Sermon for Sunday, August 23, 2020 || Proper 16A || Romans 12:1-8
When I was a kid, I was a know-it-all and proud of it. I spent two and a half years at Hillcrest Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL, making sure everyone knew I was the smartest kid there. I mellowed a bit in high school, but my know-it-all nature still asserted itself all too often. One time in tenth grade, I got into an argument with my English teacher about the proper pronunciation of the word “conch,” as in “conch shell.” We were reading Lord of the Flies, and I was an idiot. (Turns out, both konk and contsh are correct.*)
It wasn’t until the summer of 2006 – between my first two years of seminary – that I understood that thinking you are a know-it-all is really dumb. First off, it’s never true. Second, thinking you know everything makes you completely impervious to new information and, for that matter, personal growth. Thanks be to God for a summer of hospital chaplaincy that showed me in excruciating detail the vast expanse of things I didn’t know. After that, I no longer conceived of myself as a know-it-all, but a lifetime of inhabiting that identity made it hard to shake. Nearly 15 years later, I find myself lapsing back into it all the time, and so I try constantly to inject myself with the viewpoints of people who differ from me in order to remember there’s always something more to learn.
I mention all this because of a verse we heard this morning, one of the most important sentences the Apostle Paul ever wrote. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Paul offers this invitation to the Roman segment of the Way of Jesus. And he offers it to us. Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.
These words take my breath away. When I read them in the midst of this modern moment, they become a personal and communal mission statement. I see God beckoning to me – to us – to engage in continuous transformation and renewal, so that we don’t stay conformed to the death-dealing patterns of this world.
So how do we engage in the renewal of our minds so that we continually transform into the people of peace, love, and justice whom God yearns for us to be? We pray, we live in community, and we take on the hard work of self-examination. More than anything, self-reflection (in an atmosphere of prayer and supported by a loving community) allows us to partner with God in renewing our minds again and again.
In this modern moment, renewing our minds means actively seeking out and confronting our biases. A bias is an “unconscious internal obstacle” that keeps us from embracing a more expansive understanding of ourselves and our place in creation. Being a know-it-all shackled me to my biases to such a degree that I would never have admitted to having any. But everyone has biases. There’s no shame in admitting that. Admitting we have unconscious internal obstacles is the first step to making them conscious obstacles. And when we can see our biases, we are able to confront them and lessen their power.
I’d like to spend the rest of this sermon talking through a few types of bias just to help us all build some new internal awareness for the renewing of our minds. I’m borrowing from the work of Brian McLaren, a mentor of mine and prolific Christian writer. I will link to Brian’s small eBook** on bias so you can learn more on your own. There are, of course, huge tomes on the subject, but Brian’s little book is very easy to digest and offers some good practical steps forward.
McLaren writes about 13 different biases. I’m not going to talk about them all. I’m only going to talk about five.
First, and perhaps worst, is Confirmation Bias. We weigh new ideas on the scale of what we already believe. The narrative we tell ourselves excludes whatever doesn’t fit in it. When someone says something we agree with, we feel pleasure, whether that thing is true or not. Our story is confirmed, and all is right with the world. But the moment our narratives are challenged by new ideas, we feel the pain of cognitive dissonance. We resist the new because it hurts – actually hurts – to rearrange our worldviews. But by consciously exposing ourselves to new ideas and recognizing the pain of rearrangement, we can confront our confirmation bias and, with God’s help, renew our minds.
Second is Complexity Bias. McLaren says, “Our brains prefer a simple falsehood to a complex truth.” When faced with a complex idea, we are likely to reach for a simpler explanation, even if that explanation is downright false or leaves out so much material that it might as well be untrue. Think about the phrase “All lives matter.” On its face, it is a perfectly true and valid statement. But in practice, this phrase plays on our complexity bias because it negates the complex societal mechanisms that we must confront in order to make it true. Saying “Black lives matter” shows the complexity involved in rewiring a society that was founded on and prospered by the premise that Black lives did not matter. By not shutting the doors of our brains to complex ideas, we can confront our complexity bias and, with God’s help, renew our minds.
Third is Community Bias. McLaren says, “It’s almost impossible to see what our community doesn’t, can’t, or won’t see.” In a homogenous community, it’s so easy to get stuck in a single mindset. Even if we have ideas that challenge the community’s status quo, we are scared to share, lest we get booted from the community. If you’ve ever been afraid to speak up in a meeting because you seem to be on a different page than everyone else, then you’ve experienced community bias. By stepping outside the norms and boundaries of our standard groupings, we can confront community bias and, with God’s help, renew our minds.
Fourth is Consciousness Bias. Our current stage of development makes some things inaccessible to us. We will naturally try to make sense of the world based on our current capabilities. My kids can count to 100 by fives right now. But if I asked them how much is 20 times 5, they wouldn’t be able to do that math. McLaren says this “limitation isn’t simply a lack of intelligence; it’s a lack of development.” By developing into more thoughtful, compassionate, and well-rounded humans, we can confront our consciousness biases and, with God’s help, renew our minds.
Fifth and last of our abbreviated list is Complacency Bias. “[We] prefer not to have [our] comfort disturbed.” We don’t read articles about things we know will upset us or challenge our views. We don’t watch the news because it’s all bad. We have a “circuit breaker” in our brains that “switches off anytime it feels threatened with a high or uncomfortable demand.” This is called “compassion fatigue,” and I guarantee you that we’ve all been feeling it since March. Whenever we make a choice to get involved in something, we are overcoming complacency bias and, with God’s help, renewing our minds.
We all have unconscious internal obstacles that limit the ways we are able to partner with God in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. That’s why St. Paul invites us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Our work in this transformation is, in part, the work of confronting our biases so that we can embrace ourselves and our neighbors more fully. The more obstacles we remove from our internal rivers, the smoother their waters will flow. And the more easily our tributaries will flow into the great river of God’s grace, which waters the earth with peace, love, and justice.
* Sorry, Mrs. Lewis.
** All quotations from Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and yourself) by Brian D. McLaren