Beyond Cognitive Dissonance

September 27, 2011
Posted by Administrator

What is deeper than one’s world view?

I got an email from a student some years ago. He wanted to meet for lunch because he was facing doubts about his Christian belief. He had been significantly involved in the Christian community of undergraduates at Yale and was well versed in the Scriptures. He was also a careful thinker.

We met and I began to probe. After about forty-five minutes I realized that it was not the case that there was a particular issue or question that was troubling him. He did not say, “I cannot come to grips with horrendous evil” or “I can’t help worrying over the plurality of religious beliefs.” He was troubled by doubts but they seemed to be unfocussed.

Finally I asked him about his relationships. Yes, he had begun dating a classmate, and she was not a believer…. You can see what was happening. He was experiencing dissonance. What he thought he believed as a Christian was coming into conflict with his new relationship. We have all seen people walk away from their faith in Christ in similar circumstances.

What kind of dissonance is at work in a story like this? It is not cognitive dissonance – that is, an experienced conflict between two beliefs. It is more of an existential dissonance. It is dissonance between beliefs on the one hand, and something deeper than beliefs on the other.

It turns out that it is not only what I think is true that will shape how I pursue my life. It is also what I think is most important. Augustine wrote that when it comes to our moral and spiritual well-being, what we value is more important than what we believe: “For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves” (Enchiridion 117). In the City of God, he wrote, “So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love.…” (City of God, book XV Chapter 22).

A good person loves the right things and in the right order. The root of moral and spiritual disorder, Augustine thought, is that our loves are disordered. He would say that our moral failures are not a result of our loving bad things. Rather, we love good things, but we love them in the wrong order.

I’ll explore this further in a future post. But for now, what do you think about the above story? Is there more than cognitive dissonance involved? How might this student have disordered loves?