June 5 Sermon – Trouble at the Table

Dr. Seuss, Social Psychology and the Body of Christ

Summer Sermon Series – Week 1

1 Corinthians 11:17-26

Late Wednesday afternoon, a man came to our house with a stump grinder. It was amazing to see how quickly he was able to turn all the stumps (big and small) into mulch, dirt and holes in the ground—just around an hour. I can’t imagine having to do this work by ourselves. We are very grateful that somebody invented this particular machine.

Human beings we are geared toward figuring out new and more efficient ways of doing things.

Our friends Bill and Donna Warhover have a large scale vegetable farm just south of Mt. Vernon on Highway 1. We’ve watched them go from grow lights in the basement to putting up a high tunnel to extend the growing season; from weeding with a hoe to having John Kroul lay down lengths of plastic and then straw in their huge veggie beds. They poke holes in the plastic for the plants and the plastic cuts down on the weeds and means they don’t have to water nearly so much. (I might do more vegetable gardening if I had that set up!)

Of course, they don’t have a choice. The more vegetables they want to grow for more and more people, the more efficient they have to be in their practices or they would not be able to keep up.

Our brains do a similar thing.

Consider how much work our brains are constantly doing—receiving an influx of information, scanning to figure out what’s going on, if it’s safe, and if a response is needed.

Because the brain is working so hard all the time, it has streamlined several processes to make them more efficient. People who study brains coined the term “cognitive miser” to describe “our natural tendency to conserve…mental energy by selectively choosing what we’ll pay attention to, using mental shortcuts…and avoiding situations that demand a lot of cognitive resources.”[1]

One of those mental shortcuts is categorization.

Social psychologist Christena Cleveland describes categorizing this way:

“Imagine how much time you would waste each day if you didn’t have a concept for chairs. Every time you encountered any object with four legs and a seat, you would examine it, stare at it and wonder whether you were supposed to walk on it, eat it, fear it or sit on it. This would consume a ridiculous amount of…time.”

Instead, we “categorize all sturdy objects with three or more legs and a seat as chairs…So lots of different varieties of chairs.are all tossed into [our] chair category. Anytime we encounter an object that remotely fits [our] concept of chair, [we] automatically know” what to do with it.[2] Which is a good thing.

Categorization and being cognitive misers are mental processes that are really helpful to us…except when they are NOT. Because we go too far with these processes. In order to conserve mental energy, we avoid any situation that might make us uncomfortable and therefore be cognitively taxing. And our categorization leads us to think in terms of ingroup and outgroup, Us and Them, For Us and Against Us. Social psychologists call this “Group Polarization” and it gets us into a lot of trouble.

Now, you may be wondering, ‘How did Lori get so smart about social psychology?”

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Social Psychologist Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. In it she describes all the cognitive processes (like being a cognitive miser and group polarization) that both help us make sense of the world and work against us when it comes to how we think about others. It’s been absolutely fascinating.

We are seeing the divisions in our country in Technicolor these days, whether we’re talking about politics, religion, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else. It turns out we are hardwired to divide the world into Us and Them and our brains work in all kinds of ways to reinforce those divisions.

There has been a kind of relief in understanding the why and how of human beings’ tendency to splinter ourselves in groups, but even more in learning that we CAN overcome these tendencies.

Because I am also the mother of a young reader, Dr. Seuss books are on regular rotation at our house. And it occurred to me that the processes Christena Cleveland describes are at work in many of Dr. Seuss’s stories. They don’t just offer imagination, creativity, and clever rhymes. Many of Dr. Seuss’s stories are sharp social commentary.

Now, the Zax are a better example of being stubborn and single-minded than they are of being cognitive misers and going too far in categorization. However, I can’t resist beginning with the Zax, and that image of them, standing face to face, toe to toe, refusing to budge. It feels like an apt metaphor for the divisions we see all around us. Except that I think more truthfully, we have turned our backs on each other.

Where does the Bible fit into all of this? The more I reflected, the more I recognized how the Bible’s stories and instructions can be what circumvents our human ways that get us in trouble. They offer us a mental framework, a perspective, a way of thinking about ourselves in relation to God and the world that counters our reflexive tendency to divide and circle the wagons.

Last week we talked about how our brains are wired to hold on to negative thoughts rather than positive ones so that we must savor and acknowledge the great things that happen in order to remember them. The Bible offers us a way to overcome the negativity bias, as it repeats the instruction to be grateful over and over, to appreciate the beauty around us, and be thankful for all that we have received.

And what does the Bible have to say about group polarization and categorization gone too far? One “antidote” it gives us is the Lord’s Supper. As we share this meal, we are reminded that Jesus himself is the host and we are invited guests. We are ALL invited guests, including the very people we would not choose or even think about inviting.

In the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that just as it took many grains of wheat to make a single loaf, and individual grapes to make the wine, so at this meal, we who are many are made one. We belong together. We belong to God, and we belong to each other. This meal invites us to be part of something that is far bigger than we are, far outside of our usual thinking.

In Isaiah, the prophet speaks these words for God:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(55:8-9)

I for one am grateful that God’s thoughts are not ours, and that in the God known to us as Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit offers us an alternative to the messes we make for ourselves. I look forward to exploring these with you over the next few weeks.

[1] Cleveland, Christena, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. Pp. 44-45

[2] Cleveland, Christena, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. p. 44