View from the Outside; View from the Inside

I was at an eclectic gathering of philosophically minded people recently and there was a five-minute flurry of conversation in which all of the following took place.

  • A gentile said that the Jewish religion was rule-based. Some Jews present objected that there’s a very strong mystical tradition in Judaism.
  • A theist (broadly speaking) opined that atheists have lost their sense of the mystical and wondrous. An atheist replied that life has become more vivid and wondrous since he moved from his long-standing religious views to atheism.
  • Someone came to the meeting with the impression that Eastern meditation meant emptying one’s mind. He learned that some varieties, at any rate, are the exact opposite: being mindful of everything that’s happening, starting with one’s own breath and radiating to encompass the entire universe.

This drove home to me once more what a difference there is between how a worldview looks from the inside and how it appears from the outside.

When I was an evangelical Christian, I agreed with Francis Schaeffer, who said,

If the unsaved man [i.e., the non-Christian] was consistent he would be an atheist in religion, an irrationalist in philosophy (including a complete uncertainty concerning ‘natural laws’), and completely a-moral in the widest sense.

and then doubled down on his view of the ‘unsaved’ with

However, most unsaved men are not atheists, irrationalists, or completely a-moral. Inconsistently, most unsaved men do have a part of the world-view which logically can only belong to Bible-believing Christianity. I personally believe this very inconsistency is the result of common grace. …illogically the unsaved man accepts some of the world as it really is.

When I was a Christian looking on atheism from the outside, Schaeffer made a lot of sense. Today, as an ex-Christian, I find those statements not only insulting but ignorant. (Someday, I will do a whole rant post on why even the godless person has reasons to be good, and those reasons do not require a god bestowing “common grace” on all mankind.)

Schaeffer and I had the problem that most of us have: we judge other people’s frameworks by the logic of our own. When we proceed that way, of course the other frameworks don’t make sense.

24 Colors for Blinky

from 24 Colors for Blinky. Paintings by Imi Knoebel at the Dia: Beacon Museum

It’s like the person who judges modern art by the standards of a Renaissance artist and concludes, “A kindergartner could have done that.”  He misses the whole point.

I’m not saying that all frameworks are “equally valid” (an oft-used phrase that I still despise). What I am saying is that when we judge someone else’s framework as an outsider looking in, it is very easy to make all sorts of wrong assumptions based on the logic of our own framework. Like a scientist who devises expensive, double-blind experiments to guard against his own biases, we ought to be wary of our own prejudices and misconceptions.

Perhaps we can approach other people’s ideas like we visit a museum of unfamiliar art. We can try to leave our preconceptions at the door and enter with an open heart and open mind. We might leave the museum totally hating what we saw, but at least we’ll have given it a fair shake. And who knows — we might even learn something new.

One response to “View from the Outside; View from the Inside

  1. Pingback: On Moral Vision | Path of the Beagle

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