Unmasking Cognitive Dissonance

It is difficult lately to know which contemporary issue to address. Every morning, I wake to discover another potential disaster. (Today, it was the threat of “meth-gators,” which thankfully do not seem to be a likely threat as I’m pretty sure Steve Irwin would have been the only person capable of dealing with that.)

Today, my hometown mandated mask-wearing in public places and the uproar I’ve perceived—particularly within conservative circles—is frankly astonishing. I myself have an assortment of masks which make me feel like the world’s most floral-printed robber whenever I go to Costco, and I like to think that I’m making the best of it. My concern here, however, is not COVID-19, but cognitive dissonance. Mask-wearing is not the core issue here, but merely another manifestation of the deeper problem of human selfishness.

In more liberal crowds, I’ve seen the phrase “My Body, My Choice” recycled to support an individual’s decision regarding whether or not to wear a mask in public. However, I’ve seen people of the same liberal worldview declare that this mantra does not apply when that person’s choice might put another’s life at risk.

Pro-life advocates will readily see the irony here. (After all, it is human nature to see the flawed logic of the other side.) If total bodily autonomy is not ethical if it harms others, how can we condone abortion, especially beyond the point of viability? If it is not “my body, my choice” in this instance, why is it in another, when the death of a vulnerable human being is not accidentally infected but intentionally terminated?

Vulnerability is another point worth emphasising here. It seems a thing of the not-so-distant past to excuse ourselves from mask-wearing by insisting that only the medically vulnerable are actually at risk. If we are truly caring for “the least of these” in society—as current cultural movements, as well as a Christian ethic of neighbourly love advocate—this ought to move us to exercise even greater caution.

On the left, submitting to mask-wearing in order to protect the vulnerable is an act of great kindness, however, it is also an act of incredible irony. If caring for the vulnerable at the cost of our own bodily autonomy does not extend also to the most biologically vulnerable (e.g. the unborn, the newborn, the differently-abled, and the elderly) then this act of humility and respect toward others represents a cognitive dissonance worth careful consideration.

Now, as I’ve said before, it is remarkably easy to point out the logical fallacies of those with whom you disagree. However, it is vitally important to honestly consider the irrationality and flawed thinking of those with whom we more closely align. Until we examine our own cognitive dissonance, we can achieve neither harmonious dialogue nor rational disagreement.

I have observed many conservatives express anger that mask-wearing has been mandated. The irony here is that the very people who are most often pro-life are, in fact, exercising the same harmful autonomy which they claim to oppose. I am not here to debate the science or effectiveness of mask-wearing. It seems, though, that the refusal or reluctance to wear masks as demonstrated by certain conservatives is evidence of an underlying cognitive dissonance.

Another point worth considering is modesty. Many conservatives advocate dressing with a certain degree of propriety. A popular argument for the fittingness of this is that modesty is considerate of others who may find revealing clothing distracting or discomfiting. For the sake of consistency, these same people ought to endorse mask-wearing as covering-up out of consideration for others’ comfort and well-being.

I turn my attention now to conservative Christians in particular, who hold scripture as their moral authority and yet are subject to the same desire for autonomy as all of fallen humankind.

We all desire freedom, individuality, and comfort. While the Christian Gospel proclaims liberation from sin, is does not preclude liberation from civic and communal responsibility. Indeed, Jesus preaches submission to authorities and humility toward others, except in the case of moral wrong; unless government mandates would force us to harm our neighbour or renounce our Lord—and thus to break the two greatest commandments—we are not to oppose them. Put simply, Christianity does not provide political rights but, rather, bestows spiritual fruits; we are not promised autonomy or luxury, but are instead granted love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

In a way, Christians might adopt the phrase “My Body, My Choice,” inversely. If we are members each of the Body of Christ, our choices impact one another seriously and intimately, and we are called to love our weaker members as ourselves. Whether or not we find mask-wearing effective is irrelevant; what matters is whether or not we make serving our neighbours a priority. I wrote a year or so ago on the “radical” love of 1 Corinthians 10-11, in which Paul advises members of the Church to abstain from certain foods if they cause another member to struggle. The food itself was amoral—neither good nor bad—but caring for others through was and is essential.

The same approach might be taken with masks, which are—in and of themselves—amoral, though much-debated. Refusing to wear a mask in spite of the ethical or physical well-being of others, however, becomes an act of selfishness. Were Paul alive today, I have no doubt that he would wear a mask. To cling to our assumed “right” to wear or not wear a mask is to arrogantly disregard the humility and compassion to which we are called as believers. Regardless of whether or not going without a mask puts others at risk, is it really worth risking our Christian witness to rebel in anger against such a minor inconvenience?

As usual, my only hope with this article is to encourage you, dearest Reader, to honestly examine first yourself and then the culture which surrounds you. I am in no way innocent of irrationality, though I hope that together we can work to combat the cognitive dissonance which creeps into our reasoning, regardless of parties, positions, or preconceptions. Most of all, I hope that we will graciously challenge each other to think critically and to act considerately.

Radical: A Reflection on 1 Corinthians 10-11

“Radical” is a risky word to apply to scripture; it often signals controversy, anticipates antagonism, and puts hearers on edge as they consider the violence associated with many forms of radicalism.

But to be radical is not necessarily to be selfish, violent, and angry. In fact, in this turbulent age, it might just be to be the opposite. By definition, “radical” means simply:

“Advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social change”

Lately I have been dwelling in 1 Corinthians and I realized as I read chapters 10-11 that the only word I could think of to properly describe this passage was, simply: radical. However, the lifestyle expounded by Paul to the Corinthians is hardly a demanding or individualistic radicalism. Neither is it fanatic or aggressive. Rather, it is a radical humility, deference, and submission such that this culture can only — Nietzsche-like — mock. And yet, this great humility leads to glory… What wondrous mystery is this, that glory would shine from quiet deference! And yet how simple this truth and calling, for it reflects the Redeemer and redeemed nature of the Christian faith.

The final verses of chapter 10 feature one of the most commonly-quoted passages in the Bible and one that is dear to my heart as well: 

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (10:31, ESV)

Often this verse is used to inspire believers in their various vocations: Whether you manage finances or play music, do all to the glory of God. Whether you teach high school or run marathons, do all to the glory of God. I do not think, considering that this is both an edifying and encouraging use of this verse, that it is a wrong application. However, I do wonder if this is the correct interpretation. Yes, scripture elsewhere certainly supports seeking God’s glory in all of our pursuits. Here, however, something more nuanced is at stake. 

The passage which this verse concludes is not discussing vocation at all. Rather, chapters 8-10 address something much more controversial, both in the Corinthian church and our modern age. The church in Corinth was suffering conflicts of all kinds; indeed, the racial, moral, and financial divisions were severely hindering the body of Christ. Sound familiar?

What Paul addresses here concerns both moral and even dietary divisions in the church. The question before the church members is: How are they do deal with meat that has been offered to idols? To eat or not to eat? It is important to note that this is a doctrinal grey area; freed from the dietary restrictions of the law, Paul wants believers to know the following comforting truth: 

“Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” (8:8)

However, Paul does not reassure the church in Corinth of its freedom without providing the following warning: 

“But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”  (8:9) 

In this particular instance (which we will continue to refer to as a “grey” area because there is not a command one way or another) believers are freed to eat or not eat as their own conscious dictates. However, if one member (perhaps a younger Christian) is uncomfortable with eating meat previously offered to idols, those who dine with him ought to abstain as well so that he is not led to dwell on old sins or confronted by associations which he is not yet mature enough to overcome. It is not wrong for this brother to not eat the meat before him; whichever choice will best keep his heart focused on Christ and the service of his fellow members is the correct choice. Should one person at a gathering decide not to eat for reasons of personal conscious, history, temptations, etc., the other believers are called to an active fellowship with this sibling in Christ, abstaining in solidarity so that this weaker member might not be hurt. 

Paul discusses the parallels between membership in the church and the members of the body in the following chapters, but the analogy expresses the same idea. If one part of the physical body is hurting, the other members must compensate and work to prevent or alleviate the pain. The eye cannot say, “Well it’s too bad that you’re broken, foot, but I can carry on quite well with my business.” Rather, the eye must work harder to support the foot, looking ahead so that the it might avoid treacherous roads. In this way, the weakened foot is saved from further damage and the whole body is upheld as it grows stronger.

In a culture of liberal autonomy, this is a radical thought, but one that the church must ever seek to uphold. The secular person is quick to ask the same question Paul presents: 

“Why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” (10:29)

However, Paul answers this question with simply: the Glory of God. As Christians, “little Christs,” we are to emulate our Redeemer and the head of our church body in all that we do. Christ, the Lord of the Law, fulfilled the law that we might be freed. He was under no obligation but his own and yet, we know from the gospel that he who had and has the right to rule all things yet came in injury-prone flesh that he might serve and save us. And the marvelous mystery revealed in this is that in this greatest humility achieved the greatest glory. 

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (11:1)

So too, we are no longer are under the obligation to the law, but as new creations and grafted members of the body of Christ, we are to live according to the wisdom of our Lord. As “imitators” of Christ and his servant Paul, we are called to glorify him not by parading our freedom, but by submitting it before the consciences of others to build them up. It is true that we have a “right” bought and given through Christ, but it is a right won by a divine humility and ought to be exercised with such. 

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” (10:23-24)

We might be quick, as the Corinthians were, to claim that “All things are lawful,” for especially in our current age of individualism, we are tempted to value our autonomy and opportunity to the point of idolatry. However, we will grow stronger together not when we realize our freedom, but when we realize our helpfulness. It is by this countercultural submission and service that we best build up our fellow believers, whatever their backgrounds and struggles. And it is in this counterintuitive way that we glorify the God who became as one of us. 

“…not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” (10:33)

By choosing to eat or not to eat for the glory of God, we will not only build each other up as a unified body, but bear witness to the wondrous grace of our Lord. We are quick to think of what we can do for the glory of God, but so often slow to realize that restraint might be equally impactful.

One quick story and I’ll wrap up this post: 

I go to a rather conservative Christian college and, upon enrollment, students are expected to sign a code of conduct. This contract is not burdensome, but often I hear students complain about its restraints, especially when it comes to drinking. Yesterday, my boyfriend cooked me a lovely, late Valentine’s dinner at his house and, as we sat down to eat, one of his roommates commented:

“Aw, no wine tonight?”

“No, just La Croix in fancy glasses,” laughed my boyfriend, who proceeded to pray for our meal.

I didn’t say anything just then, but it meant a great deal to me. My boyfriend is a strong, faithful man, but his school does not have the same strict code that ours does and I know that he probably would have liked a glass of wine to complement the food he so thoughtfully prepared. However, he knows that I am committed to abiding by my contract and so he too abstained. This not only makes following the rules easier for me, but it is comforting to know that the man I care for so deeply is committed to caring for my conscience in even these seemingly little things. Indeed, isn’t this the essence of the Christlike love described only a page later in chapter thirteen? 

“Love is patient and kind…It does not insist on its own way.” (13:4-5)

So then, beloved reader, can we consider together what it might be like to love each other in this way? Not selfishly, but in quiet selflessness? As 1 Corinthians 10:30 implies, it is easy to “partake with thankfulness,” but there may be greater reward for deference; whether we eat or drink or — more powerfully, perhaps – abstain, our decision must be guided by a commitment to honoring our Lord by honoring the consciences of our brothers and sisters. Only by radical humility can we demonstrate the radical glory of the Christian gospel.