How examining the frames that unconsciouslky guide evaluation can help us change our minds.

A little while ago when ‘Alpha’ was being introduced to the Church, everyone took a stance about it, because it as becoming so popular. The Diocese of Sydney in Australia in general rejected ‘Alpha’ . They said ‘We think God is a God of Justice first and foremost. ‘Alpha’ presents God as  ‘Love’, so we won’t be recommending it.

Clearly this is a false distinction. In Paul Tillich’s book ‘Love Power and Justice’ he makes the case that love, power and justice are all part of the same reality. The power of love is the power to bring together those things that belong in relationship, but which are estranged or separated. Justice is the form that this ‘bringing together’ takes.   So to divide the image of God into one of Justice or Love diminishes God.

But listen to another story. Once, I was called by an acquaintance who said ‘I have a friend whose baby has just died from ‘Sudden Infant Death Syndrome’. She wants you to come and baptize the baby. I replied ‘I can see where she is coming from, but I can’t baptize anyone who is dead.’ She replied ‘But I thought that you were one of the good guys!’ I replied ‘I am one of the good guys, it’s just that we are not able to baptize dead people.’

I felt as if I were being put into a box. The ‘bad guys’ are the people who do not do what you think is a fair thing. The good guys are those who agree. This is just like the decision by any diocese or group to ‘do ‘Alpha’  or not’. The decision about who is a ‘good guy’ and who is a ‘bad guy’ is one that is made with reference to a whole universe of thought that exists almost unconsciously and which, if it is detected that someone is from another universe, then they are very quickly counted as ‘out’.

This is like the idea of ‘common sense’ too. The appeal to common sense is really an appeal to hold as ‘real’ that which I  think is real. What is blazingly obvious to me is not questionable, otherwise it would not be blazingly obvious. Some research that I have read confirms this kind of thinking when it says that when it comes to decision making, we have a ‘gut feeling’ that comes almost instantly. Then we make up reasons as to why our ‘gut feeling’ is correct.

So I read in the paper (Guardian 1st Feb. 2014) about a person called George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California. He, following sociologist Erving Goffman, talks about the way in which we build these mental ‘frames’, as they call them,  in order to understand the world.Once the frame is built, it becomes unconscious, and then everything is uockly ‘run up against it’ to check out new ideas.  One of these frames is the idea of us as a family. A family can have a ‘strict father’ model or a ‘nurturant parent’ model. In conservative politics, Lakoff describes the logic this way. If a person is not successful, it is because they lack discipline, so then they need to be punished till they learn discipline. Then they will get a job and be self sufficient. If this does not happen, then they are by definition ill disciplined, and deserve to be poor.

This basic idea about ‘frames’ makes some sense about people’s responses to ‘Alpha’. If a whole diocese has a ‘Strong Parent’ model of God, then it makes sense that God is going to be a God of Justice. If a diocese has a ‘nurturant parent’ model of God then God is going to be seen first as a God of Love.

This picture makes some sense too out of how people view the events of Easter. One picture of the Easter events is that God, who is a God of justice (strict parent) is offended and angry that we have turned against Him. But he can’t just accept back those who want to come back. No, his justice must be satisfied with punishment of the offenders. This means a death, and the only death that will count is clearly the death of a person already acceptable to Him. That means Jesus. So Jesus is killed instead of us, and that shows how much God loves us, because instead of killing us as we deserve, God kills the one who is the only possible acceptable sacrifice, his beloved Son.  This picture is a way of reconciling us to God, within the already existing framework of the ‘strict parent’.

But it is possible to change the framework. There are other models of the Easter events that depend upon God’s capacity for embrace. Take Jesus and the lepers for example. Jesus creates a society that includes lepers because he is prepared to touch them. This process of reconciliation is possible because it simply shifts the boundaries about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. On Good Friday, the image about God that Jesus brings to his treatment of lepers, becomes an image of God’s own inner life,  as God the Father embraces the cursed, crucified loved one, the Son. This is the picture of the mother holding the screaming child in the supermarket. It is not that the child is justified in throwing a tantrum. But that the response of the parent is to hold them long enough for the tantrum to
subside.

Maybe no amount of arguing or reasoning is going to change these frames. But at least it might be possible, through description to help people to become aware that what they think is ‘blindingly obvious’ is in fact a description of their ‘frame’.

It is also possible to ‘shift frames’. Recently I have been thinking abut some lines from some hymns like ‘Let holy charity my outward vesture be and lowliness become my inner clothing, true lowliness of heart, that takes the humbler part, and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.’ Or the line from ‘My Song is love Unknown.’ It goes ‘Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be’ or ‘Yet cheerful he, to suffering goes, that he his foes from thence might save’. Previously I have not understood these lines. If I always ‘take the humbler part’ will not I be steamrolled by those who don’t?  But sometimes the cost of fighting is too much. It is better to ‘take the humbler part’ and create peace, but not just for its own sake!

But there is another thing. Recently, I had some conversations with a person who came out to do Christian work in a ski resort. I had met them before, and before we got to talking about religion, we ‘hit it off’. This might be because I showed him respect for what he was trying to do. It might be because I felt respected too. But there was some other ‘frame’ that creates listening. I heard his description of the ‘strict parent’ model of atonement, and have begun to wonder ‘What does it mean to have a holy, just God?’ I am prepared to consider aspects of a different frame, because at a deeper level, our ‘frames’ already connect.

This is all a bit confused for the moment. I gues it’s because I am in transition. As usual, I’ll keep you posted. 

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell isnow a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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