Theological Dissonance, how do we respond?
August 18, 2017
The experiences of late, in our world and in our country, remind me of two experiences in my life. The first was in the late 1980s as I walked down Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia with a colleague who happened to be white. I was a new graduate student in psychology, and I mentioned that I was disturbed by the monuments of the confederate generals. To my astonishment, my colleague became visibly upset, and when I asked him what was going on he shared that he was from Alabama and that many of his relatives were Confederate soldiers, some buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. I just looked confused and angry.
The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, North and South Korea, Guam, and Spain also brought to my remembrance my experience at the movie theater two weeks ago. I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan and recently I went alone to the movie theater to watch the new movie Detroit. I was a child during the 1967 Detroit Riot and vividly remember the fires, the state troopers, and my father placing all seven of us children into the bath tub to keep us safe. I remember the stories shared of the Algiers Hotel and the ensuing court case. More important to this moment, I remember thinking while watching the movie Detroit, that the events of the Algiers and the movie about the Algiers were not my experience. I was confused, distracted, and frustrated.
I share these life stories because many of us are confused and angry, or we are confused, distracted, and frustrated. The question I raise today is not how we feel but how do we respond? As our world faces the threat of nuclear violence, terrorism, and a resurgence of racial tension, racial violence, manifest destiny, oppression, and privilege; how does the Christian, the neighbor, the family, the enemy, and the friend respond?
My twenty-five-year-old socially conscious daughter helped me frame my response; she shared that on Friday she travelled to Charlottesville to pray on the evening of the marches. She shared that the alt-right demonstrators surrounded their prayer service in an effort of intimidation. She said that after the prayer meeting, when she was leaving, an eighty-year-old woman who happened to be white came to her and said, “it is not safe for you to walk to your car alone.” And this neighbor escorted my daughter to her car. Then, my daughter shared that after the murder and violence in Charlottesville on Saturday, she heard a preacher preaching Sunday about how white people needed to get more involved in the struggle. The events of the weekend caused my daughter and me to discuss the emotional state that we were in. A state I classify as cognitive and theological dissonance.
This is important for those of us who are theologians. Theology is the critical systematic study of the divine. Dissonance occurs when something we experience is perceived as harsh, unpleasant, and unacceptable. According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.
The current tragic, distressing, uncomfortable, and unconceivable events that we are experiencing are in our world produce what could be considered theological dissonance. As a result, we must confront, and attend to our tendency to seek, to reconcile our belief and commitment to loving God, loving neighbor and loving self; while grappling and reconciling ourselves to the harshness, unpleasantness, and unacceptable evil that exist and are manifest in tragic events like those in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. When there is an inconsistency between our conclusions about God, the nature and existence of evil, and the human-environmental-applied condition; we have dissonance. When we have this “theological” dissonance something must change! Only through change will we eliminate the dissonance.
What will I change? What will we change? What will you change?
Here is a link to a statement made by several of my colleagues in Richmond, Virginia. https://www.richmondpastorsstatement.org/ Please read, sign if you wish, and disseminate to others as an action!
Micah L. McCreary, M.Div., Ph.D.
New Brunswick Theological Seminary