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When Cognitive Dissonance and Evangelism Collide

He who would marry the spirit of the age soon finds himself a widower.  ~W. R. Inge

As someone whose ministry revolves around evangelism, Paul’s word to the Corinthian church holds a great deal of significance:

The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise

and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”

So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. (I Corinthians 1:18-25, NLT)

One of our tendencies as humans is to try to reduce dissonance. Great authors understand the need to resolve dissonance in the plot by the end of the story (unless they want to write a sequel!). Great composers recognize the satisfaction listeners receive when a chord resolves.

Our tendency to want to resolve dissonance becomes tricky when it’s cognitive dissonance. It can be painful to experience disagreement between what we believe and what others are asserting with confidence and assurance. Our response is usually to try to reduce that dissonance, to find a way to reduce the discrepancies between what we believe and what we are hearing from others.

Cognitive dissonance is especially challenging in evangelism. We’re tempted to find ways to reduce the divergences between the Gospel and our culture, to change our message so it’s more palatable to the society in which we live, to accommodate it to the “wisdom of the world.” If we make Christianity “more relevant,” or get it “on the right side of history,” we tell ourselves, it will appear less “foolish” to those we hope to reach.

The reality is that every society has its own body of officially accredited wisdom – all those beliefs and values that most people assume to be indisputable. Throughout history, in many societies this hasn’t been problematic because there was basically only one worldview and everybody knew it. But our society – like the Hellenistic one that Paul inhabited – is complicated by pluralism. There are multiple world views, which often leads to cognitive dissonance – and the dangerous temptation in evangelism to try to resolve it.

The sociologist Peter Berger sums up the dilemma nicely:

Our pluralistic culture forces those who would “update” Christianity into a state of permanent nervousness. The “wisdom of the world,” which is the standard by which they would modify the religious tradition, varies from one social location to another; what is worse, even in the same locale it keeps on changing, often rapidly…The upshot of these considerations is quite simple: The “wisdom of the world” today always has a sociological address. In consequence, every accommodation to it on the part of Christians will be “relevant” in one very specific social setting (usually determined by class) and “irrelevant” in another. Christians, then, who set out to accommodate the faith to the modern world should ask themselves which sector of that world they seek to address. [1]

Evangelism is about making the Gospel known – to all the world, not just one sector of it. And the Gospel will inevitably be seen as foolishness, at least by some folks, at some point. So the question we must ask ourselves has less to do with sociology than with philosophy: As we seek to resolve our cognitive dissonance, do we risk losing some very precious things in the process? If we succumb to the temptation to “update” our tradition, do we risk losing some very precious truths – truths that we are the last to hold on to?


[1] Peter Berger, A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (New York: Anchor Books, 1992) p11-12