. It seems we are prewired from birth to believe in gods and supernatural agents to explain life as we experience it. Belief is not only natural, but inevitable for human beings. Belief is easy; Justin says, but faith that’s hard. Faith sees the world as it is, but then strives to experience it as it should be; which requires an enormous amount of cognitive lifting and behaving as-if something is true. You learn your faith through teaching and experiences and then think of yourself as how you would be if God were as if you imagine. Faith takes a lot of discipline and practice, which is why I also enrolled in a theology course called Spiritual Disciplines and Practice.

Of course psychology only observes religious predispositions and behaviors. God’s existence cannot be proven or disproven by science, nor can it say whether someone should or should not have faith. This is what keeps us ministers employed. At the same time, as with any reliable observation of the material world, certain religious assertions may be more or less consistent with the findings of science and thus more or less likely to be real. If Christ is all in all as Christians profess, and the world we inhabit is not in fact fairyland, we should expect our faith to see the world as it is, even as we pray for its redemption.

Christians hold that God crafted people for love and relationship with him and our neighbor. Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in the supernatural quite natural? Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing. Justin argues, “Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?” No, at least not for scientific reasons.

What does any of this have to do with Jesus choosing his disciples or with elephants? I had a better idea before I started working on this sermon. As to my title, “The Elephant in the Room,” the image draws from that tendency we humans have to avoid the obvious. Apropos to psychology, its an image used by another psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, to further describe how our minds work when it comes to belief. The elephant represents passions and emotions, enormous and strong, inexplicable and intuitive, constantly and unconsciously perceiving and reacting. Atop the elephant is a rider, who tries to steer with rationality and reason, but is comparably small and completely dependent on the pachyderm’s proclivities. We like to think there’s a distinction between head and heart, but no matter how geeky we are, Jumbo’s in charge. Cognition and emotion both happen in the mind, the rider goes nowhere without the elephant. Intuition and emotion always come first, reasoning second. Thus  you’re looking to change somebody’s mind, you have to talk to the elephant. The rider is not so much concerned with truth as with rationale and justification of emotion. She’ll come up with the reasons.

While studying for my doctorate I needed to conduct an experiment for a paper I was writing on adolescent morality. Since I worked with teenagers as a youth minister at church, I had a ripe if not necessarily willing sample of subjects. I had the kids rank a list of virtues, including honesty and loyalty, and each ranked honesty at the top. To test their conviction, I had one an adult volunteer, named Harry, pose as a nominee for a prestigious award for good character. Winning the award required references, so Harry asked the students to vouch for his character to the award committee, but first he needed to confess to having cheated on a recent licensing exam for his job, a wrong for which he was deeply sorry. I recruited my Bible study to pose as the awards committee, and they called each of the kids to inquire whether they knew any reason why Harry would be undeserving of a good character award, for instance, had he ever cheated on something like a professional licensing exam. Every student replied “absolutely not.” When confronted with their duplicity, the students justified their support by arguing how they knew Harry and this one indiscretion (for which he was contrite) was not the totality of his character. Despite their declaration of honesty’s preeminence, loyalty was stronger, fidelity more important than fact. We lie to protect our friends. Elephants herd with the heart. Riders come up with the reasons.

As for my paper, the experiment violated every standard of the Human Subjects Approval Committee. So much for any career in psychology. And of course the kids were so mad I was almost done as a youth minister too. Lucky for me that love covers over a multitude of sins.

I took that same group of students on a mission trip to Nepal where we rode real elephants through a wildlife park. Elephants have few natural predators and you sit high enough to see everything. As we meandered through the jungle, it became clear who was really in control. The elephant at times would jag left or go right, stop for a drink, and the driver would yell “hold on” and readjust, eventually turning the elephant in good directions. But it took patience and practice. There’s only so much you can do atop something so huge.

Intuition comes first. Reasoning second. The elephant is afraid of a mouse. The rider reasons mice are vermin—despicable and therefore subject to extermination and lab experimentation. You meet somebody and your elephant “falls in love.” The rider reasons this person is perfect and made specially for you. The elephant believes in something greater than itself, that we’re all here for purposes we cannot see, that God exists. The rider uses guidance and practice, discipline and teaching and play, eventually training the elephant, transforming belief into faith that knows who God is. Belief is easy—even demons believe—but faith takes work. Good and beneficial work, it turns out, because faith makes us more fully human. Values, virtues, norms, identities, the capacity to regulate ourselves for the sake of love and relationship, all rely on morality, and morality relies upon faith.

Jesus picked twelve disciples to work with him—to be with him, to learn and train and experience. In time, Jesus sent them out as apostles, authorized to preach and drive out demons. Whether you regard demons as invading entities or psychological neuroses, faith happens first by dealing with the demons, as huge and unwieldy as demons can be. You have to talk to the elephant. You can’t argue anybody into the kingdom of God. Feelings and emotions, inner convictions and shame, that nagging sense that something exists that is bigger than me, that inherent desire to transcend ourselves toward something greater and more meaningful, these are the elephants filling the rooms of our minds. The gospel makes sense of what we already sense to be so. Jesus loves me this I feel, then the Bible makes it real. We are natural born believers with childlike faith, made ready by God to receive the life and love he makes known in Christ.

Jesus picked twelve disciples to work with him. One last psychological tidbit about numbers. Every Jew in Jesus day knew there were twelve tribes in Israel, or at least knew there used to be. Ten of the tribes had been lost seven centuries earlier to the invading Assyrians. The prophets spoke of a coming restoration. God would raise Israel from its grave and make them a new people. When Jesus picked twelve, he hinted that God was now doing the very thing they’d been praying he’d do for centuries. This restoration carried with it every implication: spiritual, physical, social and political—the cost made clear by naming Judas as the betrayer. Redemption came with a high price.

And yet God so loved the world that he sent his only son to save it, no matter the cost. He started with twelve, though really only succeeded with eleven. Despite embedded symbolism, if your plan is to save the world you’d think you’d need more a bigger team.

While at Fuller I read a dissertation entitled Relational Capacity, Personal Well-Being & Ministry Performance: Consequences of the Evolved Social Brain by Candace Coppinger. According to evolutionary psychology, ministry performance—as measured by the effectiveness to say, preach and deal with demons while avoiding burnout—depends on what’s called one’s “sympathy network.” Deep breaths and prayer mitigate stress, but you also need a number of close friends in your life if you’re going to properly serve others. How many close friends? According to the research, you need 12-15 to prevent emotional overload and compassion fatigue. Any fewer and you feel under-supported. Any more and you feel overwhelmed since sympathetic relationships are reciprocal. Social grooming is a two-way street.

With 12-15 in your sympathy network, how many people can you then genuinely care for? How many relationships can any one person handle? According to the research, our relational capacity as humans is limited by our brain size to 150: Known as “Dunbar’s Number,” for the psychologist who has traced its efficacy throughout human history. Mesopotamian Neolithic villages, Roman Army units, and modern-hunter-gatherer clans all center around 150 people. A recent expansive study had subjects share their Christmas card mailing lists, presumably a measure of relational reciprocity. You typically send a card to someone you like who sent you a card and vice versa. An active personal relationship implies contact and reciprocity (and according to Dunbar does not include coworkers, customers or clients). These Christmas card lists were gathered and counted, and the average number on each list per subject? 154.

One of the things about moving to Minnesota that Minnesotans confirm is how hard it is for newcomers to make friends. Minnesota is less a place people move to as it is a place they move back to, or never leave to begin with. Due to the non-transient nature of Minnesota culture, relational networks are pretty much at capacity already. If you don’t make friends in kindergarten while you’re here you’re basically out of luck. Our brains can only manage so many people.

While in Pasadena, we attended a small church where the minister bemoaned the size. “It’s like we shot to 150 and stopped,” he told me. But then again, the church community was wonderful and their concern for each other deeply loving and personal. Following each service concerns and good news would be shared in church, and everyone knew each other intimately by name, not a small thing in a place like LA. You’ve heard and will hear me speak about the deep decline in church attendance in America, which you could interpret as a depressing sign of demise. On the other hand, you could also interpret it as a natural, perhaps even supernatural, reduction for the sake of relationship. Studies show that the larger the congregation, the looser the social bonds shared. A current movement known as the “Parish Collective” celebrates smallness in neighborhood churches where everybody lives close to each other, nobody drives to worship, life is shared in proximity with intimacy shaped by spiritual discipline and practices that stress loyalty and honesty, with grace and forgiveness, out of obedience and faith in Jesus, a participation in Christ as the body of Christ. Jesus as fully human had his 12 and 150, who each went out and had their own twelve and 150, and so on and so on. The Lord knew what he was doing.

Belief is easy, but faith is hard work. Good work and beautiful. It makes us fully human, just like Jesus, like God created us to be.

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