Cognitive Dissonance

When all the logical points have been hashed out, there are a few informal strategies that I like to employ to judge the merits of an idea. One of these is that I don’t subscribe to any view that requires me to act as though it were not true.

There are two ways this can happen. First, there are views that force you to act as though they were false simply because there’s no other possible way to act. Solipsism, the view that all reality is an illusion created by your own mind, is the best example. If you’ve established that nothing you perceive is real, how are you going to react to it? You can’t. The only way to act is as though the things around you were real (you might, perhaps, decide that you should be able to do whatever you want since it’s all an illusion, but you’d still be doing whatever you want with the things around you, as though they were real). There’s cognitive dissonance between what you believe and how you act.

The other type of cognitive dissonance arises in views that are really bundles of moral, philosophical, and metaphysical beliefs that aren’t necessarily logical conclusions from each other. Here, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m returning to Reformed theology.  There’s an aspect of the first type of dissonance to Calvinism, especially the stronger forms.  Certainly anyone who denies free will has a whole barrel of problems in this area.  However, the main cognitive dissonance sets in trying to reconcile the principles of Calvinism with its commands.

My sister reminded me of this today as she told me about semi-open theology, an intriguing hybrid view that her church holds that allows for the possibility of God changing His mind (also a view that is neither Calvinist nor Arminian).  She pointed out that every Christian acts like an open theist whether he or she is one or not: everyone prays as though God might change His mind, even if they believe he can’t.  The efficacy of prayer is always a wild and woolly issue, but Calvinists are in a particular pickle because they’re commanded to pray even though they believe in a God who preordained everything from the beginning and who can’t possibly be influenced by human demands.

Prayer isn’t the main point of dissonance here, though.  Evangelism is.  I’ve already commented on the oddity of Reformed evangelism.  In brief, they are commanded to evangelize even though it can’t possibly be efficacious, because God has already chosen who will be saved and who won’t.  Defenses can be made (and were), but even when you break away from the idea of evangelism, the mechanism of evangelism still doesn’t work.  Even if you believe that Calvinism is compatible with meaningful evangelism, there is still no way to evangelize that doesn’t involve acting as if Calvinism weren’t true.

To evangelize, you must communicate with unsaved people and try to convince them that they should accept Christ.  This action contains multiple non-Calvinist assumptions.  Unsaved people, according to Calvinism, are incapable of coming to Christ, or even understanding Him; thus, talking to them won’t accomplish anything.  People upon whose hearts the Holy Spirit has been working are already saved, or inevitably will be.  What words are you going to use when talking to these people?  “Come to Christ?”  The former can’t; the latter already have.

The answer is that you have to talk to them as though you were a humble Arminian (or subscriber to a third viewpoint) who believes that it is possible for human motive will to play a role in coming to salvation.  It’s simply not possible to act any other way.  And I think there’s good sense in believing something that is compatible with the way you have to behave.


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