thinking during Covidtide

Content warning: the second half of this post is mainly for my fellow Christians 


For me, this Covidtide has been an unwelcome opportunity to revisit the experience of writing my book How to Think. Again and again my reading in these past two months has drawn me back to that book’s themes. On my Pinboard page, a good many of the links tagged covid19 are also tagged HTT for “How To Think.” (HTT is a tag on this blog too: see the bottom of this post.) 

Three themes of that book, focusing on the sources of erroneous thinking, have proven to be especially relevant to this moment: 

  • The “Repugnant Cultural Other” 
  • The sunk costs fallacy
  • The necessity of finding people who are trustworthy to think with 

The RCO. I borrow that term from the anthropologist Susan Friend Harding, and you can find a nice summary of the ongoing relevance of the concept to anthropology here. To understand the phenomenon (though without the term) you might also look at this superb post by Scott Alexander. In times of crisis people desperately crave moral and practical clarity, and one of the most efficient means of achieving such clarity is by designating an Outgroup, an Other, which you find repugnant, so you can take your bearings by opposition. This can be seen everywhere — see these quotes from a recent Wall Street Journal piece for an international perspective — but I have been especially distressed to see it among my fellow Christians, who think that if academics and people on CNN are saying that the coronavirus is dangerous then it must be fake news. 

Sunk Costs. I recently wrote about this problem at some length here, so I won’t repeat myself. I’ll just add that this also is universal, and related to the RCO problem. If your moral framework is built upon your opposition to an Other, then it will be very hard for you to let go of, or even modify, a narrative that you’re so heavily invested in. 

Whom to Think With. Again and again in my book I emphasize that we cannot “think for ourselves,“ that we always think in response to and in relation to others, and so the real challenge for all of us is not to become independent from others but rather to find the people who are most trustworthy to think with. When people let their thinking about the coronavirus, and responses to it, be guided by TV networks desperate for viewers and websites desperate for clicks, they are not choosing their interlocutors wisely. 

Again, these three sources of cognitive error interact with one another, and interact as certain combinations of drugs do to magnify and multiply consequences. You can see how this destructive multiplication works, especially among conservatives and Christians, in several anecdotes told by my friend Rod Dreher in this post. You can see Christians who are driven by enmity invest their whole lives in a narrative of binary opposition and then choose to think, or “think,” only with those who share that investment, that enmity, and then dismiss any countervailing evidence as “fake news.“ 

It’s tragic when this happens to anyone, but it’s especially tragic when it happens to Christians, who are supposed to be known for their compassion, their kindness, their self-sacrifice, their love of God and neighbor. But if you listen to the Christians whom Rod quotes in that post, you’ll see that a very different theme eclipses all of that stuff: They talk ceaselessly, not about love or service or obligation, but about their rights. (Never the rights of others — only their rights.) As Rod, in response to this talk, rightly says, 

Mother Teresa, speaking about abortion, said, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” Along those lines, we might say, “It is a poverty to decide that old people, those with weak immune systems, obese people, and others must die so that you may live as you wish.” 

Allow me to emphasize once more a recurrent theme on this here blog: We are looking here at the consequences of decades of neglect by American churches, and what they have neglected is Christian formation. The whole point of discipleship — which is, nota bene, a word derived from discipline — is to take what Kant called the “crooked timber of humanity” and make it, if not straight, then straighter. To form it in the image of Jesus Christ. And yes, with humans this is impossible, but with a gracious God all things are possible. And it’s a good thing that with a gracious God it is possible, because He demands it of those who would follow Jesus. Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He doesn’t bid us demand our rights. Indeed he forbids us to. “Love is patient and kind,” his apostle tells us; “love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Christians haven’t always met that description, but there was a time when we knew that it existed, which made it harder to avoid. 

We are unlikely to act well until we think well; we are unlikely to think well until our will has undergone the proper discipline; and that discipline begins with proper instruction. Maybe Christians who want to act wisely and well in this vale of tears should start by memorizing 1 Corinthians 13

April 18, 2020

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