The interface between theology and psychology has always intrigued me. Yesterday, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The 1932 classic from the British novelist and philosopher presents a vision of a far-off future where humans no longer fulfill the role of “father” and “mother.” Instead, reproduction is carefully engineered by the State, social classes predetermined from fertilization and gestation in closely-monitored bottles.
There are many themes to explore in the book, and the dystopian vision still resonates well at a time when The Hunger Games is all the rage. Allow me to focus this brief essay on a single topic, namely, whether we believe in God only because others have conditioned us to do so.
Conditioning is a psychological technique whereby humans are molded to think and act in ways determined by the person in control. Brave New World portrays a system whereby young children are spoon-fed ideas while they sleep, messages repeated over-and-over through tiny speakers hidden under their pillows. In this passive way, the various classes – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon – acquire their worldview, especially their prejudices toward members of other castes.
Though the novel never explains exactly how the rulers of the “brave new world” condition people’s thinking about God, the Divine Being comes up at the end of the book in a conversation between the Savage and Mustapha Mond, the Controller (p. 183):
The Savage interrupted him. “But isn’t it natural to feel there’s a God?” “You might as well ask if it’s natural to do up one’s trousers with zippers,” said the Controller sarcastically. “You remind me of another of those odd fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reasons for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons – that’s philosophy. People believe in God because they’re conditioned to believe in God.” (italics added)
There’s some truth in what Huxley says. Can there be any doubt that Christian education – what Huxley would no doubt consider a form of conditioning – affects a child’s worldview, like a hand imprint left in wet cement? Children who have not yet learned to reason are particularly open to whatever teaching is given, positive or negative, whether it is training to be an altar boy or a child soldier.
Yet Huxley’s critique leaves unaddressed other considerations, particularly the role of religious experience. This experience is both individual and corporate. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Scripture may be considered largely the experience of the divine as lived across time by persons and peoples. Further, it is not a mystical experience devoid of any historical reference, but experiences that transpired in real time. Isaiah saw the LORD lifted up, but it happened “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 1:1). Likewise, The Apostles’ Creed assumes historical reality, portraying a Saviour who “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
More than any other Christian tradition, evangelical faith has discerned the importance of moving past conditioning to encounter. John Wesley (1703-91) had been conditioned by his father and mother to believe that God existed, to pray and to read the Bible. Yet on May 24, 1738, Wesley recorded his personal experience of God’s grace, that his heart was “strangely warmed” while listening to someone read the introduction to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. Whether we call this his “evangelical conversion” or simply the moment of the assurance of faith matters little. The point is that – to use Wesley’s later term – he moved in his own self-perception from having the faith of a “servant” to that of a “son.”
Religious experience is always a slippery subject to discuss. Any faith – to be held as true by its adherents – must account for the religious experiences of those who espouse other faith traditions. Why should our community of faith’s experiences be considered more valid? Further, what one calls “God” the skeptic might call hallucination, but at least now we’re having a conversation not about “brainwashing” but something empirical, experiences that can to at least some degree be analyzed and evaluated.
The power of encounter should never be underestimated. Saul had been conditioned to believe certain strict tenets as a boy who grew up under Pharisaical teachings. It was only later, however, when conditioning met encounter in the person of the Living Christ on the road to Damascus that his vision was transformed. Through a radical experience of the transcendent, some of his conditioning was modified. No longer would he seek out Christians to imprison them as enemies of the Jewish faith. Instead, he now became one of their key leaders. Experience trumped conditioning.
Yet one must be careful. God exists independently of our experience of God. One might be tempted to conclude: “For you, God exists because you’ve experienced him, but for me God does not exist since I have never experienced God.” Yet the tree that falls in the forest still makes a sound, whether or not I am close enough to hear it. What matters is that the effects of encounter are measurable. Like a strong wind topples a tree, the fallen tree serves as evidence of an invisible reality. So it is in the spiritual realm. Lives transformed from drunkenness to sobriety, husbands who stop beating their wives, children who were before disobedient to parents who suddenly become more compliant and helpful, these effects and many more testify to a Cause, and that Cause is God. When it happens to enough people, we call it a religious awakening.
Brave New World is a fascinating book on many levels. Aldous Huxley has done Christ followers a favor by forcing us to begin to think through our assumptions, including how we have come to believe what we do about God. But what do you think? Is Christian faith – or any faith – no more than the result of conditioning? Weigh-in below in the comment thread.
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