A man wants to enter an exclusive club, but he doesn’t know the password. Another man walks to the door and the doorman says 12, the man says 6, and is let in. Another man walks up and the doorman says 6, the man says 3, and is let in. Thinking he had heard enough, he walks up to the door and the doorman says 10, he says 5, and he isn’t let in. What should he have said?
I actually thought about not giving you the answer but then I figured you would spend the rest of the sermon trying to figure it out. The answer: three. Instead of doing math, you should have counted. The word twelve has six letters, the word six has three letters, and the word ten also has three.
Ever found yourself in one of those situations where you know you know the answer—what’s right/wrong, how something works, etc—only to discover that you didn’t know as much as you thought? I’ll answer that one for you: yes. You have found yourself in that very situation. We all have.
We can end up there for any number of reasons but we can become solidified in our thinking through what is known as confirmation bias. The easiest definition I came across says, “Confirmation bias happens when a person gives more weight to evidence that confirms their beliefs and undervalues evidence that could disprove it.” (Source) For example: I believe the earth is flat (for the record, I do not)… I believe the earth is flat and I can go out on the internet and other reliable sources (haha) and find data to support this belief. Not only can I find data, but I can also find other people who believe the earth is flat and so we all come together and form a community. Within that community, I find support and friendship. People who believe what I believe and who will further help me to prove my beliefs. We feed off one another. Confirmation bias.
Another example: Leave it to Beaver. Wally and Ward Cleaver are outside cooking on the barbecue. Wally turns to his dad and says, “Whenever we cook inside, Mom always does the cooking. But whenever we cook outside you always do it. How come?” To which Ward replies “Well it’s sort of traditional, I guess. You know they say a woman’s place is in the home and I suppose as long as she’s in the home she might as well be in the kitchen.” If I held that particular belief I suspect that my lifespan would be considerably less than it is presently, but if I did, I could go out and find all sorts of documentation supporting this attitude and belief, and all sorts of people who support this belief—men and women—and not only that, I can also go to the Bible and find many different texts to support this belief! You may try and counter my arguments and your arguments may be better than mine but confirmation bias rules the day. I’ve got documentation, statistics, my support group, and the Good Book itself backing me up. I believe… I know “X” to be true and you can’t change my mind.
Ultimately, these confirmation biases, with regard to our faith and our relationship with God and one another, cause us to put up barriers, barriers that deny those outside of our circle and even ourselves access to God. If you do not believe as I believe then you are cut off. If I do something that is outside of what I believe, then I am in danger of cutting myself off. In today’s Scripture readings, we see how this works. There were two examples of it in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles and one in our Gospel. The first was Peter.
From our studies in the past, we know that for the Israelites, there were all sorts of laws governing food, and what was clean and unclean. They had their Law, traditions, teachings, etc. that would support them—confirmation bias—yet Peter saw a sheet descending that contained all sorts of animals, both clean and unclean and God said to Peter, “‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’” Peter knew what he knew and even though God Himself had just told Peter that it is OK, Peter had been so committed to his bias that he could not accept God’s words, so God corrected him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter had been holding onto a truth and even when God presented him with a new truth, he did not at first believe it. However, he did eventually come around to this new understanding/belief and was then able to apply it to other situations, specifically the gentiles, which leads to the second example.
Following the vision of the sheet, Peter was called by God to Joppa where he baptized the members of a family. Hearing this, we are told “when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” These “circumcised believers”, Jewish converts to Christianity, knew what they knew and were still under the impression that only Jews could be followers of Christ and receive the Holy Spirit. Within their community, this was a well-supported belief and they had all the confirmation they needed to uphold it, so they set up barriers to others, denying them access to God, but when Peter came along with new information and the truth, they heard and believed. “They praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”
The third example of the confirmation bias comes from our Gospel reading and it is of one who heard the truth but refused to believe: Judas. It seems that Judas had some very clear beliefs on whom the Messiah was going to be and Jesus did not fit the bill. Even though he was witness to the miracles and heard the teachings, these truths about God and who Jesus is had no effect on Judas and so instead of being transformed by these truths, he remained rigid in his beliefs, not only placing barriers before others but even denying himself access to God leading his spirit to such a place of despair that he went out and hanged himself.
The truth can set us free from those things that bind us but our stubborn hearts can lead us to death.
When we look more closely at the events we can begin to see ourselves. Are we ones like Peter who can have the truth spoken into our biases and allow that truth to break down the barriers of our lives or are we ones like Judas whose barriers are so unyielding that the truth cannot enter in and be heard? Do we hold to our beliefs like the “circumscribed believers” did originally or will we also allow the truth to break down barriers giving all who seek access to God?
Jesus commanded us to “love one another” and he said, “Behold, I make all things new.” For us to love one another and to live into this new creation, then we must tear down the barriers instead of fortifying the ones we have and erecting new ones. Even if someone is in error, it is not our job to deny them access to God because it is God who will speak the truth to them and correct them. Hear the truth, break down the barriers, and let God be God. He does not need us to protect him. If he did, then he wouldn’t be God.
If someone is in error and they hold some very strong beliefs—keeping in mind that you might be the one in error!—then no amount of arguing is going to persuade them otherwise and most likely, all your arguing will simply push them further away. So instead of “getting in their face,” show them God and allow His words and wisdom to open their eyes so that they may see and know the truth.
Let us pray: Loving Father, faith in Your Word is the way to wisdom. Help us to think about Your Divine Plan so that we may grow in the truth. Open our eyes to Your deeds, our ears to the sound of Your call, so that our every act may help us share in the life of Jesus. Give us the grace to live the example of the love of Jesus, which we celebrate in the Eucharist and see in the Gospel. Form in us the likeness of Your Son and deepen His Life within us. Amen.