Last week, I was walking along a Long Island bay during a snow storm. The day before, it had been a balmy 50°, but that day I found myself trudging to the grocery store through a several inches of snow. As I looked toward the bay, I saw a group of waterfowl through the relentless snowflakes. What first caught my eye were the ducks, who found the open water and were swimming — as if it were a chilly fall day. Then I noticed the geese, with their heads wound sideways and buried beneath a sheltering wing.
“Ha!” I thought. “Look at those ducks, going with the flow! Look at those geese, resisting the new meteorological order. What an instructive metaphor for our congregations!”
But then I noticed that there were some geese swimming in the open water. And then I saw there were some ducks hiding their heads beneath their wings. My generalizations about my observations were suddenly inaccurate.
We humans are driven to make sense of the universe, but as we make meaning, we are tempted to make generalizations. Those generalizations then feed into our perceptions and interfere with our objectivity as we are presented with new information that might not fit our working framework. Luckily, with the ducks and geese, my framework was freshly formed and easily corrected. But in other parts of my life my existing frameworks can prevent me from taking in new information. This happens most often after someone has made a first impression on me. If that impression was positive (someone was generous or helpful) I tend to use that characteristic to color later actions, even if the person starts exhibiting the opposite behaviors.
One way of describing this phenomenon is the Ladder of Inference (developed by Harvard’s Chris Argyris).
Much of the work my colleagues and I are doing around multiculturalism, intercultural sensitivity, generational theory and systems thinking is encouraging all of us to question the assumptions upon which we base our (interpretations of) our perceptions.
One of our core theological foundations is that truth is always subject to examination and to reinterpretation or even revision. As James Luther Adams said in The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism:
Religious Liberalism depends first on the principle that “revelation is continuous.” Meaning has not been fully captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism. … At best, our symbols of communication are only referents and do not capsule reality. … They point always beyond themselves.
I would argue that–as covenantal religious liberals–how we provide critique is as important as the critique itself. I resonate with the kinds of discussions where people are engaging together to create a shared meaning or understanding, especially when no one of us can really claim to have the “right” answer.
I really don’t care for the kind of righteous verbal sniping, sparring or nit-picking that sometimes creeps into our congregations. It especially annoys me whenever I see someone get verbally attacked after unknowingly using a word or phrase that has an arcane or minimal association with oppression. There are better ways of helping us to “interrupt” our “ladders of inference.”
I have appreciated the model of the accountability group that has recently been serving at our General Assemblies. They share stories of where and how we have acted on incorrect assumptions that have been hurtful to others of us, not as a rebuke, but as a lens to help each of us to “interrupt” our reflexive loops on our own ladders on inference.
I believe that part of our covenant with one another is to help to interrupt each other’s reflexive loops, with humility and love.