The Real Reason Theologians Fight May Have Little to do With Theology

Donald Miller

Have you ever had a conversation with another Christian and felt the two of you had a completely different view of God? And have you ever wondered why? You’re reading the same Bible, after all, and supposedly interacting with the same God. How can one person have a rigid, black and white view of God while another sees more mystery and ambiguity? How can two intellectual powerhouses like Brian McLaren and John Piper have such different views of the same Biblical text?

Lately, I’m tempted to believe it’s because, while they’re both looking at the same Scriptures, they actually see something different. And the reason they see something different is mostly about brain chemistry.

New research reveals black and white thinkers (somebody like John Piper) may have less than average amounts of Norepinephrine, less than average amounts of Serotonin and excessive amounts of Dopamine in their brains. When I say less than average, I don’t mean to suggest inferiority. Some brains have more and some brains less of each of these chemicals, and there’s no “perfect combination.”

The specific chemical combination I just described causes the brain to see the world as a somewhat hostile place, and as such causes a person to divide people into a for and against dichotomy. When looking at a text, they look for right and wrong, true and untrue, and they don’t like ambiguity or mystery because they see vagueness as a threat. Because the world is a hostile place, they look for security in absolute answers.

Again, this is not to say this chemical combination means a person is an inferior thinker. It’s just that the combination of these three chemicals affects our personalities and makes us “who we are” in a sense. For certain, there are many realities that can be divided up into right and wrong, and there are certainly hostile people in the world, so a person with this chemical makeup may be, quite objectively, right about the reality they perceive.

Another kind of thinker who does not see the world in black and white, sees a given issue from multiple perspectives and is quite comfortable juggling multiple ideas without deciding which one is absolutely true (somebody like Brian McLaren) may have a very different chemical makeup. Serotonin is average, Norepinephrine is higher than average and Dopamine is low. This person is much more relaxed in their studies, does not see the world as a hostile place, does not associate their beliefs strongly with their egos and instead sees truth as outside themselves, as something they are discovering rather than something they already understand. They simply don’t need to explain everything. They are comfortable with five or ten possible explanations, and enjoy considering each of them. They may land, but they don’t have to.

One kind of thinker has learned, and the other kind of thinker is learning. And it’s all in their brain chemistry.

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What is fascinating about this is the two sides will likely never “agree” because from their perspectives, they’re both right. It would be like one person wearing red-tinted lenses, arguing adamantly the sky was purple, while another person wore yellow-tinted lenses and argued the sky was green.

*Photo by, Creative Commons

The sky is, of course, blue, but neither will concede because each is viewing the world through a chemical lens. They are, in fact, reporting exactly what they see.

This of course is no full explanation of how they see the world. Each also uses objective reasoning, and mostly objective reasoning. But that reasoning would be tainted by brain chemistry as well.

I believe if you switched somebody like John Piper’s brain chemistry with Brian McLaren’s, there would be a switch in the way they see the world, too.

And here’s what’s interesting about this. If your brain chemistry is low in Serotonin and Norepinephrine, you’re much less likely to agree with this article because it’s too ambiguous and doesn’t offer a person enough control. Those with a high need for control (who believe the world is hostile) have a low tolerance for ambiguity, and those with a low need for control (who believe the world is basically friendly) have a high tolerance for ambiguity. And the need for control is predicated upon our brain chemistry.

This all may sound far fetched but we already know brain chemistry affects the way we view the world. We are not objective computers built from the same batteries and wires. We are guided by a blob of tissue and chemicals that can be changed and altered, and with those changes come changes in perspective and personality. And even changes in the way we perceive truth.

So how do we then debate and come to agreement? Well, here’s where it gets a bit controversial, and I’m going to risk thinking out loud.

We don’t.

What I mean is, we don’t try to come to an agreement at all. John Piper is going to communicate his theological perspective to those who see the world the way he sees the world and Brian McLaren is going to do the same. There will likely always be tension between them, but each is having a positive impact.

I don’t expect black and white thinkers to buy my books by the case, for example. They just don’t see the world the way I do. It’s not that they’re wrong and I’m right, it’s that they are being true to the way they see faith. I am comfortable with ambiguity, they aren’t. And they’re honest and consistent to communicate exactly what they’re seeing, as am I. They don’t see the sky as green and shouldn’t pretend to.

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Someday, I believe we each will take off our glasses and see things accurately. Scripture says here in this life we see through a window dimly. But someday we will see clearly.

Paul confusingly and frustratingly states that as believers we should agree. But he doesn’t go so far as to say which of the thousands of Christian denominations are right. Perhaps I’m reading too much into that to say we should actually just support each other as family members while continuing to see the world the way we see the world and translating it for those who are wired the way we are wired.

Or maybe the next time we encounter somebody we disagree with, the more appropriate question might be, “So, what color is the sky in your world?”

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**The brain chemistry bit is taken from the theory of the Enneagram, a quite accurate account of 9 different major categories of personality. The theory has been around for a very long time, but they’ve added the brain chemistry bit more recently. I’m inferring in this blog that John Piper is an enneagram 8, while Brian McClaren is an enneagram 5. You can learn more about brain chemistry as it affects the 9 kinds of personality here.

** There are NOT only two combinations of brain chemistry, according to the theory. There would actually be nine major combinations and 18 approximate variables, but truthfully there are an infinite combination of those three major chemicals. The nine major combinations would then be “way points” in the variations, and as such predictors of approximate personality. In addition, Brian McClaren and John Piper should not be considered opposites. There are no opposites any more than red is the opposite of blue. There are only variations of brain chemistry and so variations of perspectives.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.