My wife, Diana, was a pastor of a largely Black congregation for three years, first as a seminary intern, and then as Associate Pastor. She and I were among the five white participants in this 2,000-member church. Both of us learned a vast amount about what it meant in this culture to be Black, but, at least for me, I learned just how deeply racist I was, a painful lesson, but an important one for certain. That lesson has been retaught over the past months, triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement.
One of the superb singers in the church, a woman who remains a friend, though she has gone on to other work, used to sing regularly a well-known song in that tradition, “I woke up this mornin’ with my mind stayed on Jesus.” And in the prayers of the church, it was often said, “We are grateful that you woke us up in our right mind.” That church was very clear that being in one’s right mind was a crucial and necessary element if one were going to live in the world rightly with God. I regularly wake up in the morning very glad that I have a clear mind; whether or not it is a right mind is another question.
This notion of being in one’s right mind led me to think a bit about that famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a letter that contains so much genunine pastoral advice from the apostle. I am thinking of chapter 2, where Paul exhorts his readers and hearers: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” An alternative translation is provided by the NRSV footnote: “Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus.” The two possible readings are distinctive and suggest different suggestions from Paul. The first reading is an exhortation to be certain that the mind you have should align itself with the one that Jesus possessed. The second appears to say that you already have had the same mind that Jesus had, but perhaps you have strayed from that mind and need to return to it. The issue, of course, is what Paul means by the word “mind.”
The Greek word used is nous, a common locution, but a richly provocative one. Most simply, it means “understanding,” “the mind as the faculty of thinking.” For example, in the Book of Revelation, John warns us that if we are to comprehend the number of the beast, the infamous 666, we must have “a mind with wisdom,” that is we must know that taking this game of gematria (where numbers imply something other than counting) literally will lead us astray; we must use our minds, our intelligence, to get the point.
The word may also connote the “intellect” as opposed to physical existence; it is the higher mental part of a human being that initiates thoughts and plans. For example, in Romans 7:25, Paul exhorts us to “serve the law of God with one’s intellect.” In addition, the word may imply “attitude,” “a way of thinking,” as Paul claims in Romans 12:2 that at baptism a person “is transformed by the renewing of the mind,” as the mind is penetrated and changed by the Spirit of God. It is our mind that controls our thinking, and thus our acting, and that mind must forever be under the influence of the Spirit if it is to be aligned with the mind of Jesus. That is what Paul says to his Philippian church in those famous words, quoted above.
I was led to this reflection by some thoughtful ideas from that fount of thoughtful ideas, Richard Rohr, a man who is perhaps quoted by preachers and theological teachers as much or more than anyone in our day. In his reflection of March 1, 2021, he wanted us to think about “confirmation bias,” that nefarious reality of our human minds wherein we naturally look for stories and ideas that affirm what we already think, and tend to reject those ideas that call what we think into question. I will hardly speak for you, but that is certainly true in my case; I would far rather stay comfortably with those notions that I have long known and found compatible with me rather than be confronted with people and thoughts that suggest my thinking has been somehow biased or plain wrong. This is the central reason why I am distinctly uncomfortable with those who think differently than I do, for whatever reason. It is why I have often avoided hard conversations with those more conservative than I am, those more unwilling to accept diverse ideas than I claim to be able to accept. I am always willing to acknowledge and receive ideas that differ from mine, but I insist that those who do not agree with me be willing to accept my ideas as well as their own. My confirmation bias is that all who talk with me must be willing to take my ideas with seriousness, no matter who radically they may differ from theirs.
Rohr quotes an old Latin proverb that he learned in seminary: “we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.” Hence, we are naturally infected with confirmation bias, because we often, if not always, see things with the only mind we have, namely our own, shaped by ourselves. He later in his essay quotes Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, a friend of his, who said in an article, “We are looking for the story that doesn’t necessarily change our minds; we are actually looking for the story that confirms what’s in our minds.” A deeply troubling recent example of this fact may be found in the storming of the capitol building on Jan.6 by a mob of those who had become convinced in their minds that Donald Trump had been cheated of victory in the 2020 presidential election. The story of that supposed election theft, propagated by Trump himself, along with many of his surrogates and friendly conservative media outlets, affirmed what that mob already was convinced was true. Those domestic terrorists sought and heard only stories that confirmed what was already in their minds, and they were motivated to their vandalism by their reinforced and reaffirmed minds. And I, in part at least, was reaffirmed in my beliefs that that mob was incited by Mr.Trump, by reading and listening to many sources that emphasized what I already had believed about Trump and many of his supporters, namely that they were not true patriots, but in fact were involved in a cult of personality, enflamed by the former president and egged on by a whole string of fabricated conspiracy theories, hatched in the bowels of the internet. Given my own confirmation bias against them and what I have said is their cult leader, it has become well-nigh impossible for me to hear any information to the contrary that might suggest anything positive about Trump’s four-year presidency. My own confirmation bias is well tuned and active!
Enter Paul’s words to the Philippians and to me. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” or perhaps more optimistically, “let the same mind be in you that you have (already?) in Christ Jesus.” That is, activate that mind of Jesus in order to deactivate your confirmation bias. This, of course, hardly means that I am not entitled to my reasoned opinions, that I must accept any twaddle that pours from the minds of any mob that shouts its bile. But what it does mean, I think, is that I must open my mind wide enough to allow the Spirit of Jesus’s mind to break in and provide change toward what he had in his mind: love for all, even the Jan.6 mob, concern for the poor and outcast, desire that all might have justice in their lives and might live knowing that righteousness will determine the course of their existence along with all their brothers and sisters. It is a tall order, this alteration of the pleasant confirmation bias, but unless and until we open ourselves up to the mind of Christ there can finally be no hope for the world that God has in God’s mind for us and for our heirs.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)