Sermon Review: Truth and Empathy [2018.04.22]

My wife has been encouraging me to find ways to engage with the FUUSN community, as we’re relatively new to checking it out. Most of the things which appear to compel longtime worshipers (regardless of specific denomination/religion) have never resonated with me, but Samuel Foster’s rookie sermon had just provoked a bunch of thoughts. And since writing a sermon review can’t be considered weirder than putting Barney in your TensorFlow installation guide, I figured this was as good a first step towards experimenting with building a relationship with the church.

Theme 1: Coming To Agreement

Sam started with a recurring dream about finding his sister in a big city. She was also looking for him, but they had no way of communicating, so they each needed to guess where the other was likely to guess they would be likely to go. I almost yelled “Aha, a classic Schelling Point!” but I’m still not clear whether this is one of those congregations where people yell about spirits or game theoretic concepts.

The sermon deftly wove in the morning’s childrens’ story, about the blind men coming to different conclusions based on feeling different parts of an elephant (summary here). This had a twist which I hadn’t heard before: They argued angrily until the Prince asserted his comprehensive understanding of its nature, and gave them a pleasant elephant ride home. This segued into the next theme:

Theme 2: Objective Reality as Power

The moment I decided I loved the sermon is when Sam pulled apart the layers of the children’s story and questioned the implied superiority of the Prince’s viewpoint, even pointing out the political power dynamics both within the story and around its creative goal: “After all, storytellers must also be paid. ” Fortunately, he was respectful enough to do so after the children left so that they did not become upset or postmodernists.

This is a good illustration of his third theme, which I’m going to summarize with a word that I don’t think he actually used:

Theme 3: Empathy

The final major touchpoint was a poem which had been read, about a gas station and its visitor’s transition from judgement to humanization of the dirty grease-covered owners. That transition, based on no new objective information, started with the recognition of details that suggested home. In particular, a home that somebody loved and cared for, just as much as the visitor presumably cared about her own.

Throughout, there were references to the church community. Like the elephant, it’s bigger than any one of us can touch. Like the urban search, the ‘right answer’ depends entirely on what everyone agrees on. And like the gas station, we’re going to have different initial reactions to the same space (physical, social, political, etc), but we need to at least consider each others’ viewpoints when passing judgement.

In fact, particularly in the elephant segment, Sam celebrates the diversity of truths that the blind men initially came to, and suggests that their abandonment in favor of the Prince’s was a loss. I’d argue that the acceptance and rejection of divergent truths needs a more nuanced treatment

My Thoughts

In the elephant story, it’s not clear what the blind men plan to do with their understanding of the elephant. Are they trying to decide whether to be scared of it? Because then the one who felt the trunk, and declared it like a snake, would sound awfully alarmist to the one who felt its rope-like tail. If they planned on cooling off with it, the one who felt its ears could never coordinate with the one who push on its side. In fact, the very existence of differences caused them to get into a loud argument that attracted the prince. It was only when he aligned them on a completely different model of elephants (as things you could comfortably ride), that they got any benefit from the whole exercise.

Many situations are like this. There’s no moral reason to drive on the left or right side of the road, but it’s very important that we all agree. The book Sapiens argues that the primary advantage that humans had over the apes was our ability to create ‘myths’, which started with specific variants of “God will kill you if you are not pro-social” and have evolved into “You can trust that this dollar bill will have value tomorrow” and “voting is a thing you should probably do”. They allow us to coordinate at a level that would be unthinkable in an I-only-trust-my-family-and-friends culture. And if you think that organization based strictly on mutually held ideas is unstable, try changing one.

There are certainly situations where a diversity of opinions is valuable. The average tourist’s obsession with the Mona Lisa is probably more of a headache than benefit to the Louvre. Science is driven forward when one person thinks “Maybe things work a little differently” and proves it. But what’s critical is how they act in the meantime.

Specifically, respecting other people’s dignity. It’s easy to see how telling someone that one of their beliefs is wrong could disrespect their dignity. Worse still is not telling them, and simply disregarding both their opinions (which might be invalid, if based on flawed assumptions) and their needs (which are quite likely still valid!).

There are actually plenty of examples of the opposite, where everyone has a similar mental model, but some are being massively victimized anyway. The Stanford Prison Experiment is case in point. The participants knew that their assignment into prisoner and guard were totally random, and the prisoners knew that they were getting the short end of the stick. They certainly disagreed on things, but largely did it within the shared model of how prisons worked. There didn’t need to be a breakdown in either shared facts or beliefs for one group to be systematically deprived of dignity.

So I guess what I’m saying is that, in general, we should be striving to converge our understanding of reality. We should also acknowledge that we’re far from it at the moment, and need to have meta agreements for managing our disagreements in the meantime (voting is a common one, though not without drawbacks). But, critically, it should all be in the context of trying to lift the common denominator, and for the love of god prevent our children from becoming postmodernists.

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