I’ve recently noticed a phenomenon that seems innate to human nature: whenever we disagree philosophically with someone, or they with us, we immediately turn into psychologists and assume there are psychological reasons – rather than intellectual ones – for why a person either embraces or rejects a particular viewpoint.
I’ve noticed this particularly in Biblical scholarship recently (especially the critical variety), but it stretches into pretty much every genre of intellectual inquiry – and even daily living. For example, it is popular in Biblical scholarship today to ascribe psychological reasons as the foundation to the formation of Scripture. Leviticus, it is posited, was composed by a bunch of priests who wanted to justify their own positions of authority and their peculiar religious practices. (Even if one denies the divine origin of the Bible, is it outside the realm of possibility that the authors wrote it from a sincere belief that they were explaining their understanding of a God – whether real or imagined – and His ways?)
In my own denomination, a common refrain as a way of explaining away the “investigative judgment” teaching is that the early Adventists concocted the teaching as a way of “saving face” when Jesus didn’t return on October 22, 1844. Similarly, more recently, someone commented to me that many of the most outspoken critics of women’s ordination within the Adventist church were clearly doing so as a way of raising more money for their ministries. They thus pander to a conservative crowd that will contribute to their bottom line. (I was very impressed with how the person had a pipeline to these persons’ inner thoughts.)
Then, of course, there’s Karl Marx’s infamous words that “religion is the opium of the masses.”
These are just a few examples of many that I could cite. The underlying attitude is that there is no conceivable way that these individuals could have arrived at their perspective on purely intellectual grounds. They couldn’t have had pure or sincere motives. They were motivated by money, prestige, fame, control, insecurity, weakness.
And, of course, the converse is never assumed: no one ever assumes that they have arrived at their own (apparently) correct conclusions influenced by anything other than an objective examination of the data.
As I hinted above, this phenomenon is not limited to a single demographic or class of people. We all do it. I do it. I found myself doing it just yesterday as I was reading a summary and brief sketch of the life and views of Benedict Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher of the 18th century who is the father of modern Biblical criticism. He threw out the divine origin of the Bible, and combed through it with a highly critical eye. When I discovered that he – along with his family – was excommunicated as a young boy from the Jewish community in which he was raised, and then later forced to become a Roman Catholic, I figured I found the psychological key that unlocked his heretical philosophical views. It’s no wonder he rejected the divine origin of the Bible, I thought, he had such a bad experience with religious authority.
Why do we do this – what I guess I would label, for lack of a better term, psychological epistemology? Maybe it’s just a way of being generous with the other person’s intelligence, giving him or her the benefit of the doubt since we cannot fathom how a person could intelligently reject (what we’ve concluded is) truth. Or maybe, rightfully, it’s a way for us to hold out hope that when the other person has gotten over their psychological inhibitions, they will finally embrace the beautiful truths we’ve come to love (this is a frequent comfort as a pastor when I realize that many people have rejected an Adventism with which I am entirely unfamiliar).
Or perhaps more likely still, it’s an intellectual shortcut – either because we are lazy or because we are afraid of the possibility that we might actually be the ones wrong.
On the other hand, is it necessarily wrong to look for underlying psychological factors at play in these situations? After all, is it realistic – or preferable – to expect people to embrace or reject an idea on purely-intellectual grounds? The Bible knows no Greek dichotomy – or trichotomy – between body, mind, and soul. We live, breathe, and make decisions as a holistic totality.
And when Karl Marx says that religion is the opium of the people, I’m fine with that. Yes, Christianity makes intellectual sense to me, but it would be naive to say that I have committed to Christianity on intellectual grounds alone. I freely admit that I have psychological, emotional, and spiritual deficiencies that only Christ can cure.
So what do you think? I’m kind of thinking out loud on this topic. When a person rejects truth, do they ever do so on exclusively-intellectual grounds? How do we reconcile these questions with the Bible’s idea that some day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11) – and yet even some of these will ultimately reject Christ?