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Whitworth College Fall Convocation Address 2001

Sept. 5, 2001
Bill Robinson

"The Unified Person and Civil Discourse"
James 3:9-12, 17, 18

My remarks today have been stimulated by a wonderful grant we have received from the Murdock Charitable Trust - "Preparing for Lives of Commitment: Connecting Beliefs and Behavior During the College Years." I hope you get a clear picture of what we are trying to do with this project. My speech has also been influenced by my hope that this will be a year in which our conversations are grace-filled and respectful. In some ways, they are two different speeches, but the James passage just read brings them together.

Forgive me for clinging to a written text. This is my second of three speeches today. Somehow the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and Whitworth's Opening Convocation were both scheduled for today. As board chair of the former and president of the latter, I ended up with three speeches.

So, today I'm going to speak about how our "selves" unify, then say a word about civil discourse.

One of the most basic questions in the history of learning is this:

Which is more powerful - the world around us, or the world inside of us? In other words, do we make sense of our world from inside out or from outside in question?

This big question cuts across all disciplines, but it is a huge issue when it comes to what we know and how we behave. So it is not surprising that entire schools of thought have been built on the inside out vs. outside in debate in philosophy and psychology,

In philosophy the argument was most hotly contested in the 17th and 18th centuries, although it started in the middle of the 4th Century B.C. The inside out camp peaked when 17th century French philosophers, led by Rene' Descartes, argued for rationalism, the belief that humans have innate ideas that they bring to their outer worlds. Although this inside out approach raged during the 17th century, all rationalists would point to Plato as the granddaddy of rationalism, and a veritable god in the eyes of Forrest Baird.

Ironically, or perhaps predictably, the Brits responded to French rationalism by banging the drum for empiricism, the belief that humans gain all their knowledge by observing the world around them. The British charge was led by David Hume and John Locke, but all empiricists would point to no less than Aristotle, Plato's pupil, as their founding father. And on Aristotle's side you can find heavyweights such as Leonard Oakland brandishing the sword of empiricism.

Psychology, being a younger field than philosophy, saw the inside out vs. outside in debate rage in the 20th Century. Scholars such as John Watson and B.F. Skinner argued forcefully that behavior is learned from outside in. But Freud's psychoanalytic theory, the humanism of Maslow and Rogers, and recent scholars arguing for biological explanations of behavior all make strong cases for behavior coming from inside out.

The big question of internal vs. external also shows up in Scripture. The first verse of the entire Psalms tells us to put ourselves in the right environment. But Paul writes to the church in Rome that mainly they need to obey what God has written inside of them on their hearts and minds.

Even at the faculty retreat last week, the inside out vs. outside in question surfaced. We were asking ourselves the question of how to be more creative. First, we talked about digging deep within ourselves, peeling off the layers of conventions and habits and learning from the inner world of our own individuality. Then we watched a video in which a photographer demonstrated ways of looking and looking and looking at the outer world until a new and meaningful picture came into view.

The inside out vs. outside in question was argued in Plato's Academy 2000 years ago, and has been argued ever since, but still no definitive answer has surfaced - UNTIL NOW. Just kidding.

But in the next few minutes I'm going to give you eight principles for dealing with the big issue of outside in vs. inside out. These principles will explain what we're trying to do with the Murdock Grant, they will make your life better, and you might win the lottery - or not.

  1. What you know and how you behave are influenced by both the environment outside of you and the biological and spiritual DNA inside of you. It is safe to assume that either/or questions that can't be answered in a couple thousand years of trying have no either/or answer. Invariably, the best answers to these questions fall into the "both/and" category. In theology, for example, God's sovereignty vs. human responsibility has been posed for centuries as an either/or question. Great theologians still disagree, so you can argue this in your dorm room, but don't get your hopes up for an either/or answer. Somehow, both God's sovereignty and human responsibility influence the course of events. Similarly, BOTH your inner self and your outer world combine to produce knowledge and behavior.
  2. Discrepancies between your inner self and your outer world produce tension. As the discrepancy grows, so will the tension. It is likely that tonight many of you will feel this tension. The outer world environment in your residence hall will supply you with a "let's be social" message, while your inner self will be screaming, "study, dude."
  3. Your natural impulse will be to reduce the tension. In 1946, Fritz Heider published a paper entitled, "Attitudes and Cognitive Organization." It was the first scholarly work to argue that the human tendency is to strive for consistency or balance in our thinking. We don't like living with the tension of inconsistent beliefs. Hundreds of studies since Heider's have supported his claim, and further research has also demonstrated the human drive to reduce inconsistencies between beliefs and behaviors.
  4. You usually choose one of three very basic options for reducing the tension created by inconsistencies between your inner self and your outer world. 1. You can change your environment. 2.You can change your inner beliefs. 3. You can deceive yourself. Using the example of the tension you're likely to feel tonight, you could change your environment and go to the library, or you could change your inner beliefs arguing that that by studying this early in the term you would be taking your first step toward workaholism, and that could lead to addiction, or you could deceive yourself into pretend studying and make a study run to Shari's.
  5. In general, it takes more work and discipline to change your behavior or your environment than to change your mind. For example, it's Sunday morning; the alarm goes off - certain tension. Your environment is saying "rollover, sleeeep." Your inner self is saying, "chuuuuurrrrch." Soon you find yourself asking the question, "did I or did not catch myself worshipping in Dr. Graham's Christian Doctrine class at this very moment two days ago?" "That counts." Snorrr. In other word's, the phrase, "humans are rational animals" should be replaced by "humans are rationalizing animals. We are adaptive beings, and our inner self will often silently adjust itself to fit our environment.
  6. Tension also occurs when we get a mixed message from our inner self. I recall right before coming to Whitworth an incident at O'Hare airport in Chicago in which one inner voice was cooing, "be a good Christian." The other inner voice was screaming "don't be a sucker." A young man had approached me about needing to borrow $20.00 to get transportation home, blah blah blah. Both inner voices were arguing as I stood there. No doubt, I had tension.
  7. The tension that results from mixed inner messages can be reduced by organizing our inner selves into a hierarchy of beliefs. In the O'Hare airport situation, the "be a good Christian" voice won. And I'm still waiting for the guy to send the $20.00. But I thought there was a chance that this person was telling the truth, and once I reached that conclusion, I knew that my Good Samaritan belief was stronger than my "be careful not to lose a few bucks" belief.
  8. As your inner self develops and matures, better life choices will be made from inside out than from outside in. Convictions serve us as the inner voices we must obey. Convictions sit atop the belief hierarchy. Convictions refer to our deepest beliefs about the world and how we should live in it. To this point I've referred to episodes and incidents that are pretty harmless, but when we allow our culture or our environment to contaminate any of our basic convictions, we can be putting our lives in jeopardy. Some 18 or so years ago, I was right there. Subtly, almost subliminally, I had dethroned some of my strongest convictions from the top of the hierarchy. At the time, we lived in a neighborhood on the north shore of Chicago that was very affluent and very materialistic. Pleasure and success dominated that subculture, and for most folks, all else took a backseat. Occasionally, I would catch myself changing or deceiving my inner self. When this happened, I would feel the tension and try to restore my convictions, but they were in such conflict with my environment. Several times, out of desperation, I approached Bonnie about moving to Wisconsin and living off the land. After she reminded me that I didn't know which end of a shovel is the digging end, I would plunge back into the tension and slowly resolve it by letting my inner self deteriorate. 

Somehow during those tense years, God's love proved to be a tether that would keep me from self-destruction until on the morning of Feb. 20, 1984 I realized I had to put my convictions back in charge of my life. That morning, sitting on the corner of my bed, I heard Good Morning America's David Hartman interview Yakima native, Phil Mahre. One day earlier Phil had won the Gold medal in the Olympic slalom in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. It was a big story, in that his twin brother took the silver medal, and the two of them, going into the Olympics, were ranked 62nd and 45th in the world. America was going nuts over the Mahre twins. At the end of the interview, David Hartman mentioned to Phil that this was all made really special by the news that two days earlier Phil's wife, Holly, had given birth to their second child. To that comment Phil Mahre responded soberly, "ya, the baby came early. I would have never come over here had I thought that might happen. A gold medal certainly isn't as good as being with your wife and seeing the birth of your child." I turned off the TV and cried. While most of America heard Phil Mahre, I heard a cock crow. I had betrayed my most basic convictions. I was changing my inner self in order to reduce the tension created by an environment that was hostile to person I believed God wanted me to be. That day, with no fanfare or New Year's resolutions, I began the slow, hard work of restoring the commitments that I had demoted in order to reduce the tension with my outer world.

The essence of the Murdock grant and the hope of this college is to help you build lives in which your most important decisions flow from your deepest convictions. And the time to start is now. Ask yourselves, "Is my life consistent with my deep convictions about this world and my role in it?" And I'll tell you why this question is so important. Hear this. Whether you live your life from inside out or from outside in, over time, your life will become consistent with your convictions about this world. You will not live your life in tension. Both before I heard Phil Mahre and after I heard Phil Mahre, I was in the process of reducing the tension between my beliefs and my behavior. Before that day in February of 1984, I reduced tension by silencing my convictions; after that day I reduced tension by changing the way I lived my life. And I promise you that the right way to reduce the tension is by being faithful to what you believe. But I'm warning you that you will not go long living in defiance of your convictions. Either your behavior or your beliefs will change.

You will not go long carrying the conviction that it is your responsibility to help the poor, while doing nothing to help the poor. You will change your behavior, or you will change your mind, or you will deceive yourself into believing that there's really nothing you can do.

You will not go long carrying the conviction that it is your responsibility to stand against racism and sexism, while you look away from unjust glass ceilings that you could be challenging. You will change your behavior, or you will change your convictions, or you will you will convince yourself that the glass ceilings do not exist.

You will not go long carrying the conviction that sexual relations should be confined to the marriage relationship while you deepen your sexual activity outside of marriage. You will bring your behavior in line with your conviction, or you will change your conviction to fit your behavior, or you will convince yourself that your behavior isn't so bad.

And finally, a word about civil discourse. You will not go long carrying the James 3 conviction that it is wrong to bless God and condemn those made in God's image if you are being mean-spirited in your treatment of others. You will stop condemning others, or you will change your belief that the Bible is true in this teaching, or you will convince yourself that James was referring only to those who don't deserve your condemnation.

There are many great principles and rules for constructive, healthy disagreements. But I want to leave you with only one. Back to Fritz Heider. Two years before he published his 1946 paper he published an article entitled, "Social Perception and Phenomenal Causality." In this paper he observed that we make attributions about people's motives in biased ways. We tend to protect our own views of people and issues when we assign motives. This protection shows up even in our language. I've noticed that students use the phrase, "She gave me a 'C' in history" and in the next sentence say, "but I got an 'A' in math. Biased attributions of motives are really bad at sporting events. Sports fans are the smartest people in the world. Without asking any questions and never having met the referees or the opponents, sports fans can tell you exactly why referees made their call, why the pitchers throw high and inside, and the motivation behind every act in every contest. And furthermore, should you say to a sports fan, "how do you know?" you will discover you are stupid because their reply is, "it's obvious." So hope for civil discourse this year is this: if you wish to declare peoples' motives, don't pretend you're Karnac, just ask them why they do, say, or think what they do, say or think. And if that is impossible, show grace in your attributions.

At this point I'm not sure exactly what I said, except for something close to the following. "I hope in all of your discussions you will be filled with grace. This is a very diverse community we have gathered at Whitworth College. Some of you have come with an excitement about the chance to drink from the fountain of our rich spiritual resources. Others of you have come to Whitworth to drink from our fountain of rich intellectual resources, and have no particular interest in our faith perspective. I hope Whitworth will be a great experience for both groups. And I would say to those of you who are Christians what I said to the student leaders last Tuesday night. 'It is my belief that everyone needs Christ. But the best way to proclaim the gospel is by showing how much we need Christ rather than telling others how much they need Christ.' I'm not sure where I read this, but I am sure this is true."

Well, students, I wish for you lives of consistency and grace. I hope Whitworth teaches you to hate pride, injustice and all sins. But I also hope Whitworth shows you how to see your brothers and sisters always through the eyes of love and grace. Live lives of commitment. Start those lives today. Have a great year. God bless you.