CLEAR AS MUDWhen the Most Intelligent Answer to Hard Questions is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Humans confuse and frustrate me.
I cannot understand why some people do what they do. I often cannot understand why I do what I do. Thankfully such confusion and frustration has not led me to insanity — though I still have my fair share of moments in which I would tear out my hair if I had any — but instead further study. I have been learning a lot about psychology and the science behind why humans often act the way they do.
Several months ago, I ran across the concept in social psychology known as confirmation bias:
Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.
Put differently, confirmation bias is the human condition that leads us to “evidence” that supports that which we already believe is true. Apparently our brains and the beliefs within them naturally press against elasticity, instead preferring to reinforce our current view of the world.
Why try on a new prescription when we can retrofit some comfortable blinders, amirite?
Blindness is a major theme in the New Testament, and a story about a blind person regaining sight appears in each of the Bible’s four stories about the life of Jesus. In Mark 8, Luke 18, and Matthew 9, Jesus heals a blind man as a response to the man’s faith. In turn, each story recounts Jesus instructing the blind man not to tell anyone else. Their miracle of sight is a miracle to keep to themselves.
The Gospel According to John likewise includes a story about Jesus and a blind man, but — as we’ve seen elsewhere — John tells the story a tad bit differently.
Now as Jesus was passing by, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who committed the sin that caused him to be born blind, this man or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but he was born blind so that the acts of God may be revealed through what happens to him. We must perform the deeds of the one who sent me as long as it is daytime. Night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said this, he spat on the ground and made some mud with the saliva. He smeared the mud on the blind man’s eyes and said to him, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated “sent”). So the blind man went away and washed, and came back seeing.
-John 9.1-7 (NET)
I love the details in this story. Jesus doesn’t just heal the man by touching his eyes — he spits in the dirt, makes mud, and then slaps it on his eyes. But also different in this version of the story is that the healing of the blind man is not actually about the blind man. Neither is it meant to be kept secret. Instead, this sign is intended to make a theological point — to the disciples, to other onlookers, and (yes) to the blind man. As Jesus and his crew walk away, and the man born blind can now see. And people are taking notice, wanting to know how it happened.
When the blind man is healed in the other Gospel accounts, it happens because of their expressed faith. But this man’s resounding answer: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Then the neighbors and the people who had seen him previously as a beggar began saying, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some people said, “This is the man!” while others said, “No, but he looks like him.” The man himself kept insisting, “I am the one!” So they asked him, “How then were you made to see?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and was able to see.” They said to him, “Where is that man?” He replied, “I don’t know.”
They brought the man who used to be blind to the Pharisees. (Now the day on which Jesus made the mud and caused him to see was a Sabbath.) So the Pharisees asked him again how he had gained his sight. He replied, “He put mud on my eyes and I washed, and now I am able to see.”
Then some of the Pharisees began to say, “This man is not from God, because he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such miraculous signs?” Thus there was a division among them. So again they asked the man who used to be blind, “What do you say about him, since he caused you to see?” “He is a prophet,” the man replied.
Now the Jewish religious leaders refused to believe that he had really been blind and had gained his sight until at last they summoned the parents of the man who had become able to see. They asked the parents, “Is this your son, whom you say was born blind? Then how does he now see?” So his parents replied, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. But we do not know how he is now able to see, nor do we know who caused him to see. Ask him, he is a mature adult. He will speak for himself.” (His parents said these things because they were afraid of the Jewish religious leaders. For the Jewish leaders had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be put out of the synagogue. For this reason his parents said, “He is a mature adult, ask him.”)
-John 9.8-23 (NET)
When the Pharisees hear what has happened, they are aghast. These are the people who have all the answers, and now that something so out of the ordinary has happened … they need more answers. Ambiguity and uncertainty will not do.
So they ask the man what happened, but they don’t like his answer.
So they ask his parents what happened, but they give the same answer and send the religious leaders back to their son.
It’s almost as if the Pharisees already know the answer they’re looking for and will just continue prodding until they find the evidence to confirm their bias. (Sound familiar?)
Then they summoned the man who used to be blind a second time and said to him, “Promise before God to tell the truth. We know that this man is a sinner.” He replied, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. I do know one thing – that although I was blind, now I can see.” Then they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he cause you to see?” He answered, “I told you already and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? You people don’t want to become his disciples too, do you?”
They heaped insults on him, saying, “You are his disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God has spoken to Moses! We do not know where this man comes from!” The man replied, “This is a remarkable thing, that you don’t know where he comes from, and yet he caused me to see! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but if anyone is devout and does his will, God listens to him. Never before has anyone heard of someone causing a man born blind to see. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They replied, “You were born completely in sinfulness, and yet you presume to teach us?” So they threw him out.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly a disagreement can explode into name calling. The Pharisees are so convinced that they have life and faith figured out that anyone forcing them to think differently — Jesus, the man born blind, et al — must be a sinner. So when the man born blind confronts their obstinate perspective on God doing anything new and different, they attack.
“We are disciples of Moses!” In other words, we’re the only true believers.
“You were born completely in sinfulness.” You might be able to see now, but you’ll never be more than a blind man cursed by God.
While the religious leaders tasked with being spiritual guides reject and humiliate the man for failing to have all the answers — or at least the “right” answers — Jesus returns with open arms of embrace.
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, so he found the man and said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man replied, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus told him, “You have seen him; he is the one speaking with you.” [ He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. Jesus said,] “For judgment I have come into this world, so that those who do not see may gain their sight, and the ones who see may become blind.”
Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and asked him, “We are not blind too, are we?” Jesus replied, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin, but now because you claim that you can see, your guilt remains.”
And with that, John shows us his hand and reveals what this story is all about.
Yes, there is physical blindness that Jesus can heal. But that blindness is not because a person is full of sin. In fact, to suggest that blindness is the result of sin is actually a symptom of a different kind of blindness.
An intellectual and spiritual blindness that suggests we see the world with 20/20 vision.
A blindness that suggests that anyone who sees the world differently or with less clarity is not only wrong but sinful.
A blindness that collects “alternative facts” that supports our predispositions and rejects everything else.
The Pharisees represent all us when we blindly stick to our confirmation bias.
We only embrace the things that support the way we already see the world.
We reject what doesn’t fit or what is uncertain, calling it “bad science” or “fake news.”
We anoint our worldview as orthodoxy and everything else as heresy.
We claim to be seers while deriding others as blind sinners.
But there is a different way of living and seeing — a way also supported by social psychology. In 1999, researchers Dunning and Kruger observed that those who are the most ignorant are often the most confident in what they know, while those who are the most intelligent often have the most intellectual flexibility.
The man born blind represents another way of living and seeing, one that Jesus says is clear as mud.
A seeing that says “I don’t know.”
A seeing that says “I could be wrong.”
A seeing that says “This is how I’ve experienced it.”
A seeing that says “What I know is that I was blind and now I can see.”
If you have had experiences that have created a seismic shift in the way you understand the world, if you have been attacked and torn down by those tasked with protecting and encouraging you, if you have exponentially fewer answers than you have questions — know that you are not alone. Trying to model the radical way of Jesus in the world, we at CCR invite you to come as you are. You have value as you are. And you are loved as you are. All you need is to be open to a journey.
Blind spots and all.