Have you heard the old joke about two Conservative, Fundamentalist Baptists on the Golden Gate Bridge? Whether you have or not, go on, press play and have a laugh.
That clip of Emo Phillips came to mind just after the last Baptist Union Council meeting. We had been listening to stories told by fellow Baptists who were inviting us to reflect on the way we understand marriage. I’d come away with a variety of mixed thoughts and emotions that I am still processing.
The reason the joke is funny is because religious people have such a bad reputation for being intolerant. As soon as the joke began, we knew what the punch-line was likely to be. The saddest part about the joke is that one of the earliest Baptist distinctives was our belief that there is always fresh truth to break forth from the Word of God. And that should ensure that Baptists are always willing to engage with new perspectives and be tolerant of those who believe differently. But all you need to do is pick up a Yellow Pages in the USA and search for a Baptist church – so many brands of ‘baptist’, each with their own account as to why the others aren’t kosher.
Doctrinal certainty is attractive for very human reasons. It feels so good to live within an enclave where I can feel secure and others agree with me. And, if scriptural texts suggest that God is also on our side, all the better.
The problem with certainty is that we are all very prone to confirmation bias, which means that we tend to choose texts we already agree with, and we read them in ways that support our pre-existing opinions, or those of our tribe. And if the opinions we inherit emerged from seeds planted before we were capable of reason, or are associated by us with antecedents who are beyond challenge, we find it hard to doubt conclusions that feel so correct. But all we have done is baptise beliefs we are already resistant to changing for very human reasons.
Far more problematic to me is the fact that Jesus – the one I accept as the foremost interpreter of words from God – clearly took the opinion that some rules we consider definitive need not be fixed at all. Rules, he said after disobeying what seemed to be a clear Old Testament command, were given for human benefit, and this might suggest that certain nuances are preferable in different contexts.
My processing journey following the BU Council began by me recalling a few maxims that I once believed were true, and trying to remember the reasons why. The earliest I can remember was a strong belief that the only cars worth owning were made by Ford. I believed this passionately from the age of about 4 years old….. and I believed it because my dad had just bought a new, very flashy but also heavy and underpowered, Ford Capri that was a bargain because it had been sitting unsold in the yard at the Brentwood factory for a year.
The reason for believing Fords were best was that I was trying to be loyal to my dad’s choice, despite the fact that he’d never actually expressed an opinion. In fact, he never bought another one! As I grew, opinions on music, clothing, habits, morals and food were adopted simply due to a desire to belong to a likeminded tribe, and they also became fixed through fear of disapproval or change.
Likewise, as a teenage convert to Christianity, my core beliefs were the same as my friends. The denominational brand I chose was defined for me by the choice of church my friends went to, which had much more to do with the popularity of the youth group than theology. How ashamed I am today at the years I spent defending these accidental choices with religious fervour.
 Robert Sapolsky includes an incredibly detailed chapter explaining the processes involved in unconscious bias in chapter 11 of his amazing book Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst (Vintage Books, 2017)
 I’ll reflect more on Jesus’ teaching and example in future posts.