Psychological origins of legalism: Our own cognitive biases
God really wanted His children to understand His laws “in spirit and in truth” from the very beginning, but the adherence to legalism in the Torah became a stumbling block to faithfully following God in spirit and in truth. Therefore, it’s good to consider that a part of human nature is to mistake the part for the whole. Sometimes we call this: “Missing the forest for the trees.”
One tool of modern psychology that we can appeal to is the notion of “cognitive biases,” introduced by Tversky and Kahneman and documented in their 1973 paper “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases.”[i] A cognitive bias is the recognition that, even before certain data has been presented to a person, that data will be filtered by the mind of the person given the data in such a way as to understand the new data by a frame of reference already in the mind of the person.
For example, when early missionaries went into India to preach the Gospel, some of them began their work without knowing very much about the Hindu religion. When the preachers announced that they had come to tell them how God became man and died for their sins, the locals were not surprised that God had become man. “Certainly!” the local Hindus would say, “Vishnu becomes man in each cycle of history so that he may restore balance to the world and a new cycle of rebirth may take place.”
Amazingly, one of the most remarkable tenets of Christianity demonstrating God’s love for mankind was not even blinked at by the Hindus. It was as if they were thinking, “Cool! Your God becomes man to restore balance to the world, too.”
The Hindus and the missionaries to India had to overcome a number of cognitive biases in order to understand each other and what the Gospel meant. It was a very difficult process, and much different from the kind of preaching that these missionaries had done in other countries, where animism was the predominant religion.
For the Hindus, they had a cognitive bias that their god was incarnate as a part of the purely natural development of the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. Similar problems arose when trying to preach about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Hindus had no problem with the idea of the resurrection because, in their minds, they already held the notion of reincarnation.
My purpose, however, is not to explore the etiology of this or that cognitive bias, but merely to point out that we have them. Part of the renewal of the mind in Christ is watching out for them and recognizing what they are and how they exist in each person in different ways. We can see manifestations of cognitive biases in how we respond to being corrected by others, even as adults.
In my clinical practice, it’s not uncommon to meet very successful men or women who stress out because of their fear of an upcoming evaluation at work. Even though the client has been successful, the mere thought of an observation by a supervisor triggers the trauma of having been corrected harshly as a child. In this sense, they have a cognitive bias that any kind of criticism of their work means that they are bad. Once recognized, such biases can be overcome. Yet, it’s still a frightening experience for many to think that they are about to be judged.
Returning to our discussion of legalism, then, we see that when children are raised by parents who are very legalistic, they pick up a legalistic observance of rules and law. Their cognitive bias is legalistic: How faithful am I to this or that precept? There are other people who, in contrast to the legalism of their parents, have a very laisse faire observance of rules and law. Their cognitive bias seems to be: “Huh? Why do I have to do that?”
While neither of these dispositions are, in and of themselves bad, it should be noted that the fundamental disposition to developing an ethic or an ethos does not happen in a vacuum, and happens to various people differently, even if raised in the same home. And whether one’s perspective is legalistic or not, the point here is to merely highlight that legalism is an example of a cognitive bias. It’s a predisposition to make a judgment of new ideas against the firmly held principle that if I’m not faithful to this or that precept, then I must be bad.
Even though God wanted Moses and his chosen people to observe the law and “teach them diligently,” some people understood the command as “drill them into your children” because of their cognitive bias. This cognitive bias has produced a number of aberrations in Christ’s Church since He founded it, and we see any number of works-based cults that purport to accomplish the saving mission of Christ by means of accomplishing good deeds, which is the exact fulfillment of a modern day Torah. Such people also get caught up in personalities and observances and fail to recognize the Spirit of Him who was sent into the world to redeem and heal us.
We fear what we don’t understand
While the emotion of fear is, fundamentally, a good thing, we know that it frequently distorts our thinking – as do the other emotions when we allow them to rule us. In reflecting on the nature of sexual ethics in our culture and trying to develop an ethos around sexuality, we need to look at ourselves honestly and admit that when we don’t know how to respond to a situation, we tend to react from a place of fear.
While I don’t want to fully endorse the methods of Andrew Marin in trying to “build bridges” between people who self-identify as LGBT and those who are opposed to the “gay lifestyle,” he makes a powerful observation in his book Love is an Orientation. In discussing a situation where a Christian mother was unsure of how to respond to her fourteen-year-old son’s question of whether gay people were going to hell, Marin writes:
She did the best she could (to respond to her son) but nonetheless still felt inadequate, because as parents they never wanted to think in advance how to explain something so difficult. “You try to keep your children from certain things but that can only happen for so long. I failed my son because I was scared to think about it myself.”[ii]
The mother in Marin’s account, like many of the parents of my own clients, speaks to the heart of the matter when she says, “I was scared to think about it myself.” The notion put so clearly into action here has been said time and again, but bears repeating: We fear what we do not understand. When Marin says that the parents found the problem to be difficult, he articulates a fundamental attitude that we, as Christians in the world, need to wrestle with: There are difficult things in the world that we need to work at understanding so that we can render a credible defense for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15).
Marin does not describe how the mother’s struggle to explain Biblical teaching on homosexuality to her son was resolved. But we need to point out that her lack of being prepared to offer a credible defense of her hope in Jesus made a hard situation worse. She wasn’t responsible that some of her son’s friends identified as gay. She wasn’t responsible for her son’s question. She wasn’t responsible for her son’s honest distress at wanting to hold to Biblical teaching and, at the same time, tell him that his friends were not going to hell.
The tragedy of this short anecdote demonstrates that even though we know what’s going on in the culture, we are not engaged in understanding the nature of the problems we face. When we don’t understand something and fail to make an effort to understand it, we tend to do that out of fear. The mom in this account says it herself: “I was scared to think about it myself.”
This is an excerpt from chapter 9 of The Meaning of Sex: A New Christian Ethos (January, 2018). For more information on how to obtain a copy, please contact our office at IHFINFO@InstituteforHealthyFamilies.org. Christopher Doyle, MA, LPC, LCPC is a licensed clinical professional counselor and the Executive Director of the Institute for Healthy Families.
[i] Tverskv, A. & Kahneman (1973). “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases.” Eugene, OR: Oregon Research Institute Research Bulletin, 13(1).
[ii] Marin, Andrew (2009), Love is an Orientation, Downers Grove, Illinois; InterVarsity, p. 24-25.
Posted on Thu, February 8, 2018
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