When the Soviet Union broke apart, it did so to the almost unanimous surprise of the supposedly smart people who run our government. But there was one lonesome voice in the intelligence community who predicted it when no one else did. Herb Meyer was the vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. In 1983 Meyer wrote a memo entitled “Why Is the World So Dangerous” in which he offered the surprising suggestion that the danger was increasing because the Soviet Union was about to die.
Meyer attributes part of our current problem to a preference for soft thinking over hard thinking. He describes the distinction between the two as follows:
“We’ve gone from being a culture that values hard thinking, to a culture that tolerates and even celebrates soft thinking. Hard thinking means that when you are faced with a new problem or issue, you look squarely at it. You get the facts, sort through them, and decide how best to move forward based on what makes the most sense and what is actually likely to work. . . Soft thinking means that your emotions matter more than your intellect; you decide how to more forward based on your feelings rather than on the facts. And when your plan collides with reality—as it always will—instead of making adjustments, or just admitting you were wrong, you find someone else to blame and you keep on going down the same mistaken path. . . The same kind of soft thinking that’s infected our domestic policies has spread to our foreign policies. . .”
The Israeli Defense Force is legendary for the brutal crucible of hard thinking that ensues in their after action analysis. An unvarnished debriefing, review and subsequent learning from a military’s actions, after an event, is a critical process for any military that wants to succeed. Throughout history, military failure has often been rooted in the wishful thinking of military leaders (e.g. Hitler’s fatal decision to run a two-front war.) The most successful militaries are those that jettison wishful thinking and gaze, unveiled, at the full harshness of reality.
One of the key distinctions between hard and soft thinking is the eagerness with which a person reconsiders whether his frame of reference for understanding the world is consistent with the world as it actually is. If his understanding of the world consistently fails to explain or predict, a hard thinker will reconsider his assumptions while a soft thinker will mostly just keep wishing that things would hurry up and start fitting in with his presuppositions. (John Lennon’s old song, Imagine, comes to mind.)
As time goes by, I understand more and more how precious the truth is. Not only in a moral sense, but as a vital resource for functioning in the world as it actually is.
How is it possible that we have more communication than any generation in history yet the truth seems ever more elusive?
Facebook has recently been accused of gaslighting conservatives by manipulating the list of “trending topics” users see online. Google has been recently accused, along similar lines, of manipulating autocomplete search results in ways that favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. (It may be that Google represents the most egregious breach of trust in this regard since it presents itself as an honest broker of information. Facebook, on the other hand, is a lot of things, but it’s quite a stretch to ever consider it a source of objective news.)
So we have some of the most powerful communication tools ever devised and yet there are credible suggestions they are being used by their creators to mislead rather than to inform.
The brutality of the recent events in Orlando will inevitably draw out the soft and hard thinkers among us. The consistency with which many members of the political class are surprised by events - yet without ever reconsidering the lens through which they understand the world - reveals a great deal about the kind of thinkers they are.
It would be nice to believe that the political left is populated by soft thinkers while the right is populated by hard thinkers. But, alas, both sides of the political aisle are heavily populated with people who strongly believe that ultimate answers to our problems can be found in a political solution. This, in itself, is an example of soft thinking to whatever extent it doesn’t reflect the realities of the world we actually live in. Andrew Breitbart famously said “politics is downstream from culture”. By this, he meant that culture is the primordial ooze from which politics emerge. He said this to get conservatives to think more strategically about their engagement with the culture outside of politics. But culture itself is downstream from something - there is a reality that precedes culture.
And what is that reality?
Throughout the secular west, the widespread assumption is that we live in a material world with material explanations for mechanistic processes which are both predictable and controllable. Hence, the climate can be “fixed”, poverty can be eliminated, and human behaviors are only ever distorted by material circumstances, an unhappy childhood, or evolutionary genetics.
But what if those assumptions are a complete fantasy and utter poppycock? What if they represent a frame of reference for understanding the world that is so off kilter we will only ever continue to be surprised and overtaken by events? I’m not suggesting that the laws of physics aren’t real or that our understanding of biology is worthless. I’m only asking whether we have emphasized (idolized?) those aspects of our existence which are detectable by our biological sensors to the exclusion of things, just as real, which are not amenable to material detection?
I am an eager, if often weak and ineffectual, follower of Jesus Christ. And while I have been a follower of Christ for many years, it’s only been the last 10 years or so that I have been a more intentional hard thinker about matters of life and faith. Events in my own life have caused me to realize how limited my perspective has been regarding what we are up against in this world.
The softness of my own theological perspective left me unprepared for suffering. I have been doing a lot of hard thinking since then.
What is the nature of the world we’re living in?
The writer of the gospel of Luke tells an intriguing story about an event that occurred - something Jesus did - at the opening moments of his ministry on earth.
Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to tell them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read.”
Captives. Oppressed. Poor. I read those words and I’m inclined toward two different understandings. At one level, as a westerner preoccupied with material things, I interpret his words to be about the material circumstances of unfortunate people. In another, more spiritualizing mode, I might interpret these words to be about alleviating the effects of personal sin. But I remind myself that this writer is setting the context for what follows and expressing this event in the context of what came before. Tellingly, just before this event the writer has Jesus in the wilderness, in a confrontation with Satan, during which Satan offered the kingdoms of the world in exchange for Jesus’ prostration. Notably, Jesus did not challenge Satan on whether the kingdoms were Satan’s to give. Indeed, in other places, Satan is referred to as the very “prince of this world”.
Intriguingly, Luke immediately follows the story of Jesus’ refusal to beg the “prince of this world” with the scene we just read, where Jesus declares his intent to unilaterally roll back many of the works of the very prince he had just declined to worship: captivity, oppression, blindness, and poverty.
The writer seems to be intentionally painting a picture of Jesus as one intending to come and take the world - not to beg for it.
What follows the reading in the synagogue is a continuous series of healings, resurrections, and exorcisms as Jesus demonstrates to the cosmos that there is a new prince in town. The fallen world had been transformed into Satan’s evil laboratory, and Jesus barged in - breaking all the test tubes, knocking over all the tables, unlocking the cages and strangling any lab workers who got in his way. (Jesus routinely told demons to “be silent”, though the original language can be literally translated “be strangled”.)
There is a lens through which to perceive Jesus’ earthly ministry as being part of a comprehensive assault on Satan’s dominion, culminating in the decisive, crushing blow of all eternity when Jesus outwitted Satan at the cross. Indeed, the apostle John describes Jesus as having come for this very reason: “to destroy the works of Satan”. It is hard, perhaps, for us to see things this way when most of our lives we have been told everything is all about us. But prisoners of war can easily forget that they are only one part of events which are much larger than themselves. All of this represents, in some ways, a more “Narnian” worldview.
Now, according to this view, while Jesus has overturned Satan’s ability to accuse, the devil remains a powerful force in the world with a supernatural ability to deceive, oppress, and take captive. There is a strong “already/not yet” kind of vibe you get from scripture. While the ultimate outcome may be assured, there are yet real dangers in the world. The bible sometimes portrays the events we can see as shadows and reflections of events going on in the spirit world. It also says the devil prowls around like a lion, seeking to consume people. In scripture, Satan appears as an enraged dragon, waging war against those who “hold to their testimony about Jesus.
”Within this conceptual model of reality, Christians have been spiritually empowered to resist the dragon, and have been given weapons to use in that fight. And, importantly, a believer’s actions may affect matters beyond his range of vision. (See, for example, the book of Job, among others.)
It could be that we have a job to do. Courage may be required.
If this is the nature of the world we live in, then some people may be supernaturally prevented from thinking clearly. Entire nations and groups can be deluded into working in support of evil. Spiritual powers, invisible to our biological sensors, can interject themselves into the material world and alter events by their actions. They can actively seek to do harm.
So the question is: does this kind of perspective offer more explanatory power about what is going on at the moment than the mechanistic, materialistic assumptions of the secular culture? Should anyone continue to be shocked by “hate”? Should it surprise us that some people seem incapable of understanding truth? Is it really all that puzzling that entire nations and people groups seem possessed by evil ideas? Shouldn’t Christians, “who hold to their testimony about Jesus”, expect to be unfairly targeted?
How should we understand the mental captivity and oppression that seems so prevalent? (e.g. I have up close and personal experience with drug addicts. And let me tell you, “captive” is a good word for addiction. Mere chemistry doesn’t begin to explain the enslavement, deception and oppression that is really going on there.)
Satan is described by Jesus this way: “when he lies, he speaks his native language”. If that is true, then shouldn’t we expect to see very strange delusions or people who are badly deceived and seem unable to process basic facts? Isn’t confusion an inevitable side effect of deception? Wouldn’t we expect to see leaders being used to mislead and confuse?
To make the discussion more current, should we really be all that perplexed when, even on the heels of the Orlando slaughter, so many people still seem unable to grasp what is actually going on?
I have grown suspicious of my own inclination to confine my understanding of cosmic spiritual conflict, and my own role within it, to narrow questions regarding my personal moral rehabilitation. As if cosmic spiritual warfare could fit neatly within the boundary of my learning to play well with others. Such a constricted view of spiritual conflict can, I fear, blind me - rendering the world more indecipherable than it should be.
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely need to be nicer. I require substantial amounts of moral rehabilitation. It is a necessary precondition. But the cosmos does not revolve around me. And something wicked this way comes.