The Anatomy of Apostasy

Doctrine and Division, I.3.3

At the 2010 Together for the Gospel conference, Albert Mohler painted a very helpful picture of the task of the NTSB in the aftermath of a plane crash. He described the real task of some in the church to do this same sort of tracking. Mohler’s focus was mostly at the presuppositional level of ultimate worldview commitments—Modernism and Postmodernism—but we are going to get a little deeper into the black box and examine worldview objects themselves. Our trouble is that our definitions of “apostasy” and “heresy” predominately mean simply “what we find in the black box once we’ve peeled through the wreckage and identify the corpses.” But here’s a wild and crazy thought: What if this kind of black box actually contains the flight pattern, defective material and pilot error prior to the crash, maybe even prior to takeoff? What if someone shouted down the entryway, “Stop!” and began to open the black box? All other objections aside, let me ask you one preliminary question: Would you characterize such a person as divisive? He may be out of his mind! But surely you would not call that division, right? Now, as it turns out, there is good reason to think that this person is not “beside himself” either.

By the “anatomy of apostasy” we mean to study the structure, the logical and ontological connection, between that first compromise and the next step away from the core of truth. We are charting the trajectory of the mind falling away, or tracing the chain of accumulating elements under the microscope of historic theology. The purpose of tracing out this disintegrating movement is to plead with whoever will listen that it is in fact happening. The purpose is not to lord our microscope over anyone, nor is it to congratulate ourselves for our particular microscope or our vision that looks into it. We know that we will be accused of that at the very moment when we are waving down our brothers and sisters and pleading with them to come and take a look, but we must do the work of shepherds even as the sheep ram their heads into our shins.

Another way to think about it is that there is an epistemological flow from ultimate commitments to worldview entailments. That was Mohler’s emphasis. Given the defining characteristic of modern theology—to “rescue” Christianity from its intellectual incredulity—the trajectory of adjusted gospels is inevitable and constant because the most basic notions must be negotiated. We will look more at the connection between metaphysical pieces (God, the world, the self, etc.) and show that it is psychologically impossible to perform what James Davison Hunter called cognitive bargaining, which he defines as an individual or group’s acquiescence to one of the culture’s pieces to concentrate their efforts at defending another. In a sense, we are saying to the culture: “OK, we’ll give you that if you don’t touch this.” One difficulty with this is obvious enough. Eventually there are no more pieces with which to bargain. Another difficulty takes a bit more thought. What if one of the pieces we bargain with is larger than the one which we salvage? More than that, what if the one we offer in the bargain is determinative for the existence and essence of the one that we think we are maintaining? In other words, to take out such a piece as if it were nothing but a puzzle piece on an altogether secure wooden table top is a profound mistake.

It would be more accurate to picture a foundational worldview piece as a chunk of the universe that, once plucked out of the “cosmic puzzle,” turns into a gravitational vortex, a “spiritual black hole,”[1] that collapses everything around it into the cultural negotiation in question. It is not merely a vague cultural entropy at work, but a black hole that can be pointed to, studied, dare I say, avoided. That interplay between real metaphysical interconnectedness and this cognitive bargaining is what we have been examining.

As we have suggested the best working analogy is the picture of DNA, so when we speak of that gravity either operating at the center or else not, in the solar system analogy, we are really speaking of the same thing. Both arenas of physical science must reckon with the second law of thermodynamics. Both information integration and energy conservation are naturally running down. And we call that entropy. Consequently, by cultural entropy we mean the natural disordering of the rational ordering principles of a particular worldview and the people group that have come to be defined in real history by that worldview. Now if we are used to defining “culture” the way that modern secularists do, then this may take some unlearning; but if we define culture the way that the word literally suggests, and the way it was defined traditionally, then a culture is just a body of worldview integrating a people group and manifesting itself in all of their produce. Nowadays we start with the visible, the artifacts, the manifestations. But that is backwards. Where we begin our definition of culture tells us precisely whether or not we are supernaturalists or naturalists. And therefore it is no coincidence that Christians no longer believe that culture is fundamentally integrated and disintegrated by the most foundational, invisible ideas, for we have been conquered by the modern naturalistic worldview. In other words, the opposite of the thesis of Doctrine and Division is simply naturalism. These are our only two options.

Now our present task is to notice that cultural entropy occurs in minds, in individuals. Yes, it happens in culture; but if we understand the ordering of a culture to occur in the intellect and from ideas, then the most material arena of cultural entropy will be in the individual mind. And that also implies that cultural entropy, or in theological terms, apostasy, happens in the mind and in the whole heart of each individual soul. How then does it happen?

Psychological Impossibility as the “Switch” on the Tracks

Notice that when we go here, the issue is no longer the assigning of motives but the recognition of the psychologically impossible. For instance it is psychologically impossible for a man to believe that he is at a café in Paris at the same time and in the same way that he is sitting in his living room in Orlando, assuming that he understands all of the relevant information. Now this psychological impossibility is not refuted in any way by the reality of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the belief in two (or more) mutually exclusive propositions or states of affairs. Most logicians and psychologists reasonably conclude that this state is maintained, not consciously against the contradiction, but because of unawareness of the contradiction. In short, the foundational element in it is a temporary state. The defining characteristic of this state is its ignorance of the conflict of ideas. It may be totally willful ignorance or it may be further away on the scale of the conflict to intellectual simplicity. Children of course will frequently announce to their parents their future plans to run for president, travel the world, successfully raise six kids, and all before retirement at forty. When children think this way we do not call it a psychological disorder because we know that they will grow out of it. When adults tend to think in this way over a wide range of issues, we begin to see a disordering, and when it is about “practical” things we rightly understand this to be harmful to them as well as potentially harmful to others.

The simple fact of the matter is that we do not find it harmful to think the same way about ultimate worldview commitments because we have joined the postmodern culture in denying that these conflicts are really that important at all. However many people pile two whole alternative worlds on top of this temporary state of cognitive dissonance and increasingly fracture their whole life in a permanent state; while more reflective people sense the conflict between the two notions and begin to explain away the one representing the weaker pleasure.

The problem is that the idea to which our weaker pleasure was fixed, even if false, is still a combination of a series of partial truths, often about foundational realities. One cannot simply discard a deep-seated belief as if it were simply a used Kleenex. It is connected, deep within our souls, to other more foundational and very true ideas. A simple survey of psychological issues in the church will show this. Where did a fatherless or abused child learn about God the Father? Exactly—from their exceedingly different father; but trauma knows no objectivity. Nevertheless fatherhood is woven into the fabric of everything.

Naturally we all live with any number of contradictions, but it does not follow that we remain comfortable with them once they are acknowledged. Nor does it follow that the “average person” never comes to acknowledge them because he does not “sit around thinking about such things.” Those are both anti-intellectual cop-outs.

The fact is that the dexterity of the human mind and the needs of the human soul are common enough in even the shallowest people, that we all have a basic desire to know the meaning of it all and to assimilate that information to a level sufficient to our perceived longings. Hence everyone has a systematic theology, and everyone bears the moral responsibility for accepting and rejecting what they will. The fundamental rock that bears each crashing wave of an idea is the god that each person serves. That greatest good—that god—is their central object that is beyond negotiation. There may be more than one such object. The point is that everyone has what has been called a “foundation” or a “center,” depending on which word picture is most helpful. The nature of that center begins to determine the nature of all that which orbits the center, just as the planetary debris that begins as a whirling gas in the formation of a theoretical solar system is projected outward and then suspended in its circuit as a son to a father.

Can we really get virtually everything else right when we get something so central wrong? No. It is psychologically impossible to maintain a belief in both (A) that all of God’s promises are Yes in Christ, and (B) that God does not know the outcomes of actions committed by free moral agents. The two cannot stroll hand in hand for long. It is psychologically impossible to maintain belief in both (A) that all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for every area of life, and (B) that all human language is culturally constructed and many parts of the Bible contain errors or are irrelevant to redemptive matters. The two cannot stroll hand in hand for long. It is psychologically impossible to maintain belief in both (A) that the Jesus bore my sins on his body on the tree, and (B) that true love ought to forgive without exacting retribution upon anything that opposes that love. The two cannot stroll hand in hand for long. Of course it seems to us that we know many people who suffer under this cognitive dissonance and have no problem with it. That is incorrect. They have no conscious problem with it—at least not yet—but it does not follow that the two ends of the rope are not tugging each other underneath the conscious level. Two mutually exclusive propositions about such central pieces of reality cannot co-exist in the same mind for too long. The individual, sooner or later, will tip the balance in one direction or the other on the basis of various factors.

The point is not that we can predict whether proposition A or B will win out in person C. The point is that human beings have an innate need to be coherent and correct and to structure their life on that perceived reality. That need is much more powerful than the best of our intentions to be faithful. Once the contradiction is perceived some initial discomfort will be followed by a subconscious preference for A over B or B over A. Naturally the more unconscious the choice remains in people like us, the more frequently these directions will run counter to the biblical system, and, cumulatively the more weight they will pull in each subsequent conflict between each biblical A and non-biblical B.

Another piece of imagery alluded to by Mohler was Daniel Dennett’s “universal acid,”[2] that eats through absolutely everything. If it is more powerful than anything, then its container cannot hold it, but then neither can the room where the container was, but then neither can the school where the room was, but then neither can the county where the school was, and so on until it eats its way through everything. Basic assumptions are such acids burning through one’s whole worldview. Sometimes the subconscious is more powerful than the conscious. Sometimes the subconscious utterly determines the conscious. When that which is subconscious is more philosophically determinative for that which is conscious, then it does not matter what the conscious intentions are. That’s not the way reality works. That which is bigger wins every time: whether you know it or not, whether you mean it or not.

The concept of worldviews as consciously integrative things may have become unpopular within ‘New Calvinist’ circles, but that is because they have consciously integrated the concept of non-conscious, non-integrative non-concepts into their non-worldview. And this non-sense will work its way out in due time.

So this psychological impossibility does not merely expose the fallacy of cognitive bargaining and “flip the switch” on cognitive dissonance, but at last, this reality issues forth into cognitive disintegration.

How then does the disintegration take place in the individual, in the psyche? Augustine put it in this way:

In asserting rashly that which the author before him did not intend, he may find many other passages which he cannot reconcile with his interpretation. If he acknowledges these to be true and certain, his first interpretation cannot be true, and under these conditions it happens, I know not why, that, loving his own interpretation, he begins to become angrier with the Scriptures than he is with himself. And if he thirsts persistently for the error, he will become overcome by it.[3]

Augustine was limiting his case study to an interpreter of a biblical text, but this critical mass of cognitive dissonance can happen with the soul standing between any two truths. Edwards said that the will is the mind choosing;[4] and it is at this point, when the higher pleasure toward one truth begins to build in its weight creating a “crowding out” effect in relation to the other, where that weight becomes like a switch controlling an upcoming fork on train tracks. When the cognitive dissonance creates a sufficient discomfort in the soul because the one doctrinal commitment becomes too enticing for its opposite to be held in tension, the affections are inclined to “flip the switch,” and call forth the powers of the intellect to marshal evidence in favor of the doctrinal commitment now seen as more valuable.

Motive has never been off the table. We will examine what the Scriptures say about it shortly.

[1] cf. Phil Johnson, Reforming or Conforming? p. 220
[2] cf. Daniel Dennet, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
[3] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine; I.37
[4] Edwards, The Freedom of the Will

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