Formations 09.06.2015: Bad Habits

1 Timothy 1:1-9b

Dostoevsky's study in St. Petersburg

Dostoevsky’s study in St. Petersburg

“Every man has some reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself, and every decent man has a considerable number of such things stored away.”

In his rambling novella Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky joins the authors and artists who ponder the idea that human beings have subconscious thoughts and memories. Cognitive science would later confirm this theory, and we now have evidence that all human beings carry implicit attitudes that affect the way we act. These implicit biases are not always harmful, but they can lead us astray.

In San Francisco, a police officer responded to a shooting in an area known for gang activity. In an interview for an episode of This American Life, Brett Brosnahan explains that when he learned the shooter was active in a public place, he made the automatic assumption that the shooter would be a white male. When he followed to where people were pointing and screaming, he saw a white female, and he says his first thought was something along the lines of, “Why is she in here?” Until he was only a few feet away from her, he didn’t realize this woman was one of the two active shooters in the store.

“I thought this woman wasn’t going to be a threat to me and let her remain as she was for a little bit longer than I probably should have,” Brosnahan explains later. He recognizes that he makes automatic assumptions based on experiences he has had in the past. In this case, most of his experiences with active shooters in public places had been scenarios like the tragedies at Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Columbine, where the shooter was a white male. His assumption almost got him killed.

Brett Brosnahan’s story is an example of implicit bias. His subconscious thoughts, coming from his varied experiences, made his brain take longer to assume that this woman might be dangerous. Because of a small pattern in his thinking, he didn’t see everything that was going on around him. Our brains do the same thing. We have cognitive habits that we might not even be aware of. We might even believe very strongly that we do not practice certain cognitive habits.

In 1998, three scientists founded an organization called Project Implicit, and they developed a test that would help measure and identify subjects’ implicit biases by having the subject pair images with words. The test is called the Implicit Association Test, and it is available to the public online for anyone who wants to see if they make any assumptions surrounding gender, race, ability, body type, age, religion, and more. The results show that most people, regardless of their identity or upbringing, trust specific groups of people more than others, based on superficial triggers like skin color or body weight. This means that most of us are really missing the goal of instruction—“love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith”—even when we don’t know it (v. 5).

I’m sure that Paul’s instructions are not easy for the teachers in this story to hear. (I know I get really defensive when someone approaches me to tell me I’ve been doing something wrong, especially when it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time on). He’s asking them to break a lot of habits and go out of their way to actively practice a different way of living. When we learn that our unconscious actions and tendencies are causing harm, we can also start acting consciously against those habits. We might want to be thorough, sincere, as we live out God’s word, but until we actively seek out our personal biases and identify the habits that lead us away from Christ’s teaching, we risk putting others and ourselves in danger. This week, we can start thinking about practices that lead us astray and start opening ourselves to Christ’s instruction in our lives.

“So You Flunked a Racism Test. Now What?,” NPR Codeswitch, 20 Aug 2015 http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/08/04/416827667/so-you-flunked-a-racism-test-now-what.

“Cops See It Differently, Part Two,” This American Life, 20 Aug 2015 http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/548/transcript.

“Fyodor Dostoevsky,” Wikiquote, 25 Aug 2015
https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Fyodor_Dostoyevsky.

“Project Implicit – Take a Test,” Implicit.Harvard.edu, 27 Aug 2015
https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.

Discussion

• Challenge yourself and others to go to the IAT website and take at least one of the implicit association tests. Each test should take less than ten minutes. The questions at the end will prompt you to reflect on your results. How do your results make you feel? Push yourself to share and discuss your results with someone you trust.
• What are some ways you react when someone tells you your ideas might be wrong? How should you react? Why is it hard for most of us to accept correction?
• Brainstorm ways that your environment, upbringing, and personal experiences might affect your daily habits and opinions towards others. Challenge yourself especially to see if you make any automatic assumptions that you objectively disagree with.
• Consider your implicit associations. Do any of your opinions make Christ’s teaching harder to follow? Do any of your opinions make it easier to follow?
• What are some new habits or conscious actions you can start implementing to combat any automatic habits that stand in the way of God’s instruction in your life?

Reference Shelf

The Charge to Timothy

“A sincere faith” can refer to holding on to the accepted contents of the Christian faith in contrast to false teachings, or, more likely, trust and confidence in God or Christ Jesus that is not polluted by any pretense or hypocrisy, a trust to the point of obedience no matter the cost. While it is tempting to separate faith and obedience, arguing that faith is simple trust while obedience brings works into the equation, the New Testament will not allow for such a bifurcation. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father” (Matt 7:21). Paul calls for “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26) and holds up the obedient Abraham as the example of faith par excellence in both Romans and Galatians. James teaches that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:17, 26). In the New Testament, it is never a question of faith or obedience. In the New Testament, faith is trusting God to the point of obedience!

“Some people” is a second reference to the nameless troublemakers who “have deviated,” literally, “missed the mark.” The verb form employed only here and in 6:21 and 2 Timothy 2:18 (cf. 2 Clem. 17:7) is striking since the most common word for sin in the Hebrew Bible is hatta, which essentially means “miss the mark” or “miss the target” (Judg 20:16, of a stone thrower). The people about whom Paul writes have simply missed the point! For Paul, the point is love born of “a pure heart,” “a good conscience,” and “a sincere faith” (v.5).

W. Hulitt Gloer, 1 & 2 Timothy–Titus, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010), 111-12.

Michelle Meredith is a graduate of Mercer University, where she was the editor for literary and arts magazine The Dulcimer. She taught third and fourth grade in Mississippi for two years with Teach for America and became even more obsessed with live music and southern food (don’t even get her started on Delta tamales). She loves comedy, board games, roller derby, and hanging out with her dog. She is happy to be back in Macon, Georgia as the associate editor of Formations.

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