Tag Archives: Pride

The deeper wisdom of Future Babble

Last week I wrote critically of the worldview underlying most of the sociology books I read using Future Babble as the prime example.

Future Babble is all about expert predictions gone horribly wrong. Daniel Gardner’s basic thesis is that a lot of experts are really bad at predicting what will happen in the future, but that people tend to keep buying into these predictions anyway.

It was an interesting book, and even though I find fault with some of the underlying assumptions, the book still has a deeper wisdom that is worth paying attention. I took two big lessons from this book.

Humble people are usually better at analyzing the future

Gardner makes a distinction between experts who he calls hedgehogs and others he calls foxes. Hedgehogs know one thing really well. They are smart and confident. They are usually the ones who appear as talking heads on cable shows. They sell lots of books. But they are often wrong. If fact, they’re no better than non-experts at making predictions about the future. Hedgehogs are also great at “explaining away” their misses. “I just got the timing wrong,” “If only this hadn’t happened,” “you misunderstood what I said to begin with,” etc.

Foxes, on the other hand, don’t focus on only one thing. They are less confident and more cautious. Because they are more nuanced, they’re less likely to be on talk shows and TV. They’re also a lot more likely to be right about the future. When they get it wrong, they’re more likely to admit it and learn from their mistakes.

Hedgehogs are marked by pride; foxes by humility. I think I remember something about pride going before the fall. We should be wary of our own overconfidence.

Be cautious of experts who are confident of what the future holds

Don’t be a hedgehog. But don’t trust a hedgehog either. They’re often wrong.

There have been many doomsayers throughout the years. The world was supposed to be way overcrowded by now, with the end of affluence, and whole sections of the earth wiped out by famine. The age of oil was supposed to be over.

There have also been those who predicted that all would be sunshine and roses, that we would be living in a Utopian age.

Neither of these predictions, confidently given, turned out to be correct. But a string of bad predictions doesn’t dissuade a new generation of confident pundits from boldly predicting the future. We should be cautious of them.

Gardner’s argument for why experts so often get it wrong is two-fold. First, we live in a complex world. Second, we’re biased in our judgments. I would agree with both of these (though for slightly different reasons than he does). I would add a third element. There’s another hand at work: the providence of God. He holds history in his hands and his ways are beyond and above our ways. Though we can expect the future to be filled with both highs and lows it’s less important for us to know exactly what those will be or when they will occur than it is to focus on our relationship with the One who holds that future. Uncertainty is a cause for worry, but God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of wisdom and self-discipline. Leave the future to God, focus on following him now.

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On the inevitability of structural racism

This article is a summary of John Piper’s article Structural Racism: The Child of Structural Pride. My purpose in summarizing it here is (1) to disseminate its ideas to my readers and (2) to reinforce and crystalize those same ideas in my own mind by writing them down. As is usually the case, reading the primary source is more beneficial than then its derivatives.

The goal of Piper’s article is to “reduce the instinctive, white, evangelical reaction against the idea of structural racism or systematic racism.” I share the same goal here. As I have navigated the dangerous waters of discussing racism one of the major obstacles has been discussing the idea of systematic racism. A fair number of white evangelicals I have interacted with are eager to condemn personal racism but are convinced that (a) systematic/structural racism is a thing of the past and that there are only small pockets of individual racists and (b) that by talking about systematic racism we either label everyone a racist or somehow devalue discussions of personal responsibility. I think that both of these convictions are wrong – that structural racism is both inevitable and more pervasive than most white people realize (including myself) – and that talking about structural racism doesn’t need to lead to either a false sense of guilt (“everyone is a racist”) or reduce the need to talk about personal responsibility.

Piper’s strategy is to focus on the theological question of systematic racism rather than particular instances of it. He aims “to show that, if your mind is Bible-saturated, you would consider it absolutely astonishing if structural racism were not pervasive wherever sin is pervasive.” In other words, Piper sees structural racism as inevitable in a fallen world, kept in check only by the grace of God.

First, some definitions. Piper chooses a “street-level” definition of race as “a group of people distinguished primarily by skin color, but also by facial features and hair type.” Racism, then, is “an explicit or implicit feeling or belief or practice that values one race over other races, or devalues one race beneath others.” Finally, he defines structural racism as “the cumulative effect of racist feelings, beliefs, and practices that become embodied and expressed in policies, rules, regulations, procedures, expectations, norms, assumptions, guidelines, places, strategies, objectives, practices, values, standards, narratives, histories, records, and the like, which accordingly disadvantage the devalued race and privilege the valued race.”  What is important in this final definition is that the effects of structural racism may linger “even if non-racist people now inhabit the institutions where the racist structures still holds sway.” To say that an institution, law, practice, procedure, etc. contains structural racism is not necessarily to impugn the people that inhabit that institution as being racist. (I’ll note, though, that sometimes we are culpable of our own blindness, lack of empathy, failure to listen, and/or failure to act. To speak of structural racism should also not absolve individuals of personal guilt when it is present.)

From there Piper outlines three realities of our world which makes structural racism inevitable.

First, personal human sin: Rebellion from God is characterized by hostility toward God and hostility towards our fellow man and hostility towards those different from us is generally easier than towards those who are like us. “If we are ‘malicious,’ how much more with those who are different from ourselves. If we ‘murder,’ how much more those who are different. If we ‘deceive,’ how much more the alien.”

Second, a supernatural devil: The task of the devil is to lie, kill, and destroy and he is constantly working against us – or rather with the sinful natures within us. Given this reality Piper asks “can we be surprised if he works through all the social institutions of this world to cultivate misunderstanding, distrust, bias, partiality, suspicion, ill-will, antagonism, hostility, murder, pogroms, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, holocaust, genocide?” The history of ethnic and racial strife bears witness to the reality of this evil.

Third, evil world systems: Finally, the Bible speaks of a “present evil age”, a “present darkness”, a world system which enslaves. What Piper aims to show here is that while evil exists within the human heart, it is “strengthened and extended by Satan into a global matrix of evil.” The evil that exists within the world is greater than the sum of its parts. The overall evil in the world is more devastating than just the addition of all the sins of the human race. Instead it becomes embedded in a system, a mindset, a culture, and pervades our policies and institutions.

Piper concludes this section: “I can think of no sin that is not systematic or structural.” If no sin is spared the inevitability of becoming systematic or structural, why should we make an exception for racism?

Next Piper looks at the sins of pride, greed, fear, and lust and shows how they all pervade the systems of the world and, then, how they relate to racism. I will simply quote Piper at length here:

In such a world, it would be inconceivable and utterly astonishing if there were no such thing as structural racism. In this world of sin and Satan and a decadent world system, it is incomprehensible that one sin would be privileged to escape systemic expression. This is true not only for statistical reasons, but for organic ones. Racism is the spoiled child of pride. And structural racism is the sturdy child of structural pride. They are organically connected. Pride gives birth to racism. Structural pride gives birth to structural racism.

Racism is an explicit or implicit feeling or belief or practice that values one race over other races, or devalues one race beneath others. Why do we do this? Because of pride. Egotism. Haughtiness. Vain-glory. What could be clearer than the fact that we devalue other races in order to exalt our own, and gain the advantages that go with it? This is why racism is also the sibling of the fraternal triplets greed, fear, and lust. We value our own race, and devalue others to gain benefits (greed), avoid perceived loss (fear). And all the while lust aids and abets the process by sucking the vestiges of decency out of our souls.

Note that Piper is not saying that institutions, procedures, etc. feel or are guilty of pride or racism, but that they “institutionalize the minds of the proud, greedy, fearful, lustful people who create them.” They allow the evil of their creator to live on even when that creator is no longer present. They pave the way for injustice, and block the path of righteousness.

“There will be policies that promote a visible pecking order that feeds on and furthers pride. There will be strategies of cut-throat competition that grow with the nutriments of greed. There will be procedures of micro-management that waken and exploit fear. There will be assumptions of dress that exploit lust.”

It should come as no surprise to us that Piper finds the solution to the problem of personal and individual racism in the gospel. The gospel begins by destroying our pride and then enables and emboldens us to dismantle first the evil in our own hearts and then that which exists in the structures which surround us.

One of the big payoffs for me here is that when we understand the inevitability of structural and systematic evil – including racism – we’re in a better position to hear our brothers and sisters when they point to a particular instance of it. We ought to be cautious of just “blaming the system” – as Piper certainly is – and each supposed instance can be evaluated in its own right, but nor should we just dismiss it out of hand. If we refuse to see it where it is present, we won’t have the tools needed to work for justice.

Delusional

Proverbs 28:11 should probably be a scary verse for a lot of people in America: “The rich are wise in their own eyes; one who is poor and discerning sees how deluded they are.” I know it scares me.

Don’t get me wrong. Material possessions are a blessing from God. Money, in and of itself, is not evil. The Bible teaches that wealth is often the result of hard work and a tangible blessing from God. If you consider yourself rich, I don’t mean for this post to condemn you. I know far too many generous and godly people to believe that great wealth is always a cause of problems. It can, in fact, be a great tool for the gospel.

But the Bible also consistently and repeatedly warns against the dangers of wealth. For many, material gain is a snare. It’s a trap. It chokes out spiritual life. The love of it is the root of all kinds of evil. “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9).

Proverbs 11:4 says that “wealth is worthless in the day of wrath.” When you die your money will do you no good. It is worthless. The best you can hope is that you will pass it along to your heirs. But it’s not just that “you can’t take it with you.” If you’re not careful, it might just bring you down with it!

Wealth is dangerous because, according to Proverbs 28:11, it has a potential delusion-inducing effect. “The rich are wise in their own eyes” the text says. This makes sense. “Hey,” I may say to myself, “look at all the money I was able to make. I must be a pretty smart and intelligent and good and worthy. You know, I probably even deserve all this.” This language sounds pretty reasonable doesn’t it? It sounds reasonable to me, and it’s exactly the kind of language we’re warned about.

Moses warned Israel about this kind of pride. “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful not to forget the LORD your God… You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…” (Deuteronomy 18:10ff). Failing to remember God’s provision ultimately leads to pride, to being “wise in your own eyes.”

I am reminded of Proverbs 3:7 “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.” And I am reminded of Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Agur, who wrote part of the book of Proverbs wisely prayed, “give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’” (Proverbs 30:8-9)

This path to destruction is well worn. God brings blessings. Our sinful nature causes us to forget the source of those blessings. We’re deluded into believing it came from our own wisdom, independent of God. We become “wise in our own eyes,” forget God, and are filled with pride. Then we face the same fate as the rich fool in Luke 12. We see how much we have earned, build bigger barns to store all our stuff, imagine our life of future comfort and pleasure, and then face the judgment. “This is how it will be,” Jesus says, “with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

How can we avoid the delusions of wealth? 1 Timothy 6:17-19 gives us the answer:

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Put your hope in God. Be rich in good deeds. Be generous and willing to share. In this way we take hold of the life that is truly life.