Despatches from the front line of the Church
There’s something strangely reassuring about doctors who examine you like a vet assessing a cow.
I’m sure some people want to walk into the surgery and be greeted like an old friend by the physician, who makes sympathetic noises, laughs at your jokes and gives you a back rub. And then after the consultation, maybe you do each other’s nails and read Heat magazine together.
I don’t get that.
I much prefer the succession of doctors I’ve had, whose responses have ranged from “there’s nothing wrong with you, get out,” to one who disconcertingly referred to my body throughout the consultation as ‘it’. Amongst the more bizarre encounters was an orthopaedic surgeon who, when I damaged my back, refused to do an MRI on the basis that he ‘already knew what the scan would look like,’ drew a picture of it, and handed it to me. “There you go,” he grinned. “There’s your scan.”
That, however, is nothing compared to dentists. I had a teacher once whose crown came loose and she swallowed it. The dentist told her to bring it in when it re-appeared, whereupon he promptly ran it under the tap and stuck it back in her mouth. “Nothing from your own body can hurt you,” he said.
Maybe the reason why this level of dispassion is reassuring to me is that it cuts through the chaos of worry by implying experience. The medical professional has seen this so many times. I must therefore be in the hands of an expert.
The prospect that what is happening to me – be it cough, injury or a mysterious problem with my bottom - is understood by someone is hugely reassuring. Order is reassuring. Chaos is terrifying. Chaos is so terrifying, and order so reassuring, in fact, that as humans we often project order onto situations in error.
This erroneous projection of order onto chaos is a really human trait, with no small quantity of psychological studies into it. Science writer Michael Shermer points out that superstition increases in baseball players when they bat (fielders are successful 90-95% of the time, but even the best batsmen fail 70% of the time). Michael also points out that psychologist Jennifer Whitson found that feelings of powerlessness or uncertainty increase pattern recognition, to the point where people see patterns which aren’t there.
It creeps into our faith, too. In 1977, a social psychologist called Melvin Lerner theorised that all humans have an endearing but tragic desire to perceive the world as just, as this reduces its overall sense of threat. Christianity (and indeed religion) is often used as a mechanism for this, despite the fact that Christianity makes no claim of a just present world at all (e.g. John 16:33) – it promises ultimate justice, not present. Despite this, in 2000, psychologist Jaime Kurst found that religious conservatives tended to directly attribute events to God’s will or evil forces. They used their faith to project order onto the world, precisely as the just world phenomenon predicted they would.
The break-down of this world-view is almost inevitable, because sooner or later something very painful will happen to the observer and the explanation ‘it’s God’s will’ or ‘it was the Devil’ just won’t cut it for them. We mistake our desire for justice for the existence of present justice – and doubt can arise when this bubble bursts.
The Bible is vividly clear on the extent to which we can accurately perceive God’s plan and will in the world around us.
‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)
We have to be careful that we don’t project our own assessment of order onto the world, label it ‘God’s,’ and then work from that. Because there’s a real risk we’ll be disappointed, might hurt other people, or might mislead others on what our faith is about.
Humankind is very intelligent, but we have limitations. As Richard Feynman said, “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” We do not fully understand the world around us, and some branches of science wonder if we ever fully will.
The Bible tells us that in some kind of way, the chaos has a point. There is a purpose and a grand plan behind all this. What it does not do is give us a licence to declare individual incidents the responsibility of God, the Devil or ourselves. We’re not clever enough. Sometimes it is healthier to accept that things happen, and it is less useful to conduct a trial of spiritual and earthly agents to determine whodunnit than it is to work with God at dealing with the next step. Every serious mental health professional in the world agrees – it is healthier to look ahead at what we do now, than to forensically and endlessly pick over the past.
One last story.
When I was at university, I had a part-time summer job as a receptionist in a dental practice. I used to play a silly game with one of the hygienists, where we’d stick amusing post-it notes on each other’s backs in an ongoing war of attrition. One morning, I prepared a particularly humiliating note and was about to deploy it, when my boss cornered me and demanded I run yesterday’s takings to the bank. With a dramatic sigh, I took the bag, pocketed it and set off.
As I joined the queue in NatWest, I noted that a very attractive teller - maybe a year younger than me – was on duty. I hoped against hope that it would be her booth I’d be called to, and glory of glories, it was! I immediately affected the relaxed, confident swagger that at this stage in life seemed like a winning way to approach the opposite sex.
I sauntered up, smiled and said, “hey,” throwing the contents of my pocket into the tray in front of me. She smiled, with perfectly-formed lips and soft, doe-like eyes. She began sorting through the paperwork, and then stopped in confusion. She looked up at me, and looked down again. Then she smiled nervously, produced a post-it note, and held it up. “Is this yours?” she said.
‘I AM A DONKEY’, it said. ‘PIN A TAIL ON ME’.
Sometimes, life just happens.