The Psychology of Salvation, Pt. 4 — Cognitive Dissonance and Metanoia


Recovering, Reframing, and Reclaiming
the Early Quaker Experience

Part 4

Cognitive Dissonance and Metanoia

There is no denying that the world is a place of injustice and suffering. And there is no denying that human beings play a significant role in those evils. Many of us do deny, however, that we ourselves are implicated in them, that we are active, if often oblivious, perpetrators. Others hold the belief that we are too evil or hopeless for redemption. And still others believe that “we are what we are,” that we should accept whatever evil we do as “human nature” because our nature cannot be changed, or because, they posit, good and evil must always be in balance: “the poor you will always have with you.”41 In one way or another, most of us deny that it is necessary or possible for us to exist in a radically different, much less harmful and more beneficial way.

All such forms of denial stem from what is experienced as a commonsense, sane, “normal” worldview. That commonsense denial is an important factor in religion and the spiritual life: as the first Quakers saw clearly, religion and spirituality, although in many forms vociferous about the evil inherent in human nature, arguably serve for most adherents as a prime defense against the truth that the basic orientation of their lives should and can be changed. The first Friends understood that function of religion, and they rejected it firmly. They insisted that the normal orientation or worldview, which each child acquires from “the world” of biological inheritance and social conditioning, is inaccurate, self-centered, and harmful. For them, salvation is a process of schematic transformation — of conversion, metanoia — that begins with the acceptance of that truth.

But is conversion, as defined by those Friends, even possible? From their own experience, the Friends knew that it is. Each person, they tell us, has a “day of visitation,” a period of time during which the heart glimpses the possibility of living in and for God/love rather than self.42 In psychological terms, we can describe such periods as times of “cognitive dissonance.”43 Although the schemas are effective at filtering out or co-opting incompatible elements of experience, their effectiveness is not perfect. Life presents us at times with experiences that get through the filters and challenge the validity of our schemas. Such experiences create in us a dissonance, a tension between our beliefs and new information. Cognitive dissonance is particularly strong when the conflict involves our self-concept.

We will discuss in a later section how such dissonance might be triggered. Whatever the trigger, cognitive dissonance is a key factor in change. But there are two principal methods of reducing such dissonance. The easier method, the one which most of us employ, is to restore cognitive consistency by re-asserting our belief system — in this case, to reaffirm the subliminal self-centered bias that colors our schemas. We assimilate the challenging information into our existing schematic system in as harmless a manner as possible, finding a means of removing the threat — by “pleading for sin”44 through arguing from scripture, for example, that all are sinners.45 Rather than allow our schemas and ourselves to be changed, we “change” the troubling facts, a tactic seen today, for example, in the transparently defensive arguments of creationists. As we will see in detail below, Quakers saw that kind of evasive tactic in the accepted Christian teachings about sin, justification and righteousness, and salvation.

The alternative, which most of us can accept only when such assimilation fails, is to allow our basic schematic orientation to be modified in order to accommodate the new information.46 That was the transforming experience the Friends had found and to which they sought to awaken others.

[Previous: The Heart of Quakerism: a New Orientation] [Next: Salvation from Sin: Schematic Accommodation]

NOTES for Part 4
[41] Matthew 26:11. The verse appears to be a reference to Deuteronomy 15:11: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.”
[42] See, for example, Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 48: “So whoever thou art who shall receive these particulars following, or any thereof, and shall find anything which for the present thou canst not receive; be not hasty in judging that which yet thou knowest not, nor kick against that which comes contrary to thy will, lest thou put far from thee in thy will, that which therewith thou canst not call again, and the day of thy visitation pass over unawares, and in the evil day thou be made to cry out, ‘How have I hated instruction, and resisted the day of healing!'” See also Robert Barclay, Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Proposition VI, argument XI: “First, That God, who out of his infinite love sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into the world, who tasted death for every man, hath given to every man … of whatsoever nation, country, or place, a certain day or time of visitation; during which day or time it is possible for them to be saved, and to partake of the fruit of Christ’s death.” Available on line at Quaker Heritage Press. Friends drew on many scripture references for this image; e.g., Jeremiah 5:17-18, Luke 19:44.
[43] We are using a basic concept from cognitive dissonance theory, which was developed by Leon Festinger in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957): the observation that, seeking to maintain cognitive consistency, when confronted with new information we tend to exhibit “confirmation bias,” a preference for distorting the new facts (preserving homeostasis) rather than altering our way of thinking.
[44] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 135: “You that are pleading for sin while you live, and holiness when you are dead, you will not then find it as you have conceited, but as you are found.”
[45] A text commonly used for that argument is 1 John 1:8: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Friends countered by quoting the previous verse, 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
[46] The concepts of accommodation and assimilation go back to Jean Piaget. See note 9, above.

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