Friday, October 11, 2013

Moldy Thinking

"The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:  When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession, and I put a leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, 'There seems to me to be some sort of disease in my house.'  The priest shall command that they empty the house before the priest goes to examine the disease...and afterward the priest shall go in to inspect the house...."  -- Leviticus 14:34 - 44

This is a fascinating story.  It also makes me smile, especially the part about the man saying to the priest, "There seems to me to be some sort of disease in my house."  But what really fascinates me is the process the priest must follow.  I haven't included the whole passage, because it's very long, but basically:  the priest must examine the mold, which I guess is what it means for a house to have a leprous disease; then the priest must let it sit, closed up, for a week; then if the mold has grown, that part of the house is removed along with all of the plaster, and new plaster is put up; if the mold doesn't reappear then the house is declared clean; otherwise the whole house must be demolished.

The reason this story speaks to me is because I have been thinking about belief systems lately, in religion, psychology, philosophy and science.  A belief system is like a house, and sometimes we believe things that are false.  The wrong thinking is like the mold.  Wrong thinking can undermine our whole system.

In the story, the furnishings are removed, so the priest can examine the walls.  I liken this to the fact that it's probably not the heart of the person that is causing the trouble.  The person could be decent, loving, and honorable, and still they could be wrong.

It's a wonderful example to me that the priest doesn't condemn the whole house right off the bat.  The entire house is not effected, only a small part.  So first, he does a little surgery, trying to correct the part that's causing the problem.  He removes the diseased area, repairs the hole, and puts on a clean coat of plaster.  It's only if the mold returns and spreads that he has to give up on the whole house.

Possibly we ourselves recognize when our thinking is faulty:  we are discontent, we are making mistakes, we are struggling, we meet opposition.  Like the man in the story, we may even say something along the lines of, "There seems to me to be some kind of disease in my house."  Sometimes we ask for help, and sometimes someone comes along even if we don't ask for help, and suggests an alternative way of thinking that actually works better in the real world. 

This has happened frequently throughout history:  one person's understanding is corrected by another's because the first answer didn't work in all cases, especially as new discoveries were made.   Copernicus and Galileo corrected Ptolemy's understanding of the universe.  Einstein corrected Newtonian physics.  Victor Frankl corrected Frued's predominantly inward, searching-in-the-past focus with a more outward, future-looking focus.  In philosophy and science, Heidegger corrected the fixation on sense data (things we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell), that had directed thinkers since the Age of Enlightenment by showing that reality also consists of "events in time" or processes.  As far as religion goes, one just has to look at the many different sects or denominations within any particular religion to see the changes in thought over time.

What I'm curious about is what makes someone resistant to change, even when their current understanding or practice no longer works effectively, even when it starts to cause problems.

I like this idea of reality consisting not only of "things" but "events in time."  What happens when we rely entirely on things (not just objects, but ideas and practices) and discount events in time?  That seems to be a good description of the problem.  If a way of thinking or a practice no longer works effectively in the here and now, and even may cause problems for people, why do we cling to it persistently?

It's like what happens when we make something an idol.  Anything can become an idol:  money, fame, toys, people, rituals, traditions, books, doctrine, beliefs.  When we cling to these things even when they have no power to improve our lives, then we have made them into idols.

I'm not saying that everything we believe or do, causes a problem.  I'm not talking about demolishing the whole house, or to use another analogy:  "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."  Traditions, rituals, money, fame, people, books, doctrine, belief systems, etc, are not inherently bad.  They can and do powerfully enhance our lives.  It's just that when they stop helping us, and we continue to cling to them, they create more problems than they are worth. 

So how should we respond when our current way of thinking or doing doesn't work?  Well, first of all we need to be wise, courageous, and humble enough to admit it.  Then we need to stop, and remove the offending belief.  And then we need to repair the breach created by our mistakes.  And finally, we need to learn to think in a clearer and more sustainable way, a way that strengthens us for the future.  Very often this means listening to other people, and learning from other people.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


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